fb-pixel

Competitive birding turned me into a monster

Isolation, hubris, binoculars: How Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon nearly broke our reporter

Ally Rzesa

I’d just like to start by apologizing to green herons everywhere. I should not have said that thing about how if I ever actually laid eyes on one of you, I would want you to be breaded and sizzling in a pan of hot oil.

That was the quarantine talking. That was the isolation and loneliness. That was the pain that had already driven a man to make the dangerous descent from being a “birder” — which is bad enough — to a “competitive birder.”

I knew it was a bad idea when Mass Audubon offered me the chance to compete in the Bird-a-thon. I’d seen it for myself last year when I covered the competition, all these teams of grown men and women racing around the state, frantically trying to see or hear as many species of birds as they could in 24 hours.

Advertisement



I saw the lies they told themselves to justify the addiction; the desperation in their eyes as they searched trees and ponds and roofs and wires with binoculars that cost as much as a midsized aircraft; the half-hearted way they’d say, “It’s a fundraiser.”

But here’s the saddest part: I was jealous. There, I said it. I was jealous of the bird nerds. It was hard to knock someone for knowing the names of all the birds when you had to admit you knew the names of all the Kardashians.

I never should have ordered those cheap binoculars. I never should have filled the backyard feeder that the previous owners of my house had left behind. I never should have allowed the addiction into my life. But I did, and it came, and I changed.

Every new bird I identified was like a drug hit. My wife and kids got hooked alongside me. I’d catch them out of the corner of my eye, snorting up “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, Second Edition.” I bought suet in bulk. We were goners. There’s no high like a “There’s a hummingbird at the feeder!” high.

Advertisement



Very quickly, we started to get pretty decent with the backyard birds. We could tell a black-capped chickadee from a tufted titmouse. (Can I say that in the Globe?) We weren’t Bird-a-thon good — that was for the elites — but we had started to do dangerous things like use “bird” as a verb.

Then everything changed, if you haven’t heard, and that included the Bird-a-thon. It was announced that teams were no longer capped at 50 birders, meaning an amateur like me could slip in among the studs. The other big change was that competitors could only search in places they could get to on foot or bicycle.

Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen sports in months. Maybe it was pure hubris. But that second change made my competitive juices start pumping. For it just so happens that I live in a town on the Great Marsh, that bug-infested stretch of coast that extends from Cape Ann to New Hampshire. Which meant I was within striking distance of some pretty spectacular birding and EEE.

I joined the team out of the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary and told the sanctuary director, Amy Weidensaul, to give me a hero assignment. I wanted to take down the kind of high-value targets that would allow me to walk out of the marsh in slow motion as the souls of the other teams exploded behind me.

Advertisement



Dr. Weidensaul, as she muttered “Watch what I’m about to do to this idiot reporter” (probably), was more than happy to humor me. Two days before the competition, she sent me an e-mail with my targets: a white-faced ibis; four varieties of rails; and the green heron, for which she noted “Our team hasn’t gotten this for years.”

Those seven words nearly broke me.

When my alarm went off at 4 a.m. on March 77th, I leapt out of bed, feeling like my life had a purpose for the first time in a very long time. The Bird-a-thon had started at 6 p.m. the previous night, but there was rain in the forecast so we birded in the backyard, excitedly nabbing 18 species before showers chased us inside. I went to bed thinking I had been all wrong about the Bird-a-thon. Competitive birding was fun and totally sane!

Cut to a middle-aged guy riding a bicycle alone through the pre-dawn darkness, trying to hold an industrial-sized coffee mug in one hand because he didn’t think it through, desperately trying to get to a point that jutted out into the marsh before first light.

The reason we birders like to bird at dawn is because that’s when the birds tend to be the most active, particularly with their calls. Or at least I think I heard someone say that last year. Anyway, this was going to be my key to finding the green heron. I’d spent a good seven minutes studying up on them, and words like “secretive” and “inconspicuous” and “you’re never going to see it so quit now” kept popping up. But there was a chance I might hear it, which still counts in the weird world of competitive birding, where everything is on the honor system.

Advertisement



The previous night, my 10-year-old and I had listened to recordings of its call, and I made note that it sounded like it was barking, chirping, sneezing, and choking at the same time. I did not anticipate any problems.

But as I stood at the edge of the marsh on that glorious May morning with my ears turned all the way up, a problem arose with the sun. Namely, that I was surrounded by roughly 4.7 billion birds talking over each other at once, like a kindergarten class when the teacher asks if anyone has a boring story they’d like to share with the group.

In the first 90 minutes, I identified exactly one bird, and I could feel myself unraveling. So at 6:11 am. I called Weidensaul, distraught. For some reason, she was laughing.

“Just try to take it in and have fun,” she said.

“That’s what I used to do in nature before I became a birder!” I lashed back.

I rode home to regroup and have a good cry in the bathroom, but when I walked in the door my 10-year-old son was anxiously waiting. “Where have you been?! We need to find the green heron!”

Advertisement



It was 6:45 a.m. I didn’t even know he could speak at this hour.

We dashed back out on our bikes, and as we rode past some tall grass he stopped suddenly. “I just heard chirping. Could be a clapper rail. They chirp a little.”

What the heck had he been doing in his room when he was supposed to be sleeping? He probably has a stash of old Roger Tory Peterson guides from the 70s hidden under his bed. At one point he actually said he was going to ask for a birding scope for his birthday. I told him to maybe choose something more affordable, like a boat.

The rest of the day was madness. We were able to identify 15 new birds, but failed to find any of our targets, and by late afternoon my 10-year-old was in tears. Are you happy, Bird-a-thon? We made my kid cry. Monsters.

I tried to comfort him and say encouraging things like, “Maybe you just need to train a little harder for next year.”

Then things got worse. I finally scrolled through the team group text where everyone had been listing the birds they were finding. I had muted it almost immediately because it was emasculating.

And there, fairly early on in the day, some random person had reported in with those two dreaded words: green heron.

So I’d just like to end by apologizing for what I said I would do to the person whose phone number ends in 6017 if I ever laid eyes on them.

That was the quarantine talking.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.