Portrait of Twitching Society

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Portrait of Twitching Society
From: Laurie&Leanne Knight <>
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 18:52:19 +1000
For those of you who don't mind looking in the mirror ...
March 15, 2002

The Benevolent Bird Hunters

The gyrfalcon, dark and fierce, probably digesting a meal of herring gull 
or pigeon, was perched on a high ledge of the Boston Design Center.

The birders, half a dozen of them in winter coats with hats and gloves, 
binoculars and telescopes, were perched a block or so away, on an upper 
floor of an open-air parking garage on Northern Avenue.

 From its vantage point, the falcon could survey the streets of South 
Boston and, more to the point, the skies. From their viewpoint, the birders 
could see the falcon. This was a weekday, so the turnout was small. On some 
weekends this winter, 40 or more people have come to see the largest of 
falcons, an Arctic bird that is a rarity this far south.

The migrations of birds hold many mysteries, but the movements of birders 
are predictable. They follow rare bird alerts, or R.B.A.'s. These started 
out as recorded announcements that birders could reach by telephone. Now, 
many birders subscribe to the alerts by registering to receive e-mail.

The alerts are usually weekly compilations of sightings in a given area, 
mostly of rare or interesting birds, often with very specific directions on 
how to find them. The gyrfalcon has been on the alert for eastern 
Massachusetts off and on all winter. There are alerts for western 
Massachusetts and Connecticut, more than one for New Jersey and for New York.

They are something like movie listings for people who would rather see a 
bird than a movie, for whom wood ducks in Prospect Park in Brooklyn are 
more alluring than opera. (Actually, since birds are usually seen in 
daylight, you can catch a duck matinee and still take in "Gosford Park" in 
the evening.)
"They build their weekend around it," said Tony Lauro, who helps compile an 
alert for New York City, Long Island and Westchester County. This alert, 
like others, relies on a network of observers who keep their eyes open.

Not only local birders pay attention to the alerts. "When people travel 
around the country and they're interested in birds, they just call the 
R.B.A.," Mr. Lauro said.

Since the gyrfalcon is one of the top birds for people who keep a life list 
of the species they have seen ("tickers," for ticking off species), I may 
be one of the few people who didn't plan the trip to view it. The birders I 
talked to said that rarer birds had appeared here and there in the 
Northeast and on the alerts, but that the gyrfalcon had probably been the 
biggest consistent draw, simply because it is such a magnificent creature. 
You don't have to be a ticker to want to see a gyrfalcon.

It was seen at Logan International Airport on Dec. 1 by Jim Murray, who 
works for the airport's bird patrol, said Norman Smith, an expert on birds 
of prey and director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, Mass.

Then a veteran birder, Ronnie Donovan, who lives in South Boston, very near 
the design center, spotted it during the Audubon Christmas bird count on 
Dec. 13. Mr. Smith took me to see it as a side trip when we were looking 
for snowy owls in the Boston area. The building that the bird favors, 
coincidentally, is adjacent to the Black Falcon ferry terminal.

When I saw the falcon, it was quiet. But others have seen it attacking 
gulls and pigeons. Mr. Donovan, who stops by often to check on its 
progress, said the falcon had killed a greater black-backed gull, a bird 
larger than the falcon itself.

Sometimes, he said, it seems to be flying for fun. He has seen it "in the 
air doing barrel rolls" among the gulls, for reasons only the falcon knows.

Mr. Smith, who bands birds of prey, caught a young female gyrfalcon at 
Logan Airport in 1998. He thinks this bird may well be the same one. It has 
a band on the same leg that his bird did, although he has yet to read all 
the numbers. Some of them are hidden from even the best telescopes, and 
although it has swooped near his traps at Logan, it has scorned them.

If most birders treat the alerts like movie listings, some react to them 
like fire alarms. Jim Hunter, who helps compile the Connecticut alerts, 
said that a few years ago, a little stint, a Eurasian bird that appears 
once in a great while on the East Coast, was sighted at Pelham Bay. He said 
a birder from Denver caught an overnight flight to New York, took a taxi 
from the airport, "got the bird" and flew home in time for work that morning.

This may sound like lunacy to some people, but it strikes me as a pleasant 
and satisfying obsession. In fact, the first time I encountered serious 
birders was on a cruise to Antarctica to see penguins. About half the 
people on the ship were very serious birders, and when a new or unusual 
albatross or petrel was announced on the public address system, all the 
birders would rush to see it. It was not wise to get in their way. This 
didn't put me off; it attracted me.

Having seen the gyrfalcon, and glimpsed another example of birding 
intensity, I naturally had to sign up to receive Northeastern alerts by e- 
mail. The first thing I realized was that the lists are not all about truly 
rare birds. Most include all sorts of interesting birds and give you a good 
idea of where to go even if you are not a ticker.

In fact, Simon Perkins of the Massachusetts Audubon Society said the list 
he works on was intended to give a snapshot of which birds are in eastern 
Massachusetts in a given week. He said that Massachusetts Audubon 
established the first rare bird alert in 1954.

I had happened upon the gyrfalcon. I didn't work for it.

So I scanned the lists for birds that I could pursue. I settled on the 
harlequin duck, an extravagantly colored bird reported to have been seen at 
the Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold, on Long Island. I hoped to find 
one, but I recognized that birds move about from day to day.

Indeed I didn't see the harlequins. But the number of bird species I have 
not seen is so vast that it's almost impossible for me to be disappointed. 
In birding terms, I'm a cheap date.

I went on one of the few days this winter when the temperature was near 
freezing. The wind was blowing about 20 miles an hour, the water was 
covered with whitecaps, and I was alone, which should have suggested 
something to me. I did see several pairs of long-tailed ducks, formerly 
known as oldsquaw, another arctic bird, bobbing and diving in the water.

In fact, experiencing the fierceness of the winter beach was worth it. As I 
looked out at the wind- whipped sea, tears came to my eyes. Of course, that 
was because the wind was blowing into them.

I also think that my nose was near frostbite. No matter. I had never seen 
long-tailed ducks before. If I had a life list, I could have checked them off.

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