Welcome to the World Series of Birding
Dr. Jim Kellam, Associate Professor of Biology
Saint Vincent College
Let’s play a guessing game. First, let’s list the states within 100 miles of the Pennsylvania border: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Now for each of those ten states, think about the number of bird species that might be found within them. Of course, the number of species might differ depending on the season, so let’s narrow it down to precisely May 14, 2022. Using data from eBird, which one of these ten states had the highest species total? Answer: New York with 270 species. But New York is the largest state in this list, so it could be expected to harbor the most species simply because it is large. If one takes the number of species found in a state on May 14, 2022, and divides it by the area of landmass, one finds the three states with the largest numbers of species per square mile: Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Now from this list, exclude any state that starts with C or D, and what do you get? That’s right: New Jersey! I had to get us to that state somehow because that’s where I recently took 14 Saint Vincent College students to New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding.
Yes, you read that right. There is a World Series of Birding. It’s a 24-hour competition to find the most species of birds in a single 24-hour period, from 12:00am to 11:59pm on a Saturday in May. The competition is timed to coincide with the peak of the spring migratory season, and 39 years ago the location was chosen as Cape May County, NJ, because it is a peninsula that birds use to navigate from south to north. In addition, the county has a surprisingly varied number of habitats that attract a varied number of species. There is deep forest, inland wetlands, pine barrens, coastal wetlands, urban areas, farms, and beaches.
Saint Vincent College was represented by three teams out of 87 this year. All teams are required to raise money for conservation programs around the world, and we chose the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve near our campus in Latrobe, Pa. But beyond the fundraising and fun of competition, there is a scientific value to the competition. It’s a “citizen science” project in which the bird lists that are compiled provide a snapshot of which birds are at Cape May on a certain day, and which birds are not. By comparing these lists year after year, scientists can determine how migratory patterns are changing as well as how changes in habitat affect species populations and distributions. For example, if Forster’s Terns are becoming more common over the years and Common Terns are becoming less common, scientists can start investigating what might have caused the change.
Many of the competing teams do a lot of preparation for the event. Saint Vincent’s three teams met together weekly during spring semester to study and plan the trip. We also arrived in Cape May early to scout the area for the less common species and familiarize ourselves with the places they were found. On “game day,” though, we were competitors and did not share our strategies or sightings with one another. I was pleased with all the teams’ tallies. The students relied on me during previous outings to identify the birds, and prior to the competition I wondered if the students had developed their skills independently from me. They did! Our team totals were 108, 90, and 80 species, respectively. Combining our three lists gives us 127 species and we found another 2 species while scouting together on the Thursday and Friday before the competition, but these data are not included in the official totals.
There are numerous World Series divisions in which teams compete. Our team was a “Level 1” team in the Cape May County Category (Level 1 teams are the most competitive). There were seven teams in our category, and they were much harder to beat compared to past years. The Saint Vincent teams came in fourth, fifth, and sixth places, respectively. The winning team had competed in 19 other World Series competitions. They won with 165 species! Winning this competition requires not only superb identification skills (usually by ear), but also a refined strategy that can only be learned by participation over many years.
There were three colleges that sent teams: Saint Vincent, Cornell University, and Princeton University. The two Ivy League schools competed in a different division than SVC, but still, it was nice to be in their company! It says to others that small colleges can do this, too.
Finding a large number of species in a short amount of time requires a detailed itinerary to visit a variety of habitats at certain times of day. For example, where and at what time would we find the most nocturnal birds? Some species like the owls would be found in forests at night, while the rails could be heard in the marshes at the same time. Those are different habitats and we had to travel between them. We had to be in deep forest to hear the “dawn chorus,” an assembly of warblers and thrushes that sing most frequently at dawn. Meanwhile, we were looking for certain shorebirds at low tide, or high tide, or on the Delaware Bay side of the peninsula, or the Atlantic Ocean side of the peninsula; so our timing and travel to these locations had to be just right. I was frustrated with the persistent fog during the day that particularly limited visibility along the coast. This prevented seeing a number of seabirds, shorebirds, and raptors. However, it doesn’t explain why my team missed the American Goldfinch, a common species usually found away from the coast! Notably absent from all three of our teams’ lists are the cuckoos, thrushes, and tanagers that we’ve found in past years.
Our teams were made up of mostly new participants with little birding experience, and that’s okay and great! This event has assuredly deepened these students’ love for nature and many said they expected to continue bird watching. The first step in learning birds was identifying them by sight, and I taught the students to identify more than 200 species this way. The second step in learning birds is by their calls and songs. We learned a few of these during our study sessions and a few more after that in the days before our competition, but generally the students don’t have the time during the semester to do what is needed to place 1st or 2nd or 3rd in the competition. Earning one of those spots would certainly give us bragging rights, but again, it’s not really the point of going on this trip. We build on what we have and where we are. As long as the students learned to like birds and see them in habitats they’ve rarely seen before, the trip is a success.
This last thought is why I’m writing this particular blog post for PixCams. The work that PixCams does is introduce to the public incredible examples of bird and wildlife behavior that would be otherwise missed. We’ll never know how impactful PixCams will be for most people, but the promise is there. The more people who are exposed to the natural world, whether it be through a fun birding competition or through wildlife cameras broadcasting to the web, the more enthusiasm we can generate for the protection of the Earth.