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Month: April 2004

Training Day

EnglishbirdersonbikesDon’t bother me, please. I’m in training and I’m very busy.

After all, the World Series is only a few weeks away. No, not that World Series – the World Series of Birding (WSB). It’s hosted by the New Jersey Audubon Society and this year will be held on May 15th. So I must pump up, not to mention practice staying up.

In the WSB the games begin in the dark – at midnight- and conclude at midnight of the next day; in other words – it’s a 24-hour event in which individuals as team participants are expected to count as many species as possible.

In addition to power walking every morning, no matter the weather, I also practice quick-draw binocular techniques, as suggested by my personal birding trainer Mark Garland, senior naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO), Cape May Point.  OK, he’s not really my personal trainer, but I like to think that he is.

CapeMayWarblerMark’s first suggestion for preparing for a birding event as a novice birder is to practice becoming adept with the binoculars. You know, something like this: you eyeball a bird in the sky, at say 12 o’clock (you really have to get that clock thing down, first and foremost) as fast as you can, and without strangling yourself with the binocular cord, grab the binoculars and fire away at 12 o’clock. See, you already have to be in focus and your binoculars adjusted to the proper setting or you lose, cause it’s not like the birdy’s hangin’ around waiting for you to focus.

wsbI practiced these very techniques on a recent outing at The Beanery, as we locals call it. For the rest of you it’s Rea’s Farm on Bayshore Road. The meadows and wet woods on this working farm are great, according to Garland for spotting spring’s earliest migrants.

First problem on that windy, cold-in-the-shade afternoon?  I forgot the *#*#! binoculars. I tried to cover up my faux pas by pretending the zoom lens of my camera would serve as my binoculars but Mark, who continually proves to be the kindest man in the entire birding universe, generously offered me a pair of very fine, already adjusted, binoculars. So, off we go, eight of us in total, including Mark, Tom Parsons, a field trip leader and associate naturalist, and R.E. Heinly, the author of Beach Chair Birding, a column which appears weekly in the Cape May Star and Wave during the summer months. There were a couple of novices and newly-joined New Jersey Audubon Society members, but I suspect I was the real “Ms New” of the bunch.

Mark didn’t do the clock thing. He announced the spotted bird by landmarks, i.e.; “See the tallest tree in the cluster? Now look a little to the right.”
Ahhh. Directions for which I don’t need a compass to figure out.

Before long, I become very adept at spotting the Turkey Vulture – certainly there were many other birdies spotted that afternoon, among them – the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Red-Shoulder Hawk, the Killdeer, a 4-year-old Bald Eagle, but mostly there were Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures.

circlingturkeyvultures“Vultures, vultures, vultures,” I say to myself.

Things went along swimmingly for the two hour walk but I found myself constantly out of step with my companions until we turned the corner of a  meadow. Mark Garland spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (or maybe it was a Northern Harrier – I’m not sure) but for the first time my borrowed binoculars caught the same thing everyone else did… at the same time they did.

Victory is mine at last! But then Garland explained in detail the distinctions of the raptor and I didn’t see them, even though we were both looking at the same bird.

circlingturkeyvultures3With just the teeniest bit of hysteria in my voice, I dropped my binoculars and said, just a bit too shrilly; “How can you see all that?” (the color and shape of the head, the color of the tail and underbelly) “I don’t see any of those things. How do you know that’s a Red Tail not a Red Shoulder in nanoseconds?” (The obvious had obviously escaped my attention.)

Again proving how incredibly patient he is, Garland thought about it for a while and then explained. Obviously experience lends a great hand. “Really,” he said, quoting another birder, “it’s the first 10,000 Hawks (for example) that are difficult to spot. After that, it becomes a whole lot easier.” But, he said, there are many other factors that come into play : The habitat, meaning in this instance, the thickness of the trees or the brush; the time of year (Tom Parsons explained that birds know its Spring by the hours of sunlight); the “gizz” which is birdie talk -meaning the gist of a bird- its sound, its standing pose, its profile while in flight; and the geography. In other words – you have to do your homework and practice, practice, practice.

So, I may not be ready for the Worlds Series of Birding (WSB), but I’m moving forward as though I am. Denial is a beautiful thing. Fortunately, the WSB is set up for all levels of competition.

wsbteam2Yes, this is a competition, as well as a major fund raising event that benefits ornithological clubs, organizations and causes. All the money raised by a team goes to the cause of their choice. It has drawn participants from all over the U.S and other parts of our world… and raised over $8 million for bird conservation.

There are four levels of competition:
Level I: Competitive – this is for the big boys and corporate sponsors. It is strictly a team competition
Level II is for people like me individuals or non-competing teams;
Level III: Youth teams
Level IV: Senior teams

wsbtrophy2A WSB dream team is comprised of three to four registered members, not including the designated driver. The geographical area covered varies from “The Big Sit,” in which the team picks a spot, like the Hawk Watch platform at Cape May Point State Park, and sits there for 24 hours – to the LGA (Limited Geographic Area), a county-wide competition which works on a par value system (think golf ) to the state-wide competition.  Unless a team is privileged enough to get corporate sponsorship, teams raise money by gathering pledges based on the number of birds they see during the World Series.  Over $500,00 is raised every year by all the participants.

Pete Dunne, founder of the WSB, offers a game plan booklet on the njaudubon.org website with loads of tips, birding ethics, rules about foul (not fowl) play, and a blueprint for participation.

The binoculars are getting heavy and I’m tired. Time for a nap for this newbie but I hope to glimpse you out there in the dark, in the dawn, in the dusk and at the finish.
Hey wait!  Was that a Cape May Warbler??