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Open Mic: Big Year Memories

The Big Year beat this week is covered ably by Al Levantin.  Al was one of the three birders whose 1998 ABA Area Big Year was  memorialized in the Mark Obmascik novel, The Big Year.  He lives in Snowmass Village, Colorado.


1998 was a fabulous year for me with my achieving a Big Year and celebrating the birth of two grandchildren. When I broached the idea, to my wife, of doing a Big Year, she said “Go For It!” and so began my adventure.

To see at least 700 species in the year was my goal and I surpassed that number.   My 700th species was a Himalayan Snowcock, seen by helicopter in Nevada, which came the same week that my wife, Ethel, was trekking in Nepal.  While I couldn’t celebrate in person with her, I had six close friends over for a home cooked steak dinner to share in my excitement of reaching the 700 mark.

At the end of the year, when I was ready to hang up my binoculars, I learned that a Black-tailed Gull was seen off the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel Bridge.  In spite of having Christmas week houseguests, I was able to secure a last minute airline ticket from my home in Aspen and flew to Virginia to see the bird.

BTGU3 Eric GriesonI became aware that my son, Don, had hired a woodcarver to commemorate what he  thought to be the last bird of my Big Year, a Woodcock. (Coincidently, he lives on  Woodcock Lane in Westport, CT)  To Don’s dismay, he had to quickly tell the woodcarver to make a model of a Black-tailed Gull, my 711th of the year.

photo at left by Eric Greisen, CBBT, Jan 1999

Several years later, Mark Obmascik decided to write a book about Sandy Komito and  Greg Miller’s 1998 adventures.  When Greg informed Mark that there was a third Big Year birder, the rest is history.  Not only was there the success of the book “The Big Year” about the three of us, but also 20th Century later made a fictional movie based on the book.

Just when I thought that the excitement of 1998 finally settled down, Bob Ake and Chris Hitt thought it would be fun to arrange a get-together in the Rio Grande Valley for the eleven birders who achieved the 700 mark in one year.   Meeting, trading stories, birding, recounting experiences and going together to a friend’s ranch to see a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl made for an  enjoyable four days.

What more could one ask of a hobby of almost 68 years.

Before writing this short blog, I went to a Chinese restaurant and received the following quote in my fortune cookie, “Everything you do, you do to make your heart sing”.  That says it all.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • FWIW, when I first read the intro I thought someone had “beat” Sandy K’s Big Year record. Interesting article, the Big Year get together must have been a lot of fun!

  • Ken Stewart

    I thought you might like to know what an effect your Big Year had on me. I got home from Afghanistan last October and like a lot of us Afghan vets, was feeling very restless and out of sorts. I saw the movie (I understand much of it was fictionalized) and everything kind of clicked for me. I bought a field guide and headed out with a pair of binoculars given to me by my 1st Sgt. In short, birding has changed my life. I tell people, “birding is my therapy.”

    You and Greg Miller, though I haven’t had the opportunity to meet either of you, have had a tremendous impact on my life. I am retired from the Army now and living in Monterey, Ca., where I can bird year around.

    Thanks for being an inspiration to us all.

    Ken Stewart

  • Cool story. One of the nice things about the movie is that, while much of the story was fictionalized, the personalities and depictions of birders in it are not far off the mark.

    Birding is fun, and birders are generally nice people, which makes for a pretty enjoyable time.

    Thanks for commenting, Ken.

  • Hi Ken Stewart,
    Greg Miller (one of the big year guys) here. Thank you so much for taking the time to write about how birding has helped change your life! I feel very privileged to have had some sort of positive affect on your life. Here’s wishing you many happy birding adventures in your own life!
    -Greg Miller

  • Apropos Ken Stewart’s experiences, I’d like to remind folks of the marvelous photo essay contributed to Birding a while back by Thomas Dove, who was stationed in Iraq about five years ago. His photos are among the finest we’ve published in Birding, and all were taken on the battlefield in one of the most intense theaters of the war in Iraq. Check them out here:

    And there’s more! Tom also submitted a series of 10 “mystery photos” of exceedingly hard “warblers,” all from southern Iraq. Folks at “Frontiers of Bird ID” were invited to analyze Tom’s photos, and they were stumped. Some of the most legendary names in European bird ID threw their hands up! And it had nothing to do with image quality–because, as you’ll see, the images are excellent. Instead, it’s simply that Tom put together one of the most fiendishly difficult bird IQ quizzes of all time. If you think North America’s “confusing fall warblers” are, well, confusing, wait ’til you see these! Here:

  • Something else. Both Tom Dove and I would love to know what these birds are! With help from folks at Frontiers of Bird ID, we figured out 7 or 8 of them. But not all!

    I know a lot of bird ID experts lurk, and a few actively participate in, The ABA Blog. If you’re an expert on the “warblers” of the Middle East, I hope you’ll chime in with your analysis.


  • Ken Stewart

    Greg and Nick,

    Thanking you both for responding to my post. I just joined the ABA yesterday and had no idea how connected the birding community really is.

    Both of you are an inspiration to me. Birding has been a godsend, it has allowed me to find that quiet place inside that alludes so many combat vets.

    I don’t know what it is about birding that is so appealing to me, but its effects have been dramatically positive. I went out to the Moon Glow Dairy and saw a burrowing owl and a Ruby Crowned Kinglet last weekend. What is it about a little bird with a red dot on its head that can stop the heart of someone like me? I have tried to figure it out repeatedly and failed. I just dig it.

    I am now a writer for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey where I am able to do some truly excellent birding. If either of you are ever in the area, I be honored to head outdoors with you.


    Ken Stewart

  • ken Stewart


    I got so excited, I called you Nick by accident in my last post, my apologies. Thanks again for all that you do.


    Ken Stewart

  • No worries. You're certainly not the first…

    Sent from my phone

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