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A Scout’s Eye View of the World Series of Birding

By Hugh Powell
Least Tern
Least Tern iPhoniscoped by Charles Eldermire.

I’m sitting around a campfire in southern New Jersey, prepping for the World Series of Birding. It’s my first time down here, and as I’m scouting for birds my teammates and I can see by bicycle, I can’t help but think of the challenge that Team Sapsucker faces as they decide how to cover the entire state and rack up some 230 species. (We’ll be happy with 150.)

Harlequin Duck by Team Sapsucker.

On their Facebook and Twitter feeds, the Sapsuckers posted a beautiful Harlequin Duck today and fact-checked a wildlife sign that featured a couple of suspect identifications—noticing a Red-throated Loon that had been labeled Common Loon. We were happy to find common but uncertain Cape May birds like Great Blue Heron, Eastern Bluebird, and Black Skimmer. Regardless of how we do on Saturday, I’m glad I’m here to find out just how exhausting it is to stretch your birding muscles for 14, 18, 20 hours per day, and to be on hand to see how Team Sapsucker and Team Redhead perform on Saturday. Here are my brief impressions of the birds of Scout Day Wednesday:

A Whip-poor-will had chanted me off to sleep, and the day started five hours later with a persistent tattoo of raindrops on my rain fly. By 6:25 I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Despite the steady rain, Veeries were singing flutelike cascades in the dim overcast light, and then an Acadian Flycatcher came, ker-chip! like a dying smoke detector, impossible to tune out. I got out and found one teammate, France Dewaghe, brewing coffee. A turn around the campground gave us a Pine Warbler trilling in a pine top and Yellow-throated Warblers with sweet descending whistles. Our other teammate, Charles Eldermire, noted how much they sound like a warbler’s version of a Canyon Wren.

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Belleplain State Forest is all flatwoods, dense understories of mountain laurel, abloom with their pinkish decagonal flowers, young white oak, and greenbrier. The land slopes almost imperceptibly, rising like the chest of a sleeper, and settles to form still black ponds surrounded by sturdy white cedars. Summer Tanagers kit-tuck in the mid-morning and warblers take turns: first a Hooded Warbler from the understory. Ovenbirds cheer beside every road. A sandy hummock gives out something that sounds like a whistle chopped into 35 identical pieces by a chef’s knife. It’s a Worm-eating Warbler, a study in buff and khaki, singing from a low oak limb. A Kentucky Warbler rolls in the distance and a Northern Parula works its way down a limb overhanging our single-lane of tarmac. Two Louisiana Waterthrushes chatter and squabble, chasing each other in a manic scribble through the undergrowth. A Black-throated Blue Warbler dreamily buzzes, way off, surely whiling away its time before continuing its northward migration. These are just the warblers of the forest—powerline cut gives us Prairie and Blue-winged.

We run across the field-guide author Richard Crossley looking for good photo subjects for his next book. Most of the birders you run across on New Jersey back roads in early May are scouting their own runs in the World Series, but Crossley is not competing this year. He freely dispenses route advice in a drawling north English accent. “You’d better come back with 175 species, or I’ll have nothing to do with you,” he warns France. “If you get 190 I’ll buy you two beers.”

We ran into Sapsucker Brian Sullivan doing a dry run of his scouting territory. It was midday, and he was trading notes with the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club team and listening with one ear for a Summer Tanager. They’re easy enough to find in the early morning, but frustrating on a dreary afternoon. He suggests a nearby airport for Grasshopper Sparrow and Blue Grosbeak, wishes us luck, and gets on with his day.

At low tide, we look through a few thousand shorebirds at a fishing community on Delaware Bay. It’s mainly Semipalmated Plovers, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitchers, but we also find Black Skimmers, Forster’s Terns, and a tree full of Black-crowned Night-Herons. A Marsh Wren hides in the cattails and scolds a Savannah Sparrow running in the grass along the trail. Dirt roads cut across marshes and flooded fields. A fringe of dead, swamped trees is full of Ospreys, including one looking down at us, severely, from a nest. We hear our first Clapper Rail stuttering from the mud.

In the air there’s a volume discount on Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows darting low along the fields and over the still water. Working our way across the peninsula to the Atlantic coast, we mystify some after-school traffic along the Avalon Causeway, three figures darting across the roadway carrying three scopes and three tripods. On the other side, we point the scopes at Boat-tailed Grackles waving their ridiculous tails in the wind and scan the saltmarsh. American Oystercatchers are as gaudy in flight, with their white-and-black wings flitting in shallow beats, as they are on the ground, nearly tripping over their bright orange bills. A Little Blue Heron flies in against gray clouds and lands in the only real sunlight we had all day. Its milky blue feathers are magnificent.

Looking out over the Atlantic, white rollers crest on a rip channel offshore. Dolphins rise for fish cruising the current, and Northern Gannets plunge from above. They’re in all plumages, from fully brown to creamy white, and they throw their long wings behind them as they drop heavily into the water from 100 feet above. Next, a line of 25 Brant round the jetty, headed north.

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons iPhoniscoped by Charles Eldermire.

Working down the beach roads, we pick up Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and other birds we haven’t seen yet, like House Finch, House Sparrow, and Rock Pigeon. Our WaWa gas-station sandwiches long behind us by now, we eat Nutty Bars at Cape May Point to keep our brains ticking over. Purple Martins circle over the tall Victorian homes and then head out to sea to work invisible prey several hundred feet above the water.

“Watch for something that’s dark, that looks like a peregrine, and that isn’t looking for food, it’s looking for other birds that have food,” says France, who is a veteran of many a Cape May seawatch. And then comes one of those serendipitous birding moments. A minute later and about a mile out to sea, here comes the Parasitic Jaeger France was describing, flying like some kind of darting punctuation mark.

From around the sandy point come three Black Scoters to cap off the day. It’s an early dusk because of the overcast. We make one more stop, wearing windbreakers against the cool ocean breeze, and climb the boardwalk at Cove Pool. The first drops of tonight’s rain hit us as we glass a Blue-winged Teal France found here yesterday.

Our tally for the day was 120 species. We’ll be hoping to nab 30 more species than that on May 15—and we won’t be in a car, which for me qualifies as having our work cut out for us. Though the Sapsuckers will be in a car, they’ll be shooting for more like double our tally. It should be a great day of birding.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library