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A rare great spotted woodpecker brings fame to Caswell Lake

Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2002

CASWELL LAKE, Alaska (AP) -- Fred Virrazzi was sitting at his computer in Carteret, N.J., when he got the big news: A rare woodpecker had taken up residence at a remote cabin near Talkeetna.

Two weeks later -- having waited until his wife was out of town -- Virrazzi and fellow birder Chip Krilowicz boarded a plane for the 3,500-mile trip north to Alaska.

The hunt was on, and these two were not alone.

From across America, the birders were coming, from as far away as Leesburg, Va., Tolleson, Ariz., and Friendswood, Texas. They all wanted a glimpse of this unusual woodpecker, which looks a lot like Alaska's black-and-white hairy woodpecker, though it appears its underbelly has been dipped in bold red paint.

That red underbelly branded this woodpecker as a world traveler. It was at least 2,000 miles from where it should be. Pecking away at the abundant deadwood of Alaska was a bird that has a normal range that stretches from Estonia, across central Russia, to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Only a few weeks before Virrazzi and Krilowicz arrived in the state, expert birders Dave DeLap and Gordon Tans of Anchorage had positively identified the avian visitor as the great spotted woodpecker, scientifically known as a Dendrocopos major.

With that, they put out the call that has had binocular-toting bird aficionados from across the country headed for Myrtle and Steve Heinrich's cabin on Caswell Lake.

As of last mid-March, more than two dozen birders from 13 different states had made the pilgrimage. Another 150-plus Alaska birders have paid their respects to the wandering woodpecker.

''Dave told me if (the bird) is still around come May and June, I can expect bus loads of people,'' Myrtle said with disbelief.

In the birding world, the appearance of this bird is so rare and so unexpected that this is about as good as it gets.

Dedicated birdwatchers are a group whose ranks are growing.

Between 1982 and 1995, the number of birdwatchers in America more than doubled, jumping from around 21 million to more than 54 million, or from 12 percent of the population to 27 percent, according to an ongoing, 40-year-old study on recreation and the environment by several federal agencies, including the federal Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. This makes birding the second most popular outdoor recreational activity in the country, but the fastest growing.

The same study shows that most new birders are female, 40 to 59, who earn more than $50,000 annually. And the sport reportedly attracts a disproportionate number of doctors and engineers.

Yet only a small part of this tribe actually will do what is known in the birding world as ''chase,'' or board a plane on a moment's notice to see a rare, or misplaced bird, which is known as an ''accidental'' or ''casual'' in birding terms.

The attraction, they say, is that birding is a game of clues including the bird's markings, its song, its nesting habits and its habitat.

Most birders keep lists. The arbiter of the listing game is the Colorado Springs-based American Birding Association, which has 8,000 members and sets the rules and ultimately votes to verify first North American sightings.

Because this bird has been seen before in the Aleutian Islands, a panel of the state's top birders will verify the sighting at Caswell Lakes, said Thede Tobish, a columnist and regional editor of ''North American Birds,'' a magazine published by the association. The sighting will then be reported by the national association.

Birders with more than 700 species on their North America lists are considered at the top of the game. These are the people who will board a plane to pad their list. And many of these birders know one another, because when word spreads that a bird like the great spotted woodpecker is just a quick flight to Anchorage, they'll be there. In Alaska, birders at the top of the game have 300-plus species on their Alaska list, and a trip to Caswell Lakes is a must, Tobish said.

For Mike Austin of Friendswood, Texas, the Heinrichs' woodpecker makes number 866 for his list. Virrazzi said it's number 720 for him, but he quickly adds that he's in his 40s and younger than many of the elite birders, so there's still time to catch up.

Previously, this bird had been spotted in North America on eight other occasions, according to Tobish. Most of those sightings were in the Aleutian Islands, specifically Attu Island, but the bird has also been spotted on St. George Island. This is the first sighting ''on the North American Continent,'' the expert birders agree.

The great spotted is a nonmigratory bird, which begs the question of what is it doing in the heart of Alaska.

Susan Craig of the national birding association said it is extremely unusual for a nonmigratory bird like the great spotted to show up so far out of range. She said sometimes lost birds will land on ships for the journey, but in the case of the great spotted it was most likely carried by some strong easterly winds.

It's as if the Heinrichs have been endowed as caretakers of delicate royalty. Many of the visiting birders have brought gifts, including bird feeders and bird food, and long lists of questions about the bird's habits. Others have brought food and have left cash donations to cover coffee.

She has come to know the habits of elite birders, a rare kind of human who will fly thousands of miles on a moment's notice for a glimpse of a little woodpecker. She marvels at all the attention one bird can generate. She shakes her head at how her innocent call triggered a nationwide birding alert.

''All I wanted to know was the name of the bird,'' she said with a laugh.

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