"There IS a thing called competitive birdwatching..." The decade-long buzz of The Big Year
July 5, 2011 5:06 PM   Subscribe

In 1998 three birders--Sandy Komito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller--had their big year attempt chronicled in 2004 in a book of the same name by Mark Obmascik. Due to a few fortuitous circumstances including some spectacular fallout on Attu, a remote Alaskan Island, Komito's 1998 record of 745 species has never been surpassed. Their friendly yearlong rivalry is being documented further in a motion picture featuring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black coming out later this year.

Steve Martin, incidentally, has an album of banjo music out called Rare Bird Alert based on an actual birder alert system detailed heavily in the book.

Reviews of The Big Year: Powell's, SFGate, Asian Review of Books
Movie Buzz about The Big Year: Birder's Forum discusses leaked photos, Greg Miller's page on the movie, Steve Martin discusses the movie on Conan (about 6 min. in), Birdchick's blog updates, report on some of the filming in the Osoyoos BC local paper
posted by jessamyn (16 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
posted by gingerbeer at 5:11 PM on July 5, 2011

Wes Anderson + leftover puppets from Fantastic Mr. Fox as bird stand-ins + Alec Baldwin as the voice of some rare owl in a dream sequence + plenty of tweed resort wear and I'll see it.
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:11 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Double yay!

Loved the book, but I'm a little afraid of the movie, because I'm not a big fan of Wilson or Black, or at least of most of their movies. But it's about birds and birders and birding, so they pretty much had me at, uh, "Grab your binos and let's go!"

A Big Year is basically an insane thing to do. You need time, or money. Having both helps, of course, but you really only need one (well, and a strong desire to do that insane thing). Traveling a long way to see birds you've never seen before might get you marked as a little odd (the Canadian border guard sure thought we were nuts for coming all the way from San Francisco to see an owl, in the sleet and snow); in the wider world, doing a Big Year might be seen as freakish. Amongst birders, there's some of that - but in my experience, there's a lot of respect.
posted by rtha at 5:47 PM on July 5, 2011

I keep thinking I'll take up birdwatching in my old age.

But what the hell, you know, I'm not getting any younger.
posted by box at 6:07 PM on July 5, 2011

At first read, I thought they ate 745 species of bird in one year.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:37 PM on July 5, 2011

box, I say this with all the bias of a total convert, but: do it!

This is a short (6 seconds!) video I took of one of the juvenile redtails that was hanging around screaming and flying at the park where we were picnicking on Sunday. This one hovered and swooped very low a number of times very close to a family with a small child. We theorized that from the redtail's perspective, the child looked much smaller than it really was. The juveniles weren't long out of the nest, since one parent was still around, and at least one of the juves was so bad at landing that I saw it hanging upside-down in a tree more than once. One of them was good at catching pigeons, though, and I watched it eat some of said pigeon.

(After a description like that, how can you resist?)
posted by rtha at 6:37 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nice shot rtha!

I'm not sure about the casting either but this could be good.
posted by Glinn at 7:37 PM on July 5, 2011

I should mention Bird Year, an attempt to do a Big Year in North America without the fossil fuel transportation that is driving so many birds extinct.
posted by eustatic at 7:38 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just had a really strange realization; I am a birder. It must have happened while I wasn't paying attention.

When I decided to get into photography, my buddy, who shoots sports professionally, suggested that I work on refining one aspect to a high level of expertise, so as to have a framework for everything else. I opted for birds, thinking that they are pretty as well as fast moving and unpredictable: if I could get good at shooting them, other things would probably seem easy by comparison, right?

Fast forward several years, and in I see that in order to get the best pictures, I've studied their habits; feeding, courting, nesting, and the like, and I'm able to speak with a lot of knowledge on bird related subjects.

And I never really meant for it to happen. I just wanted to get better at taking pictures, and all the other stuff just happened to come along as bonus material.

Which, if you think about it, is a kind of awesome way to discover you have a hobby.
posted by quin at 7:52 PM on July 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Back in the mists of time, I had the great fortune of attending high school at the newest such school in the IPS system. As such, it was staffed by an eclectic mix of fresh-from-college-and-eager-to-change-the-world teachers of the early-70's vintage, and more-seasoned-yet-just-as-excited-to-teach elder educators.

One area where it really came together was the science department. Basic biology was, of course, required of all students. One of the class requirements in biology (unique to this one school) was birdwatching. And not just some let's-go-out-behind-the-school-and-count-the-starlings birding. We're talking identification tests. We're talking weekend trips out to nearby forests and lakes. Mid-winter treks out in the cold and snow. Bus trips to state parks. It was, you could say, an enthusiastic program.

The amazing thing was just how much we, the students, got into it. Loved the camaraderie. Loved being in the woods. And really loved building that life list.

Birding is one of the few things that I still carry with me from high school. You just never look at a group of birds dismissively once you've been taught to actually see them. That's a good thing.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:31 AM on July 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is cool.

There's a great little movie about a smaller project, a Big Day, called Big Birding Day. It was shown on PBS, here's a preview. David Wilson, who made it, is a graduate of Hampshire College.
posted by OmieWise at 4:47 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd go to see the movie if it were called Bird Hard.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:38 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was surprised how much I liked this book actually. It had a combination of the odd competition thing but also a lot of really weird and quirky bird trivia about how birdwatching in the US started as a thing, where Audubon comes into it, about the North American Rare Bird Alert (my favorite part actually) and the weird aspect of winning the Big Year mostly being how many weird blown-in birds you get to see in addition to every other bird in the US.

I'm a super low key birdwatching hobbyish and I think I started doing it to make hiking a little more appealing. I've got decent eyes and that twitchy nerd "something's moving" hypersensitivity so I'm good at seeing where the bird is, much less good at knowing what the bird is. So that part has taught me some patience and some discipline. There's a nice group of birdwatchers in town here and the Christmas Bird Count [which I did for the first time this year and saw a pileated woodpecker which was sort of cool] is a time they all sort of get together.

I'm also lucky enough to live about two and a half stories up, so I can have a lot of feeders and no squirrel danger. They're all at the window right outside my computer here and on a good day there are two pairs of sapsuckers that stop by. I really hope the movie is fun and does the birders justice.

quin: are your photos online anyplace?
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 AM on July 6, 2011

The book was excerpted in the Jan 19, 2004 edition of Sports Illustrated as an article called "A Fowl Obsession". Frustratingly it doesn't appear to be in their archives, but I remember it being an excellent read and I meant to check the book out at the time. Thanks for the memory nudge.
posted by IanMorr at 8:05 AM on July 6, 2011

are your photos online anyplace?

I haven't uploaded anything in a while as I'm working on building a more proper portfolio, but here are some, and some others are here.

posted by quin at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

My mom is a lifelong birder and I'm torn about whether this will be fun viewing for her. Will there be close-ups of birds, or will there be a lot of Jack Black and Owen Wilson frowning at each other and getting into slap-fights? Dilemmas.

I forget how I came across this, so forgive if it's a repeat, but the British comedian Bill Bailey made a reality tv show out of birdwatching a couple years ago. It's reasonably entertaining and there is some actual (basic) bird info conveyed.
article about Bill Bailey's birdwatching show
episode of Bill Bailey's birdwatching show on Youtube
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:39 AM on July 6, 2011

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