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Story of the Shrikes - 2009

Even after 20-something years of participating in the infamous World Series of Birding, the lure of the challenge, the thrill of the chase and the excitement of winning never gets dull. While the goal remains unchanged – to record (mostly by ear) the most species of birds in 24-hours in the state of New Jersey, the DVOC/Nikon Lagerhead Shrikes encounter enough variety, excitement and circumstance to keep it interesting, year after year!

This year presented a challenge not tackled in a long time – a new member for the team. Longtime captain Paul Guris was temporarily sidelined for health reasons, so the team recruited Zach Baer to be the 4th player. He may be the youngest member of the Shrikes – just 22 years old – but he’s on par with experience, this being his 10th World Series of Birding event. Now-captain Mike Fritz was under pressure to pull-off another first place finish for the Lagerhead Shrikes, confident he had the man-power to do it, with senior-member Bert Filemyr, the ever-cheerful Eric Pilotte, and Zach, the newcomer.

Bert, the meticulous organizer, maintains that the “Big Day” is not about birding, but time management. He can tell you in precise minutes how long it takes to get from point A to point B – a useful skill when racing against the sun. Mike commands the driving, getting the team to every location as quickly as possible (always obeying local speeding laws, of course!).

Eric and Zach controlled the north, scouting every nook and cranny, hoping to stake-out as many species as possible. Nest-finding is always a big focus of scout week, and they were lucky to find nests for many raptors, including Red-shouldered Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Great Horned Owl. It must’ve been a good omen that they were chased by an angry momma Black Bear right before discovering these nests!

Bert and Mike focused on the south, staking out Red-headed Woodpecker at the usual campground, and Piping Plover at the Meadows, among other things. Mike recalls sweating all the “southern breeders” like Summer Tanager, Kentucky Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and Blue Grosbeak all week, and then getting them all within about 15 minutes on the Big Day.

A team without humor leads to disaster, especially after serious sleep deprivation. Fortunately, there’s plenty of joking among DVOC’ers. Bert recalls wearing wellies from midnight until noon; no time to take them off when you’re racing from the Great Swamp, to Vesper Hill, to Culver’s Lake and all over the north. In fact, Eric spent most of the day wearing long johns, despite temperatures soaring into the high 80’s at mid-day, The moment he had his pants down, trying to ditch his long johns in the heat, he missed the Green-winged Teal! (He got it later). Apparently Eric had a disturbing habit of getting into the van and driving off to the next spot without checking to see that everybody was in the van first. Good thing he had all those birds staked out in the north, or he might’ve been ditched at the next driver-switch!

Highlights from each member of the Shrikes illustrate the luck, skill and fun involved in the World Series of Birding. Here they are, in no particular order:

- Having a Saw-whet Owl tooting back in heavy rain.
- Standing in the rain and mist on Vesper Hill, waiting for late singing sparrows.
- Hearing the death squeals of some animal as it was attacked and eaten alive by some other animal, in the Great Swamp.
- Having the team hear the Golden-winged Warbler do an alternate song and not being able to identify it till it was seen. Then instead of getting back in the car, every member of the team took a good look at possibly the last Golden-winged Warbler we will ever see on our current route.
- Ducks who were there during scout week, as always, were strangely hard to find on the Big Day.
- Finding an unscouted Long-Eared on the Big Day – the first in 10 years - before we even had a chance to visit our staked-out one.
- Finding Cattle Egret only in the late-breaking scouting spot, though the bird was seen in 3 other spots without problem during scouting week.
- Visiting Florence numerous times for scouting, and deciding it wasn’t worth the stop on the Big Day.
- Missing Parasitic Jaeger, Red-throated Loon and Roseate Tern, despite sea watching in 4 different places.
- Getting Bobolink in the back of a field – a nemesis bird during scouting.
- Somehow missing Black-necked Stilt in the meadows (teams got it half-hour later), but finding an adult Arctic Tern roosting with Forster’s Terns – first record for DVOC on the WSB.
- Standing at Jake’s Landing Road at 11pm and being the only team there.

After all the skilled identifications, lucky finds and disappointing misses, the DVOC/Nikon Lagerhead Shrikes were triumphant again. They won the 2009 World Series of Birding with an impressive 229 species, adding to their many first-, second- or third-place finishes over the decades. They are already looking forward to the surprises that next year’s Big Day will surely bring! Congratulations Mike, Bert, Eric and Zach.