Watching the Birders

PERHAPS it's only natural that a bird-watcher would turn to watching the birders, for they can be as interesting and varied as the birds. In fact, they are a special breed.A dedicated bird-watcher will drop everything to hunt up a new bird for his life list, to count migrants, or to study avian behavior. But why? Why chase all over the country for something that may or may not be there when you arrive? Why scan the sky for endless hours and days from one spot, no matter the weather? Why endure the miseries of hours cooped up in a box peering through slits? Some of the answers can be found in "Season at the Point." Jack Connor, a bird-watcher himself, has apparently been as intrigued with the nature of birders as of birds. His account of the fall migration season (of both birds and birders) at Cape May, N.J., hinges on the peculiar passion humans have for flying wonders. Connors's method is to record the situations, the scenes, the people, and their conversations, in a verbal version of a video documentary. He tosses in big chunks of information about birds and their ways, along with local history of bird-watching at Cape May. Did you know, for example, that the first recorded instance of bird-watching there was in 1633? Cape May is a bird-watcher's paradise because it is possible to see a greater variety of birds there than anywhere else in the continental United States, except Alaska. Just why this should be is still something of a puzzle, despite centuries of watching and adding up the observations. Connors is not the first writer to tackle the subject. "Bird Studies of Old Cape May," a classic by Witmer Stone, was published in 1937. A lot has been learned in the meantime, and bird-watching has gone from being the occupation of eccentrics to a respectable, money-making industry. So "A Season at the Point" updates the whole topic. In the process, Connors focuses mainly on hawk watching, a specialized brand of birding, but includes a look at other raptors, songbirds, shorebirds, and owls. The magic of hawk flight is apparently potent, yet somewhat elusive. In spite of devoting most of the book to various aspects of hawk flight, Connors doesn't quite convey why hawks grab the imagination so deeply. What he does do is report what Al Nicholson, an artist, calls "the mystery" and Clay Sutton, a hawk counter, calls "curiosity" and "awe": the excitement of the hunt. Connors suggests that to understand the phenomenon one should join a hawk watch. He quotes Richard Crossley, a Englishman, on the American fascination with hawks: "Why is it you Americans like hawks so much? It's because they're so big and slow and easy to identify, isn't it?" Crossley is more interested in warblers, which are much more difficult to identify, especially at a distance. He adds that they are a very large component of the fall migration, and yet almost nothing is known about their numbers and movements at Cape May. The fact that songbirds are an important food source fo r hawks adds tension to his comment. The politics and controversies of bird-watching get a fair amount of attention. So do various theories of why birds migrate through Cape May, arguments for and against attempts to count the birds, band them, show them off to the public, and so on. The conflicts between birders in the field and academics in their laboratories also get some exposure. Connors's story, told in serious fashion, picks up the birders' colorful lingo but, oddly enough, misses some of the comedy inherent in bird-watching. "A Season at the Point" is an informative book, skillfully put together. It includes some very good line-drawing illustrations and useful endpaper maps.

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