Transcript for Mark Obmascik on Competitive Bird Watching


Jim Fleming: Spring migration is one of the biggest times of year for birdwatchers, but for a select band of diehard birders the season begins on January first. That's the start of the most grueling, most prestigious bird watching competition in North America. It's known to birders as 'The Big Year'. That's also the title of a new book by Mark Obmascik, which chronicles the 1998 competition. Obmascik told Anne Strainchamps that to win The Big Year, birders compete to see who can identify the most birds in North America in a single year.

Mark Obmascik; Well here's the math of a Big Year. There are roughly six hundred seventy-five native species in North America. Now these are birds that either live here, nest here, or migrate through on the grand sweeping pendulum that happens twice a year. Spring migration, fall migration. Six hundred seventy-five birds. Well the winner of this contest saw seven hundred forty-five birds, which is just unparallelled. In fact, they say it's a record that probably will never be broken. In fact, in this year, the year that I wrote about 1998, the strongest El Nino on record. All three of these contestants each saw more than seven hundred birds in their Big Year. It used to be considered an amazing feat in birding to see six hundred species in a lifetime. These guys saw more than seven hundred in a year. It's really a staggering accomplishment.

Anne Strainchamps: I was trying to think about that. About how you'd go about doing it. One thing I thought was these must be people who have entire field guides memorized so that they, I mean, just to be able to recognize that many birds is astonishing.

Obmascik: These guys are two legged libraries. It's an amazingly intimidating thing to go in the field with them, because I mean these guys kind of sucked me in. I went native on this story. I started out more interested in writing about obsession than the objects of their obsession, but just to be with these guys in the field. They're kind of, they're like grown up Tom Sawyers. They've got this terrific zest. This great enthusiasm for life and I would be with them and I would try to tag along and identify some of these species on my own. So I would, you know, faithfully be carrying my Sibley guide, five hundred forty-five pages of pictures and descriptions of the native birds of North America and these guys. They don't even bother. They just, sometimes, they don't even bring it with them in the car. They just know everything. In fact, one of the guys is even better on. He's beyond amazing on the wing. He does it by ear. The first time I went in the field with him, Greg Miller, I thought he was playing a David Letterman trick on me. We got out of the car near some woods and he just started calling out, "Sedge wren, marsh wren, northern cardinal, lesley bunting." He hadn't even picked up his binoculars. He had learned to bird by ear. He can recognize the bird call of pretty much more than six hundred native species to North America. I mean, some people like me, I can probably identify most Rolling Stones songs by the first three chords. Well, Greg knows the chip notes of more than six hundred species in North America. It's phenomenal.

Strainchamps: There's a story you tell. I think this must be the same guy. He went out. I think he was someplace where he was looking for warblers and what he could distinguish the one song out of thirty-five different warblers, but how different can a warbler sound from another warbler? But he could find the one out of thirty-five that he didn't have on his list yet. Just from the song.

Obmascik: Go figure. There's an amazing bird called the Kirtland’s warbler, which is smart enough to spend most of it's life in the Bahamas, but then for some reason, you know, hormones take over or, you know, whatever birds do it. Bees do it. They decide to fly all the way to northern Michigan. Just to have sex in this one particular stand of trees. Second growth, Jack pine forest. Well, Greg went with his father, who is the guy who taught him how to bird, and they went looking for a Kirtland’s warbler. One of the rarest species on the face of the Earth. Now, the woods in northern Michigan in summer are just brimming with life. I mean, there's just. There's just warblers. There's. There's cardinals. There's buntings and, and there's mammals. I mean, it's just brimming with. With this amazing symphony of life and the way that they found this one bird was it was the only sound in the forest that they didn't recognize.

Strainchamps: Wow. That's an amazing story. Tell me about the other contestants that you were tracking.

Obmascik: Well, the other two guys. The first guy is really the guy who sold me on the story. A guy named Sandy Cometo, who has a voice that starts about three floors below the basement. He grew up in the Bronx and definitely has a Bronx accent. He grew up really poor. So poor that, in fact, he had only one shirt as a boy that he used to have to wash himself before he went to school in the morning, but Sandy managed to scrap and claw his way to the top of one of the toughest, most macho, businesses anywhere. He's a New Jersey industrial contractor, but he still had this irrepressible itch to bird. I mean, that. That. I think that birds, for him, were kind of his ticket out of the concrete of the Bronx. Now, Sandy was the defending Big Year champion. He had set the record in 1987 and then sat back for a decade and watched many other birders, including some of his best friends, takes whacks at his record. You know, do these full out frontal assaults. Spending five, six, seven thousand dollars a month travelling tens of thousands of miles to get these birds and Sandy, like many of these competative birders, is such a perfectionist. He knew that he could have done better in 1987. There were some species that he just flat out missed and there were others that he thought that, if he organized things a little bit better. I mean, the logistics of a Big Year are pretty staggering, but he just thought if he. If he organized things a little bit better, he might be able to improve his his number. And finally, I think his wife just got a little tired of him. Seeing him pace around the house a lot. Saying, "Get out of here. Go do a Big Year. It's driving you nuts. Go try it". So that's one contestant, Sandy Cometo.

Strainchamps: I see what you mean about obsessed. So what did they have to do? It wasn't, obviously, going to be enough to just go out and find some place where there were lots of birds and start looking for them. To achieve, at this level, and rack up this many species, they had to get really, really specific about specific birds, right?

Obmascik: One of the really cool things about birds is just how persnickety they are about where they live. It's not like you can just set up in one part of the country and expect to see all six hundred seventy-five native species to North America. No. I mean, there are birds that for some reason they look nearly identical, but there are some sandpipers that insist on seeing the sun set every night on the Pacific ocean and then there are others that insist on only seeing the sun rise in the morning over the Atlantic ocean. You've got to see both of them in the course of a Big Year to build your big list and so it's a little like the circus act of spinning those plates up on sticks and trying to keep one from falling. What these guys would do is scramble, madly, from bird to bird. Now one of the wild things about what's happened lately, is with the information revolution. There are a lot of places in North America where a rare bird can't really land and be there by itself. It ends up on a webpage. A rare bird alert within an hour or two hours.

Strainchamps: A rare bird alert?

Obmascik: North American Rare Bird Alert.

Strainchamps: How does this go out?

Obmascik: Well, there are places where birders concentrate and when a bird lands in a place like High Island, Texas, for example or Point Pelee, Ontario, Cape May, New Jersey, or on Monterey Bay, California. I mean, these are some of the big stations of the cross for birders, because these are kind of migrant traps. You know, birds that are coming from the south up to the north to breed tend to rest there or maybe storms knock them down there. Well, there's always birders waiting for these birds there and as soon as a good one or a weird one show up, they put it out on the web. There was even one service out of Houston, called the North American Rare Bird Alert, run by a guy who used to be a doctor in Canada, but actually moved down to southern Texas because the birding was better there. He charged a fee. I think a twenty-five dollar membership fee and then, for an additional price, I think of twenty-five dollars he would literally call you in the middle of the night and say, "There's a whiskered tern being seen at Cape May, New Jersey. Get on the next flight. Get out there for the red eye." So these guys would go.

Strainchamps: So what would happen? What happens when a rare bird alert goes out?

Obmascik: Well, when a rare bird alert goes out, all chaos breaks out, because there are hundreds if not thousands of people in this country who will chase rare birds. In fact, at one point during the Big Year, there was this little, tiny bird. About a big as your pinky. Called a xantus’s hummingbird. A brilliant green, iridescent creature. So light that, I think, you could mail ten of these birds for the price of a single, first class postage stamp. Well, what happened with this xantus’s hummingbird was there was a freak hurricane that hit it's native home of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and it blew that bird, for some reason, all the way up to Gibson's, British Columbia, near Vancouver. Which for some reason, this bird decided to spend the winter there. Well the word went out on the rare bird alerts and there were so many birders who came to see this bird, that the homeowner. The poor homeowner who had the feeder. The sugar water feeder, started to get overwhelmed. Because, naturally, this being the Pacific Northwest in the winter the main way to get to Gibson's, British Columbia, was to ride the ferry from Vancouver. Well of course, the first thing everybody would do first thing in the morning on the ferry is they would coffee up. So they'd, you know, have their one or two cups of coffee and then get off that ferry and then trundle up to the Patterson's driveway and wait for this little, tiny creature to come up and sure enough, you know, you can't buy coffee. You can only rent it. So the poor Patterson's would look out their window and these people were doing a little wiggly jig out there and so finally everybody took a collection and they went in and they got a port-a-potty and put it in the driveway. I think before that bird left that winter, there were more than I think three thousand people who signed the log. They came to see that bird. Three thousand people to see one teeny creature.

Strainchamps: Oh, my word. Yeah. I had the. I had the image of these lone champion birders off scaling mountain cliffs all by themselves or hacking their way through North American jungles just for the sight of one bird, but it sounds like it was more like a big road show.

Obmascik: Well, sometimes it was. I mean, these guys were definitely alone in the everglades at dawn. You know, they were in the north woods of Minnesota after dusk looking for owls. They were in the Chiricahua Mountains of far southeastern Arizona. One of the last holdouts, or hangouts, of Geronimo, you know, looking for trogans, but they also. I mean, it's a bird's eye view of the continent. So you've got to chase these species where they go.

Strainchamps: Did you wonder, I mean, as you spent time with these guys and began to go out birding youself. You must have wondered what the appeal was of this. I mean, it's one thing to like birds and maybe want to kind of have kind of an interesting life list, but why do people like this become this obsessed?

Obmascik: Boy. You know, I asked these guys that question probably a million different ways and finally they just got sick of me asking it. One guy cut me off and just said, "You know, why did you fall in love with your wife?" And I just came to conclude that obsession, passion, is just something you can't put into words. It's something you feel and it's just something that that drives you. I don't know that these guys can explain it in a way that I can understand or maybe in a way that anyone can understand. It's just something that they love to do, but what I could understand is what if you had a year of your life to do anything you wanted? And had unlimited time, in a couple cases like these guys, unlimited funds, what would you do? What would you do for year? I mean, these guys had this dream of seeing all the birds of North America in a year and it was not only to see the birds, but also it was beat the clock. I mean, they were always up against the calendar and it was beat each other too. They had to get them before these other two guys and, for them, frankly it was thrilling and exciting. It was a magnificent travel log and if you look at the result I think that it cost them dearly. I mean, it cost them financially a lot of money. It cost them, in some cases, it cost them their health. A couple of these guys got sick during the year and never really recovered. They were just driving themselves so hard. I mean, think of that. Two hundred seventy days waking up at four in the morning every day. I mean, it's amazing, but if you talk to them they have no regrets. They lived their dream. They did exactly what they wanted to do and, you know, I think that's a pretty universal thing.

Fleming: Mark Obmascik is the author of The Big Year a tale of man, nature, and fowl obsession. He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

Comments for this interview