Every year in mid-May, the state of New Jersey plays host to a competition unlike any other, the World Series of Birding. The World Series of Birding is a 24 hour competition epic quest to identify as many different birds species as possible throughout the entire state of New Jersey. Dozens of teams (typically with about 5 members), form and compete against each other in a secretive, caffeine fueled marathon. It is “Raw Primitive Birding” as my American Birding Association team T-shirt put it or “Commando Birding” as my mother aptly describes it. The rules are simple: everyone on your team must see a bird in order for it to count, do not use man made devices to attract the birds, only wild birds may be counted, and you may not leave the state of New Jersey. I did WSB back in 2010, and was on a youth team (which was separate from the adult teams) that managed to finish 2nd to last in our division, despite spotting over 140 different species.
When the day of the competition rolled around, we left for our first stop around 10:00, and waited in the car til midnight, when the competition officially started, and the massive hail storm we had endured rolled over. Once the clock struck midnight, we left the car and began listening for owls. It was incredibly surreal, as we were out in the middle of the woods, it was dead silent, and you could hear an owl call from a mile away. From 12-5 a.m. we spent our time going from site to site listening for owls and rails. About 4 a.m. I recall hitting that first wall, as it was dead quiet, dark and early in the morning, and I had to devote every ounce of my strength to simply staying awake. Around 6 a.m. we headed to Jake’s Landing (possibly my favorite birding spot in Cape May) and it was like a switch had been thrown, as the birds (and myself) came to life. Rails and Meadowlarks called from the Marsh, and Warblers and other song birds called from the tall pines behind us, and it seemed like every other minute we were checking a new species off our list. At around 7 a.m. we headed to Belleplain forest, where we added maybe a dozen species of warbler to our list, and took in the cool quiet scenery of the pines. Around 11 a.m. I hit the second wall, and may have dozed off for a minute or two in the car between stops, as the morning activity ceased and we headed to the coast to look for shorebirds (which are active in the middle of the day). Throughout the rest of the day, we bounced from location to location looking for species that we might have missed. By 3 pm the birding slowed to a crawl, as most of the birds we saw were already on our list. We ended our day at Midnight with over 140 birds. For comparison, the overall winner had over 200.
This trip provided many memorable moments for me, and I’m sure I’ll never forget it, but for me, the most memorable part of the trip actually occurred before the big day even started. During our time of preparatory location scouting, we spotted a Bar Tailed Godwit, which is a shorebird that breeds exclusively in Western Alaska, but had somehow wandered thousands of miles to Southern NJ. We saw many elusive and exciting birds during our trip, but none where anywhere near as rare as this one. This bird had been seen a handful of times in the history of NJ, and I will likely never see it again. This sighting will no doubt be one of the crazy stories I tell my grandkids a dozen times when I get older, and though they probably won’t be able to care less about it, it will still be as wonderful to me then, as it is now.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself “Why in the world would someone spend 24 hours straight running across the state of New Jersey looking at Birds?”. That is a valid question, but before you ask it, ask yourself why do some people spend their whole lives training to be able to run a ball across a field and get tackled by 300+ lb gorillas also know as linemen. Think of the time you’ve devoted to your hobbies, whether they be sports, music, making animal statues out of bubble gum, or whatever else you enjoy doing. Think of the hours you’ve spent at games, concerts or conventions, and think of the hours you’ve spent honing your craft. For me, the reason I did WSB is simple I love bird watching, and wanted to get better at it, and prove that I’m one of the best. I did WSB for the same reason I had 6 hour football practice in the 95 degree heat, and games in the 30 degree chill, because I loved doing it, and wanted to have a chance to do it at the next level. The truth is, if you really love something, you’ll be willing to suffer to get better at it, and I’m sure that if your favorite hobby had a similar competition, you’d jump at the chance to go.
Would I recommend that the average reader try World Series? Unless you can distinguish bird species with only a fleeting glance, no. If however you can tell the difference between Greater and Lesser Scaup, can tell the Empidonax Flycatcher apart by their calls, and can identify Ospreys at over a mile away, then WSB may be for you. For those of you living in the Southwest, Texas also offers a similar event (the Great Texas Birding Classic) that runs from April 15-May 15. WSB is not for the faint of heart (Seriously, if you have a heart condition please don’t try it), but normal birding is. During World Series, birders may be competitive, secretive, and twitchy from too much caffeine, but normally they’re calm, friendly and willing to share their findings with you. So this May, I wouldn’t encourage you to do WSB, but I would encourage you to buy a field guide, and a pair of binoculars, and go out to your local wild-life preserve and check out the birds, and maybe just maybe if you work at it long enough, you might just get good (and crazy) enough to participate in WSB.