Hawk-eyed humans vie for birding's 'big year' title

Ducks and a goose share a pond in Cape May Point State Park. Reed said the birds he has seen during his yearlong quest are "a testament to how many protected areas there are in the state."
Ducks and a goose share a pond in Cape May Point State Park. Reed said the birds he has seen during his yearlong quest are "a testament to how many protected areas there are in the state." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 25, 2011

Tom Reed was recently spared a six-hour round-trip drive to North Jersey.

He'd been headed there to see a bird. And not just any bird, but a calliope hummingbird, which normally doesn't come anywhere near here. But someone claimed to have spotted one near I-80.

Shortly after leaving his home in Cape May County, however, Reed got a call. False alarm. It was a common rufous hummingbird.

He was glad he didn't have to buck rush hour traffic around Newark. But, boy, he needed that bird.

Reed and a friend, Mike Fritz, are neck-and-neck to see who can spot the most bird species in the state in a year.

Stranger quests have been launched.

Like in 1998, when three obsessive birders trekked up mountains, paddled the mosquito-ridden Everglades, stared down a mountain lion, withstood the stench of a city dump, and much more in their quest to see the most birds in North America.

Their tale is told in a Hollywood movie released this month starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black. It's called The Big Year, which is the birding term for such a wild endeavor, and is based on a book by Mark Obmascik.

Birders are partly hopeful the movie will bring new attention to birding. The National Audubon Society has launched an Internet campaign, challenging people to find bird animations released onto 100 sites, where they flap across mastheads and perch on home pages.

Birders are also partly fearful it will make people think they're all nuts.

Competitive birding?! What's next, the Olympics of leaf-gathering?

But they concede that the notion of trekking across a city, a state, a continent, a planet - many variations of big years exist - for the sole purpose of ticking off species is a tad unusual.

Not to mention obsessive, time-consuming, and budget-breaking.

Except here's Reed, a recent Rutgers graduate: "I've gone to some unique and special places," he said. The birds he has seen are "a testament to how many protected areas there are in the state."

He did not start out to do a big year, but he is an avid birder, and by the time January was over, he realized he had already seen 168 species. "It kind of took off from there."

Ditto Fritz, a pharmacist, also of Cape May County. He was birding along and suddenly realized it was shaping up to be a special year. He decided to push harder, "to do something that would get me out in the field, rather than behind a computer."

Both have eclipsed the record set by Rick Wiltraut, a Pennsylvania environmental educator, who saw 336 birds in New Jersey in 2002. He says he is not overly obsessive. "I just get a good feeling when I'm out looking for birds."

Actually, Fritz is engaged in two big years. This year, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club launched a contest covering its region - eastern Pennsylvania, much of New Jersey and all of Delaware - and he is one of about 10 people giving it their all.

The winner gets a $200 prize. After having probably spent $2,000 or more on gas.

Skill plays a big part, for sure. But also luck. The wind could blow in a totally odd species and make a birder's day. After Hurricane Irene, Cape May birders saw several tropical species that the storm had carried north.

What blows most people's minds is that the whole deal is on the honor system. No independent authority verifies sightings.

Birders seem puzzled at the suggestion cheating might occur. What would be the point? Most birders are aware of odd sightings because they are chasing them, too. Presumably, someone claiming to have seen a flamingo in the Arctic would be called out.

There are any number of similar competitions - some quirkier than others.

Birders at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge have been known to hold a "big sit," where for 24 hours they count all the species they can hear or see from one location.

More than a quarter of a century ago, Cape May County's Pete Dunne - director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and a respected birder and bird writer - launched the World Series of Birding. It's a 24-hour, pell-mell sweep across the state for individuals and teams.

The Delaware Valley club is a frequent winner. And last year, after they won for the fifth time in seven years, with a total of 221 species, they announced their retirement.

Team member Bert Filemyr of Meadowbrook has not done a big year, but he knows the lure. "Every day you're in the field, you learn something. You go places you wouldn't normally go, see things you wouldn't normally see, meet people you wouldn't normally meet. And you have fun you wouldn't normally have."

Philadelphia's Frank Windfelder did a big year in the city in 2007. Slim pickings? Not hardly, considering that the territory includes the Delaware River, Fairmount Park, and the wildlife refuge, which he visited on New Year's Day, tallying rusty blackbirds and hooded mergansers.

Birding friends were calling him with tips - a prothonotary warbler in Overbrook! - and searching with him. He ended the year having documented 233 species, topping the previous record by eight.

Yet there are some disquieting murmurs about all this manic dashing about. Some birders disparage "listers" as not really taking the time to observe and enjoy birds. They are just ticking off species and moving on.

One of the iconic big years - a stark contrast to the 1998 race celebrated by Hollywood - is Kenn Kaufman's 1973 quest, in which the 19-year-old hitchhiked across North America, slept under bridges, and ate cat food. "It was a great thing for a restless teenager to do," he said.

But by the end, 671 species later, "I didn't care that much about it. I had learned so much after doing all this travel, meeting people. The list itself was the least important thing I got out of the year."

His subsequent book about it, Kingbird Highway, was more a coming-of-age tale.

Truth to tell, most birders do keep lists. They compare one year with the next. They go out on New Year's Day and start counting.

Greg Butcher, director of conservation for the National Audubon Society, sees room for everyone.

He is trying to see as many birds as he can in each state. "Most birders get bored by black-capped chickadees" - a common feeder species in this region, he said. "But I get really excited if I'm in a new state and I see one."

Doing a big year or some other competition is a great way to increase one's skills. But so is just marveling at the color of a bird's feathers and the beauty of its song.

The new movie "emphasizes the more driven ways" of relating to birds. In Butcher's view, however, "there's this whole universe that's out there for us to take advantage of in whatever way suits our fancy."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace


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