Wing Fling: World Series of Birding

Binoculars in hand, America’s most avid birders descend on New Jersey for their annual World Series.

Mute swans.
Mute swans bathe in a Cape May estuary—unaware that they are being counted. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these swans are native to northern and Central Europe and Asia, but were brought to North America to populate the ponds of parks and estates.
Photo by Matthew Wright

When you think of bird watching, fierce competition isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—unless you are one of the hundreds of bird enthusiasts who will fan out across New Jersey at 12:01 am on Saturday, May 9, for the 32nd Annual World Series of Birding. The tournament culminates in Cape May, where teams must report their results by midnight.

Sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society, the WSB is a 24-hour ornithological treasure hunt. Dozens of teams (three persons, minimum) compete to spot as many different avian species as possible. Prizes are awarded in multiple categories, such as most species overall and highest number spotted without a motorized vehicle.

Birders arrive from all over the U.S. (and beyond), armed with binoculars and high-powered scopes to identify birds by sight or sound. A long list of rules must be followed, from “recorded bird calls…may not be used to attract birds,” down to “eggs do not count as birds.” Most important, “All birds tallied must be identified by at least two members of the team.” There are no monitors; the honor system holds sway. Last year’s top team, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, reported 218 species.

“We have extraordinary natural diversity in this state, and most people, including many residents, don’t realize it,” says Pete Dunne, WSB founder and ambassador of the Cape May Bird Observatory and the New Jersey Audubon Society. Since its inception in 1984, the event has grown from 13 teams to 76 in 2014, including 16 youth teams.

“This competition draws a lot of attention,” says Dunne. “It’s become a way to raise money and promote New Jersey as a fantastic state for birding.” Competing teams support a conservation or research initiative of their choosing. Sponsorship pledges can be based on sightings ($1 per species) or a flat amount. The event raises about $600,000 each year.

“Birds are one of the most visible forms of wildlife,” says Mark Garland, a West Cape May resident who competes with his team, the Monarchists. “There’s such incredible diversity, you never know what you’re going to find.”

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