Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Birding in One Place

There are competitors who run marathons. Then there are those who sit to win.

New Jersey's World Series of Birding was Saturday, May 12, and unlike the baseball series this only lasts one day.
The Big Stay Team
At 7am on this particular Saturday, Scherman Hoffman sanctuary director Mike Anderson and his team were at their perch on the hawk watch observation platform high in the Bernardsville, N.J., hills. As the sun rose over the trees they had already seen or heard over 50 types of birds, an impressive total made more so if you know they had spent the night in sleeping bags on this platform, tallying what was out there starting at midnight.

The World Series of Birding is a charitable competition that began in Cape May in 1984 with the aim being to find as many birds as possible in a day and collecting money based on how much is pledged per bird. The winnings go towards bird habitat conservation.

Within the competition are divisions. Some of the most competitive teams run all day, from midnight to midnight. You need a reliable car and lot of people to see or hear a lot of birds in very short periods of time because these folks must zip from High Point in the northwest corner of the state to Cape May at the southern tip and as many places as they can hit in between. Before the day of competition they’ve already scouted locations and worked out their route for maximum birding in minimum time. NJ Audubon’s Cape May Observatory has such a marathon team, as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, and many others from farther away. Many have corporate sponsorship. One winning NJ team included the famed Roger Tory Peterson, who helped them find 201 species in 24 hours, and that put the competition on the map.

But there are also teams that, while competitive, are not quite as gung-ho about it. One category is to bird only Cape May, which makes sense because the area has so many types of birds, both resident and passing through.

Some don’t even spend the whole day at it. Another small team out of Scherman Hoffman, led by Randy Little, left the sanctuary at 7 am. Their route took them through the Scherman Hoffman trails and into the neighboring Cross Estate, which is part of the federal Jockey Hollow park several miles away. By the time they got back at noon they had 61 birds and still weren’t done, heading out in two cars (after a brief rest back at the sanctuary) to bird parts of the nearby Great Swamp. They planned to finish at 3pm.

Black-throated green warbler, Scherman
Hoffman, May 12, 2012
Mike’s team was part of the Big Stay division, which means recording what you see and hear from one place, in this case the platform on the third floor of the visitor center.

Sitting is harder than you might think. You need a strong constitution, a comfortable chair and at least two people with good hearing as well as binoculars and scopes because one must verify the other’s findings for the birds to count. (What you really need is at least three so one can go to the bathroom while the others listen.) A sense of humor helps, too. It was cold that Friday night into Saturday morning, the platform was hard for sleeping and then the sun came out in a cloudless sky and the day got pretty hot, dry and breezy.

But there are payoffs.

The first bird recorded on the platform after midnight was a screech owl, the second a booming great horned owl. As the sun came up, the hungry migrants who needed to eat and rest from their journey north started hitting the trees and singing. The scarlet tanagers were easily scene; the Baltimore orioles (like the one pictured), black-throated blue warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ovenbirds and great-crested flycatchers among those easily heard.

Then came quieter ones like the Cape May warbler, its call weak but its face striking, that showed up on the spruce branch at eye level with the platform. Or the magnolia warbler in the tall holly, which was seen as those on the platform (which now included visitors drawn by the prospect of a good birding day) were joking about being fooled yet again by a house sparrow. It quickly became all business as binoculars were raised and the holly raked over until just the tiniest bit of movement revealed the bird, which showed for a millisecond before flying to a tree farther away. Still, it counted.

Common birds are counted, too - cardinal, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, catbird, robin. This is probably one of the few times a house finch at the feeder or a flock of flying grackles or a lone starling are celebrated.

Baltimore oriole, Scherman
Hoffman, May 12, 2012
 Meanwhile, Randy’s team had made its way along the driveway and down to the river, finding a number of warblers including a rare (for the sanctuary) Wilson’s warbler plus other birds, some of whom will breed in the sanctuary. Up on the platform, the sitting team could not hear the calls of the Wilson’s warbler or the Louisiana waterthrush that shows up every year along the river trail because the leafed-out trees blocked the sound. But they could see the common loon and great blue heron that flew over.

It is like the blind men and the elephant. The perspective is different depending on where you are.

As Randy’s team kept moving, trying to find as many birds as their limited time allowed, Mike’s team had tallied 73 birds by 1:15 pm, including broad-winged and sharp-shinned hawks. The team had long ago shed their warm jackets and had switched from finding migrant songbirds to the daytime raptors taking advantage of perfect weather conditions to fly north.

Had Mike and his team - which won the Big Stay division last year with 80 - been out in the field, driving hither and yon, they might not have been as relaxed as they were (when birds weren’t sighted, of course) or as Randy’s small group were in their limited travels. To these people it was a competition but it was also an excuse to get out of the house and do something they enjoy.

Some people let the competition - ticking off the birds on a list - take over. Some people are nice, some can be jerks. Some will be helpful and point out a bird you might‘ve otherwise missed, others will ignore you when you ask what they’ve seen figuring they worked for it and so should you.

What can get lost, even in the World Series of Birding, is the birds themselves. Imagine, 73 different types of birds seen or heard just by sitting in one place. It could be you in your backyard if you were lucky and had the time or the inclination to just sit and listen.

Not many do.

The totals, as of 1:15 pm, May 12, 2012
We should be grateful there are events like the World Series of Birding to remind us that habitat, in New Jersey and elsewhere, is being obliterated by housing “developments,” utility lines and golf courses. The money earned by the Series winners will help preserve what land is left for the birds.

When the winners were announced the next day neither Mike’s nor Randy’s team won their divisions. The most birds seen in New Jersey in 24 hours were 207 - 207! - by a marathon group that included Pete Dunne, who was with that previous winning group featuring Roger Tory Peterson that had found 201 species.

The Big Stay division winner, with 80 species, was a N.J. Audubon team out of Atlantic County, on the ocean just north of Cape May County and where the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, otherwise known as Brigintine, is located. Mike’s team ended up with 77.

So it goes.

Meanwhile, the birds continue their marathons north. The winners of this World Series get to create another generation for us to enjoy.

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