Up early with the birds

At the annual Superbowl of bird-watching, teams compete to be top of the pecking order.

Five birders; 5 binoculars; 4 telescopes; 1 "Sibley Field Guide"; Odiorne Point, 1 stretch of rocky New Hampshire coastline; 30 minutes; 9 species identified.

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?

"A lot of people, when they first get a really close look through binoculars, [are] blown away by the detail," he says, trying to articulate his passion. It was the structure and the colors - the oranges, blacks, reds, and greens - of migrating warblers that really grabbed him as a boy in Maine.

"They're very attractive," agrees Mr. Bronson. Plus, with migration, he says, "the cast keeps changing."

Bird-watching has always been more than a hobby - it's a pastime that lends itself to competition. (This year, for the first time, even the Great Backyard Bird Count, which begins next week, is creating a contest by offering prizes.

There's the intellectual challenge of observation and identification. The acquisitive counting. In Massachusetts alone there are 460 species. North America has 675 native species in addition to the migratory birds that get blown off track - all there for the spotting and tallying.

46 million US bird-watchers; 18 million who travel to find birds; $32 billion spent in travel and equipment to pursue those birds.

The majority of birders are casual types. But as with any hobby, there are the devout. Mark Obmascik's book, "The Big Year," recounts the 1998 quest of three men to win the North American Big Year - a 365-day pursuit of as many species as possible. The former Denver Post reporter says his story grew out of an interest in obsession. He wondered: "What happens when you take the brakes off?"

This is what happens: You spend $100,000 to spot 745 species as the winner, Sandy Komito, did.

Spangenberg, Ms. Doyle, and Dr. Frechette of the Merlins understand that sort of devotion. They've driven 17 hours to North Carolina and taken a boat 75 miles offshore to see open-ocean birds that can only be found there - three times.

Late morning at the Superbowl, the team parks by the side of a road, chasing down kestrels. Mr. Rowell, a slightly built computer programmer who studied zoology, leaps out of the car. He takes off running, bounding through shin-deep snow, his binoculars in hand.

Frechette is the team's motivator and minder. "Mr. Logistics," Rowell calls him. He herds and manages his team like the father of five that he is. At Odiorne Point State Park, he slows the frenetic pace, somewhat.

"Surf Scoter, Frances," calls out Rowell, spotting the black-and-white seaduck.

"Got it," Doyle answers back. "Red-throated Loon."

"Loon? You got a Red-throated?" asks Rowell.

"Where? I'm not on it," replies Spangenberg "Red-necked Grebe."

"Where? What have we got?" interjects Frechette. "Cormorants on the rocks."

They continue like this, in their birder dialect, for 30 minutes. They leave Odiorne with nine new species. But in the end, their efforts don't equal a win - and that's okay.

2006 Superbowl of Birding: 127 people; 86 species logged by winning team; Monadnock Merlins: 70 species, 13th place.

Undaunted, the Merlins are already looking forward to reclaiming their title next year, at Superbowl IV.

Backyard bird-watching

For four days, beginning Feb. 17, enthusiasts the country over will track the birds that pass by their homes. It's the ninth year of the Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Paul Green, Audubon's director of Citizen Science, says he hopes 100,000 bird watchers will "reconnect with nature" and through this "reconnaissance survey" help create a snapshot of species numbers and migratory patterns - which will help conservation efforts and inspire more focused scientific study. For more information go to audubon.org or birds.cornell.edu

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