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‘Bird nerds’ assemble at Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon

Bird watchers scouted for coastal birds at Halibut Point State Park in Rockport.
Bird watchers scouted for coastal birds at Halibut Point State Park in Rockport. (Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

At 6 p.m. on the dot, Gwen Shipley stops on a dirt path in Littleton and raises her index finger. The group around her goes dead silent.

“Field sparrow,” she whispers in a library voice. Then she suddenly shoots her raised finger toward a patch of the tall yellow grasslands that surround them. “There’s the prairie warbler.”

They go quiet again, until Tim Swain, a 17-year-old birding prodigy, breaks the silence. “Black and white!” he whisper-shouts.

“Niiiice,” Shipley replies as she smiles, turns to their other Drumlin Farm teammate, David Seibel, and points a sideways thumb back at the teenager. “That’s why we brought him.”

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With all the bird noises in these grasslands, identifying a particular species is like trying to hear a single string in a symphony. But Swain does it, over and over, leaving Shipley and Seibel, both veteran birders, shaking their heads in amazement.

An oriole calls to other birds while perched on a branch in the Halibut Point State Park in Rockport.
An oriole calls to other birds while perched on a branch in the Halibut Point State Park in Rockport.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

They’re going to need Swain’s remarkable ears, some detailed strategy, and an ample helping of luck during the next 24 hours if the Drumlin Farm team is going to take back the Bird-a-thon — an annual competition that is the height of prestige in the ornithological world — from Moose Hill and reclaim their spot as the heavyweights of Massachusetts birding. It was a title Drumlin Farm held for 11 straight years, a crown they came to think of as theirs, and . . . oh, no, they’re here. Moose Hill is here.

A woman from the team that broke Drumlin Farm’s streak and won the last two Bird-a-thons, Moose Hill, comes strolling up the path toward them. She stops a dozen yards shy and nonchalantly raises her binoculars toward a tall stand of trees in the distance. Quickly, the mood in the field grows tense.

David Seibel (left) and his wife, Amy Casher, embraced while looking for birds in Lancaster.
David Seibel (left) and his wife, Amy Casher, embraced while looking for birds in Lancaster.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

Technically, the Bird-a-thon is a fund-raiser, Mass Audubon’s largest. The birders gather pledges for the number of species they can spot; last year, they raised over a quarter-million dollars. But it is definitely a competition. Emotions can run hot. The team that sees or hears the most species in 24 hours — it’s all on the honor system, no verification required — wins the Brewster Cup. And these self-described “bird nerds” want that cup. Badly.

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Each of Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries fields a team of up to 50 birders and dispatches them to every avian hot spot in the state — from boats off the Cape to the mountaintops of the Berkshires — searching for the rarer birds. Everyone is going to find the usual suspects. To win the Brewster Cup, you need to find birds the other teams don’t.

In recent years, the Brewster Cup has become a two-horse race between the sanctuaries at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln and Moose Hill in Sharon. Each is stacked with expert birders and headed by war-room strategists who have spent months developing a detailed plan of attack, because they all know it’s going to be close. Last year, the Drumlin Farm team recorded 231 species. Moose Hill found 237.

Diane Saari wrote down the names of birds she has seen or heard in Lancaster.
Diane Saari wrote down the names of birds she has seen or heard in Lancaster. (Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

Which is why both teams are here, at Pine Hill Grasslands in Lancaster. There have been reports of two uncommon birds, the grasshopper sparrow and the vesper sparrow, and as the teams meet on the path, they are cordial, not overly so, and then quickly spread out.

As they comb the path, they are constantly making a sound called pishing, a birding technique that is known to get certain birds, including sparrows, to move a little bit, making them easier to spot.

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Then it happens. Somewhere in the brush, Swain hears it. Tick tick pzzzzzzzz. The insect-like song of the grasshopper sparrow.

The group pauses for the tiniest bit of celebration — more relief than anything — and then they move on.

.   .   .

By 4:30 a.m., 74-year-old Strickland Wheelock, another Drumlin farm team member, is behind the wheel of a minivan, leading a convoy toward the tip of Cape Ann. Since the moment they lost last year, he and Pam Sowizral, a chief strategist for the Drumlin Farm team, have been on the phone constantly, mapping out their deployment, recruiting birders, monitoring rare-bird alerts, desperately trying to figure out what it would take to reclaim the Brewster Cup.

Two White-Crown Sparrows basked in the morning sunlight on a branch in the Halibut Point State Park:
Two White-Crown Sparrows basked in the morning sunlight on a branch in the Halibut Point State Park:(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

Thus far, things are going well. The team has been checking in with good sightings. Sowizral, who is on Martha’s Vineyard, scored a black skimmer and an American golden plover, and then, in the middle of the night, held her ground when she and a teammate were visited by a skunk while standing outside a barn, waiting for a barn owl to return to an owl box. The skunk turned its back to them and raised its tail, but they did not budge. They had already been waiting an hour, and this is the Bird-a-thon. Every bird matters.

Eventually, the skunk left, and they got their owl.

Now Wheelock was looking to keep piling it on at Halibut State Park in Rockport, where he hoped to find some birds that are not where they’re supposed to be.

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He’s betting that the rainy spring has slowed down some species of sea birds that should already be farther north, and he’s hoping they’ve stopped to rest at this former rock quarry before crossing the ocean to the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine.

From left: Diane Saari, Gwen Shipley and Tim Swain, 17, scouted for birds in Lancaster.
From left: Diane Saari, Gwen Shipley and Tim Swain, 17, scouted for birds in Lancaster.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

They park and 10 people pile out of two minivans. Only two are on the official Drumlin Farm team — their eyes and ears are the only ones that will count toward the total — but the rules encourage novice birders to tag along and learn. Wheelock hurries them to an overlook as the horizon turns tangerine, quickly sets up his scope, and starts rattling off the names of the birds sweeping past on the ocean below.

The other official team member is Dan Fournier, and though he’s only 25 this is already his 14th Bird-a-thon. As a kid, he would fake sick so he could stay home and sketch the winter birds coming to his backyard feeder. He loves everything about birds, but the Bird-a-thon is something else, he admits. It gets his competitive juices flowing, and he has not adjusted well to this new feeling of losing to Moose Hill.

“I want it back so bad,” he says, as he lowers his eye to his scope and begins hunting. “I don’t know what happened last year. We had a brilliant game plan, but we were just a few species off. We’ve lost the last two years. It hurts every time I say it. I don’t know what the secret edge is.”

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Then he raises his eye from his scope and looks at Wheelock to his right, who has spotted a glaucous gull floating on the ocean below.

“He should be north! Way north!” Wheelock yells. “That was worth coming up here just for that.”

Fournier smiles and returns his eye to his own scope.

“Maybe Strickland is our secret edge,” he says.

.   .   .

Just after 3:30 p.m., Bruce Black, Mary Brogan, and Steve Auster pull up to the St. George, a giant pink condominium complex on Revere Beach that looks like it should be in Miami Beach.

The St. George is a landmark in Revere and, strangely, in the birding world. For reasons no one can fully explain, it is the only reliable place in the state to see a Manx Shearwater, a bird that usually lives far out at sea.

“Everyone knows that if you stand in front of the pink building at this time of year and look out to sea, they’ll just fly by,” Black says as he reaches the shoreline.

He’s had this same assignment in previous Bird-a-thons and has never struck out, but he is nervous; it’s now just over two hours until binoculars down, and he worries that their competition has already been here and that Drumlin Farm pressed their luck by waiting until the last minute.

For a few tense minutes, the trio — they’re all doctors — scans every which way. There are sea birds everywhere, but not the kind they’re looking for. Impatience fills the air.

“Here they are!” Black yells from his scope, spotting a group far down the beach, and yelling for Brogan, his wife, to come take a look.

“I see them!” Brogan exclaims with her eye to the scope.

They’ll finish the day in a marsh nearby looking for orioles, then head to a teammate’s house to tabulate the results.

And then . . . they will wait.

.   .   .

For 10 days, there is silence from Mass Audubon headquarters. Everyone is waiting on one man, Wayne Petersen.

Petersen is the director of Mass Audubon’s important birding areas and the referee for the Bird-a-thon. Because the entire competition is run on the honor system, it’s Petersen’s job to investigate any claim that feels implausible. With more than 800 birders on 23 teams, it’s not a fast job.

But he’s finally done, and with the results in hand he heads to Drumlin Farm, searching for Pam Sowizral.

When he knocks at her door and asks how she’s doing, a look of panic comes over her face.

“I’m good,” she says, “but am I going to be good after this?”

The Drumlin team performed well. Shipley’s group recorded 80 species. The doctors nabbed 76 on the North Shore. Wheelock’s squad went on a hot streak with 127. And when all was said and done, the team had again recorded 231 separate species.

The question was: How did Moose Hill do?

“I know you’re still smarting from last year,” Petersen says as he takes a seat.

“Last year physically hurt,” Sowizral replies. “They whooped us.”

Petersen slides a spreadsheet across the table. Sowizral scans it quickly and her eyes light up.

“We beat them by two?!” she half asks and half shouts.

Moose Hill recorded 229 species, which meant the Brewster Cup was back at Drumlin Farm.

Soon, the team will gather for a celebratory dinner. Then they’ll start plotting and scheming for next year.


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