Passion for birds takes some far, wide


Vernon LaVia, an entrepreneur and self-described birding "fanatic," look for birds with his daughter Veronica, 8, Saturday in Chicago. LaVia spends $15,000 a year on birding trips.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

Facts

AT A GLANCE: Big bucks on birding

  • American birders spend over $32 billion annually on their hobby and about 18 million travel to see birds, according to a 2001 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • CHICAGO - Entrepreneur Vernon LaVia spends $15,000 a year on birding trips and can reel off all the diseases and misadventures he's had pursuing his favorite pastime in 33 countries.
    Group benefits salesman Todd Birutis' idea of a good time: Hanging out on a frozen beach in Lithuania all day for the chance of a new ornithological sight.
    Financial reporter Christine Williamson has a not-so-hidden agenda when she travels to meet with money managers: grilling them for information on local bird sightings so she can add to her "life list."
    What the three baby boomers have in common is an expensive passion for birds shared by countless others with the wherewithal to pursue it from Antarctica to Zimbabwe. While the cost of chasing birds to the far corners of the Earth is high, virtually everyone afflicted with this obsession says the rewards - beauty, mystery, awe and longer lists - are well worth it.
    "They (birds) are so totally cool," said the 46-year-old Williamson, who, like the other two, lives in Chicago when she's not off on international birding expeditions.
    "A tiny warbler that weighs maybe 3 ounces and is not more than 3 inches long can fly from the edge of the taiga in Canada to Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. The more you see them, the more amazing they are to you. You can't ever get enough."
    American birders spend over $32 billion annually on their hobby and about 18 million travel to see birds, according to a 2001 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The average birder that year was 49 with an above-average income and education level. Tour operators offer hundreds of birding trips to all points every year to cater to them.
    Those who constantly seek out far-flung places to see a bird for the first time are no longer themselves a rare breed. Instead, "world listers" are proliferating in an age when the latest information on birds, sightings, tours and cheap fares is at everyone's fingertips.
    Some dream of becoming the next Phoebe Snetsinger, who earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for seeing more birds - 8,450 of the world's approximately 10,000 species - than anyone who has ever lived.
    An heiress whose father was the late Leo Burnett, founder of the Chicago advertising agency that still bears his name, Snetsinger first took to birding in her early 30s. Diagnosed 16 years later with malignant melanoma and given less than a year to live, she hurled herself into birding trips more than ever.
    By the time she spotted her last new bird, a red-shouldered vanga in Madagascar, nearly two decades and several recurrences of cancer had passed. Snetsinger died in a bus crash the next day at age 68 on that 1999 birding tour. But her love of birding is still written and talked about today.
    "She used to joke that jet lag was her cure to cancer because she never let it catch up with her," her son Tom Snetsinger recalled.
    Tom inherited the birding bug from his mother. A 45-year-old wildlife biologist at Oregon State University, he currently is on leave and working for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology supervising a group of volunteer birders who are looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird long believed to be extinct but rediscovered in a wildlife refuge in Arkansas.
    Birding is a form of hunting but "without the carnage," Snetsinger said in a phone call from Arkansas during a break from that expedition.
    "In addition to seeing these incredibly beautiful and diverse birds, ranging from flightless penguins to little tiny hummingbirds, it takes you to places that are just stunning and show a diversity of life and the diversity of this planet," he said. "Birding is a lens to look at the world. It guides me to places I'd otherwise never go."
    LaVia, a self-described birding "fanatic," is over 3,300 birds and counting. But he says numbers are no longer the primary aim of his birding; adventure is.
    "I occasionally get that question, 'Birding? What do you do, sit in a lawn chair like Miss Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies?"' the 42-year-old small businessman said.
    "There's certainly a lot more thrill in birding than people think. It can be an incredible adventure. On my vacations, there's a lot of activity, a lot of hiking."
    And a fair amount of personal peril. He's had bouts with malaria, botulism and dysentery and gotten lost in canyons on the Mexico-U.S. border for three days.
    Birutis (six continents, 3,000 birds) can relate. One of the favorite birding spots for the 41-year-old insurance company employee is a forest in southern Nepal where exotic birds can be found "dripping off the trees." But that's only part of what gets his adrenaline going.
    "You've got to hunt to find them while keeping an eye out for a one-horned rhinoceros and a tiger at the same time, so the energy's pretty exciting," he said.
    Personal suffering isn't required to be an extreme birder, but it helps if you can embrace conditions that some might view as a bit loony. Like flying to Lithuania in midwinter to go birding in a place with subzero temperatures and limited daylight, as Birutis was preparing to do recently.
    "The birds think that's a really nice place to hang out in January," he explained matter-of-factly. "Any time you go to a place with more difficult conditions ... there's not a thousand people on the beach."
    Hard-core birding experiences for the 46-year-old Williamson include two weeks of 16-hours-a-day bird-watching in Costa Rica, where she saw 457 different birds, and looking for boreal owls and a gyrfalcon in Duluth, Minn., at 30 below zero. She wouldn't think twice about driving 14 hours round-trip from Chicago to southern Illinois with her husband Geoff for a chance to see a burrowing owl.
    "We do some pretty crazy stuff," she admitted. "There's tons of this chasing thing that goes into it."

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