Birding, Fast And Slow

May 1, 2011

First, a confession. I am a serious birder. Far too serious, my wife will tell you. But for 364 days a year, I’m a good birding citizen. I lead field trips for beginners, I share my spotting scope, I am happy to explain the differences between, say, a song sparrow and a savannah sparrow to anyone who is interested (and, perhaps, to a few who are not).

But, one day a year, all that changes: Birdathon day. This is a “big day” competition, held at the height of spring migration, when teams fan out across our corner of southern Oregon to see who can record the most bird species in a 24 hour period. It’s all for a good cause: we raise money for the education programs of our local Rogue Valley Audubon Society. But the altruism ends there. This is birding stripped to its essence: fast, hard, and wild. If my team, the Falcons, had a theme song, it would be “Bat Out of Hell.” I know, I know: taxonomically inappropriate, but “Freebird” is way too mellow.

Now, don’t get the idea that anything goes. Quite the contrary: like any sport, the Birdathon is governed by rules both arbitrary and inflexible. For example, though it is not necessary to actually SEE a bird in order to count it (most, indeed, are only heard), two team members must confirm all identifications. All sightings must be within Jackson County; this, however, does not cramp our style too much, since Jackson County is almost twice the size of Rhode Island. Only birds native or naturalized in North America are acceptable. This caused a heated controversy one year when we spotted an emu (the ostrich-like flightless bird of Australia) happily grazing in a lush meadow along Lake Creek. To my lasting bitterness, this bird was disqualified, even though it was living free and I’m sure was never recaptured by the emu farm down the road.

The Birdathon starts not at midnight, but at 6 PM, in order to accommodate the beer-fueled list compilation and pizza party that begins 24 hours later. The four-man Falcons team (only once did we entice a woman to join us, and for some reason she didn’t volunteer again) piles into our battered rig, and we head for the mountains. The evening’s goal is to score as many high-elevation specialties as possible before nightfall, and then spend a couple of hours hooting for owls before grabbing a few hours sleep and heading out again at 3 AM. Then it’s more work for our expert owl hooter (every serious team has one of these indispensible specialists) until first light at about 5 AM, when all our attention switches to taking maximum advantage of the dawn chorus.

The route taken by each team is a closely held secret, honed over years of experience. To our great pride, the Falcons has a few spots where we merely need to slow the car, roll down the window, and score a highly local bird, after which we spray gravel and return to speed. A well-constructed route, with minimum unproductive travel time, is the key to Birdathon victory, and all the glory that brings.

Yes, I have known that glory. The Falcons are the holder of the one-day county record, with 152 species in 2008. But luck in birding, as in life, is a fickle mistress. In 2010 the Falcons were dethroned by a team called the Great Grays, until then the Bad News Bears of southern Oregon high-stakes birding. As the ancient Greeks said, never count a man happy until the end of his days...

That was last year, and the wounds have healed, though scars will always remain. As I write this in late March, I am full of the optimism that leads up to opening day in every sport. By the time you read this in May, the die will be cast, and the Falcons will be champions once again, or... I don’t even want to think about it.

In the meantime, I enjoy my normal birding ways. Today I walked with a friend along Bear Creek. Despite the gray skies and scattered showers, the pussy willows have opened, green buds are appearing on the more ambitious shrubs, and the early migrants are returning. Standing in a grove of willows, we watched half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers gracefully flutter in pursuit of midges, and I thought about their amazing journeys between the boreal forests of Canada and the jungles of Mexico. I heard the distinctive squeak and bubble of cowbirds flying over, and explained how they never care for their young, but lay their eggs in the nests of hapless “hosts.” A titmouse flew by with fluff to line his nest cavity high in a snag, and I felt boundless respect for the resilience of this tiny bird, survivor of our hard and leafless winters.

Once a year, fast is fun. But every other day, let my birding be slow.