For those of you who don't mind looking in the mirror ...
March 15, 2002
The Benevolent Bird Hunters
By JAMES GORMAN
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
"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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