In 2004, Mark Obmascik suddenly burst onto the birding scene with the release of his first book, The Big Year—and his fame escalated when Hollywood made it into a movie in 2011. But that was then and this is now. The Denver-based journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, father, and drop-of-a-hat birder still keeps plenty busy. At age 44, he pursued his own kind of Big Year, summiting all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains, as related in Halfway to Heaven, which won a National Outdoor Book Award in 2009. Obmascik’s most recent book, The Storm On Our Shores, delves into the human and military history of Attu, the Alaskan island prominently featured in The Big Year which haunts the hearts of veteran birders and soldiers alike. In this spirited Birding interview, Obmascik gushes over an avian spectacle at 14,286 feet, ponders his prospects in the ultimate listing club, and admits that movie endings can sometimes come true.
Birding: First, take us back: How did The Big Year come into being? Mark Obmascik: I was a reporter at The Denver Post who had just spent six months cover-ing the Columbine High School massacre, and I was switching assignments to cover a U. S. Senate race between two guys who didn’t like each other. To stay sane, I needed a break. At the time, the ABA was just down the road in Colorado Springs, so one day I called and asked: Whaddya got? What they had was a New Jersey industrial contractor who had spent a year of his life chasing birds. When I learned that the contractor had competed in a Big Year against a Fortune 500 executive with a home on the slopes near Aspen and a recently divorced software coder from a Maryland nuclear power plant, I was into it. Much of my journalism career had been writing about people at their worst—murderers, rapists, polluters, politicians. This was a chance to write about people I actually liked. Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller were grown-up Tom Sawyers—adventurous, joyful, and really fun to be around. Life is full of compromises, but these three men had surrendered to their one obsession and decided to live a full year with the brakes off. The story had great elements—three very interesting people trying to beat the clock and each other in a crazy travelogue of spectacular wilderness and sewage plants. Plus, there were birds. How could any writer resist?
The Big Year has been published in ten countries and eight languages so far, with eye-catching cover designs that range from Monty Python’s Flying Circus-type humor in Britain to a ferocious eagle in The Netherlands. Images courtesy of Mark Obmascik.
Birding: Were you interested in birds and birding before writing that book? MO: I was more interested in birders than birds, but the more time I spent in the field with birders, the more I came to love the winged world. Bird migration is an incredible phenomenon that for many people remains hidden in plain sight. The whole notion that an iridescent creature the size of my pinkie—so light that I could mail 10 for the price of a first-class postage stamp—has flown from Guatemala to Denver to sip nectar in our backyard is mind-blowing. Birds change the way you look at the world. Birds also tie the world together. How we safeguard a mountain meadow in June in Colorado determines whether Argentina will see offspring of our local nesting pair of Swainson’s Hawks in December.
Oh, the irony! Seven years after The Big Year movie ended with the discovery of a Pink-footed Goose in Colorado that had never been seen in that state, the species shocked moviegoers and birders when it actually turned up near Frederick, Colorado. Punk rock birder Tony Croasdale gave it a meme on Facebook.
Birding: How did you react when you learned that your book was going to be made into a movie? Were you happy with the way it turned out? MO: I was surprised when Simon & Schuster said they would publish a book about competitive birdwatching. I was shocked when 20th Century Fox said they would make a movie. Our family had a blast visiting the movie set in Vancouver, where we met the director David Frankel, as well as Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. I’m pretty sure our three sons have never posted a picture of me on Facebook or Instagram, but I’m confident all have posted pictures of themselves with Jack Black and Rashida Jones. Though the movie was no box-office smash, I have been thrilled with the lasting results. Many, many people have told me they became interested in birds and birding be-cause of The Big Year book and movie. That is really rewarding.
To improve the accuracy of bird information in the movie, I urged the director to hire Greg Miller as a consultant. Greg successfully lobbied for numerous changes for the better, but the director remained insistent on ending the movie with the discovery of a Pink-footed Goose in Colorado. We told the director that a Pink-footed Goose had never been found in Colorado. Didn’t matter. The director loved the idea in the movie of adults on a wild goose chase. Sure enough, in Dec. 2018—seven years after the movie—a Pink-footed Goose showed up at a frozen reservoir near Frederick, Colorado. My favorite punk rock birder, Tony Croasdale, posted a meme on Facebook: “I remember thinking the Pink-footed Goose in Colorado scene in The Big Year was ridiculous. I was wrong.” I forwarded that to the director, who howled with laughter. Birds will always surprise you.
Birding: What’s your birding routine? MO: I stink at bird songs and I misidentify something by sight most days I’m in the field. I had outlasted the competition to record the most species on eBird in Grand County, Colorado, but then Tony Leukering topped me. I have feeders. I have a patch near my parents’ home outside Chicago. I have a patch near my in-laws’ home in Vero Beach, Florida. I join a great group of friends every May to run a semi–Big Day on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. I occasionally chase birds in my home state. My favorite chase story came more than a decade ago, when our youngest son was in kindergarten. I was visiting his school for the annual parent-and-kid Thanksgiving cafeteria lunch—cardboard turkey, wallpaper paste gravy—when I checked my phone and saw a Ross’s Gull being reported 11 miles away at Cherry Creek Reservoir. I pulled our six-year-old out of school to chase that rarity, which we found, but only after I had bribed him with one Snickers bar for the drive there and a second Snickers bar for the drive home. If birds don’t keep you humble, then birding with kids will.
Birding: Why did you decide to climb Colorado’s fourteeners? MO: I was fat, 44, and in the market for a vasectomy. I knew my body’s best days were behind me, but after watching the guys in The Big Year on a life-affirming quest, I wanted to take on my own physical and mental challenge. I set out to climb all 54 Colorado mountains over 14,000 feet in a year. My wife made me promise for safety reasons that I wouldn’t hike alone, so in desperation I did exactly what I had warned our kids against—I met total strangers on the Internet and slept with them. (In a tent, at a trailhead, with hopes of getting up a mountain together the next day.) I made some fantastic friends, saw some spectacular country, and lost 15 pounds, which I gained back while writing a book about it called Halfway to Heaven. Now I’m trying to join the ultimate listing club—people who have summited all 54 peaks and seen 400 species of birds in Colorado. The birds are harder to find.
Birding: While scaling those mountains, what was your most memorable avian encounter? MO: I was standing atop 14,286-foot Mount Lincoln with Rob Witwer, a leader of the Colorado House of Representatives who had fought to improve public access to high peaks, when a Peregrine Falcon swooped from above to try to snatch a Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. What can turn a politician speechless? A bird.
Birding: What led to your book about Attu? MO: While researching the history of Attu Island for The Big Year, I learned that a ferocious World War II battle had taken place there. This was news to me. I hadn’t known that Japan had invaded and conquered part of Alaska during World War II, or that Attu was the only ground battle of the war fought in North America, or that it was the first time U. S. soil had been lost since the War of 1812, or that the battle was so fearsome that it had a casualty rate exceeded in the Pacific War only at Iwo Jima.
Still, I am a journalist and I am more interested in the stories of people than the histories of battle. When I learned that an American war hero and an American-trained surgeon from Japan had fought each other on Attu—and that their families had later reconciled after the recovery of one soldier’s diary—I was hooked.
The ABA has close ties with The Big Year. ABA staff gave Mark Obmascik the idea for writing the book. The ABA also provided a mock Birding magazine cover of Owen Wilson as character Kenny Bostick (based on real life birder Sandy Komito), which was used as a prop in the film.
Birding: How did you manage to persuade the “60 Minutes” TV show to fly you, along with a film crew, to Attu on a special charter to examine military history? Did you bring your binocs? MO: Believe it or not—and at first I could not believe it—a trip to Attu was their idea, not mine. For a story featuring my book, The Storm on Our Shores, “60 Minutes” chartered a plane to fly a producer, photographer, and me 1,500 miles from Anchorage to Attu. The island had been mostly uninhabited for eight years, and I was told no one had landed a plane there for two years. We camped. Both nights I curled in the fetal position as my tent was flattened by williwaws—the unpredictable hurricane-force winds, fueled by the mix of cold Bering Sea currents and warmer Pacific waters, that rocket from the mountaintops to the sea in the Aleutians. When the williwaws finally eased, it was wonderful to have a lush, mountainous island 15 times larger than Manhattan completely to ourselves. No cell phone, no internet, no electricity, no noise beyond the wind and gulls. Wow.
The interviewee’s latest book focuses on the Aleutian island of Attu, which is not only rich in history, but also ripe with avian specialties and vagrants. Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
“60 Minutes” mainly wanted to visit World War II sites, so every day we hiked more than 10 miles and hauled 30 pounds of camera gear up and down the mountains. In September, there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to search specifically for birds. While hiking to foxholes and bunkers, we did come across hundreds of Song Sparrows and Lapland Longspurs. On the shores of Massacre Bay, I lucked into a few sketchy photos of unfamiliar birds that I later passed along for ID help to the ABA’s Greg Neise and Attu tour leader John Puschock. Spectacled Eider! Red-faced Cormorant! Woohoo!
Birding: What are some common threads among birders, mountain climbers, and World War II veterans? MO: Nothing compares to going to war on a remote mountainous island with some of the worst weather on Earth. Even when the storms calm, Attu is not an easy place. I cannot imagine trying to grunt through the mud and fog and ice of Attu with an enemy army shooting at me. Wars are awful, but sometimes we are forced into them to keep the freedom to do the things we enjoy, like birding and climbing mountains.
Birding: What will the next story be? MO: I’m a journalist at heart, and I like public policy. Lately I’ve been assigned to track down greed in the U. S. healthcare system. This may take a while. I’m always in the hunt for good nonfiction stories. Hit me up! Go to www.markobmascik.com
Noah Strycker is Associate Editor of Birding magazine, conducts the Birding interviews, and serves as Copy Editor for Birder’s Guide. He has authored five books about birds (Birding Without Borders, National Geographic Guide to the Backyard Birds of North America, Birds of the Photo Ark, The Thing with Feathers, and Among Penguins), works as a naturalist guide on expedition cruises to Antarctica and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, and set a world Big Year record in 2015.