Birding, fast and slow

  • Pepper Trail

 

First, a confession: I am a serious birder. Maybe too serious: For 364 days a year, I lead field trips for beginners, share my spotting scope and 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 might not be).

But on one day a year, Birdathon Day, all that changes. Birdathons are competitions to see who can record the most species in a 24-hour period. Ours is held at the height of spring migration, with teams fanning out across this corner of southern Oregon. It’s all for a good cause; we raise money for the educational programs of the 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.

Don’t get the idea that anything goes. Like any sport, the Birdathon is governed by rules both inflexible and obscure. 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 also be within our county, though this doesn’t cramp our style too much because Jackson County is almost twice the size of Rhode Island. Finally, 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 riverside meadow. To my lasting bitterness, this bird was disqualified, even though it was living free and would probably never be recaptured by the emu farm down the road.

The Birdathon starts not at midnight but at 6 p.m., 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 convince 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 to do a couple of hours hooting for owls before grabbing a few hours sleep and heading out again at 3 a.m. Then it’s more work for our expert owl hooter (every serious team has one of these indispensable specialists to lure owls) until first light at about 5 a.m., 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. The Falcons even have 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 is the key to Birdathon victory and all the glory that it brings.

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

That was just last week, and the wounds are beginning to heal. Today, I returned to my normal birding ways, walking with a friend along the creek near my house. Standing for an hour in one spot in a grove of willows, we watched half a dozen species of jewel-like warblers weave through the fresh green leaves, and I thought about their amazing journeys between the boreal forests of Canada and the jungles of Mexico.

I also heard the distinctive squeak and bubble of cowbirds and explained how they never care for their young, but lay their eggs in the nests of hapless "hosts." A chickadee 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 on every other day, let my birding be slow.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -