Published: April 2008

Bird Blitz

Photo: Watching birds

World Series Birding

At one second after midnight on the second Saturday of May hundreds of birders around New Jersey will begin a competition that ends 24 frantic, caffeine-fueled hours later, when the World Series of Birding names its champion.

By Mel White
Photograph by Catherine Karnow

It's amazingly noisy at midnight in Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and not just because of the occasional jet on final approach to the Newark airport. From cattails and sedges, from buttonbushes and patches of spatterdock come the sounds of countless nocturnal transactions: bright conversational twitterings of marsh wrens, hoarse owl hoots, the insistent chip of a lovesick cardinal, the slurred whistle of a somnambulant titmouse.

Other sorts of calls, too, drift through this windless spring night:
A guttural croak elicits a whispered, "Great blue heron." A soft whine brings a low "Veery." A series of dry kek notes pierces the mist, and one voice says, "King rail." Another responds, "All right!" and two arms clad in camouflage rise in a silent, slow-motion high five.

In the fog that hangs over the swamp, headlights silhouette spectral groups of three, four, five people on raised dikes between ponds. "Damn frogs," a bearded fellow mutters. Some other time he'd think of their nonstop peeps as pleasant marsh music, but tonight he wishes they'd just shut up. Jet engines and amphibians make it harder to hear the birds calling out there in the dark.

It's ten minutes into the second Saturday in May 2007, and this is the World Series of Birding, an event bringing more than a hundred teams together for a competition that to the average person—i.e., someone who's not a birdwatcher—might well seem pointless in its goal, ridiculous in its location, and lunatic in its execution.

Among the 500 or so participants are some of the country's top birders, along with newbies in the youth divisions who barely know a hawk from a heron. They share one goal: to find and identify as many species as they can, constrained only by the borders of New Jersey, a clock that will tick to zero in 24 hours, and their own determination and endurance.

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