Wednesday, May 18, 2011

World Series of Birding!

On Saturday, birders from across the country converged on the state of New Jersey for what is probably the largest and most famous birding competition in the world- the World Series of Birding. In this admittedly insane contest, teams, consisting of 3 to 7 admittedly insane individuals, compete to try to see or hear the most species in a 24-hour period- from midnight to midnight. There are many levels of competition, and the playing field can be anywhere from a 17 foot circle (the "Big Stay") to the entire state. This year I participated in the madness for the first time, as captain of The Vagrants, a team sponsored by the New York State Young Birders Club. Myself and my intrepid teammates, Lewis Lolya and Nathaniel Hernandez birded in just Cape May County, at the southern tip of New Jersey, leaving the whole state division to the Razorbills, our marginally more insane friends, also sponsored by the NYS Young Birders Club.

I left for Cape May on Friday morning, getting a ride from Carena Pooth (an adult leader of the club and one of our drivers for the big day). Already scouting for birds down there were two of our other drivers and adult coordinators, Herb Thompson and Mary Batcheller (who took all the photos in this post), and Nathaniel, who had good news- they had heard a Cape May Warbler at the campground we were staying at. Five minutes later, we were all at the spot, listening to the high-pitched monotone notes of the warbler's song. From there, Nathaniel heard a Bay-breasted Warbler singing, and within minutes we were looking at two male Bay-breasted Warblers, another very nice and unexpected bird.

Planning out our route

With the birds seen, we began to plan our route for the next day. Planning and scouting are critical to any successful big day, because time is short, and it is a lot easier to stop quickly at a series of locations, quickly refind a bird you had seen while scouting, and leave, than it is to try to find new birds and string together locations on the run. Using a vast amount of scouting info gathered by Nathaniel, Herb, and Mary, as well as some given to us by other teams, and some from online listservs and ebird, we managed to lay down a rough route and schedule- Start at midnight at Jakes Landing for rails and other marsh birds calling in the night, then to Belleplain for owls and nightjars, then to Tuckahoe for more marsh birds. At dawn we wanted to be a Belleplain again for breeding songbirds, and after a series of stops for stakeout birds, including meadowlark, we would head to the beaches on the bayshore for shorebirds. After that we would go to the southern tip of the county, Cape May Island itself, for migrants, waterfowl, and other good birds. From there, we would work our way up the Atlantic coast of the county, stopping at Nummy Island for shorebirds and herons, and then a few more stakeout spots before finishing the day tracking down whatever night birds we had missed.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron!
While we were doing that, Lewis arrived, and all of us ate some pizza before heading to bed for a quick nap before midnight came. While eating, two heron-like birds flew over. Their silhouettes were odd, and none of us could figure out what they were until they landed in a nearby tree- they were Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, another good bird.

After a brief rest, we woke up, packed the car, and departed on our mission- first stop, Jakes Landing. The World Series of Birding had begun!
The Vagrants (Nathaniel, Lewis, Eamon) prepare to set off

12:00 A.M., Jakes Landing- As our watches and phones switched from 11:59 to 12:00 we tallied our first bird- Willets, calling in the distance. Virginia Rail, Marsh Wren, and Seaside Sparrow quickly followed suit, each sounding off from across the dark marsh. A Canada Goose honked. We still needed at least one bird here, and finally a Clapper Rail called, a series of harsh, unmelodious keks. We had what we needed, and left with our checklist at 6 species. Caffeine consumption begins.

12:50 A.M., Belleplain- In the distance, but still very loud came the unmistakable whistled song of a Chuck-will's Widow. High-fives were exchanged. Soon we found more chucks, plus 3 Barred Owls hooting and a handful of Whip-poor-wills, also loudly whistling their songs. Spirits were high as we headed north.

~2:20 A.M., Tuckahoe- A Virginia Rail and a few Swamp Sparrows were vocalizing as we arrived, driving on a narrow dirt road past the ominous silhouettes of huge ships grounded at a marina, at Mosquito Landing in Tuckahoe. Even better was the Eastern Screech-Owl calling from the woods behind us. We were off to an excellent start. In the category of "birds that got away" was a mystery bird that flew unseen overhead, giving a chuckling call. It wasn't until 30 seconds later that I realized, "Wait, I bet that was a Least Bittern," but at that point it was impossible to be sure enough to count it. An adventurous detour on dirt roads through the center of the marsh was very fun, but did not net us any new birds.
A dark road in Tuckahoe- there was a Chuck-will's Widow calling very loudly here

~3:30 A.M., Jakes Landing- We decided to stop here again, because we had plenty of time before dawn. It was the last time the phrase "plenty of time" was used that day. A calling Great Horned Owl completed our sweep of all expected nocturnal birds, and made the stop very worthwhile.

5:00- 8:45 A.M., Belleplain- The dawn chorus at Belleplain was frustrating, and so was the lack of birds at many of our first few stops in the forest, but we eventually managed to nail down many of the necessary species- Yellow-throated Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Pine Warbler, Wood Thrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, both tanagers, and finally Kentucky Warbler. Annoyingly, almost all of the birds were not visible, but I did see my lifer Acadian Flycatcher, and Yellow-throated Warbler and Summer Tanager added some color. Both waterthrushes were tough misses, though, and we had wasted a lot of time to get the birds we needed. Other locations in Belleplain were more sucessful, and we ticked Spotted Sandpiper, Eastern Phoebe, Kingbird and Orchard Oriole. We left Belleplain almost an hour behind schedule, but with less holes in the checklist than we had feared at first.
Listening for Songbirds at Belleplain

9:00 A.M, Woodbine- We had a tip that a field in Woodbine, just outside of Belleplain, was a good spot for Eastern Meadowlark, so we went there next. It was extremely successful, and we quickly added many species, including Black Vulture, Prairie Warbler, Brown Thrasher, Indigo Bunting, Killdeer, and, yes, Meadowlark. While driving to our next stop, we found Bald Eagle and Blue Grosbeak by the side of the road, two more good birds, and the latter a lifer for me.

~9:45 A.M., Jakes Landing- A quick stop at Jakes Landing in daylight for harrier and Saltmarsh Sparrow got us the harrier but not the sparrow. Nice looks at singing Seaside Sparrows and Marsh Wren were had, which was cool too.

~10:10 A.M., Beaver Swamp- We searched unsuccessfully for White-faced Ibis, but this stop got us Wood Duck and Glossy Ibis. Now even further behind schedule, unfortunately.

~10:30 A.M., Goshen CMBO- Back at Belleplain, Lewis and Nathaniel had both seen a hummingbird zip by, but I missed it. According to World Series of Birding rules, only 5% of your total can be birds seen by less than the whole team, so we stopped at the Goshen Nature Center to try to find a hummer at the feeders there. We didn't. but we got something better- a Pine Siskin, an excellent bird, quite unusual in Cape May in Spring. House Finch and Chimney Swift were bonuses.

~11:00 A.M., Reeds Beach- This stop was intended to get us shorebirds, and it did. Feeding on the beach were thousands of Laughing Gulls, and interspersed and flying by were some very nice and colorful Red Knots, along with Sanderling, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone and Short-billed Dowitcher. On the way out, I spotted a Tricolored Heron, but the others couldn't get on it before it vanished into the distance, so the bird did not count for our list. We had all we needed at this stop by the time the no-see-ums chased us away.
A tiny fraction of the thousands of Laughing Gulls present

12:00 P.M., "Secret" Campground Location- We stopped at our campground to pick up some stuff and to see if any of the birds from the day before were still around. They were. We quickly heard Cape May Warbler in the exact same spot, and then heard and found Bay-breasted too. Perhaps even better was the fly-by night-heron that Lewis relocated in a tree- a Yellow-crowned, and our 100th bird of the day. Our 101st bird? Pigeon. It felt like the end of a long day, but in reality we were only half finished. It was shaping up to be a very tiring day, but we expected that, and our spirits were high after getting such good birds.

12:30 P.M., Higbee Beach- Now almost two hours behind schedule, we arrived at Higbee at around noon. It was pretty dead, because the winds had been terrible for migrants the night before. We got Field Sparrow and Yellow Warbler, but resigned ourselves to missing such common migrants as Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Michael Lolya, Lewis's father, met us here and brought sandwiches, the only real food we would eat all day- the rest was Dr. pepper (starting just after midnight), mountain dew (Starting at noon), wheat thins, twizzlers and double stuf oreos. On the way out, a Green Heron flew overhead.

~1:00 P.M., Cape May Point- A quick stop at the point brought us two new birds, both "least"- Least Sandpiper and Least Tern. Trying to make up time now, as we had to get to Nummy Island by 4 or so, so the tide would be in our favor. We cut out a few more planned stops on Cape Island.

~1:30 P.M., The Meadows- "The Meadows" was one stop we could not afford to cut, and it was very good that we didn't try. We nabbed Gadwall on the way out to the beach, and then, as we were climbing the dune, we had our most bizarre sighting of the day- a long-tailed bird flew by, and I thought "mockingbird," but we quickly realized that it was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, flying inland from out over the beach. Where it came from we have no idea, but it seems like it had to have been flying out over the water before turning inland- there were no trees or anything remotely like cuckoo habitat in the direction from which it came. While overlooking the beach, we got Piping Plover in its nest and a fly-by Black Skimmer, both key birds. Walking back along the end of the trail, we picked up a lot of new birds in quick succession- Savannah Sparrow foraging on the edge of the marsh, Bank Swallow buzzing by with a group of other swallows, Lesser Yellowlegs taking off and calling, a Wilson's Snipe flying overhead, and, best of all, a distance Common Moorhen walking slowly through the reeds. We found a bird in with a group of short-billed dowitchers that looked like a good candidate for long-billed, but opted not to count it, as we could not be certain. We left the Meadows with our list quite a bit higher, and headed towards Nummy Island, now more or less on schedule because of the skipped stops and short time spent at Higbee.
Cuckoo, Skimmer, and Piping Plover checked off, we pause for a photo with the Lighthouse

3:45 P.M., Wetlands Institute- We pulled up to this visitor center/museum, and quickly checked off the two "semipalmated" birds- plover and sandpiper. I also saw a Clapper Rail run across the marsh before disappearing, as is their habit to do. A tally of our list as we headed out came to 124, and we set a goal to try to get to at least 130 by the end of the day.

4:15 P.M., Nummy Island- We met my Dad here, and started scanning the extensive marsh, which was filled with birds, for ones we had not already seen, while pondering how a large suit of armor found itself perched on a hill across the marsh from us. Other teams found it too during scouting- this is what it looked like from where we were. Odd, right? If not for the fact that I had already seen that photo, I would have assumed I was hallucinating from lack of sleep. Brant, Black-bellied Plover, and Whimbrel were the first new birds we added. A Little Blue Heron flew by, our 128th bird. Then another team shouted "Black-crowned Night-Heron," and we simply looked in the direction they were looking- totally not cheating, it was their fault for being so loud (Thanks Chippers!). I then spotted a more distant Night-Heron without any inadvertent assistance from other teams, if the legitimacy of the previous bird was questioned. When a pair of Peregrine Falcons flew by a few seconds later, we were rather quiet about it, but inwardly we celebrated our 130th species of the day. A quick scan yielded another Clapper Rail and a Tricolored Heron that everyone saw, another new bird. Possibilities for new birds exhausted, and rather exhausted ourselves, we departed from Nummy Island with a new goal of 135 species.

~5:20 P.M., Random Parking Lot- We now had an extra car, so we left one in a parking lot. While a few people were in the bathroom, Nathaniel, Lewis, and I decided to scan the ocean for gannets, and were quickly successful, finding at least 5 of the large seabirds.

~6:00 P.M., East Shore Nursing Home- A stakeout spot for Cattle Egret, but we couldn't find any.

~6:30 P.M., Tamerlane Campgrounds- Another stakeout, this time for Red-headed Woodpecker. Similarly unsucessful. We were running out of daylight and new birds to shoot for.
Seaducks were seen at Sea Isle

~7:00 P.M., Sea Isle City- A mixed flock of seaducks held Common Eider, Surf Scoter, and Black Scoter, the former two new birds for the day. A peregrine was fun to watch overhead, both hanging suspended in the wind, and then turning around and rocketing down the beach with the wind at its back. The surf was too rough to get Purple Sandpiper on the jetty. Light was fading, and there was a light rain. "Tired" or even "Exhausted" would be an understatement at this point. No chance for any new day birds, and our total stood at 134. We were going to try for night birds, but we didn't have high hopes- the only ones that we hadn't heard the night before were the extremely elusive Black Rail and Least Bittern.
Peregrine overhead

~9:00P.M., Tuckahoe- We were falling asleep on our feet, quite literally beginning to hallucinate birds, and with the wind and rain the rail and bittern seemed impossible, so we decided to call it a day and head to the finish line. Our last bird was a Virginia Rail calling in the distance.
Barely awake- notice the vacant stares.

12:00 A.M., Finish Line- Our final total was 134 species, which was quite good for a day with very few migrants. For comparative purposes, we were 2nd out of the four youth teams that did Cape May County (The team that beat us were the Chippers, whose night-heron we "stole" at Nummy Island), and 6th out of the the 13 total teams that did Cape May, including the very competitive adult teams. The winning team in Cape May was the Cornell Redheads, who found 163 species. The Razorbills found 193 species, taking home the gold in the Youth division, and putting them third overall, an excellent showing for a youth team. The overall competitive was won by the Lagerhead Shrikes, who found 221 species across the state to win the coveted Urner Stone Cup.The Siskin that we found was the first to be reported by any team in the state, which was cool.
The Finish Line, obviously
Looking over the list, a few things are very clear. First, we saw a lot of birds, and there were quite a few really good ones- owls, Chuck-will's Widow, Siskin, Cape May and Bay-breasted Warblers, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and many more. Secondly, and perhaps even more obvious are our misses- warblers feature prominently, particularly Magnolia, Parula, Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped (!), both Black-throated warblers, and the waterthrushes. Woodpeckers are practically nonexistent on the checklist- we missed Hairy, Sapsucker, and even Flicker. Perhaps worst of all was the fact that we did not see a single Red-tailed Hawk all day (well, actually, flicker might be worse. But still...). Even so, everyone misses some birds, and we were definitely happy with our final tally. At least we finally found that pigeon- now that would have been an embarrassing miss.
Looking over the list

All in all, it was a awesome, really fun day. We saw a lot of great birds, and came us with a respectable total for our first year competing. Just wait until next year...