At 3:15 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, six birders stood in the rain outside Wildwood with their hands cupped behind their ears, straining to catch the harsh call of the Clapper Rail, a secretive marsh bird.
Within a minute or two, they got what they came for. “Did everybody hear the Clapper?” someone asks. They did, as well as hearing the familiar screech of a Laughing Gull, and concluded that there were no other birds in this location to be “got” — at least without spending many more precious minutes.
“That’s all we’re getting here,” someone says, and the team piles back into its van in pursuit of more birds in a different location many miles away.
It’s the World Series of Birding, an annual competition in which teams of birders traverse the length and breadth of New Jersey for 24 hours in search of the longest list of bird species.
Now in its 30th year, the event aims to raise money and public awareness for conservation and to boost the profile of its organizer, New Jersey Audubon, by creating a race for birders who, despite the serene appearance of their sport, are a competitive lot.
In the hope of listing more species than others in their competition category, teams will endure sleeplessness, bad weather, meals-on-the-run, and overcrowded vehicles for 24 hours driving hundreds of miles to birding hotspots around the state.
The top contenders will often log more than 200 species during the race, while other categories, such as youth, seniors, or those who confine themselves to one county, may accumulate far less. In all, around 1,000 birders on some 100 teams participated in the event. This year, the winning team logged 186 birds.
To keep teams honest, the rules state that 95 percent of the species listed must be seen or heard by all team members. The remainder must be “got” by at least two. But organizers concede that it’s basically an honor system. “We can’t send judges out with every team,” said Sheila Lego, marketing manager for New Jersey Audubon.
For the Uncommon Nighthawks, a team of expert birders who hosted this reporter for the 2013 race on May 11, the aim was to beat their previous year’s tally of 138 species, confining themselves to three counties in South Jersey. They hit their goal, with a total of 144 despite a largely birdless period of heavy rain during the morning hours.
The fruitless search for blue-winged, worm-eating, and prothonotary warblers in Belleplain State Forest at around 9 a.m. set back a carefully calibrated schedule that was designed to see or hear certain species in specific locations at particular times.
Like other contestants, the Uncommon Nighthawks designed their itinerary on the basis of species that had been seen in certain locations by team members on “scouting” trips in advance of the World Series.
That diligence paid off in the case of the prothonotary warbler, a tiny bright-yellow bird that was absent at Belleplain but sang so its characteristic “sweet sweet sweet” song so clearly at a site near Millville Airport in the early afternoon that team members didn’t even have to get out of the van to agree that they had “got” it.
Team captain Kristin Munafo, a senior research scientist with New Jersey Audubon, said she had heard the bird at the Millville site in advance of the race, and so hoped that a return visit on the day would yield that species for the list.
In a similar quick hit that’s essential for World Series competitors, the Uncommon Nighthawks “got” a Chuck Will’s Widow, a nocturnal species, that was heard calling in the woods outside a municipal depot near The Villas in Cape May County in a three-minute visit that began at 4:58 a.m.
“Did everybody hear it?” someone asked. “If everybody heard it, there’s no point in staying.”
Despite their passion and expertise, birders know the normal rules of birding — which allow time to admire a bird’s beauty or enjoy its environment — are suspended for the World Series.
“There’s no time for regular birding,” said Ian Garrison, 16, a student from Sparta and the youngest member of the Uncommon Nighthawks. “This is the World Series, and it’s competitive birding.”