Birding is what Greg Miller has always done, from the time he was a fledgling tromping through field and forest in his father's footsteps.
It's something he did quietly, matter-of-factly, without fanfare.
That has changed since Miller's adventures became the basis for a book and a film that have turned him into a bit of a "rock star among birders." Today, when this "celebrity" from "The Big Year" takes off on a bird walk, others tend to tag along.
But that's all well and good with Miller, who sees this time in the limelight as a chance to share the hobby he loves, whether he's reveling in spring's "Warbler Mayhem" in Ohio or scouting out harlequin ducks in Massachusetts.
Miller arrives in Utah next week to give the keynote address at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, which runs May 17-21.
And while he's in the Beehive State, this birder -- portrayed by Jack Black in the 2011 film that also starred Steve Martin and Owen Wilson -- will be on the lookout for -- what else? -- Utah birds.
"I will be happy to see things that are common and ordinary to you that are not common and ordinary to me," Miller says in a phone interview from the "boonies" of southern Ohio, where he's out teaching and guiding at two bird events.
Miller knows our state boasts long-billed curlews, avocets, magpies, Swainson's hawks, Western bluebirds, mountain chickadees and more -- all birds that he never sees at his home in Sugarcreek, Ohio.
It's like that line, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," Miller says of his trip to Utah. Only now, it will be, "Greg, I don't think we're in Ohio anymore."
Go big for happy
"The Big Year," recently released on DVD, chronicles the adventures of three birders competing with one another to see the most species of birds in the United States in a single year.
Miller made this very adventure himself in 1998, spotting 715 species in his travels from New Jersey to Alaska and Florida to Arizona. His journey, and that of fellow birders Sandy Komito and Al Levantin, was chronicled in the 2004 book "The Big Year," written by Mark Obmascik, which later became the basis of the 20th Century Fox movie.
As grand as his experience was, Miller says his message to audiences today is not necessarily to have their own "Big Year," but to go after whatever in life makes them happy.
"I try to inspire people to go a little bit outside of themselves, a little bit out of their comfort zone," the birder says.
As he sees it, "Life isn't about superhuman people wearing capes running around doing super deeds -- it's all about ordinary people doing extraordinary things with their lives."
Neka Roundy, chairman of the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, says attendees will enjoy hearing more details about Miller's "Big Year" experience. Many of us can relate to his situation, she says, because he had to keep working at his job between birding trips so he could foot the bills for his adventure.
"So when he went out (birding), it had to count," Roundy says.
As an avid birder, Bill Fenimore, an instructor at the Utah festival, says he looks forward to meeting Miller and learning new techniques. But Fenimore, the owner of Layton's Wild Bird Center, also says Miller will be a draw for folks new to the hobby.
"People that have the passion like he does kind of give other people the idea that this could be a lot of fun," Fenimore says.
'Epitome of ordinary'
Before he launched into his marathon of birding, Miller, a computer consultant, says, "My life was the epitome of ordinary."
The Ohio resident was served with divorce papers on Dec. 31, 1997, and decided as the new year began that the time was right to go after a birding "Big Year," something he had always wanted to do. There was no inkling the adventure would lead to a book or a film, Miller says, only that it would be something "keeping me from wallowing around in self-pity from my bad circumstances."
As simple a thing as watching birds is, he explains, "This really fed my soul."
Miller says the story of his great bird adventure first went public when author Obmascik approached him after his travels. He interviewed Miller, and the other two birding experts, extensively.
"It actually seems (in the book) like he's there with us," Miller says.
At first, the Ohio birder says he was mortified about being portrayed in a story that was true "right down to the embarrassing details, things I would not tell strangers."
But then, he says, he realized the details about each man's personality helped readers see the birders as real people.
"It's not as scary anymore," says Miller, who now gets "fan mail" to the tune of about 100 emails a day. "I've actually embraced it, and I feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
Despite its triumvirate of star power, "The Big Year" did not fly well at the box office. The film ranks as the 29th worst-grossing movie of all time among those in wide distribution, Miller says: "It bombed."
What happened? Miller says he thinks the bird-watching movie was inaccurately advertised as a comedy rather than the dramedy it is.
"People's expectations were to make fun of this rather than treat it seriously, which I think (the filmmakers) did," he says.
Put him in the critic's chair and Miller's own assessment is that "The Big Year" is a "feel-good" movie with a solid storyline. He's seen the flick 14 times now and still finds it enjoyable.
"As a guy who's watched several hundred movies, I would give it a solid three stars," he says.
His "Big Year" did bring Miller through the Beehive State in 1998, but he didn't snag any birds for his list here. He does have a vivid recollection of raptors he spied on his winter's drive north from Salt Lake City to Boise.
"I think we had half a dozen golden eagles -- that was very impressive," Miller says, even though that bird was already on his list because he had spotted it elsewhere.
A-birding we go
Birding is enjoyable on so many levels, Miller says, from learning about different types of plumage to identifying various bird calls and songs.
Also, he explains, "I do love the numbers; I am a computer programmer. I like the math part -- I like logistics and planning."
Miller, who has written that he's prone to tuning out real-life conversations with people if he hears a bird start singing, says he likes to help others enjoy his pastime by taking them birding for a few hours and showing them something they haven't seen before.
"You never know what's going to flip somebody's switch, what's going to turn them on," he says.
As for film fame, Miller says on his website that viewers should watch for the background birder in "The Big Year" who's wearing a red Ohio State baseball cap. That's him.
And if a consulting gig for a film about his fine, feathered friends were ever to come down the pike again, he adds during the phone interview, "I'm not going to sidestep it -- I'll embrace it."
GREG MILLER’S FAVORITE BIRDS
• Overall — northern hawk owl. “A unique owl with hawk-like features. Hunts in daytime, fearless, unafraid of humans.”
• Warbler — blackburnian warbler. “The colors are ridiculously beautiful.”
• Song bird — wood thrush. “Fascinating, beautiful, relaxing; my favorite sound of spring.”
• Most entertaining — starling. “They’re everywhere and they are always fun to watch.”
MEETING JACK BLACK
Birder Greg Miller spent three weeks as a consultant on the set of 2011’s “The Big Year” during the movie’s filming in Vancouver.
The day before shooting began, the birder was taken to a local park to meet actor Jack Black — who was portraying him — and do a little birding with him.
As Miller was waiting and looking at some birds through a telescope, he felt a tap on his shoulder, turned around and, “I’m eye-to-eye — there’s the real Jack Black,” he says in a phone interview from Ohio.
Not usually at a loss for words, Miller says he was completely speechless. Just like an electrical cord ripped right out of a wall socket, Miller says, “There was nothing, it was completely empty.”
As Black grinned at him — a grin that seemed to say “he’s seen star-struck before” — Miller says the only word he could manage to utter was “gaga.”
“After that, I was just fine,” he quips.