Last updated: February 19. 2013 2:26PM - 192 Views

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Just before 10 a.m. on a Monday morning in late August, Matt Gearheart's pocket buzzed with a text from his buddy Nic Allen. A weird hawk matching the description of a swallow-tailed kite had been spotted near the Wild Bird Center in Prairie Village, Kan., where Allen works.

Gearheart's heart soared, then sank.

Two of his worlds were colliding.

A serious birder, the 37-year-old Gearheart knew that the rare hawk had been spotted only four times in modern history in Kansas — and never in Johnson County — and that it would be a new bird, No. 404, on his Kansas Life List.

But Gearheart is also an architect who designs surgical centers at Gastinger Walker Harden + BeeTriplett Buck in Kansas City and was just stepping into a meeting. For the next two hours Gearheart, normally a paragon of unruffled patience, fidgeted.

Finally, at noon, the meeting broke for lunch, and he raced over to the store.

When he arrived, the parking lot was filling with cars and people and the tripod-mounted scopes of other birders who had gotten word of the rogue raptor.

Soon, as if to reward the earthbound flock, the majestic black-and-white kite with boomerang wings and a forked tail sailed in and circled slowly overhead.

High fives all around, then back to the office for Gearheart.

Gearheart's quest has taken him to every county in Kansas, all 105 of them. He has seen birds up close in tropical rain forests, the Serengeti and northern Minnesota during an epic ice storm.

He birds most weekends, putting 30,000 miles a year on his SUV, and probably logs that many again carpooling with fellow birders.

But the obsession that shapes his life took hold in the backyard of his childhood home in Overland Park, Kan.

At age 4, Gearheart would wake with the sun and scramble up trees to watch birds before his parents were out of bed.

He started his Life List (an honor-system record birders keep of species they have identified with certainty) at age 10 after spotting bald eagles near the Iatan power plant near Weston.

I was so thrilled and excited, Gearheart recalls, flashing his easy smile just thinking about it. It stuck.

Actually, Kansas is a fortuitous place for a budding birder to grow up. The state punches above its weight when it comes to numbers and varieties of birds that live or pass through it. So does Missouri.

The two states lie directly below two major migratory corridors, the Central Flyway (Kansas) and the Mississippi Flyway (Missouri).

Once, a team conducting a midnight-to-midnight count in Kansas logged 225 birds, one of the highest single-day totals for any state.

Birders from other states often flock to Kansas to see prairie birds, such as greater and lesser prairie chickens, and to visit the big salt marshes in central Kansas: Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Nationally, more than 48 million people participate in bird-watching, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The study defined a bird-watcher as someone who had taken a trip a mile or more from home to observe birds or who actively tried to observe birds around the home.

Serious avian enthusiasts prefer the term birding to bird-watching because identification is frequently made by hearing only. In fact, it is not necessary to see a bird to add it to your Life List, as long as you can identify a species with certainty from its call.

The technology revolution — with smartphone apps that can load a birding checklist instantly for any point on the planet, complete with photos and bird sounds to help novices with identification — has attracted swarms of young people into a tight-knit community once dominated by retirees. Currently Gearheart is mentoring two high school kids who find rising at daybreak, strapping on high-powered binoculars and stalking rare birds on the tall-grass prairie more satisfying than online gaming.

You don't have to have exceptional vision to be a birder, but Gearheart does. A fellow birder, Mark Land of Overland Park, says if Gearheart had been alive during World War II he would have been one of those pilots who can spot an enemy plane 10 miles away.

But birders will tell you the most important sense for bird-watching is probably hearing, and Gearheart's ability to detect faint bird sounds out of ambient noise is like a sixth sense, he says. Once while he was camping in the Ozarks the dawn chorus was strong, but he picked out more than 20 species of birds before he unzipped his tent.

Gearheart is vice president of the Kansas Ornithological Society, has served on the board of directors for Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City and sits on the board of trustees for Audubon of Kansas. More important for his standing among local birders, he has an enviable Life List.

Gearheart has logged 1,788 species in his world list and 624 for North America, as defined by the American Birding Association (the United States including Alaska but not Hawaii plus Canada).

In addition to the 404 birds on his Life List for Kansas, Gearheart has lists for 26 other states and a dozen countries. He also keeps a list for his backyard. The most recent addition, a whip-poor-will last summer, was No. 130.

Over his lifetime, he has compiled more than 5,200 checklists in more than 1,000 locations. They are all stored at Ebird, a website run by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where anyone can maintain birding lists for free.

It is the Life Lists that fuel Gearheart's feathered fancy. He lacks the cutthroat competitiveness that drives some birders to pursue what they call a Big Year: a quest to see the most birds in a defined area in a single calendar year.

That extreme form of the birding was the subject of The Big Year, a film starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson that came out last year. The movie was very loosely based on a 2004 true-life account by Mark Obmascik of three birders vying to see the most birds in North America in a year.

One reason attempting a Big Year for North America holds no allure for Gearheart is because of a bitter experience about a decade ago, trying for a record Big Year in Kansas.

By late December Gearheart was closing in on 300 species. So he compiled a hit list and set off on a trek the last few days of the year to find the remaining birds — solo. He ended up with 299.

I was really frustrated, he recalls. It seemed like work, and I realized even if I did reach 300, I had no one to high-five. That was eye-opening to me. It is much more rewarding to share the experience with others.

Gearheart has since reached the 300 mark in Kansas, on his own terms and often in the company of fellow birders and friends.

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