There are competitors who run marathons. Then there are those who sit to win.
At 7 A.M. on Saturday, May 12, Scherman Hoffman sanctuary director Mike Anderson and his team were at their perch on the rooftop observation deck of the center. As the sun rose over the trees they had already seen or heard 58 species 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.
These hearty souls were participating in one of the birding world’s biggest competitions, New Jersey Audubons' World Series of Birding. It is a charitable competition, begun in 1984, the aim being to find as many species of birds as possible in a day, with money collected based on how much is pledged per bird. The winnings go towards Societies mission: conservation, education, research and stewardship.
Within the competition are divisions. Some of the statewide level I competitive teams run all day, from midnight to midnight. You need a reliable car and team of people to see or hear a lot of birds in very short period 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 bird count 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. Some teams look in one place, such as bird-rich Cape May or the Great Swamp in Morris County: limidetd geographic areas (LGA). Some do just one or two New Jersey counties.
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 down the driveway to the Field Loop trail, down to the River trail (and the nesting Louisiana waterthrush), up to the Dogwood trail and eventually as far as the Cross Estate, part of the federal Jockey Hollow park - quite a bit of hiking. They had 61 birds by noon and still weren’t done, heading out in two cars (after a brief rest back at the sanctuary) to bird the Great Swamp’s Pleasant Plains Road and two other parts not normally open to the public except for competitions like this one. They planned to finish at 3pm.
Mike’s team was part of the Big Stay division, which means recording what you see and hear from a 17' diamater circle, in this case the observation deck on the third floor of the visitor center.
Sitting is harder than you might think. You need a strong constitution, a comfortable chair and a team of 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 or four 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 seen; 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.
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 (a migrant, passing through) 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 Randy’s team had because the leafed-out trees blocked the sound. But the sitting team 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 was joined by visitors on the platform. A cloudless, sunny day might be great for lying on a lounge chair but it is not as great for looking into the sky for birds.
Still, by 1:15 pm the sitting team’s tally had grown to 73 including broad-winged and sharp-shinned hawks. The team had long ago shed their warm jackets. Sleeves were rolled up, hats were few and not a bottle of sunscreen was to be seen. The migrants of earlier in the day were now very quiet or had moved on, but the daytime raptors were flying.
“You’ve got to keep scanning the skies,“ Mike said, and while I was on the platform two red-tailed hawks were spotted, one of them harassing a smaller red-shouldered hawk. A pair of black vultures were found in the distance. Later, turkey vultures and osprey would join the list, as would ducks including flying wood duck and common merganser.
A barn swallow amused the group by buzzing the house sparrows nesting under the platform. A pair of house wrens hunted for food near their nest, as did a phoebe. There was even a ruby-throated hummingbird, which flew over the platform (bypassing the feeder below) to take a swipe at the sparrows.
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 laid-back and 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.
I find it impressive 73 birds were seen or heard from one platform in 13 hours. That shows the diversity of the species and how grateful we should be that areas like Scherman Hoffman or the Great Swamp or the other fine habitats of New Jersey not obliterated by housing “developments,” utility lines and golf courses can draw these winged wonders. We as well as the birds are all better for these places being here, and the money earned by the Series winners will help preserve them.
While Randy’s team ended its travels at 3pm, Mike’s stayed on the platform until midnight. Mike later sent in the final totals.
Sunday, the winners were announced, and neither Mike’s nor Randy’s team won their divisions. The most birds seen in New Jersey in 24 hours were 207 in a marathon group that included Pete Dunne (founder of the World Series of Birding), 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 an Audubon team out of Atlantic County, on the ocean just north of Cape May County and where the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge 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.