• WEATHER ALERT Severe Thunderstorm Watch

Bird-watchers flock in N.J.

May 19, 2009 8:07:57 AM PDT
Dawn breaks over the northwestern corner of New Jersey as birdsong punctuates the air. The quiet is broken by the rumbling of a car engine, and suddenly, the Sapsuckers are on the scene.

The six members of the competitive birdwatching team jump out of the car and get into position, hands cupped around ears and binoculars at the ready. They only have moments to catalogue all the bird species they can see or hear.

Then, as abruptly as they showed up, they're back in the car. Off they go, zooming through the narrow, curved roads at breakneck speed. They reach their next stop and make shushing gestures at another driver whose car engine is still on. They watch and listen for a moment; then, they're off again.

At the New Jersey Audubon Society's annual "World Series of Birding," it's not about quality time spent observing the feathered flock. It's all about quantity - how many bird species can you identify in 24 hours?

"It's not 'sit down with the bird,"' said Andrew Farnsworth, a member of the Sapsuckers, all of whom hail from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. "There's basically time to understand what it is and move on."

The annual fundraising event held earlier this month brings out the competitive instinct in birdwatchers, not ordinarily a group that comes to mind when one is thinking of a competition.

Participants, either individuals or teams, have 24 hours from midnight Friday to scour the geographic area of their choosing for bird species. Some choose a specific county or choose to remain in a single location. Some, like the Sapsuckers, choose to traverse the entire state. Some compete without using any kind of motorized vehicle to get around; others compete to see how many species can actually be photographed. There are youth divisions, as well as a division for seniors.

While primarily a fundraiser for conservation causes, the event turns birdwatchers into strategists mapping out campaigns with down-to-the-minute precision.

"If you want to see and hear a lot of birds on a single day, there's no better way to do it than something like this," Farnsworth said.

Like other teams, the members of the Sapsuckers spent the week prior to the May 9 event scouting out the state, some in North Jersey and some in South Jersey, getting a handle on which birds were where and whether they could be found on the big day. They were on a mission to reclaim their title: After winning two years in a row, they lost last year to a team from the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

"We're very motivated. We want the trophy back," Farnsworth said in an interview a few days before the event. (Team members didn't want to be interviewed on the day of the competition to avoid distraction.)

The scouting is invaluable, he said.

"Basically, it means the difference between spending 10 minutes at a spot for a particular bird as opposed to knowing exactly where that bird's territory is," he said. "It makes a tremendous difference. It saves time everywhere."

Team members visit multiple sites over multiple days and at different times, to see what the birds are doing and under what conditions.

"The challenge is figuring out what's the easiest way to see it on the big day," said Chris Wood, captain of the Sapsuckers team. He said the vast majority of species could be found in the same places year after year, and what made the difference was their ability to spot the 20 to 40 species that changed.

By the start of competition, a route has been planned, one that hopefully will result in the most birds over the shortest distance. The challenge relies on the honor system in counting the number of birds spotted.

"There's a level of pride in winning this thing," Farnsworth said. "It's a challenge both because of the skill level but also simply being able to put together the most appealing route and stick to it."

And the abilities they need on the big day can be useful in their regular birding lives, said Sapsucker member Jessie Barry.

"It's an opportunity to really test your skills," she said. "You put together a combination of being able to find birds based on habitat and time of year and where you expect them to be, and also your ability just to spot birds throughout the day. If you're driving 60 miles an hour and you can pick out a Merlin or Peregrine falcon, that takes some skill to be able to identify it."

Wood said the team would be disappointed with a day that had them seeing fewer than 220 species. By the end of the competition, the Sapsuckers just beat that, coming in with 221 species in a stretch that took them from the woods of northwest New Jersey to overlooking Manhattan from Liberty State Park in Jersey City to the state's southernmost point in Cape May.

Unfortunately for them, it wasn't enough. They were foiled once again by their nemeses at the Delaware Valley club, who came in with 229.

Follow Action News on Twitter

Get Action News on your website

Follow Action News on Facebook

Click here to get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys.


Load Comments