Birding’s Biggest Day Adapts to the Pandemic

New Jersey-based World Series of Birding complies with social distancing but leaves a much bigger footprint
Credit: Chris Neff
A Carolina wren was spotted during Saturday’s very different World Series of Birding event.

The World Series of Birding has not been destroyed or diminished by the coronavirus — it has instead morphed into a bigger, more inclusive annual event.

The renowned birding competition, which for 37 years has attracted some of the world’s top birders to see or hear the most species in New Jersey over a 24-hour period at the height of the spring migration, was faced with a fundamental question when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March: to simply cancel this year’s event, or radically reinvent itself.

Faced with the need for social distancing and the tight restrictions on travel, the organizers at New Jersey Audubon recognized that they could not, in the current conditions, run an event that required teams of birders to travel all over the state, jammed into vehicles next to their teammates, and stopping off at gas stations, convenience stores and rest-rooms where they would risk infection with the virus.

So they chose the second option: to write a new set of rules that allowed the event to take place while observing the strict protocols of the COVID-19 era, and yet dramatically expanding the geographical footprint where the competition takes place.

Competitors are no longer confined to New Jersey. On Saturday, for the first time in 37 years, they were allowed to search for birds throughout the 18 states that occupy the Atlantic Flyway, the East Coast migratory route that brings millions of North American breeding birds north from Central and South America every spring, and takes them back again in the fall.

But this year’s participants were not allowed to travel more than 10 miles from their homes, forcing teams to select members who could cover bird-rich territories while staying within the limit. They were also instructed not to bird with anyone other than members of their household, and to strictly observe social-distancing requirements when out looking for birds.

New recruits to bird conservation

The huge expansion of World Series territory was accompanied by a new invitation for people to participate even if — or especially if — they don’t know a bald eagle from a sparrow. By making the event a lot more inclusive, organizers hoped to win new recruits to birding and conservation in general, and to restore a connection with nature that has been badly strained during weeks and months of lockdown.

“We decided to take that leap as an organization, recognizing that as people shelter in place, connecting with nature is more important than ever,” said Eric Stiles, chief executive of New Jersey Audubon.

They used phones, tablets, apps, video calls and social media to identify, share and collect data on the birds they have seen or heard, and rely on electronic tools to collate and present the final results.

Most importantly, organizers said, the changes represented an opportunity to include a lot more novices in an event that has traditionally attracted the kind of elite birders who can identify the call of a king rail in a nighttime marsh half a mile away, or who know how many stripes there are on the tail of a red-shouldered hawk.

Credit: Chris Neff
This black and white warbler was spotted during Saturday’s World Series of Birding event.

The new recruits included Brian Jendryka, a resident of Mendham, Morris County, who signed up for the Green Herons — one of 91 teams containing a total of 628 members in this year’s event — even though he had no prior birding experience. Jendryka, 49, spent Saturday walking the streets around his home, accompanied at times by his two teenage children, who are also novices, looking for birds and trying to identify them.

Even if he didn’t know all their names, Jendryka recognized that he enjoyed being around birds, and thought that joining a World Series team would be a way of connecting with other people even if he has to remain physically separated from them during the pandemic.

‘A common goal’

“I thought it would be a great way to go for a common goal with other people in these times when we’re looking for something that we can all do together rather than separately,” he said.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, his list included an American redstart, a common yellowthroat, a rose-breasted grosbeak and a blue-gray gnatcatcher, all common springtime migrants to which he had previously paid little or no attention.

His interest was raised by a notice on a community Facebook page placed by Chris Neff, director of communications for New Jersey Audubon, and leader of the Green Herons. Of the 19 team members, only two or three are experienced birders, and the rest are novices. “I wanted it that way. It’s the best way to drive awareness about bird conservation,” Neff said.

Seasoned birders, just as much affected by the pandemic restrictions as their inexperienced teammates, welcomed the organization’s decision to vastly expand the reach of the World Series.

“It’s a marvelous step into the 21st century. This has been a long time coming,” said Clay Taylor, a veteran of the World Series and other competitive birding events around the world, known as “big days.”

Virtual birding

“The original World Series was very restrictive, you couldn’t share sightings, you couldn’t tell people what was around, it was almost cloak-and-dagger,” he said. “Then they started to open it up in the last 10 years with sharing and apps. Now it’s going virtual. This is cool; I’m totally for it, and it definitely can get more people involved, especially at a less expert level.”

Taylor, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, could not contribute bird sightings to the new-look World Series because he’s outside the Atlantic Flyway, but he was collecting data from two teams: one based in Rhode Island, and another with members in the flyway states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Maine, plus New York City.

This year’s event attracted participants from every flyway state except Delaware, the organizers said.

On another Maine team, competitor Nick Lund welcomed the fact that he could participate in the World Series for the first time.

Credit: Chris Neff
A green heron spotted on May 9 during this year’s World Series of Birding event

Lund, an experienced birder, acknowledged that he and his five Maine-based teammates were unlikely to record the number of species seen by their rivals further south because the spring migration hadn’t fully reached the northern states. But he was excited by the prospect of being able to contribute northern birds such as the boreal chickadee, the black-backed woodpecker and the red crossbill that previously had little chance of appearing on a World Series list, simply because they don’t normally occur in New Jersey.

And he didn’t mind being required by the new rules to restrict his travel to a 10-mile radius from his base in Maine — unlike other competitive birding events that often require long trips to birding hotspots. “This is nicer because you spend more time birding than otherwise,” he said.

Bird species diversity ‘off the charts’

In New Jersey’s Warren County, competitor John Parke said the travel restrictions actually increased the number and diversity of species seen by his team because its members are spread across the state and so could concentrate on finding birds that are specific to local habitats.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, Parke’s team had seen 152 species, more than his team had recorded ever before, with a diversity that he said was “off the charts.” The total number of species seen by all teams was 328, well in excess of about 250 that are seen in a typical New Jersey-only World Series. The winning team recorded 274 species, also a record, reflecting contributions from team members across several states. By midday Sunday, the event had raised $187,000 for New Jersey Audubon.

Parke, who works for the host organization, welcomed the inclusion of the Atlantic Flyway into the World Series, and said the influx of novice birders can only strengthen the group’s mission. “I wish they had done this earlier because it brings so many more people, and creates an awareness of conservation,” he said.

Parke said he is getting calls from excited first-time competitors to say they had just seen a certain species, and they appreciate it more because the event has encouraged them to go outside for the first time in weeks.

“People are starting to realize that this whole thing, as horrible as it is, is starting to bring people back out to nature,” he said, referring to the pandemic.

In Mendham, Sasha Avery, her husband, Peter, and their three children spent Saturday looking for birds on their eight-acre property after signing up for the Green Herons team.

Sasha, a novice birder, dismissed a suggestion that a pandemic-induced lockdown is hardly the right time to be out looking for birds.

“I think it’s the perfect time because you’re looking for these things to do; you’ve been stuck at home for eight or nine weeks, and you’ve exhausted all the obvious things, and now it’s time to do some different stuff,” she said.

Besides, her husband was inspired by the bird photos posted on Facebook by Neff, their team leader, Sasha said. “It’s the highlight of his day. It’s a happy thing, you know how social media can be doom and gloom. And we thought, ‘Why not?’”