The snipe hunt has always been an idea for having fun, getting out and enjoying our favorite past time – birding – in a competitive format with a twist. It’s not just about the most species but the rarest or toughest to find. Thus the snipe hunt. Each bird has a point value, 50 for a snipe, 1 for a house sparrow and all kinds of values in between. This all stemmed from my own past as a competitive birder. I’ve long been involved with birdathon’s starting with my days at the Audubon Naturalist Society and later the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Once I even joined my good friends Mark Garland and Mark Swick (we would introduce ourselves like this, Hi I’m Darryl, this is my brother Mark and my other brother Mark) to compete in NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory World Series of Birding. From the get go, back in the 80’s I was as competitive as the next guy.
But I’ve always approached the snipe hunt differently. My team is my family and always has been, the challenges are different, and changing as the boys get older. Jackie and Jordan had to go to Skytop in the morning and with Jacob still asleep (he is a teenager) I donned my binoculars for a walk down to the school and back. I was no more than a few steps beyond the garage when I stopped dead in my tracks. There, halfway down the lane on the lowest wire, midway between two poles was an adult red-shouldered hawk and it was looking right at me. Farther down the wires were half dozen mourning doves - frozen in place like statues waiting for another to make the wrong move. Closer to me were a pair of bluebirds and a pair of chipping sparrows. One of the bluebirds was an immature with a peach wash across the breast and the faintest baby-blue head while the other was an adult male so vibrant blue that it put the leaden, overcast skies to shame. These two birds kept switching places but it was the chipping sparrows that seemed unfazed by the hawk’s presence. They were constant motion chasing each other and teasing the bluebirds. It was almost as if they were hanging out with the bluebirds purposefully and not just coincidentally sharing the wires.
From the left side of the road was a constant chatter as a flock of starlings had congregated among the snags created by the gypsy moth outbreak of a few years ago. Small groups of starlings would take from the trees and swarm out into the playing fields and then return. The hawk would turn its gaze out into the field on these occasions and I would take a few steps closer. I was so focused on the hawk perched on the wire that I never noticed one over my head until it flushed from the tree, this caused not only the starlings to explode out of the trees but a flock of 20 or more mourning doves streaked out of the woods and spread across the field and out into the parking lot. The hawk on the wire remained stoic, as it once again turned to face me. I actually perceived a gleam in its eye just before it spread its wings and launched into the air. It dropped slightly from the height of the wire then climbed steadily as it flew out over the field, circled and came back over head into the trees behind me, all the while causing panic in the birds around us. It was one of those incredibly intimate moments you occasionally get to share with a wild creature; recognition, an awareness of each other’s presence in an unthreatening and un-fearing way.
I spent the rest of the day in the company of my family, Jordan behind the wheel (he has his learners permit) as we visited sights of interest in search of birds. Later at the evenings award ceremony I told of my encounter with the red-shouldered hawk. It was one of many highlights each of the teams shared with each other. In the end the Great Monroe County Snipe Hunt Trophy was awarded to the Long-tailed Jaegermeisters comprised of Terry Kloiber, her son Stephen and their friend Cory Husic. In the twenty-four hours they recorded 82 species. The PARC Pranksters didn’t do quite as well for total species but I doubt anyone had a greater experience.
Like most people I sometimes get nostalgic for things I’ve done in the past. I would like for a moment to go back and do some things over again, but even if I could it wouldn’t be the same. Somewhere along life’s path I’ve stopped making time to just go birding. That’s one of the reasons, I learned this weekend, why I have the greatest job in the world. By scheduling the Great Monroe County Snipe Hunt and being committed to seeing it through I created an opportunity to get myself out with my binoculars. Who would have guessed the greatest discovery of the day would be just a few feet from my backyard. It rekindled the excitement, if only for a few moments, making the rest of my days birding all the more rewarding.