J.K. is juggling a Big Year race - to see the most number of bird species in L.A. County in one year - with trying to complete a doctorate in physics. Rick, the president of the bird society, is nipping at J.K.'s heels in the Big Year count, always just two or three bird sightings behind him. As Trip Chair, J.K. is also under pressure to organize birding trips for the society. A Big Year is a "race against time," and as the year unfolds, J.K. finds it harder to concentrate on the last important paper he needs to publish to get his Ph.D. Yet he desires a postdoctoral position at Princeton, which would also keep his East-Coast girlfriend Anne Marie happy.With the Alpena Bird Society near bankruptcy as it stumbles into its Centennial year, and its members interested only in gawking at birds, Hospitality Queen Karen decides that the senseless killing of cowbirds in Joss Canyon, Alpena's last remaining wild land, must stop. Karen starts out with the bird society as an outlet for her ten-year-old son who has a birding mania, but as the novel progresses she's more and more frustrated by the society's lackadaisical approach to its Centennial and to bird conservation.That J.K.'s girlfriend is not a birder hasn't been a big problem so far, but as the Big Year draws to a close, the stresses on their relationship begin to show. J.K. counts on his physics supervisor to mentor his postdoctoral search, but his job prospects grow bleak. Rick's problem is that his wife Meg is suspicious of Karen's interest in Rick and jealous of the time he spends Big Year birding. Rick spends much energy on Machiavellian ruminations about how to indulge his passion for the Big Year while placating Meg. Karen does have a special fondness for Rick, but she's busy saving the cowbirds in Joss Canyon, which is now threatened by developers. Meanwhile J.K.'s "safety net" begins to dismantle until he discovers that he doesn't have the support structure to achieve the success he'd hoped for. Disappointed, J.K. retreats to the mountains. But he has one last promise to keep - to attend the bird society's Centennial.
As the Honda turned onto the Mount Wilson road, J.K. mentioned that the road was swarmed by drag racers on weekends. They passed two souped-up cars before tucking into a dirt parking spot. It was a remote road. Because of the drag racers and because there were few parking spots here, Rick hadn't included this detour in the official part of the trip. It was quiet, and as they stepped over to the edge of the canyon, they had an even wider south view. Rick played the saw-whet tape."It's a lovely call,” Rick said. The wind was howling, but only in whispers."I heard something,” J.K. said.And then Rick seemed to hear it too. "Did you hear it?” he asked Grimsby.Grimsby shook his head. But a few seconds later, he heard it. In the distance, from what had to be the far-east end of the canyon, was heard the gentle, but unmistakable call, "Beep, beep, beep, beep…” like a truck backing up.They were giddy with success. There was a saw-whet owl somewhere in this vast dark canyon, and it was calling out to them.* * *J.K. phoned the sewage headquarters and the automatic gate began to move."Open Sesame,” Blake coaxed, knowing that J.K. had picked the next location because it was an almost sure spot for the Baird's.The caravan drove onto a concrete road that turned into a dirt path flanked by unnerving signs such as "SELF CONTAINED BREATHING AREA.” Karen was starved and devoured her homemade turkey sandwich as she drove.The road led into a surreal landscape where sewage ponds surrounded the vehicles on all sides. Karen was overwhelmed by a pungent smell of chemicals attempting to mask a persistent rotting smell. Mosquitoes and tiny bugs, brown and green, flew into the jeep and descended on her bare legs. She took a hand off the steering wheel to swat them, but the dirt road grew so narrow that this minor error on her part landed the jeep directly into a sewage pond.Paul Little began to shriek like a loony.Blake was hyperventilating, able only to croak, "Mom! Mom!”Rick swore and his face flashed red and white.Meanwhile the jeep settled in the shallow muck."Oh Lord help us!” Karen said, trying to keep her head on straight. A couple of years ago, a series of nightmares plagued her in which she was lost in a landscape of filthy pools of water. It was around that time that she pulled the kids out of public school. It was incredible to her that she was now living out her nightmare.. .