Big Year Birds

We were ready. Binoculars, wide-brimmed sunhats, water and a picnic lunch.  Uncle Howie and Aunt Peggy were taking the family to a state park outside Tucson, Arizona. To hike.  And to bird watch.

As we piled into the rental van, Howie pursed his lips and let out a shrill sound. Peggy, locking the house, answered, in “bird,” warbling.   I looked at my husband. “Your relatives talk to each other with bird calls?” He shrugged.  My return glare said, “don’t ever think of summoning me that way.”

Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had the company of 40,000 chickens on my father’s poultry farm. In school, we learned about the state bird, the robin. Bird names designated reading groups: robins, blue jays, and cardinals.

On hikes, I’d look at birds, but never paid much attention. Or cared. I’d admire the intricately woven nests and move on. We bought the children inexpensive binoculars to interest them in hiking and take their minds off how many more miles until the ice cream stand.

Backpacking, circa 1995.

Three summers in a row, we rented a house on a lake in Maine.  Hearing the loons, a lullaby in the evenings, we became more interested in birds. My husband bought cds of birdcalls, which he’d listen to in the car, alone.  (Loon call)


The October 2011 issue of Audubon magazine featured an excerpt from Mark Obmascik’s  The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,  (2004), and an interview with the three actors- Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, playing the roles of three men obsessed with seeing the most bird species in North America in 1998, now a movie,  Big Year. For birders, not to be confused with the more relaxed bird watchers, this competition, known as the Big Year, sends contenders racing around the country, nearly every day of the year, in hopes of spotting at least 700 species.

Armed with nothing more than binoculars, notebooks,  and cameras, though to win the Big Year photographs aren’t required, birders rush from state to state hoping to see a particular bird first, and add it to their lists.  The prize? No money or plaque, just the recognition from the American Birding Association as the Big Year birding champion of North America.

The movie changes the names of the three men, adds some slapstick humor you’d expect from that trio, and introduces the bird novice to rare species such as the crested myna, the pink-footed goose and the fork-tailed flycatcher. Big Year participants leave their jobs and families, spend thousands of dollars, encounter snow, sleet, swamps, deserts, insects and garbage dumps, travel on bicycles, boats, airplanes, and hike, dashing from place to place. They call a bird spotting  hotline, give their password, and learn where a rare species has been sited, and off they go.  

The book and movie are delightful. I feel more committed to learning about birds. In the summer, I marvel at the graceful gray heron that swoops across the lake, stopping in briefly.  I watch geese families; overprotective parents guiding their babies into the water, keeping track of all their offspring. Ducks, hawks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds and bald eagles visit frequently. In our NJ backyard, we hang bird feeders to welcome hungry birds all winter.  

No loons south of Maine, it’s not cold enough. We put on the cd, grill a lobster and pretend.

This entry was posted in Books, environment, Family, Movies & TV, Reading, travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Big Year Birds

  1. We have loons on our lake in New Hampshire and they are delightful. The other day we saw six of them (teenagers I think) doing synchronised diving in the lake. All in a row they suddenly dives and reappeared n the same line about 20 yards away. Lovely!


  2. Great pictures. I am looking forward to seeing the movie. Thanks for putting it all in perspective. When we lived on the eastern shore of Maryland in a small town called Cambridge we saw a so many birds. We were on the the Choptank River which emptied out in to the bay. We also were not far from a wildlife refuge.


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