groaned. Wind stirred the rushes beside the lake. Clouds raced across the moon.
Six men stood on a California road, their shadows long in the moonlight. Off to
the east, toward Arizona, the lights of the Imperial Dam on the Colorado River
glowed in the sky. One of the men said quietly, "One, two, three." On
the count of three, they broke into applause. Just as abruptly they stopped.
From the distance came a tiny noise, something between a trill and a rattle.
Most people might have assumed it was just another rustle in the brush. But it
was, in fact, the call of a bird. "Black rail!" shouted one of the men.
"Black rail!" It was 3:19 a.m.
one of these men had written long ago, "are compact, rather hen-shaped
birds of secretive habits and mysterious voices...." Except for the hen
part he could have been describing the members of the group he was with this
windy morning. If their actions only occasionally seemed secretive, they were
The writer who
described the rail was Roger Tory Peterson, a 74-year-old naturalist who,
through his field guides to birds of East and West, is one of the people most
responsible for popularizing bird watching in America. As they heard the call
of the black rail, Peterson and the rest of the group were starting off, a
month ago, from the southeastern tip of California on a 500-mile trek through
the state, hoping to set the North American record for most species of birds
spotted or heard in a single day. The other team members were Don Roberson, a
30-year-old former attorney now devoting his life to watching and writing about
birds; Laurence C. Binford, 48, an ornithologist; Jeri Langham, 40, a professor
of plant ecology at California State University at Sacramento: Benjamin (Mike)
Parmeter, 50, a physician; and John Parmeter, 21, Mike's son and a senior
majoring in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Everyone but
Peterson, a New Englander, was from California; they were all expert birders.
Among them they held 16 records.
seemed empty, but the rail, announced by John Parmeter, was already No. 4 on a
list on which the first entry had been made more than an hour earlier with the
hoo, hoooo, hoo, hoo of a great horned owl hunting in a date palm grove. Bird
No. 2 was checked off when the silhouette of a barn owl, perched precariously
on a telephone wire, brought the team's van to a shuddering halt so the members
could check it out by shining a flashlight into the bird's pale, amazed face.
And just before the black rail the birders had heard the call of a screech
It had made a
sound that Peterson, whose descriptions are known for their whimsy, has called
"a series of hollow whistles" with the rhythm "of a small ball
bouncing to a standstill."
The day itself
would produce a lot of bounce but little standing still. With four birds down
and 231 to go to tie the record, set by Peterson with a different team in Texas
a year earlier, every moment was carefully scheduled on a computer printout
prepared by Roberson, the day's organizer. This was the featured event of the
Audubon Society's annual fund-raising birdathon, a nationwide competition in
which people make pledges for each bird seen. The society had invested between
$3,000 and $4,000 in Peterson's group because they had secured pledges of about
$80 per bird.
Most of the money
was spent on equipment. The rented van, first of a series, was capable of 80
mph. which Langham soon proved. At the airport in Yuma, Ariz., just across the
California border, a twin-engined Cessna 414 waited, ready to carry the team
from locality to locality: Yuma to the Salton Sea and then to the high desert,
the mountains and, finally, to the coast and the Monterey Peninsula.
becoming an increasingly popular pastime. Peterson's books broke new ground for
amateur naturalists, beginning in 1934, by pointing out the special
characteristics of each North American bird's shape, color, mannerisms and
calls that make it instantly recognizable in the field. Birders soon began
testing how fast they could identify birds using Peterson's clues. The result
was a competition called the Big Day, in which individuals or teams spot or
hear as many species as they can during a 24-hour period. The world record for
this demanding event is 331, set by two Americans in Peru on Sept. 5, 1982. But
Peterson's team would be pleased with 236. On Roberson's computer list of
possibilities for this day in these places, there were only 263 species.
On the road where
they'd heard the black rail, Peterson drifted a short distance from his team,
the wind blowing his white hair as he listened for sounds in the rush of wind.
"I always like the first bird," he said later, "and the first one
to announce that morning's here." At 4:22 the quiet of the darkness, which
hitherto had been filled only by the croakings of bullfrogs and the distant
hooting of owls, was at last broken by a clear, strong, cheering sequence of
notes out over the water. "Song sparrow!" shouted John Parmeter. They
were up to No. 13 as dawn began to break.
In what seemed
like mere moments it was light, and the team careened down the road to a new
site, a thicket of mesquite alongside the Colorado River where a sign warned
DANGER, SIREN INDICATES LARGE RELEASE OF WATER. Here they spread out, listening
intently and peering through their binoculars. One of the rules set by the
American Birding Association for a Big Day requires that all team members stay
within voice contact of one another. Another stipulates that 95% of the birds
spotted must be recognized by every team member.