A Big Year. How would you describe it? For some, it might be getting a dream job/promotion or raise. Another might consider a Big Year as one where they travel to Paris or go in their RV through Alaska. Having a baby? That could also be a Big Year.
For Greg Miller, a computer consultant with Timken, of Canton, OH, The Big Year was 1998 and he was on a quest to identify more than 700 bird species in 365 days.
Birds? Yes, birds.
|Jack Black and Greg Miller
“I have been into birding since I was very little,” Miller said. “My mom said I was excited about seeing ducks when I was in diapers.”
His passion grew, thanks in large part to his dad, Bruce Miller, who was a veterinarian for the State of Ohio.
“He was into birding. He took binoculars with him everywhere he went,” Miller said. “I do not remember my first birding trip but I do remember my first set of binoculars. They were just huge back then. I am sure I looked silly holding a huge set of binoculars when I was seven.”
For Miller, a lifelong passion became the basis for a book titled The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, written by Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Mark Obmascik.
According to Miller, Obmascik, who was with the Denver Post at the time, decided to write a book his children would want to read.
“He had won the Pulitzer for his coverage of Columbine and he just wanted to write a book that his kids could read and be inspired by,” Miller explained. “He did research on birding, and he wanted to find out who was the most obsessed birder. He then found out about the Big Year.”
Jack Black, Steve Martin, A Big Year, in birding terms, is a competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.
“For birders, we aspire to see or hear around 700 species of birds in a lifetime,” Miller said. “Those involved in the Big Year try to do that in one year.”
In 1998, Miller, along with Al Levantin, a retired CEO/millionaire, from Colorado, and Sandy Komito, a retired millionaire/industrial roofer from New Jersey, set out to break Komito’s record of seeing/hearing 721 birds in one year.
“You really have to work to get there,” Miller said. “It is all totally on the honor system. If see or hear the bird and can identify it, it counts. The birds have to be in the wild. Birds in zoos and those that are pets do not count. The birds you report are the birds you can identify yourself. No one can tell you what it is, you have to be well studied and prepared.”
Miller traveled across the country to Alaska, Canada and the Aleutian Islands to get to his final count of 715 birds. He placed second that year, behind Komito, who recorded 748 birds.
“People spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to do this,” Miller said. “The reward is being listed in a once a year publication by the American Birding Association. I also get to travel across the country talking about a contest I did not win and sign books I did not write.”
The book was published in 2004 and Miller was featured in Sports Illustrated that year, as well.
“If I had free resources, I would do it again,” Miller said. “You have to be in good health to do all of the traveling and hiking. Second, you have to have an unreasonable amount of money at your disposal. I spent $31,000 on my Big Year, but many spend double that.”
Although he did not win, Miller did get some perks out of all of his hard work. The book became a movie that was released in 2011. Miller was called upon by the producers to act as the bird consultant.
“The book inspired the movie which is a fictional account of what happened,” Miller said. “The movie does capture the essence of the non-fiction book.”
The Big Year, stars Jack Black, who plays Miller, Steve Martin, who plays Levantin and Owen Wilson, who plays Komito.
Miller said producers flew him to Vancouver, BC, Canada, put him up in a five star hotel, and paid him to be on set for three weeks.
“I was on set every day. I got to speak with the director and I met everyone. I even got a hug and kiss from Angelica Huston. It is just mind boggling. A home town country boy gets to meet mega star.”
Another perk was being able to go birding with Black, Miller said.
“Jack Black is very, very cool. I met him. He is the same height and girth as me,” Miller said with a laugh. “I got a call the day I got to Vancouver. They said Jack wanted to bird watch with me the day before filming began. I had to cancel birding plans with friends, but they understood.”
As exciting as being hired to consult for the movie was, Miller said he is very excited about coming to Northwest Ohio for the Biggest Week in American Birding.
“I am horribly excited to be coming for that week,” he said. “No matter where I have lived I come every year for the Biggest Week. It really is my favorite place on the North American continent. It is the most fantastic experience for me, as a bird watcher, to see birds up close in all of their spring beauty.”
The Biggest Week will be held May 4 – 13. The movie, The Big Week, will be shown on
Friday, May 11, 2012, from 7:30 – 9:30 pm., at the Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center. The ticket price is $10 with proceeds benefiting the Ohio Young Birders Club. Registration is required. Tickets will be sold at the door based on availability.