For the past 16 years, while his neighbors spent their vacations relaxing on balmy Caribbean beaches, Larry Cartwright has been enjoying a different type of trip: stalking Great Gray Owls in 40-below temperatures in Minnesota and hiking a mountain in darkness at 4:30 a.m. in Nevada to see a Himalayan Snowcock. Cartwright, a 55-year-old Department of Defense employee from Annandale, Virginia, believes it's worth enduring the predawn wake-up calls and frigid weather in order to witness amazing natural spectacles that few people will ever see. In the rolling grasslands of Colorado, he recently visited several "leks," or display grounds, where male grouse and prairie chickens show off for the females, as if at a chicken disco. His tour group arrived and set up their scopes when it was still dark out, taking care to keep quiet and still so as not to disturb the birds. "I was fascinated from beginning to end," says Cartwright, who was bundled up in long underwear and several layers. They stayed for about two hours, until the last bird stopped displaying. "It's absolutely incredible to watch the Sharp-tailed Grouse dance," he says. "The males will stick out their wings, jump up and down, and stomp their feet while spinning in a circle." On the same tour, at a lek where Greater Prairie-Chickens duel, he encountered a scene he could relate to. "Generally there are some superb dancers and there are young guys who have just started out and aren't so good," he explains. "I saw a young male get kicked to the periphery of the lek by the dominant males and his head was hanging down. I thought: I have great sympathy for that fellow—that was me in high school!"
Birdwatching gives Cartwright a comforting feeling of escape. "In our work lives, we try to modify and control things. When you're birding you can't do that. You have to go out in May when the warblers come through. It's kind of neat to not be in control and to go out of your way to see what the birds are doing," he says. Cartwright developed an interest in birds as a child while hunting and helping his uncle with studies of game birds (he eventually realized he preferred hunting with binoculars) and now has an impressive birding résumé: he has seen 657 of North America's more than 900 avian species, yet his trips are as much about adventure as ornithology. Following his passion takes him off the beaten tourist track. "You see the real America, as delightful and raw as it can be," he says. "And that's as exciting as the birding itself."
Each spring and fall, as millions of migrating birds return to North America, millions of North American birders emerge to find them, with their khaki and Gore-Tex plumage, and binoculars and field guides in tow—exploring parks, marshes, and landfills, attending bluebird festivals, and signing up for sparrow identification workshops. Birding is the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation in the United States; more than 85 million people watched or photographed birds in 2004, according to a study by the USDA Forest Service. It's also big business: Americans spend more than $30 billion a year on all those bird feeders, trips, scopes, and guidebooks. And it's especially popular among baby boomers: the average age of birders is 49. Like Cartwright, they're finding that the benefits of their favorite pastime go far beyond amassing a long "life list" (see box "The Lowdown on Lists") of birds they've spotted or heard and learning to tell a Redpoll from a Redstart. It's a way to sharpen one's powers of observation, engage in a little friendly competition, contribute to science, connect with a community, and commune with nature.
There are many species of birders, from the casual backyard feeder watchers that like to count the Black-capped Chickadees at their bird baths, to those that visit rainforest lodges in Borneo to seek showier specimens like Blue-eared Barbets and Rhinoceros Hornbills. Some will call in sick to work and drive all night to check a rare bird off their lists, while others devote the occasional weekend morning to joining a leisurely walk organized by their local Audubon chapter. There are those who won't venture into the field unless equipped with a GPS receiver and a digital camera mounted to a spotting scope, and minimalists that carry just their old-fashioned binoculars.
Whether searching for birds near home or farther afield, birders report that they sometimes experience moments so unexpected and transcendent that they evoke a kind of religious feeling. "It can be very spiritual, seeing 75 robins in a holly tree, pulling the berries off, with their chestnut breasts contrasting with the bright green of the holly. You wonder: is there anything more gorgeous than this in the entire world?" says Marj Rines, 61. "Or watching Red-tailed Hawks lock talons in the air and spiral down. It's some type of precourtship behavior, and witnessing it is very moving."
Rines, who is retired from the advertising industry, started an email listserv for birdwatchers in Arlington, Massachusetts, several years ago. She's been pleased to see it grow into an organization called the Menotomy Bird Club, with meetings, speakers, and field trips. "It's turned out to be a phenomenon," she says, and notes that the club attracts both beginning and more serious birders because it's unintimidating, run electronically, and there are no dues. "It makes me feel great when I go on a club walk and there are more than 20 people there, and they're excited and having fun, and socializing," she says. "I feel as if I've helped foster community."
Some birders say sharing their fascination with others may be the biggest thrill of all.
In fact, some birders say sharing their fascination with others may be the biggest thrill of all. Typically, they meet up by joining walks or attending the meetings of local clubs and Audubon chapters and participating in online forums like regional birding listservs. Travelers can even find a volunteer to show them the local hotspots through sites such as Birdingpal.org. "It's a really welcoming sort of community. People will immediately take you under their wing, so to speak, and want to show you things," says Kenn Kaufman, 52, author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America Although he has been birding on all six continents, Kaufman says "the thing that excites me most now is seeing other people getting the spark, going out and starting to develop an interest in birds. That's really a magical sort of thing for me." Recently he noticed three generations of a family at the McGee Marsh in Ohio watching a Baltimore Oriole in the late afternoon sunlight. "It was just glowing, and the birds were demonstrating that spring had arrived, and the little kids were like 'oh wow,' " he recalls. (See "Kenn Kaufman's Birding Top 10").
Not all birdwatching is quite so serene. "People don't think of birding as a high-powered, high-energy kind of thing," says Ian Lynch, a 44-year-old pastor from Brimfield, Massachusetts.
"They think of it as sedate people looking at the lovely birds." But Lynch proves them wrong as a fervid competitor in events like the Superbowl of Birding and the World Series of Birding. In these caffeine- and adrenaline-fueled 12- or 24-hour marathons, teams try to tally (i.e., see or hear) as many bird species as possible within a given region or state while raising money for conservation charities. Lynch has competed in the New Jersey Audubon Society's World Series of Birding for 11 years. He relishes the surreal moments in the tournament, such as when his team the Wicked Witchities (named after the "witchity" call of the Common Yellowthroat) stops at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to listen for the night calls of marsh birds. Rival teams gather around them in silence in the darkness. "It's 1:30 in the morning and you've got 50 people in a parking lot listening for a King Rail!" he says. A hazard of these nocturnal gatherings, however, is that sometimes you can't distinguish the call of a bird from the call of a competitor. "Once we heard a Barred Owl and were ready to count it, but a couple of minutes later we heard a car starting and knew that it was actually a member of a rival team, like the Lagerhead Shrikes or the Cornell Sapsuckers," he says.
'It's a really welcoming sort of community. People will immediately take you under their wing, so to speak.'
Since the teams help tip each other off to prime birding sites in advance and all the scoring is based on the honor system, Lynch calls it "perhaps the friendliest type of competition in the world." When he scouts locations during the week leading up to the World Series, he always trusts the information the other teams provide. "They never send you on a literal wild goose chase," he says. A couple of years ago, he was tipped off to look for waterfowl and shorebirds at a spot in Port Norris, New Jersey, that he calls "quite possibly the stinkiest place on earth, with a pile of clam shells that must be at least 30 feet high." Although he was eaten alive by ticks in the stultifying heat, he says the visit still turned out to be worthwhile because he met a fellow scout who helped him locate a Prothonotary Warbler. "I get such a great sense of relaxation by being intense about birding. It takes me away from all my other worries and concerns," says Lynch.
Since he never wants to risk missing out on a rare bird in his area, Lynch signed up for a hotline service run by the Brookline Bird Club. When a bird is spotted that is seldom found in Massachusetts or at that particular time of year, he receives an email on his cell phone. "I was in a meeting at work, the cell phone started vibrating in my pocket, and I saw that there was a Varied Thrush just 20 minutes away at the Quabbin Reservoir," he says. This was a "life bird" (the first time ever that he would see the species), so he rushed through the meeting and dashed out to find it. At the reservoir, he had no trouble locating the thrush because of the crowd that had gathered.
And nothing draws a crowd faster than a bird that has wandered far out of its normal range. In August 2004 a Vagrant Red-footed Falcon (a bird whose home base is Europe, Asia, and Africa) showed up at an airstrip on Martha's Vineyard—the first time the species had ever been spotted in the Western Hemisphere. Approximately 10,000 birders, some from as far away as California and Alaska, participated in a pilgrimage to add this once-in-a-lifetime raptor to their lists.
One way to make that "tick" (adding a new bird to your list) even more meaningful, according to Howard Higley, a 54-year-old administrator at a biomedical research company from Mountain View, California, is by volunteering to help with a scientific study. He has donated his time gathering data for projects such as Christmas Bird Counts, a study of Cerulean Warblers in Iowa, and banding tropical forest birds in Ecuador. "Amateur naturalists have always contributed to our understanding of what's out there," he says.
Higley was one of the lucky few volunteers chosen to assist a Cornell Lab of Ornithology team that's searching for the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Birding has given him lots of opportunities to contribute his skills to projects he believes in, "but there's a collector aspect to it as well," he says. "My favorite bird is the one I haven't seen yet."
Bringing Home the Wild
While a passion for birding can take you to some remote and exotic places, as it has for Higley, it can also open your eyes to the biodiversity in your own backyard. Until Tiny Gehrke, 47, a resident of Manteca, California, moved to the United States from Belgium four years ago, she had never seen a hummingbird in her life. "My first encounter with one was in my own yard, and I couldn't believe how beautiful and fast and acrobatic it was. I was hooked immediately and now I'm crazy about hummers," she says. Gehrke searched the Web and found out that she had seen an Anna's Hummingbird (the only species that spends the whole winter in California). Before long, her backyard was covered in bird feeders and she was volunteering for the Great Backyard Bird Count, managed by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "It's very addictive," she says. "With every bird you see, you want to find out about its call, where they live, where they migrate."
Last year, Gehrke learned that sometimes you don't have to go out looking for a rare bird—because it comes to you. She discovered a female Orchard Oriole, a species that is seldom seen west of the Rockies, hanging out at one of her feeders for several weeks. "It was out of season and out of place, and birders from all over northern California came to see it for themselves, including some biologists," she says. All her visitors were polite and thankful, she says, and "I felt so honored that the oriole chose my yard. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her." Gehrke likes to go walking with her binoculars and camera in her local park every day, and points out that you don't have to travel far or spend a lot of money to take pleasure in birds. "If you just look around and listen, you can see beautiful birds all around you."