We arrive at the sewage lagoon at 3 p.m. It’s cold for mid-May, barely above 50 degrees, and we count this as a blessing: it means the five enormous rectangular ponds that make up the waste stabilization compound in Blenheim, Ontario, are mercifully odorless. To people like us, this area is fabled for its colossal concentration of aquatic insects, which provide a veritable feast for an impressive number of shore birds. As Heather Blakelock, Brete Griffin and I roam the contours of the cells, scanning for movement, Bill Baughan—the loner in our group—stands guard near the entrance. He leans back against his Honda, on alert for rarities flying overhead.
We are making good time so far—90 birds under our belt and it’s only mid-afternoon—but I’m starting to feel a little nervous. We have less than five hours of daylight left.
Griffin, an ornithologist-turned-high school science teacher who has been birding for 45 years, immediately directs our attention to new shorebirds in the far corner of the pool, which he notices naked-eye. “Semipalmated, least sandpiper and greater yellowlegs,” he says, binoculars now up. “Or is it a lesser? Come on guys, I need your help here, be alert!” Blakelock and I raise our binoculars. I can barely make out the three birds feeding in the shallow waters: all grayish, uniformly spotted, running amok. I’m stumped. But to be fair, I am new at competitive birding.
I had joined this team of veterans to compete in the Baillie Birdathon, Canada’s largest birding competition and the oldest sponsored birding event in North America. Each May, 7,000 enthusiasts participate in this countrywide endurance test-cum-avian treasure hunt, where teams see how many species they can spot in a 24-hour period. Established in 1976 and administered by the non-profit Bird Studies Canada (BSC), it is named after Canadian ornithologist James L. Baillie. Participants collect sponsors, with all of the proceeds going toward conservation and bird research. The 2013 event netted more than $220,000 (CAD).
Between the three of them, Baughan, Blakelock, and Griffin have participated in 45 of these friendly competitions. This year, they are targeting the Lake Erie migratory flyover zones: the St. Clair marsh area northwest of Chatham first, followed by Point Pelee National Park. We’ll end the day in Rondeau Provincial Park, where, if we’re lucky, we’ll be rewarded with a fine woodcock display around sunset. “In my 15 years of birding, I’ve only seen this twice—both times at Rondeau,” Blakelock says. “Let’s cross our fingers you’ll see this!”
Ostensibly, I’m here to look at birds, but I’ve been examining the birders up close since our 4:15 wake-up call. One would assume that it is a rare breed that is willing to spend hours driving from forest to field to sewage lagoon in search of a specific bird to add to their list. However, the number of birders is growing across Canada. And as the practice expands, the typical birder—an older person clad in a multi-pocketed vest, Tilley hat and waterproof gear—is also starting to change. Organizations such as BSC and local bird groups are expanding their numbers of younger birders and galvanizing them to raise awareness about the importance of conservation and preserving habitats. Jody Allair, biologist and science educator at BSC, stresses the importance of illuminating the scientific benefits of bird research for a larger audience. “Birds,” he says, “are biological indicators, a thermometer to gauge the health of our planet.”
Birding offers both a contemplative pastime and a fierce adrenaline rush (just try chasing down a vagrant, a bird that has accidentally flown off its course). It is also one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the United States, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reporting a total of 47 million American participants. For an outsider, the idea of looking at birds may not seem exciting. After all, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Right? “What’s magical, for me, year after year, is the mystery of migration,” Griffin says. According to Allair, “If you haven’t experienced a good migration day you haven’t lived. It’s way too much stimulation!”
During peak migration season in May, when birds head north from South and Central America to breed in Canada, legions of North Americans compare sightings, commit the descriptions of migrant species in their Sibley or Peterson field guides to memory and fine-tune song recognition skills. A keen ear is indispensable in late spring, as the trees fill out with foliage. In fact, without a direct line of sight, it is the only way to, say, distinguish a vociferous alder (a harsh “fee-bee-o” sound) from its virtually identical cousin, the willow flycatcher (a more wheezy “fitz-bew”).
The hobby has spawned its own curious language. Enthusiasts talk about “lifers” (first-time bird sightings), refer to sparrows as LBJs (little brown jobs) and reminisce about their spark bird (the species that triggered their interest). Allair says that the lingo is part of what got him hooked on birding while volunteering at an avian observatory during his teenage years: He was impressed by how much the others knew about the world around them. “I wanted to know all the things around me.” Griffin describes birding as a comforting reminder that the natural world still exists. “It’s the inherent need to see that everything is as it should be in the avian and natural world, and that birds are persevering in spite of us,” he says.
Such reverence comes from the person whose first interest in birds was not so serene. “I had a BB gun as a kid and used to shoot birds, but I took an [ornithologist John James] Audubon approach and examined them carefully. The day I shot a chickadee, it broke my heart, and I never shot another bird,” he says.
This more violent introduction to birding is reflective of how competitions like the Baillie Birdathon began. These events have their origins in the Christmas Bird Count, which started in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman urged North Americans to tally and record bird species rather than shoot them. The process soon evolved into a friendly competition. Then, the 1934 publication of Roger Tory Peterson’s pocket-sized A Field Guide to the Birds enabled ordinary citizens and amateurs to distinguish birds by sight and call. Soon, enthusiasts were traveling across North America with the purpose of spotting as many species as possible. The modern competitive birding template is credited to businessman and amateur birder Guy Emerson, who completed the first “Big Year” list in 1939. Emerson traversed the continent counting as many species as he could in 365 days, culminating with 497. The 2013 Big Year record stands at 747.
This compulsion to count, tally and list can veer towards obsession. (American Phoebe Snetsinger spent the final 34 years of her life amassing a list of sightings that would make her, for a time, the world record holder: She had seen 8,398 of the world’s 9,700 known birds by the time of her death. The feat reportedly came at the cost of her marriage and relationship with her children.) But Paul Riss, a 43-year-old creative director from Oshawa, Ontario, says that there’s a different impulse at the core of this behavior; it’s a way of embalming the present. “I think most birders are collectors, like hunters, but we don’t kill them and stuff them,” he says. Instead, the desire to know more species—accumulate a longer list—and understand “how they look, act and why they do what they do,” says Riss, enables him to “stay in touch with nature.”
Riss’ list certainly follows him out of the field: He has the Latin name of each bird he sees inked on his body. His initial 234 tattoos were done to commemorate the species spotted during his so-called “punk rock Big Year” in 2011. “I guess I have one of the most permanent lists of anyone out there,” he says.
Apart from the spectacle of the tattoos, Riss has an additional goal in mind: to dispel the myth that birding is “an elitist thing,” and that birders are “old well-to-do white dudes and blue-haired ladies.” Riss has discovered that he isn’t the only fowl enthusiast who also listens to the Beastie Boys and Slayer. “There’s a huge number of birders like me who grew up listening to metal, hip hop and punk music, but were interested in birds and nature too,” he says. He even created a successful campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo for a clothing design company, PRBY Apparel. Its mission: to diversify the standard Tilley hat and multi-pocketed vest uniform (attire that Allair describes as “the tribalism that goes with being a birder”) with avian-themed T-shirts that would look at home at a rock show. “We don’t have to look like fuddy-duddy, freak-show bird people in our poorly designed, ill-fitting T-shirts anymore,” he wrote on his campaign site. “We can still be bird-freaks, but with style.”
The process of starting the brand has shaped how Riss views birders themselves: “I no longer think there’s a traditional birding landscape any more than I think there’s a traditional kind of human.” Allair of the BSC attributes part of the change within the last decade to advances in technology. Younger people, he says, have embraced digital tools as a way of interacting with nature. In the last few years, he has noticed youth birding clubs popping up. “[It] gets people appreciating the natural world through birds, and sets up how you look at the world for the rest of your life.”
It’s the end of the day when I arrive at Rondeau Provincial Park with the rest of my Baillie Birdathon team. But instead of the legendary aerial courtship display of the woodcock, we’re greeted by a sunset over Lake Erie; stark reds and purples bisect the sky. We’ve seen 130 birds—short of the team’s 2012 record of 133, but still respectable. Several “easy” birds—a chickadee and a pigeon—have eluded us. Such is life for a birder.
Earlier that afternoon, I had asked Griffin what would happen if we broke the team record. His answer was laconic: “We celebrate.” But I wanted more. What would we get for our nearly 18-hour effort? Would the BSC at least record our score? No. There is no trophy, no formal recognition, no ceremony where all the birders come together to swap stories and recount their adventures. “It’s the process that matters,” Griffin says. “And the money raised forconservation.” Baughan is almost rabbinic: “The birds themselves are the reward.”
But still I wondered—that’s it?
Watching the sunset over the lake with Baughan’s words echoing in my head, I remember all of us marveling, just this morning at the tip of Point Pelee, as the scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings fluttered at our feet, exhausted from their night of flying.
And then, on our way back to the car, we happen upon a displaying male American woodcock. A pudgy, ingeniously camouflaged shorebird that usually shuffles along the forest floor foraging for earthworms, he hurled himself into the ether and spun around wildly in gargantuan circles before plummeting to the ground and emitting a seductively nasal peent call. It seemed like nothing short of miraculous, but the species performs the acrobatic feat again and again, which fascinates the females—and us birders—to no end.
Julia Zarankin’s writing has appeared in many Canadian and U.S. journals including Prism, Threepenny Review, Birding, and Ontario Nature. Reprinted from Maisonneuve (Fall 2014), a quarterly Canadian magazine of arts, opinion, and ideas.