Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year
by Neil Hayward
Reviewed by Craig Storti
This is a terrific book, whether you’re a birder or not. And that’s saying something; most books about birding, try as they might, just can’t manage a strong story line, something other than we found this bird and then we found that one. A book needs a story, any book, and sorry, but birds by themselves just aren’t a story. That’s why The Big Year was such a breakthrough birding book (and was even made into a movie, for heaven’s sake) because it was written by a regular guy (i.e., not a birder) and it had a story.
And Lost Among the Birds has at least three stories: Will Neil decide to do a big year or not? If he does, will he decide to go for the record? And what happens to his relationship with his girlfriend if he commits to a big year? And then there’s the added drama of deciding so late and whether he’ll be able to make up for considerable lost time.
Even then, story-rich as this book may be, you still have to care enough about this guy to stick around for the answers to these questions. And Hayward makes sure you do, with just enough personal information (but not too much; he is British after all, although he lives in Boston), typical English self-deprecation, and a way of not taking himself too seriously. Plus, he’s a very good birder, and you just have to admire his skill.
For some readers, there may be a bit too much here about his fear of commitment, but not to worry: he gets back to birds very quickly. And there are lots of them and lots of great stories. My favorite is the lengths Hayward went to get the Five-striped Sparrow, down the very bad, very remote, and not very safe Ruby Road in far southeastern Arizona. (I was there myself in June and decided to not even start down that road.)
And because he starts so late to go for the record (748, previously held by Sandy Komito of The Big Year fame, the guy played by Owen Wilson if you saw the movie)—he commits so late, you can’t imagine how he can pull this off. The tension really does build.
His biggest challenge is Alaska. It used to be you could head out to Attu, one of the most western islands in the Aleutian chain, and pick up all manner of exotics. The Big Year is fill of Attu incidents—Sandy Komito spent four weeks there—but getting to Attu is now severely restricted since the Coast Guard closed down its station there in 2010. So there’s no usable landing strip, no water, and no electricity.
Wikipedia takes up the story from there: “In a 2010 interview on the subject, Al Levantin (one of Komito’s competitors during the 1998 season) singled out the inaccessibility of Attu as the factor that would make it nearly impossible to break Komito’s record.”
Impossible? Did Neil pull it off? You’ll have to read the book to find out.