Birds identified by song count just as much as those seen, and teams are not about to waste the five hours between midnight and first light—a time when most people are counting sheep, not birds. So all around the Great Swamp they stand in silent concentration, hands cupped at ears. Behind the still-unused eyes of the contestants, emotions range from the simple desire to have fun to an utterly maniacal, doughnut-fueled lust to crush their rivals.
Measured against the long sweep of history, it's only recently that humans started thinking of birds as anything other than hat decorations or feathered entrees. The modern hobby of birdwatching really began in 1934, the year that young artist Roger Tory Peterson published his Field Guide to the Birds—a book that truthfully can be said to have changed the way we appreciate nature. Suddenly everybody, not just scientists in the laboratory, could give names to the birds they saw.
People being people, it wasn't long before the hobby turned into a sport. Early birdwatchers arose at dawn for "century runs": trying to see a hundred species in a day. Nowadays, just as 14-year-olds swim faster than Olympic champions of decades ago, a hundred species is barely a starting point for a big day. The record count for the United States, set in—where else? —Texas, stands at 258.
In 1984, Pete Dunne, a writer and staff member of the New Jersey Audubon Society, wondered if it were possible to see 200 species in a single day in his home state. To make things interesting, he issued a challenge for an informal competition in mid-May—the peak of spring migration, when the greatest number of species are present. Dunne's team won with 201 species, aided not a little by the fact that one member was Roger Tory Peterson.
Dunne's fledgling birdwatching contest grew into today's World Series, which in 2007 comprised 116 teams in various divisions from grade school to the overall statewide title. Most teams solicit per-species pledges for environmental causes, and over the years the event has raised more than eight million dollars for conservation, giving teams a quantifiable incentive to find as many kinds of birds as possible—beyond, of course, the bragging rights of being a winner at the end of a long, long day.
Most of the top teams begin that day in the Great Swamp in central New Jersey, head for the coniferous woods in the northern part of the state, and then speed south to the wetlands and beaches near the resort town of Cape May, where they must turn in their bird lists before midnight. Teams have honed their routes and pushed themselves harder in the decades since the competition began, to the point that, most years, it takes something over 220 to have even a chance of winning.