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AMERICANS FLOCKING BY TENS OF MILLIONS TO WATCH BIRDS

SHARE AMERICANS FLOCKING BY TENS OF MILLIONS TO WATCH BIRDS

An older man peers through binoculars at hundreds of Canada geese nesting in a grass-covered tidal marsh.

A younger fellow in rugged camouflage dress creeps to the edge of a spongy marsh, angling for a clearer view of a great blue heron.A woman with camera dangling from her neck checks a list of birds she is stalking - tundra swan, blue-winged teal, northern bobwhite and bald eagle.

They are not alone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are tens of millions of active bird-watchers. Many are older people, since it doesn't take strenuous activity to see the birds.

Craig Turner, who leads tours for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, says winter is the best time for birding.

"I lead people in the spring when there are a lot of migrant birds, but the problem is they are at the treetops and hard to see," he says. "People get frustrated. The advantage of winter is that first off, people put out bird feed and you can get much closer to the birds. It's also easier to see the birds because they are not hidden by leaves on trees."

When George Jett, a chemical engineer, graduated from college, he had some time on his hands.

So he became a bird-watcher.

Few have gone to the lengths that Jett has, though. The pursuit of his hobby has taken him throughout the world.

"The first time I went to the Costa Rican jungle," Jett recalls, "I remember being surrounded by a cloud of multicolored butterflies with a scarlet macaw screaming overhead."

But you don't have to fly to a far-off jungle to view some fascinating sights.

Turner recently led a group to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore near Cambridge.

"We saw some ducks but had not quite seen all we wanted to," Turner says. "I turned, and coming right at us 50 feet over the water was an eagle.

"It started to bank its wings back and forth and was dropping its legs so we could see the talons. It headed straight for the water, swooping down, flying off with what we assumed was a muskrat."

Eagles, because of their size and gracefulness and the fact that they are a national symbol, are popular among bird-watchers. They are on the way back after almost being destroyed, Turner believes, by the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was banned more than 20 years ago.

Turner says bird-watchers just starting out might want to go with a group at first.

Adds Kathy Isaacs, a Pasadena, Md., bird-watcher, "You can do bird-watching from a car instead of having to walk into the woods or be eaten up by mosquitoes. It's a wonderful activity for older persons. You can do plenty of birding without physical effort."

Why is seeing and identifying wild birds a fascination for millions? No one can say for sure, but Tim Dillon, an educational associate at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology gives it a try: "You never know what to expect," he says.

Dillon remembers a moment when he was walking on a railroad track by a pond in Ithaca, N.Y., "watching some barn swallows and suddenly, like a jet fighter, a falcon came right in and snatched one of the swallows, flew over to a branch and started plucking the feathers out. You very seldom see any act of predation."

Bird-watching is inexpensive, requiring little more than a pair of binoculars and a good pair of shoes. And it requires as little, or as much, physical exercise as you wish.

The Fish and Wildlife Service puts out a national map of 500 refuges encompassing 92 million acres from Key West to Hakalau Forest on Hawaii.

The service gives these tips for visiting national wildlife refuges:

- Keep your distance from wildlife. When you approach wild birds or animals, they may flee.

- Plan to arrive in the early morning or late afternoon, when wildlife are most active.

- When driving a tour-route or road, you should remain in your vehicle, as it makes an excellent blind. Wildlife is less wary of a slow-moving or stationary vehicle than it is of a potential predator on foot.

For more information on birding locations, send for a wildlife refuge brochure to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Publications Unit, 4040 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, VA 22203; (703) 358-1711.