On Saturday, May 9th, three of my fellow students and I participated in the World Series of Birding. If you're not familiar with the event, it is a race across the state of New Jersey to see or hear as many birds as you can within 24 hours (from midnight to midnight). The event raises a huge amount of money for conservation, whether it is for the Audubon Society or for another worthy cause. We decided to raise money for our graduate student association, the EcoGSA (Ecology & Evolution Graduate Student Association). The EcoGSA provides students with valuable opportunities to present seminars and assists them monetarily so that they are able to attend conferences and put together research projects. Students also help maintain valuable habitat around the state.
To find out more about our WSB team, The Scarlet Knight-Herons, check out our blog at http://knightherons.blogspot.com. The most recent post is an in-depth rundown of the route we took during the event and includes many of the birds we saw along the way.
Here I want to talk a little bit more about the personal experience I had while participating in the World Series of Birding. A cynic might say that the event isn't birding at all, and that it's really just identifying birds as quickly as you can and moving along. Well, on the surface that's probably true. We've already discussed tightening up our route next year so we can see more birds in less time. And it was tough to run away from a singing Golden-Winged Warbler that we couldn't get a look at, or ignore a gargantuan pod of dolphins at Cape May Point (I'm aware dolphins aren't birds but it's still pretty damn cool seeing so many of them so close to shore). We heard some fantastic birds that I've never even seen before, like Cerulean Warbler and Cape May Warbler. Thanks to some birding CDs I'm able to identify them by song, but it felt odd to hoof it back to the car without even trying to catch a glimpse.
If you delve a little bit deeper, though, I think you can get much more out of the event. For one thing, some of the settings you find yourself in are pretty incredible. Sitting at Jake's Landing at 10 p.m. while waiting (and failing) to hear Black Rail, we were surrounded by Clapper Rails and Marsh Wrens vocalizing wildly. In the distance we heard Common Nighthawk, Chuck-Will's-Widow, and Whip-Poor-Will. About 17 hours earlier we stood on the top of Vesper Hill, just as some light was starting to materialize in the haze of early morning, and were hit with a wall of bird song. It was truly an awesome experience. You could pick out individual birds - a wood thrush over there, a cardinal over here - but your senses were almost overwhelmed with how many birds were singing all at once. Later in the day while driving down the Parkway, I could still hear that intense dawn chorus repeating in my head.
While you may not get to appreciate some of the birds in the way that you would like to, seriously competing in this event brings you to the best spots in the state (and even in the country) to see birds. We had a Merlin fly right over our heads only minutes before finding a Least Bittern at Brigantine's Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. At Cape May Point we observed two Parasitic Jaegers in The Rips, drove for two minutes to the Meadows, and saw both Tri-Colored Heron and Little Blue Heron. In the north we ended up standing in the road observing a swarm of migrating warblers flying overhead, often landing in trees long enough for us to do our thing. We pushed through the forest, collecting ticks and spiders, and were rewarded with a calling Barred Owl. A serious week of birding probably won't produce some of the things you'll see and hear during the WSB.
On a broader scale, it shows us just how many species of birds there really are in this relatively small and densely populated state. The fact that 269 species of birds were seen the day of the event is really spectacular. Most people (non-birders) I talk to about the event don't believe me when I tell them that I saw and/or heard 178 species on Saturday. There can't be that many different species in New Jersey, can there?
The World Series of Birding is certainly a novel approach to the activity, whether one considers it "birding" or not. It's a different way to step into the natural world, to be in awe of the pure numbers of birds out there, and to immerse yourself in the variety of habitats New Jersey offers to try and find them. The WSB is also a powerful tool for raising both awareness and money for conservation, so please help spread the word when next spring rolls around!
I want to thank everyone who supported us and donated to the EcoGSA. Thanks to River Horse Brewery for their unofficial sponsorship of free beer and t-shirts, and thanks to the birding community as a whole for helping to scout out the state and raise awareness for various conservation efforts. Thanks to Tom Reed and family for giving us a place to sleep when we needed it so desperately. And thanks most importantly to my teammates: Charlie Kontos, David LaPuma, and team captain Brian Clough. Whether we were keeping each other sane or embracing the delirium that comes with 40 straight hours without sleep, we were having a blast. Can't wait until next year!