CAPE MAY, N.J. — From the unblinking certainty of its soul a bird speaks in the night:
"Who, who-oo, whoo-whoo!"
A great horned owl. Bird No. 1.
Peter Dunne winds a European turbo through its gears in rapid search of No. 2.
It is 4 a.m. Starlit above, misty below. Pre-dawn velvet.
The shadowy carload, armed with binoculars and telescopes, is the Guerrilla Birding Team ("We hit and run") in hot pursuit. Dunne, the leader, and two teammates are practicing for the next weekend's World Series of Birding, a midnight-to-midnight contest to see who can identify the most birds in the woods, swamps, fields, beaches, marshes, backyards, telephone wires and highway medians of New Jersey. The 24-hour outing will have some of the best bird watchers in the country piling in and out of cars like circus clowns.
It's 5:05. A cindery old railroad bed near Waterloo. "Bzeep. Bzeep." Woodcock. Then a faint, pneumatic drumming that is felt as much as heard. "Like a heart attack," observes Mary Gustafson. Ruffed grouse.
Expert Bird Watchers
Mary Gustafson, 24, state ornithologist from Ohio, a muncher of carbohydrates between stops.
Four "tseebits" followed by a trill. "Tennessee warbler," says Dunne.
"No, Nashville warbler," Peter Bacinski corrects him. "Tennessee is quicker at the end." Dunne agrees. Ears can get rusty over the winter.
Peter Bacinski, 36, in the office an expert on high-tech lighting and heating, outdoors an expert on things that grow and fly. Comfortable abdomen admirably designed to provide perch for field glasses. Could hear a pin drop in an earthquake, or spot a needle in a haystack.
It is 5:20. An insistent, rising call like, "teacher-teacher-teacher!" Ovenbird. There are a number of mnemonic phrases birders file in their ears to help them keep hundreds of bird calls straight: "Quick, three beers!" Olive-sided flycatcher. "Sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet!" Yellow warbler. The pewee announces itself "Pewee!" then asks, in a second phrase, "PeWEE?"
One of the best birders in New York's Central Park is blind.
It's 5:30. A white-bearded man in cowboy hat, vest, lumberjack shirt and serious footgear as well as the obligatory binoculars emerges from the mist. For birders, this is the traditional plumage, and Dunne identifies him immediately. It is Dr. Dick Turner, earthy art historian, former college president and current scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who lives on Cape May to be near the bird migrations.
A Clubby Group
Top birders, as varied as the birds they watch, are a highly gregarious lot well known to each other. Dunne, a master at attracting birds with his repertoire of imitated bird song, tells how he also has mastered getting Turner to return his phone calls: "Tell his secretary half of an off-color joke."
As a man of letters, Turner is asked about the honor system among birders.
"Integrity is very, very important in birding. We accept what others say they saw or heard. If you're doubtful about someone, there are very subtle ways of exorcising him."
He chuckles, recalling past subtle exorcisms: "Maybe it's because there's no money involved. If there were, we might end up like in those bass tournaments, where guys have been caught smuggling in record fish."
Under the World Series rules, identification--by sight or sound --must be unanimous on 95% of the birds listed. The balance may be identified by one or more members of a team, who usually number four. This, says Turner, allows room in the back seat for empty corn chip bags. (Other rules forbid use of aircraft to cut travel time and use of tape-recorded calls to entice curious birds out of the trees).
It's 7:30. A Boy Scout camp near Allamuchy. The new sun is an orange in the mist rising off a pond. Bacinski lowers his window, refrigerating those in the rear. He immediately hears a red-eyed vireo and a Carolina wren.
'Warbler Neck' Hazard
Dunne jolts to a stop, makes peace with a highly territorial caretaker and gets two wood ducks on the pond. The Guerrillas scan the budding canopy of trees overhead, a contortion that leads to the occupational hazard of "warbler neck."
It's 8:05. Dunne brakes for meadowlarks near an orchard. He gets one in 30 seconds. Then a field of corn stubble, bobolink country. That takes 15 seconds. To the uninitiated, it is beginning to seem awesome.
The concept of the bird watcher is comic, but the birder might counter that there is nothing funny and something sad about people going through life deaf and blind to one of the most visible and charming examples of the abundance of life on this shared planet. Birders, always respecters of diversity, don't say such things, but the option is open.
"I know a guy in Bayonne who's birded for 30 years, but is afraid to come out of the closet," Bacinski says. "He always tells everybody he's going fishing."
Recent statistics indicate, however, that birding is the fastest-growing pastime in the United States next to gardening. About 25 million people are now "out of the closet."