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The Superbowl of Birding

THEY HURRIED single-file into the dark woods, the snow crunching underfoot. It was 5:00 a.m., temperature zero. After a quarter-mile, they stopped and stood silently.

Hoo-hoo,” said Barrett Lawson. “Hoohoo-hooWah!” The night stayed mute. Lawson put his hands to his mouth. Out came a shivery whinny that faded into tremulous woe. The woods seemed to darken for a moment. “That’s really good, Barrett,” whispered Strickland Wheelock. “Try your barred again.”

It was the opening minutes of the Superbowl of Birding, hosted by the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. Wheelock and his formidable team, the Hit-and-Misses Squad, had come to Crooked Pond in Boxford hoping to bag a barred owl (three points) or a screech owl (two points). Instead, as their feet and faces turned to ice, they heard a single far-off peep.


“Yes. I heard it.”

“So did I.”

The early birder gets the owl: one peep, three aural confirmations, four points. Like the other 23 Superbowl teams—sporting such names as the Let It Snow Buntings, the Not-So-Old Squaws, and the inevitable Tequila Mockingbirds—the Hit-and-Misses had from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. to accumulate as many species and points as possible within the competition’s boundaries: Essex County, Massachusetts and Rockingham County, New Hamsphire.

Each species earned from one to five points, depending on its relative rarity during winter. Speed, strategy, and good scouting could give a team an edge. Wheelock’s tight itinerary minimized drive time and maximized field time. More than once today, the team would jog from their van to a previously-scouted location, spot their target, and rush off to the next stop.

“We don’t spend much time admiring the bird,” said Wheelock. His squad hoped to improve on last year, when they chalked up 77 species but lost by three points. “We had a wood duck staked out, a four-point bird,” said Wheelock, still sounding disappointed, “but it didn’t show up.”

Wheelock, from Uxbridge, had been birding since age 7 or 8—“birding intently,” noted a teammate. Now a fit 60, Wheelock still went birding several times a week and often led Audubon trips. He knew every species in the United States by sight and sound, and most species in bird-rich Costa Rica. When not peering through his binoculars, whose grips were worn to the metal, he ran Wheelock Textiles, an old New England firm that now contracted out its business and thus gave him leeway to indulge his passion.

His Superbowl teammates included Kathy Clayton, a chipper 34-year-old computer programmer from Sudbury; Jackie Pascucci, a seriously competitive 56-year-old teacher at the Wellesley Community Children’s Center; Barrett Lawson, Wheelock’s protégé since childhood, now a senior at Bowdoin College majoring in biology; and Barrett’s big, bearded father, Bob, who founded Blue Jay Recording Studio in Concord and produced the Peterson Field Guides’ Birding by Ear. “The audio bible,” said Clayton.

THE TEAM REACHED Cape Ann with the daylight and made quick binocular sweeps at a tidal creek (crow, mallard, black duck, herring gull) and a small rocky cove (white-winged scoter, common eider, harlequin duck, bufflehead). Near the lighthouse at Halibut Point, Wheelock and Bob Lawson walked down a lane, loudly pishing—a pneumatic noise that draws curious birds (and odd looks from nonbirders).

Back at the van, the team slung their serious equipment onto their backs—collapsible tripods and powerful spotting scopes. “Thousands of dollars worth of optics,” said Clayton. They trudged through deep snow to the overlook at Halibut Point, where sharp wind intensified the bitter cold, and aimed their scopes at the gray Atlantic: razorbill, great cormorant, horned grebe, black guillemot.

At Andrews Point, the next stop, Clayton said urgently, “Strickland! Come here!” He bent to her eyepiece. “It’s a murre,” he said, “either thin-billed or thick.” Both are plain black-and-white birds, almost indistinguishable, especially at several hundred yards on a bobbing sea. Both are uncommon, but a thin-billed is rare, which translated into four points for a thick-billed and potentially double that for a thin: five points, plus a three-point bonus for the first team to call it in.

“Looks thin to me,” said Clayton, smelling points.

Wheelock stayed silent, eye glued to the scope. Finally he said, “It’s a thick.”

“Are you sure?” said Pascucci. “Because a thin is an eight.” As if Wheelock didn’t know.

“It’s a thick,” said Wheelock definitively. “But it’s also an unexpected four-point goodie. Nice find, Kathy.”

Clayton had also located a prospect through Massbird.org, an internet hotline for state sightings. Someone in Rockport had reported a pine siskin at his feeder. Clayton e-mailed him. He agreed to send his address if she would keep it secret so flocks of birders didn’t descend on him. And now here in a Rockport backyard was the siskin, an easy three-pointer, though a woman did ask why strangers were wandering around the back of her house.

“You do have to respect private property,” Bob Lawson said, “to some extent.” Throughout the day, these eagle-eyed birders seemed to go blind whenever a sign contained the word Private.

Minutes after the siskin, on a road fronting the Atlantic, Barrett and Wheelock scoped a dovekie—a plump little auk worth five points and a possible three-point bonus. But the team needed a third confirmation, and the bird had disappeared into a blinding band of sunlight and sea glitter.

“The dovekie is my nemesis bird,” said Bob. “I’ve never seen one.”

Barrett spotted it emerging from the sun and began narrating. “It’s above the ship. . . . It’s heading for that point.”

“I see it!” said Clayton. Score the dovekie. Bob, to his utter exasperation, missed it again.

They piled up species at other quick stops: surf scoter, horned lark, Iceland gull, eared grebe, common goldeneye. At one point Bob jammed on the brakes after Wheelock somehow noticed a drab female gadwall, almost invisible amidst floating sea wrack. “Your eye gets trained,” said Wheelock. “You learn how to notice what shouldn’t be there.”

THEY LEFT CAPE ANN around noon, slightly behind schedule but buoyant about the morning’s take: 60 species, 105 points. But then their luck turned: no fish crows at the dumpsters behind Shaw’s in Beverly, no bluebirds or cedar waxwings at a scouted feeder in Topsfield. They could hear the clock ticking.

They circled back to Crooked Pond, the day’s starting point, for a bird staked out the previous weekend. After jogging down the snowy path, they stopped near a small pool sparkling in a shaft of sunlight and crisscrossed by fallen trees mantled with snow. As if on cue, the star darted into the scene, a buff-colored flick of vitality—the shy and seldom-seen winter wren.

“Oh, look at that,” said Wheelock, captivated. “I’ve never seen that wren in such beautiful light.” He let himself admire it for a few moments. Then it was time for the final push.

First, to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. It was 2:30. The place was crawling with Superbowlers. Wheelock had scouted a snowy owl on a frozen inlet here, and now found it within 10 seconds, a white lump sitting 200 yards away in a chaos of white lumps. “Even if you know from Massbird where the birds are,” said Wheelock, “you still have to find them.” They left Plum Island at 3:30 with 69 species.

A cove in Newburyport yielded a common merganser and a bald eagle. By 4:00 they had 72 species. “We need three more for our self-respect, five to match last year,” said Bob. In Salisbury they barely stopped the van to get the short-eared owl he had scouted yesterday. But Salisbury Beach was a bust—no sanderlings, no dunlins, no snow buntings.

At 4:40 the light was failing as they pulled into an apartment complex (“Private Road”) in Hampton Beach. Barrett spotted a red-throated loon, their 74th species. Everyone was bent to an eyepiece, anxious for number 75. Wheelock abruptly moved his scope to scan the other direction, blocking Clayton and Pascucci. Clayton laughed, familiar with Wheelock’s tendencies while birding intently.

“I see a big blue Strickland,” said Pascucci.

“Gray-capped,” said Wheelock, never looking up.

They spotted something, maybe a Barrow’s goldeneye, far off on the darkening water. Wheelock exhaled loudly. “That thing takes one gulp and dives again,” he said. They couldn’t make a positive ID. At a few minutes before 5:00 they decided to get closer with the van, then rushed to set up their scopes again. But two minutes later, as dusk was surrendering to dark, Wheelock called it a day: 74 species, 139 points. They knew it wasn’t enough.

At Joppa Flats, teams traded bird stories over cold pizza as the scores were tallied. The Monadnock Merlins won, with 81 species and 166 points. Wheelock’s squad finished fourth behind the Raven Loonatics and the Wicked Pishas.

“If only we’d gotten those bluebirds and waxwings,” said Wheelock with a sigh. “But I still can’t get over the light on that winter wren.”

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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