Before dawn, on weekends, thousands of Washington area residents shuck work to spot long-neck grebes and short-eared owls.

Washington, it seems, is not just a government town with art galleries and Beach Boys concerts. It is one of the premier bird watching regions in the country, and as spring begins even more bird lovers will be stepping through thickets, binoculars plugged to their eyes, in search of common loons and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

"Every time I see a bird, I get the same thrill of a little kid seeing a chickadee for the first time," said Floyd Murdoch, a high school principal, who spotted 678 kinds of birds in 1973, breaking the American Birding Association's national record.

Long thought of as eccentrics, bird watchers seem to be shaking the image of the oddball nature stalker as more people of numerous backgrounds and professions join the ranks.

The National Audubon Society, which had 320,000 paid memberships in 1980, now has 492,000. The Washington area Audubon Naturalist Society also reports more dues-paying members, up from 5,051 in May 1980 to 8,160 now.

"It's a huge subculture. There are tens of thousands of birders," said Erika Wilson, a Northern Virginia bird walk leader from McLean. "Of course, they watch with varying degrees of interest . . . some just in their back yard feeder. But others are obsessed by birds -- I probably fall in that category."

What makes Murdoch fly around the world -- scouring the skies of Trinidad and Tobago last Christmas -- searching for rare birds, and what makes Wilson quit her job as a National Institutes of Health medical technician to devote more time to the birds? And what about the estimated 7,000 serious bird watchers belonging to the 15 bird groups in Washington, Maryland and Virginia?

"It's just like any sport, you get a thrill out of doing it," said Murdoch, principal of Spencerville Junior Academy in Montgomery County.

"We're just like music lovers," said Wilson, "but we don't have the press they do."

"Most people don't know from bananas what's going by [in the sky]. . . and these bird watchers do," explained Brian Sutton Smith, a development psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Like avid amateur athletes and people who spend 35 hours a week playing Monopoly, enthusiastic birders are "going for the feeling of mastery in a field," said Smith.

Still, Mort Somer, who drove from his home in Burke last month for a Saturday morning bird walk in freezing weather through Arlington's Potomac Overlook Regional Park, said he does it because "it's just a good excuse to be outside."

Touting the low cost and physical exertion involved, bird watchers say their hobby mixes the beauty of nature with the intellectual challenge of identifying the 853 native North American species from the blurry brown specks sitting on telephone poles.

"Why is it interesting?" said Claudia Wilds, a District resident and author of "Finding Birds in the National Capitol Area." "There are birds that breed above the Arctic Circle and fly to the south of South America . . . . "

Parent birds and their offspring leave the Arctic at different times, Wilds said, "but they likely come within three or four miles of each other in the south . . . . Yes, it's interesting."

In large part because it is a popular rest stop for migrating birds, the Washington area is one of the richest bird regions in the country, according to Sherry L. Wadle, director of membership at the American Birding Association in Austin, Tex. "Tucson is a little bit better, but Texas is worse," Wadle said. "Yes, Washington is very good."

Along with a temperate climate that draws waterfowl year-round as well as seasonal birds, the area's lush park system makes Washington an attractive bird home, said Jackson M. Abbott.

Abbott, 65, who has been leading bird walks for 35 years and watching birds for 55, said he can tell that increasing numbers of people are interested in warblers, grackles and ducks.

Some popular spots -- Great Falls National Park, Dyke Marsh, the C&O Canal -- are filled with more binocular-toters than ever, he said.

"More people are going on the walks, more people are calling me asking for help in identifying birds," Abbott said. "One lady said she thought there was a giant hummingbird on a telephone pole. Well, she described it and it turned out it was an Asiatic sunbird."