Expert Opinion: Bird Watcher vs. 'The Big Year'

on October 21, 2011 by Greg Neise

bigyearexpertopinion.pngGreg Neise works as a Web Developer for the American Birding Association.

I grew up in kind of a messed-up Hollywood show business house. My father was an actor and my mother was a dancer. I was born in Hollywood and moved to Chicago when I was 7. Birding started out as just a way to get out of the house and away from my parents when I was 8, 9 years old. It quickly grew into a passion and I've been doing it ever since. I remember the bird that tipped me over: it was a red-breasted nuthatch in Lincoln Park in Chicago.

The Big Year competition is the American Birding Association's baby. The ABA is who you submit your list to, who vets the list and who publishes the list. When Owen Wilson's face is on a magazine, that's our magazine. We have well over 10,000 members. I don't know how many birders there are in America. Audubon says it's like 46 million or something like that. I don't know where the hell they got that, but I don't think that's right. I would say it's up in the millions. Tens of millions, I don't know, but it's way up there.

I know birders who are very wealthy business people, I know one birder who's homeless and lives in his car and drives around birding. I know teenagers, I know housewives, I know professionals, writers, an auto mechanic. There really is no stereotype. If you saw 15 of them in a park, besides that they're all looking at birds, you'd find no common thread between them. They don't even all have patience. Even though the patient ones are better, and by better, I mean they have more complete life lists.

The whole movie is based on a completely true story, a book called The Big Year by Mark Obmascik who was a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. He was actually one of the reporters who broke the Columbine story and won a Pulitzer for it. In 1998, Sandy Komitowho's actually mentioned in the moviewas doing his second Big Year. He was trying to get a record that no one else could beat, and unbeknownst to him, two other guysGreg Miller and Al Levantinwere also doing Big Years.

The 1998 Big Year was the most interesting one ever done. And the movie got the reason exactly right: it was because of El Niño. A series of storms pushed a lot of birds around. A storm heading west just dumped all of these Asian birds on Attuthey had more North American records that year than any place has ever had.

I went to see The Big Year with a few other ABA members and a bunch of birders and after the movie, we hung out for a little while and talked about it. Across the board, we thought, "Well done." There were, of course, a lot of cringe moments and stuff that we thought they got wrong. Some of it was just laughablethey were so stupid that I wondered if the editors threw them in just to poke at all the people they knew would notice.

For example, in one of the scenes, they're transitioning into Attu, Alaska. I forget if it's John Cleese or Jack Black narrating, but they're talking about all the fantastic birds that you see there. And while this is going on, there's pictures of birds flashing past. Stuck in the middle is a pair of mangy domestic ducks. Like barnyard ducks. We're sitting there with 15 or 20 birders and you could hear when that picture flew past a loud collective gasp. Everyone went, "What!?" They had people there who know better than that who I know were working on the movie. It makes me think that they must have thrown it in just as a jab at people like me.

The number one cringe moment was how everyone who was out birding was imitating birds as they were walking around. They're making whistle notes or going "Koo! Koo!" or whatever. We just don't do that. Ever. We use iPods. Mine has about 2,000 birdcalls and songs on it. They aren't mixed into my regular musicbirdcalls gets its own iPod. We wouldn't want Twisted Sister blaring out by accident. Ten years ago, we used cassette recorders, those '70s-style cassette recorders that strap around your neck.

And when Rashida Jones, the love interest, is making birdcalls and Jack Black is trying to guess them, we don't do that. Not even as foreplay. Considering that my wife isn't into birding, absolutely not. My wife is a photo stylist and if I came at her making noises like that, that would be...interesting.

One of the neat things about birding is you can take it to whatever level you want. For years when I was a kid, I birded at a large park across the street from me in Chicago and I never got bored with it. Everything changes with the seasons. And then as I got older, I ventured further afield.

The farthest I've ever gone to see one bird was flying from Chicago to Delaware for a day to see a white-winged tern, a European bird that was at a little creek. I went up there on a Friday night and came back on a Sunday. I almost didn't see it. I was 13 and I just took off without telling my mom. A friend of mine who I went with bought the ticket for me. We didn't have a whole lot of parental guidance in my house. My mother wasn't so pissed at the fact that I went to Delawareshe was pissed that I spent the money on my ticket before she was able to get a hold of it. I was working at the museum at the time making $100 bucks a week, and I took the money that I was supposed to take home and give to my mother for the house and just said, "Screw it," and bought a ticket to Delaware.

Greg Miller, the Jack Black character, was an Amish kid from Ohio. His dad was a birder and just like in the movie, his parents lent him a lot of money, he maxed out half a dozen credit cards. At one point, he lived for two weeks on a jar of peanut butter and a few bags of pretzels, just like you see Jack Black eating in the movie. All the character traits in the movie are very accurate. But unlike Brian Dennehy, his dad supported him 110 percent.

Sandy Komito was known for wearing a lot of flashy clothing, just like the Owen Wilson character. He had a pair of purple polyester pants that he called Mr. Pants, and during the '98 Big Year, at the end of the Attu trip, somebody took the pants, removed the windsock at the airport, and put his pants up there. His pants were flying up there at the airport on Attu for three years before they finally shredded and came down. Unlike in the movie, Komito's wife totally supported him. But it made for a good story. It some ways, it made the story better.

The Steve Martin character was based on Al Levantin, who was a big business CEO, lives in Aspen, very wealthy. Both Komito and Levantin were very wealthy. I think Komito's Big Year costand this is off the top of my head, I don't think this number is correctsomewhere around $130,000. And Miller, who came within 30 birds of him, spent $35,000.

There's very few people who spend thousands of dollars traveling around America to see birds like what the people in this movie did on a percentage basis. I don't know how many people in a given year will try a Big Year, maybe as many as three or four or five. There's a guy named John Vanderpool who's doing one right now [Editor's note: as of September, he'd spotted 711 birds].

I know Sandy, who's still the current record-holder at 748 birds. I've talked with Greg Miller and I've never met Al Levantin. I've interviewed Sandy for my blog a few times. They got the character pretty goodSandy is a character. He's very driven. He's 80 years old now and can't do those things anymore, but in the 1998 Big Year, Sandy was ruthless. He was out there to see every single bird and it didn't matter where it was or when it was. He was chasing them down. There was one scene in the movie where Owen Wilson kind of faked them out at the ferry landing and sent Jack Black and Steve Martin to the wrong placethat kind of thing never happened. But, you know, we should start doing that.

One scene that sticks out in my mind is when Jack Black accused Owen Wilson of cheating in a roundabout way. Not to his face, but he's talking about him behind his back. A couple scenes later, Steve Martin finds Owen Wilson and a guide making bird calls and something calls back. The guide's like, "There it is! I'm counting it!" And Owen Wilson's like, "But we didn't see it. How do you know it wasn't some other joker out here imitating it the way we are?" That's the kind of guy Komito is. There's no cheating. It's all done on the honor system and you have to have a pretty high level of integrity to do a Big Year. All three of these guys worked really hard to make sure their list was rock solid.

Komito did get into a fight with the owner of the boat, played here by Anjelica Huston. There really is a woman in California who changed her name to Debi Love Shearwatera shearwater is a kind of bird that lives out in the oceanso they created the Annie Auklet character based on Debi Shearwater. And with the exception of pulling the knife on Owen Wilson, her character was pretty close. She wore her hair in pigtails like that and definitely commandeered her boat. But she's very, very nice and she runs, quite frankly, the best pelagic trips on the west coast. People go there and see just incredible birds on her trips.

So yeah, all of these characters were based on real people with the exception of the blogger. I'm a bird blogger and a lot of my friends and people I work with are, as well. But the blogger in the movie, we were all like, "What the hell was that about?" He's a creepy little guy who follows the Owen Wilson character around and he's sort of a gossip columnist. He didn't have binoculars on. He dressed like he was sipping coffee in Central Park. The whole persona was just wrong.

I don't know that I could have cast better actors for these roles, including Anjelica Huston. Seth Rogen might have been able to do the Jack Black character pretty well, but I think Jack Black probably did it a little better than he might have. Steve Martin was perfect for the Levantin character. As for Komito, strangely enough I could see Billy Crystal pulling that off. Crystal looks a lot like Komito. And Komito's from New Jersey. He's got a real New York accent and attitude. Owen Wilson has his own character that he brings into movies, kind of the same way that Cary Grant did. Billy Crystal kind of morphs a little more, but I think Owen Wilson was a great choice.

As for the people in their lives not understanding why they were spending so much energy on birds, we get that all the time. I think my wife gets it now. The first three years, she didn't quite get what was going on there. But she's fully behind it and she likes the stories. But we have a hell of a lot of fun. I'm doing a Big Year of sorts this year. Instead of doing a Big Year, you can do a Big Day and see how many species you can find on one day in a given area. There's competitions for the most in one day in a given month, so a friend of mine and I are doing a Big Day for each month and seeing if we can break 12 records in a row. I was just invited to a dinner at a very, very expensive restaurant in Chicago on somebody else's dime in appreciation for something we did, and I had to tell them I couldn't do it because I had to be in bed at 6 o'clock that Fridaywe start our Big Day at midnight on Saturday morning. And they're just shaking their heads like, "What are you doing?"

What is it about birds? Well, for one thing, unlike plants, they change a lot more often. You can see the same trees, the same wildflowers, in the same place every year. The excitement of birding is that it's a treasure hunt: the thing that you're looking for is trying to get away from you. And it's not so much about where it is, but what it is. The challenge becomes to identify what you're seeing. Walking through a city park during migration, you can find a huge oak tree with 150 birds all hopping around in it. You're going through and picking out the common ones really fast, and then pushing them aside and finding the rare ones. Or just enjoying the common ones, because they'll be gone in a week.

I have a favorite bird: the common nighthawk. For one thing, they're around all the time in the spring and summer. The nest in cities. They're about the size of a pigeon, but they feed by catching insects in the air at night. They're attracted to lit billboards and streetlights. If you've ever driven down the highway at night and seen a bunch of birds around a billboard, those are probably nighthawks. When I was a kid, my mentor and I found a nest of nighthawks in downtown Chicago. I'll always have a soft spot for nighthawks.

I'm working on a story where I'm going to review the reviewers of The Big Year. Most of the reviewers just don't get it. They don't know what this movie's about, they really didn't know what they were watching and why. Some of the reviewers came at it like, "Good god! This is one of the most boring movies I've ever seen!" There was a lot of that. One guy said something like, "The only thing more boring than a competitive birding movie is competitive spoon-bending." Actually, it's a hell of a lot more exciting that professional golf. And the reviewers all just missed the fact that these guys were just having a hell of a lot of fun. And the movie had a message that the winner always has to give up something. In some way, the winner is always the loserthe losers can very often win.


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Tags: Expert Opinion, The Big Year

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