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Everybody’s Bird Watching

David Roemer apologizes as we walk into the broad, open field near Bowling Green. A thunderstorm had moved through the night before this brisk, bright April afternoon. We’re out past the suburbs, at what’s considered one of the state’s premier bird-watching spots, one of the so-called Transient Lakes in Warren County.



Actually, Roemer explains, the lakes are part of an underground river system that emerges when rain elevates the local water table. Some years, they last into late spring; other years, they don’t appear at all.



Today, they’re more like Transient Puddles. Which causes Roemer’s chagrin, because they only rank among the state’s best birding spots when they’re actually holding water. Tromping across the muddy fields, there are courses of black flakes twice the size of your hand–the remnants of pond scum left as McElroy Lake receded.



As we emerge, I notice there isn’t much evidence of birds. Roemer explains that if we had been out here two months earlier, we might have seen 1,000 or more sandhill cranes, long-legged waders with a distinctive triumphant whoop. But today we hear very little–a few tweets in the distance–and see less.





An hour or two later, we have spotted more than 20 species of birds, including a number that were new to me: A horned lark, with its distinctive pale-yellow dickey under its chin, singing as it fluttered over a field. A plump vesper sparrow sitting on a branch, rotating its head back and forth, then tipping it side to side like a comedienne playing a dumb blonde. A flock of American golden-plovers, a slowly morphing ellipse of dark, back-lit shapes suddenly turning and catching a bright flash of sunlight on their light gray bellies–as if a black-and-white engraving suddenly transformed into an oil painting.



Not bad, it seems to me, for an afternoon that initially looked so barren. (Although in a note he posted about the trip on the Internet, Roemer reported, “Only a few expected species were present.”)
As Roemer says, “There are things around us we don’t even know are there.”



Bird-watching is one of the country’s most popular, and fast-growing, activities. A 2000 survey by the U.S. Forest Service found 71 million people who enjoy bird-watching. Bird lovers spend an estimated $34 billion a year on their pastime–bird seed, feeders, binoculars and telescopes, field guides, travel.



That takes in a varied swath of bird-watchers, from people who travel the world to add more birds to their “life list”–the catalog of birds they’ve seen in their lives–to folks who scatter seed in the back yard to see what they’ll attract. That’s one of the appeals of bird-watching, and one of the reasons it’s so widespread–it can accommodate any level of age, interest, activity, intellectual intensity. Some are captivated by the extraordinary diversity of avian beauty (there are approximately 10,000 species of birds, compared to 4,500 species of mammals). Others compete to see how many birds they can see in a year. For others, it’s a kind of living puzzle–figuring out, for example, which of the 27 kinds of North American gull you’re looking at.



“If people want to connect with wildlife, so many other animals are secretive,” says Gary Ritchison, an ornithologist who’s a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and Web master of the Kentucky Ornithological Internet site. “You don’t see mammals out there, you don’t see reptiles and amphibians out there.” But birds are visible, audible, mobile.



Birding in Kentucky has followed the national trend. Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr. is a terrestrial zoologist for the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission who has written two books about the birds of Kentucky. He says that since the late 1990s, birding activity in Kentucky has been as high as it has ever been.



Not coincidentally, the list of species that have been seen in the state has grown. The number was 340 in the 1980s; it’s now 363.



“Bird-watching is just a sampling of what’s really out there,” says Palmer-Ball. The more people out there taking samples, the more rare things they’ll find.
Improving technology has played a role. The quality of optics–telescopes and cameras–has greatly increased. And birding is another activity that has been transformed by the Internet, which has allowed birders to network and, in particular, to spread the word of rare sightings via mailing lists (Kentucky’s is BIRDKY, accessible through the Kentucky Ornithological Society Web site).



This is hardly to say that Kentucky is a birding mecca, compared to such states as Florida and Texas, where birding has an economic impact measured in the tens of millions of dollars, or states in the Northeast where large numbers of people take up the pursuit. (“In Massachusetts, they must have a birder every acre,” says Jane Bell of Louisville, who with her sister Pat ranks among the state’s most accomplished birders.) That makes Kentucky a “frontier state,” Palmer-Ball says–a place where new discoveries are easy to make. Kentucky’s roster of species is on the low side for a state in the inland eastern U.S.–only West Virginia has fewer; Tennessee, a state with similar natural features, has 20 or 30 more.



As far as birding goes, Kentucky falls into two large regions, according to Palmer-Ball: eastern Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau, with its higher elevations–good for woodland warblers and scarlet tanagers–and the rest of the state, with birds that prefer more open habitat–kingbirds, meadowlarks, indigo buntings, goldfinches. The Land Between the Lakes area–which is generally the first area birders name when listing the state’s prime birding locations–might be considered its own small region, which attracts waterbirds and shorebirds such as pelicans and gulls; the area also attracts a good number of bird-watchers each winter to see the eagles that nest there.



A trim, vital 48-year-old, Roemer is a captain in the Bowling Green fire department; before that, he was a taxidermist; before that, he ran a Bowling Green record shop. He plays guitar and mandolin in a bluegrass group called the Lowdown Pesky Buzzards. And he ranks as the one of the state’s champion bird-watchers.



Roemer birded 200 days last year, and drove 80,000 miles–inside Kentucky. Of Kentucky’s 363 birds, Roemer saw 299 of them in 2002. “It would be 301,” he says, “but I couldn’t get definitive looks on two of them.” (“It took me 20 years to see that many,” Palmer-Ball told a January meeting of Louisville’s Beckham Bird Club.)



Each year, birders vie on the Kentucky Ornithological Society (KOS) Web site to see who has seen the most birds that year. “Dave always wins–it’s not a fair competition with Dave out there,” laughs Web master Ritchison. “Everybody else is competing for second place.” (Roemer ranks second on the KOS Kentucky life lists, with 330 to Palmer-Ball’s 335.)



Roemer has liked birds since he was a toddler, when he’d run at a flock of mallards on his grandparent’s farm to watch them fly. He started birding seriously, he says, when he was 7 years old and an aunt gave him an extremely powerful Zeiss binocular. For the past seven or eight years, however, he’s spent more time pursuing rare birds–in particular, ones that haven’t been seen before in Kentucky.



He has recorded several firsts for the state–the first Kentucky sighting of a little gull, the world’s smallest gull; a pair of sooty terns, a tropical species typically found in the Dry Tortugas, which had blown in with the remnants of Hurricane Lily; and a long-billed murrelet, a relative of the puffin, which he observed last October at the Water Tower in Louisville. The bird makes its home much farther north.



“You just can’t describe it, seeing a bird from Siberia,” he says, chuckling and backhanding my forearm. “That bird was from Siberia!”
“For one of those, you bird-watch a whole year–maybe even several years,” says Palmer-Ball. “Something like that’s not going to happen for a long time.”
But the characteristic birder behavior is what Roemer did next: he called a fellow birder, who put the word out on BIRDKY, and several hundred people came from several states to see it.



“The bird-watchers are the most sharing and interactive group of biology students that I know,” Palmer-Ball says. In other disciplines, people keep their discoveries much closer to their vest.
“As a professional ornithologist, I think it’s very fair to say that in no other field of biology have amateurs made so many contributions,” Ritchison says. Birders help provide information about distribution and abundance of birds, through annual counts and surveys like Cornell University’s Project Feederwatch.



While the overall number of species is up, the state has lost some birds, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the loggerhead shrike and Bewick’s wren have suffered noticeable declines. Others have spread into places they were previously unknown. White pelicans used to be a rare sight in the state; there are now sizable flocks on Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. Water birds that were seen only on the major rivers in western Kentucky have spread into central Kentucky (it’s not unusual to see a great blue heron flying across a highway in that area). The reason, according to Palmer-Ball, seems to be the increased number of reservoirs in that region.



And while urban sprawl takes away some habitat, Palmer-Ball says that some aspects of the environment, such as air and water pollution, have improved; the end of “the DDT era” has especially helped raptors, whose eggshells were weakened by the pesticide.



It’s one of the great appeals of birding: what you see is always changing. “It’s the transitory nature of the appearance of a lot of birds–they can end up being someplace for a month, or they can end up being someplace for five minutes,” says Palmer-Ball.



And it provides a lens through which to see a whole range of natural (and unnatural) processes. Ritchison notes how many people become interested in protecting the environment through a love of birding (the work that started the modern environmental movement, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, took its central metaphor from the loss of birdsongs). Out with Roemer, his talk touches on butterflies, storm systems, topography, hunting regulations, and reclaimed strip mines.



But it isn’t any analytical interest that impels Roemer far enough to circumnavigate the globe three times without ever leaving the Commonwealth. Just before we park at Chaney Lake–the other of the Transients, where we’ll add, among others, five kinds of duck, the pied-billed grebe, and a red-bellied woodpecker to the day’s census–Roemer looks over from the wheel of his truck (the new GMC he bought to replace the one he wore out birding) and says, with the widest imaginable grin, “Isn’t this cool? I love it.”






BIRDING BASICS



There are two essential pieces of equipment everyone recommends for birding–the best pair of binoculars you can afford, and a good field guide.



Having a good set of binoculars really helps to enhance the experience, says master birder David Roemer: “You can see the spirit in the eyes so much better.”



The most popular field guides include Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Bird of North America, and The Sibley Guide to Birds, published by the National Audubon Society. To recommend one over the others would be to enter into a theological dispute–look at them yourself and see which one seems to work for you.



But field guides aren’t only for use in the field–it’s worth spending time with them before you go out, so you can begin to understand what you’re looking for. Another useful reference tool is a list of birds found in your area. The definitive work for Kentucky is Palmer-Ball’s Annotated Check List of the Birds of Kentucky co-written with B.L. Monroe Jr. and A.L. Stamm; there’s also a checklist on the Kentucky Ornithological Society Web site, www.biology.eku.edu/kos.htm, which is itself one of the best clearinghouses for information about Kentucky birding.



It’s also worth locating a mentor–either an individual who knows more than you do, or a bird club. “It’s almost equivalent to a course in college” to go out with experienced birders, says Jack Still, a wildlife educator at the Louisville Nature Center.






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