Book Review: Full Chase Mode: Big Year of Birding in North America
By John Vanderpoel
It is now 10 years since well-known Colorado birder John Vanderpoel was doing his Big Year. The quest was to see as many species as possible in the mainland USA and Canada in 2011. You may have seen the movie, The Big Year, which also was released in 2011. That was about three birders doing the same thing in 1998, and was based on the book by Denver birder Mark Obmascik. John travelled all over North America during this year, and there are many interesting and well told stories about his adventures. The book contains detailed information on where to find many rare, but regularly occurring, birds that will be very useful to any birders seeking to build up their list of birds seen in North America. How many species did he finally see, and did he break the record? Get the book, which is much better than the movie!
John wanted his list to be “squeaky clean,” and for that purpose relied on his California friend Jon Dunn, who is the chief author of the National Geographic field guide. However, he needed to start off the year birding with people from Boulder, which is why I birded with him on the morning of January 1, and he then joined Bill Kaempfer on the Loveland Christmas bird count in the afternoon. Despite Bill and John’s stellar reputations for reliable sightings, there was some controversy in the late afternoon when a Black-headed Gull was claimed, which is extremely rare in Colorado.
In addition to a trove of birding information, the book contains a great deal of other useful information. There are numerous recommendations for good restaurants around the USA, just in case you find yourself in Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley in January, or in Nome, Alaska, in June for example. However, there is also quite a lot of philosophy and behavioral insight. How does the desire to beat the species totals of previous Big Year birders drive one on to keep going day after day? How does a Big Year birder deal with the depression of flying halfway across the country to see one particular bird only to miss it?
There is also quite a lot of humor, including John’s take on Boulder. “Stand at any point along 28th Street, throw a vegan muffin in any direction, and it’s likely to bounce off a Subaru, which is being driven at exactly the speed limit - never any faster - and always in the left lane, so no one can pass,” he states. He wasn’t quite so condescending about my Subaru on April 6 when I was driving at exactly the speed limit, but in the right lane, heading south out of Boulder. This enabled us to pull off quickly and safely onto a gravel area in order to see “The Lord of the Northern Forests,” a Northern Goshawk. As John states, “I started to whoop and holler. I could have chewed up three days this summer in Rocky Mountain National Park searching for a goshawk.”
There are stories about the huge number of people John met and birded with on his travels. Some, such as Jon Dunn and Paul Lehman, are very well known, but others will be new to everyone. Who are the Red Queen, the Queen Bee of the Western Sea, the Valley Girl, the Admiral of the Atlantic, the Black Bishop and the Hitman? Most intriguing of all, why was September 23 “Rock Dove Tours Finest Hour?” You will just have to read this book to find out.
There is something in this book for birders of all levels. Avid birders will reminisce about out of the way locations in southeast Arizona, or various islands in the Bering Sea, that they may have visited. For CFO members, there are tales from various locations in Colorado, but even people who just watch their backyard feeders and bird their local patch will find plenty to entertain themselves. It is a bit unfortunate that this book has taken so long to be published, so that many will have forgotten about John’s Big Year. I am clearly somewhat biased because I have been John’s friend for more than half my life, and I appear at several points in this book. However, I very strongly recommend that all birders should buy this book from Buteo Books. With 500 pages of very well written tales of birding in 2011, it is a true bargain at $24:95.
Peter Gent, Boulder.