Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All I ever wanted to learn about competitive birding

I met my first birders on a trip around the world by ship.  Many of them haunted the top decks of the ship watching for sea birds with their 20x binoculars. I learned about petrels and boobies and shearwaters and gulls...always the gulls.  In particular, there was a young man, a teenager, who was particularly smitten with birds.  Seeing a gull or a masked boobie, produced a look on this young man's face that lit up the ship. I have never known anyone quite like him, and though I never got into birding myself, he produced in me a lifelong affinity for birders. 

This book appeared on the shelves at Borders a few years ago, and I admired it and considered buying it, but opted not to.  I forgot about it until last week when I accidentally happened upon a movie of the same name starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

The Big Year is about competitive bird watching (I know--seems like an oxymoron).  People compete to see who can see the most birds in the US in a single calendar year. The book features three men who vie for the title and shows what hardships, deprivation, discomfort and money they will spend in order to catch a rare species and beat the competition.  The book was a journalistic account--written after the year was over and based on extensive interviews with the top three birders.

The movie, written by the journalist who wrote the book, Mark Obmascik, changed some basic details to make the storylines more compelling, but followed the general arc of the competition that was presented in the book.  Believe it or not you do cheer for a winner, you do become intersted in birding, and how to find the rarest of the rare species.  I don't think either book or movie really delved into what makes these people do what they do. Is it the thrill of the chase? The beauty of the birds?  The love of nature? I was never really sure, but it all made for lively story telling.

I think now of my old friend on the ship.  He'd be in his late thirties by now. I assume that once you are a birder you are always a birder, and I hope he read this book and continues with his life list. Perhaps he has even completed a big year. 

It is hard to choose which is better, the book or the movie, especially since the movie has Steve Martin and who doesn't love Steve Martin?  I'd check them both out and then grab your binoculars. 

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