Up early with the birds
At the annual Superbowl of bird-watching, teams compete to be top of the pecking order.
ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, N.H.
Five birders; 5 binoculars; 4 telescopes; 1 "Sibley Field Guide"; Odiorne Point, 1 stretch of rocky New Hampshire coastline; 30 minutes; 9 species identified.Skip to next paragraph
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Birders keep lists. It's in their nature.
They keep lists of the total number of species catalogued in a lifetime. They keep North American lists. State lists. Neighborhood lists. Day lists. They keep "man powered" lists of the birds they've seen while on foot or bike. Some even keep lists of the species they've spotted mating.
To the uninitiated, it can be difficult to fathom the allure of bird-watching: It seems sleepy, a solitary hobby for retirees with too much time on their hands. But for a few, at least on certain days, bird-watching becomes a competitive sport - albeit one contested over an unusually large playing field.
The official start time for the third Superbowl of Birding is 5 a.m. It's held a week before that other, more familiar Super Bowl, on a Saturday in New England that happens to be quite cold.
In the inky black morning, the five-person Monadnock Merlins are making their final preparations. They are last year's winning team.
81 species; 1 Swarovski trophy engraved with the team name; five $100 birding-store gift certificates.
For the next 12 hours, they will crisscross Rockingham County in southeastern New Hampshire, trying to spot as many bird species as possible. Rare birds earn more points. A majority of the team must agree on each identification - birders abide by an honor system.
The Merlins are competing against 25 other teams in the event, sponsored by Massachusetts Audubon's Joppa Flats Education Center. Some competitors will scour Essex County in northeastern Massachusetts, some both Rockingham and Essex. The Merlins, who traveled both counties last year, accepted a challenge to limit themselves to Rockingham today.
Their stops along the water, at Sandy Point and Odiorne Point State Park, are leisurely, closer to what you'd expect of bird watching. Through spotting scopes, the water comes alive. At Sandy Point, an estuary, scores of Common Goldeneyes, ducks with a telltale white cheek spot, winningly dip their heads and shake their tails.
But the rest of the time, the Merlins are dashing in and out of cars, peering through binoculars into strangers' front and back-yards, and traipsing through manure at a working dairy farm in search of cowbirds.
The predawn morning starts off quietly. They drive to the spots that Terry Bronson of Fremont, N.H., now retired and the team's only Rockingham resident, has been scouting for weeks. Wool earflaps go up as hands are cupped behind ears, to better listen for owls.
Then the calls begin. Rich Frechette, the team's captain and a doctor from Peterborough, N.H., toots like a Saw-Whet Owl. Dave Rowell, also of Peterborough, calls a Barred Owl: "Whoo hoo hoo hoo, whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo." Finally, Scott Spangenberg, a software engineer from Amherst, N.H., tries his Great Horned Owl call.
"Is that a Screech?" asks Frances Doyle, confused. "What are you trying to do?" She's an environmental consultant from Rowley, Mass., and Mr. Spangenberg's girlfriend. They can't get a quorum on the owls. They move on.
Spangenberg's car - with customized New Hampshire plates that read "PERGRN," for peregrine falcon - has a cat's squeak toy for calling birds and a hunter's whistle that mimics a crow.
There's high-tech equipment, too. Spangenberg checks his Treo phone frequently for e-mail updates of bird sightings. He says that his Pentax PF-80 scope, the best of the bunch at $1,000, falls on "the low end of wicked excellent."
It all raises the question: Why birds? Why not stamps, say, or football?