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This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Lovely, Lively Insanity on a Bright May Day
Right now, they are scanning the skies. Squinting through
huge 85 mm lenses, they spot and record familiar profiles, logging
and reporting each sighting back to team headquarters. They are scouting
for B-Day, coming all too soon on midnight, Saturday, May 10.
For the elite, Level 1 experts, it is beyond passion. Not more than
500 people in the world can play in their league. For the rest, less
skilled but equally ardent, it is all part of a lovely little insanity
called the "World Series of Birding." As the clock strikes
12 this Friday night, over 70 teams and a host of individual entrants
will begin prowling the Garden State with ears and eyes searching
for anything avian. The game is simple: find the most individual bird
species in a 24-hour period, and cross the Cape May finish line with
your findings. The goal: raise as much money and publicity as possible
for conservation efforts in our region and beyond.
Founded by Cape May Observatory director Pete Dunne, this year marks
the World Series of Birding’s 20th anniversary. Since 1984 both the
goals and game have expanded beyond all expectations. More than $8
million has been raised for the sponsoring New Jersey Audubon Society
and other earmarked conservation groups. Dunne estimates another $600,000
will be donated this year.
The game itself has grown globally. This year its 400
participants will include many of the world’s most renowned, knowledgeable,
and eagle-eyed sighters. There are 71 registered competitive teams
taking on the mantle of Level 1. Sponsored by a corporation or conservation
group, teams pay a $100 per person entry fee. Additionally, the team
backers pledge either a flat fee or a per-bird-sighted amount that
is granted to the team’s selected beneficiary — ranging from a
bird club to Brazilian rain forest saviors. (Those interested in pledging
or participating can call 609-884-2736 or view www.NJAudubon.org
to join this year’s effort.)
Competitors can count on nature to be fickel. A few years back, the
birders encountered a startling warm weather system. The result, says
Dunne, "was a deluge of migrating birds that had no place to go
but down" and a record count. In 2002 a team sponsored by Cornell’s
ornithology lab took top honors with 224 species recorded in 24 hours.
Yet the motto of this World Series is definitely enthusiasm over expertise.
Almost everyone can find a category for themselves. Level 2 is for
non-competitive teams and individuals, with separate divisions for
youth and seniors. And if you think running all over the state in
a single day is for the birds, you can join The Big Sit: plunk yourself
down in a favorite spot and compete by listing all the birds seen
from your haunches. (Big Sit winners have been known to spot 100 species.)
You even can compete just within the bounds of Cape May County. In
fact, birders requiring an even more exhaustive workout can compete
against the Pedal Power Team that covers all Cape May, sighting by
This year Dunne’s team holds high hopes of recapturing the crown.
Moving from north to south (he won’t reveal his route), the team expects
to cover over 600 miles and make at least a dozen stops.
"New Jersey holds so many varied habitats and so many migration
corridors, that you must cover everywhere," says Dunne in a phone
interview from Cape May. "Over 400 species, two-thirds of North
America’s birds, cross our state at some point in the year."
The competition is raptor fierce. Of the nearly 300 species in the
Garden State on May 10, the teams are expected to find 280 collectively.
The winning team must score well over 220 species.
Dunne, dubbed the "Bard of America’s Bird-Watchers" by the
Wall Street Journal for his wisdom and wit, is the author of nine
books on birding, as well as columns in Living Bird, Wild Bird News,
the New Jersey section of the Sunday New York Times, and Birder’s
World, among others. In March he published a new user-friendly paperback
guide, "Pete Dunne on Birdwatching" (Houghton Mifflin). In
April, he published "Golden Wings: And Other Stories about Birders
and Birding" (University of Texas Press), a collection of 40 recent
essays. Dunne describes in one his imagined Perfect Bird: "The
Perfect Bird is the size of a turkey, has the wingspan of an eagle,
the legs of a crane, the feet of a moorhen, and the talons of a
great horned owl. It eats kudzu, surplus zucchini, feral cats,
and has been known to predate upon homeowners who fire up their lawn
mowers before 7 a.m. on the weekend."
Joining Dunne on his 2003 World Series Team is Tuscon-based Will Russel,
who directs Wings Tour Company and has been labeled the nation’s finest
birder, and Don Freiday, director of Sherman Hoffman Sanctuary in
Bernardsville. Chris Vogel, who has spent years procuring species
for the American Natural History Museum, rounds out the crew.
All the teams have spent countless hours scouting various regions
of the state, listing what birds can be sighted where, beginning at
the stroke of midnight. "In the dark of midnight, you listen for
nocturnal calls — the great cheeked thrush and the black billed
cuckoo," says Dunne. Hopefully you get 25 species by dawn. With
daylight comes the rush. One hundred species can be scooped up by
8 a.m. if you are good and the birds wake in the expected setting.
Everything is honed down to 5 to 10 minute brackets, explains Dunne,
who may zip over to Florence to lay eyes on the various gulls hovering
over the Trenton dumps.
Between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. comes another rush, with the listmeister
recording another 40 species.
In this World Series, the athletic stamina required must be matched
by birding skills and encyclopedic knowledge. And it shatters the
stereotype of birders as frail or nerdy. In fact, for Dunne, birding
began as "a great way to get away from parental supervision."
In the back woods of his home in Whippany, he would escape to his
tree fort and watch birds with his gang of kids.
Sooner or later, everything in America falls prey to
serious competition. Garden State birding’s competitive flames were
first fanned back in the l920s by two rivals, Charles Urner, a Wall
Street executive from Elizabeth, and Ludlow Griscolm, proud bearer
of the title Dean of American Birders.
As much to satisfy their mutual rivalry as anything else, these two
and some others fostered "The Big Day." Participants covered
New Jersey, as best as roads allowed, with the first winner sighting
172 species. The event was refined and emulated over the years, when,
in l970, Canada’s Long Point Observatory hit upon the idea of turning
their bird sighting day into a fund raiser. A concept not lost on
the young Dunne.
In l983, Dunne, then a veteran hawk bander for the Cape May Observatory,
approached his boss with the idea for a birding world series. His
boss responded that it was a stupid idea, but if he could sanctify
the contest with some big name like Roger Tory Peterson, author of
America’s best-selling bird guides since l934, he would permit Dunne
"So in fear and trembling," recalls Dunne, " I called
`His Birdship’ on the phone and explained my idea. Peterson paused,
then slowly replied, `Whose team can I be on?’ He was in his mid-70s."
But old age and cunning won through that initial World Series on May
19, l984, when 13 teams lined up for this first fray. Smugly, the
Bird Watchers Digest team: Pete and Linda Dunne, Peterson, David Allen
Sibley (future author of the famed "Sibley Guide to Birds"),
Bill Boyle, and Peter Bacinski of the Sandy Hook Observatory all piled
into their Mercedes 300 SD selected for them by "Car & Driver"
Magazine. They roamed the Great Swamp, Princeton’s Institute woods,
Assunpink, Brigantine, oceans and Appalachians. And at midnight, they
victoriously breasted the tape with an astounding, record-setting
201 species. Today, though the records have been nudged higher, the
contending spirit of fun and frenzy endures.
— Bart Jackson
World Series of Birding, New Jersey Audubon Society, Cape
May Bird Observatory, 609-884-2736. The 20th Annual World Series is
the conservation organization’s biggest annual fundraiser with sponsors
pledging a dollar amount for each species recorded. Saturday, May
to Cape May shores, an hour from the finish line, with several high-mountain
hawks not sighted. No chance of spotting them down here. Why not just
pencil them in? Who’s going to know?
Amazingly, your competitors will. Judges and players know each area
and what birds can be found there that day. World Series rules allow
a team to claim only one bird not corroborated by another team. This
ruling may seem a bit harsh, but experience has borne it out in this
very close race. In the four years Canada’s Kowa Optimed team claimed
top honors, they have only once listed one non-corroborated bird.
"But the real truth is," Dunne notes shaking his head, "birders
are disgustingly honest."
Strong is the chorus of cynics who bemoanedly raise the death knell
of America’s rugged individualism. Yet Cape May at midnight will bear
witness to rag tag clusters of exhausted outdoors men and women straggling
across the finish line. They have come partly for fun and fervor,
but equally to fight for a natural heritage they have grown to love.
This breed is not extinct, or even endangered. It just needs to be
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