No one was talking about the Middle East, the energy crisis or presidential candidates at the Civic Center in Bangor, Maine, last week, where close to 400 members of the American Birding Association flocked for their fifth biennial national convention. Glamorous names were invoked frequently and with passion, but they were those of local celebrities: the greater shearwater, the common puffin, the black-backed three-toed woodpecker. Some skeptics might question the judgment of birders who traveled to Bangor from Dallas, Miami or Los Angeles, only to leave their beds at 3 a.m. the next day and ride in rattling school buses to a forest of spruce and sphagnum moss to look at a woodpecker with three toes -- but these are the same old Philistines who go around asking lovers of modern art what's so great about drips and blobs.
Although the sterotype of the gentel, solitary naturalist persists, a high percentage of the millions of bird watchers in the United States are a rugged, aggressive, competitive and highly gregarious lot. The American Birding Association, headquarterd in Austin, Tex., serves as the rule-setting organizaion for these sportsfolk, publishing the official ABA "Checklist of North American Birds" and the no-nonsense journal Birding, which tells readers where to find birds and how to distinguish similar species. wThe names of the top birders, ranked by number of speicies seen, appear annually in Birding and, although there are state lists and other classifications, the ABA Area Life List, which includes birds seen in the wild in the lower 48 states, Canada and Alaska, is the most prestigious.
The members of ABA were in Maine for five days of joyous total immersion. They attended workshops and meetings, hobnobbed with bird-world celebrities, and chose from the list of 12 land and water day trips those on which they might expect to see birds needed for their ABA area life lists.
Friendships were formed instantaneously.
"I'm up to 708 and I'm really scratching," said the tall man from Brownsville, Tex., to the red-haired man from Toronto."If you get an ivory gull in your area again call me and I'll fly up."
"May I show you something marvellous?" asked the grandmotherly looking woman from North Dakota, extracting a snapshot from her wallet with a proud smile. "This is the Eruopean brambling, a male in winter plumage, perched right on my feeder!"
"Which is the warbler that says, 'Cheese, cheese, Limburger cheese'?" a tall young woman gravely asked a man with a telescope mounted on a gun stock slung over his shoulder.
At the social hour, they talked of bird trips past and the recent adventures of "The two Pauls," the men who head the ABA area list: Paul Du Mont of Washington, D.C., and Paul Sykes of Delray Beach, Fla. In early June, on remote Attu, the last island of the Aleutian chain, where a large group of devotees were legitimately listing Asian birds on North American territory, Du Mont lost his three-year position at the top of the list to Sykes. A funny thing happened while the biggies were luxuriating -- 20 to a Quonset hut -- in Attu. The first North American sighting of the Cuban grassquit was reported in Florida. By the time the two Pauls left Alaska, the bird, which had been seen over a period of several weeks in a back yard in Key West, had been eaten by a house cat. Not to worry. Breaks of the game. The dauntless Pauls raced to a marsh 160 miles each of Quebec city to cash in on the second North American sighting of a European bird, the little egret. At the ABA convention, the life stories of the two Puals were summarized in updated numbers of sightings: 733 (Sykes), 731 (Du Mont).
News of unusual sightings travels fast through a network of "reliable observers." On the first day of the convention in Maine, two rare accidentals (birds seen fewer than 20 times in North America), the rufous-necked stilt and the little stilt, were seen on Monomony Island off the town of Chatham on Cape Cod. Fifteen conventioneers chucked their projected tours to hot spots in Maine, chartered three small planes and flew to Monomony, but neither bird could be found.
They returned to Bangor, tea and sympathy in the late afternoon and at 11 p.m., keyed up by "600 fever," "700 fever" and other recognized afflictions, set off in station wagons for an all-night drive to see the little egret, who was still dallying by the St. Lawrence River.
For the great majority, the challenges of finding new birds in Maine were sufficient. Having been in bed scarcely long enough to rumple their sheets, they rose before the birds began singing, downed donuts and coffee on the bus and began inspecting three-sandwich box lunches at about 9 after several hours of birding. At night they dined togheter in the Civic Center, talked birds and enjoyed speakers.
Roger Tory Peterson, famed artist-naturalist, author of the classic "A Field Guide to the Birds," accepted the Ludlow Griscom Award -- a handsome plaque embossed with a pair of binoculars. He lauded Griscom, an early ornithologist ("He never lost his sense of fun"), and shamelessly promoted the forthcoming revised edition of his book to an audience alreay committed to its purchase.
Chandler Robbins of Laurel, Md., who wrote the currently even better-selling field guide, "Birds of North America," relayed the news that only six dusky seaside sparrows were found in an intensive helicopter search of their nesting grounds -- all males. Their forzen sperm will survive them -- for reasons obscurely but impeccably scientific.
Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr., a trim, precise, bird-like figure, convulsed the audience with a list of typos he discerned in the gallery proofs of his "A Guide to Bird Finding East of the Mississippi."
The showman of the group was the flamboyant Jim Vardaman of Louisiana, who said he was a "lousy birder but a great promoter and married to a saint." In late 1978, he publicized his intention of seeing 700 birds in one year. Vardaman, aged 58, who had toted up a respectable but unremarkable life list of 400 birds since boyhood, began back at zero on Jan. 1, 1979, and during the year traveled 161,000 miles by plane, car, boat, foot and bicyle, and spent $48,500, a quarter of it on plane fare, following up all leads and backtracking four times to Alaska. By June he had seen 600 species, by Dec. 31, 699. His book will be out in the fall. "He didn't see 699 birds, he was shown 699 birds," said one spoilsport.
There are approximately 650 nesting species in the North American region and the current ABA checklist, including all accidentals ever sighted, totals 818. The first person to achieve a lift list of 700 birds was Joseph Taylor, president of the ABA, who was the top birder from 1970 to 1977, when he was passed by Paul Du Mont. In pre-ABA days, the elite of the birding world were the members of "The 600 Club." There are now 15 birders with life lists of more than 700 species in a breakthrough that, like the four-minute mile, came about for a number of reasons, not the least of which is psychological -- the knowledge that it can be done.
The tradespeople of Bangor were patient with the birders, who shunned the harness races, the restaurants and bars and the Clint Eastwood movie showing on Main Street. Returning from "full day" boat trips to Nova Scotia (5 a.m.-11:30 p.m.) or Baxter State Park (3 a.m. to 5 p.m.), dragging their L.L. Bean boots and their top two layers of clothing and giving off the scent of baloney sandwiches and insect repellent, the conventioneers were greeted by sleekly groomed motel desk clerks who asked, deadpan, "See some good birds today?"
The teen-aged waitress of Bangor exchanged discreet smiles during the after-dinner countdown in the Civic Center dining room. A billboard-sized checklist of the birds of Maine formed the backdrop of the head table and the ritual ("Call out if you saw the bird today and I read off the names. Don't groan if you didn't") began with dessert.
One Bangor bus driver was affronted by what he mistakenly regarded as an insult when a woman sighted a common night hawk or a chuck will's widow from the window and, seizing on the order designation for these look-alike nocturnal insect eaters, grasped him by the shoulders and shrieked, "Goatsucker! Stop the bus!"
At the end of the weekend, the birders departed, vowing to meet again at the 1982 convention in Florida. One of their objectives then: to seek out the mangrove cuckoo.