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News from everywhere *but* Central New Hampshire.

Birding Bowl 2018: Audubon Showdown Draws a Flock to N.H. Seacoast

Annie Ropeik for NHPR

Patriots fans will be rooting against the Eagles in the big game this weekend. But they might have missed another Superbowl last weekend that was all about the birds.

In the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s annual Superbowl of Birding, dozens of birdwatchers flock to the Seacoast and the Bay State’s Essex County for a 12-hour birding blitz. 

The sun is out and the wind is up on the coastal highway, and four women in a Subaru are on a quest for sea ducks- black scoters, specifically, since they've already seen the other kinds of scoters today.

This is the Superbowl of Birding, where these women have to spot as many different bird species as they can in 12 hours. Their team is the Twitchers in the Rye.

'So we're spread out along this road mimicking an owl...I thought, if somebody came upon us, it looks like a scene from the Night of the Living Dead, we're all kind of walking in the dark, making weird noises.'

This year, they’re all first-timers except captain Becky Suomala, a senior biologist at the New Hampshire Audubon Society who can identify all 300-plus bird species that live in New Hampshire. This is her tenth Superbowl.

“There are three kinds of scoters. We’ve had white-wing and surf so far but not black scoters, so we’re definitely looking for that,” Suomala says, as a passing car – a Superbowl competitor – honks in greeting.

The Twitchers point their telescopes out toward the ocean as seagulls swoop overhead. Once they’ve checked a bird off their list, they ignore it. And the rule is three out of four on each team has to see or hear each type of bird.

“OK, I think the grebe's up again. Oop - I think it was up again. Yep. Uh… nope, that’s not it. Yes it is. Yes it is.” Suomala jumps back from the telescope to make room for her teammates. “Have a look. It's out a ways, it's small.”

Susan Wrisley just makes it to the telescope before the grebe dives underwater again.

“Got it – ooh, I got it just in time to see it!” she whoops.

Rarer birds also earn more points, so the team did some scouting in preparation. While driving to their next stop, they pull a sharp turn into a neighborhood and skid to a halt by some underbrush.

"Becky just remembered that there’s been a swamp sparrow seen here,” whispers teammate Kathryn Frieden.

Suomala is making a psh-psh-psh sound to entice the birds out of hiding, which is attracting some confused looks from pedestrians.

Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR

Frieden says this is nothing compared to how they started their day, at 5 a.m., listening to for owls.

“We can’t even tell who we are because it’s so dark. So we're spread out along this road… mimicking an owl,” she says. “I thought, if somebody came upon us, it looks like a scene from the Night of the Living Dead, we’re all kind of–” she staggers on the icy street– “walking in the dark, making weird noises. I thought, no one would believe this.”

The Superbowl is all about doing ridiculous things in the name of birds. As the Twitchers drive, they're starting and stopping, flipping U-turns when they see other teams, pulling over to run across parking lots and roads.

Finally, they're rewarded with something special. It's hiding in a huge flock of white seagulls on an icy pond.

“It doesn’t have any black in its wingtips. Kind of white and brown. It’s pecking down now at something in the water,” says Suomala, pointing it out to me excitedly. “That’s an Iceland gull, a good bird for us.”

But they can't stay and marvel at the Iceland gull long. They haven't even found a rock pigeon yet, which they say is not normal.

After they speed away, I find out later all their hard work paid off. They got 59 species, right on average, and 104 points, better than usual. But they also won a special new award, the Townie Award, for being the only team in the Superbowl doing just one town.

Next year, they hope they'll have some competition.

“We want to see what other towns are like,” Suomala wrote in her post-game notes. “Although we might have to find out ourselves!”

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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