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WORLD SERIES OF BIRDING

The 2009 World Series of Birding, from a Driver’s Perspective
By Debbie Beer, May 10, 2009

The World Series of Birding is hard to describe. This midnight-to-midnight, mad dash to find as many birds as possible in New Jersey demands skill, time management, patience and personality. It’s a day of driving, not birding. As a designated driver for a youth team, I have a unique perspective on the “big day.” In fact, I’m not allowed to point out any birds (though I try to keep a personal list). My job involves van rental, food preparation, cold beverages and driving as quickly as possible (minding state speeding laws, of course!) over 750 miles around the state for 24-hours! Though this was my third World Series of driving for the youth team, it brought new stories and fresh experiences, as always.

Sleep deprivation began around 10pm on Friday evening. I’d been awake since early that morning, worked in the office until noon, than returned home for last-minute packing of fresh sandwiches, adding ice to coolers stocked with Monster drink and Gatorade (along with a few Iced Teas for the drivers), and stuffing toothbrush and fresh underwear in my daypack (I forgot about socks!). No time for an afternoon nap, I drove 2 hours north to a hotel in Morristown NJ, where I met my co-driver, Roger, and the teens of the Nikon youth team for the first time – Luke, Ian and Kai of the “Subadult Skuaz.”

We ordered pizza for dinner, went over the driving route, and tried to nap a few hours. Anticipation and a weird buzzing noise from the hotel ice machine kept me awake. At 10:15 I leaped up with a terrifying thought – I forgot to get gas after my long drive! I raced to the nearest gas station and filled-up the tank, returning to find the kids pumped and ready to go. The World Series of Birding had begun!

We were in the Great Swamp by 10:30 pm, right on schedule. Luke, team captain, navigated us through locked gates and muddy roads, stopping occasionally to listen to peenting Woodcocks, chattering Marsh Wrens and croaking frogs. Finally we arrived at the starting point. Where were the other teams? I know that many people start the WSB at the Great Swamp. Nobody was there! Turns out they couldn’t risk our van getting stuck in 6 inches of muck, so we parked on higher ground, several hundred yards from their chosen starting place. The kids soon disappeared in the darkness, sloshing barefoot down the water-filled track. The DVOC/Nikon Lagerhead Shrikes pulled up a few minutes later, and the adults pulled on their wading boots to follow suit. Roger and I waited alone, enjoying the cacophony of night sounds in the swamp, trees silhouetted by the moonlit cloudy sky. The kids returned well after midnight, jumped into the van, and we were off.

I drove as quickly as I dared down dirt roads in the darkness, following Luke’s directions to turn left, turn right, stop here. They listened or leaped out while I cut the engine and lights. Sometimes Luke would tell me to turn around the vehicle so that it would be ready to go when they jumped back in. At one stop the kids hooted, whistled, screeched and cackled for a long time, trying to get response from moorhen, rails, coots and owls. I was thrilled to hear the low tremolo of the Eastern Screech Owl, and the “who cooks for you” woofing of the Barred Owl. I think they were laughing as much as we were at their bird imitations! Fortunately it was a warm night, as the windows and sliding doors were open much of the time.

We finally left the refuge and drove about an hour north to our next set of birds. I struggled to stay alert on the highway. It was about 2am, and I’d been awake now for about 19 hours, and many more to go. Roger and I switched places at the next stop. I was glad he was driving when it started pouring, and I could doze off in the warm cozy back seat. The rainstorms thwarted attempts at Long-Eared and Saw-whet Owls, and made it difficult to hear migrating thrush calls. I think the boys got the desired sparrows at Vesper Hill, but I’m not sure as I was groggy in half-sleep. I faintly heard Luke exclaim over a pair of Fox kitts that crossed in front of our vehicle (and made it safely to the other side).

Daylight just started to show and the drivers switched places again, averaging four-hour shifts. The kids worked hard to find all the passerines they’d scouted in the north. I admired their ability to pick-out individual species in the cacophony of the dawn chorus. At one point in Stokes state forest, I pulled over and the team leaped out to race into the woods – a rare event for them to actually get out of the car. I didn't know what they were after (which was often), and waited in the van, chatting with Roger. We had pulled-up behind the DVOC van, and were plotting gleefully to steal one of the “Nikon Birding Team” magnetic signs off their car (we didn’t). I was listening to singing oriole, Brown Thrasher, Scarlet Tanager, Warbling Vireo, Black & White Warbler and many more birds. I caught sight of a Wilson's Warbler working through the trees next to us. I remarked it to Roger, and enjoyed watching it move around for quite a while. We were there about 10 minutes - a long time, relatively speaking. The kids came back, and we were off. Luke mumbled something about a Wilson's being scouted nearby. I commented that I'd been watching one from the car while they were in the woods. He gave me a funny look and we moved on. I didn't learn until nearly 24-hours later that the whole point of their run in the woods at that stop was to look for the Wilson's Warbler, and they never saw one! I thought they were looking at a raptor nest or something. Didn't matter... I'm not allowed to help them, and I wouldn't have shouted into the woods. The Wilson’s was the only bird I got that they didn’t – they didn’t miss many warblers. They found Golden-winged Warbler in exactly the planned spot. We all heard it sing, and the kids spent a precious minute to actually see the bird (the majority of birds are counted by sound, sight is not necessary). Golden-winged Warblers are so scarce… barely 5 minutes before they found it, I commented that I thought they were going extinct. Right before the Golden-winged, Luke directed me to pull over wherever I could along the road to listen for Worm-eating. No sooner did I stop the car, but the bird sang and we all heard it. Such luck!

It’s not enough to have supreme birding skills to win the World Series of Birding. You need strict time management skills too. As we zoomed along the north of the state, Luke kept checking the notes from his dry run of the day before. At each stop he announced that we were 5 minutes early or 2 minutes late, or right on time. I was amazed how we stayed on schedule. It wasn’t easy to obey the local speed limit signs on the hilly roads of rural north Jersey, especially running purely on adrenaline and the thrill of the chase. On one deserted downhill, I rounded a bend at well beyond the speed limit and was mortified to see a police car parked at a barn. I slammed on the brakes while my heart pounded. If I got a speeding ticket, the team would be disqualified. Nervously I checked the rearview mirror for the next several miles. No cops in pursuit. Swapping stories later, we learned that police car is always parked there – it’s his residence. Thank goodness he wasn’t coming out to start his shift at that moment!

The day progressed, and the team list of species grew impressively. Kai ruled the south, and found nearly every bird he’d scouted that week. Summer Tanager, Acadian Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak, Horned Lark … life was good. Roger drove while I fished out cold beverages from the cooler and passed out food. The kids ate quickly, wolfing down delicious bites of south-philly hoagies, popping Swedish fish, Doritos and Reese’s pieces. Not much health food on the big day! The rare moments when they were out of the vehicle, I took the opportunity to collect empty cans and bottles, keeping the garbage bag neat and out of the way. A drivers work is never done! The van really didn’t look that bad at the end of the event.

In a 24-hour driving marathon, women endure challenges that men will never understand. I learned the first year to ask ahead of time if this will be a 5-minute stop, or a 30-second one (usually the latter), so that I can make a decision about racing into the bushes. I don’t want to hold-up the team, but I just need more time than they do to pee in the woods. Countless times I’ve seen guys holding their thing with one hand, and binoculars in the other hand, scanning for birds. They don’t go far, they don’t look for cover, they just turn their backs! I am doubly challenged in daylight, in the more developed, less-vegetated sections of south Jersey. I’ve peed in backyard hedges more than once, hoping nobody was watching from their living room!

As a driver, I find the WSB is hardest at the very beginning and the very end. Excitement keeps me going in the middle, but after sunset, when I’ve been awake for 35+ hours, no amount of chocolate or iced tea can jumpstart my exhausted body. My head starts throbbing and my eyes are burning. I was glad that Roger drove the last shift, from about 8:30 pm to the end. He pulled into the firehouse about 11:40pm, and I stumbled out the back. Finally, the race is over! Fortunately, energy reserves kick-in at the finish line, as tired, dirty teams pull in and share their stories. The results are hand-written on a big poster board, and the winners are known just minutes after midnight. Nikon sweeps it again! The “Subadult Skuaz” won their teen division easily, with an impressive 211 species. They earned 4th place overall, behind Cornell's disappointing 3rd place finish with 221 species. The DVOC/Nikon Lagerhead Shrikes won the World Series of Birding again this year, with 229 species, adding to their many first-, second- or third-place finishes over the decades. It was a pleasure and privilege to drive the Nikon youth team during the World Series of Birding. Luke, Ian and Kai showed an amazing skill, maturity and camaraderie during this world-class birding event, and I was proud to be a small part of the team’s success. Maybe some day I’ll be able to bird in the WSB myself, but for now, I look forward to driving next year’s youth team!