Rare warbler puts feather in cap of bird counters

January 04, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Armed with binoculars and a small telescope, Hal Wierenga trudged through a muddy field near the Bay Bridge searching for the prize of the day -- a single yellow warbler spotted earlier by a colleague.

"The only thing rare about this bird is that it should have been gone by now," said Mr. Wierenga, explaining that yellow warblers fly south in winter. "I don't think anyone has seen one here [in January] in 40 or 50 years."

The day was cold and gray. It was approaching 4 p.m., and Mr. Wierenga and his colleagues had been out tracking birds since daybreak.

But the birders, as they call themselves, were having fun. Some had driven from Frederick, Potomac and even farther for the annual Annapolis-Gibson Island Christmas Bird Count yesterday. Most already had spent close to 12 hours counting and logging birds commonly found in the area in January.

The yellow warbler was simply the crowning glory, an unexpected pleasure after a day of counting white-throated sparrows, cardinals and chickadees.

The rare experience of seeing one of the tiny yellow birds in the middle of winter explained the birder's excitement after an experienced colleague, staking out the grounds of Westinghouse's Oceanic Division, reported seeing one.

Mr. Wierenga, an Arnold resident who has participated in the annual Annapolis count since 1955, was determined to catch a glimpse of the warbler.

"Whish, whish, whish," he called toward the bushes. No warbler.

He trudged a little farther. "Whish, whish, whish."

Then another birder waved from around a building -- the tiny yellow bird had been spotted.

In a moment, a half-dozen birders stood scattered on a sidewalk, looking through binoculars, as the little warbler flitted from bush to bush.

"There he is -- behind the bush."

"Where? Oh, yes, there he goes."

After 10 minutes, the bird had been adequately watched and the birders were ready to move on to other hunting grounds.

"This is about as much excitement as you can get," said Robert Gelhard, a Mount Airy resident who has been a part of the Annapolis count for 25 years. Besides the yellow warbler, the most unusual bird Mr. Gelhard had logged was a winter wren. Altogether, he had seen about two dozen species since 5 a.m.

"It a dirty job, but someone's got to do it," joked Mr. Gelhard, who, along with Mr. Wierenga and a half-dozen others were canvassing Sandy Point State Park and an area immediately adjacent that includes the Westinghouse division. "I've often wondered myself -- on cold, dark mornings when it's snowing -- why do I do it? It's hard to say. I guess it's just a tradition."

The annual Annapolis count brings out scores of avid bird watchers, who spend an entire day, tally sheets in hand, counting each bird passing their way.

At the end of the count, the tallies are combined and the information fed to the National Audubon Society in New York, which collects data from counts from Alaska to Brazil.

For three weeks around Christmas, an estimated 43,000 people participate in about 14,000 counts in all 50 states, Canada and parts of Central and South America, according to the Audubon Society.

The information, which has been collected since 1901, is then used by scientists and researchers -- and bird lovers.

The Annapolis-Gibson Island count, scheduled on the last day of the counting period this year, is one of many across the state.

How do counters know they are not counting the same bird twice or more? They don't, said Mr. Wierenga. But the information gathered is accurate enough that over the years, researchers can look for patterns -- species that have decreased or increased in numbers, new species in an area, changes in migration patterns.

But the birders working the Sandy Point area yesterday weren't thinking much about the practical applications of their work. They were just busy birding and having fun.

"It's sort of like collecting, in a way," Mr. Gelhard said. "Once you get started, it's hard to stop."

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