by Larry Clarfeld
In this Superbowl, the players wear binoculars rather than shoulder pads, and it isn’t footballs flying, but birds. On January 24 to 25, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., teams of bird-watchers looked high and low for as many different species of birds as they could find along the Massachusetts coast. For the sixth year, a team of adults and youths from Vermont participated, sponsored by the North Branch Nature Center of Montpelier.
The night before the competition, the team (called the Chocolate-headed Cowbirds with Sprinkles) carefully planned their route for the following day. In addition to being experts of the local bird life, teams must devise clever strategies to ensure they are in the right places at the right times to see the most birds. Each species is assigned a point value based on the how difficult it is to find (1 point being easiest and 5 points being hardest). So, while a chickadee is worth just 1 point, a snowy owl is worth 3 and a red-headed woodpecker is worth 5 points.
Alarm clocks rang at 4 a.m. on the morning of the competition, and by 5 a.m., the team was poised and ready at their secret owl spot. But it wasn’t until sunrise that the team scored its first point, with a flock of crows flying in the distance. Scouring the rocky shoreline of Cape Ann, the team continued to rack up points through the morning hours. Many species of birds that breed in the arctic spend the winter months off the New England coast, which for them is considered “south for the winter.” The obligate trip to the fish piers in Gloucester added several rare species of gulls, as they fought over fish scraps on the docks.
The cold, biting wind didn’t slow the team down, as they picked up razorbills and northern gannets through spotting scopes, as they flew above the horizon, far out at sea. A rare red-headed woodpecker was a special treat, as they are rarely found in New England. Other highlights included the Eurasian wigeon and Pacific loon, both way out of their normal stomping grounds and worth 10 points for the team.
Slowly working their way north, by late afternoon the Chocolate-headed Cowbirds had reached Plum Island, considered one of the finest birding locales in New England. Here, on the rolling sand dunes and extensive marshes, the Cowbirds would complete their quest. As the sun began to set, a short-eared owl could be seen cruising the fields, hunting under the shadows of the setting sun. After 12 hours of birdwatching, the Chocolate-headed Cowbirds raced to the finish line with a total of 69 species and 128 points.
With 27 teams competing this year, competition was fierce. Vermont’s delegation finished in the middle of the pack, but a great time was had by all. Events like this are inspiring, especially to young people, who enjoy both the camaraderie of the event and the challenge of seeing how many birds they can find. Even in the midst of winter, there is an astounding diversity of birds to be found.
For more information about North Branch Nature Center, visit NorthBranchNatureCenter.org or call 229-6206.