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TRACKING AMERICA'S WINGED BEAUTIES

We're driving into Arizona's California Gulch down a steep rock-strewn dirt road cut into the side of the mountain, hunting for the rare five-striped sparrow. Suddenly, a low-slung contraption right out of Mad Max turns a corner and careens toward us--no top, driven fast by a wild-eyed mountain man. (Was that really a shotgun sticking out the back?) We swerve on the narrow road, barely missing him and briefly wonder why birding is considered such a nerdy sport. Our guide, a former shrink from Boston, tells us that this was gold-mining territory, and lots of panners still live in the mountains. Oh yes, we got the bird. Up a ridge, near a gold mine. Before we can look into the scope, it flies directly in front of us, drops into a bush, and is gone. Dusky, black spot on the chest, stripes on the head. Boring bird, but we got him!

This is extreme birding at its best. Your blood is coursing. The hunt is on. John James Audubon shot and killed virtually every one of the birds he so magnificently painted. We don't do that anymore, but modern-day birders still ''nail'' them. We ''glass'' them in the ''binos'' (binoculars), ''scope'' them with long-range scopes, or ''shoot'' them with 600mm lenses. If you're looking for an outdoor sport that combines heavy trekking, quick eye and ear work, analytical thinking, and nifty high-tech gear, birding is it.

Then again, if you're looking for something soothing, surprisingly beautiful, and great for kids or couples, birding is still for you. On any bird walk, you'll find everything from managers to musicians. The detail and analysis that goes into identifying birds appears to appeal to numbers-oriented people. And birding's ability to de-stress even the most tightly wound is a huge draw.

In general, bird watchers fall into two distinct personality types. ''Tickers'' are the folks who tick off each new species and quickly move on. They make lists and strive to pump up their totals, shooting for at least 2,000 of the world's more than 7,000 bird species and thereby joining birding's big leagues. Then there are ''gazers,'' who are simply drawn to the incredible wonder and beauty of a majestic wood duck or the elegant fierceness of an osprey swooping down to grab a fish out of a bay. I'm more of a gazer, though I really like the hunt. My wife, Leslie Beebe, a cousin of William Beebe, the naturalist, is the better birder in the family. She has been known to exhibit ticker tendencies. Still, the snowy owl we spotted on Long Island this winter really melted her heart.

The one that got to me recently was the elegant trogon we saw in Ramsey Canyon, in Southeast Arizona. First, we heard it. It actually sounds like a barking dog from a distance. But in the spotting scope, it is truly elegant: sitting erect in the tree, deep red belly, dark green head and chest, with a wide white band and a long, square-tipped tail.

Birding, like scuba diving, requires special equipment to reveal a world normally hidden from view. That's where the binoculars come in. Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, suggests models that are fairly light (less than 30 ounces), quick to focus, and able to focus close (down to 15 feet or less), with a wide field of vision and good depth of field. All binoculars come with two numbers: magnification and aperture. (A 7x35, for example, means seven power with a 35-millimeter lens diameter.) Seven power (7x) is great for backyard birding or birding in dense forests. Binoculars with at least 10 power (10x) are needed to see water birds and accipiters farther away. But remember: As you move up in power and magnification and detail, you lose field-of-view, brightness, and clarity.

Fortunately, binoculars don't have to be expensive. And there are many choices. The Bausch & Lomb 8x36, Bushnell 8x42, and Swift 8x42 all cost around $300 and are good for novices. If you're ready for the next level, the $900 Zeiss 10x40B series are probably the most popular binoculars around. I carry an $800 Optolyth 10x50, and Leslie has the Zeiss 10x40B. Top birders are now getting into the Zeiss 7x42 (about $1,100), and the truly well-heeled sport $1,600 Leicas. If you wear glasses, get binoculars with soft rubber eye cups that can be rolled down.

The Cape May Bird Observatory can provide advice on optics. The cmbo ($30 for a family membership) also sells binoculars to members at a discount and offers terrific workshops on their use. There are other discount outfits. My favorite is Eagle Optics (800 289-1132), which sells the gear you need at a 10% to 20% discount and provides a catalogue that is a wonderful learning tool.

You should also consider a spotting scope, which is much more powerful. A scope is essential to seeing ducks across a pond or red-tailed hawks nesting on a ledge next door to Woody Allen's Fifth Avenue apartment building in Manhattan. I have the popular $850 Kowa TSN 4. There's a one-year waiting list for the top-of-the-line Leica Televid ($1,200).

Be sure you get the right eyepiece to go with whichever scope you buy. A fixed 30x wide piece gives you a very wide field of view, but many people prefer a 20x-to-60x zoom. You'll also need a good tripod. The solid $85 Bogens from Italy have a stellar reputation.

The last thing you'll need is a good field guide. Don't leave home without Roger Tory Peterson's field guides to Eastern birds or Western birds (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95 each). The ''Geo,'' or National Geographic Society Field Guide, is a bit more advanced.

URBAN OASIS. Most people get hooked on birding by looking out on their backyard. Mine happens to be Central Park, one of the best birding spots in the country during spring migration. Scores of bird lovers run around with binoculars, pointing to ''mags'' (magnolia), prairie, chestnut-sided, hooded, and dozens of other warblers. The trees are often full of yellow, green, and blue flashing color. Hermit and wood thrushes sing low, near the ground. From up top come the sweet tones of the Baltimore oriole. (But watch out for warbler neck--the stiff neck you get from looking straight up.)

Of course, you can get an intimate peek at such birds by checking out one of the many fine birding videos. My favorites are the National Audubon Society's five-part VideoGuide to Birds of North America ($29.95 each) and the Up Close Series ($24.95 each), especially ''Hawks & Owls.'' Richard Kern's Birds of the Everglades is very good. You also need Birding by Ear: A Guide to Birdsong Identification (cassette, $29.95). Most of these can be found in the Birder's Catalog, which you get when you join the American Birders Assn. (800 634- 7736 or americanbirding.org) for $36 for individuals and $43 for families.

The Internet is also a rich source for bird lovers. Rookie birders should check out www.birder.com or www. audubon.org. Both sites can help you plug into local clubs. The Virtual Birder (www.virtual birder.com/vbirder) is a birding 'zine that offers photo tours of Cape May, Chincoteague (Va.), Hawk Mountain (Pa.), and other hot spots. The Great Outdoors & Recreation Pages (www.gorp.com) offer news on birding tours, clubs, and guides.

Nature photography isn't my thing, but it's the fastest-growing segment of birding. For gear-lovers, special cameras and long lenses (we're talking 600mm or 800mm) are de rigueur. But expect to dig deep: Fancy rigs can exceed $5,000. WildBird magazine has terrific photos by the best bird photographers in the country, who tell you how they got them. WildBird also has stuff on binoculars, scopes, Web sites, and, best of all, where to go and when.

Don't forget that little kids just love birding. Seven- or eight-year-old little boys appear to be particularly drawn to falcons, hawks, eagles, and owls. In short, big birds of prey. Put a pair of fledgling binoculars in your children's hands and watch them go.

Bruce Nussbaum
EDITED BY EDWARD C. BAIG



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PHOTO: Leica Televid Spotting Scope


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Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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