Dorchester birder's rite of spring Marathon: Every May, Henry T. Armistead sets out on a 180-mile road trip to find as many species of birds as possible in 24 hours.

On The Bay

May 29, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

In Tom Horton's On The Bay column May 29, a reference to the British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 was incorrect. The British bombardment of the fort took place Sept. 12-14, 1814.

The Sun regrets the errors.

TRAFFIC is heavy, mostly frogs hopping along the narrow Elliott Island road in the wee hours of a chilly, rain-soaked May morning.

To avoid squashing amphibians, the driver of the GMC Suburban with license plate OSPREY swerves frequently. The searchlight held out of the window in his free hand slices wildly across the dark Dorchester marsh.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

On the hood, tied to the windshield wipers to keep it from sliding, a boom box hurls taped calls of nocturnal marsh birds into the mist.

It has become a ritual of Maryland's spring, this annual "May run" of Henry T. Armistead, a Philadelphia librarian and birder extraordinaire -- a sleepless, 180-mile marathon to hear and see as many species of birds as possible in 24 hours.

"O, say can you see

by the dawn's early light?

That's Harry, still birding

after Dorchester's night."

A friend, ornithologist Paul Spitzer, was moved by Armistead's exploits to write several stanzas to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner," appropriate since Harry is descended from George Armistead, who commanded Fort McHenry during the British bombardment in 1812.

"And the short-eared owls' glare

osprey slicing through air,

gave proof, o'er the years,

Armistead was still there!"

Armistead's family has owned a summer home on the Eastern Shore since the 1920s, and as a 9-year-old, the sight of a goldfinch, brilliant on a purple thistle, kindled a passion for birds.

He has been birding Dorchester ever since, for close to 50 years, his careful observations comprising a remarkable record of environmental change.

First marathon

In 1966 he did his first May marathon, timed to coincide with the peak of spring bird migration. In 1970, he extended his "run" to twice each May.

This night would be the 62nd such traverse of his beloved Dorchester. The largest of Maryland's counties, its nearly 1,000 square miles are 60 percent water and marsh, with another 20 percent in forest.

Two of us met Harry and his son, George, near midnight at the Food Mart in Vienna. They had warmed up with a stop on the way at Easton's sewage treatment ponds, counting a barred owl, several rails, gallinules and a bevy of wood ducks with young.

Three years ago Harry and George set a new best for the May run with 168 species. The worst run ever was 121, Harry said.

With a nasty northeaster that promised to worsen, the Armisteads thought any record set tonight would most likely be a new low.

The first stop produced not a peep in response to our hood-mounted tape of rails -- secretive marsh birds that one may hear calling night after night without ever seeing one.

A mile or so farther, in a wooded stretch of road, Harry performed a compelling screech owl call for 15 minutes. Except for hungry mosquitoes, nothing stirred.

"Could be a long night," murmured George. At age 24 a fine birder in his own right, he increasingly serves as Harry's "ears." The elder Armistead, 58, is losing the high-frequency discrimination needed to hear the higher-pitched warblers and sparrows.

Stop and go, call and listen; we wend our way deeper into lower Dorchester, picking up a screech owl, a chuck-will's-widow, a yellow-bill cuckoo and assorted rail species. It is 1: 30 a.m., getting colder.

Harry reaches for a big blue thermos of coffee -- one of three that will sustain him. These marathons, he says, began early in the century in New England, the idea of legendary ornithologist Ludlow Griscom.

They were known as Big Days -- also Lethal Tours, Century Runs and Grim Grinds. Critics at the time called these often madcap dashes across hundreds of miles of countryside to list everything with feathers "ornitho-golfing."

A personal challenge

Harry says for him it is as much recreation as science, a personal challenge and a chance to test one's skills and endurance. Also, he loves this route, where not a single traffic light intrudes.

Most of all, he says, the run celebrates spring's vitality, and the diversity and richness of wildlife in his favorite haunts.

Indeed, as we listen for birds, we hear a barking fox, a bugling sika deer, the bleating of nutria, and racketing, twanging, peeping choirs of several species of frog -- so loud they drown out all else.

Toward dawn, we've got about 20 species on our night list, and the wind is picking up. Even Harry thinks we might as well nap, for maybe 10 minutes, and then he is off and running on his day list.

Things pick up smartly where lonely, lovely Shorters Wharf Road passes forested hammocks studding the great tide marsh. One such stop triples the number on our list.

The early light romps goldenly across prairies of needlerush and flushes the most incredible, fresh green from the tender new growth of salt marsh hay. All about, the scene vibrates with the flit and chatter of bird life.

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