This weekend is the Annual World Series of Birding. For the uninitiated, Big Day (as it’s called by participants) is a 24 hour competition to count as many bird species as possible in New Jersey from midnight to midnight on the second Saturday in May. It’s quirky and popular enough to merit its own Wikipedia article, which claims it’s “the world's most famous birding competition.” Who’s to say? Winning tallies are in the 215 – 235 species range. My personal best is 132. Most years, I do a modified Big Day; focusing on a particular region rather than the entire state and I bird dawn to dusk — about 14 hours — instead of 24. I found it was a necessary concession after I hit the big 5-0.
Ideally, I like to start training for the WSB in early March, when I pull out the “tapes” (harkening back to the days before we had smart phones, iTunes and MP3 players) to get back up to speed for birding by ear. Don’t laugh…it takes a lot of practice! I say “ideally” because I haven’t listened to a single twitter yet and the event begins tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. I’m planning to cram this afternoon on the drive down to Cape May. I’ll use a beloved tape of 34 warbler species made by my birding mentor, Rich Kane, from our days at Scherman Hoffman Sanctuary in Bernardsville. I’ve digitalized it, so I now listen to it through a Bluetooth on the car stereo. It’s fabulous…
“Black Throated Green Warbler – 1: Buzz, Buzz, bz, bz, buzz…” 2: Buuzzz, buuzzz, bz,bz,bz, buuuzzz.” My husband Carl made up a great Mnemonic to help remember the first variation: “Hot Dogs, French Fries – Free!” (he was highly motivated by food).
The migration begins in late February when ducks start to move. By mid-March some early song birds are migrating – like Pine Warbler and Phoebe. By April, the migration is fully under-way, and every week through mid June new species of birds fly through New Jersey on their way to nesting grounds. Mid-May is the peak of the migration. I’ve been birding fairly regularly every week or so since March, but not nearly as often as I’d like. Diehards (or as Carl called them, “derelicts”) bird every day this time of year.
Last weekend, I joined the Chit Chats on their annual scouting run to Old Mine Road. Pat Balko and Pat Dufort are two of my favorite birding buddies; we’ve been at it together for a long time. Usually, we meet at a particular destination, bird for the morning, break for lunch at good restaurant, then resume birding in the afternoon. (Lunch is a VERY important part of the day). We are fairly relaxed birders. We don’t keep lists, we talk a LOT about non-birdy things, and we laugh even more. For Big Day we polish our game and take it a wee bit more seriously; we pack a lunch instead of going to a restaurant.
Scouting is a good strategy for quick commando-style stops on Big Day when it counts. You can pull up to a spot where you had Louisiana Waterthrush the week before, roll down the windows, listen for the bird and tally him all within a minute or two. We found a couple of good spots for hard to find birds like LA Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler and Least Flycatcher. These birds will help the Chit Chat’s count up on Saturday. We saw four bears while scouting…two small cubs, a mom, and a teenager. We were safely in the car, so it was never worrisomeAND, the yearling bear answered that proverbial question once and for all: YES, it’s true.
Big Day is one of the things I truly enjoy about birding. It’s a fun, exhausting day. Your senses are on pins and needles for 14 hours straight — looking for the slightest movement in treetops 50 feet overhead and listening for one tiny little song in a chorus of 50 voices. It’s a day when you encounter birds doing what they’ve done for ages, and you get a front row spot to wish them well on their journey, like the people who line the route of a marathon to cheer on runners.
And did I mention that you make friends along the way? My team is the Wandering Tattlers. This is the second year I’ll bird with this remarkable group. Smart, funny, friendly people all dedicated to a cause they feel passionately about. I freely admit I treasure the social aspects as much as the process of birding and almost as much as the feathered little beauties themselves.
Count me as one of the luckiest people in the world that I get to do this. But still, wish me luck. I’m hoping for a Summer Tanager this year…
The World Series of Birding is New Jersey Audubon’s biggest fund raiser. If you’re feeling inspired to support a truly wonderful conservation organization, you can sponsor me here (thanks in advance):