Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Came, I Saw, I Scouted: Wrapping up the World Series

The World Series of Birding (WSB) is more than a birding competition. Well, at its basest level it is merely a contest to see which team can observe the most bird species in a single day within the state of New Jersey.

New Jersey, map courtesy of Nations Online ProjectIt's a small state, but I wouldn't want to paint it. Birding it is fine.
Map courtesy of Nations Online Project.

Dig deeper and it's a pretty daunting undertaking requiring stamina, knowledge, and more than a little strategery. Developing a strategy that allows you to find 220-plus species is mind bending, a task that employs all the little grey cells you possess. Managing your time diligently requires discipline envied by the most pious of Buddhist monks (if Buddhist monks were given to envy). The extended sleep deprivation and malnutrition would make David Blaine weep. And the skills to identify all of those birds, some by sounds less than a half-second long or by a profile on the edge of visibility, takes the eidetic memory of a Good Will Hunting. And in spite of, or because of, those factors, it really is fun.

I guess -- I didn't actually compete. When you work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a place with dozens of world-class birders, you can bet only the best of the best are invited to join the Sapsuckers. But I can tell you this: it's flattering to be asked to give up a few days of computer work to travel to the wilds of Jersey to help the team scout.

Dawn in High Point State ParkI'm not being facetious when I say "the wilds." Northwestern New Jersey
contradicts the strip-mall-covered and urbanized stereotypes from movies.

Scouting is an essential part of the competition. It turns out you can't just show up and expect to make a 200 species-plus run through the state. I mean, you can have that expectation, but it's a bit naive. You'd be fooling yourself. There is a lot of preparation involved in tracking every bird in the state and determining how to visit them all, or at least one of each species. It means studying New Jersey, committing to memory the variety of habitats throughout the state, then coupling that knowledge with a thorough understanding of which birds use those habitats. Then, couple that with the phenology of bird movements -- when are those birds are actually in Jersey? When do the snowbirds head north, when do the neotrops return? Oh, and remember, you only have a single 24-hour period, so you need to know the best time of day to find them.

Black-throated Blue Warbler, maleMany Black-throated Blue Warblers pass through the state, but some breed.
You have to know where if you want to be sure to add them to your list.

That's why you scout. The mission, which I chose to accept: descend on New Jersey and stake out as many birds as you can.

So, what do you stake out? Ideally, everything. Some birds you simply shouldn't worry about. American Robin, drive by any lawn and there you go! American Crow? C'mon. They're everywhere. Northern Cardinal? Please, missing these guys is impossible, right?

Blue-headed Vireo nestFinding a Blue-headed Vireo nest may be the difference between
adding this species for the day or missing it altogether.

But there's a lesson many teams have learned over the years: take nothing for granted. What if it's pouring rain and no bird is calling? How do you efficiently find birds that were singing loudly a day or two before, but are hunkered down and silent? You don't have time to traipse through the woods looking for them, hoping to cross paths. You need to know precisely where to look. And even if it is amiable weather, you need to know what time to be at each location. Birds aren't signing all day; when does each species start? When do they quiet down? What locations are active early, which ones come alive late? It pays to know when the birds are most active, singing and calling without restraint.

Canada WarblerCanada Warblers often return to New Jersey shortly before the Big Day.
Visiting their territories lets you know exactly when they return.

I had some specific tasks, I had some general assignments. The weather was a mixed bag. I listened for saw-whet owls in the pouring rain, I watched migrant warblers in a sunny park. I spent hours by myself, not coming in contact with another person. I fought traffic on the Jersey Turnpike and sought much-needed birds in the middle of Newark. I had some successes and some complete failures. All of that information, merged with reports from other scouts, was fed to the Sapsuckers who incorporated it into their Big Day strategy.

More on the day-to-day activities of a scout to come, but how did it all work out for the Sapsuckers? The "tweet" came in on Sunday morning at 12:07 AM (you know I was still up, anxiously awaiting the results): their final tally was 221 species. I'd have to wait until late Sunday morning to hear how that stacked up against the other teams. Pretty well, it turned out, but not well enough to win.

More to come . . . .



jan m said...

Mike, for the past couple of years I have been aware of the World Series of Birding, but really didn't put much thought into it until this year when I was able to follow the Twitter. The Twitter injected a human interest factor through the day for people like me, rather than just a bird count total at the end. Thanks for sharing - you all did a great job!

Chris Petrak said...

I just spent three days in Cape May - nothing like the lists racked up by the competitors, but a great place for birding - it's always a spring highlight for me.

Larry Jordan said...

Great post on what it takes to compete in the WSB Mike. Sounds like you worked your butt off but had a great time too.

After watching "Opposable Chums" I had a pretty good appreciation of the stamina needed to participate.

I'm looking forward to your follow ups!

laura k said...

Nice account of you scouting for the WSB. Too bad the team didn't win. But yes, the Twitter follow added a nice dimension, especially since I'm familiar with some of the team.

Like the BT Blue and Canada shots, too.


noflickster said...

@jan_m - The human interest side is just as interesting, if not more so, than the birds they "tick." I plan on recounting some of tasks and assignments I carried out, so stay tuned! "Opposable Chums," which Larry mentioned, definitely moves that aspect to the forefront.

@Chris - One of these years I will switch my scouting to southern NJ to experience all the "other" birds found in the state. Cape May is a great place to be during migration!

@Larry - Thanks, Larry! To steal from the Peace Corp, it is the hardest job I've ever loved!

@Laura - I have to admit, I wanted a bit more from the Twitter posts, like more throughout the day, almost a bird-by-bird recounting. But I am definitely the type who wants it all, and wants it now. Birding counters that, computers do not.

Thanks for the photo props, the most guilty part of the scouting. Every shutter click sounded like, "You should be mapping a territory!" to me.

Thanks, all, for dropping by!

OpposableChums said...

The Sapsuckers didn't miss by much, though!

And many thanks for the "shout out," Larry.

noflickster said...

@OpposableChums - 221 species, as you know, is an amazing feat, but unfortunately their sights were set much higher - and not just winning. As you also know, those wild cards dealt on the actual Big Day make all the difference!

I haven't had the pleasure of watching "Opposable Chums" yet (loved the trailer), but I'm glad to find you in the blogosphere - I just subscribed!

Thanks for dropping by!

mon@rch said...


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