Each year after school ends, the boys and girls of summer head for sports camps of every kind: baseball, tennis, golf, sailing. Week after week, they strive to master the curveball or the forehand smash or the chip shot or the jibe under the tutelage of master players and coaches.
But for some, whose fields of dreams happen to have birds in them, the difference between a rufous-crowned sparrow and a cactus wren is far more exciting than debating the merits of the squeeze bunt versus the sacrifice fly. With binoculars and field guides in hand, these enthusiasts migrate to Camp Chiricahua—150 miles southeast of Tucson.
Founded in 1986 by Victor Emanuel, a noted ornithologist whose Victor Emanuel Nature Tours are taken by thousands of adult birders each year, Camp Chiricahua offers a single two-week session each summer. Youngsters ages 11 to 17 learn birding under the wing of such masters as Roger Tory Peterson, Kenn Kaufman and Emanuel himself.
Birding, as Emanuel sees it, is the hobby of a lifetime. "Most athletes can remain active in a sport for just a few years," Emanuel points out. "Birding is forever."
Arriving in Tucson on the way to the Chiricahua Mountains, 15 boys and girls are eager to begin their two weeks of intensive birding in an area considered to be one of the best habitats in the world for many species. Flying in from East Lansing, Mich., Dan Chiaravalli and Dan Smyth, both 14, step off the airplane with their binoculars, or " 'nocs," raised and immediately scan the blue Arizona sky. "We're really psyched!" Chiaravalli says. For them, the chance to bird with others their age is a rare treat.
"Most young people don't have much interest in birds," Emanuel says. "If you're the only kid in your school who likes to watch birds, you'll lead a lonely life."
"I don't know too many other kids interested in birding where I'm from," says Cooper Scollan, 14, from Carmel, Calif. Matt Weiss, 13, from Miami, agrees. "I know I'm not supposed to let their joking get to me," he says, "but it does."
At Camp Chiricahua, young birders meet others who share an interest in the sport and discover they aren't alone. "I want them to have confidence in birding as a joyful and exciting sport," Emanuel says.
The campers awake at 5:30 a.m. "We get up with the birds," one inevitably says. Jeff Kitchens, 15, from Arlington, Va., announces that he sees the silhouette of a black cardinal. "A juvenile," he insists. Bob Drewes, a camp counselor from San Francisco who teaches herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences, is skeptical. "There's no such thing," Drewes says. Jeff holds his ground. The argument finally engages Peterson, who is probably the best-known birder in the world. Peterson smiles benignly. He supports the kids' camp as the best thing that has happened to birding since he published his first field guide, in 1934. "Maybe it's a Phainopepla," Peterson suggests, naming a shiny black insect-eater. The "black cardinal" returns, this time in good light, balancing easily on an Apache pine limb, resplendent in a coat of gray and rose. "Pyrrhuloxia!" exclaims Emanuel, "the western version of a cardinal." Though wrong about the bird, Jeff beams. "That's a lifer for me," he says with a grin.
All birders keep running life lists of the birds they've seen. With the devotion of baseball buffs recording base hits and runs batted in, the campers note the species they've seen and where and when they were spotted. At night, field notes are transferred to life-list books. At 10 p.m., counselor Barry Lyons, a political science student at the University of Arizona, has to make Dan Smyth stop working on his list and go to bed.