An Annual Birding Competition Adapts to the Pandemic By Going Global

Every spring, birders at the American Museum of Natural History vie to see the most birds in Central Park. This year, competing from their quarantine spots around the world brought unexpected benefits.

One morning in early April, I was awakened by a pair of Blackburnian Warblers singing outside my window in Bogotá, Colombia, where I’m sheltering in place amid the pandemic. For an entire hour I observed them from my terrace, watching them hunt insects and eat fruit, gaining weight and preparing for their long journey north. 

Last year I saw these tiny songbirds near the end of that long journey, in New York City, where I work. I jostled among dozens of birders in Central Park to get a look at the Blackburnians and other migrants that descend on the 840-acre urban oasis. And in the crowd, I often saw familiar faces: my rivals in a friendly annual birding competition among staff and colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in Manhattan. 

In past years of the contest, every species had to be seen within the boundaries of Central Park. This year, that was impossible, due to COVID-19. The 15 competitors are scattered across the city, country, and world, with many of us having returned to our hometowns in the early days of the outbreak. So we decided to take the competition global, and agreed any bird that can be observed safely is fair game. The rules are simple: From April 1 through May 31, participants receive one point for each bird they see and half a point if they only hear it. The honor system applies, tasteful heckling is encouraged, and the winner lays claim to bragging rights.

With less than a week to go, we’ve seen 320 species in total, and 148 spotted from inside our homes. The tally includes: a Barred Owl in Portland, Oregon; a Broad-winged Hawk in Upstate New York; a Pileated Woodpecker in northern Manhattan; a Red-throated Loon in Brooklyn; a Wood Stork in Florida; a Black-tailed Trainbearer in Bogotá; and a Reed Bunting in London. Last year’s winner Jerry Huntley, a former ornithology postdoc, saw a remarkable 153 species in Central Park, an important migratory stopover site in a highly urbanized stretch of the Atlantic Flyway. This spring, Paul Sweet, collection manager of ornithology, who has been birding mostly around Brooklyn, has the lead with an outstanding 159 species. And Joe DiCostanzo, who works on the Great Gull Island Project at the museum, is at the head of the indoor-counters pack with 50 birds observed from his window overlooking Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan. 

The birding competition is the brainchild of Rachael Joakim, a doctoral candidate at AMNH who is ticking off species near her home in northern Manhattan this spring. An admittedly competitive person, she says she wanted to tap that drive to learn to identify migrating warblers. In 2017 Rachael rounded up a handful of colleagues to join in the pursuit, and they had such a good time that the following year they organized a more formal contest, which drew experienced and novice birders alike. “The competition sparked the enthusiasm that tipped me from casual observer to birder,” says Emily Edmonds-Langham, my fellow environmental educator at the museum.

For me the group camaraderie combined with the joy of being outdoors has been integral to learning about birds. The competition provided an excuse to take daily group walks to Central Park during our lunch hour, where the more experienced birders generously shared their knowledge. This spring we’ve continued to tally birds in an online spreadsheet, and relied much more heavily on our WhatsApp group. Whereas before we used the messaging app to organize outings and mull over the occasional tricky ID, now it enables us to share the birds we are seeing while we remain isolated, and, in doing so, share some joy and respite during these unsettling times. 

That isolation has had some benefits. Alex Garretson, an animal husbandry specialist at AMNH, has noticed how the social distancing constraints he’s experiencing in Brooklyn have made him more self-reliant as a birder: “I can’t depend on others with more experience to identify tricky species, so I’ve gotten better at using guides and identifying bird songs by myself,” he says. 

Like Alex, I’ve honed my ability to identify bird songs this year and have noticed that I'm becoming more patient. While Colombia has more bird species than any other country, Bogotá has the strictest social-distancing measures of any place a participant is living. As a result, I’ve only been able to bird from my terrace, which has a frustratingly limited vantage point. Yet these circumstances have forced me to rely more on calls and to embrace simply waiting to see what will appear in the slice of greenery below. 

On a recent Sunday morning, this approach rewarded me with a lifer sighting: a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, a common bird in the Andes that is easily heard but very hard to see due to its elusive nature. I heard its call coming from a nearby tree, but I couldn’t pinpoint its location at first. After about 30 minutes of keeping my binoculars focused on the tree, the bird hopped into view for a few seconds before disappearing once again into the forest of the Eastern Hills of Bogotá. 

For many of us, this year’s competition has been a way to rediscover our hometowns through birds. Growing up in England, William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at AMNH and CUNY, never saw a Red Kite, a species nearly extirpated from the United Kingdom by hunting. Thanks to a reintroduction program started in the 1990's, today the population has rebounded to more than 3,000 individuals, one of which he spotted in Regents Park in London. 

Meanwhile, in her hometown in Florida, Bentley Bird, a museum specialist in the ornithology collection, has been putting to use the birding-by-ear skills she gained in college, picking out for the first time the teakettle, teakettle, teakettle of the Carolina Wren there. 

And though my tally is significantly smaller than last year— 44.5 down from 125—I have developed an appreciation for the incredible avian diversity of my country, which I was oblivious to as a kid. Nearly half of all hummingbirds in the world can be found in Colombia, I’ve learned, and I’ve spotted nine species from my terrace. (My fascination with these birds has resulted in some good-natured ribbing—I’ve been called a show-off for bragging about them.)

As the competition has progressed, I’ve noticed that we’re doing more than just counting species. We are patiently observing the behavior of individual birds, even rooting for them, taking a much more personal interest than ever before. Every time science educator Kristen Olson goes for a walk in her native Portland, she stops to check on a pair of nesting Red-breasted Nuthatches, anxious to see new developments. These animals are our neighbors. They are part of our urban ecosystems that so many of us are getting to know for the first time, or more deeply amid COVID-19 shutdowns. 

And while I am missing the lunchtime outings in Central Park, I’m uplifted by the thought that my friends in Florida and New York might see the Blackburnian Warbler that I spotted last month in Bogotá. I hope that the Western Wood-Pewee, which I struggled to properly identify in Bogotá, might soon make a visit to my dear friend in Portland. It is a powerful feeling to share a passion and sense of wonder across borders, and to be reminded that birds connect us, even when we can't be together.