Birders Unite!

An old-school hobby takes flight.

Birders Unite!IllustrationS by Dave Murray

We arrive at the sewage lagoon at 3 p.m. It’s cold for mid-May, barely above 10°C, and we count this as a blessing: it means the five enormous rectangular ponds that make up the waste stabilization compound in Blenheim, Ont., are odourless. This area, between Point Pelee National Park and Rondeau Provincial Park, is fabled for its colossal concentration of aquatic insects, which provides a feast for an impressive number of shorebirds. Up an hour before sunrise, the four of us are making good time-already 90 species under our belt, and it’s only mid-afternoon-but I’m starting to feel a little nervous. We have less than five hours of daylight left.

I joined this team of veterans-which includes a retired nurse, Heather Blakelock; and a former audiovisual technician, Bill Baughan-to take part in the Baillie Birdathon, Canada’s largest birding competition. Each May, 7,000 enthusiasts participate in this countrywide endurance test/avian treasure hunt, in which teams try to spot as many species as possible in a 24-hour period. Established in 1976 and administered by the non-profit Bird Studies Canada (BSC), it is named after Canadian ornithologist James L. Baillie. While there is no entry fee, participants collect sponsors, with all of the proceeds going toward conservation and bird research. Last year’s event netted over $220,000.

Leading our group is Brete Griffin, an ornithologist-turned-high school science teacher who has been birding for 45 years. He immediately dir­ects our attention to new shorebirds in the far corner of the pool, which he notices naked eye. “Semi-palmated, least sandpiper and greater yellowlegs,” he says, binoculars now up. “Or is it a lesser? Come on guys, I need your help here. Be alert!” I raise my binoculars. I can barely make out the three birds feeding in the shallow waters: all greyish, uniformly spotted, running amok. I’m stumped. But to be fair, I’m new at competitive birding.

And I’m not alone. One would assume it’s a rare breed who is willing to spend hours driving from forest to field to sewage lagoon in search of a specific bird. However, the number of birders is growing across Canada. According to BSC, participation in the Christmas Bird Count-an annual one-day census of winter birds conducted by volunteers across the country-has jumped nearly 60 per cent in the past 12 years. And as the practice expands, the typical birder (an older person clad in a multi-pocketed vest, Tilley hat and waterproof gear) is also starting to change. Organizations such as BSC and local bird groups are expanding their numbers of younger birders and galvanizing them to raise awareness about the importance of conservation and habitat preservation.

As a result, birding has become one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the United States, with the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment reporting a total of 85 million American participants, nearly double what it was 20 years ago. For an outsider, the idea of looking at birds may not seem exciting. After all, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? “What’s magical is the mystery of migration,” Griffin says. According to BSC biologist Jody Allair, “If you haven’t experienced a good migration day, you haven’t lived!”

During peak migration season in May, when birds head north from South and Central America to breed in Canada, legions of North Americans get busy. They compare sightings, commit the descriptions of migrant species in their Sibley or Peterson field guides to memory and fine-tune their song-recognition skills. A keen ear is indispensable in late spring, as the trees fill out with foliage. In fact, without a direct line of sight, it’s the only way to, say, distinguish an alder flycatcher (which makes a harsh fee-bee-osound) from its virtually identical cousin, the willow flycatcher (it has a more wheezy fitz-bew).

The hobby has  spawned its own language. Enthusiasts talk about “lifers” (first-time bird sightings), refer to sparrows as “LBJs” (little brown jobs) and reminisce about their “spark bird” (the species that triggered their interest). Allair says the lingo is part of what got him hooked on birding while volunteering at an avian observatory as a teenager.

Griffin describes birding as a comforting reminder the natural world still exists. “It’s the inherent need to see that everything is as it should be in the natural world and that birds are persevering in spite of us,” he says. Such reverence comes from the person whose first interest in birds was not so serene. “I had a BB gun as a kid and used to shoot birds, but I took an Audubon approach and examined them carefully. The day I shot a chickadee, it broke my heart, and I never shot another bird,” he says.

This violent introduction to birding is reflective of how competitions like the Baillie Birdathon began. These events have their origins in the Christmas Bird Count, which started in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman urged North Americans to tally and record bird species rather than shoot them. The process soon evolved into a friendly competition.

Then the 1934 publication of Roger Tory Peterson’s pocket-sized A Field Guide to the Birds enabled ordinary citizens and amateurs to distinguish birds by sight and call. Soon enthusiasts were travelling across North America with the purpose of spotting as many species as possible. The modern competitive birding template is credited to businessman and amateur birder Guy Emerson, who completed the first Big Year list in 1939. Emerson traversed the continent counting as many species as he could in 365 days, culminating in 497. The 2013 Big Year record stands at 748.

This compulsion to count and tally can veer toward obsession. American Phoebe Snetsinger spent the final 34 years of her life amassing a list of 8,398 of the world’s 9,700 known birds. The feat reportedly came at the cost of her marriage and relationships with her children.

Paul Riss is a 43-year-old creative director from Orono, Ont., and his list follows him out of the field: he has the Latin name of each bird he sees inked on his body. His initial 234 tattoos were done to commemorate the species spotted during his so-called “punk rock Big Year” in 2011. “I guess I have one of the most permanent lists of anyone out there,” he says.

Apart from the spectacle of the tattoos, Riss has an additional goal in mind: to dispel the myth that birders are “old well-to-do white dudes and blue-haired ladies.” Riss has discovered that he isn’t the only fowl enthusiast who listens to the Beastie Boys and Slayer.

Riss even created a successful Indiegogo campaign for a clothing design company, PRBY Apparel. Its mission: to diversify the standard Tilley hat and multi-pocketed vest uniform with avian-themed T-shirts that would look at home at a rock show. “We don’t have to look like fuddy-duddy freak-show bird people in our poorly designed, ill-fitting T-shirts anymore,” he wrote on his campaign site. “We can still be bird freaks but with style!”

The process of starting the brand has shaped how Riss views birders. “I no longer think there’s a traditional birding landscape any more than I think there’s a traditional kind of human.”

It’s the end of the day when I arrive at Rondeau Provincial Park with the rest of my Baillie Birdathon team. But instead of the legendary aerial courtship display of the woodcock, we’re greeted by a sunset over Lake Erie; stark reds and purples bisect the sky. We’ve seen 130 birds-short of the team’s 2012 record of 133, but still respectable. Several “easy” birds-a chickadee and a pigeon-have eluded us. Such is life for a birder.

Earlier that afternoon, I had asked Griffin what would happen if we broke the team’s record. His answer was laconic: “We celebrate.” But I wanted more. What would we get for our nearly 18-hour effort? Would the BSC at least record our score? No. There is no trophy, no formal recognition, no ceremony where all the birders come together to swap stories and recount their adventures. “It’s the process that matters,” Griffin says. “And the money raised for conservation.” Baughan is almost rabbinical: “The birds themselves are the reward.”

But still I wondered-that’s it?

Watching the sunset over the lake with Baughan’s words echoing in my head, I remember all of us marvelling, just this morning, as the scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings fluttered at our feet, exhausted from their night of flying.

And then, on our way back to the car, we happen upon a displaying male American woodcock. A pudgy, ingeniously camouflaged shorebird that usually shuffles along the forest floor foraging for earthworms, he hurls himself into the ether and spins around wildly in gargantuan circles before plummeting to the ground and emitting a seductively nasal peent call. It seems like nothing short of miraculous, but the species performs the acrobatic feat again and again, which fascinates the females-and us birders-to no end.

© 2014 by Maisonneuve. First published in Maisonneuve (Fall 2014).

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