World Series of Birding 2008


5/10/08.  The World Series of Birding.  The ultimate competitive event in birding.  The greatest test, when the best of the best meet on a level playing ground to fight to the end, to pit one’s wits and skills against those of all others, to push to the edge of collapse and beyond …

… well, sometimes.  As contradictory as it may sound, birding can be a competitive event, fierce rivalries do develop, teams exhaust themselves chasing after birds for a full 24 hours – and (for many) for a full week or two scouting for the big day.  And shades of the National Football League scandal known as “spygate,” there are teams suspected of stretching the rules in their favor.  Many teams, many people take this event very, very seriously.

I know.  I’ve been there.  Twice I’ve stood on the podium as part of a victorious team.  Twice I’ve sat quietly, grumbling to myself, while others walked away with a trophy I felt I deserved.  Been there, done that.  The first is rewarding but exhausting.  The second is frustrating but exhausting.  Neither sounded appealing this year.

The World Series of Birding, at its heart, is a friendly competition and, most importantly, a fundraiser for conservation.  Last year I didn’t even compete formally, instead heading afield on a solo bird-finding excursion.  This year I formed a team again, but our objectives were fun, nostalgia, fundraising, and sanity.  I dare say we succeeded on all counts.

Mark Swick & Darryl Speicher “hang loose” while birding in the middle of the night somewhere in Cape May Co.

The story began late last summer, when Darryl Speicher and his family came from their home in the Pocono Mountains to Cape May for a short vacation.  Darryl, Jackie and I did some birding, and I started talking about the World Series of Birding.  Darryl was intrigued.  He and I had worked together at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary twenty years ago, and during that time we did several fundraising “birdathons” for ANS.  The most memorable were with Mark Swick, another co-worker.  “Wouldn’t it be a blast,” said Darryl, “if the three of us could get together and do the World Series.”

We agreed, and we started to pester Mark, who now lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.  “I don’t really do that much birding any more,” Mark protested, “and that’s a real busy time of year for me.”  He couldn’t resist the onslaught of arm-twisting, however, and the team was set, and a name selected.  We’d be the “ANS Flashbacks.”   We’d compete in the Cape May County competition.

I didn’t honestly expect to win.  Winning teams spend over a week scouring the countryside, scouting out the nests of secretive birds, planning out a minute-by-minute route, stockpiling sandwiches and caffeinated beverages.  We were all too busy to scout, and we agreed to turn the 24-hour marathon into a 21-hour effort, quitting at 9 pm on Saturday night to ensure at least one decent night’s sleep over the weekend.  We all had busy weeks at work coming up.  We did set a goal for ourselves – we wanted to find 150 species.

American Oystercatchers near Wildwood Crest.

On Thursday night Darryl drove down to Mark’s place and the two came down to Cape May together.  We rendezvoused at the “swap meet,” where we picked up a few good hints, then sat up entirely too late trading stories and enjoying non-caffeinated beverages.  We realized it had been just about 20 years since the three of us had been together anywhere.  There was lots of catching up to do.

We headed out together for a few hours on Friday morning, essentially just familiarizing Mark & Darryl with the geography of Cape May County and explaining what we would search for at certain locations.  We broke around lunchtime, and we tried to catch some sleep before rendezvousing again shortly before 11 pm.

That’s right, while we planned to quit early, we weren’t going to be late starting!  We drove up to the northern part of the county, out to our secret starting spot where, indeed, we were alone at midnight.  Many teams end up at the same places at the same time, with most Cape May County teams beginning at Jakes Landing at midnight, but I’ve always preferred to be the only team at our starting spot.  It’s as much aesthetic as strategy – I don’t often head out to listen to birds in the middle of the night, so when I do it, I might as well avoid the crowds!  We found a few marsh birds, roused a distant Eastern Screech-Owl, and chuckled when shortly thereafter we heard the whistling of another team trying for the owl.  Company’s here, time for us to be elsewhere!

We roamed through the night with variable success.  Barred Owl cooperated magnificently at our “new spot.”  Great Horned Owls stayed quiet until about 3:30, and then we heard them everywhere!  We missed Virginia Rail, which I always get, but heard a Sora, which I always miss.  So it goes.

Purple Martins are easy to tally at Cape May Point State Park’s thriving colony.

Dawn found us near Woodbine, and we ticked of songbirds right and left with a swing through Belleplain State Forest.  We didn’t get every possible bird here, but we didn’t want to be too late heading down to Cape May.  We paused for a couple stops heading south – the bayside scoters didn’t cooperate, nor did the Ponderlodge bluebirds, but we had a healthy list when we got to Cape May.

We bounced around the classic Cape May sites for a while.  My backyard Red-breasted Nuthatch was a no show, but a number of other discoveries were made.  We stopped by the Cape May Bird Observatory for some snacks and to check the sightings log.  I felt tired already, and figured it must be about 3 or 4 pm.  I looked at the clock: 10:40 am.  Omigosh, I thought, how can I keep this up?

“Hey, that’s great,” said Darryl, “look at how much time we’ve still got!”  Even just birding in Cape May County there’s always time pressure, too many places to visit in too little time.  We bounced around Cape May some more, failing to find anything too exciting on a sea watch but logging Piping Plover at the nest and a few goodies at the State Park.  We went over to the meadows and were delighted to find Iceland Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull here, both quite uncommon at this season.  We found a few migrant songbirds, but really weren’t too happy with all the species we couldn’t find.

Birding the fields at Higbee.

We finally started up the ocean coast.  Darryl miraculously picked out both Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron in flight from the back seat!  We added a few shorebirds and headed up towards Nummy Island (after a quick stop for coffee).  I made the mistake of counting up … the total was disappointing.  I started to think we might miss our goal.  I should follow Michael O’Brien’s advice: NEVER count up until the end.

We did pretty well at Nummy, tallying a good mix of shorebirds and waterfowl, and pouring over a cluster of shorebirds hoping to find the reported Curlew Sandpiper.  This bird eluded us, but we did pick out a breeding-plumaged Long-billed Dowitcher.  It was getting late, we had many stops still to make, but Mark made an important point.  “Fellas,” he said, “I think we forgot to stop for lunch.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got to get something to eat.”

This was wise.  We grabbed sandwiches and were all dramatically energized.  Note to self for 2009: don’t forget to eat.  It now became a whistle-stop tour for single species.  Avalon breeding colony for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons – check.  Waterfront at Sea Isle City, where 2 scoters and a Harlequin Duck had been reported – miraculously easy check, check, check!  Peregrine Falcon nesting tower on the Kennedy Causeway.  Check!  Now back to the mainland in the fading light, with 3 more single-bird stops.  First was the campground for Red-headed Woodpecker.  It took 10 precious minutes of daylight, but a big check!  Next to try were the Cattle Egrets – though I knew they would leave the fields and head for the roost at dusk.  As we approached to spot, I kept watching the sky and BINGO, four Cattle Egrets flew over.  The final stake-out: the crazy Snow Goose at the Zoo.  This is a wild bird that years ago decided to hang out with the domestic ducks and geese at the Cape May County Zoo.  It feels a bit like cheating, but the rules say that it’s okay to count this bird.  The Zoo had already closed for the day (sunset was approaching), but one can see the ducks and geese from the outside.  We found ‘em alright, but they were asleep and we couldn’t tell which was the wild one! 

“We could run around and wake them up,” I said, “or we could try one other place.”

“Let’s go to some nice place to watch the daylight fade, counting this goose sounds pretty weird,” Darryl and Mark agreed.  So we headed to the Beaver Swamp, and to our delight we added Black-crowned Night-Heron, Wood Duck, and Chuck-will’s-Widow to the list here.  We had seen Bald Eagle earlier in the day, but it seems the perfect cap to a very nice day: watching two adult eagles soar just overhead, coming back from the Bay to roost in the big trees here.

We could have tried for more.  We could have caught the Woodcock displaying at twilight in Cape May, or searched for a nighthawk, or tried for missing rails after dark while listening for migrating thrushes, but nope, we all have busy lives, it’s 9:00 pm, and there’s a big buffet waiting at the finish line.  We called it a day, and were delighted to see our tally had reached 158, beating our goal by 8 species.  It was a flashback to our earlier efforts, two decades before, and a great day afield with important friends.  We didn’t win – the winning teams for Cape May County were WAY ahead of us – but we have raised over $3000 for conservation already and we honestly had a ball.  Next time, however, I promise I’ll stop for lunch a little earlier, Mark.

Least Tern (above) was expected, but a female Harlequin Duck (like the one shown below) at Sea Isle City was a surprise.

Black-bellied Plover (above), Northern Gannet (below), and Common Grackle (bottom).

Darryl & Mark won the unofficial “best beards” prize at the Sunday morning Awards Brunch.

Thanks to all of our sponsors for their support of the Hog Island Audubon Camp, the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, and/or the Cape May Bird Observatory: Ana Argüelles & Jeff Wneck, Jackie Barnes, John Bjerke, Marc & Lynne Breslow, Megan Carroll & Michelle Price, Wade Clement, Richard Ferraro & Barbara Winter, Bob Garland, Don & Barbara Gilmore, Tom & Judy Gire, Chris & Lee Hajduk, Reed Isbell, Ann Hobbs & David Livengood, David Mehlman, Gary D. Mozel, Nikon Sport Optics, Monica Nugent, Dave & Bonnie Offerdahl (Viking Glassverks), Michael & Allison Olivieri, Bill & Ellie O’Sullivan, Joseph Patt & Irene Szedlmayer, Gary Pendleton & Karyn Molines, Paul Pisano, Marie Plante, Tim Ray, Bill & Edie Schuhl, Deborah Seate, Michael Seraphin, Marti & Mike Seraphin, Chuck & Mary Jane Slugg, Anjanette & Zack Steer, Grace Su, Brian Taber, Frank Vanlandingham, Irene Walsh, John Whitaker & Wendy Fredericks, Christopher Wright.

Add your name to the list!  E-mail me for information on how to make your charitable contribution in support of our efforts.

Here’s our list from the Big Day:

1.Mute Swan


3.Canada Goose

4.Wood Duck


6.American Black Duck


8.Blue-winged Teal

9.Green-winged Teal

10.Common Eider

11.Harlequin Duck

12.Surf Scoter

13.Black Scoter


15.Red-breasted Merganser

16.Northern Bobwhite

17.Common Loon

18.Northern Gannet

19.Double-crested Cormorant

20.American Bittern

21.Great Blue Heron

22.Great Egret

23.Snowy Egret

24.Little Blue Heron

25.Tricolored Heron

26.Cattle Egret

27.Green Heron

28.Black-crowned Night-Heron

29.Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

30.Glossy Ibis

31.Black Vulture

32.Turkey Vulture


34.Bald Eagle

35.Red-tailed Hawk

36.American Kestrel

37.Peregrine Falcon

38.Clapper Rail

39.King Rail


41.Black-bellied Plover

42.Semipalmated Plover

43.Piping Plover


45.American Oystercatcher

46.Greater Yellowlegs

47.Lesser Yellowlegs

48.Solitary Sandpiper


50.Spotted Sandpiper


52.Ruddy Turnstone

53.Red Knot


55.Semipalmated Sandpiper

56.Least Sandpiper

57.Purple Sandpiper


59.Short-billed Dowitcher

60.Long-billed Dowitcher

61.Laughing Gull

62.Ring-billed Gull

63.Herring Gull

64.Iceland Gull

65.Lesser Black-backed Gull

66.Great Black-backed Gull

67.Royal Tern

68.Common Tern

69.Forster’s Tern

70.Least Tern

71.Mourning Dove

72.Rock Pigeon

73.Yellow-billed Cuckoo

74.Eastern Screech-Owl

75.Great Horned Owl

76.Barred Owl

77.Chuck-will’s Widow


79.Chimney Swift

80.Ruby-throated Hummingbird

81.Red-headed Woodpecker

82.Red-bellied Woodpecker

83.Down Woodpecker

84.Hairy Woodpecker

85.Northern Flicker

86.Eastern Wood-Pewee

87.Acadian Flycatcher

88.Eastern Phoebe

89.Great Crested Flycatcher

90.Eastern Kingbird

91.White-eyed Vireo

92.Red-eyed Vireo

93.Horned Lark

94.Purple Martin

95.Tree Swallow

96.Northern Rough-winged Swallow

97.Cliff Swallow

98.Barn Swallow

99.Blue Jay

100.American Crow

101.Fish Crow

102.Carolina Chickadee

103.Tufted Titmouse

104.Carolina Wren

105.House Wren

106.Marsh Wren

107.Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

108.Wood Thrush

109.American Robin

110.Gray Catbird

111.Northern Mockingbird

112.Brown Thrasher

113.European Starling

114.Blue-winged Warbler

115.Northern Parula

116.Yellow Warbler

117.Chestnut-sided Warbler

118.Magnolia Warbler

119.Black-throated Blue Warbler

120.Yellow-rumped Warbler

121.Black-throated Green Warbler

122.Yellow-throated Warbler

123.Pine Warbler

124.Prairie Warbler

125.Black-and-white Warbler

126.Prothonotary Warbler

127.Worm-eating Warbler


129.Louisiana Waterthrush

130.Kentucky Warbler

131.Common Yellowthroat

132.Hooded Warbler

133.Yellow-breasted Chat

134.Summer Tanager

135.Scarlet Tanager

136.Eastern Towhee

137.Chipping Sparrow

138.Field Sparrow

139.Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow

140.Seaside Sparrow

141.Song Sparrow

142.Swamp Sparrow

143.White-throated Sparrow

144.Northern Cardinal

145.Rose-breasted Grosbeak


147.Indigo Bunting


149.Red-winged Blackbird

150.Eastern Meadowlark

151.Boat-tailed Grackle

152.Common Grackle

153.Brown-headed Cowbird

154.Orchard Oriole

155.Baltimore Oriole

156.House Finch

157.American Goldfinch

158.House Sparrow

Julie Diebold sent us these 2 pictures; our team at the South Cape May Meadows (left), and preparing the checklist at the finish line (above).