We Survived the World Series of Birding 2008

Posted 5/13/08
by Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Editor

Cape May, NJ - After 18 hours of nearly nonstop birding, my team mates and I were exhausted, sore from standing and walking, and ready for sleep.

Yes, we were doing it again. Testing our endurance and our birding skills in the World Series of Birding, this year on May 10.

It's an annual, 24 hour competition, sponsored by New Jersey Audubon, in which teams from across the country go from midnight to midnight, trying to see more bird species than any other team.

For us, our birding day started, not at midnight, but at a leisurely 3AM. Just like last year, we heard the call of a Chuck-will’s-widow before leaving the driveway.

So far so good.

While many teams were canvassing the state from top to bottom in 24 hours, we were competing in the less rigorous South of the Cape May Canal category.

Our team included six friends, named the "Union of Concerned Birders," a takeoff on the Union of Concerned Scientists, the group for whom we raised funds.

Peter Grannis (above) kept us on a tight schedule. Team captain Evelyn Lovitz, Michael McCabe, Dianna Wentink and Barbara Bassett rounded out the group.

For two years now we have solicited contributions from our friends and business colleagues, raising $4,000 to $5,000 per year for the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean energy and climate change programs.

Racking up Birds

The more birds your see, the more money your raise. Choosing our route was critical to maximize the number of birds spotted.

We started on New England Road. After the Chuck-will’s-widow, we quickly picked up Screech and Barred Owls calling near Hidden Valley and then moved on to Higbee Beach.

The weather was cool, yet fair, at least until dawn. Then the rain started.

At Higbee, the forests were quiet because of the rain. Only a few warblers were singing. Among them, a rare Cerulean Warbler. We high fived that one. Along the beach at Higbee we got both a Bonaparte's Gull and a Common Loon.

Though it wasn't a hard rain, we were all pretty wet and chilly, when we stopped for a late breakfast served by our support team. We were not happy campers as we scarfed down our bagels, smoked salmon, and hot coffee.

We had not seen nearly as many birds as we were counting on, in part because of the weather.

After that one quick meal of the day, we headed for the Cape May Meadows.

The sun finally came out and the birding got better. A rare, all white Iceland Gull was resting with Great Black-backed Gulls in the meadows. I got a shot of the Iceland Gull below. That bird should have been in the Arctic, not in Cape May.

Without skipping a beat, we picked up a Cliff Swallow flying over the Iceland Gull's head.

We moved onto the Coast Guard Base, where we added Red-throated Loon and Royal Tern to our growing list.

Our next stop was in the backyard of our good friends, Ro and Larry Wilson. That's where we finally got our elusive Hummingbird, sipping nectar on the Wilsons' honeysuckle.

At the St. Mary's jetty in Cape May Point, we saw Parasitic Jaegers chasing terns in the rips. Surf Scoters were swimming just beyond the jetty.

We got Bluebirds and Savannah Sparrows at The Beanery. We found Piping Plover hidden behind the dune at Cape May Point State Park. At the same time we spotted Rough-wing Swallows chasing insects.

The Ones That Got Away

All in all, we saw some pretty good species, over a hundred total.

But we missed some species that should have been easy to find, like a Great Horned Owl and a Purple Sandpiper. The sandpiper gave us our best laugh of the day.

As we looked for the bird from Cape May Point's Alexander Avenue jetty, another team we didn't know ran to the beach and, in a burst of frenetic activity, called a Purple Sandpiper on the Concrete Ship.

My team mates all looked at each other in astonishment. We realized the other team had mistaken a porthole in the side of the Concrete Ship for the species they had called Purple Sandpiper.

For the rest of the day, the joke amongst my team mates was "Did you see the Porthole Sandpiper?"

The Competition

Did we win? Hardly!

In our South of the Canal category, we finished fourth out of six teams. I'm not sure who won, but for us, the Cape Island Coyotes seem to be our nemesis.

We were either following them or vice versa.

Because teams are not supposed to share information on the day of the competition, the Coyotes developed a sign language rivaled only by third base coaches.

A touch to the nose, a pull of the ear or hat, and even clearing of the throat.

In the end, they kicked our butts big time, but we all look forward to crossing their paths next year.

We ended our marathon quest for birds at 8:30PM at the old Magnesite Plant, where the sunset over Delaware Bay was spectacular.

A Merlin chasing an Eastern Kingbird was our last "new" species of the day.

As we stood shoulder to shoulder (in silence) with the Coyotes looking out over Pond Creek Marsh, we were all struck by the beauty of the scenery. To add to the beauty, an otter rolled and splashed in the mucky water of the marsh.

During our outing, we had managed to see 118 different species of birds. We drove about 58 miles, and we used a hybrid car to conserve on fuel.

Most importantly, we had a great time.

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