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It's Not About the Birds

Twelve months, 681 species, and Matt Stenger's inner journey.

On March 29, 2011, Matt Stenger woke up stiff and achy from another cold night in the back seat of his 2006 Ford Escape. He looked out the window and across the shortgrass prairie of southwest Kansas’s Cimarron National Grassland, where he had pulled over for the night, and asked himself, “What did I do?”

Actually, he punctuated the question with a salty “WTF?”

Stenger was 33 and still stinging from the recent end of his marriage. He was also unemployed; a few months before, he’d chosen to leave his position as a Hamilton County naturalist, a job he’d held for 11 years. Now, for all practical purposes, he was homeless.

And he was exhausted. For weeks he had spent most nights scrunching his six-foot-three frame on his car seat, attempting to get comfortable. He couldn’t even fold the seatbacks down all the way because the SUV was jammed full with all the gear you’d need if you were basically living out of your car. Which he was.

He had driven west to see a bird: the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, a grouse that’s facing extinction. And the day before, at the Comanche National Grassland in Southeast Colorado, he found it—plump and stocky, with a pert, rounded fan of tail feathers. In fact, that day Matt saw several birds and added them to the growing list he was keeping.

Stenger’s road warrior discomfort was self-imposed. He was on an adventure. Three months before—at 4:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 2011—he had gotten in his car, left the Cincinnati home of a friend where he was staying, and went out in search of birds. All of last year, from January 1 to December 31, that was what he did: He found and looked at 681 different species across the United States and Canada.

Stenger started his search close to home, at Indiana’s Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, where his passion for bird watching had begun as a child. And he roamed as far as Alaska, where he spotted a Pigeon Guillemot; a Thick-Billed Murre; a Harlequin Duck; and one of his long shot targets, a Gyrfalcon, which he watched through his powerful scope for a full 45 minutes. He was participating in what bird watchers call a Big Year: a competition in which birders track how many different species they can see in a calendar year. It’s an informal competition, but not a trivial one. It requires a huge commitment of time, energy, and (even if you’re sleeping in your car) resources. So much of a commitment that, according to the American Birding Association (ABA), only one other person completed a North American Big Year in 2011.

Before it was over, Stenger would put 63,907 miles on his Ford Escape, taking to the air only once, for the Alaska trip. He slept in his car by the side of the road too many times to count. Anyone who followed Stenger’s blog postings on 716birds.com knows the trip was not just about ornithology. “It is not easy to go against the social standards of the world but what other choice do I have,” he wrote early on, “for I have chosen to seek my greater purpose.”

Throughout those months and those miles, he wrapped himself in America like she was a warm coat woven of canyons, forests, mountains, oceans, swamps, deserts, high plateaus, grasslands, and tundra. And that made it an even bigger year.

 

The 2011 comedy The Big Year was based on a 2004 book of the same name. In it, author Mark Obmascik details the adventures of three actual Big Year birders. Hollywood hype aside, there is no prize for “winning” a Big Year; mere bragging rights drive birders to log as many species as they can in a given calendar year. The first Big Year is credited to Guy Emerson, a businessman from New York who logged 497 sightings in 1939. Verification these days might be dated digital photos, but it could also be a witness, or the birder’s own reputation of integrity. Sandy Komito, one of the three subjects of Mark Obmascik’s book, set the high water mark in 1998, spotting 745 species.

Comparatively, Stenger’s 681 might sound a bit thin; in fact, it’s quite respectable in the competition’s tiny world. But checking off the most birds ever wasn’t why he cashed in his retirement, disposed of most of his possessions, and hit the road. “This was a personal journey,” he told me on a crisp January morning just days after he had finished his Big Year. “The point of my Big Year was healing, first and foremost.”

We were walking across the Fernald Preserve—a reclaimed brownfield in northwest Hamilton County that once held the notorious uranium-processing plant. It is now, Stenger said, an excellent birding spot. Matt was looking for a Eurasian Wigeon, a duck that rarely visits Ohio; a friend tipped him that there could be a sighting.

That’s how it works. An Internet blog, a fellow birder, or an online notification such as the North American Rare Bird Alert help track locations where particular birds have been seen, and birders scurry out in hope of spotting an unusual species. He’s brought me along in search of the Wigeon to give me a taste of this sort of bird chasing. He was doing most of the chasing. I was wondering how a place I figured was now spawning three-headed squirrels could be called a nature preserve.

We walked for miles that morning, talking about his yearlong adventure and how it came about. He told me about the restiveness in his personal life, his career questions, and the special, almost spiritual, place the outdoors is for him. And he told me of a sometimes-stormy childhood where alcohol and divorce tore at his home and shook his innocence.

During those years he would escape to nearby woods for solace. So his Big Year was a break from daily demands and a return to nature, which had comforted him so much as a child. And at the center of his flight plan to change his life were birds—the beautiful, free creatures that had delighted him for years.

Make no mistake. Matt Stenger loves him some birds. The first post on his Big Year blog says, “Birds are alive in the most spectacular way.” And he understands them deeply. Walking through the preserve, he stopped stealthily and began making a sound with his mouth—a sound new to me, halfway between a whistle and a hum. Immediately I saw small birds darting around overhead. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Pishing,” he said. “It’s a distress call that usually will move birds around and makes it easier to see them.”

I recalled something I read on his blog: “My greatest hope would be that, through my travels, I can encourage people of all ages to see the inherent beauty in birds, that people might become more in touch with the rhythms of nature.” With one whistle, he’d done that for me.

 

Stenger’s Big Year was not typical. For example, in 1998, Greg Miller and Al Levantin, two of the three birders featured in The Big Year, mostly flew to bird-spotting locations. To pursue their passion, Miller logged 87,000 miles and Levantin broke 135,000 on United Airlines alone. In the process, Miller spent $31,000 and Levantin more than $60,000. That year, unusual worldwide weather systems were pushing rare species to North America, and Miller and Levantin relied heavily on the telephone—talking to birders across the country—as well as laborious research to nail bird locations, then would fly off to spot them before they’re gone.

Matt had the tools of a new generation of bird chasers (a laptop and smart phone), but he traveled on a shoestring, relying almost exclusively on the car he won in his divorce settlement.

He quickly identified a problem with this minimalist approach. On January 23 he posted: “I’m starting to come to terms with a few major flaws in my planning. 1) complete lack of planning.”

When he got the idea for this adventure, he explained in his blog, “I thought it would be fun to walk out the front door and go look at birds.” Most competitors plan obsessively, checking off nearby birds first and making sure they knew where others might be seen along the way as they moved toward more distant ones. But Stenger’s more casual system and car travel greatly slowed the process of checking off birds and kept him on the road constantly, returning to Cincinnati occasionally to a friend’s home, which he used as his base. Under the circumstance, it was unlikely he’d threaten Kimoto’s record of 745 species. Because of his seat-of-the-pants approach, he even began calling himself a “hobo birder” in his blog posts.

And like Depression-era hobos, who were constantly roused awake from park benches, Stenger developed a cynicism about the folks in blue. By July, he was complaining in his blog that, “I can’t tell you how many times I have been run off by cops for trying to sleep.” In southwest Tennessee, two policemen stopped him and said his license plate came back as invalid. They eventually conceded it
was legitimate but then pushed for a full car search, which he granted; he figured it was the quickest way to get back to looking for birds, an activity the officers seemed unwilling to grasp. When they found nothing illegal, they defended the long stop, saying they were part of a national drug fighting network, insinuating that he looked suspicious.

I glanced over at Stenger as we walked—at his fleece jacket and synthetic cargo pants—and thought, college professor, maybe. Sideline sports photographer? Could be. Possibly a city manager. But an I-75 dope courier in a Ford Escape? C’mon.

 

Like some Upper Paleolithic man, Stenger chased most of his birds barefoot, wearing real shoes for an extended time only in the brutal cold of northern Minnesota in February. Occasionally flip flops were a compromise, especially when scorching hot desert floors
blistered his trail-tough natural soles. “I pretty much just listen to my body and let it dictate to me what it can and can’t handle,” he told me when I marveled at his shoelessness.

In late August he sacrificed the health of an unsheathed toe for one of the best sightings of his year. For two mornings he had hiked into Nevada’s Ruby Mountains near the town of Elko, hoping to see a Himalayan Snowcock. Brought from its native Pakistan and Kashmir as a gamebird in the 1960s and ’70s, the Himalayan Snowcock isn’t small: it measures about two feet from tail to beak. But for Stenger, it was elusive. He not only dipped on the bird—a Big Year term for missing it altogether—but while jogging down the mountain to his car on the second morning, he caught a toe on a rock and twisted it in a direction that toes just don’t go. Hobbled by pain, he reset his toe by hand and drove east to Colorado chasing a White-Tailed Ptarmigan, then west to California in search of a Vaux’s Swift. Then, still hoping to score a Snowcock sighting, it was back to Nevada and the Ruby Mountains. Finally he heard its call near a cliff. “Then there was the sound of rushing wind and I saw a Golden Eagle flush the Snowcock off the cliff,” Stenger said. “I got this bird in the most spectacular way possible.”

Once Stenger even waited for a bird to “immigrate.” Standing on the bank of the Rio Grande River outside Salineno, Texas, a town of about 330, he could see a Grey Hawk circling over Mexican soil across the river. ABA rules say the identification must occur in the U.S. or Canada. So he walked back to his car, got his camp chair, and sat patiently by the river until the hawk widened his circle of flight over the border. Drawn maybe by prey in the thermal currents or simpatico with the hombre below, the hawk came to Stenger. He noted it and left.

One of the most beautiful places a bird lured Stenger was the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas—a spot famous among birders for its spectacular scenery and abundant species. He hiked 2,000 feet into the highlands, traveling from arid, mesquite-covered land to thick evergreen forests and lush ground cover—and still the Colima Warbler refused to show. Fortunately, the ABA guidelines allow a bird to be counted even if you only heard its call. And after a 15-hour, two-day search, Stenger heard it—a shrill, machine-gun-fire chirping. It gave him another check mark on his Big Year list—and, he says, “a special kind of moment.”

 

As we were drawing close to our parked cars at Fernald, I remembered the heading of his blog site: “Rocking The Continent 24/7/365 In Search Of Birds And The Meaning Of Life.”

“OK, so what’s the meaning of life?” I asked.

There was no hesitation. “It’s to live it,” he said. “I don’t want to be on my deathbed and think to myself, ‘I wish I had.’ Because I did.” Then for emphasis he added, “It’s important to do it.”

When I asked him if he had read Henry David Thoreau, he said no, but it was on his list. But even without reading the 19th century masterpiece about life at Walden Pond, Stenger followed the same path Thoreau took when he went into the woods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

John Vanderpoel, a videographer from Niwot, Colorado, was Stenger’s only 2011 Big Year competitor. Although “competitor” really isn’t an accurate way to describe the two men; they actually teamed up several times during the year to help one another out. But Vanderpoel’s approach was different: He planned carefully and chased birds mainly using commercial air travel. He logged 744 species (one is provisional, awaiting a ruling from the ABA) and came within two sightings of setting a new record. But healing and clarification weren’t his motives. “I did it as a great adventure,” he said. John noted that Matt’s 681 species was a solid number for such a restricted budget.

Ned Keller, a member of the Cincinnati Bird Club and host of the local blog cincinnatibirds.com, followed Matt’s Big Year online and also added perspective to Stenger’s 681 total. “It’s a really good number for the resources he had,” Keller said. “But Big Years are really competitions against yourself.”

Stenger picked up on that theme as we walked across the fields of Fernald, with a light breeze twittering tree tops and ice patches on small ponds moving clusters of migratory birds to shorelines. “It’s good sometimes to push yourself beyond your limit,” he said. Then he surprised me. “I’m almost as excited about this next year as I was about my Big Year.”

Stenger says he’s working on a plan for a business that involves lecturing, writing about his Big Year, and bird guiding. And there’s a budding friendship with Kathy, a woman mentioned several times in his blog—a birding girl from Massachusetts whom he met in Alaska. “My goal isn’t getting rich, it’s getting happy,” he said.

For most of us, life has a cadence of obligations, relationships and occasional recreation blended in for balance. And more often than not it stretches in a predictable straight line over time. Sometimes it takes something as big as a Big Year to bend that line. Time will tell where Stenger’s new line will stretch, but a perfect keystone to 2011 was his post written on January 2, 2012. “The real success here is not the 681 check marks next to the birds I found, it’s the check mark next to my very own name.”

Illustration by Rich Lillash.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue.