Fascinating books that celebrate ‘the chase’
(published 4-22-04)

How far would you go to see a rare bird? I guess my own limit is about 110 miles. In November 1999 I drove to Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana for the chance of seeing a common crane—a vagrant Eurasian species that occurs in the United States only once in a blue moon.

According to Internet reports, a single common crane had been spotted among the hundreds of sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski a few days earlier. This was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I had to go. Fortunately, the effort paid off for me and for the throngs of other birders on the scene. I remember chatting with one guy who had just flown in from Baltimore. Yes, just to see a bird.

Telling this story is my way of admitting that I, like many birders, can be a little obsessive. We are not always rational when the chance arises to see something new—especially something rare. Still, I don’t know anybody like the main characters in “The Big Year,” a new book about three men who stop at nothing (and spare no expense) in their quest to set a new U.S. record for most bird species seen in a single calendar year.

“The Big Year” reveals a crazy, competitive side of birdwatching that bears little resemblance to the hobby as most of us know it. You might want to pick up a copy just for laughs. But when it comes to books about pursuing birds, I can highly recommend three. These stories, all published in the 1990s, will make you want to pack up the binoculars and field guides and hit the road.

“The Feather Quest” by Pete Dunne takes you on a guided tour of the country’s birding hot spots. Whether or not you’ve ever been to places like Southeast Arizona, Everglades National Park or Cape May, N.J., you’ll enjoy Dunne’s entertaining accounts. He has a way with words, to say the least. Near the end there’s a riveting chapter based on a visit with the late Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote the book’s introduction.

“Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman is another entertaining read and rates as my all-time favorite bird book. It’s the story of Kaufman’s remarkable personal mission to see as many birds as possible in a single year. But unlike the “The Big Year” characters, he carried out his plan as a teenager with no money in his pockets, hitchhiking back and forth across the country multiple times. Kaufman, like Dunne, is today about as famous as a birder can be.

“Chasing Warblers” by Bob and Vera Thornton is more obscure. It documents the authors’ attempt to find and photograph all 52 species of wood warblers in the United States. Seeing certain birds can be tough enough, but taking high-quality pictures of them is a far greater challenge. The effort behind this book is truly extraordinary. Buy it for the pictures and read it to see how the Thornton’s managed to pull it off.

All of these books are interesting and readable, in part because they are not just about birds. They’re also about the people—some birders and some not—encountered out on the open road. Each book will captivate anyone who likes birds and likes to visit new places in search of them. Happy trails.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.