World Series of Birding takes off in New Jersey
Thirty years ago, Pete Dunne was drinking in a Cape May bar when a great idea struck him: a marathon birding event called The Big Day (in May), wherein birders pit their skills against other birders to see who can spot the most species.
He was so excited that he walked out of the bar still holding a glass beer mug. Today, that mug is a trophy for The World Series of Birding, a 24-hour bird-watching contest starting at midnight Friday night and running to midnight Saturday.
Dunne, 61, is now vice president at the New Jersey Audubon Society. He will compete this year in the "Big Stay" category despite suffering a stroke two months ago. Instead of crisscrossing the state to find rare birds, he will employ his considerable birding skills built over a lifetime in a single spot.
"It pays to be young," said Dunne. "You can't use up an entire lifetime developing skills, but you have to have a little youth and vigor left over."
The best of both worlds
By that criteria, Glen Davis is in the sweet spot. The professional birder has been competing in the World Series of Birding since he was 15 years old. Now 35, he has accrued 20 years of experience and can still claim some of that youthful energy.
"Feeling good in the middle of the afternoon after you've been awake for 15-20 hours -- it's not a normal 15 or 20 hours awake," said Davis, a freelance ornithological researcher and tour guide. "You're gruelingly staring and looking and thinking about the next step. We have to run for birds, if it gets to the point where we need to make good time."
Davis and his three teammates (known as "Zen Zugunruhe," a German word meaning the anxiety of migratory animals) are competing in the geographic category contained by the South Jersey wetlands. Other categories range from the entire state of New Jersey, down to a single park in Cape May.
To be competitive, they need to spot about 175 species of birds. Some are easy, such as the American robin or the laughing gull. More challenging will be sighting a belted kingfisher or a bobwhite.
"One of the ethics in birding is honesty, and it was a concern. If you add the element of competition, would birders lower their high standards?" said Dunne. "What's happened, actually -- because it's a fundraiser -- most of the teams are sharing their totals, the birds they stake out during the week. They trade them with other teams."
This has been a bad year for birding. The unusually cold spring has kept birds from migrating north. Birders are still waiting for a pent-up avalanche of birds to fly over New Jersey as the weather warms. It could happen this weekend.