James M. Vardaman of Jackson, Miss. runs a successful forest-management firm, but his master passion is bird watching, which is abundantly clear after reading Call Collect, Ask for Birdman (St. Martin's Press, $10.95), a detailed chronicle of Vardaman's "Big Year," as birders call it. During 1979 he spent more than $44,000 traveling 161,000 miles by plane, boat, car, bicycle and foot, chasing everything from Abert's towhee to the zone-tailed hawk in an effort to see a record-breaking 700 species of North American birds. In a dramatic finish he wound up sighting 699, breaking the old record by 42 birds.
The game was mostly played by American Birding Association rules—the ABA checklist, its limited definition of North America, the need for a reliable witness for every sighting, etc. Because Vardaman is eternally modest about his own birding talents—"Was I good enough to play in the birding big leagues?"—he set up a strategy council of top professional birders. Then he made sure they were in the field with him for identification.
Vardaman's skill was in getting to the right place at the right time to see the right bird. A national intelligence network of helpful birders also alerted him to rare sightings by calling collect on his birding hot line. This supplemented his planned trips with sudden tense chases after rarities. Would the bird stay put long enough for him to see it?
Coding every one of the 811 North American species according to rareness, Vardaman concluded that after subtracting Code 6 and 7 birds—those he had less than a 10% chance of seeing in a given year—his reasonable maximum total was 726. He came close and even managed to see nine of the 85 rarities, including a Middendorff's grasshopper warbler.
Vardaman's accomplishment roused cheers and criticism. One old-fashioned birder said Vardaman's record pursuit was akin to "counting out-of-state license plates." Furthermore, critics contended, Vardaman's achievement was unduly abetted by his flying squad of birding pros.
Still, his detractors had to admire his perseverance. Vardaman once traveled 5,000 miles to spot a rare Siberian chickadee but later had to remove it from his list when it was positively identified as a pale version of the common black-capped chickadee.
Undaunted, Vardaman is now in the planning stages of a worldwide "Big Year." With inflation, his budget for this epic is more than $1 million. His goal: 5,000 species.