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West Michigan birders compete to find the most species

If you’ve always thought of birding as a quiet, relaxing hobby… you haven’t been to a Birdathon.

During the recent West Michigan Birdathon, I met up with Team Fallout (as in migratory fallout) at the Blandford Nature Center. Shortly after I arrived, we were scrambling to the top of an overlook.

The team's leader, Rob Peters, waves his arm with excitement.

“Wood duck, wood duck, wood duck! Come here, male wood duck! Right there, on the left side of the boardwalk.”

Peters is an assistant professor of biology at Aquinas College. About a year ago, he decided to create the West Michigan Birdathon.

“Because I’m pretty competitive. A lot of birders are, and it’s a great excuse to bring people together to get excited about nature… hang on... there’s a bird…”

It's similar to a walkathon - the birders raise money, and the donations go to the Grand Rapids Audubon Club's environmental education program for 4th graders, Audubon Adventures.

There are birdathons around the country, and the rules vary. In this one, the goal is to find as many bird species as you can in six hours.

“Right now, the leading team has 99 species in six hours. They’re going to be tough to beat,” says Peters.

The group hears a bird trill and they stop in their tracks.

“Oh… red winged blackbird. Waa-waa. RW: ‘Not so exciting?’ It’s beautiful but very common.”

And they already have it on their list… so… moving on….

The best birding is in the early morning, so these guys got started at 6:50am. In 40 degree weather. In freezing cold rain that just won’t let up.

But nobody really seems to mind.

Jill Goodell is keeping track of the team’s bird count on a piece of paper that’s been soaked through.

“I think of it as a combination of meditation, and a treasure hunt, and it just gets under your skin, and you’ve got to go when the time is right,” she says.

You don’t have to be an expert birder to do a Birdathon. But it doesn’t hurt to know a thing or two. For a bird to count on your list, at least two people have to identify it by its markings or its song.

But you can upp your odds by being on as many teams as you want. In fact, Rob Peters is on four different teams. The day before, he went out with a different group of friends.

“Right as our morning count ended, we saw a Red-necked Phalarope, which is an incredibly rare bird to see, so we wanted to submit that as our official results, so we made a new team so that we could include that on an official list because there’s also a rarest list competition."

RW: "Are you changing the rules as you go along?"

"No!" Peters says, laughing.

In the very last moments, the team stumbles on a tree full of warblers.

“Black-throated green warbler. There! It’s singing again. I think there’s a flock here, gentlemen and ladies,” says Peters.

In the end, this team saw 40 species. So, they didn’t win. But Rob Peters is still in the running for the rarest bird award on two of his other teams.

In case you're curious, there were 18 competitive birding teams participating in the West Michigan Birdathon. Here are the top standings:

  • Most species viewed: "Waka Waka Waka" made up of Phil Willemstein and Steve Minard. They saw 99 species in the six hour period (and the three county boundary of the competition).
  • Wild-card bird species: (teams seeing the most indigo bunting individuals) Tie between: "Trailblazers": Tom Legget, David Cross and James Cross. They saw one indigo bunting. And "Team Goodwillie:" Emily Briggs, Alaina Briggs and Nate Kennedy, Declan Doyle and Max VanDoorne. They also saw one indigo bunting.

 Teams still in the running for the rare bird contest:

  • "Rarities for Charity" - Red-necked Phalarope (uncommon, but especially rare in this state this time of year), Upland Sandpiper and Vesper Sparrow
  • "Team Zugunruhe" - Red-throated loon, Glaucous gull, Common Goldeneye (rare this time of year)
  • "Butterbutt Chasers" (Butterbutt is a casual expression for yellow-rumped warblers). This team saw a pair of Canvasbacks and also saw a Vesper Sparrow.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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