Going to the Birds

More than 70 million Americans now count themselves as bird-watchers, and in the process fuel a $20 billion industry. Some birding zealots even travel halfway around the world just to add a new species to their all-important life list.

Email|Print| Text size + By Justin Tussing
November 23, 2003

At high tide the beach is just a narrow strip; the ocean threatens to erase it completely. It's early, just after 9 in the morning, but Wallis Sands State Beach in Rye, New Hampshire, is filling up already. People are hoping to beat the crowds, the traffic, the sun -- they're very keen to avoid that window between noon and 3. The ocean is as still as a farm pond.

A man comes walking down the beach. He pauses now and then to raise a pair of binoculars. He's probably just looking at the girls in their bathing suits. No, he's glassing the wrack line -- the seaweed and the leaping flies. And he's not a man; he's a kid. He could be a lineman for a high school in a mid-size district -- not a big kid, but solid enough. He keeps raising the binoculars as if he's the only soul on the beach. What's this? The kid's jumping up and down. No, he's shouting. What's he looking at? Oh, someone, get a load of this kid. You'd think he'd never seen a bird before.

But this kid has seen birds before. In this calendar year, he has seen more than 240 different species of birds in New Hampshire alone. He can tell you their genus, their preferred habitat, and where to find them. He can describe their plumage in a manner that might bore you. If only you had asked him what all the excitement was about, he gladly would have shown you. And this would have made you just the second person in New Hampshire to see an unassuming Old World sandpiper called the little stint. The kid's name is Mike Harvey.

After two minutes, there comes a crucial juncture: The bird flies off. Little stints winter in southern Africa. The bird might take off over the Atlantic and not touch down again until it reaches Europe. If the bird isn't seen again, when New Hampshire birders convene to authenticate new sightings, they might find Harvey's record inconclusive.

His claim to the bird is in jeopardy. He hops in his car and drives up the coast, looking for the bird. His bird. He finds it about a mile away, just south of Odiorne Point State Park. He takes notes about the bird's appearance, its behavior. Attaching a digital camera to a spotting scope, he "digiscopes" the bird. He is building a case for the existence of the bird.

And then he does the toughest thing: He leaves the bird. Other birders need to see it. He finds a pay phone and calls a friend who then sets things in motion. Across the state, phones start ringing. Word goes out over listservs and websites. Dinner plans are canceled. People sneak out of the office. For the next five days, Harvey's little stint is the most important bird in New Hampshire.

BUT IMPORTANT FOR WHOM? NOT YOU? NOT YET. Interest in bird-watching is booming in this country. In the past 20 years, the number of birders more than tripled. According to the most recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, a third of Americans over the age of 16, more than 70 million citizens, count themselves as bird-watchers. In the next 50 years, according to Texas A & M University sociologist Steven H. Murdock, birding will be the only major outdoor pastime to experience growth at a faster rate than the population at large.

It may have reached critical mass. It's beginning to attract people who aren't necessarily interested in the birds. Birds are money. Wild Bird Center franchises are reshaping our strip malls. Last year, according to an industry source, bird-watchers spent more than $20 billion to travel to, learn more about, observe, record, attract, feed, house, and demonstrate their allegiance to birds. Annually, the area around Cape May, New Jersey, receives a $30 million shot in the arm from visiting birders, which is why states are starting to hire consultants like Ted Eubanks of Fermata Inc. of Texas and New York to help them promote "avi travel." Suddenly, birds are important, and bird-watching has become mainstream.

FOR SIMPLICITY'S SAKE, THIS UNWIELDY GROUP THAT WE collectively call "bird-watchers" can be broken down into two subgroups. On the one hand, you have those people who see most of their birds through the double-glazed lens of their kitchen window. We'll call them backyard bird-watchers (some groups call them "casuals," adopting the term used to describe a bird that is only seen in an area erratically). They might have a couple of nest boxes hung in their yard. They belong to conservation groups like the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy, and the Sierra Club. They drive the market for heated birdbaths, blown-glass hummingbird feeders, organic seed mixes. These are the people responsible for making The Sibley Guide to Birds a bestseller. Though they find birds compelling and beautiful, they have avoided becoming fanatics. They are content to see the little stint as a bird, not as a grail.

Backyard birders are moderate in their passion, but being moderate about something doesn't preclude accessorizing. Birding is essentially a free pleasure, and thus it only makes sense to spring for a carbon-fiber tripod and a zippered scope case. Protective sheaths for field guides. Telescoping walking sticks. Spending a thousand dollars on binoculars doesn't make a person a fanatic. Ambitious backyard bird-watchers will test themselves with the Birding by Ear series of CDs. They sound fantastic in a car stereo. Listen to that cuckoo go. If a person has a discerning ear, she can learn to distinguish the mourning warbler from the Connecticut warbler just by their song.

While some backyard birders wouldn't cross the road to see a new bird, there's nothing preventing a person from taking a trip every once in a while. Maybe spend two weeks ticking off species in the desert Southwest or raid the Atlantic Seaboard on a long weekend. At the very least, a visit to Cambridge's Mt. Auburn Cemetery is requisite -- if the warblers aren't out in numbers, a person can still visit the resting place of Ludlow Griscom, the father of modern field ornithology, who demonstrated that in the field, identification binoculars offered a nonlethal alternative to the shotgun.

Then there are the Wayne Petersens of the bird-watching world. Wayne Petersen, until recently the Massachusetts Audubon Society's head field ornithologist, says, "Consider a bell curve." Petersen has an open face and a tendency, when speaking, to look upward, a legacy perhaps of all the time he's spent looking toward the sky for confirmation. "On one side, you have people who basically throw bread out on the snow or feed pigeons in the park. And on the other side, you have people like me."

People like Petersen are people who travel to see birds. To put a finer point on things, they are people who travel just for the chance to see a bird like the little stint. They're not passive bird-watchers. They are bird-chasers. In Great Britain, chasers get called "twitchers" because of their typical reaction to seeing a bird for the first time. The length to which chasers go in order to see a particular bird is a source of both pride and embarrassment, of inevitable conversations in airport lounges, rental-car queues, motel lobbies. You came all the way out here to see a what? A bird.

Birders are well past making excuses for their behavior. In the spring of 1975, a small gull showed up off a sea wall in Newburyport. What made this gull stand apart from thousands of others was a pinkish tinge to its breast feathers. This first North American record (confirmed sighting) for the Ross's gull -- a bird indigenous to Siberia -- triggered an unprecedented frenzy, as birders from across the country flocked to Newburyport to acquaint themselves with this wanderer. In the month and a half that the bird stuck around, as many as 10,000 people came to see it. Why they did so is a bit harder to understand.

The most avid birders will keep a record of the species they have seen, a list. The most essential list is the one containing every species seen by an individual through the course of his or her life -- this is the life list. When a birder encounters her first northern harrier, the harrier becomes a "life bird" or "lifer" and gets tallied. One of the reasons birders came out to see the Ross's gull was that, unless they planned a trip to northern Asia, they couldn't expect another chance to add the bird to their life list.

The life list is not necessarily the only list a birder keeps. The yardstick for American birders is the North American list -- a list not bounded by time but by geographical region. And there are still more lists. Many listers compile state lists (which is why the little stint became so important in New Hampshire); some subdivide states into counties and towns; and, finally, some birders compile backyard lists, even feeder lists.

A life can be an unwieldy unit of time, so listers developed the year list: all the birds seen in a calendar year. And since a year can be subdivided further, listers created the "big day," a no-holds-barred birding sprint that starts at midnight and ends at midnight the next day. The Massachusetts big day record stands at 162 species. The New Jersey Audubon Society raised competitive listing to a new high with the advent of the World Series of Birding. Every spring, teams race all over New Jersey in an attempt to rack up the highest total species list, all the while earning pledge money for conservation causes. This may be the ultimate charity event for birders with Type A personalities. This year's winning team recorded 232 species.

If a big day sounds exhausting, consider a big sit; developed by the New Haven Bird Club, it requires that participants remain inside a prescribed area for 24 hours, listing all the birds they are able to see or hear in that time. The key to a big sit: location, location.

"Listing," explains Betty Anderson of Marlborough -- 675 species on her North America list, 1,241 including Mexico, 2,315 worldwide --"is just a competitive game. Some people take it too seriously." Anderson sits on the board of the American Birding Association. Though the association caters to every spectrum of the birding public, its taproot is sunk in listing's lunatic fringe. The organization came about as a forum for listers to share information on finding and identifying rare birds.

What's all this fuss about birds for? I asked Petersen directly. Why birds? He's answered the questions before. It comes with the territory.

"First of all, birds fly, and for some people that's a 'wow' moment. Then you have the way they look. And if there's any aspect of birds that, to me, is as appealing as what they look like and that they can fly, it's that they have this amazing repertoire of sounds, from song to vocalizations. Distress calls, call notes. From an identification point of view, this is background noise to so many birders, and yet, to someone who is really tuned in and sensitized, it's everything."

I'd read about a trick birders use called "pishing" or "spishing" -- replicating the distress calls of birds in order to attract them. I asked Petersen if he'd mind giving a demonstration.

We stepped outside his office in Lincoln. It was nearly noon on one of those unbearably humid midsummer days. Petersen wandered over to a stagnant pool, surrounded by briar, and started kissing his hand, making sharp squeaking sounds: Eep eep. Pst pst pst. Nothing happened. I was ready to make excuses for Petersen -- the daylight, the weather, putting him on the spot.

He headed off in another direction and stopped beneath a large pine. He resumed with these loud, embarrassing sounds. He imitated a screech owl, a scolding Ship. Ship ship ship. And all at once, there were birds in the tree. There were five birds in the tree, then a dozen. The birds answered him with their own racket. Petersen would hear a voice in the woods and point a finger: "Catbird." Over there: "Nuthatch." Black-capped chickadees crowded him. I had everything I needed. "Thank you," I said. But Petersen continued kissing his hand, making his sounds. He was playing, and birds were filling the forest.

Petersen is a world-renowned authority. He has traveled the globe in search of hard-to-find birds. He was in Newburyport when the Ross's gull showed up, and he is one of the last people ever to have seen a Bachman's warbler (a now extinct bird that has the distinction of being the only warbler that the eminent birder Roger Tory Peterson never saw).

But these days it's becoming easier for anybody to find the hard birds. The birding opportunities in places like Costa Rica and Bhutan are discussed on Internet bulletin boards and at club meetings in Spokane and Cleveland. Look in the national magazines, Bird Watcher's Digest or WildBird or Birding. Advertisements promise new places, new experiences, new birds. KingBird Tours specializes in Asian excursions; Wings offers tours in 50 countries, on seven continents; Adventure Caravans offers 60-day RV safaris in Mexico.

These companies promote that hallmark of the American vacation, the all-inclusive package deal. They're packaging birds. New Zealand: See giant rails and nocturnal kiwis. Bird and culture packages. Bird and golf packages. There are nearly 9,000 species of birds in the world, and wherever they are, people are driven to track them down, to be in their presence. Alaska Airlines advertises that it is the "Official Airline of the Extreme Birder."

Actually, the truly extreme birders are catching rides on unregistered airplanes, without flotation devices under the seats, without seats. The avant-garde always defines the future for the masses. The obsessed are heading farther afield, and in the process they are determining where the rest of the birders will be going next year.

Blair Nikula is probably in his early 50s. But when I met him, in the parking lot of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Cod, there was something in his posture, an easy slouch in his shoulders, that gave him an almost collegiate air. For more than 30 years, he has maintained records of migrant bird populations in the refuge. "Because somebody should," he says.

Nikula is not the type to use a sentence when a word will do. His interest in birds extends far enough back that he can't recall a time before it. At one point, he had considered becoming an ornithologist, but after meeting a few ornithologists who had lost their love of birds, he decided against pursuing it further. It hasn't hurt his reputation among his peers. When I mentioned Nikula's name in passing to another birder, the quality of the conversation changed. The birder, an expert in his own right, said, "Blair's the man, you know."

Nikula had agreed to take me around Chatham's South Beach in mid-August, while shorebird populations were near peak levels. A number of bird clubs had scheduled trips to take advantage of this. Among the groups was a crew from New Hampshire. Representing the western half of Massachusetts were members of the Hampshire Birding Club. From Greater Boston came the distinguished members of the Brookline Bird Watching Club for their annual Hawaiian Shirt Shorebird Safari (in birder speak: "The loud floral shirts and cheap plastic leis prove diagnostic"). A number of lone wolves caught rides with the clubs; once they reached the beach, they broke away from the groups to see what they could discover for themselves. A well-respected wildlife painter was out with his wife and another couple. For Nikula, the trip would be a busman's holiday; instead of racing around trying to count all the birds, he would be strolling.

We took his boat across the channel to the beach. Once we had both feet on the sand, we worked our way along, stopping every so often to investigate flocks of shorebirds with binoculars and spotting scopes -- the wide-open spaces put a premium on magnification. The place was loaded with birds, many thousands. The trick was to find the unusual birds among the common ones.

This morning's birders had every reason to hope there would be "good birds" in the mix. Earlier in the week, while recording a population survey, Nikula had discovered a red-necked stint (like Harvey's little stint in New Hampshire, this is an Old World sandpiper; unlike Harvey's bird, it has been spotted a number of times in Massachusetts) and a curlew sandpiper, both rarities, not merely good birds, but really good birds. Chances are, every birder on the beach had read the exhaustive report Nikula posted to a popular website -- it's an open secret that some birders spend more time looking at a monitor than they do in the bush.

In order for bird-chasers to increase their life lists, there need to be a few individuals content to fix their attention beyond the horizon, at the unseen: bird-finders. Nikula is one of these. Back in June, when a small northeaster rubbed against Cape Cod, Nikula drove to Eastham's First Encounter Beach on the off chance that the winds might conspire to push a bird, a single bird, off its course and close to land. There was just one other car in the parking lot -- another birder's, of course.

Nikula panned right and left, he says. Some birds revealed themselves by the profile they cut as they bobbed in the water. With others, it was the cadence of their wing beats or the way their flight stalled. Every bird was counted. And then the quality of recognition changed, Nikula says. A feeling grew inside him, wild and hardly contained. This was not a bird to move past. This was not just another bird. What he saw before him: a winged messenger from the southern oceans, a yellow-nosed albatross. Just one other soul was in the parking lot. Nikula honked his horn to get the other birder's attention. He aimed his finger across the water, toward the bird. He shared the bird.

Information is the currency of birding. When a rare bird is found, there's no way to know if it will stay the hour, let alone the rest of the day. And while two hunters can hardly mount the same head in different living rooms, 50 birders can crowd together and see the same bird. By sharing information, birders ensure that they all get to see more birds.

Hot lines like the North American Rare Bird Alert act as a clearinghouse for bird sightings. This hot line even offers a subscription service: For $30 it will notify you if there is a first North American record.

The directions provided are quite precise: "PLAIN-CAPPED STARTHROAT: From Sierra Vista, take SH 92 south about 12 miles. Continue 0.7 miles beyond MM 332 to Turkey Track Road (about three miles beyond Miller Canyon Road). Turn right on Turkey Track and continue past the statues to the end of the road where a gate blocks further progress. Look for the straw bale wall on the right. Go left around the house to the back, where chairs and most of the feeders are. The bird is making brief visits to feeder 'D' in the front (south) yard."

Fruitless hours in the field may become a thing of the past. If you want to see the Eskimo curlew, that feathered phantom, just wait until the hot line contacts you. Buy a cheap ticket, rent a car, follow the directions, see the bird.

The wildlife painter flagged Nikula down. His greeting: "Don't tell me you've seen it."

"The stint or the sandpiper?"

"The stint." The wildlife painter looked to be in his 70s. He wore a sweater and rolled trousers. The eyecups on his binoculars were polished with use.

We hadn't seen it. But Nikula located a golden plover, a good bird, though not one of the good birds. The painter's wife, after examining the plover through the scope, seemed perplexed. "Did somebody dye it?" she asked. It was understandable. The tips of the feathers appeared burnished. Nature doesn't always appear natural. Viewed through a high-magnification scope, wood ducks, painted buntings, and goldfinches are absolutely garish.

Half a mile away, we spotted a gaudy flock: It seemed that the three birding groups had coalesced into a single prickly mass of expensive optics and unbleached cotton hats.

Birders have always been depicted as tweedy; think of Mrs. MacGruder in Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. Perhaps to compensate for this, some of today's bird-watchers have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum. Case in point: One rainy July morning, I encountered an attractive couple from Copenhagen whose matching outfits included Vibram-soled boots, gaiters, side-zip pants, skintight long-underwear tops, and compact backpacks. In addition, the man wore terry-cloth wristbands and amber-lens shooting glasses.

This might have made sense if we were in the Aleutian Islands, but we were on a well-groomed path in a sanctuary where leaving the trails is verboten. Yet these two looked more like SWAT than bird-watchers. While I watched, they captured a feeding green heron on a digital camera and, simultaneously, on digital video. When I complimented them on the view they'd gotten of the feeding bird, the man explained their philosophy: "That's what happens when you accept nature on its own terms." The woman nodded as though this was a burden she reluctantly accepted.

An acquaintance of Nikula's came over to talk shop. An inveterate lister, he wasn't concerned about the stint or the sandpiper, both of which were already on his Massachusetts list. The bird he'd come to see was a black skimmer -- Nikula had reported seeing two immatures earlier in the week. Like an exceedingly polite bill collector, the lister kept circling the conversation back to the skimmer. (Later I would learn that this person once flew from Boston to California in order to add a single rarity to his California list.)

On this day, the skimmer was nowhere to be seen, but after a moment the lister found the curlew sandpiper. How he found it I can't really say. The bird, which was asleep, had its back to us. Its head was tucked between its wings, concealing its decurved bill. The view was partially obstructed by another bird and some beach grass. By way of explanation, the lister said, "The back pattern is quite distinctive."

Then the lister turned toward the throng of birders gathered down the beach. He waved his hands in the air, like a man on a runway. In the distance, we saw the birders lift their tripods onto their shoulders and start to jog.

Scenes like this one are repeating themselves all over the country, all over the world. As more birders come to the sport, there will be more congestion, as knots of bird-watchers focus on the good birds. Knowledgeable birders talk about the Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop Phenomenon: If a place holds good birds, it will attract good birders, who will, in turn, find good birds, thus attracting more good birders. In practice, it means that at a place like Point Pelee, Ontario, where concentrations of warblers attract concentrations of birders, the nature lovers are in danger of loving nature to death. It is why, for instance, at said roadside rest stop in Patagonia, Arizona, someone finally had to put up a fence to keep the birders out.

The first person to reach us was one of the trip leaders. "What d'you got?" he asked.

In the excitement, we didn't have anything. The sleeping curlew sandpiper had moved.

"We had the sandpiper," explained the lister, "but I can't seem to find it at the moment."

The shock troops were fast approaching.

The trip leader pulled out a two-way radio. "We got the sandpiper. Over."

The birders arrived. They stabbed their tripods into the ground, raised their binoculars. "Where is it?" they squawked. "Is it up? Is it up? Is it up?"

All the sun hats, the vests, the after-market lens covers and straps with sliding pulleys, guidebooks with color-coded quick-reference tabs zipped inside abrasion-resistant Cordura covers, all the European optics (Zeiss, Leica, Steiner, Swarovski), everything was waterproof, shockproof, multicoated, phase-corrected.

The leaders barked orders. "Let's get some more scopes here, people."

"Is it walking?" the birders asked. "Where is it? Is it up?"

The lister would get his skimmer; if not this day, soon. He would get the skimmer because he needed to. It was as simple as that.

"Can we go?" asked Nikula. "Do you have enough fodder?"

"Is it up?" cried the birders, like nestlings demanding to be fed. "Is it up?"

For a non-birder, I'd spent a lot of time chasing birds. I'd gone to New Hampshire in search of Mike Harvey's little stint. I found the salt pan where the bird had last been seen. It was the sort of place a person could spend his life driving past without really seeing, not a bad place for a house, separated from the ocean by two lanes of blacktop. An earthen sea wall capped with quarried rock protected it from the ocean. If wetland regulations weren't so strict, the place would have been filled in ages ago. But I didn't see the stint. I'd arrived two days late.

Actually, I have no idea if the stint was there or not. I don't have the expertise to tell a stint from any other sandpiper. Besides, I hadn't expected to see the bird. The day before, in Newburyport, a chance encounter with a birder in a sandwich shop had occasioned this exchange:

"Did you see the stint?" I asked.

"We were going to go see it," said the birder, "but I heard it was gone."


"Yeah. Vanished!"

Vanished. She said this brightly, shaking her head a little, in thrall to the bird, to the idea it could simply up and leave, astonished by its freedom and whim. Vanished into thin air! The word suggests magic, mystery. But really, it just flew away, the bird. That's all it did. "Vanished," she said, when actually it did the most ordinary thing. It flapped its wings. It did what a bird does. It left.

I finally met Harvey at Monomoy's North Island. I'd almost made a full circuit of the island when I noticed two figures far out on one of the flats. When I reached them, they were debating the identity of a bird. Binoculars dangled from their necks.

"It's a least," said the friend, meaning a least sandpiper.

"OK," said Harvey. "There's something wrong about it, but it's a least."

They did not seem particularly intimidating, a couple of barefoot kids out chasing birds. They manned two spotting scopes. One -- clearly a hand-me-down -- had probably been outdated when these kids were born. The other scope looked as if it had been created in a laboratory that morning. Harvey manned the new scope. Sticking halfway out of the pocket of his cargo shorts was a guidebook. I was carrying Roger Tory Peterson's seminal A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. The title of Harvey's book: Birds of Europe.

"You see anything?" Harvey asked me.

I'd been sure that I'd seen a Wilson's phalarope earlier. I'd watched it for about five minutes. The two boys were excited for a moment, until they determined that I had not seen a Wilson's. I said, "I thought I saw a godwit earlier. I just couldn't tell if it was a marbled or Hudsonian."

Harvey nodded.

His friend said, "I had a marbled and a Hudsonian on the way over, on the boat."

Writer Justin Tussing lives on Cape Cod.

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