The Big Year, a movie about competitive birding, opened yesterday (October 14, 2011). If you consider yourself a birder, you have to go see this movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The Rottentomatoes.com web site shows that 55% of the viewers liked it and I liked it too.
I would place “The Big Year” in the same genus as a movie like “City Slickers.” This is a comedy with more smiles than belly laughs and some warm moments of bonding as we get to see the driving force behind each man’s obsession with seeing the most birds in North America in one year.
The scenery is often spectacular and there are actually plenty of bird images to enjoy. Be sure to stay seated after the movie ends to see the entire list of credits as hundreds of bird images flash by! Two friends of mine, Jeff Jones [BirdersDiary.com] and Brian Small [BrianSmallPhoto.com], are thanked for their photos on the very last page of the credits. Jeff took over Birder’s Diary from me in 2005 and Brian supplied hundreds of photos for our birding DVD. Brian’s dad Arnold was a co-founder of the American Birding Association.
As a semi-competitive birder who has birded with two of the main characters portrayed in the movie (Sandy Komito on Attu and Al Levantin in Florida), I often found myself chuckling when no one else in the theater was making a sound.
Pete Thayer and Al Levantin (2011)
In one scene the three embark on a pelagic trip into the Pacific Ocean lead by a boat captain named Annie Auklet. This is probably only funny to those of us who have actually been out with Debi Shearwater (who changed her name from Debi Love.) [shearwaterjourneys.com]
In another scene, Steve Martin (Al Levantin) tromps through a huge pile of rubbish at the Brownsville, Texas dump. I could only smile as I recalled my first birding trip in 1990 to Texas and our search for the Tamaulipas Crow at that same spot.
Pete Thayer at Brownsville, Texas dump (1990)
The super-rare birds are found on Attu, Alaska. The movie does an excellent job of recreating the look and feel of Attu. They really do ride around on old bikes chasing birds that may only have been seen once or twice (or never before) in North America. You have no idea how much your butt hurts after the first day! They even got the bunk beds and cramped quarters right – although I never saw a rat while I was there in 1992. I do remember seeing a code-4 bird (Fork-tailed Swift) while sitting in one of the outhouses. I also fondly remember sitting around the stove listening to Sandy Komito talk about his birding exploits – six years before he did the Big Year depicted in this movie. Owen Wilson plays the part of Sandy. I thought it was nice that Owen Wilson's character Bostick mentions at the beginning of the movie that he is out to break Sandy Komito's Big Year record.
The movie takes place in the present time, although Mark Obmascik’s book (re-released last month with a new cover featuring the movie poster) is actually about the 1998 Big Year in which Sandy Komito saw 745 species and Greg Miller saw 715 species. Al Levantin saw over 700 species that year (surprisingly, he is not listed in the 1998 ABA Big Day report, page 88.)
For birders afraid that this movie would make fun of them – it doesn’t. Watching this movie was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours and for me, a trip down memory lane. The Big Year certainly won’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture and if you want to see a great movie directed by David Frankel, go rent “The Devil Wears Prada.” But if you want to try to understand what makes competitive birders tick, this is the movie to see! Siskin & Egret give this movie Two Wings Up.