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THIS BIG DAY WAS DEFINITELY FOR THE BIRDS—235 DIFFERENT KINDS OF THEM
Michael Parfit
June 06, 1983
The bullfrogs 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.
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June 06, 1983

This Big Day Was Definitely For The Birds—235 Different Kinds Of Them

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The bullfrogs 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.

"Rails," 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 certainly mysterious.

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.

The darkness 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 owl.

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.

Birding is 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.

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