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The wing nuts

Drive for miles, spot a bird. Drive for miles, spot a bird. Repeat obsessively for a year. Jon Feenstra and others did just that. It's a frenzied rush called the Big Year, Sue Horton reports, and it's all for a glorious featherweight title.

March 16, 2004|Sue Horton

"It's so nice to be able to go birding again just for pleasure," says Jon Feenstra, pausing under a California live oak to watch a foraging ruby-crowned kinglet. His words seem odd given the circumstances. It's a little after 7 a.m. on a February morning, and it is cold and gray and raining steadily. But compared to the way Feenstra birded during 2003, this is a pleasant outing.

You see, 2003 was a big year for the Caltech PhD student. More precisely, it was a Big Year.

The whole thing started with a bet. In New Jersey visiting friends and family over Christmas 2002, Feenstra bragged about the huge variety of species near his home in Pasadena.

One thing led to another and soon he'd made a wager with an old birding friend that he could see more birds in a year in Los Angeles County than the other guy could see in three eastern states of his choice during the same period.

A shot at the record

At first, Feenstra's sole goal was beating his buddy. But by midyear, the friend had moved to Arizona and abandoned the challenge, and Feenstra was beginning to realize he might have a shot at something more: a Big Year.

The idea of a Big Year in birding is simple. A birder, usually a very serious and knowledgeable one, sets out to break the record for the most birds seen in a given geographic area in a single year. The area can be as small as a city or as large as the world.

The best-known kind of Big Year is one in which a birder attempts to break the record for the most birds seen during a calendar year in the American Birding Assn.'s listing area: Canada and the United States, except for Hawaii.

In Los Angeles County, the record Feenstra faced was 344 species, set by a South Bay birder named Kevin Larson in 1993. That's a daunting number.

The county has fewer than 300 native species, so to break the record Feenstra would have to see nearly all of them and pick up dozens of casual vagrants that had gotten off course during migration and ended up outside their usual ranges.

Feenstra quickly devised a strategy. The Los Angeles Basin is well-covered by devoted birders. Whenever they spot something out of the ordinary, they're quick to let others know by leaving a message on a phone service called "the bird box," by posting on the Internet or both.

Feenstra knew that he had a good chance of piggybacking on the spottings of others if he checked frequently what had been seen in the basin. He would spend the rest of his time scouting areas that were less well-covered, bird-rich locales in the desert and mountains that might produce rarities he couldn't count on others to spot.

"I made a list of every bird it was vaguely possible to see and where it would be likely to show up if it came," he recalls.

"As the year went, I constantly recalculated my odds of seeing something, and went where the odds were best. In September, say, I'd hit the coastal migrant traps. In August I went to Piute Ponds [on Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert] twice a week."

Birders are a supportive bunch, and people wanted to help. Larson, the previous record holder, was particularly helpful, both in his ability to help plot strategy and in his willingness to call with unusual sightings.

Still, Feenstra says, the stress was intense, particularly because the pressures of being a graduate student in one of the country's best chemistry programs kept him from devoting as much time to birding as he would have liked.

A good ear

Feenstra's attempt raises a question: Why would anyone subject himself to such a grueling regimen for a record that brings little beyond respect from a small community of serious birders?

But on this rainy morning in Eaton Canyon, above Pasadena, Feenstra doesn't have to explain. He is birding with a sympathetic companion, Mark Obmascik, a Denver journalist whose recent book "The Big Year" (Free Press, 2004) chronicles the attempts of three men to break the North American Big Year record during 1998, a remarkable year for birding because of a strong El Nino current, which brought numerous rarities to North America.

Obmascik's subjects were even more obsessed than Feenstra.

One, a wealthy New Jersey contractor, spent more than $100,000 and logged 270,000 miles chasing every remarkable sighting in the American Birding Assn.'s listing area that year. Another, a young computer programmer addicted to junk food and caffeine, went deeply into debt in his run for the record. The third, a retired corporate executive, had always wanted to bird until he got his fill. And he finally did.

All three spent the year chasing rarities as they were sighted throughout North America. Each finished having seen more than 700 birds, a feat not accomplished by any birder since.

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