Susan Puder knows all about the dangers of watching birds.
Sure, from the outside, it may look healthy and appealing, being in the great outdoors and enjoying the beauty of nature and all that.
"But it is addictive," says Puder, who lives in Barnegat Township, and knows what she's talking about on this subject.
Just eight years ago, she knew basically nothing about birds. Before that, she could be on a visit to Cape May and see what she now knows is a fairly rare bird.
"And I said, 'Oh, that's nice. I wonder what it is,'" as Puder put it the other day.
But eight years ago is when she moved from Union County to Ocean County after retiring from her job as a technology specialist in New York.
Her favorite hobby for years was photography, particularly landscapes, "And when I moved, I did all the shore pictures and the sand dunes," Puder continues. "But I was always interested in wildlife, and down here, the wildlife is birds."
That led her straight into taking pictures of birds, which led her to want to know more about her subjects. And that hunger for knowledge made her want to meet other bird-watchers - which led her to start the Southern Ocean Birding Group.
She founded the club in 2008, and became its president, and "I got in with people" who were hooked on birding way more than she was, she says. One of them started admiring her pictures and made a suggestion:
"He said, 'You should write a book,'" Puder remembers. The guy even suggested a New Jersey publisher who might be interested, but when she contacted them, they weren't.
Still, the seed was planted, and when she was on a vacation in Maine, Puder stumbled on a picture-happy book put out by Schiffer Publishing of Atglen, Pa. The book included a page marker with a little question on top: "Ready to write book?" Schiffer already had her book proposal finished, so she sent it to the publisher. This time, it was accepted.
And last year, "New Jersey Birds and Beyond," a coffee-table-sized book stuffed with 434 full-color pictures - all but six of them Puder's - was released. Puder wrote all the text too, although most of her words are captions and descriptions for her pictures, and more details about the birds in them.
She had her book in the publisher's hands by late 2011. And that means in less than seven years, this woman - who politely declines to reveal her age to a reporter - got so deeply into her addiction that she went from raw rookie to published author in the world of birds.
"To come up with all those bird pictures - that's pretty fast," says Linda Gangi, of the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township, the vice president of the Southern Ocean Birding Group and Puder's friend. "It's one thing to see them all with binoculars, but it's an entirely different story to get a picture of all of them. I was surprised myself that she did that so fast."
Gangi, who has been birding since 1984, says that's particularly difficult because most birds are pretty fast critters. And she has some birding credentials of her own: "I used to work for New Jersey Audubon, and I did the birding and wildlife guides for the Skylands and the Meadowlands" areas of the state, Gangi says.
Still, even after almost 30 years of partly professional birding, Gangi marvels that Puder "has a bigger birding list than I do" - meaning the lifetime list of identified birds that many dedicated fans keep.
But Puder pooh-poohs her own life list when she compares it to some of her birding buddies.
"There are friends of mine who have thousands," she says. "I'm trying to get to 400."
Still, there is no disagreement between the two SOBG leaders on a few key points:
"People really get into it and get hooked," Gangi says. "It's an easy sport when you do: All you need is binoculars or a scope, and a field guide. And that's it."
Of course, Puder has collected a flock of field guides, so there's always one handy if she needs it. And she knows about other dangers of the birding habit. For one thing, it can be time-consuming, between the monthly meetings of her birding group and its monthly field trips, which can go anywhere from Cape May to Central Park in New York. The group's schedule also includes adventures to Delaware and Pennsylvania this year.
Plus the SOBG started "Wings Over Long Beach Island Day," shortly after it formed. The fourth annual version of the festival is scheduled for March 9 at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, at the northern tip of LBI in Barnegat Light. That takes plenty of time to plan and prepare, plus Puder and Gangi do birding programs at local libraries and other institutions - "sort of 'Birding 101,'" as Puder puts it, trying to spread their passion for positively identified flying objects to still more people.
And then there's the time that goes just to birding itself. Puder tries to get out at least once per week all year - sure, in the winter too, even if the air is freezing and the wind is howling. (She can point out the bird picture in her book that she took on a 12-degree day, after a long drive.) In the heart of summer, heat and greenheads - some almost as big as birds - can make birding less than fun.
"Spring and fall are really the best times," Puder says. "So I'll go out maybe several times a week then."
She knows about other hazards of birding - including one friend who is so into spotting birds that he isn't allowed to drive on their trips anymore. Apparently, he had an unfortunate habit of paying more attention to the sky than the road if some exotic bird was up there.
But for all its addictive powers, Puder says there is a definite social good to birding, too.
"I moved down here and didn't know anybody, but now I have friends from the birding group," she says. "It's a great way to meet new people."
And her more-expert birding friends have been generous with her - including helping with the laborious proofreading, picture-identifying and detail-checking it took to put out her book.
The SOBG gang meets at the Tuckerton Seaport, the living-history museum that gives them a spot in its Hunting Shanty - where the birds all stand still, because they're all decoys.
Paul Hart, the Seaport's executive director, likes that Puder's group "is spreading the word about the birds in this area," he says. "Everyone doesn't know about the birds in Ocean County - they go to Cape May, they go to Brigantine. ... But she's getting the message out."
Puder goes to all those places and many more for the birds, but she estimates she got probably 40 percent of the pictures in her book right in Ocean County. She tries to spot birds whenever she travels, and says her bucket list includes a trip well south of southern Ocean County - to Costa Rica.
And she really wants others to get the habit too, which is why she also speaks and shows her pictures in schools any time her club is invited. She says kids can be a tough audience - at first.
"But when you tell them that birds are living dinosaurs, all these little boys get hooked into it," Puder says. "And girls love them because they're pretty."
Then again, a lot of people don't get hooked until much later in life. But remember, you've been warned - even then, you can still fall hard. Susan Puder has the pictures to prove it.
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