The Northern Lapwing is a dapper crested Eurasian shorebird that turns up on the wrong side of the ocean every half-century or so. When a member of the species appeared on a horse farm in Southampton, N.Y., last winter, hundreds—no, thousands—of people from all over the country descended on that rural corner of Long Island: fully grown men and women who swung state-of-the-art binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras, and dashed up and down country lanes following the merest rumor of the bird's location.
"Over there!" Off they galloped.
"Oops, it flew. Over there!" The mob reversed direction.
An incensed farmer appeared. "Off my pasture!" he shouted, waving his arms and flushing the bird.
"It landed by the barn!" the cry went up, and the farmer was nearly trampled in the ensuing stampede.
Who are these people? What makes them behave so oddly? They are from all over the U.S., and they flew across the country or drove for days and then elbowed aside the husbandman, pushing their way forward in order to add the Northern Lapwing to their (life) (world) (North American) ( U.S.) ( New York) ( Long Island) lists. This is power bird-watching, and it has turned a once genteel pastime into a highly competitive sport.
In another, more innocent era, bird-watching was the eccentric enthusiasm of silver-haired Auduboners on annuities and the subject of wry little "Talk of the Town" items in The New Yorker. No more. Bird-watching has turned into hireling, a macho game that requires skill, experience, time, money and passion, a high-tech sport with the entire globe for a playing field.
There are 9,000 to 10,000 species of birds, and at least four people have seen 7,000 of them. Close to 900 different birds can be seen in North America, and about a dozen birders have proved it is possible to see more than 800—no small accomplishment when you consider that finding even 700 requires: 1) camping out on an Alaskan island off the coast of Siberia and waiting for Asian strays to stagger in, and 2) being ready to fly anywhere on a moment's notice when sightings are reported.
The American Birding Association (ABA), keeper of the flame, publishes a sort of Guinness Book of Records for birds, tracking birding's highest achievers in a given year, state, country, region, continent or the world. Benton Basham, who in 1983 ran up 711 species by shuttling from his home in Chattanooga to the Dry Tortugas, the Salton Sea and the outer Aleutians, ranks No. 1 on this continent, with 823 species. But the world's No. 1 birder is 64-year-old Phoebe Snetsinger of St. Louis, who has seen 7,977 species. She recently stopped by her home after forays to Gabon and Uganda. Soon she would leave for Mexico in hopes of crossing the 8,000 line before the end of the year. Her husband, David, describes himself as MCB—Married to a Combat Birder.
Combat birders get tips from an international hot line or, nowadays, the Internet. When a rare, storm-battered, navigationally impaired Siberian Thrush wobbles out of the fog and lands on the outer reaches of Attu Island, Alaska, it's sure to be greeted by a phalanx of binocular-wielders who will call it in on radio phones. Birders who "need" this thrush will drop everything to get up there before it gets away.