Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at the World Series of Birding—Our Review

By Pat Leonard
October 15, 2008
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The documentary film Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at the World Series of Birding explores this annual spring birding blowout in New Jersey, which has raised millions of dollars for conservation since it began a quarter of a century ago.

Filmmaker Jason Kessler spent seven years crafting this self-funded movie, relying on paying video jobs from big-name fashion designers to keep food on the table. Opposable Chums has been well-received at film-festival screenings and is now available on DVD via Kessler’s web site (www.opposablechums.com), where you can also watch trailers for the film.

Like snowflakes, it seems, no two birders are alike. Part of the film’s gentle humor comes from the conflicting ways that competitors view their avocation—variously described as a hobby, obsession, passion, sport, or profession. But everyone agrees that the World Series of Birding amounts to “insane, intense birding” as teams check off as many birds as possible by sight or sound in a midnight-to-midnight marathon across the entire state. Supporters pledge a set amount for each species tallied.

You’ll see some familiar faces in the film. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s 2001 Team Sapsucker, sponsored by Swarovski Optik, is featured with then-team-members John Fitzpatrick, Kevin McGowan, Steve Kelling, Ken Rosenberg, and Jeff Wells seeking redemption after landing in second place four years in a row. From midnight darkness in the Great Swamp, through Dunkin’ Donuts pit stops, bouts of food poisoning, and tick attacks, all the teams are on high alert for this mental and physical challenge. The film also traces the growth of the event from its humble beginnings—when the possibility of identifying 200 species in a single day seemed absurdly out of reach—to the present, when top teams sometimes tally more than 220 species.

I won’t ruin the ending of the movie by telling you which team takes top honors, but thanks to all of the contributions the event raises for conservation, the birds are always winners. As Lab director John Fitzpatrick points out, the World Series of Birding is all about the thrill of the hunt and a sense of renewal as the birds of spring return. Opposable Chums captures all of the chaos and camaraderie of the event—and takes viewers along for the wild ride. Price: $24.95

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