Sunday, February 6, 2011

The search for the perfect birding book continues

As I stated in a previous post (Search for the perfect birding book), I love both travel and birding, and have yet to see these two interests fused seamlessly into a single book. (Someone left a comment recommending Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, I will definitely check it out before too long.)

In that pursuit, I recently read The Biggest Twitch by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, a British couple who decided to quit their jobs, sell their house, and use up their savings account in the pursuit of birds around the world. (Hey, count me in!) Then someone suggested to them, why not try to break the world record for most species seen in a year, which was slightly shy of 4,000 species? And they went for it... The Biggest Twitch is their resulting adventures as they zig-zagged across the globe in the pursuit. (If you are curious, this is their website.)

The tale begins in on New Year's Day in Arizona, where they see a variety of species that soon made me sick with envy, and then they were off, trying to hit the most glamorous birding hotspots of the world in the peak birding season. Some of their destinations include Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Canada, Texas, California, Ethiopia, Spain, Cyprus, Turkey, South Africa and India (among others), as well as periodic stops at their home in Britain.

Wow, do they ever see a lot of birds! They get, in one year, almost half of what it took record-breaking big lister Phoebe Snetsinger (see my previous post "Might As well Face It, You're Addicted to Birds" for more on her) a couple of decades to achieve. And though they were spared some of the more horrific experiences that Snetsinger faced, they did suffer from illness, altitude sickness, numerous scheduling hassles, leeches, scary locals, and other inconveniences.

Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. (It was the first one I read on my new Kindle, a Christmas gift, so it's hard to go back to my favorite passages, so this is all from memory.) Ruth and Alan seem like genuinely kind and friendly people, and even when, reading between the lines, I sense that they had a less-than-ideal experience, they rarely come right out and say so. They are also quite self-deprecating in that typical British way, although their passion for, and knowledge of, birds is actually quite amazing. The tone of the book is, overall, one of being quite pleased not only with the birds but their fellow birders and others they meet along the way, which is a nice contrast to the other birding/travel book I discussed, A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey (who is also British, so there go our easy generalizations!)

Some parts of the book really stood out. I especially enjoyed their experiences in Ethiopia and Malaysia, which stand out as being particularly vivid recountings. (Malaysia was the home of the leeches...I am quite the birder myself, willing to experience all sorts of minor suffering -- cold, heat, bad food, etc. -- to get new species--but those leeches! Ughh!) And since I have always wanted to visit some of the locations they visited, especially Cyprus and Peru, I read those parts with extra interest.

But would I want to embark on a similar quest? Frankly, I thought the authors were a little crazy. I'm the kind of person who would rather see (and bird) one or two places really well than rush around from place to place, and so their style of traveling (break-neck pace; no rest days, even if one of them felt sick; the only non-birding thing they stopped for was Machu Picchu)--well, that is why they are breaking world records and I am not, I guess. I wouldn't really enjoy that sort of travel (and at times, especially in the chapters that Ruth wrote, I didn't feel that they were really enjoying it either). I love to see new places, and new birds -- but I also love sufficient sleep, and would want to see non-birding attractions as well. They seem like very well-traveled people even before this adventure, so maybe they'd already seen the sights.

The biggest flaw of the book, in my opinion, is that the narration, like the travel, seemed a bit rushed at time. While certain segments were vivid and a joy to read, others seemed like a mere recounting of target species and then on to the next spot, all in such a blur...probably what it was like to hurtle through at such break-neck speeds, I guess.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes travel and birds. It's not quite the Perfect Birding Book, but getting closer! (Just for the record, my favorite non-bird oriented travel book is The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux...that one always makes me want to travel!)


  1. This is definitely not the traveling/birding style for me! I would enjoy staying in one place long enough to really get a feel for it, and the people, and see all the sights, eat a lot (!), look at some shops, and hopefully get to see some of my new birds more than once. I love to watch them do things, like sing, and forage. In my advancing years, after bird 900, I wouldn't be able to remember if I'd seen it before or not, at that breakneck pace! But, to each their own! Mom

  2. I love the big year/travelogue subgenera of bird books. Haven't read The Biggest Twitch yet, but I plan on it (though that style of birding is not for me, either).

    Here are a couple other suggestions:
    - Kingbird Highway: I just wanted to second this, it's probably my favorite of the lot
    - Feather Quest: Pete Dunne writes about birding many of the continent's hotspots in the span of a year (give or take, it wasn't technically a big year). Dunne is a fantastic author, this is one that I can read again and again
    - The Big Twitch: about a big year in Australia. I don't know much about Australian birds, but the story was great and wonderfully told. And unlike Dempsey, the author comes across as someone that I'd like to bird with. Here's my full review