Birdwatchers behaving like paparazzi

Sightings of rare bird species trigger middle-class flash mobs, armed with cameras and tripods
The flocking instinct
NNP/North News

Laura Hawkins is an outgoing woman—the sort who chats 10 minutes on the phone with a stranger without introduction, yet doesn’t skimp on the personal details. But even she felt a trifle exposed last month when she emerged towel-clad from her morning shower to find a dozen or so photographers arrayed on the edge of her property, telephoto lenses trained on her kitchen window. The interlopers, it turned out, were not drawn by the flesh of a 61-year-old Massachusetts woman. They were looking for a spotted towhee, which had been reported near her home in the seaside village of Loblolly Cove.

Towhees are not uncommon birds. Tens of thousands of the spotted variety ply the continent’s western half, inhabiting a corridor reaching from the Canadian Prairies to southern Mexico. Yet the mere mention of one so far from home set off a frenzy in New England’s well-wired birding community. Within two days, the Hawkins’s property became a kind of ornithological red carpet, lined with tripods and day packs and fanatics armed with $5,000 binoculars. Tour buses made the hour-long trip from Boston, disgorging enthusiasts desperate for a glimpse of the orange-sided celebrity. Often as not, they could find it flitting around an abandoned swing set in Hawkins’s yard.

Hawkins and her husband Laurence endured the ordeal with humour—they take more than passing interest in the feathered folk around their home. Still, the level of obsession caught them off guard. “Every time you looked out, there’d be 10 or 12 of them,” Hawkins recalls. “We started to joke: this must be what it’s like to be chased by paparazzi.”

If you think she’s exaggerating, you’ve overlooked one of the stranger trends to grip outdoor recreation in recent memory. Once the preserve of naturalists, hobbyists and compulsive eccentrics, birdwatching has in recent years become a travelling crowd scene, blending elements of ecotourism and spectator sport into something John James Audubon would scarcely recognize. The discovery in January of a great grey owl near Kingsville, Ont., for example, drew hundreds to a narrow concession road outside the southwestern Ontario town, forcing police to issue safety warnings due to the snarl of parked cars and wandering pedestrians. A few weeks later, a clutch of snowy owls lured birders from as far away as California to Boundary Bay, B.C., where they formed a phalanx on a dike path each day, watching the birds hunch in a nearby marsh. Last June, the arrival of an Arctic ptarmigan turned Ontario’s Darlington nuclear station into an unlikely bus-tour destination: officials with Ontario Power Generation had to set up mass viewings because those three-winged radioactivity signs evidently weren’t enough to keep birders off the property.

These middle-class flash mobs are usually triggered by news of a bird far from its normal range—the big scores being refugees from overseas. The annual northward migration of sandhill cranes, for example, was eclipsed this year by the appearance of a lone Asian hooded crane in the marshes of Indiana; over a four-day period last month, more than 1,000 people flocked to a wildlife area in the state’s southwest corner just to catch a glimpse. An Asian falcated duck (silvery, with a greeny-bronze head) drew more than 2,000 visitors to a bird refuge near Fresno, Calif., despite the fact that, in China, the bird is the equivalent of a common mallard.

The British call this “twitching”—a suitably arcane label for the benign subculture of roving amateurs who bucket-list species, as opposed to homebodies content to monitor their backyard feeders. They’ve been around since the late 19th century, developing more expansive checklists of birds they’ve seen in a given area or time frame. For the uninitiated, these people have long been a curiosity, or a convenient butt of jokes.

But in recent years, a confluence of demographic and technological shifts has thrust twitching, and less ambitious forms of birdwatching, into the mainstream. It is an outdoor activity that provides light exercise, so it has proven a big draw for baby boomers, history’s most active generation of retirees. A 2006 report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service noted that more than half the 48 million birders in America were over the age of 45, and nearly two-thirds of that group were 55 or older. And their numbers are on the rise: birding is now America’s second-fastest growing outdoor recreation, right behind gardening.

Canadian numbers are harder to come by, but Dick Cannings, B.C. program manager with the research and conservation group Bird Studies Canada, says that the number of Christmas bird counts—annual events where enthusiasts take inventory of local feathered populations—has leaped 58 per cent in the last 12 years. “I’m meeting people every day I thought would have been the last sort to get into birding,” he says. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

More transformative still has been the influence of digital communication, which has made birds easier for non-experts to find. Most birders in North America now subscribe to email listservs run by local ornithological groups, on which members issue rare bird alerts, complete with driving directions to locations. A growing number also belong to eBird, a continent-wide database run out of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., for which there are now slick mobile apps. Within moments of, say, a cackling goose sighting, hundreds of birders anywhere can obtain the location and pull up maps on their smartphones.

Small surprise, then, that the number of American birders willing to hit the road in search of species climbed eight per cent between 2001 and 2006 (updated numbers are expected this spring). Or that avian researchers, hungry for the crowd-sourced data that birders are equipped to send, are encouraging them. “More and more of these people are connecting with scientists to help them learn about the natural world,” says Dave Bonter, who helps run the Cornell lab’s citizen science program, which recruits birders and trains them to record useful information. “They tell us that they like the excuse to do something they were going to do anyway.”

The flip side of all this excitement, of course, is the sort of obsessive competition lampooned in The Big Year, a 2011 movie starring Steve Martin, in which three men race to find the most species of birds in North America. Russell Cannings, Canada’s top birder (and Dick Cannings’s son), says alerts can produce an adrenalin rush in avid checklisters that blocks out all sense of absurdity. “You might never have planned to be at the sewage ponds in Cranbrook, B.C., in your life,” the 25-year-old says from his home in Burnaby, B.C. “But when a rare bird shows up, you gotta go.”

During his own “big year” in 2010, Cannings logged 60,000 km on his 1993 Toyota Tercel and managed to spot 373 of B.C.’s 392 native species. He currently leads the eBird standings, with 162 species sighted this year. Yet he cringes at the spectacle of hundreds amassing around some wayward songsters, noting that it stokes divisions within the birding community. Underlying such disputes, he says, is a widening schism between birders, who fancy themselves students of the creatures, and “photographers”—a pejorative for those interested in little more than a good picture.

Case in point: the flame war that broke out last month on New York state’s rare-bird listserv over claims that photographers were flushing snowy owls from a resting spot at the southwest tip of Long Island. “Phil, you should know that more and more people think of you as a hypocrite, trash-talking ‘photographers’ while yourself walking around with a massive lens,” wrote one poster during a heated exchange on Feb. 6. The writer went on to chastize his fellow birder for failing to confront one of the culprits: “This makes you, sadly, seem like a coward.”

What drives such animus is a topic of growing interest to social scientists, many of whom blame testosterone. One study published two years ago noted that 95 per cent of so-called “competitive birders” in the U.S. and Britain are men, feeding a long-held theory that birding serves as an outlet for the masculine hunting instinct. Others, like the British psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen, cite the male predisposition toward listing and organizing. “On average,” he writes, “males will be more strongly inclined to systemize (birds or any other aspect of the environment) compared to females.”

Yet one of the few Canadian academics to study the activity leans toward less atavistic motivations. “It’s a reputation economy,” says Gavan Watson, who wrote a dissertation on birding for his doctorate at York University. “People are doing it not to make money, but to become known. If the quality of a birder’s sightings is high, people will trust that person. He or she will gain a good reputation.”

Of course, the pathologically obsessed represent a mere fraction of all birders. More typical are people like Heather Anne Campbell, a woman in her mid-50s who saw an alert a few weeks back on the listserv for Lambton County in southwestern Ontario. A female mountain bluebird had been spotted on back roads near her home in Wardsville, about 60 km southwest of London. While hardly endangered, she notes, mountain bluebirds are rarely seen outside the western half of the continent. “This one was 15 minutes away. I had no excuse.”

So in the thick of a heavy snowstorm, Campbell and a friend drove northwest through the concession roads toward the hamlet of Shetland. To their delight, they spotted the tiny creature flitting about the stubble in a remote cornfield. “It flew very vigorously over the road several times,” she recalls with a note of reverence. “It was still blowing snow. We got a beautiful contrast between her blue-hued wings and the white sky.”

Over subsequent days, others would drive by in hopes of spotting it. One man called Campbell from Windsor, about an hour’s drive away, to ask if it was still around. Yet few got so lucky as she and her friend, who for a fleeting moment had a speck of nature all to themselves. The intimacy of that experience has stuck in Campbell’s memory, as well it probably should. Rare as the bird was in her part of the country, time alone with the hardy creature is the real endangered species.