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Scouting Report: Students of Team Redhead Prepare for World Series of Birding

By Pat Leonard

Team Redhead is doing its homework. These five Cornell students, all top-notch birders, are into their second full day of scouting ahead of this Saturday’s 30th annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey. As always, the goal is to identify as many bird species by sight or sound as possible in a slightly manic 24-hour period.

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This year’s team roster includes Big Day veterans and co-captains Andy Johnson and Ben Barkley along with returning Redhead Jack Hruska. The newcomers are Benjamin Van Doren and Teresa Pegan.

They have Cape May County’s 620 square miles to cover, scoping forest, marsh, protected bays, and open ocean for species they can count on when the competition begins at the crack of midnight on May 11. They want to win their division for bragging rights, of course, but most importantly to raise vital funds for undergraduate student research and conservation projects. You can spur on the team and support their cause.

The Redheads first full day of scouting in Cape May was on Wednesday—a day that dawned foggy, cold, and drizzly. Barkley, Van Doren, and Pegan spent their time scouting the northern half of the county, in Belleplain State Forest. They were on the lookout for local breeding bird species that are hard to find farther south in the county, such as Kentucky Warblers and Summer Tanagers. The Big Day route traditionally begins up here, in a dark, damp marsh, listening for the hoots of owls and the calls of other nocturnal necessities such as Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, and Wood thrushes that may be migrating overhead.

Johnson, Hruska, and scouting assistant Jacob Drucker did a seawatch Wednesday morning and scoured areas of Cape Island where tired migrants tend to stop for a rest. Johnson reports the team is finding most of what they’re looking for, though there have been no major “fallouts” like the one last month on the Texas coast that helped Team Sapsucker set a new Big Day record.

Ducks are always a challenge in May because you never know if any will be lingering on their migration—most have already moved north. So far, scouting has turned up Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Black Duck, and Long-tailed Ducks.

There were several highlights on Wednesday: a Pine Siskin that should have packed its bags and headed north weeks ago, three jaegers, and… the sun. After a drippy start, the day turned warmer, with clear skies that should hold for today’s scouting.

Weather is always the wild card for Big Day and can make or break a team’s tally sheet. The Redheads have some idea of what to expect though, thanks to weekly, regional predictions of bird migration from our BirdCast project. Cornell Lab researcher and BirdCast project leader Andrew Farnsworth has taken a look at what the Redheads might encounter this weekend, and it’s a mixed bag. Light rain and an occasional thunderstorm means migrants already in Cape May will probably stay put, he said. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if there’s a lot of rain, there won’t be many new species of migrants arriving, despite favorable winds from the south to help them along. The wind may pose some difficulties during the day as well, keeping birds hidden and making it hard for the Redheads to hear and see any birds that are moving. The Redheads will get one more BirdCast update just ahead of the Big Day.

Armed with the latest migration and weather information, plus their scouting efforts, The Redheads will work out the fine details of their tightly timed route, deciding whether to cover singing forest birds in the north at dawn, for example, or focus on migrants at the southern tip of the Cape May peninsula first.

Cape May Map
Cape May County includes many bird-friendly habitats as it juts into the ocean with protected bay on one shore and the open Atlantic on the other.

Overall, Andy Johnson says the team feels optimistic about their chances on the Big Day, despite a fair amount of sleep deprivation and the fact that three of the team members have to take finals during the scouting period. Unlike the rest of the World Series teams, they’ll have to factor study time into their scouting equation! But there will be a good supply of New Jersey staples, such as Tastykakes, available from the famous WaWa gas stations that dot the landscape. With a little luck, well-honed talent, and lots of support from donors, Team Redhead will cross the finish line at the Cape May fire station Saturday night with a tally sheet that can’t be beat. Go Redheads!

Keep track of Team Redhead during the World Series on their Facebook page.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library