Cracking the nut that is a birder's brain

The rustling in the live oak piqued Jack Colcolough's senses, as it would any good birder's, and he immediately lifted binoculars to his well­trained eyes.

Is it a sapsucker?

Colcolough and the bird begin to tango. The bird hops from branch to branch. Colcolough pedals sideways for a better vantage point. The birdhops. Colcolough sidesteps. The bird hops again, and again Colcolough sidesteps, his eyes never breaking contact with the creature he seeks toidentify.

Is it a sapsucker?

Suddenly, Colcolough, focused solely on the bird and paying no attention to where he is ambling, steps off the edge of a retaining wall along Broad Creek and tumbles nearly 6 feet into a bed of pine straw.

Rolling out of his tumble and bouncing back up, unscathed except for a few dirt smudges on his bird-themed Hilton Head Island Audubon Society sweatshirt, immediately he asks: "Well was it a sapsucker?"

It was.

And according to several of the other birdwatchers accompanying Colcolough on Dec. 15 during the Audubon Society's 115th annual Christmas Bird Count, this is how they roll (pun intended): Never breaking focus, keeping their eyes on the prize.

Everyone knows what it means to be a bird brain ­­ an appellation no one wants ­­but what does it mean to have a birder's brain?

"You don't want to go there, inside our heads," warned John Riolo of the Hilton Head Society. "We are all nuts."

Warning duly noted, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette chose to fly in, anyway.

BIRDERS OF A FEATHERWhat better time to do so than the 115th annual Christmas Bird Count, the world's longest-running citizen science survey in which people count as many birds and species as possible in one day. In Beaufort County, that means hundreds of birders tallying thousands of their feathered friends.

The count is only one day, but true birding is a yearlong and lifelong obsession.

And just like the numerous species they count -- more than 10,500 in the world, according to the International Ornithologists' Union -- there are different species of birders.

There are the "listers" or "counters," those trying to see as many species as possible to add to their "life lists," according to Hilton Head Island Audubon Society vice president Robert Rommel.

There's a little "lister" in most every birder, he says, and it comes with a hint of competitiveness.

At a recent meeting in preparation for the Christmas count -- a review of 90 the most-common bird species in the area this time of year -- birders around the room muttered the species under their breath each time a new picture came up, as if they were watching "Jeopardy!" at home.

If they'd had buzzers, they would have used them.

Other birders are more contemplative, according to Rommel. They like to sit and relax while birding. They are likely to have a feeder outside a window at home and sometimes watch it for hours at a time to see what stops by.

Or, as most birders would say, "who" stops by.

Many birders talk about the birds as if they were people or friends: describing their personalities, birds they have formed relationships with or those to whom they feel akin.

Rommel, for example, said warblers sing all year round, meaning "they either have a lot of testosterone or frisky women." He also said he is beginning to find new beauty in what is normally considered the wood stork's ugly bald head. He says this as he rubs his own thinning hair.

Birds also can be enemies.

Ken Scott's nemesis is the scarlet ibis, fairly common in South America and the Caribbean but one which has eluded the Fripp Island Audubon Club member on two separate trips to Venezuela and Trinidad.

But Scott vows to have the last laugh -- or squawk -- with a trip this summer to Colombia.

There is yet another species of birders, one to which Rommel believes he belongs.

"I classify myself in the documentarian or naturalist school of birdwatching, because when I'm out there, I try to learn as much about the life of the bird as possible," he said. "So I might not be seeing as many birds as the lister, but I am seeing what they do and how they live."

Like other addicts, it took Rommel, a biologist turned wildlife photographer, a long time to admit to being a "birder."

"At first I thought these are a crazy bunch of people. First, they only care about birds, and they are going to these extraordinary lengths just to add one new bird," he said. "So I wanted to say, 'I'm not a birder, I'm just a naturalist or scientist.'

"But eventually, maybe birders have gotten a little less crazy or you start to realize there is some magic in that other side, as well.

"And then you get comfortable with being called a birder."

BEER, FOOTBALL AND ... BIRDS?Chuck Hocevar, a retired banker who has lived on Hilton Head Island for 35 years, remembers the day that forever shifted the course of his life.

It was New Year's Day 1969, and he was spending the holiday at a little house he built in the woods outside Cleveland.

His concept of wildlife ended at the pigeons he saw growing up in the coastal Ohio hub's inner city.

But then he installed a bird feeder outside his cabin -- because that's what people who have cabins do.

The Ohio State Buckeyes were playing in the Rose Bowl against Southern California that afternoon, and Hocevar set up his chair by the window, where he could watch the television and the bird feeder at the same time.

He sat there with a six-pack of beer and a couple of bird pamphlets he had recently purchased.

By day's end, the beer was gone.

Hocevar had witnessed a 27-17 Buckeye victory.

And 17 different species of birds had visited his feeder.

"I had no idea what that day ... years ago was going to lead to, or what it was going to do to me," said Hocevar, now 73 and a 50-year birder.

Birding, he said, is more than a hobby. It's an avocation. His lifetime stats attest to the seriousness of his pursuit. He has traveled to all 50 states, the seven continents and 52 countries. He has seen nearly 4,000 bird species.

Those are the sort of numbers that inspire Hollywood movies.


Stu Preissler, the Steve Martin character in the 2011 movie "The Big Year," is based on Hocevar.

'TWITCHERS'Ken Scott would add one more classification to Rommel's taxonomy of birders.

He calls them "twitchers," though he wouldn't call himself one. These are people who will ruin a marriage or lose a job for a chance to see a rare species.

Hocevar wouldn't call himself a twitcher, either, but admits he has taken measures to see birds that would seem absurd to those who don't share the passion.

He has a pair of hiking boots -- he calls them birding boots -- that have been with him on adventures to each continent. One of his biggest came in 1998 when he completed a "big year," an informal competition among birders to see who can find the most species within a single calendar year and a defined geographical area. Hocevar traveled more than 140,000 miles across North America that year, spotting 702 birds.

One of the few members of the elite 700-plus club, Hocevar's number earned him third place in that year's competition, conducted by the American Birding Association, which provided the basis for "The Big Year."

"I worked at it as hard as I did my career and my family," he said.

He recalls trips where guides told group members they could either get up at 5 a.m. to start looking for birds or meet the guides later at breakfast. That separated the quacks -- pun intended -- from the real birders who were up before dawn cooing and hooting and polishing their binoculars.

You can guess which group Hocevar was in.

'EVERYTHING IS BIRDS'Just as birds migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles throughout the year, birders have been known to travel just as far in pursuit of their aviary alter egos.

Karen Marts of Hilton Head recently dropped everything one weekend to drive more than three hours to a Florida beach where a snowy owl -- birds normally found in the Arctic Circle and Canada -- was spotted.

She had no clue if the bird would still be there or if she'd be able to find it if it was. But even the slightest chance of a glimpse was worth the trip, Marts said.

The hours of driving weren't fruitless. Not only did she find the "snowy," she left with some photos and videos -- ones she waited another hour and a half on a sand dune to capture. That is now one of more than 500 birding videos she has posted to her YouTube page since launching her account less than six months ago.

"You do not want to miss out on the chance to see a bird you might never see again," Marts explains. "You just can't. I live and die for birds; everything is birds."

Jim Cubie and his wife brought new meaning to the term "lovebirds" when they met on a birding trip more than 30 years ago. They've been exploring North America through binoculars ever since.

In fact, they have another trip to southern California planned this spring. Though they will visit family and probably see a San Francisco Giants game, the primary goal is to spot birds they've never seen before.

"When you're on a bird and you're on a quest to see something new that you haven't seen before and then you succeed at it, it's a little victory," said Cubie of the Sun City-Okatie Audubon Club. "You high-five each other that you've finally spotted it."

Scott, of the Fripp Island club, could high-five his way to a rotator cuff injury. Having traveled to every continent except Antarctica, Scott has about 3,500 birds on his life list.

Getting them hasn't been easy, he said, admitting he embodies many of the obsessed birder stereotypes. He and his wife once canoed on the Amazon River and spent the night in questionable locales, all for the sake of birds.

"I would not break the law or trespass on people's property to see a bird, but I will do just about anything else," Scott said. "If you want to really see birds, you have to get to places where very few tourists go -- and they are very rarely restaurants or sleeping accommodations with any stars.

"But that's what it takes to see these birds."

IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDERBirding doesn't come without its dangers or difficulties beyond the constant strain on their necks from the weight of binoculars and perpetually looking up.

For starters, they can never turn it off. That can be a real problem while driving, Rommel said.

Marts has pulled off the road and jumped out of her car -- keys still in the ignition and door wide open -- to see a bird.

For Hocevar, the hazard comes in throwing off his friends' golf game.

"I drive people nuts and they can never golf with me because they will line up to putt and then they hear 'yellow-breasted warbler' or 'Carolina wren,' " he said chuckling. "I can't help it. I just call them out, and we'll have 40 different species by the end of the round."

Birders speak of their trips and chases as pilgrimages or combat campaigns. They come equipped with the right "weapons" -- binoculars, bird guides, possibly a camera or a scope, and for Scott, an extra pair of socks.

Despite what you might think, most birders aren't "bird-crazed" when they hatch. They often have a specific moment and a particular bird, fondly known as a "spark bird," that stimulates their interest.

For Hocevar, it was the northern flicker.

For Marts, the prehistoric-looking wood stork.

For Scott, a male painted bunting.

Those birds sparked a fire and curiosity in each birder, motivating them to spend hours studying books -- they have nearly 1,000 bird books among them and have read most of them. They have invested hours listening to bird calls and logging time in the field, learning how to identify birds they see if only for a split second, at a far distance or simply only hear.

For Marts, it also has motivated her to redecorate her house. Almost every surface is covered in bird photographs, bird statuettes and figurines, bird ornaments and even a bird clock that makes the sounds of various birds on the different hours.

"Just seeing the beauty of the birds is enough," she said. "You don't get a trophy or money or any sort of reward other than being able to behold these birds, but that's enough."

Scott said the hobby -- sport, craft, avocation, calling -- is like any other in which people get hooked -- playing golf, collecting stamps or buying antiques among them.

But birding has an additional appeal -- a connection with the natural world most birders were oblivious to before.

Hocevar actually collected stamps and coins for a few months, he said, but nothing came close to the moment he was pecked by the birding bug.

Just as he remembers the day he got hooked, he can recall and relive -- with astonishing detail -- almost every trip, sighting and experience he has had. If his memory gets fuzzy, he has created videos and countless 3-inch binders documenting his travels to jog it.

"It's hard for me to explain what it is like to be in a snow storm in May on an Alaskan island chasing a bird on the side of a cliff, and then to cap off the day singing karaoke in a bar at the bottom of the mountain with Eskimos," Hocevar said. "But it's just the adventure of it all. Who knew birding would gift me this incredible life?"