The World Series of Birding

“Guys, it’s midnight!”

As Brendan had pointed out, the clock on Alex’s car had officially changed to 12:00. We rolled the windows down in hope of hearing some miraculous birds from outside the car. The wind made us a little cold and we were all operating on insufficient amounts of sleep, but birds were the most pertinent thing for our team for the next 24 hours. This is the World Series of Birding.

We drove down a backroad in northern Cape May County on our way to our first location. Some car trouble early in the day made us a little late, but that would not affect our total at all. We headed to a boat launch in Tuckahoe where we had the possibility of finding some owls, nightjars or rails. When we arrived at the remote little parking lot, we opened the doors and were surrounded by a pitch-black sky. The only sounds were wind and moving water. And a whippoorwill! Our first bird of the day made a distant call repeatedly. Our first bird was a life bird for me – this is surreal. Even more interesting was the loud “peent” of an American Woodcock, a great bird for this early in the day. But shortly after that, we heard the most dreaded noise in all of birding.

“Tsip.”

Oh God. Flight calls. Now we were good with almost all bird sounds but one thing our team was weak in was the nocturnal flight calls of warbler species. We would have to get used to hearing wonderful warblers pass by us overhead without being able to identify them, and it was hard. We knew the experienced teams could ID these, and they would have a significant advantage on us from the start, but luckily Alex could nab one of them. “That’s a Savannah Sparrow,” he said. Alex was good with most groups of birds except warblers, so we hoped that NFCs wouldn’t be too devastating.

After the realization that our night shift would put us at a disadvantage, we moved on to a location for Eastern Screech-Owls. Alex noted that he has been “screech-owl cursed” for the last few years, and we all agreed that it would be a difficult bird. No screech-owls showed up (what a surprise) but we did have a bunch of Chuck-will’s-widows calling around us. This was a bird that Jory needed as a lifer, so four birds (and half an hour) in Jory and I each had one lifer – a different eastern nightjar.

Before leaving Tuckahoe we decided to check up on one last spot in the area, a bridge on Tyler Road that could get us King Rail. It was important to stay on schedule; if we got behind it could ruin our route. We stood on the side of the road at 1 AM listening for rail calls for a while; unfortunately all we had was a Clapper. In hopes of still getting King, we waited around a little more, and we were rewarded by a Great Horned Owl calling in the distance. After a little more frustration over warbler NFCs, we got out of there and moved on. We began to move south towards Cape Island, searching Stipsons Island Road for more rails or night-calling shorebirds. As soon as we got in we were bombarded by tons and tons of Clapper Rails – the only way to properly describe this amount was an “orgy” of Clapper Rails. Seriously, they seemed to be everywhere. We added a few birds by voice – nothing we wouldn’t see during the day – and moved on.

Jakes Landing was right nearby, and we hoped to get some more rails or calling birds here at night. We also hoped that nobody was there getting drunk – birders have been hit with beer bottles there at night before. We cautiously pulled up to the boat launch and noticed we were in the clear – phew! However Jakes was sort of quiet, and we headed down to Cape Island to finish off the night shift.

The Cape Island night shift was also slightly annoying – mainly because of the WhatsApp. The WhatsApp seemed like a convenient tool to help birders make their sightings known quickly to others. However, it somewhat killed our night as people began reporting rails and owls north of the Cape May Canal. Should we go back to Tuckahoe and bird the same spots we already had, or continue owling on Cape Island? We decided for the former, and it killed us. We spent an hour up in Tuckahoe seeing absolutely nothing, and upon return to Cape Island we also saw nothing. Heck, at one spot we saw a bat looking for that cursed Eastern Screech-Owl and I got excited just to see an effing flying object.

After missing screech-owl for about the millionth time, we went back north to begin our day shift – starting out at the lovely Belleplain State Forest. We got out of the car and the singing had already begun (whippoorwills were still singing too); Wood Thrushes had already made their appearance and it wasn’t even 5 AM yet. We turned a corner and heard an Acadian Flycatcher calling – life bird! However with passerines I don’t count it as a lifer until I see the bird so I waited around. “C’mon, Peter, we have to go!” Well, guess I’m not getting my life bird. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little annoying. It was here where I got my first taste of World Series birding – no time for trying to see birds that you’ve already ticked, and the paramount matter is always the species count. (You will notice there aren’t any photos on this – we were too busy birding at an awesome clip and seeing great birds to take any.) Adding birds at a feverish pace, we rushed from spot to spot at Belleplain, adding all sorts of warblers and other breeders. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it – I did get to see my life Yellow-throated Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo – but it was a little stressful. Belleplain is a big place, and we had a lot of spots to hit. It got a little frantic when we weren’t even hearing the goddamn Hooded Warblers at their super-reliable spot, but we got one song and got the heck out of there – we had already wasted enough time waiting for those birds. Overall Belleplain was awesome – we got most of what we wanted along with some extra surprise birds. We added an awesome array of passerines that included Prothonotary Warbler, Summer Tanager and Blue Grosbeak – all hard to see in Connecticut.

The two-hour long stay at Belleplain was followed by some quick stops elsewhere in northern Cape May county. We efficiently added Solitary Sandpiper and Horned Lark, before heading to Jake’s Landing to dip on Saltmarsh Sparrow. (Note: Jory had what he was quite sure was a junco on the road somewhere, and we really should have gone back to check on it – oh well.) Having got up at 12, we felt like it was already afternoon at 8 in the morning, but we were still running on adrenaline. Our next stop was Beaver Swamp where we planned to look for Wood Duck. We pulled in the dirt road and saw some pretty good-sized puddles. Brendan’s dad’s Subaru easily went through them and they weren’t that deep, making a big splash for each one. Splash, splash, splash…

The car started sinking. This puddle was deeper than the other ones.

We tried. But we couldn’t get out.

Remember when I said, “The most paramount matter is always the species count”? Yeah, this would hurt our species count. I’m not sure which sank faster, the car or our hearts as we realized that our big day may be over. We thought about all the potential this day had and that it had been vanquished all because of one stupid puddle. We sat there for hours waiting for the tow truck to come, watching the tow truck leave because it couldn’t get to the car correctly, getting annoyed when the cab couldn’t find us and many more fun things. We did get a Red-shouldered Hawk, the lone highlight of this terrible experience. Driven to finish the day if only to fulfill the per-bird fundraising donations people had pledged, we eventually made it back to Alex’s car at about 11:45, sleepy and cynical.

Having to cut places like Reed’s Beach (goodbye Red Knots) and our Cattle Egret spot for the day, we decided to pick up where the schedule had us right about then, in Stone Harbor at the Wetlands Institute. This spot was pretty good, and before we even parked we had good looks at Tricolored and Little Blue Herons on the side of the road. The shorebird pools were even better, getting us some coastal birds we’d been missing including a few White-rumped Sandpipers. If the World Series really was like a baseball game, we might be on our way to a big inning late in the game. After that Nummy Island yielded some roadside shorebirds, one of which was the Whimbrel we were looking for. We were coming up on 130 – would 150 still be in reach? Driven by our late resurgence, we confidently pushed on.

Stone Harbor Point was our next spot, and Alex and Jory wandered away in search of Piping Plovers while Brendan and I seawatched. Feeling good after having spotted a Brown Thrasher here, we were confident that the plovers could be around. Common Loons were new for the day and we added a couple out on the water; unfortunately Alex and Jory could not get to them since they were looking for plovers. They were unsuccessful, but more importantly, we realized the importance in staying together no matter what. Only 5% of the birds that our whole team didn’t see would count! Another lesson came at the US Coast Guard ponds – don’t break the WSB rules when the NJ Audubon people are around. We had to make sure they didn’t see Alex driving when we pulled up in search of Northern Shovelers. Not only did we get the birds, but they didn’t find out, and we continued on our separate ways.

More craziness ensued after a short stop at Wawa, where a little car trouble turned into a locked steering wheel and a troubling experience. We eventually figured out how to start the car, but we all felt the ominous feeling that the big day was ending early once again. Thankful that the car had started but slightly worried about the rest of the day, we continued on.

A few more quick stops took care of themselves quickly, and in a blink of an eye it was 3:00. A couple lucky birds like some Black Skimmers on the shores of the Cape May Canal, some Lesser Black-backed Gulls seawatching from Cape Island, and a Roya Tern at Stone Harbor had got us back in the game for 150. It was time to focus on some key birds we were missing, like Red Knot, Green-winged Teal… and goldfinch?! It’s 3:00 and we still didn’t have a goldfinch yet! We checked the feeders at the Northwood Centre, and there was nothing there! How could we go an entire day without seeing one? Then again, a goldfinch isn’t that big of a deal – it’s worth just as much as any other species here. A little extra seawatching got us our second scoter species of the day – we now had Surf and Black. Lily Lake didn’t have any Warbling Vireos – a surprisingly hard bird to get down here. A quick stop at the Cape May Point State Park was important not for birds, but because we would reunite with Brendan’s dad and his rental car. We left Alex’s car at CMPSP for the moment and continued towards Higbee Beach.

The entire area around Higbee was quite dead, and this was unfortunate as we were still missing migrants such as Black-throated Green and Chestnut-sided. Because we had focused our morning on the nesters at Belleplain (which was still a good idea) we had missed some of the good morning birds that Higbee had turned up. Sitting on 134 species, we headed towards the Cape May Meadows.

The Cape May Meadows is the best! Immediately upon arrival we picked up some dabbling ducks we needed, like Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Gadwall and Mute Swan. And most importantly, some goldfinches flushed from some bushes near the trail entrance – finally we picked up that darn bird. As the evening came upon us the light was getting really nice for birding, and just as we neared the end of the trail we noticed a couple things. First, there were a pair of Stilt Sandpipers in the pond and they allowed for awesome views of a great bird. Second, an enormous rainstorm was coming. This is the type of storm that leaves the entire sky covered by dark blue clouds. This is the type of storm that would drench all of Cape May County in no more than an hour. And at this time the clouds were halfway towards us, so the sky was split right down the middle between beautiful late afternoon and menacing storm. Even more breathtaking was the ghostly second-year Iceland Gull that flew in front of the stormy clouds. Not only was this a day bird, but the contrast between this all-white gull and the dark sky was astounding. If we weren’t on a tight schedule, that would be a moment to just sit and think, “Can you even believe we’re here right now?”

It was a good thing we didn’t sit around and reminisce – the heavens opened up not long after that. We hurried for the shelter of the rental car and killed some time driving around the island. What could we even see in this type of rain? We sat around at Higbee Beach taking turns jumping out of the car, realizing the rain was worse than we thought, running for cover, and repeating. Soon enough the rain lightened up to the point where we could bird Higbee once again, and we heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler chip which was somehow a day bird. Right was we left I picked a White-throated Sparrow out of some bushes, a fairly late bird that was also new. Having cleaned up on some birds here, we headed right back to the Meadows (where else?) but before we even made it there we had some awesome news.

I had been keeping the list, so I always knew exactly what our species count was. On the way to the Meadows we were at 142, and 150 would be a stretch and would involve an amazing second night shift. But I realized that the list app didn’t count birds that got flagged as rare until comments were included, so some of our birds didn’t count to the list! In one second we had improved from 142 to 147, and our outlook had drastically changed. Three new birds at the Meadows would get us our goal!

When we got to the Meadows for the second time, the views were just heavenly. After the storm had quickly swept through the area, the entire landscape was painted with a brush of ethereal color. All the greens, blues and even browns we could see were intensified and saturated. But we had business to take care of, and we quickly did. We added a Common Nighthawk flying low over the observation platform (148) and heard a peenting American Woodcock (not new) in the distance. Watching the sun set, we sat on the platform with some other teams, watching the ducks and shorebirds retreat to sleep (or migrate north). Calmly enjoying the twilight scenery, we were happily greeted by calling Black-crowned Night Herons (149!) flying over. Their silhouettes gave us comfort and excitement – we were only one away.

As the last slivers of light disappeared from the sky, Alex and Jory’s ears perked up. “I think I just heard a Virginia Rail,” Alex calmly commented. Jory affirmed; he had heard it too. Although Brendan and I didn’t hear it, we had done such a good job sticking together that we had lots of room for 95% birds. We hadn’t seen or heard a Virginia Rail yet today, and this was bird number 150.

But not so fast! For this to be our milestone, our goal, and more importantly, a species count in an actual competition, we had to be positive that it was a rail. Since Brendan and I didn’t hear anything, we mostly just listened to Alex and Jory discuss whether it was really a rail. But as the two of them contemplated, they only became more sure, and we counted it as our milestone bird. We left the Meadows to commence our second night shift, realizing how truly humbling this was to have worked so hard despite our setbacks and achieve our goal.

The second night shift was mostly a bust – searching for Nelson’s Sparrows and Yellow-breasted Chats got us nothing but wet and muddy. The second night shift is tough (especially when we were already content with 150) since we are all tired and have already added most of our target birds. In fact I even started hallucinating a little, or at least I was the only one who was alert enough to notice the strange rodent-like creatures jumping from blade to blade of grass every so often. The finish line gave us the opportunity to finally breathe, eat some good food, and celebrate the best birding experience we’d ever had. This emotional roller coaster that was the World Series of Birding was an unforgettable experience for all, and I’m glad to have went through it with the CTYBC.

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