The Big Year

Every year on January 1, a handful of people abandon their day-to-day lives to join one of the world’s quirkiest sporting contests. With few rules and no referees, there is one goal: to see and identify the most species of birds in a single year. The few who commit to the full year – known to its participants as a Big Year – will spend a grueling, exhaustive year traveling hundreds of thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars. In a good year, the contest offers passion and deceit, fear and courage, a fundamental craving to see and conquer mixed with an unstoppable yearning for victory. In a bad year, it drains savings accounts and leaves people raw.

In THE BIG YEAR: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (Free Press; publication date: February 4, 2004; $25.00), prize-winning journalist Mark Obmascik chronicles the 1998 North American Big Year, the greatest – or perhaps the worst – birding competition of all time. With engaging humor and a sharp wit, Obmascik captures the enthusiasm of the birders themselves, taking readers on a rollicking 275,000-mile odyssey, as each of the three main competitors fight for the title of champion.

The three contestants were perhaps the unlikeliest set of competitors ever to meet. A wise-cracking industrial contractor from New Jersey, a newly-retired executive vice-president of a multi-million dollar company from Aspen, and a painfully divorced software engineer who continued to work full time at a nuclear power plant in Maryland while pursuing his Big Year; they were all passionate about birds.

As they traveled on the grueling, 365-day potholed road to glory, they faced broiling deserts, roiling oceans, bug-infested swamps, rising debt, and a disgruntled mountain lion. From the island of Attu in Alaska to the Florida Keys, from the deserts of Arizona to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of northern California, they crossed time zones and, occasionally, paths on their quests to see once-in-a-lifetime rarities that could mean the difference between winner and second place. Perhaps the most intense birding competition ever, by December 31, one of the contenders had set a record so gigantic – identifying an extraordinary 745 different species by official year-end count – it is unlikely ever to be bested