Just before 10 a.m. on a Monday morning in late August, Matt Gearheart’s pocket buzzed with a text from his buddy Nic Allen. A “weird hawk” matching the description of a swallow-tailed kite had been spotted near the Wild Bird Center in Prairie Village, Kan., where Allen works.
Gearheart’s heart soared, then sank. Two of his worlds were colliding.
A serious birder, the 37-year-old Gearheart knew that the rare hawk had been spotted only four times in modern history in Kansas — and never in Johnson County — and that it would be a new bird, No. 404, on his Kansas Life List.
But Gearheart is also an architect who designs surgical centers and was just stepping into a meeting. For the next two hours Gearheart, normally a paragon of unruffled patience, fidgeted.
Finally, at noon, the meeting broke for lunch, and he raced over to the store.
When he arrived, the parking lot was filling with cars and people and the tripod-mounted scopes of other birders who had gotten word of the rogue raptor.
Soon, as if to reward the earthbound flock, the majestic black-and-white kite with boomerang wings and a forked tail sailed in and circled slowly overhead.
High fives all around, then back to the office for Gearheart.
Gearheart’s quest has taken him to every county in Kansas, all 105 of them. He has seen birds up close in tropical rain forests, the Serengeti and northern Minnesota during an epic ice storm.
He birds most weekends, putting 30,000 miles a year on his SUV, and probably logs that many again carpooling with fellow birders.
Interest at an early age
But the obsession that shapes his life took hold in the backyard of his childhood home in Overland Park, Kan.
At age 4, Gearheart would wake with the sun and scramble up trees to watch birds before his parents were out of bed.
He started his Life List (an honor-system record birders keep of species they have identified with certainty) at age 10 after spotting bald eagles near the Iatan power plant near Weston.
“I was so thrilled and excited,” Gearheart recalls, flashing his easy smile just thinking about it. “It stuck.”
Kansas is a fortuitous place for a budding birder to grow up. Kansas and Missouri lie directly below two major migratory corridors, the Central Flyway (Kansas) and the Mississippi Flyway (Missouri).
Once, a team conducting a midnight-to-midnight count in Kansas logged 225 birds, one of the highest single-day totals for any state.
Birders from other states flock to Kansas to see prairie birds, such as greater and lesser prairie chickens, and to visit the big salt marshes in central Kansas: Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Nationally, more than 48 million people participate in bird-watching, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The study defined a “bird-watcher” as someone who had taken a trip a mile or more from home to observe birds or who actively tried to observe birds around the home.
Serious avian enthusiasts prefer the term “birding” to “bird-watching” because identification is frequently made by hearing only. In fact, it is not necessary to see a bird to add it to your Life List, as long as you can identify a species with certainty from its call.
The technology revolution — with smartphone apps that can load a birding checklist instantly for any point on the planet, complete with photos and bird sounds to help novices with identification — has attracted swarms of young people into a tight-knit community once dominated by retirees. Gearheart is “mentoring” two high school kids who find rising at daybreak, strapping on high-powered binoculars and stalking rare birds on the tall-grass prairie more satisfying than online gaming.
You don’t have to have exceptional vision to be a birder, although Gearheart does. Birders will tell you the most important sense for bird-watching is probably hearing, and Gearheart’s ability to detect faint bird sounds out of ambient noise is “like a sixth sense,” he says. Once while he was camping in the Ozarks the dawn chorus was strong, but he picked out more than 20 species of birds before he unzipped his tent.
Gearheart is vice president of the Kansas Ornithological Society, has served on the board of directors for Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City and sits on the board of trustees for Audubon of Kansas. More important for his standing among local birders, he has an enviable Life List.
Gearheart has logged 1,788 species in his world list and 624 for North America, as defined by the American Birding Association (the United States including Alaska but not Hawaii plus Canada).
In addition to the 404 birds on his Life List for Kansas, Gearheart has lists for 26 other states and a dozen countries. He also keeps a list for his backyard. The most recent addition, a whip-poor-will last summer, was No. 130.
Over his lifetime, he has compiled more than 5,200 checklists in more than 1,000 locations. They are all stored at Ebird, a website run by Cornell University in Ithaca,where anyone can maintain birding lists for free.
Inspiring a movie
It is the Life Lists that fuel Gearheart, rather than the Big Year: a quest to see the most birds in a defined area in a single calendar year.
That extreme form of the birding was the subject of “The Big Year,” a 2011 film starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. The movie was very loosely based on a 2004 true-life account by Mark Obmascik of three birders vying to see the most birds in North America in a year.
The watery sun is still low over the dam at Melvern Lake south of Topeka in Osage County, and air is bright but cool on the second morning of fall as the Matt and Jenny Gearheart and birding friends Nic Allenand Chris Fagyal climb out of Matt’s gray SUV.
None of the birding party is wearing nerdy bush shorts, straw safari helmets or knee socks. But they have identifiable markings and behaviors nevertheless.
Binocular harnesses crisscross their backs, and their jackets are multipocketed and stuffed with the high-tech tools of their hobby: iPods loaded with bird calls, portable speakers to amplify the recorded sounds, smartphones equipped with GPS and the BirdsEye app, which has current information on what other birders are finding and where.
The guys unload the expensive toys from the back of the vehicle: Bushnell Elite binoculars with 8x magnification (around $1,000 retail), a Swarovski spotting scope with a 60x view ($2,000-$3,000), a Manfrotto tripod ($200-$300).
A digital SLR camera with a long lens can cost thousands, but Gearheart practices “digiscoping,” or holding a digital point-and-shoot camera up to his scope to take pictures. With a steady hand it yields good enough results for Gearheart.
“There’s always a tension between photography and birding,” he says. He would rather bird.
Birders seem to walk more slowly than most people, but only slightly — it feels more deliberate than slow-pokey.
They have odd patterns of speech, as well, speaking in fragments with frequent interruptions.
The effect is something like this: “A couple weeks ago I was heading up to the airport — did you get that red-breasted nuthatch? — to go to Louisiana to look at a work project — that’s a big kettle of Franklin gulls up there, what do you think, 10,000? — so I swung up to Smithville on the way because — do you want to try to call in the eastern phoebe with a barn owl screech? — Nic had texted me that a red phalarope, this high Arctic shorebird, had been seen — there it is! Did you get it?”
When four people are talking like that it takes some practice to sort out the layers of information.
After half an hour at the water’s edge, the group packs up the tripod and scope to move to a wooded walking trail, conducting a fractured conversation about an upcoming two-week trip to Ecuador, when a car approaches.
“That’s Jim Malcolm from Topeka!” Allen says. Birders often run into one another at popular spotting sites, especially during spring and fall migration.
“That’s a good bird!”
On the way back to Kansas City, the group decides to stop at Lake Pomona near Vassar, Kan., because Malcolm saw a rare pine warbler there earlier.
The detour is a prime example of what birders call BDR, “birder direct route,” a common feature of weekend birding treks, especially in the age of constantly updated real-time sighting reports.
Birders have other specialized acronyms, including BVD, “better view desired,” referring to birds that are identified but not seen well; LBJ, “little brown job,” a designation for any sparrow, finch or similar species that can be difficult to identify; and UFR, “unidentified flying raptor,” used when it is clear a bird of prey has been sighted but the species is uncertain because of poor light or great distance.
At Lake Pomona, Gearheart bypasses the waterfront and pulls into a wooded camping area on the back side of the dam. The group hasn’t even unloaded all the gear when Jenny Gearheart calls out, “cedar waxwings.” A large flock of the Christmas-card perfect birds with their porcelain-smooth tan bodies and jet-black Audrey Hepburn eyeliner markings is feasting on wild grapes and cedar berries in a cedar grove.
Soon, the bigger prize is spotted in a nearby locust tree, down low: the pine warbler! New for Osage County!
“That’s a good bird!” Gearheart says, grinning.
A brown-colored female bluebird is perched on a nearby swingset. Gearheart, Allen and Fagyal take turns playing calls to try to bring out more birds as they drift around the central clearing in the grove, binoculars to the eyes.
“They can do this for hours. I get bored quicker,” Jenny Gearheart says. Even watching TV to relax can be tough going.
When a golf tournament is on and normal viewers hold their breath as Bubba Watson unspools a long putt on the back nine, Gearheart is identifying bird sounds in the background. (After CBS caught flak in 2000 for piping in sounds of birds that couldn’t possibly be in the area during tournaments, Gearheart thinks there are fewer imposter bird sounds, although the sounds seem to be amplified significantly.)
And don’t get him started on the bald eagle in the opening animation sequence of “The Colbert Report.” That dramatic screech it makes? “Definitely a red-tailed hawk.”
Commercials for cleaning products are frequent offenders as well. “The mourning warbler has a cheerful call — it’s kind of the go-to sound for a suburbia setting. But it is pretty much an eastern U.S. bird, so when you see it in a western setting you know it was piped in,” Gearheart says.
The common loon, a northern lake bird, makes a spooky sound that Gearheart has heard used in scary movies set in southern swamplands. “It does migrate to the southern U.S. but is not an expected bird call for the swamps. Great sound effect, but geographically incorrect.”
Birding is often characterized as an obsession or addiction and has been likened to serious collecting, with the “collection” being the Life List or photographs.
Gearheart has a different take. “Realistically, it’s a collection of neat experiences, I guess.”
Neat is putting it mildly. Even though he never trespasses, Gearheart has had landowners interrogate him and even fire rifles into the air to scare him off while he was on public roads because they were worried he was trying to photograph their houses.
That is the exception, he says, and just as often, homeowners will invite him to prowl for owls in their barns or tramp through their pasture when they find out why he has come.
Likewise, Gearheart has invited birders to his half-acre property in western Shawnee, where a dozen or more birdfeeders attract more than the usual number of backyard birds. Birding has led to new friends, and his enthusiasm for the pastime has led some of his old friends to take it up. That circle of camaraderie is part of the experience.
Aware of surroundings
Even walking around in the city on an ordinary day, Gearheart has an elevated awareness of which birds are flying around. “It occurs constantly and pretty much everywhere,” he says. It’s hard for him to imagine not being aware of birds. After all, they outnumber us by a wide margin. Estimates for the world population of birds range from 200 to 400 billion, compared to 7 billion humans.
Some of the pleasures of birding are the general pleasures of a life spent mostly outdoors. “I enjoy the feel of wind on my face, the smell of crisp, fresh air, to feel the irregular ground under my boots,” Gearheart says.
But he’s not immune to the thrill of the chase. Like the time he stayed up all night in Peru, trying to see a tapir, but missed it.
The frustrations of near- (and wide-) misses are far outweighed by what Gearheart calls the “magical” experiences.
“Once, watching the sandhill crane migration in Grand Island, Neb., we got up way before the sun on a really cold March morning. While we listened to the primordial call of thousands of cranes, we watched the Hale-Bopp comet slowly stream across the wide open sky, lighting up the world.”
Those moments rank right up there with the competitive successes.
Which brings us back to Gearheart’s Greatest Bird ever:
On a trip to the Riverlands area near St. Louis in January 2001, Gearheart and a group of fellow birders were checking out winter gulls and waterfowl, when a little girl about 9 years old asked her dad, “What’s that weird-looking bird?” Her father said he thought it was a long-tailed duck.
Overhearing the conversation, Gearheart directed his scope toward the water and happened to land it right on the duck. He immediately recognized the bird as a smew, an extremely rare European duck species that had been seen only a handful of times in the U.S. and never in the interior of the country.
“I began jumping up and down. People thought I was crazy until they saw it for themselves,” Gearheart says.
The bird stayed on for weeks and attracted more than 40,000 people from many states. “The best part was watching birders stream in, often wearing suits because they had bailed out of work early.”
To commemorate the event, Gearheart had T-shirts printed up that said, “I was Smewed at the Riverlands” and gave the proceeds from sales to local birding organizations.
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