Every year, on the second Saturday in May, dozens of teams of birders search the fields, woods, marshes, and coastlines of New Jersey to try to find as many species of birds as possible in a single sleepless, twenty-four hour day of birding called The World Series of Birding, organized by New Jersey Audubon.
By Eamon Corbett and Billy Kaselow
Every year, on the second Saturday in May, dozens of teams of birders search the fields, woods, marshes, and coastlines of New Jersey to try to find as many species of birds as possible in a single sleepless, twenty-four hour day of birding called The World Series of Birding, organized by New Jersey Audubon. This year, I competed on the New York state young birders club team, the Razorbills, in the main competition (with teammates Nathanial Hernandez and Galen Frank-Bishop). Another young birder, Billy Kaselow, was on a “century run” team that spent the day at Sandy Hook, in northeastern New Jersey. As anyone who has done the World Series knows, timing is critical. So here, in interspersed chronological order, Billy (black text) and I (green text) share our World Series of Birding experiences:
Midnight: Staring into the dark marsh at Great Swamp. A Marsh Wren singing its gurgling song is bird number one. A Virginia Rail sounds off with its odd “ki-dik ki-dik” call, but the marsh is surprisingly quiet otherwise, with no signs of the hoped for Sora, bittern, or other rails.
12:45–1:00am: At a different part of the refuge, we hear the barking and hooting of both Barred and Great Horned owls.
~2:30am: Lewisberg Marsh doesn’t get any new marsh birds, but a Barred Owl perched right over the car is a very nice bonus, if not a new species.
~3:15am: Our last night spot, by Owens Station Road, is unproductive until we take a wrong turn and hear American Woodcock, a nice and somewhat unexpected bird. This underscores how big of a factor luck is in the competition. If we had gone the way we had intended too, we would have missed the woodcock. On the other hand, maybe we missed a mega-rarity by a minute or two sometime later in the day because of that wrong turn. We’ll never know.
4:00am: Our night spots done, and with over an hour until dawn, we take a nap in the car by our first morning spot, dubbed “Vesper Sparrow Hill” by birders.
4:00–5:30am: I wake up early for my first Sandy Hook Century Run. I wasn’t able to do the entire state this year but I am excited to see how this will compare. As I try to get the strength to leave my bed I am contemplating the marathon weekend I have ahead of me. This weekend I will be doing the century run and then immediately following it, participating in the all night Relay For Life at my high school. With plenty of Clif Bars and GORP packed tightly away into the car, we set off for one of my places ever, Sandy Hook.
5:00am: Vesper Sparrow Hill lives up to its name, as we hear its namesake singing just after we get out of the car. Savannah and Field Sparrows are also singing, in addition to some of the more common species like American Robin, Wood Thrush, Eastern Phoebe, and Common Yellowthroat. On the way down the hill, we have a surprise, heard-only Ring-necked Pheasant.
5:15–6:00am: We spend some more time (too much time, it would turn out) in the grasslands area near the hill, ticking Eastern Meadowlark and Brown Thrasher, plus Solitary Sandpiper, Killdeer, and Spotted Sandpiper at a small pond. We miss American Kestrel and Bobolink, though. On the way to some woodland stops we hear a Willow Flycatcher right by the road. We had heard that there was a small pond that was supposed to be good for Green Heron right off the road and sure enough, we saw it perched on a spout in the middle of the tiny pond. It helps to have good info!
5:30–7:00am: As my Dad and I arrive at beautiful Sandy Hook, a flock of about 15 Black Skimmers fly past the sun rising over the horizon. It was a propitious start to the day. We then met up with the rest of our group. It was a pretty large group full of old and friends and some that I had never met before. When everyone was accounted for we went out onto the bay side on to Plum Island, which is a small marshy area on the Raritan side of the Hook. There we had a good start to our day, getting many of our needed marsh and water birds. The buzzy call of Seaside Sparrow rang from the marsh and the sound of gulls and terns resounded everywhere around us. Least Terns flew over us cackling and Clapper Rails sounded off from within the grass. We heard the exuberant calls of Willets overhead and it was a very good start to the day. Perhaps our best bird from that stop, however, was a male Bobolink that flew overhead calling and then perched out in the top of a tree very cooperatively. This is an amazing place to witness diurnal migration of songbirds. Flocks of Eastern Kingbirds flew past, giving their electronic flight calls. Flocks of hundreds of Blue Jays also frequent this spot in the spring.
~6:15am: We had heard that the AT&T tower had nesting ravens: practically a guaranteed bird. There are no ravens when we are there. We do find some scattered large black feathers: the remains of a raven? Lots of warblers are nice, though: Ovenbird, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Black-throated Green, American Redstart, and more.
~6:45am: The spot for most of our expected landbirds is in High Point State Park, which we are late in getting to. The theme here is simple: we spend too much time and find too few birds. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of good birds: I got killer looks at a Cerulean Warbler, and there were lots of birds around. We check off most expected warblers, but don’t get anything really unexpected, and we leave the area well behind schedule with not enough checkmarks on the list.
7:00–10:30am: We were then given the word that we were pressed for time and had to leave the island. Our next stop was along the north end by the hawk watch. Little did I know that this would be one of the most fun birding experiences of my life. The morning chorus was amazing; I was actually running for birds. It was at this spot where we got the bulk of our warbler species for the day. The sun was still rising and bugs were just warming up enough to become active. What I love about Sandy Hook is that you can be watching warblers and then you hear oystercatchers and terns flying over as well. Soon enough, shouts were ringing out in all directions: “Cape May Warbler!” “Blackburnian Warbler!” The amount of birds was awesome and in this low shrubby habitat, many of the views we were getting were just about at eye-level. We got about 15 species of warblers at this one spot alone. Including the two that I mentioned earlier, and also Blue-Winged, Nashville, and Wilson’s. This spot was not just good for warblers however. We found shorebirds, herons, and an extremely cooperative Lincoln’s Sparrow, along with four species of vireos and both Scarlet and Summer tanagers. Summer Tanager may have been our best bird from this stop, actually. It was an amazing time, running through the winding trails at the north end of Sandy Hook with birds all around us.
~8:00am: Culver’s Lake: Bufflehead, Wilson’s Warbler. More time spent. I think somewhere around this point I open the first of the five cans of Mountain Dew I would drink over the course of the 24 hours. It might have actually been earlier though.
~10:00am: Our first driver switch, at a McDonald’s and 1.5 hours late. Leaving the north with just over 80 species. Certainly not a bad day, but not on pace for a particularly high WSB total. The drive to the south lasts around 2 hours 30 minutes. We take the quicker route, which has us drive through Pennsylvania for a few minutes. Of course the only Broad-winged Hawk of the day soars overhead in these few minutes, uncountable.
10:30am–1:00pm: As we were finally dragged out from the north end we then went on to look for birds along the all-purpose path that runs through the hook. Here we had many repeat warblers, including Blackburnian and Cape May, which turned out to be some of the more common birds of the day. We picked up four of the five thrushes seen that day, along with Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Least Flycatcher all calling. We also had many Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, a male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird zipped by, and people were bushwhacking in hopes of kicking up a Mourning Warbler, although their efforts went unrewarded. We did hear a new warbler, Northern Waterthrush, singing from deep within the brush. We then emerged from the woods and went to the water, where we found the lingering Long-Tailed Duck that must have been injured or sick in some way. Though it seemed to swimming and diving perfectly well, it was sad knowing that that bird was probably not going to make it to the following winter; at the same time, it was really interesting to see one in breeding plumage. We also picked up Solitary and Spotted sandpipers at this spot. We then visited my friends at the banding station. I was able to break off from the group for a bit to help with the banding. On every run the nets were being filled with Canada and Magnolia warblers and American Redstarts, among other species. At this point someone spotted a perched Common Nighthawk in perfect light. We also found two more Cape May Warblers in this area. We then were all ready for a much needed lunch break.
~12:30pm: Our first stop in the south, at the Millville Airport, fails to turn up the hoped-for Horned Larks.
~12:45pm: A couple of stops in Cumberland county for southern passerines. In the midday heat, we get Summer Tanager, Kentucky Warbler, and Acadian Flycatcher but miss Blue Grosbeak and Prothonotary Warbler.
1:00–2:00pm: We went out onto one of the boardwalks on the Raritan side of the hook for lunch. We ended up getting a ton of good birds from just sitting in this one spot. We had two flyover Bank Swallows, three Black Vultures, one Broad-Winged Hawk and almost all of our shorebirds, including Ruddy Turnstone, Short-Billed Dowitcher, and by far our best bird of the day: Linda Mack spotted a Marbled Godwit on the sand. Least Terns were constantly calling and feeding about 30 feet from us and Boat-Tailed Grackles came in, too. There were a couple of late Red-Breasted Mergansers, as well. This was a fun time of the day, as we shared stories, reminisced about past trips, shared lists, and told light-hearted jokes. Soon enough we were up and back on our way.
~1:30pm: We decide to cut out a stop at Heislerville in the hopes of picking up more shorebirds later at Brigantine, and head south for Cape May to try to pick up some substantial species numbers. First we stop at Jakes Landing and locate the expected Saltmarsh and Seaside sparrows and get good looks at both of these cool species.
2:00–3:30pm: At this point we had hit pretty much all of the well-known hot spots around the Hook so then we were brought around by the Sandy Hook expert Scott Barnes. He took us through all of the deepest parts of Sandy Hook. Most of the places we went were areas that I had never been to before. A lot of the time we were in the dense, holly forest for which Sandy Hook is famous. We weren’t finding many new birds at this point, but we did get incredible looks at beautiful birds such as Scarlet Tanager and Canada Warbler. At this point my energy was starting to fade. The birds were quieting down, as well, so that wasn’t helping, but the perfect note to end the day on was finally getting my life/nemesis bird Gray-Cheeked Thrush! It was a really fun day with some awesome birds (a total of 126 species) and a bunch of awesome people.
~2:30–5:00pm: The final major daylight push at Cape May. Passerines at Higbee Beach, plus some shorebirds and terns and my life Fence Lizards. Eurasian Collared Doves don’t show at their staked-out spot, but the South Cape May Meadows is productive as usual, and we get Piping Plover, among lots of other shorebirds. At Cove Pool the possibility of Cliff Swallows doesn’t pan out, but a pair of Blue-winged Teal makes the stop worthwhile. Our species total is now in the 120s range, low for a state-wide big day but reasonable considering the lack of scouting. We head north, hoping to get to Brigantine before it closes.
6:00pm-ish: We stop at the Wetlands Institute north of Cape May for shorebirds and herons, and see plenty, with Whimbrels and Little Blue Heron as the highlights. On the way there we spotted our first Boat-tailed Grackles in the saltmarsh. On Nummy Island we find Brant, but not Tricolored Heron or either night-heron. We realize that it is too late to try to make it up to Brigantine before dark, and decide to try for the night-herons at Avalon. On the way we pick up a fly-over Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, supposedly the rarer of the two, but at the roost we can’t find a single Black-crowned among the handful of Yellow-crowns.
~8:00pm: En route to some last spots to try to pick up night birds, we see an egret fly over the road and land in a group of trees across a river from the road. We stop and realize that the trees are covered in dozens of egrets. Perched among them? A couple of Black-crowned Night-Herons!
9:00-10:30pm: Exhaustion can’t get in the way of trying to pick up a few more species. We stop at Jakes Landing again. A pair of night-feeding Black Skimmers fly silently by, their lower mandibles cutting the water in search of food. No new birds though, so we try at Belleplain Forest for nightjars. It’s surprisingly quiet, but soon we hear the loud song of a Whip-por-will, giving us 134 species. The number is interesting because it is exactly the number of species that our team had the year before, birding just Cape May County. A couple more tries for Chuck-will’s Widow fail, and the Whip-por-will turns out to be the last bird of the day. Midnight: The finish line in Cape May. A group of mostly zombie-like birders check and double-check their lists, and keep and eye on the official scoreboard. As expected, our tally of 134 doesn’t take first in the youth category: that distinction goes to the B.B. Kingfishers, with an impressive 173 species. The overall winning team had 207 species. Still, we are really happy with our day, we saw a ton of cool birds, and are already planning how to do even better next year.
~1am Sunday: SLEEP
About the authors:
Eamon Corbett is a 16-year-old birder and bird blogger from Pelham, New York, and one of the Student Blog Editors of The Eyrie. He has been birding for almost as long as he could talk, thanks in part to regular family vacations to Florida, where Osprey and Turkey Vultures first caught his eye. Read more of Eamon’s writing on his blog, Flight Log (www.birdersflightlog.blogspot.com).
Billy Kaselow is a 16-year-old birder from New Jersey. He started seriously birding three years ago. His favorite groups of birds are shorebirds because identifying them can be a challenge and they’re just cool. He particularly likes phalaropes. Warblers are also a favorite of his because of their intense patterns and cool songs. He has been banding songbirds for the last several years at a couple of places around the state and hopes to eventually get his own permit.