Anyone involved in the World Series of Birding agrees: It sure is an exhilarating way to spend 24 hours.
Just imagine, at the stroke of midnight, joining your friends in a New Jersey marsh, or field, or beach, or wherever, to begin an all-night, all-day journey to see or hear as many bird species as possible within the 8,732 square miles of New Jersey.
This treasure hunt of sorts, which serves as a key fundraiser for New Jersey Audubon, happens every year in early May, rain or shine. (In 2018, it’s slated for May 12.) That’s when the last of the wintering birds are still here, and when new migrating and breeding birds arrive. Together, they create a spectacular and eclectic collection of birds originating from as far north as the arctic tundra and as far south as Tierra Del Fuego. For this one moment, they are all converging in New Jersey.
“If you like birds, this is an incredible moment and plenty of fun,” said Pete Dunne, ambassador of birding for New Jersey Audubon, who launched the World Series of Birding in 1984 with 13 teams. “This is the first competitive birding event in the United States.”
It is easy to join the competition; no experience necessary. The World Series of Birding is open to anyone, at any age or skill level. Participants can join contest categories that would prompt them to travel up to 300 miles around the state in 24 hours.
Or, for a completely different experience, participants can join categories in which they are restricted to a county, or even within a 17-foot circle. You can be part of a car full of fellow birders, out on your own, or with others on bikes, on foot, or by boat.
Really, it is up to you. But there are obvious and non-bending rules. For example, only birds found in New Jersey can be counted. And don’t concoct a story that you heard or saw a certain bird species. The judges know their stuff, and will immediately delete your suspicious entry.
“You don’t have to prove you saw a certain bird,” Dunne said. “Everyone tells the truth. A birder’s word is his bond. We are disgustingly honest people.”
There are now about 85 teams who compete annually in the World Series of Birding. There is a nominal fee to register, and the proceeds have raised more than $200,000 for New Jersey Audubon. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are also raised by conservation organizations that field a team and pay the entry fee, after which they can keep their donations.
How it all started
The World Series of Birding, in its 35th year, has evolved from a birding tradition that began in the 1920s, known as the Big Day. The Big Day gave birders 24 hours to identify as many birds as possible within a certain geographical area.
Fast forward to 1983. Dunne, a prolific author and contributing editor to BirdWatching magazine, recalls having beers with fellow birders at the C-view Inn on Washington Street in Cape May, following their own “Big Day” to identify 200 species within 24 hours. They fell three birds short.
“Peering deep into the suds, it occurred to us that maybe what we need to get over the top with a little competition,” Dunne said. “So there you have it. The inspiration of the World Series of Birding was failure in falling three birds short.”
The first 13 teams that took part in 1984 were thrilled. “They could hardly wait to do it again,” Dunne recalled. “They went off into the birding community like apostles spreading the word.”
In 1985, New Jersey Audubon got a big break when a Wall Street Journal reporter followed Dunne’s team and published a front-page story on the event. Even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart covered the event in 2000, with then-correspondent Steve Carell going along for the ride.
Over the years, many birding teams have tried to hit the coveted 200 number. Dunne said the standing record for the World Series of Birding is 232 species, courtesy of the Kowa Birding Team of Canada, which participated in similar competitions across America. Last year, there were a total of 266 species identified by all participating teams.
Preparation is key
As the clock is ticking, it is important that birders identify a new bird species every five or 10 minutes. Dunne strongly recommends that participants map out their route in the days preceding May 12, ensuring they have the ability to see and hear as many birds as possible during the 24-hour competition.
The vast majority of participants do not compete in the frenzied 300-mile statewide trek that culminates in Cape May Point State Park, notes Lillian Armstrong, special events director for New Jersey Audubon. Many join local county competitions, in which a “par” is set for the number of bird species they need to identify over the 24 hours. The par varies per county, based on the diversity of birds potentially existing at the local level.
Great local spots are the Cape May Bird Observatory, Cape May Point State Park, or the New Jersey Audubon Hoffman Sanctuary in Bernardsville, or Sandy Hook, Armstrong noted. There is also a separate competition for children, from grades 1-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12. For a full list of competitions, and for further information visit http://worldseriesofbirding.org/.
“You don’t have to be an expert,” Dunne said. “Just join us. Anyone can identify a crow, or a Blue Jay, or a duck. It is just about having fun.”
Pete Bacinski, another veteran of the World Series of Birding, is proud to note he has been with New Jersey Audubon for 48 years; 23 years as a staff member, 25 years as a volunteer. For Bacinski, the World Series of Birding brings everlasting memories, while raising money for a terrific cause.
“The challenge is near and dear, designing a route, playing beat the clock, finding the maximum amount of birds within a territory, and being with my friends,” Bacinski said. “It’s the greatest thing. If you enjoy birds and you like a challenge, this is event is for you.”
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