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Know the West

Birding, fast and slow


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.