A movie about obsessed birders will be released Oct. 14. The title is "The Big Year." It's based on a book written in 1998 about, well, a Big Year. It doesn't look good from here. I've used Google to see what is being said about the movie. I'm pessimistic, believing that no one would make a comedy, and this is supposed to be a comedy, about birding unless they intended to draw laughter by embarrassing real birders. So far, not one of several web sites understands the plot. The writers don't know what a Big Year is. One guy talking about the movie on a video clip got the author's name wrong. Another site misspelled the name of one of the participants, not big deals, but I'm sure it will all get worse.
So, what is a Big Year? It is an attempt by an individual to see as many species of birds in North America as possible within one year, 12:01 January 1 to midnight on Dec. 31. It is not, as various web sites indicate, about seeing rare birds. Well, actually, the movie folks could have changed everything so the characters are dealing with rare-bird chases, but in a real Big Year everything counts. The robin in the front yard is as good as the Eye-browed Thrush one might find on a Bering Sea island.
I say "obsessed" because a Big Year, seriously done, is a long, costly slog. There have been any number of
Big Years completed. Some of them are discussed in Wikipedia. The following information is taken from that entry. In 1979 a man named James Vardaman set a record with 699 species (there had been several earlier attempts; early totals in the high 500s. Seven-hundred became the grail when Vardaman hit 699. Vardaman traveled 161,000 miles that year, in pursuit of birds. He logged 137,000 by air, 20,000 by car, 3,300 in boats, 160 on a bicyclel, and 385 miles on foot. God only knows what that cost in money and human relationships. A birder named Benton Basham found 710 species in 1983, that total being beat four years later by a New Jersey contractor named Sandy Komito, who counted 721. Komito is played in the movie by Owen Wilson. I really don't like Owen Wilson as an actor, which does color my anticipatory comments. (The two other birders coincidentally competing that year are played by Steve Martin and Jack Black. Does that sound like cheap laughs to you? It does to me.)
I met Komito in 1998. We happened to be birding on St. Lawrence Island, off the coast of Nome, Alaska, at the same time. Well, I might not actually have met him, but I did see him. He is older, solidly built, as I recall, dark of hair and swarthy of complexion. That is not how Owen Wilson looks. Anyway, in '98 Komito's total was an amazing 745 species. He benefited from that year being very good for Asian strays. What are Asian strays? Birds that belong in Asia or Eurasia, which get blown off migration course and end up on North American soil, trying to catch their breath and find something to eat. Most of these birds are seen in some part of Alaska, the Aleutian islands particularly good for this. The best of the best places was the island at the end of the Aleutian string, Attu Island. It was home to a Coast Guard station that provided weather reports for flights in the area. Birders stayed in an old Coast Guard building, a wet, cold, dirty place on an island where the wind always whipped and the sun almost never was seen (clouds, rain, snow, more rain), hardship duty for sure. Birders paid about $5,000 for two weeks on Attu, plus air fare to get there. Komito went there for sure. I was there one year for two days, a record short stay. On that trip I saw two bird species new to me, by the way, for a trip cost of $2,000. Yes, $1,000 per species. Bad luck. Birding often is like throwing dice. All of that is another story.
Why is a total of 745 so good? North America has fewer than 700 regular species. To get to 745 you have to see many, many strays. Alaska is good for this. Arizona is good, as is the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Both of those places can have strays from Mexico. You might pick up a couple in the Canadian Maritime provinces, birds blown in from Greenland or Iceland or maybe even Europe. And when these rarities show up, you have to go see them if your Big Year total is going to be respectable, much less competitive. That's one way you log 137,000 miles.
There are set places in the North America where all of the Big Year hopefuls will go because of the large numbers of species regularly available: Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Alaska are the major stops. Minnesota is on that list. Birders come here in the winter for the boreal specialties we boast: Hoary Redpoll, crossbills, Northern Hawk-Owl, Great Gray Owl, and others. They go to an area northwest of Duluth, near Meadowlands, boggy country good for those species. Komito is still birding, by the way. I know that because a friend of mine, Mike Hendrickson of Duluth, a first-class birding guide for northern Minnesota, had Komito as a client this spring. Sandy was most likely up here for warblers, like Connecticut Warbler, more easily found here than elsewhere. As far as I know, he has retired from Big Year efforts, his record intact and likely to remain so.
I don't know if Minnesota is in the movie. I doubt it. And if it was I wouldn't be more optimistic about the quality of the film. I think people are going to giggle at this snap shot of birding. The movie will be silly, and it will get details wrong. What is won't do is capture the effort, skill, and good fortune needed for a Big Year of any size. That doesn't mean I won't be there on opening day.