It’s 3:30am on a Thursday, and I’m sloshing through a flooded stream near the confluence of the north and south forks of the Rivanna River in rubber boots that are just about an inch too short, straining to hear bird calls through a deafening chorus of spring peepers.
I’ve done crazier things in the name of bird lust than get up at the witching hour to squelch through an exurban marsh, but I’ve got nothing on my companions. Stauffer Miller and Pete Myers have been to the ends of the earth, from Borneo to Barrow, Alaska, studying avians. Today, they’ve set their sights closer to home. Along with friends Dan Bieker, Rob Capon, and Gretchen Gehrett, they’ve begged off obligations to take on what’s become an annual tradition: a Big Day, where they work together to identify as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period within set geographic boundaries. In this case, it’s Albemarle, the 726 square-mile county they all call home. They have stiff competition: themselves. The number to beat is 122, the single-day record they set two years ago. That’s just shy of half the bird species ever observed here.
There’s no hint of dawn in the sky above us as we wade into the heart of the marsh at the center of a depression about a half-mile across, a hidden spot on private property in an upscale development off Polo Grounds Road. We’re in what feels like a remote wilderness of fog and frogs, even though Route 29 is barely a mile away as the crow flies. A fox screams nearby. Myers plays the calls of wading birds through a speaker he’s toting in a small backpack.
Then we hear it: a soft, drawn-out chirrup somewhere ahead and to our right.
“A sora!” Myers says—a chicken-like waterbird with massive feet and a bright yellow bill. Not that we can see a thing.
“That’s a bird we’ve never had on this count,” says Miller. “Ten after 4. We need to get back.” We’re supposed to meet the others at a rendezvous point at Barracks Road Shopping Center in 20 minutes.
Mucky water soaks into my socks. It’s going to be a good day.
Until the 1920s, it was accepted knowledge that the only way to positively identify a bird was to kill it first. All that changed in a generation, when scientists like Harvard museum curator Ludlow Griscom, the founding father of field ornithology, developed the practice of observational identification, using sight and sound instead of shotguns.
Some of those early experts pioneered the idea of the Big Day, showing off their skills by racking up as many IDs as possible in friendly competitions. The idea really took off in the 1980s, when the New Jersey Audubon Society started holding the World Series of Birding, a one-day fundraising contest that challenged teams to comb the Garden State for a single 24-hour period. These days, the event—coming up on May 10 this year —draws hundreds of birders who raise about half a million dollars annually for wildlife conservation.
Jersey doesn’t have all the fun. During the spring migration, people across the U.S. forgo sleep to see how many species they can tally in a day. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology sponsored its own crack team’s Big Day last weekend, sending some of the world’s best birders on a trek from Tucson to San Diego. Cornell graduate student Andrew Farnsworth was in the car, and while the group didn’t do as well as last year, when they set a new world record, he said they were happy with their final count: 275 species.
The whole concept boggles the minds of some, Farnsworth concedes. There’s the fact that from the World Series to casual backyard excursions, a Big Day is based on the honor system. And there’s the question of why people would be so driven to compete to collect the intangible in the first place.
But for a lot of enthusiasts, there’s something about knowing the birds are out there that makes counting them irresistible, said Farnsworth.
“I think it happens so easily with birds, because they’re so readily apparent,” he said. “They make beautiful sounds, they can be subtle and bold.” And while some patterns in bird biology are predictable, “you never know what you’re going to find.”
Stauffer Miller is something of a Renaissance man. A native of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, he was a veterinarian his whole career, and spent his early retirement days writing books about the history of Cape Cod during the Civil War.
Miller’s not the sort to self-congratulate, but by his friends’ estimates, he’s seen more Albemarle County birds than anyone, and his life list is some 4,000 species long—about 40 percent of the Earth’s known avians. He is, in short, a world-class birder, but you won’t hear him say it. It was his wife who got interested in birding first, he said, around the time they got married in 1978. Thanks to some friends who taught them a great deal, they both rapidly developed a passion for it.
“It was just being around the right people at the right time,” he said. They bounced around the country in the years that followed, living in Utah, Maryland, Massachusetts. “After we’d seen most of the United States, we took off birding around the world,” he said, hitting hot spots from Thailand to South Africa.
Miller, who helps run the Monticello Bird Club, has also spent countless hours exploring the avian landscape of Albemarle, and knows every back-road bridge and secluded farm pond. That knowledge makes him the perfect person to mastermind the team’s schedule and route—the most important task of the day when you’re racing against time in a county half the size of Rhode Island.
But for Miller, it’s not about big numbers. He’s content to amble along, hat brim low, hands in his pockets, listening with his almost-unrivaled ear to what’s out there. Whether he’s on a remote Pacific island or in Virginia’s Piedmont, “I just like a nice birding experience,” he said. “I don’t see the need to set some new record.”
He speaks for himself, clearly. From the minute the full team of five pulls away from the deserted parking lot in front of Banana Republic in Capon’s hybrid Escape, with me following behind, they’re on a mission.
A successful Big Day requires much more than an encyclopedic knowledge of birds. If you’re looking to set records, you’d better know exactly where to go to cross off a few unusual but reliable species. Thus, our first stop: a landscaped pond on the Martha Jefferson campus on Pantops. We pull over on the side of an access road and the team trains a high-powered flashlight on the water, not even bothering to shut off the car’s engine. Sailing through the beam is a stately mute swan. Check.
Fifteen minutes later, we’re rolling through dark farm fields southeast of Charlottesville, making frequent stops to stand silently, ears trained on still-quiet fence rows. The numbers are ticking up very slowly—whip-poor-will, screech-owl—but that won’t be the case for long. The countryside is about to bust open with birdsong, and the team is hustling to get into prime position. Miller has a pre-dawn spot in mind—a lonely stretch of Blenheim Road that crosses the Hardware River about seven miles north of Scottsville. After that, it’s back roads all the way to a farm pond off Langhorn Road.
“At sunrise, you can only be in one place,” Capon says.
Pete Myers has decamped to the passenger seat of my Honda and we’re trailing the Escape. Even at a cruising speed near 40 miles per hour, he’s rattling off birds he sees to the left and right as the day’s count shoots into the dozens.
An ornithologist by training, Myers spent years tracking the epic north-south migrations of shorebirds. He set aside fieldwork to go into the nonprofit world in the mid 1980s, and then in 2002, increasingly concerned about the emerging body of research on the long-term consequences of environmental toxins, he launched a news aggregation website focused on environmental health topics.
Around the same time, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society created eBird, a Web database that allows people around the world to log species sightings. Myers’ colleague Todd Koym* saw immediate potential for technology that would let birders tap into eBird from anywhere, and Myers helped him launch BirdsEye and BirdLog, mobile apps that allow amateurs and pros alike to log their own data and access that of thousands of others.
It’s not going too far to say the explosion of data-driven birding is changing the world of ornithology; eBird and the accompanying apps have been lauded by experts as the biggest advancement in birding since binoculars. It’s also pulled Myers back into the field. He got to know a number of local experts, including Miller, by making himself a regular at local hotspots as he helped Koym get the apps off the ground. But what really endeared him to the members of the hardcore Central Virginia birding scene was a rare sighting, a violet green swallow he saw flitting around a Crozet pond. It was only the sixth record of the species east of the Mississippi.
“Fortunately I had my camera, and even more fortunately, I got a picture of it,” Myers said. The news flew. People showed up in droves to spot it. Never mind the Ph.D.: Now he’d earned his stripes.
These days, there’s really just one main reason he treks out to the county’s best bird watering holes with his tripod-mounted spotting scope to spend a morning peering over his round-lensed glasses at his own iPhone apps, ticking off species.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s stress relief. I deal with stressful things. I can get out here and immerse myself, and to do it well requires paying very close attention. So it’s good for me.”
Like Myers, Dan Bieker is a bird guy by formal training. If you could point to one person responsible for the most binocular sales in Albemarle County history, it would probably be him. Hundreds of locals have been inspired to take up birding over the years thanks to the field ornithology course Bieker teaches through Piedmont Community College, including two of his fellow Big Day teammates.
Bieker learned to love birds through a class himself, during his undergraduate years studying biology at Hocking College in Ohio. He came to Charlottesville in 1983 after a career working in the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and in the years since, he’s watched the landscape of Central Virginia shift to make way for growth, often at the expense of prime bird habitat. Many of the high-diversity spots that remain, including most of the team’s tried-and-true Big Day sites, are in developed areas, surrounded by houses that have sprung up in the last two decades.
Even the rural pockets that remain aren’t as hospitable as they once were, said Bieker.
“You see a lot more cattle farms now with clean fence rows, which is a shame,” he said. “In the past, there were a lot more brushy, overgrown fence rows and roadsides, which are great habitat for things like shrikes and bobwhite quail. Now it’s about clean lines—not so good for wildlife.”
But he goes where the birds are, seeking them out like old friends.
“You come to love them, and depend on them coming back every year,” he said. “When they do, it’s just a thrill to know that these birds are still out there, surviving.”
By 7:30 am, we’re pushing 70 species as we circle the Langhorn pond, a bird jackpot. The warblers are a symphony unto themselves, and the names are accumulating so quickly the team has to stop every now and then to take a tally: black-and-white, black-throated green, yellow, yellow-rumped, pine, palm, prairie. Ducks and loons paddle and dive on the otherwise mirror-still pond, and migratory shorebirds stalk in the high reeds.
Capon and I strike out across a field just coming up in new green hay and we’re dew-soaked to the knees in seconds. We’re scouting ahead for muddy patches, hoping to scare up a snipe, a long-billed, long-legged bird that could easily fit in a man’s hand. It’s one of Capon’s favorites, not least because he gets a kick out of the old saw about the hunt for an invisible critter. As it happens, they’re not too uncommon, though they’re very hard to spot.
“These birds will wait until you’re about to step on them, and then they’ll take off like they were fired out of a gun,” he says. “Then they land and dissolve into the field, and they’re almost instantly invisible. It’s like something out of science fiction. We’re in a great place for them.”
Alas, no snipe.
Rob Capon is the co-founder of two Charlottesville biotech companies, and on the day of the hunt, he’s sporting a Harvard Business School T-shirt. But while he might not have the formal training of some of his teammates, if anything embodies the competitive spirit that drives this group to roam the rural countryside each spring with one eye on busting records, it’s the sight of Capon striding determinedly across a field, clutching his binoculars and gazing ahead for any sign of feathered movement.
He can pinpoint the exact moment, several years back, that he became a birder.
“There was a nest on my front porch, and it had a blue egg in it,” said Capon. “I wondered—what was that bird?” By the time he’d pinpointed it as a catbird, he was hooked. He joined the Monticello Bird Club and signed up for Bieker’s class at Piedmont. It was Capon who came up with the idea to assemble the best birders he knew and attempt a Big Day. A careful planner, he’s still in charge of logistics, making sure his SUV is well-stocked for the occasion with a first aid kit, water, and provisions.
“This is why they keep me around,” he jokes, handing around a cardboard box jammed with packets of cookies, crackers, and trail mix during a mid-morning impromptu tailgate. “I have the best snacks.”
Capon is in it to win, even if he’s competing against himself. His constant refrain with every less-than-common species spotted, is “that’s a good bird.” He takes joy in them, and not just because they represent the steeper steps toward a new record. An unusual sighting is its own reward, and it often requires a meticulous observer—something he learned on his many outings with Miller.
“One thing Stauffer taught me is when you see a large flock of birds—say they’re Canada geese—you have to stop and see if there’s a snow goose among them,” he said. “Sometimes, the way you see a great bird is by paying attention to a flock of ordinary birds.”
For Gretchen Gehrett, it’s all about observing those ordinary birds long enough to see the extraordinary.
Gehrett comes from a family of birdwatchers—her mother and grandfather were both avid birders long before anybody would have used the word to describe them—but she didn’t get into it herself until she and her husband moved from New York to Washington, D.C. in 1980. Their house on Rock Creek Park backed up to a hillside that would fill up with warblers every spring.
“Suddenly, when I had the park next door, I caught the bug,” said Gehrett, a marketing executive who now runs her own consulting firm from her Ivy home. “Fell in love” might be a better term, especially after she and her husband moved to the area in 2001. That first spring, bluebirds nested in the box they set up in their yard, and then stayed—for six years. Gehrett fed the pair mealworms, watched them constantly, and got to know them so well she gave them names: Napoleon and Josephine. The male would flit from window to window when she was in the house, watching her through the glass at the kitchen table or her desk. She loved the role reversal.
“I would always feel like I was the zoo exhibit,” she laughed. “He was free to leave any time he wanted, while I was stuck at my computer.”
Gehrett, too, developed sharp field ID skills in Bieker’s Piedmont class, but she’s never lost her sense of wonder at the beauty of her quarry. Every time a bluebird crossed our path, she’d stop to take a look at it through her binoculars and marvel.
“No matter how many times you see them, it’s still fun,” she said.
It’s 4pm, and we’re long past the hour when the ratio of miles driven to species spotted has tipped in favor of the former. The team has nearly circled the county, sweeping south to scout the banks of the James for swallows, stopping at an abandoned silo near Howardsville to peer upward into the dark at a barn owl, spotting broad-winged hawks while eating lunch in the parking lot at the Crossroads Store in North Garden, and then hitting a string of small ponds tucked into Western Albemarle subdivisions where grebes dove for dinner and osprey perched above.
The drooping group scans the water at Chris Greene Lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of the American wigeon another birder reported here via an e-mail listserv earlier today. There’s talk of cashing in, but the tally is at 121, just two birds shy of a new record—an uncommonly good day, and they’ve added several species never yet counted on their annual outing. They don’t want to give up yet. As the shadows stretch longer, we caravan back to the spot where Miller, Myers, and I started the day.
The hot sun has transformed the marsh. The peepers are quiet, replaced by the rasp of cricket frogs and the lazy buzz of dragonflies. Now that there’s a real chance of beating their best, the birders are getting a little tense.
“Are you still looking at that prairie warbler?” Capon shouts good-naturedly over his shoulder. “Find us something we don’t have!”
And then Bieker does. It’s a rusty blackbird, a dark fellow with distinctive white eyes—a bit of a rarity. High-fives are exchanged, but there’s still one bird to go. Myers, in hip waders, heads straight into the water. The sora we checked off more than 14 hours before chirrups.
Then Capon lets out a shout. “Snipe!” he yells at the top of his voice. “Hey guys, that’s it!”
By the time I pry off my mud-caked boots and fall exhausted into the driver’s seat of my car, I’ve been up for 16 hours, and the team has driven 144 miles. I’ve got a binocular-strap tan, blisters on both feet, and I’m crawling with ticks. But I get the marathon approach now. To see or hear half the known species in a county in a single day? It’s a trip.
Bieker—who happened to pick up a great-crested flycatcher on his drive home, bringing the team total to 124—summed it up well hours before, when we were hiking back up a hill from a dammed-up spot on Lickinghole Creek in Crozet. There, smack in the middle of the Western Ridge subdivision, we’d added bird No. 119, a bald eagle.
“It’s about being out in nature, being around wild animals,” he’d said. “It’s the pursuit. It’s finding something unusual, and just enjoying their beauty and their songs. It’s everything about them.”
*The original version of this story did not mention Koym as the main developer of the apps.