It’s nearly 20 years since I first took part in the New Jersey Birdathon, run by the New Jersey Audubon Society. It is also sometimes known as the World Series of Birding, but former Brits and other foreigners always have a problem with the term “world series.” I was part of one of the earliest overseas teams to take part. Our British team, comprised of Ron Johns, Jeff Delve, Simon Thompson and Chris Abrahams, participated a couple of times. Funnily enough I just spent time with Jeff and Chris this fall – amazing how being team mates often stands the test of time.
The goal of the competition is for your team to see or hear as many species of birds as possible in 24 hours. Before you ask, it is based on the honor system. Do mistakes get made? Yes, of course. Although bird races are billed as competitions, the purpose is to raise money and awareness for conservation. It does both in spades.
BP and Jaguar sponsored our team. We were excited to be getting a free holiday, taking part in the competition and driving in a bit of style in a nearly new Jag. She was a beauty – well for the first three days ‘til the transmission went and we had to use a scruffy rental car. The upside? It kept our speed down a little. Europeans back then were used to driving on narrow, winding roads with high hedges obscuring the view!
We arrived a week ahead of the event to do our scouting. The birdathon is serious business for a number of the teams. We were in that category and, even though we were not familiar with many of the birds and initially hopeless at songs and calls, we were keen not to be seen as a laughing stock back home in the ruthless hard core British birding scene. With this in mind and being English, there are always two things that you do. Firstly, copy what the best teams do. Secondly, try to meet them down at the pub so you can get them a bit looser-lipped than usual. I still remember, like it was yesterday, meeting down at the C View Tavern – some things have not changed much! We learned a lot, including that American beer was very cold, gassy and not too strong! Brits are often very hard to get to know initially, so we were pleasantly surprised how friendly and helpful all the Yanks were.
Two decades later, the rules of scouting have not changed much. You split into two groups to maximize time and distance – one in the far north, the other in the far south of the state. You both have target species to find and then you have to get nearly all of them at breakneck speed. You join all the dots, concentrating on the rarer species and make sure you don’t bypass the regularly occurring ones. It sounds simple, but it’s more like a 560 mile jigsaw puzzle that criss-crosses New Jersey. It takes planning, a creative mind, a lot of stamina and some help from Lady Luck.
Learning from the good teams and having done our due diligence, we all met at a hotel near Clinton in the far northwestern part of the state. We fine tuned our strategy and then tried to get a few hours sleep. Getting some shuteye at tea-time has always been tough for me but with the excitement of the competition ahead, it was way too much to expect. We hit the road not long after 10 p.m. We got to our marsh to listen for Rails and Owls with time to try and nail a few down. All to no avail.
The clock hit the midnight hour. We would count anything we could identify from this moment on. The first bird heard was Canada Goose. Not long after, way in the distance, was a Barred Owl with its deep, “who-cooks-for-you.” This can be frustratingly difficult to get. It kept calling. Something did not sound quite right. After a few minutes we were convinced – unfortunately, it was another team imitating a Barred Owl hoping to call one out. We had to take it off the list. If only we had left after the first call – just joking! It often takes about 30 minutes for them to start responding, so I learned in later years that you are better off giving a few hoots and going back later. With so many teams hooting all night, it is often easier to find birds all “razzed up” later in the night.
Standing silently trying to hear and identify every sound near and far takes a lot of concentration. “Did you hear that,” “that sounded like ….,” “what do you think,” “should we count it?” are all regular comments during the course of the day. Often there are more questions, but that is part of the fun of it. Because of the speed of it all, quick “yes” and “no” answers carry the day. While it is great to hear birds you don’t normally hear, the night often drags on.
Things start to change at five a.m. A twinkle of the first rays of light begin and birds wake up. Near silence quickly gives way to the deafening jumble of the dawn chorus. Silhouettes become clearer as new species come thick and fast. By this time we were in the beautiful forests of Clinton Road. The first couple of hours after dawn is when everything is at its most active and most vocal. This is prime time! While the birdathon cannot be won at this time, it can certainly be lost if you miss quite a few of your target birds. Changing from low to high gear after a long slow night can be tough.
We jumped in and out of the car, knowing exactly what to listen and look for. We were very organized and doing pretty well. Momentum and adrenaline ran high. “Canada Warbler – got it times four, let’s go.” The foot hit the accelerator and there was a loud shriek. Ron didn’t jump in the car fast enough and left his foot too close to the back tire. Luckily, it was only a toe tip wound and nothing broken – Ron did seem to quicken his pace a little after that! For liability reasons, I am not able to disclose the driver’s name.
As the morning wore on, we headed east across the state through Great Swamp and down to Edwin Forsythe refuge (affectionately called Brig), near Smithville, in the early afternoon. As is usual in the competition, we were a little behind schedule by the time we got there. We tried to speed things up. The faster you go, the more fun it is and it is very easy to get caught up in the moment. Well, that is what I think! In later years a rule was brought in to disqualify any team that got a speeding ticket. It is a good idea, particularly for those foreigners who were not worried about any insurance consequences. Brig, with its miles of dykes, marshes, pools and sandy woodlands, has lots of species that are tough to find elsewhere in the state. It’s also a place where the emphasis is on sight rather than sound – perfect for us deaf Brits. We left for Cape May feeling good.
The mood was buoyant in the car. Checking the list as we drove, however, it was clear we were missing a few things that we thought we would get later on the route. We didn’t. In later years, with more practice and better local knowledge, you become better at filling in holes and knowing which species to cut your losses on. Cape May is a great place to play catch up. There are so many breeding birds in the area, as well as lots of migrants. The biggest problem is that, by the time you get to Cape May late in the afternoon, most birds take a siesta and are much harder to see than in the morning. As the list of “must gets” increases as the clock starts to tick faster, there can be a sense of despair. Adrenaline disappears and panic, with lots of second guessing, can start. Time to re-route and work out the probabilities at each potential site. The last daylight hours are spent in Belleplain or Cumberland County looking for more woodland birds, calculating time needed in Cape May with its limitless possibilities is another guessing game.
On this particular day my abiding memory is looking for Carolina Chickadee at 8:20 p.m. in Cumberland County. Yes, the Carolina Chickadee is common in South Jersey. It is one of those birds it’s easy not to think about because you just expect to see it. But once you get to really thinking about it, you realize you’re not stopping in any wooded areas until 7 p.m. By then they are very quiet and not very active. Thankfully, just when we thought it was too late, we got the bird. We would not have been the first team to miss it, but we would have had some egg on our face.
In the twilight hours, we listened to Chuck-wills-widow and Whip-poor-will. We then went to the marshes to listen for Rails and other goodies that call at night. Staying awake as the pace suddenly comes to a standstill is like Chinese water torture.
Tired, but after a great day, we arrived back at the Cape May Point State Park with plenty of time to tally the list and get it handed in before the midnight deadline. It is here that nearly all of the teams swap stories. While talk in birding circles is often about rare birds seen, here it is usually about the common bird that got away and the other things that didn’t pan out well. For some, tiredness rules the day and the thought of bed parallels the beauty of a Caribbean beach. Others are wrapped up in the moment and don’t want it to end.
If my memory is right, we finished fourth or fifth. Not bad for newbies. We came back the following year. On the day before the race we were given a tip to go on the New Jersey Turnpike to save time. We were stuck in a horrendous traffic jam for over two hours and still finished second. If only….! But then, that is the fun of it.
Since then, I have done it a number of times on a state level, just Cape May County and south of the canal. Anyone can take part, however casual or serious. West Cape May Elementary took part for a number of years, one year resulting in a five page article in Ranger Rick Magazine by Sophie, my daughter. In fact birdathons or bird races do many great things. The camaraderie, competition, knowledge learned, fund-raising and conservation possibilities are all huge. Possibly the most important, because of the unique dynamics, could be to get more youth into birding. You should check it out. It is a lot of fun!