Chasing Birds Across Texas
By Mark T. Adams
Three-Minus To-Be-Read Piles =
A Decent Read, but Coulda Been Better
Reviewer: Liz Merton
While Mark T. Adams provides a great (if perhaps now slightly dated) birding resource for avian enthusiasts in the Lone Star State, he comes up short on story. We at Read Local don’t savor giving meager ratings, but we do want to remain honest about our assessments of books. We also want to see the “non-traditional” benefits of a review as well. So I’m posting Chasing Birds Across Texas here, even though I wasn’t crazy about it, because the book offers a springboard to discuss birding books in general and smaller independent presses as a whole.
As he describes it in Chasing Birds, Adams decided to do a “Big Year” in Texas in 2000, meaning he spent the entire duration of the year 2000 crisscrossing America’s second largest state (Texas measures some 268,597 square miles) in an effort to see how many individual bird species he could glimpse (or hear—hearing a distinct bird call counted) within that state. Big Years are big doings for birders, and Adams managed to count 489 species (92% of all the species reported in Texas that year). He estimated it took him 1,050 hours over 174 days (in which he birded at least an hour), and some 30,000 miles by car and 18,000 miles by plane. Texas A&M University Press’s publication of his account provides avid birders with inspiration for their own Big Year efforts . . . and perhaps some ideas for deepening their outdoor experiences in the land of the Alamo, longhorns, and NASA’s mission-control center.
The problem with the book comes from its lack of development. Where more “popular” birding accounts like The Big Year by Mark Obmascik (which gave birth to a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson), Kingbird Highway by birding legend Kenn Kaufman, and Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker offer a certain charm, a dash of human conflict, insights about life, rollicking tales of travel, and a bit of armchair adventuring for readers, Adams’s work feels flat. I only point out these contrasts because I think it’s worth noting that sometimes the big presses get the bigger prizes because of their resources and ability to attract talent and verve . . . and grab stories that offer a lot of flare. And that state of affairs is okay. It makes sense for so many reasons. In no way does it undercut the value of a smaller-press gem; it just highlights the fact that the pool of talented writers isn’t unlimited, and sometimes smaller presses do come up short. Conversely, smaller presses, like the more academic Texas A&M Press, may be looking for more “specialty” literature. Adams, for example, gives a more “clinical” account of his birding than that offered in the other books I’ve named here—more a journalistic record than an entertaining romp.
Again, Adams still gives readers a birding resource (though a copyright date of 2003 means the landscape has, of course, shifted a bit since his journey). As a person who lives in Texas and owns a copy of Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America (I certainly do not qualify as a real birder), and as someone who read Chasing Birds while camping in a series of Texas state parks and taking a gander at the geese myself, I am grateful Adams shared his adventures and pointed people toward a deeper understanding of birding in Texas. For pleasure reads, however, I’ll fall back on more “developed” stories like those discussed above (Lost Among the Birds is literally in my TBR pile now). I will keep Texas A&M Press in mind for naturalist literature related to the Lone Star State, and I’ve got that press’s Galveston Bay by Sally E. Antrobus right below Among the Birds in the TBR stack.