Birders flock to sport

Contest: Planners expect the Big Sit! to draw world-class ornithological talent to an Anne Arundel park next month.

September 21, 2004|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bird watching, once considered the hobby of, shall we say, the more sedate observers of nature, has shed its dull plumage and soared into the competitive arena of a full-fledged sport.

To add to the sporting image, people with a serious interest in the avian world call themselves "birders," and they sponsor competitive events with names like the World Series of Birding in New Jersey, the Taverner Cup in Canada and the Great Texas Birding Classic.

Now others can see what all the squawk is about by joining members of the Anne Arundel Bird Club on Oct. 10 in Kinder Farm Park in Millersville for the 11th annual "Big Sit!"

Like any sporting event, the Big Sit! has its own set of rules. Originated by the New Haven Bird Club in Connecticut, the daylong competition pits the identification skills of teams from North America, Europe, Africa and South America. The goal is to record the most species of birds in 24 hours from a single location.

For a sighting to be official, it must be made from within a 17- foot circle that will be outlined with chalk on the parking lot beside Kinder Farm Park's picnic pavilions. The location is adjacent to an open field, a marshy area and a dense stand of trees that are ripe for watching.

The local club - which has more than 175 members - was among nine Maryland teams that competed last year against more than 150 teams. The team from Assateague came in third, recording 103 species. The winning team, from Vera Cruz, N.M., identified 156 species.

At last year's event in Kinder Farm Park, the 54-year-old Anne Arundel club tallied 46 species of birds, including common backyard birds such as robins, jays and cardinals, and more unusual sightings, such as bald eagles and a sharp-shinned hawk that flew low enough over the watchers for them to get a good look at the feathered dinner locked in its talons.

Adding to the life list

A major avian event is the perfect opportunity to see a species of bird you haven't seen before, says local event coordinator Tom Bradford. Even old hands at birding are looking for elusive species to add to their "life list" - a personal diary of identified birds that all birders keep.

"Almost every birder can remember that one bird that really got them excited," Bradford says. For his family, it happened on vacation at the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

"We had a cheap pair of binoculars that we shared," he says. "We weren't very expert in identifying, but we did have a field guide. We saw a black skimmer flying above the water with its large lower mandible in the water catching fish.

"We watched and watched, and said, `Look at that!'" he recalls. Bradford and his wife, Sharon, now lead birding trips throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

From a distance, birds can be identified by their size, flight pattern, beak and tail shape, and color of head and wings, Bradford says.

"Turkey vultures are easy [to spot from a distance]," he says, "but hawks can be tricky."

To differentiate between similar hawk species, Bradford turns to the club's resident hawk expert, Sue Ricciardi.

Ricciardi still recalls the moment when she became a serious birder - it was the day in 1973 when she saw a northern flicker in her yard.

"I thought it was some sort of exotic bird," she says, "but it turned out to be a kind of woodpecker with a wonderful array of colors. So I investigated what it was." Considering the possibility of "more wonderfully looking things," she bought a pair of binoculars and "started from there."

Today, Ricciardi is the official compiler of hawks for the Hawk Migration Association of North America at Fort Smallwood Park in northern Anne Arundel County.

Thousands of raptors a year pass the park as they migrate from South and Central America and Florida to breed in New York and points north, she says.

The gear required for birding is simple, says Bradford, but it can be expensive.

You can't identify a bird beyond the range of the human eye without a good pair of binoculars, says Bradford. Depending on the level of magnification and the clarity of the image, binoculars can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Reference books

Another must for birders is a good reference book. Bradford recommends the Peterson's Guide, the Stokes Guide, and the National Geographic Bird Guide. But "the one to have," he says, is a guide by David Allen Sibley that includes drawings and photographs.

Good walking shoes and waterproof footwear for shore watching make for comfortable birding, along with a supply of bottled water and snacks, Bradford adds.

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