... earns bragging rights as do hawks, blackbirds and herons in the Rogue Valley Birding Challenge

A big black and gray heron perches nonchalantly above a pond north of Medford. The black-crowned night heron is rare here, and this one is all but shouting, Wock! Look at me.

It's 8 a.m. The unabashed heron represents the 47th bird species of the day for the Old Flickers, a team of four retired teachers. The OFs ' rumor is their real name is earthier than flicker, which is a kind of woodpecker ' are among four teams of birders scouring Jackson County in the first-ever Rogue Valley Birding Challenge. The goal of the Audubon event is to identify as many species as possible in the county between 4 a.m. and 6 p.m.

During the day, birders will battle darkness and rain, hurl insults at themselves and their teammates and raise awareness of birds while raising money for the county Audubon chapter.

Since the competition includes two elite teams comprising many of the best birders around, the OFs, with an average age on the far side of 60, are widely given no chance. Still they started stumbling around in the darkness before sunrise east of Jacksonville, identifying owls by their calls.
— We brought Ron (Ketchum), who can hear, Denny Niebuhr cracks.

A great blue heron flies over, its head tucked in tight. It's bird No. 48. Two team members must identify a bird, either by eye or by ear, for it to count. The OFs' best birds are a Cooper's hawk and a Cassin's vireo.

Two green herons fly low over the pond, their chestnut necks rich in the morning light. Bird 49, and a bit of luck, three heron species in minutes just yards from the traffic roaring by on Interstate 5.

Pretty good for three guys who are hard of heron, Niebuhr says.

No. 50 is a swimming gadwall, a dabbling duck that is fairly common but is often overlooked because it is so nondescript.

Despite the good start, the OFs downplay their chances.

At 2 p.m., Niebuhr says, we need our naps.

A trip to Kirtland Ponds near White City is like a day at the coast without going to the coast. Here are phalaropes, plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns and more, a honking, peeping, twittering symphony of shore-oriented birdlife. The Swifts, an all-woman team, wheel in Edith Lindner's green Subaru Forester with 60-something species and counting before 10 a.m.

The women have hermit, tree, orange-crowned, Nashville and yellow-rumped warblers, tiny little migrating jewels. They have all five swallows expected at this time of year: tree, violet green, northern rough-winged, cliff and barn.

They quickly pick up dunlin, semipalmated plover and ma and pa killdeer with fuzzy babies running precociously around in the mud for killdeer buffet.

Long-billed dowitchers probe the bottom. Little peeps ' western and least sandpipers ' work the shallows. Greater yellowlegs dash around with their outlandish legs and pointy black bills. Pretty little red-necked and Wilson's phalaropes, always rare in the county, bob their heads herky-jerky.

Several improbably rich-hued cinnamon teal in fresh spring plumage swim in shallow water where a black-necked stilt uses its notable appendages to wade effortlessly.

A black tern, a rare visitor, sparks a wave of excitement as it swoops over the ponds and circles back over nearby fields against a threatening sky now weeping occasional raindrops. One was reported in the Klamath Basin last week, but it's not a bird you expect to see.

Neither are the three yellow-headed blackbirds foraging among grasses at pond's edge. Neither is the solitary sandpiper that flies smack in front of Team Swift.

How good is this? The ponds are being kind indeed. Like an underdog football team that scores early and then toughens, the Swifts threaten to become a team that believes in itself.

Wouldn't it be an embarrassment ... Gwyneth Ragosine begins.

She doesn't complete the thought, or have to. How much better than this can the elite teams be doing? It's irrational exuberance.

Oh, Ragosine says, there's no way.

The Swifts are no slouches. Ragosine is the local Audubon president, and Marjorie Moore can bird with anybody in the county. Her data from years of birding was crucial to the 2001 Jackson County bird checklist, the definitive local distribution and abundance study.

At 10 a.m. the scoreboard At Wild Birds Unlimited, a bird-feeding store in Medford that's sponsoring one of the elite teams, reads thus: the OFs have 70 species, the elite Falcons, a south county team connected with the Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland, have 75. The Swifts are tied for the lead with the elite north county Coots at 80 birds.

Elite birders can rattle off species, and often age and sex, based on a glimpse or a call note. It's an honor system, and you wouldn't want a rep as a flake or cheater.

These are the guys the buzz reaches first when there's a rare bird in town, the guys who drive all night at the report of, say, an emperor's goose at Crescent City. Who are always scheming on a trip to Antarctica.

Some, like Falcons captain Pepper Trail, are ornithologists. Others, like the Coots' Jim Livaudais, are accomplished wildlife photographers. Still others, like the Falcons' John Alexander and Ben Wieland, are young enough to scramble up and down mountains and riverbanks all day and laugh.

Millions of Americans feed and watch birds in their back yards. Millions more enjoy birding. They range from the occasional nature walker with an old binocular to those with life lists in the thousands of species. The life list is a list of all the species seen in a lifetime. Birders keep American lists, state lists, county lists.

There are more than 700 bird species regularly seen in the United States, of which about 320 have occurred in Jackson County. no means are they all here at once. Shorebirds and songbirds go south in our winter. For many ducks, we are the south, and they head in spring for the tundra.

Jackson County is a rich county for its bird life, although it has lost important habitat over the years to agriculture and industry and is losing more to urban sprawl. Particularly alarming to scientists is the loss of wetlands to development.

Birds are identified by size, shape, posture, bill shape, habitat, behavior, field marks and voices. Plumage may vary from male to female, juveniles to adults. There are regional subspecies and races.

To have a Big Day (list the most species you can see in 24 hours), birders scout ahead of time for hard-to-find birds. They work trap lines of friends and informants, consult Web sites like Oregon Birders On-line. There is luck, as witness the black tern and green herons.

At 2 p.m., the scoreboard reads Swifts 100, OFs 118, Falcons 120, Coots 122.

The Coots roar into Lake Creek at noon. Howard Sands, Jim Livaudais, Norm Barrett and Gary Shaffer scan rushing Little Butte Creek for an American dipper, the little ouzel that makes its living walking under fast streams. No luck.

The Coots have heard about the Swifts' black tern and the Falcons' flammulated owl, another good bird. The light sprinkle grows into real rain. Swallows dart above the creek hawking bugs, but the Falcons have the five swallows you expect in the spring.

Five easy swallows, Sands says. Wasn't that a movie?

The Coots work their way up Lake Creek Road in Livaudais' SUV, stopping to whistle and make the psh, which sounds like what the letters look like, calling up white-breasted nuthatch, western bluebird, California towhee.

Nobody says what everybody is thinking: How are the Falcons doing?

The sky opens into a driving rain. A sora calls from a pond. Then silence. It's getting colder, darker, quieter except for the downpour. Any self-respecting birds, which sometimes have more sense than birders, are holed up somewhere.

This is pretty exciting, Livaudais deadpans.

There were bushtits here yesterday. There are often pygmy owls. Not today.

The weather worsens as the team goes higher. Their plan is to hit Dead Indian Memorial Road via Shale City Road, then bird the Howard Prairie area. Morbidly, they debate whether they should have gone looking for wildflowers, and whether the day sucks more than it blows or vice-versa.

One thing for sure, it's raining on the Falcons, too. What they are doing, it would turn out, was seeing some very good birds indeed.

Led by team captain Pepper Trail, an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab, the Falcons pick up unlikely birds one after another at the end of the afternoon in locations they'd planned to look for them: green herons, band-tailed pigeons, cedar waxwings, a barn owl.

They save the best for last: a Swainson's hawk, just before absolute deadline, a miracle, soaring high above the Klamath Bird Observatory office in Ashland, one of a half-dozen ever seen hereabouts. Bingo.

The final results look like this: Swifts 108, OFs 118, Coots 142, Falcons 142.

Among them, birders saw a remarkable 175 species in one day in one county.

One species the Falcons did not see was oak titmouse. A pair are nesting in Sands' back yard. He sees the birds every day ' except this one. He could have climbed up to see if there were babies and counted them.

We didn't want to be banging on the nest box, he shrugs. That's the way it goes.

I have great respect for their ethics, Trail says later.

The event raises &

36;1,500, brings together some great birders but leaves the bragging rights unclear.

We'll turn the heat up next year, Trail says.