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For Birders, A Chance to Test Their Wings

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2004; Page D01

Birding is a cruel numbers game. Curse the wily whiskered auklet, the fickle fork-tailed flycatcher, whose elusiveness keeps the earnest birder from happiness. Think of all the exhausting hikes the birder must endure, the perilous helicopter rides, the strained neck, the crushed dreams. Think of the unfinished lists.

Birders love lists.

Mark Obmascik, a convert to birding, brought along a scope and tripod on his book tour for "The Big Year." (Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

Almost all list the number of bird species they've seen in their lives. Many also track the ones they've seen in their state or county. Some keep lists of birds they have seen from their yards. A demented few keep lists of the birds they see on television, and get upset when, once again, the cry of a red-tailed hawk is dubbed over footage of a bald eagle. There's a guy in Colorado who keeps a list of the number of different birds he's seen on 15 years of trips to South America. (So far, he has 1,983.) To check off a rare bird, birders travel to dumpy islands and fetid dumpsters. They compete in contests like the World Series of Birding and the Great Texas Birding Classic. They study things like birding economics.

Every year, a few birders in the full plumage of their obsession enter something called the North American Big Year, a 365-day grueling Olympics of birding. (Birders are a proud people who disdain the passive term "bird-watching.") At their own expense, these birders travel across the continental United States, Alaska and Canada, pursuing the 675 species native to the region, as well as non-native birds who get lost in migration. They memorize minute differences in wing markings. They often identify birds by their calls alone. The one who records the most birds gets nothing except the envy of fellow birders, which is plenty in the birding world.

In his new book, "The Big Year," Mark Obmascik, a former Denver Post reporter, tells the story of 1998, the biggest Big Year ever, by reconstructing the journeys of three top birders. The winner saw a record-breaking 745 species, and spent about $100,000 doing it. Obmascik, who is on a book tour, was in town last week, eating breakfast at a restaurant near Union Station and marveling at the reaction he'd received from callers on a Philadelphia radio show.

"After a while it began to sound like an AA meeting," Obmascik says. " 'Hi, my name is Julie. I'm a birder. I got up at dawn to go from Philly to a sewage lagoon in Baltimore to look at a Ross's gull.' "

Sewage ponds, it turns out, are excellent habitat for certain birds. "Rich with life," Obmascik says. In the book, he writes with reverence of a Big Year competitor whose "secret weapon" is the years he spent working with chemicals and inadvertently ruining his own sense of smell. This allows the man to seek out a rare crow at a steaming landfill with relative ease. Such are the joys of birding.

Obmascik, 42, is himself a convert to birding, after writing occasionally about birds and birding for his paper. (He was also the lead writer on the Denver Post's Columbine coverage, which won the Pulitzer Prize.) Back home in Denver, he takes his sons on birding expeditions. When he comes to Washington for his tour, he carries birding books, a scope and tripod, padding the metal legs with pipe insulation to cushion his shoulder. At Hains Point, he watches great black-backed gulls tearing apart fish as they drift along on ice floes.

But what really fascinates him are the hardest of the hard-core birders, mostly men, who travel countries and continents just to see an animal "that has a brain the size of your pinky nail," he says. Several years ago, for a news story, Obmascik observed birders who'd come to see the mating grounds of the Gunnison sage grouse, off a dirt road in Colorado. There was a group of "Harvard lawyers from Boston. They had come all this way to watch some birds have sex before dawn," he says. "There was a vanload of Brits who were doing the chicken tour of Colorado."

What makes a man do a chicken tour? It is a question that Obmascik can never fully answer, though he points out how birding taps into a love of nature, intellectual prowess and most of all the competitive spirit. At High Island, Tex., a hot spot during spring migration, birders come from England, Germany and Japan, Obmascik says. The good ones don't need to consult their field guides to name the avian travelers.

"Calling out a mistake at High Island during migration is like letting a grounder go between your legs during the World Series," Obmascik says.

But there seems to be something more to it than competition, something that transforms birding from recreation to fixation. What is it?

"I asked these guys that a million different ways," Obmascik says. "Finally I think one of them said, 'Why'd you fall in love with your wife?' "

Maybe it is that inexplicable. Maybe it is fate. Oddly, among those who adore chicken tours and landfill expeditions, a significant proportion seem to have been born with avian last names. Thus, there is the young man who used to edit the youth publication for the Colorado Springs-based American Birding Association, Ben Winger, and the president of the National Audubon Society, John Flicker. (The flicker, as any birder knows, is a kind of woodpecker). There's the editor of American Birding's newsletter, "Winging It," whose name is Matt Pelikan.

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