Half past midnight in New Jersey's Great Swamp is an eerie time in an eerie place. Thick ground fog swirls around snags of beeches and oaks. A cuckoo calls in the distance, a grace note above the throaty chortles of frogs. Otherwise, all is still. Out of the shadows stride five men in muck boots. They slosh out into a bog, and with inexplicable simultaneity, begin applauding wildly. Just as suddenly, they stop. They seem to be listening—for what? They all strike the same cocked-ear pose, hold it for about 30 motionless seconds, do a quick about-face, clamber into a minivan and disappear down a gravel road into the murky night.
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So it goes in the World Series of Birding (WSB)—a 24-hour marathon of competitive birding among teams splayed over the state of New Jersey in a nonstop, nonsleep effort to identify as many species as possible by sound or sight. Next month will mark the 21st anniversary of the event. It's all for a good cause—teams solicit pledges and raise money for bird-related conservation programs—but the WSB is as removed from your average weekend of birding as high-stakes Las Vegas poker is from a casual round of Go Fish. Indeed, the five men in the Great Swamp—who had hoped to elicit calls from a rail by clapping their hands, I later learn—hail from that bastion of bird research, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. The Cornell Sapsuckers, as they are called, won the event in 2002 with 224 species, and I was with them in 2003 as they finalized their strategies in defense of their title.
The days leading up to the competition culminate weeks of scouting to determine where the birds are. (With new birds migrating to the state every day, data must be fresh.) As kickoff time approaches, the Sapsuckers and their four or five volunteers pore over intelligence and rare-bird alerts posted on-line by local birders for all the teams in order to build camaraderie. The Sapsuckers even share key sightings with other top teams, including their nemesis, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club Lagerhead Shrikes. (The Sapsuckers finished second to the Shrikes in 2000 and tied them in 2001.)
"I hate finishing second," grouses Sapsucker John Fitzpatrick, a longtime team member and director of the Cornell Lab. "For us, it's as serious as Michael Jordan heading for the playoffs." Six hours before midnight, Fitzpatrick huddles over maps, printouts and yellow legal pads with Kevin McGowan, a Cornell research associate, worried that the Sapsuckers' planned 24-hour, 600-mile itinerary is 40 minutes too long. "Anybody can go out and identify birds," says McGowan. "But the thing that makes a winning team is knowing where the birds are. It takes an understanding of time. You can't be distracted. You can't be pulled off your game."
He turns to Fitzpatrick and begins to speak what sounds to me like gobbledygook: "We just can't take six minutes for the godwit." "Gannets?" Fitzgerald asks, pointing to a spot on a map. "No," McGowan replies, "but there's a white-winged scoter at Sunset Beach that's a gimme." A cellphone rings. "Two red-necked grebes at the dove spot," says McGowan. "OK," says Fitzgerald, "we cut out two minutes there, go across the bridge, take a left turn and get up to the piping plover."
As the men speak their curious language, team captain Ken Rosenberg makes peanut butter sandwiches. Team members Jeff Wells and Steve Kelling listen to a CD of birdcalls—brushing up on the difference between gray-cheeked and wood thrushes.
After dinner, naps and showers, the Sapsuckers load their van with ice chests, flasks of coffee, five spotting scopes on tripods and five pairs of binoculars. Just before midnight, they roll into the Great Swamp, a national wildlife refuge about 30 miles from New York City. Precisely at the stroke of 12, they start calling for screech owls. By the time they wade into the bog to clap for rails, the mist-shrouded marshland has yielded calls from an American woodcock, black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos, a marsh wren and an ovenbird. But no screech owl.
Identifying birds in the dark is obviously an aural process. The Sapsuckers know birdcalls as you and I know a telephone ring from a doorbell. About half the birds on a team's final list will have only been heard, not seen.
Nobody checks on these guys; it's the honor system all the way. And identifications for at least 95 percent of the birds on a team's list must be unanimous. Up to 5 percent of a team's total can be counted if only two members hear or see the birds. A few days earlier I had asked event founder Pete Dunne if birders sometimes hear or see with their hearts. He shook his head. "Very few of the birds are helped along by wishful thinking," he assured me. "There may be some birds on some lists that are wrong. But no one wants to win by goofing or by inflating their list." The greater risk is lingering too long for a particular bird and falling behind schedule. Knowing when to call it quits and move on is the key to winning.
It's now 1:20 a.m. and the Sapsuckers are headed for the Hackensack Meadowlands, where abandoned municipal waste sites and industrial complexes cozy up to reclaimed wetlands. Water birds flourish here, and birders with scopes can pick out species under the amber glow of industrial lights. Here the Sapsuckers score a black skimmer, a gadwall, even a barn owl.