Birders take wing with 'World Series' N.J. competitors vie for variety

May 19, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

CAPE MAY, N.J. — A photo in yesterday's Sun that showed two Maryland participants in the 1992 World Series of Birding incorrectly identified Michael O'Brien of Rockville as Rick Blom.

The Sun regrets the errors.

CAPE MAY, N.J. -- At half past midnight Friday in this boggy, stumpwater-smelling place called the Great Swamp, the bullfrogs are cranking it up, roaring like the Indianapolis 500. Glowworms dot oozy footpaths with pinpricks of dull light, as if somebody just stubbed out hundreds of cigarettes. And on the eastern horizon, the lights of Newark and Manhattan shine like a false dawn on low, distant clouds.

But just as nature's reign seems secure for the night, a Volvo station wagon emerges from the mist on a grassy road, and out step three men and a woman. They cup their hands to their ears and peer into the murk. Then one of the men rears back his head and begins hooting for all he's worth, as if suddenly transformed into a giantowl. Even the bullfrogs pause to take notice.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Welcome to the opening hour of the insomniac's Call of the Wild. It is a 24-hour race against time, fatigue, the elements and other bird-watchers played out within the boundaries of New Jersey, with some teams driving 600 miles or more as they traverse the state.

It is a game in which a bird in the hand is worth only half of two in the bush, because the object is to identify by sight or sound more species than any other team by the following midnight, starting wherever you please but finishing at the Cape May lighthouse.

Among the big leaguers, it usually takes at least 200 species to win, while 209 is the record. And make no mistake about the four birders who stood around the Volvo in the swamp as the latest Series began last weekend. All are heavy hitters, birders who can pick out the voice of a Least Bittern from a chorus of bullfrogs and King Rails, or spot the fine-line difference between a Tennessee warbler and a warbling vireo at a hundred paces, without so much as a glance at an Audubon guidebook.

As for the owl imitator, that would be Rick Blom of Bel Air, trying to stir up a conversation in the dark with a barred owl, a bulky hunter of the night that haunts the nightmares of field mice all over the East.

A few minutes later there are some answering hoots, but by the sound of them they, too, are from an impostor. "Birders all over the swamp are hooting at each other," he whispers with a chuckle.

And he is right. The roads crisscrossing the swamp are alive with vehicles, each stuffed to the gills with birders, binoculars, tripods, coolers and rain gear.

For those inclined to snicker about bird-watching, the World Series is a sobering revelation. Gone are the wiry, gray-haired ladies in tennis shoes puttering about in sun visors.

Bird-watching has gone trendy, with membership soaring in groups such as the New Jersey Audubon Society, while sales of birdseed and feeders have climbed as high as a circling turkey vulture. This year's World Series even had a celebrity birder, actress Jane Alexander, competing for the team sponsored by The Nature Co. retail chain.

Yes, there are sponsors now, as sure a sign of mainstream status as any. Each of the 48 teams competing in the upper echelon had one, many from among the companies that make binoculars. Mr. Blom and his teammates -- Lynn Davidson and Hal Wierenga of Arnold and Michael O'Brien of Rockville -- were ** sponsored by the U.S. division of Swarovski Optik, of Austria.

But there's no money to made here. Beyond mileage reimbursements, a new pair of binoculars and some free eats, about all you can hope to get is a trophy and bragging rights. That's only one way in which birding, despite its popularity, remains happily in its innocence. In nine years of Series competition, no birder has yet filed a protest against another, and scoring is based entirely on the honor system.

Not that these folks don't take competition seriously. The better teams spend up to a week scouting the state in advance, scoping out nests and breeding grounds at all hours in all regions, sometimes even leaving telltale markers for hard-to-find sites.

With their skills further honed by birdsong audio tapes and years of poring through guidebooks, watching the birders can be as interesting as watching the birds. The chaos of overlapping noises in the Great Swamp, for instance, becomes a series of conversations easily translated by Mr. Blom and his companions.

Mr. O'Brien seems particularly attuned to the noises, and in between the stray croaks of a frog that sound like twangs on a broken banjo string, he hears a faint noise and proclaims in a whisper, "American bittern."

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