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Birders take wing with 'World Series' N.J. competitors vie for variety

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A photo in yesterday's Sun that showed two Maryland participants in the 1992 World Series of Birding incorrectly identified Michael O'Brien of Rockville as Rick Blom.

The Sun regrets the errors.

CAPE MAY, N.J. -- At half past midnight Friday in this boggy, stumpwater-smelling place called the Great Swamp, the bullfrogs are cranking it up, roaring like the Indianapolis 500. Glowworms dot oozy footpaths with pinpricks of dull light, as if somebody just stubbed out hundreds of cigarettes. And on the eastern horizon, the lights of Newark and Manhattan shine like a false dawn on low, distant clouds.

But just as nature's reign seems secure for the night, a Volvo station wagon emerges from the mist on a grassy road, and out step three men and a woman. They cup their hands to their ears and peer into the murk. Then one of the men rears back his head and begins hooting for all he's worth, as if suddenly transformed into a giantowl. Even the bullfrogs pause to take notice.

Welcome to the opening hour of the insomniac's Call of the Wild. It is a 24-hour race against time, fatigue, the elements and other bird-watchers played out within the boundaries of New Jersey, with some teams driving 600 miles or more as they traverse the state.

It is a game in which a bird in the hand is worth only half of two in the bush, because the object is to identify by sight or sound more species than any other team by the following midnight, starting wherever you please but finishing at the Cape May lighthouse.

Among the big leaguers, it usually takes at least 200 species to win, while 209 is the record. And make no mistake about the four birders who stood around the Volvo in the swamp as the latest Series began last weekend. All are heavy hitters, birders who can pick out the voice of a Least Bittern from a chorus of bullfrogs and King Rails, or spot the fine-line difference between a Tennessee warbler and a warbling vireo at a hundred paces, without so much as a glance at an Audubon guidebook.

As for the owl imitator, that would be Rick Blom of Bel Air, trying to stir up a conversation in the dark with a barred owl, a bulky hunter of the night that haunts the nightmares of field mice all over the East.

A few minutes later there are some answering hoots, but by the sound of them they, too, are from an impostor. "Birders all over the swamp are hooting at each other," he whispers with a chuckle.

And he is right. The roads crisscrossing the swamp are alive with vehicles, each stuffed to the gills with birders, binoculars, tripods, coolers and rain gear.

For those inclined to snicker about bird-watching, the World Series is a sobering revelation. Gone are the wiry, gray-haired ladies in tennis shoes puttering about in sun visors.

Bird-watching has gone trendy, with membership soaring in groups such as the New Jersey Audubon Society, while sales of birdseed and feeders have climbed as high as a circling turkey vulture. This year's World Series even had a celebrity birder, actress Jane Alexander, competing for the team sponsored by The Nature Co. retail chain.

Yes, there are sponsors now, as sure a sign of mainstream status as any. Each of the 48 teams competing in the upper echelon had one, many from among the companies that make binoculars. Mr. Blom and his teammates -- Lynn Davidson and Hal Wierenga of Arnold and Michael O'Brien of Rockville -- were ** sponsored by the U.S. division of Swarovski Optik, of Austria.

But there's no money to made here. Beyond mileage reimbursements, a new pair of binoculars and some free eats, about all you can hope to get is a trophy and bragging rights. That's only one way in which birding, despite its popularity, remains happily in its innocence. In nine years of Series competition, no birder has yet filed a protest against another, and scoring is based entirely on the honor system.

Not that these folks don't take competition seriously. The better teams spend up to a week scouting the state in advance, scoping out nests and breeding grounds at all hours in all regions, sometimes even leaving telltale markers for hard-to-find sites.

With their skills further honed by birdsong audio tapes and years of poring through guidebooks, watching the birders can be as interesting as watching the birds. The chaos of overlapping noises in the Great Swamp, for instance, becomes a series of conversations easily translated by Mr. Blom and his companions.

Mr. O'Brien seems particularly attuned to the noises, and in between the stray croaks of a frog that sound like twangs on a broken banjo string, he hears a faint noise and proclaims in a whisper, "American bittern."

Within a few seconds they have also picked out the calls of a Virginia rail and a marsh wren. After nearly two hours of such doings at the Great Swamp, hampered somewhat by the rain, they pile back into the Volvo to head northwest for the Stokes State Forest, hoping that dawn -- perhaps the most crucial part of the day -- will bring a host of warblers and hawks to fatten their checklist of woodland birds.

But only a few miles from the Great Swamp, at the Scherman-Hoffman Bird Sanctuary, the first light of day shows the more casual side of World Series birding.

Stepping out of a truck with a large American flag on the back window are husband and wife John and Nancy Knapp and their friend, Mark Henry.

The Knapps are from Bloomfield, N.J., and Mr. Henry from nearby Clifton. They have no sponsor, and they won't bother to report their tallies at midnight. But they've talked for three years of participating in the World Series, and this year they finally decided, why not?

Compared with the other teams,the Knapps dawdle, strolling down the leafy path of a bright green forest and chatting amiably while the sweet bird music of dawn drowns out the spatter of fat raindrops on their parkas.

"Wood thrush," Mr. Knapp exclaims. "That's a pretty song."

Mr. Knapp is a large, angular fellow, and with his heavy Jersey accent and booming voice one at first thinks this is what it might be like to go bird-watching with Ed Norton of "The Honeymooners." But it is soon clear he knows his stuff.

"Veery. You hear that?" he booms. "Redstart . . . Towhee . . a Canadian? Yeah, Canadian warbler. . . . Oh, listen to that. Swainson's thrush."

By late morning, the Knapps are climbing back into the truck, their next destination as yet unplanned. Most of the big league teams are moving south, and by 1 p.m. many are arriving at the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, a marsh and mud flat paradise of shore birds only 10 miles north of the casinos and boardwalks of Atlantic City.

On World Series day Brigantine is a gigantic drive-through window of birding. From a ruddy turnstone and black-bellied plover here to a bufflehead and a blue-wing teal way out there, you can just about do it all from your vehicle. There's even a peregrine falcon, and his man-made home is an easy mark, visible from hundreds of yards away on a wooden tower.

Teams come and go through Brigantine like families headed up the Jersey Turnpike, sticking to a gravel road, binoculars and sighting scopes poked out the windows of their vehicles like gun barrels from a duck blind.

It's not enough for just one team member to see a bird. At least 95 percent of the species have to be spotted or heard by all members. Otherwise there are few rules: Teams can have from three to five members; tame birds or exotic escapees from pet shops don't count, though birds mired in an oil slick are OK; eggs don't count as birds; using aircraft is forbidden, but boats are OK.

In fact, if you wanted you could go up to 100 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Blom and his teammates toyed with the idea last month, thinking they'd lay down a chum slick, flip on some floodlights and pick up a few seagoing species. But time, cost and risk convinced them not to.

At 2:30 p.m., a fog begins to roll across Brigantine, and by the time Mr. Blom's team arrives a half hour later visibility is down, so they move on quickly toward sites closer to Cape May. By dusk, just about everyteam begin to drag a bit, with eyes reddening and gaits reverting to zombie lock step. Thoughts of a shower, a hot meal and a soft bed can begin to crowd one's concentration on wing markings and call variations.

But the high-caliber teams use every last minute, crowding the finishing station next to the lighthouse in a crunch just before midnight. Not until 11:58 p.m. does Mr. Blom's Swarovski team come strolling through the door with its tally sheets.

The news for them is, as they expected by then, a bit disappointing. They score 181, more than respectable but leaving them in a two-way tie for 18th in the field of 48. The winners, sponsored by Minolta, rack up 205, not bad for such rotten weather, all agree.

With the tallies in, the teams stumble back into the foggy night, heading for their vehicles beneath the sweeping yellow beam of the lighthouse. They sleep it off and gather again for the awards brunch at 10 o'clock Sunday morning. But for some, there apparently hasn't been quite enough birding.

"You should have been out there this morning," one woman remarks at the brunch as she waits by a steam table. "We were out at 6:30. Bobolinks everywhere. It was beautiful."

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