Birders will stop at nothing for a chance to compete in the ultimate birding challenge.
Greg Miller has boldly gone where few birders have gone before. In the birding world, it’s called a Big Year, with participants abandoning their ordinary lives and traveling across the continent to see as many different species as possible. Now, with a little help from Hollywood, the term—and the adventure—will no longer be the exclusive property of self-proclaimed bird nerds.
The Big Year, scheduled to debut in mid-October, will feature A-list stars Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin. They play three die-hard birders profiled in Mark Obmascik’s book of the same name, which tells the true story of the legendary 1998 Big Year competition.
One of those featured birders is Greg, played by Jack Black. Though (spoiler alert!) he’s not the winner of the Big Year, he turns out to be the unlikely hero, since he keeps his day job during the entire competition and has to travel on a limited budget.
To really appreciate Greg’s story, the movie and extreme birding in general, you have to know a few fundamentals. How does a Big Year work? What’s the point? And who’s crazy enough to try it? You might be surprised at the answers.
Big Year Basics
Birders have been embarking on these yearlong quests since the 1930s. While there’s much cooperation, there’s also more than a little competition.
A ready reserve of cash is a bonus, especially if you need to take time off from work, but even more important is communication with the birding community. If a Xantus’s hummingbird is spotted above the Mexican border, Big Year birders know about it in minutes. A Nutting’s flycatcher in Patagonia Lake State Park? They’ve already booked their flights to Arizona.
Tropicbird, Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures
How do birders get this insider information? The Internet has made it easy to get rare bird alerts in seconds. From birding Listservs and websites to the North American Rare Bird Alert (narba.org), once the news gets out, it spreads fast. Then competitive birders will do whatever it takes to make it to the right place at the right time.
But how do we know birders are telling the truth about their sightings? There aren’t any formal rules, documentation or referees to verify sightings. Essentially, Big Year birders are on the honor system. But with reputations at stake and other birders all around, it seems to work.
Ultimately, a Big Year is a numbers game. About 675 species of birds show up faithfully every year in North America or its offshore waters, though many of these occur only in limited areas. If you want to beat the record, you’ll need to see all of them, plus the unpredictable vagrants, as they’re called, that visit the continent in any given year.
The Biggest Year
No Big Year has ever been as competitive or as talked about as the one Greg competed in. The 1998 event was no ordinary one. Powerful El Niño storms blew many vagrants and rare birds to the U.S. as Greg and two other power birders, Sandy Komito and Al Levantin, fought for top honors.
From January to December, these three paid close attention to migration and weather patterns. Then they visited birding hot spots all over the continent, hoping to be at the right place at the right time.
In an interview, Greg said that the relationship among the three birders was “cordial, respectful (but) always competitive.”
Like any extreme birder, this trio has some memorable stories to share. There was the time Al got so close to a mountain lion in the Texas desert that he could count its whiskers. Or the time Greg got his canoe stuck in the mud of the Everglades. Or when Sandy’s car got stranded on a snowdrift in Colorado and he had to walk into town for help, meeting a Vietnamese potbellied pig along the way.
Redshank, Markus Varesvuo/npl/Minden Pictures
By the time the year was over, the three men had had the time of their lives chasing birds. Sandy was the ultimate winner, beating his own previous record with an unbelievable 745 birds total.
Birders on the Red Carpet
It’s rare for the world of bird-watching to capture the attention of Hollywood. And who knows? Maybe some moviegoers, seeing and hearing the magic of birding for the first time, will be inspired to take it up—or even embark on their own Big Year.
How does Greg feel about being portrayed by a movie star?
“I am quite blown away,” he admitted. “It’s rather surreal. I could never have imagined this happening.”
He added: “I hope that in all this, the real stars are not forgotten—the birds. After all, there would be no Big Years, no stories or books without the wonderful creatures that motivate us.”
Notable Big years
1939 Guy Emerson, a traveling businessman who timed his work trips to coincide with migrations, reported seeing 497 species.
1953 Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher toured the continent to write Wild America while bird-watching at the same time. With side trips, Roger ended the year with 572 species.
1971 Ted Parker, an 18-year-old student, set a new record with 626 species. He started his Big Year while still in high school in Pennsylvania and finished it during college in Arizona.
1973 Kenn Kaufman hitchhiked 69,200 miles and saw
666 birds on a $1,000 budget, while Floyd Murdoch reported 669 in the same year. (Read Kenn’s book Kingbird Highway for a fascinating look at a Big Year on a budget.)
1979 James Vardaman, a businessman from Mississippi, hired professionals to help him along his Big Year route. He was also the first to come up with a hotline to find more birds. He ended his year with 699 species and spent more than $44,000.
1983 Benton Basham focused on the rarest birds and tallied 711 species.
1988 Sandy Komito’s first attempt at a Big Year scored him 721 birds.
1998 Sandy shattered his own record with 745 birds.
He spent $100,000 and traveled 270,000 miles.
His story was one of three featured in The Big Year.