Excerpt from Of a Feather

It was a cool, lightly foggy day along the mid-coast of Maine, the cries of herring gulls mixing with the throb of lobster boat engines out in Muscongus Bay. A dozen and a half birders were strung out along a  beaver pond, spotting scopes perched atop tripods, their binoculars focused on a tangle of blueberry bushes and scraggly, head-high tamaracks that poked up from the boggy mat of sphagnum moss spangled with tiny pink orchids.

 Bonnie Bochan, an ornithologist who splits her time between Maine and the Ecuadoran rain forest, stared intently at the thicket, from which a thin, slow trill emerged. "That's a swamp sparrow," Bonnie said quietly. "It sounds a lot like the pine warblers and juncos we've been hearing, but its trill isn't as musical as the junco's, and it's not as fast as the pine warbler's - you can almost count each syllable." As though on cue, the sparrow itself hopped into view, tipped back its head and sang - a dusky bird with bright rufous wings and a dark brown cap, the feathers of its white throat quivering in song.

 A little sigh rippled through the group; for most of them, this was a new species, a life bird, and some had come from as far away as California to see it. A few were experienced birders, most of the others complete novices, but all were dressed, as birders are wont to do, with more of an eye toward practicality than fashion - nylon pants tucked into their socks, wide-brimmed Gortex hats snugged under chins, outsized vests with pockets big enough for field guides, bug repellent and water bottles. They wore mismatched rain pants and coats of differing vintage and color, but always muted - nothing so bright that it would scare the birds.

 Birding at Hog Island (©Scott Weidensaul)I glanced down at myself: shabby green rain pants, a dark blue rain coat that had seen better days, a scruffy ball cap and worn boots. Except for the expensive binoculars around my neck, I looked a bit like a hobo. I fit in perfectly.

 Every summer, I help teach a course in field ornithology on this surpassingly lovely part of the Maine coast, at an Audubon camp on Hog Island, a 330-acre sanctuary near the town of Damariscotta. For more than seventy years, birders have been coming to this spruce-clad island, including some of the greatest names in birding and bird science. When the island was donated to the National Audubon Society in 1936, NAS director John Baker dispatched a young grad student named Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr. to inspect the place, with an eye toward turning it into an educational camp for adults. Pettingill - who later became the director of the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology - gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, so Baker turned to the question of staffing. He had just the fellow to teach about birds - a chap named Roger Tory Peterson, who had published a revolutionary field guide two years earlier, and had just been placed in charge of Audubon's education program. Peterson - in his twenties, single and good-looking - competed for birds (and for the attention of the young women campers) with Allen Cruickshank, another Audubon staffer who would go on to fame as a writer and bird photographer.

 The list goes on and on, from John James Audubon, who passed through the area in 1832-33, to Rachel Carson, who lived just down the coast and wrote about the old ship's chandlery on Hog Island.  Kenn Kaufman, who has lifted Peterson's mantle as one of the great popularizers of birding, is an instructor. Audubon scientist Steve Kress worked in the camp kitchen one summer as a college kid, in his spare time reading accounts of the old seabird colonies in the Gulf of Maine and wondering if the birds could somehow be brought back to places like lonely Eastern Egg Rock, nine miles offshore. Today, he is a pioneer in seabird restoration, and thanks to him, puffins again nest on Eastern Egg and many other Maine islands.

 Kids keep coming to Hog Island, and dreaming. Along with the thirty-five adults, we had more than a dozen eager teen birders in camp that week, including Eve, whose bleached, bobbed hair had been dyed pink and orange, and Raymond, intense, focused and mature beyond his seventeen years. Two years earlier I'd taught Raymond's best friend Ryan, and I was shocked when, the following summer, Ryan had been killed in a car crash while the two boys were on a birding trip. The wreck had almost killed Raymond, too, but he'd survived, and was following through on plans he and Ryan had made, continuing with a sophisticated research project they'd begun together to study the rosy-finches of the New Mexico mountains. 

 Birding and ornithology; sport and science; amateur and professional. The gulf between the two seems pretty wide today, but in fact it's a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of the history of bird study, there was no such division; the ornithologists were all gifted amateurs, and the science of studying birds was enmeshed with the joy of watching them. Even today, as Raymond's project shows, the threads that link hobby and profession are thick and entangling. "Citizen-science" is the buzzword for public participation in all manner of censuses, surveys and field research projects, but it goes deeper than that. One friend of mine, the man who knows more about ruby-throated hummingbirds than almost anyone in the world, is a retired electrician, and he's hardly alone. Every fall, I oversee an owl migration study, one combining banding, genetics and radio-telemetry. Among the nearly one hundred people helping out are, not surprisingly, several wildlife biologists donating their time - but my crew also includes a plumber, a math teacher, a retired soft-drink executive and a former music teacher who repairs pianos.

 Peregrine falcon (©Scott Weidensaul)And it's hard to find an academically trained ornithologist with a string of initials after his or her name who isn't also an avid birder. I don't know many structural engineers who devote their free time to visiting highway overpasses for fun, but there is something about birds that makes even those whose nine-to-five jobs are ornithological pick up their binoculars as soon as the workday is finished. That's because in almost every case, the job followed the passion, not the other way around. Call it all "bird study," and forget the distinctions.

 The number of people with that passion keeps growing, too. Just as the birders keep swarming to Hog Island each year, so do they jam the trails at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas looking for chachalacas and whistling-ducks, or the scrubby thickets of Cape May, New Jersey, when the warblers are dropping from the sky and the merlins and peregrines are whistling past the dunes. They come to Point Reyes on the northern California coast, to Point Pelee in Lake Erie and Whitefish Point in Michigan; they know that the rocky manmade islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel attract the damndest rarities, like western rock wrens and Asian black-tailed gulls, and they made an obscure roadside rest stop near Patagonia, Arizona, so celebrated for the exotic Mexican birds that turn up there that the phrase "Patagonia Picnic Table Effect" entered the lexicon.

 They stalk Central Park in Manhattan, the Mount Auburn cemetery near Boston, and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.; they haunt the manmade Bellona Marsh in Los Angeles, Agua Caliente Park in Tucson, and Sauvie Island near Portland. They have made famous, at least within their circles, places that would make the general public blanch: the landfill at Brownsville, Texas, where you can usually find Chihuahuan ravens and an occasional Tamaulipan crow (and proximity to which is an actual selling point for nearby RV parks that cater to birders); or sewage treatment lagoons like Mitchell Lake in San Antonio, which is so birdy it has its own Audubon center. Among the hundreds of sites along the Nebraska Birding Trail are stops at sewage lagoons in Oshkosh and North Platte, but sadly, not everyone sees the attraction; the committee creating a Washington State birding trail specifically nixed including such lagoons on its list of hotspots, saying that, "There may be birds, but sewage lagoons are not tourist attractions." Which tells me the people creating the Washington birding trail weren't really birders. Did they miss the article in Birding magazine a few years back, "North America's Topflight Sewage Ponds"? There's nothing like a good whiff of primary effluent to clear the sinuses on a cold morning.

 How many of us are there? The latest surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest there are 46 million birders in the United States, while another study, also sponsored by the feds but looking at all outdoor recreation, put the figure at 67.8 million - either of which would be impressive, if they were accurate. The USFWS, for instance, counts as a birder anyone who makes an effort to watch or attract birds, which means anyone who hangs a sunflower feeder or plants ornamental sage in the hope of luring hummingbirds is a "birder," whether or not they ever crack open a field guide or join a Christmas Bird Count. (Of those 46 million, the USFWS admitted only 6 million could identify more than twenty species of birds.) But these and other studies agree that birding is one of (if not the) fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the country. In the 1980s and '90s, the last period for which numbers are available, it grew at more than 155 percent, more than twice the rate for the next-closest sport, hiking.

 It was not always so, of course. Birding as a popular hobby was a phenomenon of the twentieth century, especially the decades after World War II, fueled by greater leisure time, affordable optics and good field guides that made sense of the pleasantly confusing welter of species that fill the forests and marshes. But bird study itself, the foundation on which modern birding rests, goes back much farther than that - back through the nineteenth century, when frontier ornithologists risked an arrow between the ribs to collect new birds, back through the eighteenth and even the seventeenth centuries, back to the dawn of colonization when the avian wonders of a new continent were unfolding before amazed Caucasian eyes. The history of bird study is bound up with tales of liars, drunks, slave-runners and scoundrels of every unfortunate stripe. They were, in a few luminous cases, also brilliant naturalists into the bargain - and they were, not incidentally, the men who discovered America for Europe.