Birds of a Feather

Scores of teams battle for fame and glory in the no-holds-barred World Series of Birding

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Or so I'm later told, having been exiled from the Sapsuckers' van during the actual competition. Journalists were embedded with tank brigades in Iraq, but I could not ride around New Jersey with five bird-watchers. "Our concern is any form of distraction," Ken Rosenberg had explained.

Instead, I teamed up with two Cornell videographers filming the Sapsuckers' exploits. Armed with the team itinerary and a state atlas, we raced ahead to capture them in action.

At dawn, we find ourselves high on a hill just outside High Point State Park in northwestern New Jersey watching a pair of herons soar overhead, backlit by a soft sunrise. Catbirds and Nashville warblers trill in the woods. A flock of Canada geese honks by and a bald eagle strafes a nearby lake. The Sapsuckers, one of several WSB teams on hand, ignore us and begin making a soft generic birdcall that sounds like the word "pish." "Pish, pish, pish," they intone for about a minute; a quick shared glance serves as assent as they rack up yellow-throated vireo, black-throated blue warbler, purple finch. Then the Sapsuckers are gone.

At a rendezvous spot in Salem County 120 miles south, they ignore a ruddy duck cruising a pond, osprey soaring overhead and warblers warbling in the woods. They have eastern meadowlark on their minds. They get one within seconds, bag a bobolink for good measure, and again they're off. We won’t see them again till dusk at Cape May, where they will train their scopes on shorebirds.

10:00 p.m. Two hours to go and the Sapsuckers stand statue-still, ears cocked, on a jetty protruding into the tidal marshes of Cape May. John Fitzpatrick motions me over and whispers, "Flocks of migratory birds overhead." I hear only the drone of distant boats and cars. Above, I see nothing, hear nothing. Now the Sapsuckers exchange looks all around, nodding. Back to the pose. They hold it for a long time. Then another glance, another nod. These guys seem to glean birds out of the vapor, in this case gray-cheeked and Swainson's thrush.

"Deep listening," Ken Rosenberg calls it. "The essence of the World Series is extreme focus, listening beyond any normal range, the endurance to keep scanning the sky and distant horizons when our eyeballs scream to be closed—the continuous hyper level of awareness in the face of exhaustion."

Alas, the Sapsuckers' strong ending is not enough to compensate for a weak start. Shortly after midnight, the tallies are posted at the Cape May finish line: Lagerhead Shrikes 231 (a new World Series of Birding record), Sapsuckers 220.

John Fitzpatrick looks weary and dejected. "The Shrikes got out ahead of us," he says, sounding like a man for whom life has lost all savor. "If you're the second or third team to pish a spot, the birds just aren't going to come up. We missed first crack at Lincoln's sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet. We even missed white-breasted nuthatch."

Two hours later, as I am heading for my motel room and some much-needed sleep, I spot the Sapsuckers sitting beside an empty swimming pool, drinks in hand. None of us has slept for more than 40 hours. I wave and keep on walking.

"You missed it," John Fitzpatrick tells me the next morning. "A massive river of birds flew over our heads. Grosbeaks, thrushes of all kinds, cuckoos, warblers, sparrows, even an absurdly out-of-place king rail called as it flew over us! Biggest nocturnal flight I've ever heard." The Cornell Sapsuckers were no longer dethroned world champions. They were birders, doing what birders do, and they were very happy.


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