On a May morning in 2005, then 20-year-old Andrew Del-Colle and his mom were birding in New Jersey, taking advantage of the huge numbers of migratory birds that funnel through the state, resting and refueling on coasts, wetlands, and woodlands. Suddenly, a van screeched to a halt in front of them, four men armed with binoculars jumped out, listened and looked for all of 30 seconds, nodded to each other, then hopped back into the vehicle and sped off. Those wackadoos were taking part in the World Series of Birding, an annual competition in New Jersey to see the most avian species during a designated 24-hour period.
This May marked the 35th anniversary of the event, which is organized and hosted by New Jersey Audubon. More than 1,000 birders took part, some of them flying across the world to identify, by sight or sound, as many birds as possible in the 166-mile long, 7,500 square mile state. Winners get bragging rights and a trophy. Money is involved, but it all goes to bird conservation: Teams raised more than $200,000 this year, bringing the grand total over the event’s history to some $9 million.
To get an inside look at the action, we sent Del-Colle, now Audubon’s site director, Audubon network content editor Martha Harbison, and Buzzfeed reporter Katie Notopoulos to accompany three teams that the organizers deemed to be top contenders in their respective categories: Adult Statewide, Youth Statewide, and Big Stay.
The World Series lasts a mere (or interminable, depending on your viewpoint) 24 hours, but many teams prep for months. Uncertainty and drama descended in the days before this year’s event, which began at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, May 12. Word went out that prescribed burns had been scheduled at one of the primo spots for nabbing a variety of species, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The fires were called off, to everyone’s relief, but only because the forecast called for high winds and driving rain. What, everyone fretted, would it mean for the birds?
A final note for the uninitiated: 95 percent of birds recorded by a team must be identified by all members; those that only some members hear or see are deemed “dirty.”
Team: Nick Kontonicolas, Jonathan Wasse, Marc Chelemer, Ken Walsh
Category: Adult, Entire State
Rules: At least three team members, all 18 or older, count birds by sight or sound anywhere in New Jersey.
Plan of attack: The team splits up its scouting and scheduling work. Mark, from New Jersey, and Ken, from Pennsylvania, each spent roughly 10 hours canvassing the north. Jonathan, who lives in England, flew in early to spend 35 hours scouting the south. Nick, the team leader, came from Chicago and largely helped finalize the route: a clockwise course that begins in northern marshlands and wends its way south, leaving time for audibles after nightfall.
Reporter: Andrew Del-Colle
Team: Brothers Daniel (16) and Jonathan (14) Irons, Joshua Heiser (17), and Patrick Newcombe (16); all are members of the Youth Maryland Ornithological Society. Mike Irons (dad to Daniel and Jonathan) is their mentor, and Patrick's dad, Brian Newcombe, is the backup driver.
Category: Youth Division C (high school), Entire State
Rules: Teams can bird anywhere in the state and must have an adult mentor, who can also be the designated driver; no team member may drive.
Plan of attack: The Irons arrived a week early to scout locations and birds; Joshua and Patrick joined later. Daniel and Patrick pored over eBird reports for several months and looked at satellite images on Google Maps to find new sites. They'll move north to south.
Reporter: Katie Notopoulos
Team: Mike Anderson, brothers Dan and Ron Barkley
Category: Big Stay
Rules: Teams of three or more members count within a circle measuring 17 feet in diameter. If any member leaves the boundary, a timeout is called, and no birds can be counted until he returns.
Plan of attack: Ron picked up a menu from a local deli.
Reporter: Martha Harbison
11:45 p.m., May 11
Marsh Gigglers, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
A few minutes before midnight, Mike, this youth team’s mentor, overshoots an entrance to the refuge, makes a three-point turn, and lands the back of the Honda Odyssey he's driving in a ditch. The van is stuck. The boys climb out and push, boots sinking in the mud. Mike guns the engine. The wheels spin. He throws the van into reverse, which only serves to sink the back tires deeper in the muck. A vision of the day flashes before my eyes: a call to AAA, the boys waiting, crestfallen and dejected, for a tow truck, their Big State turning into a Big Stay. Then, one more push and the van is out! We hop back in and make it to the pre-scouted starting point just before midnight.
12:01 a.m., May 12
1000birds, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
To reach our starting point, we needed a combination to unlock a gate. Now we’re standing between a lake and a marsh in a rarely accessible part of the refuge. It’s cloudy, but the glow from New York City lights up the horizon. We’ve spent 20 minutes listening in preparation of the start. Other than the pulsating groan of bullfrogs and a Mute Swan flapping its wings, there hasn’t been much to hear. Midnight. Go time! Nothing. Even the swan is quiet. The team scans the tree tops for owls. Still nothing. Another team emerges from the woods and continues past us along the path. At last a Song Sparrow sounds. Got it! We walk on. At each stop, the team huddles and claps in unison, hoping to startle something hidden in the marsh. Was that Solitary Sandpiper? Dirty bird—only half the team heard it. In the distance, a Great Horned and a Barred Owl call. Two more for the list. On the way out, a whinny from the woods: a Sora! Again, not everyone hears it. Two dirty birds already. Not good.
Marsh Gigglers, Undisclosed location in northern New Jersey
After hearing a Black-billed Cuckoo, Virginia Rail, Savannah Sparrow, and—to their utter surprise and elation—a Sandhill Crane in the darkness of the Great Swamp, we leave the refuge and head to the next scheduled stop. (The team asked me not to reveal the exact location, to keep their competitive advantage for next year.) Moments after we arrive, Jonathan yelps, “Barn Owl!” Daniel is skeptical: “Are you sure it wasn’t just your shoe squishing in the mud?” But Joshua and Patrick heard it, too, and are 100 percent certain that it came from across the swamp. Daniel still isn’t convinced. Dirty bird.
1000birds, Owens Station
We’re already behind schedule when we reach Owens Station. “We should be leaving now,” Marc laments, checking the route times on an Excel spreadsheet. Even worse: This spot is a bust. It’s raining, and the birds are quiet. Time is precious in the World Series. Every location, every second, every bird matters. We’re leaving Owens with no new species and an overall disappointing tally of marshland birds, which we’re less likely to get later in South Jersey. As Nick turns the Chevrolet Tahoe toward Rockport Marsh, a dour mood descends. Somehow, at an earlier stop, the seat in the middle row in front of me got stuck in the down position as I crawled out. Now Marc has to sit squashed against Jonathan. Ken, the navigator, briefly loses his cell signal and instructs Nick to go the wrong way. “I’m really sorry,” Ken says in a tone that would be entirely appropriate for a funeral. No one says it, but we all think it: The Audubon guy is bringing bad luck. Rain, quiet birds, broken seats, wrong turns. We drive in near-silence. “You can’t count birds right now,” Ken suddenly announces. A second later, the GPS on his phone sounds off: “Welcome to New Jersey.” “Okay,” says Ken, “you can start counting birds again.”
Deckcissels, Scherman Hoffman Sanctuary, Bernardsville
The Big Stay vigil begins under a black sky. Eastern Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls have been observed at the sanctuary, so the Deckcissels are hoping to get both species before the dawn chorus. But all we hear from our perch on the three-story observation platform are peepers. Mike, the sanctuary manager, explains that dozens of the previously-extirpated native frogs were released after he and colleagues restored a small wetland on the property. They are thriving. They’re also really loud. Behind their peeps, we begin to hear the liquid twittering of Tree Swallows. When it starts raining, everyone takes cover under the tent that Mike set up on the deck. Later, the storm lets up as the glorious swell of the dawn chorus of Black-capped Chickadee, Wood Thrush, Veery, House Wren, and Tufted Titmouse, among others, rings out.
Marsh Gigglers, Wantage
After picking up a Pied-billed Grebe and a Common Gallinule at Owens Station, we fly down backroads as dawn breaks. We stop at a small farm where cows are still sleeping and wait for about two minutes beside a fence. “Yup, that’s it. Grasshopper Sparrow,” they all agree. They run back to the car. To get that one sparrow, they came to the same farm four days in a row and learned that the bird would wake up and sing at the exact same time every day, down to the minute. We pile back into the car. “Wood Duck! Wood Duck! Stop!” yells Patrick as we pass another farm. Mike throws the van in reverse and we see the entirely unexpected duck standing in a muddy puddle of manure. “Epic!” says Jonathan. “So epic!” cheers Joshua. It is, indeed, epic.
1000birds, Wantage and High Point State Park
It’s finally light, the rain has stopped, and the woods are wide awake. We’re cruising down country roads, cold air whipping through open windows as Marc, Ken, and Jonathan rattle off birds they hear. “Ovenbird! Yellow Warbler! Kingbird! Blue Jay! Redstart!” We're heading toward an AT&T antenna tower where Common Ravens reliably roost. They’re absent today, though, so we’re off to listen for the Ruffed Grouse at a dependable spot in High Point State Park. We arrive to find the Marsh Gigglers and another youth team already posted along the roadside, listening for the bird’s “drumming” from deep in the woods. After a few minutes, the Gigglers about-face in unison, dart to their van, and peel off. A minute later, the other team does the same. My team is flummoxed. What just happened? Did they hear it? The group is torn. Marc and Nick are ready to go, but Ken wants to stay. It’s been almost 10 minutes. “That’s more time than we ever gave before, Ken,” Nick says. Everyone piles into the Tahoe, possibly leaving an important bird behind.
Marsh Gigglers, High Point State Park
I feel like I’m in the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, but with binoculars instead of guns. Joshua and Patrick hang out the open doors of the minivan, holding onto the roof. Jonathan stands with the top half of his body jutting out the sunroof like it’s prom night, and Daniel sits out the window of the front passenger side. It’s as effective as it is scary—they pick up a dozen birds as we go. We leave the park and pass through the rural-ish suburbs, tallying Bobolinks, bluebirds, blackbirds. Despite the abundance, they’re a little frustrated about missing the Brown Creeper and are worried about picking up a Black Vulture.
1000birds, High Point State Park and Culver Lake
Quick stops along backroads net the team a Scarlet Tanager, a Veery, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, among others. Marc’s Hairy Woodpecker location is missing its Hairy Woodpecker, but from the car, Ken pinpoints an oriole from a single-note call. Everyone agrees. These guys are good. The birds are adding up, but the team is still missing some key warblers, including a Worm-eating and Prairie. At one stop, I ask Nick how he feels. “Way behind,” he replies flatly. A singing Louisiana Waterthrush provides a boost just as the team thought it was a lost cause, and another stop adds a Bobolink and Eastern Bluebird. “In order to meet the schedule, we need to leave [the north] by 9:15,” Marc reminds everyone. “You can go fast, Nick, speed limit is 60.” On the way to Culver Lake, we stop at a bridge, scramble down a muddy embankment, and spot the target Common Merganser. The Bald Eagle and Rough-winged Swallows are a bonus. It’s drizzling again as we reach Culver’s small causeway, busy with Tree, Cliff, and Barn Swallows. Back on the road, a heard Tennessee Warbler is a huge get—and a missed lifer for me, unfortunately—as we head to Tillman Ravine for a last chance at kinglets and a Winter Wren. No dice. “I wanted 100 birds in the north,” Nick says. The count so far: 89.
Deckcissels, Scherman Hoffman Sanctuary
A House Sparrow or European Starling or Rock Pigeon—the Big Stay team is hoping for ANYTHING to inch the count up. They speak the names of these yet-unseen birds aloud, as if to beseech the avian gods for a small gift. Mike and Ron explain that during a typical Big Stay, pretty much all of their observations happen at dawn and through the early parts of the day. Because of the rain, the birds have not been active and the Deckcissels are unsure how the day is going to go. Oh, and the temperature has plunged to 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Mike’s better half, Robin, delivers homemade banana bread, still steaming from the oven, and we pounce on it. It feels so good to hold something warm in my hands. When the rain lets up, birds begin foraging, and the Deckcissels have to identify every last bird that shows up in the pin oak and American holly and Norway spruce. It’s not sexy or flashy, but it’s effective. By 10 a.m. the team is up to 50 species by sheer dint of concentration and dedication. I get a great look at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that almost makes up for the fact that I’ve long since lost feeling in my fingers and toes.
Marsh Gigglers, Garret Mountain Reservation
The park is busy with local weekend birders. The boys run past them and scramble up a steep hill, hunting for warblers at this migrant trap. (I stumble, and am reminded for the umpteenth time today that I am not a teen boy.) They call out various names—Parula! Blue-winged! Blackburnian!—as they scan the trees. A man with a massive scope is nearby, watching them. “You guys are really good,” he says. They give him a quick nod—no time for chatting—and run off. It starts pouring rain. They return to the car soaked, but happy. They got nearly every warbler they expected, plus other songbirds like the Blue-headed Vireo, Blackpoll Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a surprise: a Mourning Warbler. They’ve tallied more than 70 species.
1000birds, Garden State Parkway
Heading south, the conversation in the car turns to a bird we won’t see today: the Kirtland’s Warbler. Inconceivably, one has been spotted in Central Park, far from its normal route to its Michigan breeding grounds. “How easy is it to twitch Central Park?” Jonathan asks, using the British term for chasing a rare bird. The night before, I’d asked the team about their life lists, and Jonathan told me his number for the United Kingdom (an impressive 465), but quickly noted that he doesn’t really chase. “Awww, who are you kidding,” Nick had yelled from the driver’s seat. “You’re a twitcher!” Twelve hours later, Nick is still driving and clearly exhausted; soon he and I are the only ones awake. There isn’t time to get breakfast (I’ve already destroyed the Combos and beef jerky I brought), and it’s hard to remain excited when you can’t even see possible new birds through the deluge. Nick is starting to swerve and has slowed down so much that we’re losing time. Marc, now awake, urges him to give up the wheel for safety—and the schedule. “I don’t mean to criticize, but every five minutes we lose a minute,” Marc says. They finally switch, and Marc hits the gas. “You’re driving a little erratic, Marc,” Nick goads a few minutes later. He turns to me, smiles and winks, and falls asleep.
Marsh Gigglers, Morgan Beach in South Amboy
At a residential street overlooking the bay at the southern tip of Staten Island, the boys spot a Willet, Sanderling, Osprey, and Brant. The big get here is a Bonaparte Gull. As we head south, Josh and Patrick tell me how they got into birding. Patrick’s fifth-grade math teacher sparked his interest, and Josh’s mom signed him up for bird walks at the local nature center in elementary school. Like the Irons brothers, it was joining the Youth Maryland Ornithology Society that turned their interest into a passion. As the miles tick by, everyone but Joshua, who watches for passing hawks, nods off.
1000birds, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Caffeinated and anxious after a group-approved Starbucks stop (the only break of the day), we arrive at the refuge close to being back on schedule. Forsythe feels like a fresh start for the team. It’s now in the high 70s, the sun is shining, and the eddies and lush islands that make up this refuge are loaded with waders and shorebirds. Marc can’t wait: He kneels on the broken seat, puts his butt in my face, and hangs his head out the window to look and listen. But we’re in Jonathan’s scouting territory now, and despite being from the United Kingdom, he’s a whiz with our water birds. The first stop is a viewing platform, and Jonathan begins rattling off new birds through the scope. A quick and unexpected Bonaparte’s Gull is a good sign and great get. A breeze delivers the salty, slightly stagnant smell of wetlands. In the distance, the silhouette of Atlantic City stands in contrast with the wild landscape below.
Deckcissels, Scherman Hoffman Sanctuary
Ron’s wife, Barbara, delivers a deli lunch to those of us who are never, ever gonna leave this deck alive. We’ve all ordered paninis because they’re warm. The team logs a number of warbler species during the mid-day hours, including Canada, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Wilson’s, Tennessee, Nashville, and Black and White. There are also about a zillion Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitting around—staying unseasonably late in the year for them, a sign that this year’s migration is all kinds of weird. O GLORY BE IT’S A TURKEY VULTURE. Sadly, only two of the Deckcissels see it, so it’s down as a dirty bird.
Marsh Gigglers, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
I’m in the far back seat of the minivan, which means I need to pop down the seat in front of me to climb in and out, which slows the team down. At one stop, when Mike folds down the seat for me, Jonathan, the group’s stern timekeeper, complains “Dad, you can’t keep letting her out at every stop!” This refuge is a bust. Although they get a Short-billed Dowitcher, Great Egret, Glossy Ibis, and more, they aren't finding a lot of species they expected. “We can’t waste time here looking for ducks that aren’t there! We need to move on,” Jonathan says. “Chug!” commands Daniel. Chug has become their code word for “let’s go!” and they use it often as a signal to return to the car or to start driving (and occasion