When Sandy Komito (the cheery guy played by Owen Wilson in the movie The Big Year) saw 748 species in 1998, many thought his North American birding record would last forever. In fact, Komito’s number stood for 15 years—until Neil Hayward managed to log 749 species during a frenzied transcontinental run. Since then, birders have wondered when someone might go for the big 750.
In the high desert of southeast Oregon, a long winter is over—and, like the Ross’s Geese and Sandhill Cranes that descend on this area each spring, birders are arriving in flocks. On the weekend of April 8–10, several hundred enthusiastic birders inundated the city of Burns, population 2,700, for the 35th annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival.
Birds are the world’s premier frequent flyers: They don’t need visas or passports to travel, and there are no blackout days. Whether it’s the Cerulean Warbler on the cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the eponymous Goldfinch on Donna Tartt’s bestseller, or the Mockingjay holding together a revolution in The Hunger Games trilogy, to we humans, birds are as free as can be.