Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Life and life lists

There are times I want to drop everything - job, home, even husband - and go off somewhere to do nothing but look for birds. Then reality hits and I face whatever the problem is and go on with my life.

A lot of birders, however, seem to have the financial wherewithal or the time or the pliable boss to be able to just drop everything and go wherever a rare or unusual bird is reported.

Some travel very great distances indeed. Some of them even become the subject of books.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of comment on various birding lists about a trailer for the movie “The Big Year.” It is based on the book by Mark Obmascik about three men of very different means who for very different reasons decide they want to see the most birds in a year.

The concept of the “big year” was popularized by, among others, Roger Tory Peterson, author of the famous Peterson guides that allowed anyone to be able to identify a bird through field markings (and binoculars) rather than shooting them down.

A lot of people like doing “big years” or “big days” or even “big sits” (you sit in one place for 24 hours and record what you see within a set radius). Many do it for charity, raising money for each bird they see. The World Series of Birding is one of the best-known examples, at least in New Jersey where I live.

I admit I’ve been known to take the car (with or without husband) every so often and drive to an area in the hopes of seeing something new.

But there are those who MUST see every bird on earth. In fact, there is a book, “To See Every Bird On Earth,” on that subject by Dan Koeppel. It was published in 2006, two years after “The Big Year.“ The two have a lot in common - each features a man so obsessed that birding becomes his life to the exclusion of everything else. In the Koeppel book, the author joins his father - the obsessed - on some of his travels as a way of trying to get close to him after years of estrangement. He is sympathetic to his father, even if he doesn’t exactly understand his obsession.

In the Obmascik book, there is one character so obsessed and so nasty about it you really, really hope he fails. In the movie, I discovered from the trailer, he will be played by Owen Wilson. I would’ve picked Dustin Hoffman, who reportedly was going to be in the film in a different role but left. He was replaced by Steve Martin, who will play the millionaire westerner who gets involved in the “Big Year” after he retires. (The third birder, a perpetual loser, will be played to type by Jack Black. There will be a lot of pratfalls in the film as a result.)

The obsessed character in “The Big Year” has the money and time to literally go great distances just for a few seconds to sight a bird. (It is a shock to realize you can no longer hop a plane, zip around and be back in a day in the world since Sept. 11, 2001.) His license plate reads “Skua,” apt because this is a nasty sea bird that lives by stealing fish from other birds.

These people in the book are real, I must emphasize. The character played by Owen Wilson was a featured speaker at the New Jersey Meadowlands Festival of Birding a few weekends ago, which shows he still knows how to make a buck.

He was described in the brochure I was sent as “bird chaser extraordinaire.” I call him a loser. I don’t plan on seeing the movie although I’ll be interested to read the thoughts of birders who do. (Birders will talk about anything on the bird lists until the list masters step in. The movie opens in mid-October.)

This man could’ve lost his life any number of times to break the “birds seen” record. His life must’ve meant very little to him compared to winning at any cost. This will be played to comedic effect in the movie, unfortunately.

But compare him to the person staring death in the face, such as one of my best friends. Her cancer has returned after 10 years of remission. It is the same type of cancer that killed my mother over 30 years ago. My friend has the advantage of better technology in fighting cancer, and the better attitude of “I went through it once, I can do it again” than my mother.

This is literally a matter of life and death and my friend values her life because she knows it's most important. The people who proudly boast how they travel halfway across the state - or the country, or the world - to record a bird on a "life list" doesn't know this and it shows the spirit of “The Big Year” is still very much with us.

These birders may have a big life list but, really, they have no life. I hope they get one before it’s too late.