After being involved in an intensely structured year in 2008, I have really been enjoying not “having” to chase anything that I don’t want to. I can just chill out and watch the birds, take photos, and go where I want! That said, I do enjoy a little competition every once in awhile, so when Tom Stephenson suggested we compete in the photo division of the World Series of Birding, held every year in Cape May, NJ, of course I said yes.
The World Series is in its twenty-sixth year, overseen by the well known birder and author Pete Dunne. Each year people from all over the country (and the world) come to test their birding skills in a twenty-four hour contest to see who can find the most birds. Over the years the event has gotten more specialized and the number of categories of competition have increased. As it stands, there are awards for the whole state total, Cape May Island only, youth groups, a senior group, highest single county total, digiscoping, staying in a single location, birding without carbon emmisions, and then our category, photography. One would be hard-pressed to compete in the general all-state category…you’d be up against some of the best birders on earth, people with near-mythical hearing and practiced eyes, people who let nothing get by. A number of participants have been doing the World Series for years or decades, and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the state, where to find “backup” birds when the normal spots fail, where the best migration areas are on any given day. Most of these teams start at midnight, listening to (and identifying) flight calls of migrating birds. They also use the nighttime to locate owls and other noctural birds. All this can pay off with massive numbers…the winning team in 2009 had 229 species in twenty-four hours. Actually, many of the teams start long before the actual day, and may spend a week or more in NJ scouting locations and refining their route for game day.
What Tom and I do have is photography skills, and field practice in capturing the quick and the skulky in images. Tom, of course, also has great ears, and we both have pretty sharp eyes, so the photo category looked like a place we could seriously compete. Our philosophy was not to try and bird the whole state—too much driving. We weren’t trying to get over 200 birds; in fact, the winning number would probably be under 150. So we just needed to find the densest variety of species in closest proximity to each other. Of course, we also needed spots that were easy for photography…if the birds wouldn’t show themselves, they wouldn’t count. You can’t use electronic calls or other devices to bring the birds out of hiding, so they’d have to come out on their own.
Tom had experience with the World Series in previous years with the Zeiss Digiscoping Team, so he had some familiarity with possible routes. We also had an “inside man” at Cape May, Glen Davis, who would give us good info on what was happening the week of the competition. He also introduced us to our third team member, driver and scout Sam Galick, a migration counter for the Cape May Observatory who wound up being invaluable in getting us on birds and getting around the state.
On the week of the competition, Tom went ahead and started to scout out our locations. I had a job that week that kept me from going down until Thursday night, so we did a dry run on Friday. We held back a bit, knowing that we’d have to do the real thing the next day, but we still wound up with over a hundred birds on our route, which encompassed the lower third of the state. Southern NJ has a fantastic variety of birds and habitats, and we went through a lot of them, including pine barrens, marshland, shoreline, secondary forest, open fields, agricultural areas, and ocean. We had a quick dinner and were in bed by 10pm for our 4am start the next day.
Game day and we up and running before the sun was up. On our way to our first location (the route is part of the game, so I’m going to be vague!), we picked up our first bird…a Wild Turkey flew up from the side of the pavement and into a tree, and I got a blurry but identifiable shot of it in the near-dark. From there it was go go go, with Tom and I shooting anything that moved, and Sam staying a step ahead of us with the next bird to find and the next spot to hit. Some of the highlights included getting VERY close to having a shot of a Northern Bobwhite that was calling from the side of the road (a passing group of bicyclists scared it off); getting a good shot of a uncharacteristically curious Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, and getting covered with ticks while bushwacking after Worm-Eating and Hooded Warblers. We ran at a good clip, and we were probably up to about 100 species by mid-day, about 8 hours in. We spent some time in Cape May Island, hitting the beach and the fields for birds like Cattle Egret, Common Tern and Northern Gannet. At about three I think we were starting to feel it, but got a second wind that carried us through more of Cape May and up to our final spot in Brigantine. It was basically dark when we finally finished, sixteen hours later, and got in the car to head back to the Cape May headquarters to turn in our photos. I worked feverishly to sort through the 2500 or so shots we’d taken, edit, rename and export them to a disk. We had until midnight, so I spent some extra time getting each image corrected, and worked with RAW files instead of JPGs…it takes longer but it sometimes looks better. I finished and burned a disk at about quarter to midnight, and we handed in the disc, satisfied that we’d birded and photographed as hard as we could that day.
The next morning we showed up to the brunch/awards ceremony, where dozens of teams gathered in a big conference room at a local hotel. We were pretty confident that we’d done well against our competition, but when we got there we saw that our team didn’t have a final species number listed next to it on the bulletin board. I started to get an ugly feeling, and Tom went to talk to folks and see what was going on.
Well, sometimes the effort is its own reward, and in this was going to have to be one of those times. The administration for the Series had initially changed the deadline for team submissions to 10pm, but then a couple of weeks before the day sent out a new email that said the deadline was midnight. What they didn’t say was that the photo teams were still supposed to turn in photos by ten. So we had turned in the photos late, even though we were at headquarters at nine, and even though we could have turned in the photos before ten if we’d known (we could have used the JPGs that we had, instead of messing with the more time-consuming RAW files), the panel decided that they had to disqualify us. That was a bummer, since we had indeed “won”, with 132 species…the next closest team was 125. Overall, people we’re nice about it, and Pete Dunne had the room give us a round of applause for our effort. As I told Tom, it was an involuntary practice run, and it would just make us sharper and faster for next year's World Series, which we will certainly be in.
If you'd like to see a gallery of all the birds we photographed that day, click here.