Posted by: atowhee | May 25, 2020


A recent email exchange on OBOL Nabout pants run up the flag pole on Attu, got me reminiscing:

Sandy Komito memories:

I, too, got to spend time in the field with Sandy in southern Oregon in 2012. I was living in Ashland at the time and had done some bird trip leading for a birding company out of Colorado, Partnership for International Birding, founded and headed by Charles Thornton-Kolbe.  Somewhere at an eastern bird event he had met Sandy.  When Sandy began looking for help on his new life list he contacted Charles for his connections to western birders.  When Charles first called me about birding with Sandy Komito (I already had bought his book from Sandy, he signed it and mailed it to me.  Relationship finished, I assumed.)< I said you’re kidding?  Komito??

Turns out Sandy was well on his way to building this new life list and he had about two dozen birds that were likely in our part of the world.  Wow—of course, I said yes and he arrived to bird with me on June 11 and 12, 2012.

By this time Komito had sold his company and left New Jersey, retired to Florida, and his wife had died.  He confided that he hated the place he lived.  The retirement community wanted residents to wear coat and tie in the dining hall.  “F— ‘em,” Sandy said, “I go eat at Denny’s.”  He and I were comfortable together, as I’d spent my career in news rooms where cursing is the best way to left off the pressure of instant deadlines, death tolls from disasters, and stupid decisions from some high level corporate manager back in New York.  F— ‘em, indeed.

Here are some of my favorite memories:

Sandy was a small, lithe man already nearly deaf.  He couldn’t hear small birds at all.  I thought this would be a huge problem.  Hah.  He was about 5 foot-eight inches.  Weighed maybe 160 pounds, likely less.  Deaf birder?  What he lacked in ear-power he made up for in athletic reflexes.  He was wielding a camera with a fairly short lens but still his reactions would have impressed even an NBA star.  I would call out a bird, and sometimes, before I could point and say, “The flycatcher is…”

“Got it,” he’d say and show me the image.
Our toughest get was the Vaux’s Swift. After some time in a friendly birder’s backyard watching them come and go from the chimney where they were nesting, the frustration was high.  They came and went with no warning.  The swift would drop out of the sky from an invisible height and vanish into the chimney opening before our slow mammalian nervous system could even register.  Every sighting was a re-play, no stop action.  When they left the chimney it was worse because they were already at high speed, making no sound, and one never took the same exit path twice.  Flutter and gone from sight… in less time that it took me to type those words.

“Screw this,”  from Sandy.  We left for other quarry.  I had one last hope for the swift image.  These pictures were not meant for publication in National Geographic.  He wanted an identifiable image of every breeding species on the continent.  So that evening we went to Ashland pond where speedy insectivores gather for dinner on quiet spring days.  Barn, Tree, Violet-green Swallows.  Barn near the water, the others high overhead. Often the action and the insect clouds bring in local swifts.  This night they showed up on time, the sun still and hour from setting, that brillian evening light on when clouds are minimal.  With a couple minutes of watching the to and fro, the curving and dipping flight, Sandy got his pics.  I was amazed.  I had spent much time with my smaller, quicker pint and shoot and rarely even got a swift in the frame, much less close enough to be an identifiable image.  Reflex.  And I’m not talking reflex camera.

Sandy was a great raconteur on things birdy.  Not long before we met, he’d been up shooting images in Alaska where he an across a guide he’d worked with back in the record-chasing days and there was a youngish birder with that guide.  Turns out the young guy was aiming to break Sandy’s record.  They chatted.  Sandy wished the challenger all the best.  He’d had the record for more than decade, and was ready to let it go.  What are you looking for here? Sandy asked the record-chaser.  Oh, just killing time before a plane can take me to… (some island, maybe Adak).  Sandy looked him in the eye, “You’ll never break my record that way.”
The challenger had a great year, but not the biggest, missing Sandy’s mark by a handful of species.
Sandy was driven, obsessive, in his own words when chasing the big year record…thus all those anecdotes in the book, The Big Year (Sandy had refused to speak with the author)  were second person, other person, perhaps legend.

Sandy:  If you want to break my record, you don’t have two days to kill in Alaska.  You should be down in Texas or Arizona chasing some rarity.  You have to keep moving.  You are chasing a bird, driving to the airport or making plans for the next trip.  Never stop.  Sometimes you don’t sleep, you eat in the car or plane.  You don’t hang around a park in Alaska.  Sandy always birded with local guides and never stopped moving.

He clearly resented how he was portrayed in The Big Year movie.  He said he always admired as enjoyed Debbi Shearwater and her pelagic trips.  And, he added, I have pictures of every mammal species I’ve ever seen, I don’t ignore them.  And we did stop for a black bear picture as one shambled across the road outside of Ashland.  And we got great coyote images in Klamath Basin.

Our best experience was going after Lewis’s Woodpeckers.  They next every year along the Klamath River at Collier Rest Area along I-5 in California about 30 miles south of Ashland.  As we pulled into the parking lot, one flew over the car.  Not quite as colonial as their cousin Acorns, they still gather in loose communities to nest.   Soon as we got out of the car we heard one, saw two more fly by.  The highway clean-up crew gave us permission to go into their maintenance yard at the south end of the rest area.  There the Lewis’s were coming and going from nest holes.  We watched them fly-catch, heard their calls, saw them carrying food to nestlings.  Perhaps we were there an hour at most.  Sandy spoke as we walked back to the car and he studied his various close-up images of those iridescent woodpeckers with no white on them.  Pink, whoever heard of a pink bird that doesn’t have long legs?

“That was wonderful,” he said.  “I have never had a chance to watch Lewis’s Woodpeckers before?”
“What?” I mumbled.
“Well, on a big year, you get the sighting and get going to next stop.  It’s great to see how they behave.”
I might say the same thing for myself, watching a world class birder do his thing.

From a blog written at the end of his stay in Ashland:

“Sandy Komito leaves southern Oregon with six new birds we found together for his Mr. Camera life list. In the fourteen months since he got his new digital camera with the killer lens, Komito has photographed 580 birds on the ABA list for North America. That’s far fewer than he saw in his record-setting big year: 748 species in 1998…”


Before he took off, Sandy re-signed my copy of his book:
“I’m delighted to provide a book to someone I’ve personally birded with in the field.  And spending several days with you has been a real treat for me.  Thanks for the birding company.”

Provided?  I paid $41 including postage and handling.



Two blogs about birding with Komito:

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