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The Real Birdwatchers Behind Hollywood's 'Big Year'

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The Real Birdwatchers Behind Hollywood's 'Big Year'


The Real Birdwatchers Behind Hollywood's 'Big Year'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The movie "Moneyball" is just one new film based on a true story. That one is about baseball's Oakland Athletics. This weekend, an even more ambitious Hollywood film opens about the competitive sport of birdwatching.

And Mark Urycki of member station WKSU reports that the real story is just as improbable as making a studio comedy about the thrills of spotting birds.

MARK URYCKI, BYLINE: Director David Frankel had just made "The Devil Wears Prada" and was about to start filming "Marley and Me" when he was pitched the idea of a movie on birdwatching. His reply was oww...

DAVID FRANKEL: That was my first reaction. And, of course, that was the studio's first reaction. There's a lot of, you know, downcast eyes and sideways glances and, you know, eyebrows shooting up.

URYCKI: The pitch was based on the 2004 non-fiction book "The Big Year." It followed three men who set out to find the greatest number of bird species in North America for the calendar year 1998. In birding circles, that's called doing a big year. Many birders have a goal of spotting 700 species in their lifetimes. These guys were each trying to find 700 in one year.

One of them was Greg Miller. Was he surprised when he heard Hollywood was turning his story into a movie?

GREG MILLER: I said, yeah.

URYCKI: Miller grew up a Mennonite in the Amish country of Ohio. He started birdwatching with his father when he was just a pre-schooler. In the late '90s he wasn't planning a big year because he was working a full-time job as a computer coder, working to eliminate Y2K bugs. But then he received his final divorce papers on December 31, 1997.

MILLER: In 1998, I decided rather than wallow - I'm an emotional guy, so rather than wallowing around in self-pity I would go birdwatching to keep myself distracted, because it's something that totally takes me away. I walk into a woods and my regular life just fades away.

URYCKI: The two other real life birders portrayed in the movie were both born in the Bronx. Both were well-off, retired businessmen. At first Miller didn't' know that others were also out to set the record that year.

MILLER: By May, I found out about another guy who was probably doing a big year but never admitted it. And then it was mid-summer when I found out about the second guy. And both those guys, Al Levitan and Sandy Komito, had done terrifically well and I realized I had serious competition that year.

URYCKI: In the film, the characters based on Levitan and Komito are played by Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.


OWEN WILSON: (as Kenny Bostick) Ever get the feeling you're being followed?

STEVE MARTIN: (as Stu Preissler) Hello, master.

WILSON: (as Kenny Bostick) How are you doing, Stu? Still filling those weekends, I see, unless you and your son here are doing a big year.


MARTIN: (as Stu Preissler) Oh, Kenny Bostick, this is my friend Brad Harris who is also not doing a big year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Big-footed goose. Big-footed goose, other end of the boardwalk.

MILLER: Both of them were wealthy. Both of them had the whole year. And there was me literally working on my contract to pay for my next trip; maxing out five credit cards, borrowing from my parents, scraping to make ends meet, doing things on the cheap.

URYCKI: Greg Miller is a man who probably gets more hugs per mile than any man I've ever met.

Mark Obmascik is the author of the book, "The Big Year." He says the lovable, roly-poly Miller spent days in the Dakotas living off of nothing but a jar of peanut butter and a bag of pretzels. But all three men had to rush all over the continent whenever someone spotted a rare bird.

MARK OBMASCIK: These guys talked about how they would fly from Baltimore, you know, all the way to Southern California, with hopes of seeing a gull. And the longest part of that trip is the rush from the car out to where the bird has been seen.


OBMASCIK: You don't want to fly thousand of miles and spend hundreds of dollars to be able to see a bird, only to have it leave just as you arrive. Every hard-core birder has got a horror story about that sort of story.


WILSON: (as Kenny Bostick) She took off, headed north, probably be in Iceland by Friday. Boy she was a beaut, too.

MARTIN: (as Stu Preissler) Hey, is that a Calliope?

WILSON: (as Kenny Bostick) Nah. Sorry to disappoint you boys, again.

URYCKI: To get more than the 675 birds native to North America, the men went to well-known spots where storms would blow in non-native species, called vagrants. One so-called bird funnel is in Alaska. In fact, Miller and Sandy Komito ended up at the same time on Attu, the western-most Aleutian Island, where a big storm is always blowing in.

MILLER: You're in a very remote place. We had 70 mile an hour winds blow in from the west, from Asia, for three days in a row. And it started raining birds out of the sky so there were Olive-backed Pipits falling out of the sky.


JACK BLACK: (as Brad Harris) There's going to be a major fallout in a few hours.

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (as Bill Clemont) Nuclear fallout?

BLACK: (as Brad Harris) Bird fallout.

MILLER: Some of the more rare species that we saw there included Oriental Greenfinch. There was a Great Knot, which was a first for that island and a good record.

URYCKI: Greg Miller saw 212 species in one day. Despite the competition and some gaming among the three, author Mark Obmascik says the birders did help each other. And what's more remarkable, their lists are tabulated strictly on the honor system.

OBMASCIK: I mean at one point Al Levitan told me. He said, You know, in a big year there's no trophy; there's no cash price; there's no parade. Why do you do a big year? If you cheat in a big year who are you cheating?

URYCKI: In the end, all three men recorded more than 700 species that year. Birders now believe the combination of unusual weather patterns and the easier air travel of the day make for a record that will never be broken.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki in Akron.

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