The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession

by Mark Obmascik

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A classic in the making -- an account of the biggest year in birdwatching history.

In the USA, some 50 million people lay claim to being bird-watchers or "birders," spending billions of dollars on birding-related travel and membership fees every year. A select, and utterly obsessed, few compete in one of the world's quirkiest contests -- the race to spot the most species in North America in a single year. And 1998 wasn't just a big year. It was the biggest. The Big Year is Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Obmascik's account of what was to become the greatest birding year of all time.

It was freak weather conditions that ensured all previous records were broken, but what becomes clear within the pages of this classic portrait of obsession is that while our feathered friends may be the objective of the Big Year competition, it's the curious activities and behavioural patterns of the pursuing "homo sapiens" that are the real cause for concern. It is a contest that reveals much of the human character in extremes. Such are the author's powers of observation that he brilliantly brings to life and gets under the skin of these extraordinary, eccentric and obsessive birders while empathizing with and eventually succumbing to the all-consuming nature of their obsession. The result is a wonderfully funny, acutely observed classic to rank alongside the best of Bill Bryson.

Mark Obmascik was the lead writer for the Denver Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has been writing on strange characters and the environment for many years. He is an avid outdoorsman and recently admitted to his own growing obsession with birds. He lives in Denverwit his wife and two sons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451648607
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 09/27/2011
Edition description: Media Tie-In
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 317,264
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Mark Obmascik is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of The Big Year, which was made into a movie, and Halfway to Heaven. He won the 2009 National Outdoor Book Award for outdoor literature, the 2003 National Press Club Award for environmental journalism, and was the lead writer for the Denver Post team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Denver with his wife and their three sons.

Read an Excerpt


The first time I met a real birder, I couldn't tell a tit from a tattler.

I was a cub newspaper reporter, stuck on the graveyard shift and scrambling for some way, any way, to get off. If I wasn't chasing some awful car accident, I was hustling to find the relatives of a homeless man slashed in a railyard knife fight. Nobody was happy.

Then one night, an anonymous call came in to the Denver Post newsroom.

There's a man right here in Colorado, the caller told me, who is one of the world's foremost experts on birds. He's a law professor and he's old, and you should write something about him before he dies. His name is Thompson Marsh.

A chance to work among the living? I grabbed it. I called Professor Marsh the next day.

Professor Marsh, however, never called back. This really bugged me. In my line of work, even grieving widows returned phone messages. Surely a man who was one of the best in his field would want to talk, even if his field was a bit goofy. I decided to chase the story.

Slowly, from some of his friends, a picture emerged: Thompson Marsh was a birdwatcher possessed. To chase rare birds, he would rise before dawn on weekends. He would take expensive vacations on desolate Alaskan isles and pray for foul weather. He would wait for phone calls in the middle of the night, then rush to the airport for the next red-eye flight. Only five others in history had seen more species of birds in North America.

He managed to do all this while becoming a lawyer so sharp, so demanding, that many of his former students still felt intimidated by him. When Thompson Marsh was hired by the University of Denver in 1927, he was the nation's youngest law professor. Now he was eighty-two and the nation's oldest, having worked the same job for fifty-eight years. Some days he still walked the four miles from his home to class. A few years back, he conquered all fifty-four of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains.

But the old coot wouldn't pick up a phone to call me.

To hell with him, I decided — until his wife unexpectedly called and arranged a meeting at their home.

I rang the doorbell on time, and his wife sat me down on the couch and poured tea. Behind her, in a room facing the garden, I spotted a tall, thin man with a shock of silver hair — the birdman himself.

I stood and offered a handshake, but it wasn't accepted. The master legal orator looked down at the floor and said nothing.

His wife apologetically explained there would be no interview.

"He is a bit embarrassed by it all," Susan Marsh told me. "For some reason, he thinks it's a little silly. Why, I don't know."

Actually, she did know. The professor was a proud man who had been thinking about his newspaper obituary, and he didn't want to do anything now to change the story. Or, as his wife eventually confided, "He wants to be known as an attorney, not a birder."

Thompson Marsh, browbeater of future judges, was struck mute by a bird.

I returned to my newsroom and wrote a general story about the quirky world of competitive birdwatching and then moved on to covering murders and politicians and other typically depressing newspaper subjects. But my memory of that famed law professor, fidgeting horribly before a twenty-three-year-old reporter, still nagged me. What was it about birdwatching that gave a man such joy and discomfort?

I couldn't let the question go. Over the years I learned more about birds and their lovers, and I wrote the strange stories with glee. There was a Baikal teal that caused an international stir by wandering from its native lake in Siberia to a creek behind a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop outside Denver. There was a biologist who implanted microchips in geese so he could track the spring migration from New Mexico to the Arctic by computer from the comfort of his home. There even were twitters about a new species of grouse — North America's first new bird species in a century! — having sex in the sagebrush somewhere in the Utah high country.

Slowly but certainly I realized I wasn't just pursuing stories about birdwatchers. I was pursuing the birds, too. Marsh's obsession was becoming mine. My relentless pursuit of a rare subspecies of law professor had tapped a trait repressed deep in my character.

I needed to see and conquer.

This is not a unique craving. In the course of civilization, others have responded to that same fundamental urge by sailing uncharted oceans, climbing tall mountains, or walking on the moon.

Me, I watch birds.

Today I stroll in the park and I no longer see plain birds. I see gadwalls and buffleheads and, if I'm really on a hot streak, a single old squaw. A road trip finds me watching the sky as much as the pavement. It gets harder to pass a sewage treatment pond, that notorious bird magnet, without pulling out my binoculars. When somebody cries, "Duck!" I look up.

No longer is it accurate to call me a birdwatcher, a term the pros use to dismiss the spinsters and retired British army colonels who wait passively for birds to come to them. I have become an enthusiast, a chaser — a birder.

If Thompson Marsh were still alive — he died in 1992, at the age of eighty-nine, from injuries in a car accident on a birding trip — he might even talk to me. He was, after all, my first truly tough bird.

Today I can say without hesitation that there are seven kinds of tits (Siberian, bridled, bush, juniper, oak, tufted, and wren) and two tattlers (gray-tailed and wandering), but I can't say this knowledge impresses anyone, certainly not my wife.

Why this happened to me, I can't easily explain. It's never been very manly to talk about feelings, especially when these feelings involve birds. But put me on a mountain stream with our two sons and give us a glimpse, a fleeting glimpse, of a bald eagle, and it's hard to tell who's more excited — the four-, seven- or forty-year-old. I watch a hummingbird dive-bomb a feeder outside our kitchen window and marvel at its grace and energy; I pull out a birding field guide and learn that this finger-sized creature probably sipped tropical blossoms a few weeks ago in Guatemala, and I'm awed by the miracle of migration. On the prowl through the pines in the middle of the night, I hoot a few times through my cupped hands and wait. From the trees above, I detect wingbeats, then a returned hoot. It's an owl! Move over, Dr. Dolittle. I'm talking to the animals.

Birding is one of the few activities you can do from the window of a Manhattan skyscraper or the tent flap of an Alaskan bush camp; its easy availability may explain why it can become so consuming. There are one-of-a-kind birds living on the streets of St. Louis, below a dam in Texas, and amid the suburban sprawl of Southern California. One of the earth's greatest avian populations — with 3 million birds passing through each day during spring migration — is in New Jersey, just off the Garden State Parkway.

Birding is hunting without killing, preying without punishing, and collecting without clogging your home. Take a field guide into the woods and you're more than a hiker. You're a detective on a backcountry beat, tracking the latest suspect from Mexico, Antarctica, or even the Bronx. Spend enough time sloshing through swamps or scaling summits or shuffling through beach sand and you inevitably face a tough question: Am I a grown-up birder or just another kid on a treasure hunt?

During certain periods of our lives, the world believes it's perfectly acceptable to collect rocks or seashells or baseball cards.

The truth is that everyone has obsessions.

Most people manage them.

Birders, however, indulge them.

By the time you find yourself compiling lists and downloading software to manage, massage, and count birds, you — well, I — have become a hopeless addict.

As I spend another winter night by the fire, fingering David Sibley's 545-page birding guide and trying to memorize the field marks of thirty-five separate North American sparrow species, I'm jarred from self-absorption to self-doubt: Am I weird? Am I crazy? Am I becoming Thompson Marsh?

There is, I decide, only one way to fully understand my condition. If birding is an obsession that takes root in a wild crag of the soul, I need to learn how strong it can grow. I need to study the most obsessed of the obsessed.

I need to meet the birders of the Big Year.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Obmascik

Table of Contents



1. January 1, 1998

2. A Birder Is Hatched

3. The Early Birds

4. Strategy

5. Bodega Bluff

6. Whirlwind

7. El Niño

8. The Wise Owl

9. Yucatán Express

10. The Big Yak

11. The Cradle of Storms

12. The B.O.D.

13. Doubt

14. Forked

15. Conquest

16. Cape Hatteras Clincher

17. Two in the Bush

18. Nemesis

19. Honorbound

20. December 31, 1998





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Big Year 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
glauver More than 1 year ago
I liked the recent film, a movie I don't think got the support it deserved, but I found the book gave a better explanation of why a trio of grown men would race over North America trying to find rare birds to win a contest with no money attached. It also gave more depth to their characters and told more about the rarities they were seeking. I suggest you also read Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher's Wild America, the book that inspired the concept of the Big Year and rent the film when it comes out in DVD.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I hated finishing this book. As a birder, although not so dedicated, I vicariously lived each day spent with those three men. Obmascik writes in a light and easy style, his keen observations flecked with delicious humor. The courage the three birders evidenced, particularly Greg Miller, is amazing and unforgettable. Obmascik writes vivid prose, especially considering he never once accompanied his subjects on any of their forays into the field. I rarely keep books I buy; this one I will not part with.
hobbitprincess on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I never knew that birding (not bird watching - that's what amateurs do) could be so interesting or so competitive. This book opened up a whole new world for me, one I didn't know even existed. Obmascik tells the story of 3 men in 1998 who pledge to see the most birds in North America, called the Big Year. As you read, you'll learn about the men, the challenges, the birds, where people have to go, and even some bird facts in the process. I thought this book was well-written and interesting, especially for someone who is obviously a novice at all this stuff. Hint: If you've seen the movie, forget what you saw when you start this. If you haven't seen the movie, don't bother. The book is infinitely better! The movie is too Hollywood and deviates from the book in major ways.
woodsathome on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've never been a bird watcher, but I LOVED this book. Who knew there was such a thing as competative bird watching. This book is ultimately about a quest. Like Know-it-all and Julie and Julia, it's a highly enjoyable look into the hearts and minds of people who set a near impossible, impractical, and sometimes down-right silly goal and stick to it.
Milda-TX on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Competitive birding - who knew there was such a thing? This book tells the stories of 3 obsessed birding champs during one Big Year of chasing birds in North America. It's an amusing, witty, easy-to-read travelogue.
Cygnus555 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A glimpse into the lives of the big listers... people who - even though I am an avid birder - I can't fully understand. This book got me closer, but there is still some kind of disconnect for me. I love to WATCH birds and learn about them, their habits, habitat, food, etc. The people in this book merely want to count them. For me, the magic of watching the graceful dance of an Arctic Tern as they dance in and out of the fog on a rocky beach is pure heaven... and in these kind of situations, big listers spot, confirm and move on! sigh... alas, the world can't be just like me. :-) I did enjoy the book though - so if you like birding (watching or counting) you should enjoy this book.
jmcclain19 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Capturing the insanity that is waking up one day and deciding that you will travel the continent in an attempt to see over 700 bird species in one calendar year.Three crazies make the attempt of this monumental feat. Make no mistake - it's a massive undertaking - you're talking coordinating travel with bird migrations & and still have the ability to uproot and go on a whim when a rare bird pops up. One of the three certainly has little redeeming qualities and wrote a book himself on his version of the adventure. Big Year has plenty of funny moments, quite a few ironic moments and in all, is a good light hearted read with gobs of excellent insider stories on birding, bird life and ornithology for anyone interested in such things.
SqueakyChu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Are birders unusual people? This book takes you squarely to the three top birders of 1998 to answer that question. During that year, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller all compete to determine who can see the most different species of birds in North America. Their adventures are not only costly, but exceedingly grueling. At first, the three birders start their individual quests not knowing that others are doing the same. Imagine their surprise when, well into their pursuit of a number to top the previous record, they find out that each is not alone!Mark Obmascik brings this adventure alive by following the entire birding year of these three competitors. It is amazing to think that anyone has the fortitude to do this kind of birding. Although some may perceive part of the book as humorous, I had been too taken aback by the difficult situations in which the birders found themselves to do much laughing while reading this story. It may be an obsessive hobby, but as a faux-birder myself, I can see the lure and fun of doing this¿albeit on a much smaller scale.
Sandydog1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best book about "twitchers" out there. A must read that just might inspire you to do some travelling yourself.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mark Obmascik likes birds, but he likes birders even better. In Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession Obmascik chronicles a year of birding with several different hardcore birders and their quest for "the big year." The Big Year, as explained by Obmascik, is a birder's attempt to chronicle as many birds as possible within a solitary calendar year. There are many different strategies for obtaining the biggest "birds seen" list and competitors will stop at nothing to hone their strategies while sabotaging those of others. It's cutthroat, surprisingly so. All for the sake of something so small. Competing birders will spend thousands of dollars, millions of minutes, and countless miles to trek across North America looking for elusive, rare, and unusual birds. To see one is an accomplishment, but to photograph one is triumph. To be known as the biggest list is the best of all. Obmascik delivers humor and respect when sharing these birding tales. You will never look at a common sparrow the same way again.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A suspenseful and readable account of several "Big Year" attempts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book! I am, of course, a birder, and if you are not one, this book probably isnt for you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
grandmapenny More than 1 year ago
I chose this book because I was looking for a light read. I had recently seen and enjoyed the movie for what it was...a light Hollywood comedy. But when I learned that it was based on a true story, my interest was piqued. And I was not disappointed. This was a wonderful chronicle that follows three of the most fascinating non fiction characters over the course of a year as they go to unimaginable lengths to try and attain a rather curious goal that only a true bird watcher would appreciate. It is very well written and documented and had me laughing or shaking my head in disbelief throughout. And in the end, I could easily distinguish a booby from a common tit!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Nonie44 More than 1 year ago
An interesting look at three men who are birders and the they try to find the most species...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Three disparate men set out to see the most number of bird species in a year...Their Big Year... A gentle interest/sport/obsession played out far from cheers and applause. The USA with its boundless reaches and many, many climate ranges provides an unparalleled and relatively unspoiled backdrop for the people (in this case three men) who are passionate about seeing birds (as opposed to killing them). No where else but America would you meet such delightful people who rival each other, yet help each other at the same time. For a look at a world far from the concrete jungles, where we might wish wistfully to visit with such delightful obsessive behavior. Not for everone...but certainly a different rivalry from almost any other. Recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
FotoGal More than 1 year ago
The Big Year is a far-cry from just being a birders' book. The Big Year is about the lives of three men (three birders!!!) and their obsessive (and sometimes crazy)attempts, over the course of a year, to earn bragging rights and their spots in the records for most birds "counted." Obmascik has captured the spirit of the chase and the lengths to which these three men will go to add birds to their lists. This was one book I found hard to put down and I highly recommend!!
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