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.
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.
A week before World Series day, members of the Philadelphia-based Lagerhead Shrikes team drive slowly along backroads in the northwestern corner of New Jersey, past white-frame farmhouses with homemade signs out front reading "Fresh Eggs For Sale." Rolling pastureland spreads beneath the long ridge of Kittatinny Mountain, where dogwoods bloom in the newly greened forest, mayapples unfold their umbrella leaves, and skunk cabbages stand knee-high in the spruce bogs. The woodsy incongruity of all this is such a local cliche that it ought to be on road signs: "Welcome to Sussex County—Where It Doesn't Look Like New Jersey."
Team captain Paul Guris chats and listens out his van window simultaneously, which means his conversation is punctuated with "Hear that? Scarlet tanager," and "Blue-headed vireo off to the right." Guris is explaining the great irony of the World Series of Birding: Nobody—at least nobody with a chance of winning—does any actual birdwatching during the competition. "On the big day you don't want to be birding," he says. "You want to be counting the birds you already found."
For days, even weeks, before the event, teams scout locations and plan a route, trying to pin down the spot where a yellow-bellied sapsucker regularly taps its bongo-drum rhythm, looking for a lingering loon or a reliably loquacious bobwhite. An ideal strategy never requires a team to get more then 50 feet from its vehicle, making the typical World Series day about as much of a wilderness experience as a suburban mail route. The drill: Stop at a site where scouting has located a needed species. Hop out. See or hear the bird. Drive on. Repeat for 24 hours.
"The biggest problem for teams trying to move up to the next level is time management," says Guris—not coincidentally, a software designer. Inexperienced teams spend an extra five minutes here, an extra ten minutes there, trying for birds that don't appear promptly—and at the end of the day, they run out of time. "We compete through route discipline," Guris says, "because we're up against teams that are better birders than we are." The Shrikes' disciplinarian (less politely, "list Nazi") is Bert Filemyr, an affable retired schoolteacher who doesn't mind the job of keeping the team focused and on schedule. "You've gotta have somebody who'll be a pain in the ass," he says. Whatever ornithosadism Filemyr practices must work: The Shrikes have won the World Series six times.
Not in 2006, though. That year, the Sapsuckers—the team representing the prestigious Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology—won with 229 species, ten better than the second-place team. In baseball terms, this would be equivalent to taking the World Series four games to zip, and in fact the Sapsuckers' big win has created the tiniest bit of tension in this friendly little birdwatching game.
Two days before the big day, Frank Gallo is eating a late-night omelet in a smoky diner in Milford, Pennsylvania, a small town just across the Delaware River from Sussex County. He's captain of the Raven Luna-Ticks, a Connecticut team that's finished high in the World Series several times but has never won. Gallo feels this might be their year. Beside him sits Eric Pilotte, a member of the Lagerhead Shrikes. They've come from a "swap meet," where scouts get together over pizza to trade information—the idea being that, since the real point of the World Series is to raise money for conservation, sharing news of rare birds lets more teams find them on the big day and add to their fund-raising success. As longtime Sapsucker Ken Rosenberg says, "A rising tide lifts all boats."
But maybe some boats more than others. "We shared everything with Cornell last year," Gallo says, "and then they beat the crap out of us."
It's no secret that teams hold back a few special species for themselves. But Gallo isn't the only one who thinks Cornell's victory margin in 2006 meant the Sapsuckers had an unseemly number of aces up their collective sleeve.
Ken Rosenberg knows the mood of the competition. "The other teams all hate us," he says matter-of-factly as he scouts spruce woods on a sunny afternoon in Delaware Gap National Recreation Area. He hears the tinny beep-beep of a red-breasted nuthatch and pencils a comment in a notebook that contains more than a decade's worth of competitive minutiae: places he's found birds, mileages between sites, the time of day when each species sang.
Many participants see the World Series less as a competition than as a vacation—a chance to renew friendships, share a six-pack after a scouting day, and generally schmooze with like-minded souls.
"I'm past the social part," Rosenberg says, shaking his head, dead earnest. "This is a big fund-raiser for us. We take it seriously. We're here to win."
After all the scouting and note-taking, after all the study sessions and route-making, on World Series day everything happens just like this, from the wristwatch beeps that signal the 12:00 a.m. start to the last stragglers dragging toward the finish line at the old Cape May fire station 24 hours later.
Long before dawn, teams are speeding away from the Great Swamp with two dozen or more species. It's 1:45 a.m., and Frank Gallo of the Raven Luna-Ticks displays the exuberant mood typical of the early hours. "Rock and roll!" he shouts, to nobody in particular. "Game on!" In the Lagerhead Shrikes' van, Paul Guris is equally upbeat. "We kicked butt!" he says about the team's tally of bitterns and owls.
Meanwhile, the U-Terns, a middle-school team from Philadelphia, are watching a tow truck haul their minivan out of a Great Swamp mudhole. Last year the team found 157 species, four fewer than the all-time record for their age group. They've been practicing for months, hoping for a good day. "Hey, don't feel too bad," the tow-truck driver says. "This happens to somebody every year." The U-Terns finally motor out of the refuge at 2:45 a.m., far behind the other teams.
Like invading troops armed with thousand-dollar binoculars and ice chests full of Red Bull, teams fan out through northwestern New Jersey. Just after 3 a.m., the Shrikes strike gold along a dark road at High Point State Park on Kittatinny Mountain. "Toot-toot-toot-toot!" Guris calls in jubilation, "Saw-whet owl, baby!" It's the first time they've ever found this tiny, rare owl during the event. "We are good!" teammate Michael Fritz shouts—and then immediately edits himself. "Freakin' lucky, I mean."
Elsewhere in High Point, the smell of French fries drifts along a narrow mountain road, as if some backwoods diner had opened early to soothe teams' already-rumbling stomachs. In reality, it's the Philadelphia-based Bristleheads, driving a biodiesel Mercedes burning recycled vegetable oil. They see a certain irony in 500 people cumulatively driving thousands of miles and using untold gallons of gasoline to raise money for the environment. Unfortunately, good intentions now encounter harsh reality: The diesel engine makes so much noise at idle it's hard to hear bird song. If it's turned off it can't be restarted for a couple of minutes, costing the team precious time in an event where every minute counts.
Meanwhile, far to the south, event founder Pete Dunne has chosen to avoid vehicle issues in a very different way as he counts birds near his home in Cape May. He's entered the "big stay" division: counting only species seen from within a circle 17 feet in diameter. This competition, of course, is all about choosing the right spot—and taking as few bathroom breaks as possible.
By 10 a.m., Dunne's team is in ecstasy over their experience atop a grassy ridge at Higbee Beach. Staggering numbers of migrants have passed along the Delaware Bay waterfront, including 150 Baltimore orioles, 70 blue grosbeaks, 70 indigo buntings, 100 bobolinks, and 200 eastern kingbirds. By mid-morning the total is 120 species—more than some teams that have driven nearly a hundred miles and stopped at a dozen or more sites. Dunne has two teammates—three, if you count the small box within the circle containing the ashes of Judy Toups, a long-time World Series participant who died in February, and whose daughter requested that the remains be scattered at Toups's beloved Cape May.
In early afternoon, the teams on the road are fighting to stay awake as they make the long drive from northern New Jersey to the wetlands in the south. The ebullient mood of the morning is long gone. The Cornell Sapsuckers stop at a campground where all the teams know there's a pair of red-headed woodpeckers, a scarce species in New Jersey. They spot the elusive bird after a few minutes of tense searching. While the team is out of the van, the Shrikes pull up behind them, hop out, scan the trees where the Sapsuckers are looking, spot the bird, and are on their way. The Sapsuckers are not pleased.
A rough tally shows the Shrikes have already passed 200 species. "We all feel we have a good run going," Paul Guris says. "We think we should get at least another 20 species without having to invoke Lady Luck."
As happens to all the teams, Frank Gallo's Raven Luna-Ticks suddenly begin adding new species when they hit the beaches and saltwater marshes of Cape May County. Within a couple of minutes of setting up their spotting scopes they find piping plover, parasitic jaeger, red-throated loon, northern gannet, long-tailed duck, red knot, and marbled godwit—all potentially missable birds.
At 7:30 p.m., the Cornell Sapsuckers find their 224th species: a yellow-crowned night-heron sitting on a nest. "It's a great, very competitive total, but . . ." team captain John Fitzpatrick trails off with an equivocal conjunction. In fact, the team is worried because it's missed several species it had counted on.
By 9 p.m. a light rain has begun, and within an hour it's turned into a storm, frustrating teams trying for a last few night birds. At 10, the Raven Luna-Ticks are confined to their van by lightning flashes that strobe-light the trees around them while rain pounds the roof. Frank Gallo speaks slowly, sounding as if he's about to fall asleep in his seat. "This was one of the most amazing days we've ever had. It just . . . it just clicked. We could win this thing."
The Shrikes are parked at a vast marsh called Turkey Point, on New Jersey's southern shore. They're hoping to hear a variety of wetland birds including salt-marsh seaside sparrow and the rare and maddeningly elusive black rail, but rain keeps them in the van. Nonetheless, between squalls they pick out the kick-a-dee call of the rail. At the same time, in a dark marsh near Belleplain, the Sapsuckers are desperately trying for pied-billed grebe. Ken Rosenberg does his best imitation of the bird's call, which sounds something like a beagle that's just stepped on a piece of broken glass. There's no response. One by one, the teams give in to the weather and head for the finish line.
At 11:40 p.m., captains Frank Gallo and Paul Guris meet at the old firehouse, by now filled with noise and laughter as competitors celebrate the end of the ordeal. "We had a good day," Guris says, in cautious understatement. "We did, too," Gallo says. Both have a "you go first" attitude about their actual numbers, but they soon learn that their teams have tied with 227 species. It's 11 more than Gallo's team has ever recorded, and within four of the all-time World Series record, held by the Shrikes.
"Congratulations," Gallo says to Guris, "I think."
When midnight arrived, the Cornell Sapsuckers had again claimed first place with 230 species, thanks to a last-minute rally during which, as Ken Rosenberg said, the team "pulled out some impossible birds—royal tern, surf scoter, little blue heron—that we didn't think we'd get." The team raised more than $130,000 for Laboratory of Ornithology conservation programs. Any way you look at it though, they weren't the only winners.
Craig Richard and Kevin Krogh, two men who called themselves Birders on the Run, deserved a medal, at least, for their tiny carbon footprint. Competing in a division restricted to Cape May County, and pushing a baby stroller holding their gear, they ran and walked 50 miles to the finish line. Their total of 157 species placed fourth in their category, against teams that spent the day dashing from one place to another in vans and SUVs. Someday, maybe, the two men will get their wish and the World Series will institute a "human-powered-only" division, for those who walk, bike, or canoe.
The Newark Nighthawks, an inner-city high-school team that had practiced with paper cutout birds placed in trees, could be proud, as well. Their list of 75 species was 42 percent higher than the previous year's total; nobody else showed more improvement. The middle-school U-Terns came out of the mud to count 173 species, a new record for their age group by eight. And the Merlins, five grade-school girls from Maryland who'd been training nearly every Saturday since October, recorded 136 species, a new high for their division. With their matching pink caps, ponytails, and delighted grins, they also set a record for "cutest team" that may stand for years.
And in what was arguably the day's greatest accomplishment, Pete Dunne's team set a new North American record for the number of species seen from a single 17-foot circle on a "big stay": 139. The three (or four) teammates quit for the day believing they had an even 140, but on recounting discovered they'd missed a species that was abundant in the city streets a short distance away: the humble house sparrow.
As clock hands turned deeper into Sunday morning, one by one the teams left the old Cape May fire station, going to beds where they'd be asleep as soon as heads touched pillows, to wake to the rallying cry so familiar to fans of that other World Series: "Wait'll next year." By the following May, the blackburnian warblers and their multifarious fellow migrants would have traveled to the tropics and back, to spread again across New Jersey's woods and fields, to assure—in their infinite variety of color and form, of song and grace—that nobody in this competition ever really loses.