The World Series of Birding Takes Flight

Photo by Derek Lovitch

It’s been this way throughout human history. Humans approach. Birds fly away.

Humans come up with a better strategy. Birds fly farther, or stay hidden, or more often don’t show up.

On May 15, human ingenuity and bird-evasive skills go head to head on birding in the world’s greatest natural treasure hunt.

For twenty-seven years, New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding has brought an international spotlight to bear on New Jersey’s natural treasures and raised millions of dollars for bird conservation throughout the world.

Midnight to Midnight

Starting at the stroke of midnight on Saturday, May 15, teams of birders drawn from all across North America will begin a search that will take them the length and breadth of the Garden State.

“They won’t be bird watching,” says Pete Dunne, the event founder. “No time for that. “They’ll be scooping up birds ‘tied down’ as a result of weeks of planning and scouting.”

Pete Dunne & Don Freiday. Photo by Katherine Karnow

Routes that are GPS calibrated; timing that is down to the precise minute along routes that may exceed 500 miles.

“Teams don’t even have to see the bird to count it,” Dunne says. “An identifiable snatch of song, even a single, distinguishing chip note, is all that is needed for confirmation. Among top teams, about half the birds tallied will be “heard only.”

Some teams will have 30-40 species counted before dawn.

This isn’t just birding. It’s world class birding. And some of the world’s finest field birders will be competing.

Twenty-four hours later, the weary teams will cross the finish line in Cape May, NJ. To crown this year’s winners. Celebrate the birding opportunities of New Jersey.

And count up their earnings.

From Bird-a-thon to World Series

Photo by y Marleen Murgitroyde

The World Series grew out of New Jersey Audubon’s bird-a-thon, a fund raising event, pioneered by Long Point Bird Observatory in Canada. Supporters pledge a certain amount of money for each species seen. Teams do their best to record as many species as possible within twenty-four hours.

In that inaugural World Series year in 1984, thirteen teams competed. This year, approximately 100 teams will enter the contest, sponsored by conservation organizations or environmentally conscious companies and individuals.

They include PECO, Wakefern Foods (ShopRite), Nikon, WildBird Magazine, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Zeiss, Swarovski Optik, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency, and more.

“Even in these tough fiscal times, companies have tried to hold their place in the roster,” says Dunne. “Good conservation mindedness is good business.”

Blue Jay. Photo by Clay Taylor, SONA

Support through individual pledges also seems unfazed by the recession.

“Pledges are ahead of last year,” says Dunne of his own team, sponsored by Zeiss Optics. “Our members know how much we rely upon this event to support our research, conservation and education initiatives.

Dunne anticipates that come May 14, his team will have over $100 pledged per species. But the fund raising champions, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will have over $1,000 per species.

“Not a bad day’s work,” say Dunne. “Even with a work day that’s twenty-four hours long.”

Cheating for a Good Cause

Black-throated Blue Warbler. Photo by Robert Lego

But how do people know that birders are not just making up their sightings?

“Birders are notoriously honest,” says Dunne. “A birder’s reputation for honest sightings is his or her social collateral.”

“Also,” Dunne adds, “nobody fudges because if they did, they’d get caught.”

“The people who compete know what kind of day it was; what birds were or were not around, and where they were found. There’s also a lot of sharing regarding the whereabouts of rare birds before the event so there are few surprises.”

Any teams that turns in a checklist that is “out of spec” would be pretty obvious. And there are also rules that make it almost impossible for teams to cheat. Rules that require that 95% of all species on a team’s list must be identified by all team members. Rules that state that a team is allowed only one species not recorded by another team.

Maybe so. But team totals certainly seem impossible.

End of the Day

Baltimore Oriole. Photo by Clay Taylor, SONA

Winning teams will record about 230 species; all in New Jersey; all in a single day. That is about 1/3 of all the bird species that breed in North America. The total number of species recorded by all teams will approach or exceed 270 species. Only in Texas and California have more species been recorded in a single day (considering their size factor to that of New Jersey, it’s quite impressive).

Teams can also limit their routes to a single county, or just south of the Cape May Canal, or even a 17 foot circle. The single county record is 201 species tallied in Cape May County. The “Big Stay” record is 143 species (also tallied in Cape May County, in fact south of the Cape May Canal). There are youth categories, senior categories, even a “Carbon Footprint” category where teams can walk, run, bike, kayak, skateboard but are forbidden to use fuel driven vehicles.

“It never occurred to us that the event would get so big,” said Dunne. “But it’s a great tribute to the state that hosts it and the organization that organizes it.

New Jersey Audubon

Youth team "Skuas." Photo by Derek Lovitch

New Jersey Audubon, the event’s organizer, is an independent state Audubon with over 110 years of conservation leadership behind it. It has ten staffed centers scattered throughout the state and its conservation efforts are reflected in such success as the ban on DDT, the Pine Barrens National Preserve, the Freshwater Wetlands Act and most recently, the effort to ban the harvest of horseshoe crabs whose eggs are critical to migrating shorebirds.

“The World Series is a game,” Dunne summarizes. “The work of New Jersey Audubon is anything but.”

The official World Series Finish Line is the West Cape May Volunteer Fire Hall. An Awards Brunch is held at the Grand Hotel in Cape May on May 16.

What then?

“Some teams go right out and start scouting for next year,” says Dunne. “Me? I go home and sleep.”

For more information on the annual World Series of Birding®, contact Sheila Lego, Marketing Director at 609.884.2736 or e-mail