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In the age of social distancing, the World Series of Birding adapts

World Series of Birding
A young birder runs to catch up with teammates during a past World Series of Birding. This year, teams will follow social distancing guidelines. Photo courtesy New Jersey Audubon

Birding festivals, tours, and organized bird walks may be on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the World Series of Birding will go on, albeit modified significantly to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

For the last 36 years, the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Big Day competition and fundraiser for conservation involved teams of birders searching for birds within the borders of the Garden State for exactly 24 hours. This year’s event, using the theme “Stop the Spread of Covid-19,” has all-new rules. Birders in 18 eastern states and the District of Columbia are invited to participate. Teams that otherwise would have gathered in New Jersey will bird separately from their home patches. And participants may not explore more than 10 miles from their homes. This World Series of Birding “Special Edition” is slated for Saturday, May 9, from midnight to midnight.

Birdwatchers in Washington, D.C., and the following states are eligible: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

One of the key requirements of a traditional World Series of Birding was that team members would stay together within speaking distance of one another. This year, team members are expected to follow their state or locality’s social-distancing guidelines, meaning most team members will bird individually or only with family members and will keep in touch by phone.

In the past, an important rule required that all team members witness and identify at least 95 percent of the species on their checklist. Birds in the remaining 5 percent had to be identified by at least two team members or they would not be counted. This year, the 95% Rule will only apply to the Level I Big Stay teams. Level I refers to teams in the Bird Conservation Challenge category. (The World Series of Birding has teams compete at three levels, which are explained further below.)

A “Big Stay” is a lot like a hawk watch or a sea watch because birders remain in just one place – but are looking for much more than hawks and seabirds. The object of the Big Stay is to tally as many bird species as a team can see or hear in a single day from a single outdoor location defined as a 50-foot diameter circle, up from 17 feet in the past. The increased circle size may not affect the number of species counted, but it allows for more team members practicing social distancing. Big Stay teams are asked to consider social distancing when determining the number of members of a team.


Relying on the honor system

In all categories and levels, team members will have to scrutinize one another’s species calls. The World Series of Birding has always relied on the honor system, and that will be the case in 2020 as well.

What differentiates the World Series of Birding from all other Big Day competitions is that teams can raise money for the conservation cause of their choice. After paying a nominal entry fee, nonprofit organizations can create their own donation portals using their WSB Team Page as a tried-and-true fundraising platform. Several New Jersey-based environmental organizations have built large followings for their WSB teams over the years, raising anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 annually. Now, conservation organizations throughout the eastern states can do the same at a time when additional financial resources are more important than ever.

The team known as the Fightin’ Femelschlagers birds in a forest while one member uses her phone to add species to her team’s checklist. Photo courtesy New Jersey Audubon

New Jersey Audubon has been able to adapt this year’s event to the current health crisis so quickly because a few years ago, it invested in a custom smartphone application, which teams use during the competition to track their sightings. The checklist embedded in the app is based on New Jersey bird species at the peak of spring migration, but it allows for write-ins with some documentation. This year, all teams, whether in New Jersey or not, will need to use the app. Behind the scenes, a team of judges will accept or reject individual rarities. For example, a Limpkin in Florida will be accepted quickly. In Maine, probably not. The app is not available from an app store or anywhere on the Internet. Once a team registers, its captain will receive an email with a link to the app that must be opened on only one team member’s phone.

There are many ways to play, all found at Or you can find the complete set of rules in this PDF.

So, if you want to have fun and raise money for your local nature center, college or university, bird club, native plant group, or New Jersey Audubon, then register in the Level I: Bird Conservation Challenge. Pick a category and form a team of people within the boundaries of your home state. If you want to be a part of this storied event and just have fun, without competing against other teams, then build a team of friends and relatives from all over the Atlantic Flyway as a Level II: New Jersey Audubon Ambassador team. You’ll raise money for NJA’s education, conservation, and research efforts. Young birders in grades 1 through 12 may form or join teams within their state boundaries in the Level III: Zeiss Youth Birding Challenge category. This includes young individual birders, friend groups, as well as teams from scout troops, youth groups, environmental clubs, science clubs, or other organizations. Youth teams compete in different age divisions or in a Carbon Free Kids Challenge.


Remember, the only thing that’s virtual about this event is the communication within the team and the virtual awards brunch to be held afterward. (Details are in the works.) Instead of being face to face, you will likely be phone to phone.

Most important, New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding “Special Edition” remains real people looking at real birds raising real money for conservation. Let’s do this!

If you can’t join a team but want to support the World Series of Birding, go to the website, click “Donate” in the top menu, and then click on one of the tabs in the middle of the page. If you have questions about the World Series of Birding, send them to [email protected].

Read more

Pete Dunne’s blueprint for a Big Day


Reflections on the 40th anniversary of the Cape May Point Hawk Watch

The Cape May mystique

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Lillian B. Armstrong

Lillian B. Armstrong is the Special Events Director for New Jersey Audubon and the Cape May Bird Observatory.

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