Recollection: Lost Among the Birds

Neil Haward LostAmong The Birds

It is dog agility weekend which means I have plenty of extra time on my hands.  That also means I can finally get a post out that I’ve had in the queue for a large part of this year.  It may be surprising to know that book reviews are one of the most time consuming topics when it comes to to my efforts here at Intrigued.  Photography posts are pretty straight forward – root through the massive image queue, find a set of shots my readers might find interesting, process them up and then do what I enjoy most, write about the experience.  Book reports (wow, that sounds so grade school ha), do not have the image work beyond one or two quick snaps with my camera phone, but what it lacks in processing, it more than makes up for in recollection time.  I spend a lot of capital on the takeaways, the concepts, quotes, thought provoking elements etc. that was gained from the investment in time with the author.  Today’s feature recollection was so full of takeaways I was hesitant to start on it until there was plenty of time to really do it justice – so there the book sat on my desk, right next to my computer taunting me each and every day for a little more than 11 months.  Today’s the day I address this visual guilt.

As an avid reader, you soon realize there are times when you turn the last page of book and immediately think to yourself “that time investment was only slightly better than watching paint dry.  Other times you might come away with a few good nuggets that make the investment worthwhile.  Every once in a while, a book comes along that has a tremendous impact, influence and/or entertainment value.  These time are easily identifiable by the shock of finality when you turn the last page.  Almost a feeling of sadness knowing the strong bond you just made with an author has come to an end.  There are only a few books that have led to this feeling.  The Lone Survivor is one that comes immediately to mind (and some of the horror stories I was insatiably reading in grade school resulting in a warning to my parents from a snowflake teacher, but I’ll let that go for now).  Now I can add another one to that distinguished list, Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year by Neil Hayward.  This novel was found at the Laguna Atascosa NWR gift shop.  I like to try and help out the various birding locations we visit especially when the visit results in new checks on the bird list – and Laguna has provided me a multitude of +1’s over the years.  Admittedly, before finding and reading this book I wasn’t aware of who Neil was.  The title looked interesting and who wouldn’t want to read about someone’s Big Year.  Figured it would be an interesting read for the long ride back at the close of vacation.  Little did I know at the time, how much I would look forward to turning these pages.  Every page was a mixture of new bird knowledge, a better understanding of what it takes to try and get the most bird species checked in a single year (called a big year for the non-birders out there), personal exploration and laugh out loud humor (note, that humor may be more in tune within birding circles).  A little background on Neil.  He is a graduate of Cambridge and Oxford with a  PhD in biology – the fruit fly nervous system to be exact.  From this foundation he spent 11 years in a successful startup before deciding he needed to find himself… or at least better understand the depression that was taking over his life.  A knowledgeable birder he decided to embark on a Big Year, although, I would characterize it as a Big Year found him rather than the other way around.  One thing led to another and next thing he knew he was earning frequent flyer miles at a record pace traveling all over North America in search of new species to check off.

It is on this adventure you learn about the depression that was taking root in his soul.  At first reluctant to admit it, he slowly comes to grip with it while spending time on the best psychology couch there is –  Mother Nature’s office. Through birding he learns to understand his mental state and reveals his thoughts to the reader as he progresses through the year, discovering himself almost as fast as he was finding new species.  Along with this mental journey, Neil takes you to his most memorable birding spots, many of which Linda and I have also been to making the read all the more personal – a weird combination of elation knowing you have experienced the same bird coupled with a swell of envy as he tracks down a rarity.  Through it all you begin to realize what a saint his new girlfriend (Gerri) must be to put up with his idiosyncrasies, unbelievable amount of time away from home and his inability to commit to the relationship in stark contrast to the commitment he had to those with feathers.  This book had such an impact on me that I immediately went to Amazon and had a copy sent to my brother Ron knowing he would enjoy it just as much as I did.  Maybe he will give his opinion of the read in the comments.  I do not want to ruin the book in case you are intrigued enough to pick it up yourself, but I will reveal he does get an incredible amount of birds -in fact he had more birds checked off in the first month than I have on my life list after years of birding.

In summary, if you are a birder and want to learn what it takes to compete at a Big Year level, then get this book.  If you are not a birder but want to have a better understanding of what drives these crazy bird people, then get this book.  If you want to read about the power Mother Nature can have on the human mind, then get this book.  If nothing else, you simply want an enjoyable read, escape from the new world order of polarizing politics and crave some laughter to your life, then by all means consider Neil’s work as just the thing.  Oh, almost forgot.  If you are a birder, you will want to check out the listing in the back which has the chronological order of every species he found and where.  Like me, you will probably find some places to add to your travel plans.

By the way, one of reasons this book caught my eye in the gift shop is that Neil had signed it!

Neil Haward Lost Among The Birds

Hit the jump to see my takeaways – note, there are some spoilers in there, so if you are considering picking up a copy for yourself, you might want to wait to read these until after you have had a chance to feel the remorse when you turn the last page.

Here are my takeaways:

  • For a birder, lists are key – he wanted to to the list of what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life list
  • Mentions the cost of a big year is prohibitive for most people – I would also include the time aspect.
  • He summarizes the experience – 250K miles, 55 rental cars, 28 states, 6 provinces, 56 airports, 15 days on boats, 195 days on the hunt
  • Quit his job as a managing director of a successful biotechnology start up company after 11 years in 2012
  • Went to Cambridge and Oxford with a PhD in fruit fly nervous system
  • Notes birders are really birding habitats
  • References the movie Piranha 3D – apparently I am not the only one to see that movie ha!
  • I definitely need to get to Madera Canyon – lost track of how many birds he got there, but my brother was able to show based on his full big data analysis he made of Neil’s entire big year.  Quite impressive (both Ron’s software Sliver and the resulting trek that Neil took over that year)
  • Birders spend an inordinate amount of time trying to identify one another – so true, but we not only identify them, we size them up
  • Birders are superstitious – decide to give up and assuredly it will show up after you leave (recommend convincing other birders in the group to be “sacrificial lambs” and agree to leave first)
  • On the bird awesomeness scale, he puts the Red-Flanked Bluetail as a ten
  • American Birding Association listing range extends 200 miles offshore – pelagics are critical
  • For those who have seen The Big Year, he noted Attu was abandoned by the US Coast Guard ~1999
  • There are very few things more satisfying that finding a new bird and showing it to someone you care about
  • He has a great assessment of birders vs photographers – for some reason a conversation I keep getting in the middle of.  His summary made me laugh out loud – Photographers annoy birders by allegedly (his word) getting too close to a bird causing harassment to get the killer shot where they view birders as a group of nutcases obsessed with lists and think knowing Latin names makes them superior
  • He mentioned a place called High Island/Boy Scout Woods near Galveston – been down there a number of times now and never heard of it
  • Laughed a second time when he stated “He hadn’t expected Americans would be so damn friendly – it was incredibly annoying and very rude” – and noted how ridiculously sensitive they are – I prefer the snowflake comparison
  • American Birding Association (founded in ’68) set Big Year Guidelines – continental US plus Alaska and Canada plus the 200 miles of sea that bordered it – note, I believe they have now added Hawaii.  They also allow a tick if you recognize their sound and don’t actually see it – Ron and I do NOT allow this clear CHEAT for our own counts
  • Neil pointed out that Ken Kaufman who is well known to birders wrote a book called Kingbird Highway about his big year when he was 16 got 666 birds without a driver’s license – I need to pick up this book
  • Noted with disgust that James M. Vardaman broke the big year record by buying it (Kaufman was one of those individuals he bought to help – outspending his year by >43K
  • Brought up The Big Year movie about Sandy Komito who is NOT a fan of that movie mainly due to the fact there was never a competition between the three main characters because birding is a personal endeavor.
  • Like me, he though the birder flag should be green and white – the colors of the US Border Patrol – if you spend time in Texas hitting the birding hot spots, you will constantly see them patrolling on land, air and river – even pointed out the water bottles left along the border by different groups to aid the illegals in their crossing
  • Sax-Zim, a place we almost went to in Minnesota has 359 bazillion mosquitoes to every birder – hey Ron, imagine if that were ticks (at one point he had to deal with over 20 ticks embedded on him at once!)
  • Considers the most prized and secretive bird of North America the Connecticut Warbler
  • Rarities are the key to a successful big year – without them, you do not have a chance
  • Swore he would never go to Nevada and get the Snowcocks checked … he did
  • In 1900 Congress passed the Lacey-Act banning non-native bird imports
  • He became a citizen of the US – the legal way.
  • Birders always have one nemesis bird – at the moment I have two – the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker and the Prothonotary Warbler – I have tried and tried to get those in the tin and each time I cannot seem to locate them.  They also have a spark bird that triggers their love for birding (mine was the Whooping Crane)
  • The birding technique at Gambell was to line up and walk forward until you flushed something – always think of these examples when I am listening or reading articles going on and on about how bad it is to even have a bird look at you
  • Need to read more about Paul Lehman – apparently he is the most knowledgeable of US birders.
  • There appears to be something called the Naked Big Year (done by Olaf Danielson) – yeah, it’s what just popped in your head. Olaf also wrote book entitled Boobies, Peckers and Tits which is a complete theft of a birding cartoon I made for Ron
  • Hey, someone is following my list approach – must get a photograph before counting it – an individual Isaac Sanchez smoked me with 601 in ONE YEAR – wow.
  • Neil even mentioned the Brownsville dump in search of the Tamaulipas Crow – we both struck out
  • Another laugh out loud moment “I was shocked when I first discovered that there were people who like meeting new people”
  • He had read somewhere that one of the secrets to happiness is setting goals for yourself – I slightly correct that to say the secret to happiness is achieving goals you have set,  I am definitely in the goal setting camp and usually they take a toll on me until I make it to the end at which point total happiness and get back to setting a new goal

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