This year, Rodney Johnson – proprietor of Grand Cru Beer and Cheese Market in Rhinebeck – and his two teammates came in third place in the 30th annual World Series of Birding, a marathon 24-hour bird competition held in New Jersey in mid-May in which hundreds of birders from all over the country identify as many species as possible, based on sound and sightings.
Starting out at midnight in northern New Jersey, Johnson and his companions, Pennsylvania carpenter Mark Boyd and 21-year-old Matt Sabatine, drove 500 miles over the next 24 hours to Cape May, hiking through swamps, grasslands and woods. Sometimes they didn’t even stop the car – just drove very slowly with the windows down. Out of a list of 290 species, the team identified 174, just a tad less than the 186 identified by the first-place winners, and that was despite bagging it early due to bad weather.
Johnson has done the World Series, which is held by the New Jersey Audubon Society, every year except one since 1998, enabling him to fine-tune the route in terms of habitat and timing: He catches grassland birds when they call at 4 to 4:30 a.m.; ruffed grouse, in the park where he knows that they can be found, calling at 6:15 a.m.; swallows in flight later in the morning; and the calls of ducks, rails, owls and herons after dark. It was the second consecutive year in which his team came in third place.
Johnson previously worked as an environmental educator and naturalist in Pennsylvania, New York City and Poughkeepsie before buying Grand Cru Beer and Cheese Market in 2012. As a student in the Environmental Studies program at East Stroudsburg University, Johnson’s mentor was Larry Rymon, who started the program, which was the first of its kind, in 1969. Johnson worked in the Costa Rican rainforest and studied snakes in the Poconos. His interest in birding started when he was a kid riding the tractor on the family farm in Pennsylvania. Back then, “I didn’t have a field guide or binoculars.”
He went to college when he was 28, and after graduating in 1997 worked as a naturalist for a nonprofit organization and led birdwatching trips for a club in eastern Pennsylvania. He has been doing the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count since 1990 – first in Pennsylvania, later in New York City, where he lived before moving upstate in 2002.
Like other birding “amateurs” in the area – people like Steve Chorvas, who manages the Esopus Bend Preserve in Saugerties, and Mark DeDea, caretaker of Kingston’s Forsyth Nature Center – Johnson is a well-rounded naturalist, as knowledgeable about plants, mammals and amphibians as he is about birds. His gifts as a birder are in part attributable to his excellent vision. At age 48, Johnson still has 20/10 vision, “beyond perfect,” and a keen ear; his good pitch enables him to recognize and retain birdsongs. However, Johnson said that he doesn’t hear as well as he used to – one reason why he and Boyd always include a much younger person on their team in the World Series of Birders.