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The Big Year A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
By Mark Obmascik
Random House Large Print Publishing Copyright © 2004 Mark Obmascik
All right reserved.
Chapter One January 1, 1998
Sandy Komito was ready. It was an hour before sunrise, New Year's Day, and he sat alone at an all-night Denny's in Nogales, Arizona. He ordered ham and eggs. He stared into the black outside the window.
At this stage in his life, he knew men who lusted for a new wife or a Porsche or even a yacht. Komito had no interest.
What he wanted was birds.
For the coming year he would dedicate himself to a singular goal - spotting more species of birds in North America than any human in history. He knew it wouldn't be easy. He expected to be away from home 270 of the next 365 days chasing winged creatures around the continent. There were ptarmigans to trail on the frozen spine of the Continental Divide in Colorado and hummingbirds to hunt in the heat of the Arizona desert. He would prowl the moonlight for owls in the North Woods of Minnesota and wade the beaches of South Florida at dawn for boobies. He planned to race after birds by boat in Nova Scotia, by bicycle in the Aleutian Islands, and by helicopter in Nevada. Sleep was not a priority, but when it came, he would be tossing in the army bunks of Alaska and turning on the rolling waves of the Dry Tortugas.
This was, after all, a competition, and Komito wanted to win.
He ordered his second thermos of coffee and spread paperwork across his place mat. One sheet was an Internet printout of a North American rare-bird alert from Houston. The other was a regional alert from Tucson. Komito smiled. There were more rare birds spotted last week in southeastern Arizona than anywhere else on the continent.
His gut told him that this chain restaurant was the right place to start. He'd eaten in so many Denny's over the years that he didn't have to waste time with a menu. Besides, other birders reported that the trees around this Denny's were roosts for the great-tailed grackle and black vulture. Either of these fine local birds, Komito decided, would be a wonderful launch for his year.
From his window Komito watched the horizon lighten with the gray promise of dawn. Little moved.
Across from the restaurant, though, a freight train suddenly rammed through the quiet. All the ruckus made something take wing outside and land just beyond his window.
Komito's heart raced: it was his first bird of the competition!
He lurched forward for the identification.
Plump ... gray ... head bobbing.
"It's a damn pigeon," he muttered.
Every year on January 1, hundreds of people abandon their day-to-day lives to join one of the world's quirkiest contests. Their goal: spotting the most species of birds in a single year. Most contestants limit themselves to the birds of their home county. Others chase birds only within the borders of their home state. But the grandest birding competition of them all, the most grueling, the most expensive, and occasionally the most vicious, sprawls over an entire continent.
It is called the Big Year.
In a Big Year, there are few rules and no referees. Birders just fly, drive, or boat anytime, anywhere in the continental United States and Canada, to chase a rumor of a rare species. Sometimes birders manage to photograph their prey, but usually they just jot down sightings in notebooks and hope other competitors believe them. At the end of the year, contestants forward their self-reported species totals to the American Birding Association, which publishes the results in a magazine-sized document that generates more gossip than an eighth-grade locker room.
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 the contest costs a lot of money and leaves people raw.
This is the story of the greatest - or maybe the worst - birding competition of all time, the 1998 North American Big Year.
Nutting's flycatcher is a small, plain, grayish brown bird, native to Central Mexico. Its cry is distinct. It says, "Wheek." The last time this rarity was confirmed in the wilds north of the border, Harry Truman was president and Jackie Robinson was slugging his first home run in an All-Star game. But in mid-December 1997, a birder hiking along an irrigation reservoir near Nogales, Arizona, saw the flycatcher and reported it to the local Maricopa Audubon chapter in Phoenix.
Maricopa Audubon flagged the news on the Internet; the Tucson Rare Bird Alert posted a message on its twenty-four-hour phone number; the North American Rare Bird Alert in Houston started phoning people on its High Alert subscriber list.
From 2,400 miles away, at his home in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, Sandy Komito answered the call. It was the sighting of the Nutting's flycatcher, above all other birds, that had convinced him to begin his Big Year in Nogales.
He left Denny's and drove through the hills of prickly pear and mesquite until reaching the gates of Patagonia Lake State Park.
A ranger greeted him.
"Five dollars, please," she told Komito.
Komito had already spent hundreds of dollars on airline tickets, car rental, and motel room just to be here. But he had worked years as a New Jersey industrial contractor and he knew how to get things done. So he put a little sweetening in a deep voice that, back home, could startle work crews on the far end of a factory rooftop.
"Oh, I'm just a birder," Komito told the ranger. "I'm here to look for one bird. I'll only be here ten minutes. Do I really have to pay five dollars?" he asked, trying to take advantage of the park's unofficial policy of free entry for people who drive through and stay less than fifteen minutes.
The ranger stared him down. His bargaining routine hardly ever worked, but he still made a game of it.
From the Web, Komito had downloaded precise instructions on how to find the bird: "Turn right at the bottom of the hill and go through the campground. Where the loop turns around, there is a trailhead and about four parking spaces. Park here and walk in about one-third of a mile. On the left is the lake and willows; the bird is usually on the right in mesquite."
Komito found the parking area and felt suddenly, uncharacteristically nervous. His car, for one thing, was all wrong. For years, he had rented a Lincoln Town Car on all out-of-state expeditions. This helped pigeonhole his reputation among birders as the loud wisecracker from New Jersey who barreled around in a giant land barge. For this Big Year, though, Komito had converted to midsize rentals. His thinking was simple: to stretch his travel budget, he would spend money on miles, not comfort, and a less prestigious car was cheaper than a Lincoln. Still, birding was all about classifying creatures - long-eared owls always had long ears, and short-eared owls always had short ears - and now he was abruptly changing his own personal field mark. Was the birding world ready for Sandy Komito, Ford Taurus man?
There was another complication. All four parking spaces were filled; more cars perched along the narrow shoulder of the park road. The other vehicles had telltale stickers: Sacramento Audubon, Tucson Audubon. Komito wondered: Am I late? I hope I'm not too late.
The trail wasn't exactly a trail. It looked more like a hard-packed cattle run - and smelled like it, too. Meadowlarks darted through the brush, but Komito ignored them. He had only one bird on his mind.
Three hundred yards up the path, two men were crisscrossing the mesquite. They looked as if they were searching for something - a lost hat, maybe, or even a flower or a butterfly. Komito guessed otherwise.
"Have you seen the bird?" he called to them.
"No," one replied.
Komito loved it. In the brambles of the Arizona desert, he had found complete strangers who understood, and spoke, his intentionally vague language.
Though Big Years were intensely competitive, Komito preferred to join a gaggle chasing rare species. Sure, working in a crowd meant that many people would identify and list the same bird. But to Komito, all these other people were more than just birders. They were witnesses. Top birders have closely watched each other for years, and many suspected some of fraud. In fact, the nastiest, most personal fights in the history of North American birding had come over disputed sightings.
Komito had no time during a Big Year to slog through one of those quagmires, but he did expect at some point to come face-to-face with questionable characters. In a contest built on trust, credibility was like virginity - it could be lost only once. Komito wanted more than a Big Year record. He wanted a Big Year record that was bulletproof.
Up the trail, other birders worked the scrub. Komito recognized two.
Dr. Michael Austin was a general practitioner who had moved a few years ago from his native Ontario to South Texas to get easier shots at hard birds. His strategy had worked: now he had seen more species than all but fifteen birders on the continent. While Komito was watching the sun rise over breakfast at Denny's, Austin was already out in the field, searching for the flycatcher.
The other birding acquaintance coursing the brush was Dr. Craig Roberts, an emergency-room physician from Tillamook, Oregon. Roberts was an intense man who, in the birding version of machismo, told others how he had spent hours memorizing tapes of birdsongs and chip notes. When Komito told jokes, Roberts rolled his eyes.
Behind a bush Komito saw one member of the search party pointing a Plexiglas dish; the contraption was supposed to amplify faraway birdcalls. So far, no luck. Komito tilted back his head to scan the high mesquite branches. His neck was so accustomed to this exercise that it had bulged in size from fourteen and a half inches to seventeen inches. Among birders, this peculiar condition was known as warbler neck - spending too much time looking up at treetops for darting songbirds.
Suddenly somebody hollered, "I've got the bird!"
Komito ran. His binoculars slapped his chest. What if the bird flew off? His cross-continent hunt closed to its last hundred yards. His stomach knotted. He ran harder.
Bird still there?
Now he was close. The last thing he wanted was to scare it off. Gasping, sweating, heart pounding, he edged ahead on tiptoes.
Twenty feet in front of Komito was Craig Roberts. Twenty feet in front of Roberts was a drab bird perching and darting among the thicket. Komito quickly positioned himself with the sun at his back and raised his binoculars. He knew Roberts, a gifted scout of obscure species, was unlikely to misidentify the bird. Still, the Nutting's flycatcher did look strikingly similar to the ash-throated flycatcher, a far more common bird. Like a cop homing in on a stakeout suspect, Komito hurriedly searched for the distinguishing characteristics - a browner face, rounder head, shorter bill, yellower belly.
Then the bird sang.
That call clinched it. Komito grabbed the Nikon from his backpack and rattled off a dozen shots on slide film.
The bird was his, with witnesses and photographic proof. He pulled out a palm-size notebook and wrote: Nutting's. 1/1/98. Patagonia, Arizona.
He wanted to whoop with joy, but that might scare the bird.
His intensity melted. He stepped back and marveled at the scene around him.
A throbbing, twitching pulse of thirty people had emerged from the mesquite with a collection of the world's finest optics - Leica, Zeiss, Swarovski, and Kowa - and encircled the flycatcher. Cameras cascaded with clicks and flashes and whirs. This bird had paparazzi.
The irony was hard to resist. In Nogales, the INS had assigned one thousand Border Patrol agents to keep Mexicans out of the United States. But put wings on a lone migrant no larger than a Lonsdale cigar and dozens of people across America formed a pilgrimage to greet it.
Many birders remained with the flycatcher, savoring their glimpses of such a rarity and swapping stories with old friends. Though these postdiscovery klatches were one of the main reasons why Komito loved birding, he glanced at his watch.
Even on the first morning of the first day of his Big Year, Sandy Komito knew time was slipping away. He hustled back to his Ford Taurus.
Al Levantin had waited forty years for this day. When he toiled in the lab, mixing the chemicals that won two patents for the company, he waited. When he flew one hundred thousand miles a year to sell products for the company, he waited. When he moved his family overseas for seven years to run the European division for the company, he waited. He waited during the weeks when he worked sixty hours, and he waited during the weeks he worked eighty. He waited for his two baby boys to grow into men, and he waited for his wife to become a grandmother.
Now the waiting was over.
He had set his alarm for 6 A.M., but he already lay awake. He looked out the bedroom window. Though the moon was barely a sliver, it was bright enough to reveal the outline, just beyond his aspen stand, of Snowmass ski mountain. He didn't want to wake his wife, so he didn't turn on the bedroom light. It was dark, but he knew where he was going.
Today he would set out on his quest to break the North American birdwatching record.
From his closet he grabbed a sweater and headed for the kitchen. Levantin lived in a spectacular home. Built on seven timbered acres along a ridge of the Elk Mountains near Aspen, the house was one of those architectural marvels that appeared to ramble across several county lines while still feeling all warm and intimate on the inside. The hallway and dining-room floors were made of brown flagstone, with hot-water pipes beneath to keep naked toes cozy even in the depths of a Colorado winter. You couldn't move anywhere in this house - the stairway, a hallway, an office area - without passing some vast window with some breathtaking view. Ceilings were high and vaulted, with husky wood beams, and a fireplace gaped large enough to swallow unsplit logs. Levantin walked into his kitchen - floor of cherry planks, Sub-Zero that could ice a Volkswagen - and fired up the coffeemaker. It had taken eighteen months to build this place, six more than planned, but the results were worth it. Sometimes there were perks for waiting.
He picked up his Leica binoculars and Kowa scope and followed the covered outdoor passageway to the garage. No fresh snow last night. From an elevation of nine thousand feet, stars seemed to spill everywhere.
The gate at the end of the road opened automatically when his Audi approached. He goosed the gas. He wanted to be in a certain spot before the sun edged over the Continental Divide.
Levantin had Highway 82 all to himself. Most people in the Roaring Fork Valley did not rise before dawn. Some didn't sleep before dawn.
Excerpted from The Big Year by Mark Obmascik Copyright © 2004 by Mark Obmascik. Excerpted by permission.
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