Necessity is the mother of invention, but poverty is a better motivator. That’s how I got roped into the biggest birding contest in North America.
On the second Saturday of May for the last 36 years, New Jersey Audubon has organized a birding competition, challenging expert teams from all over the country to find the most birds in one day. This is America. If there is a way to make a competition out of something as benign as birding, Americans will find it. By traipsing all over the state, winning teams typically identify more than 200 species from one midnight to the next.
This year, the 37th World Series of Birding will be different. This is not a year to go riding around in a car packed with non-household members, associating with competing teams at rare bird hotspots and charging into convenience stores for Fritos and Diet Pepsi. But New Jersey Audubon was reluctant to cancel one of its biggest fundraisers of the year, so it has organized a “special edition” of the event.
This year, teams from across the country will stay home. Team members will bird individually, staying within 10 miles of home. At the end of the day, team members will compile their sightings virtually into a final team score. And most importantly, teams will keep the money they raise for their own local conservation organizations.
Maine Audubon has likewise suffered the cancellation of important fundraisers, so it has entered a team into the World Series of Birding in hopes of raising a few bucks. I was asked to join. My fellow team members live in southern Maine, and organizers recognized that there were good birds up here that needed counting.
Hmm, let me get this straight. I can enter the biggest birding competition in America, and I don’t have to go to New Jersey? I can stay close to home? Yes! I want in! I don’t even have to think twice.
I should have thought twice.
First, the date is a challenge. New Jersey conducts its competition in early May, when the migrants are passing through there on their way to here. That means many species are not in Maine yet. May 9 is too early.
Second, New Jersey is stealing credit for our birds. They get to count not only those birds that are residents down there, but also our birds that are just passing through to breed up here. Frankly, they should pay us a royalty for counting our birds in migration.
Third, this is a chance to show the world what an incredible diversity of bird habitats Maine has. We have a coastline 10 times bigger than New Jersey’s and mountains more than twice as tall. We are the most forested state in the nation. But none of those advantages help if you can’t go more than 10 miles from home.
Fourth, there are rules. Competitors must be certain of their identifications, and they must be totally honest. For me, that eliminates blatant dishonesty as a potential tactic, my best hope for a high score. Team members are allowed to have drivers, as long as those volunteers don’t otherwise assist. My exceedingly honest wife, Sandi, will drive me. That means only speed laws will be broken, not birding rules.
Fifth, no electronic assistance can be used to attract birds. Competitors may do their own vocal imitations but cannot use recordings. Some experts are sensational at imitating birds and drawing them in. I’m not one of those people. My lame imitation of a barred owl sounds more like a hippopotamus farting.
Fortunately, I live in a birdy region. My 10-mile circle includes everything from Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to the Bangor Mall. I pity any New Jersey expert whose circle is just Newark. It’s crazy, but we might just do well!
So, I’m all in. Because one-third of the competition happens in the dark, I’ve been out after midnight several times scouting for owls. Found some. I also need to locate resident Maine species that New Jersey never sees, such as the Canada jay, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, and black-backed woodpecker. Hypothetically, they are all within 10 miles of my house. But where?
All the specifics about this World Series of Birding are on Maine Audubon’s website at maineaudubon.org/worldseries, including a place to make a contribution and sponsor our team. I have a strict policy of not using this column to promote fundraising. But, if you want to contribute to Maine Audubon and this extreme birding wackiness, I can’t stop you.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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