Flock Together: Inside the World Series of Birding

In competitive bird-watching, the sky's the limit.
By Leigh Ann Henion
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dan Lebbin is sitting on a motel patio -- in full view of traffic -- when he exclaims in horror, "I'm naked!" This is cause for concern, but it can't distract him from the tiny bird flitting from a power line to a tree that's shedding pink tissue-paper petals. He leans forward, squinting, wishing he could get a better look. When the bird finally darts behind a house, he slumps back in his lawn chair and sets his sights skyward.

Dan isn't in the middle of a no-clothes-on-in-public nightmare -- he is clad in a T-shirt and jeans -- but it would take a fellow birder to recognize that when Dan says he's "naked," he means he's without his binoculars.

Dan, a 30-year-old Baltimore resident who works for the American Bird Conservancy, is in Cape May, N.J., to compete in the World Series of Birding with the rest of his team, the Beltway Kingfishers. In a few days, the Kingfishers will scour their chosen corner of New Jersey to locate as many birds as possible in a 24-hour period, which runs from midnight to midnight. The team, named after the belted kingfisher -- a bird commonly seen in the Capital Beltway area -- also includes Dan's American Bird Conservancy colleague Mike Parr, 46, of Washington, and father-daughter duo Keith, 46, and Jordan Rutter, 19, of Silver Spring.

During the World Series, the Kingfishers compete with some of the best birders in the world, teams with names such as Bob Merlin and the Railers, the Sitting Ducks, the Weary Warblers and Birds of Play. Jordan and Keith have made the pilgrimage to Cape May to bird competitively for the past seven years. This is the second year Dan and Mike have joined them.

The event attracts about 1,100 birders each year and has turned a naturalistic pastime into a test of endurance, will and skill. It was founded in 1984 when Pete Dunne, then director of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory, invited teams of birders from across the country to the state for a bit of friendly competition. The goal was to raise money for conservation efforts crucial to birds' survival. The teams were asked to get monetary pledges for each bird they identified in the way charity marathon runners find sponsors for each mile completed in a race. Over the years, the event has raised more than $8 million. This year, the Kingfishers are raising money for the American Bird Conservancy. The best-performing teams are often able to secure corporate sponsorship through Zeiss, Leica and other birding equipment manufacturers.

World Series competitors adhere to the honor code. Teams police themselves and, if the Kingfishers are any indication, it's a code that's taken very seriously. How do World Series officials know participants are telling the truth? Mike believes organizers would recognize a forged list because they'd know if the habitat wasn't right or the timing was off. He adds: "Professional golfers every now and then touch the ball with their club and nobody sees it, but they fess up. It's a matter of integrity. And, anyway, if you didn't tell the truth, what would be the point?" In other words, if you have to ask about the reliability of the World Series honor code, you just don't get one of the main tenets of birding: The joy is in the process.

Though birding is often thought of as a casual activity, the birders who gather in Cape May for the World Series are no fair-weather patrons of the avian art. These aficionados globe-trot to Papua New Guinea, Peru and other far-flung places for the chance to spot a "lifer," a bird they've never seen before. The Kingfishers are no exception. Even Jordan has a month-long birding trip in Costa Rica to her credit.

There are several categories in the World Series, including competitive teams, non-competing teams or individuals, youth teams, senior teams and a "big stay," which requires participants to keep track of the species they encounter while spending the 24-hour period within a circle measuring 17 feet in diameter. Teams can choose to participate in the statewide competition, or they can specify a geographic area of focus. The Kingfishers' coveted prize is the Cape Island Cup, awarded to the team that identifies the most species on Cape May Island. Last year, they missed winning by 13 birds.

The competition's rules foster a team spirit and, sometimes, a little tension. A bird that isn't unanimously identified by all members of a team is called a "dirty bird," and a team cannot have more than 5 percent of its species listed as dirty if it wants to win. A bird becomes "clean" when all team members have identified it by sight or sound.

How many species could a World Series team possibly find in a day? The answer is a bit surprising. There are about 800 bird species in North America. In 2008, the winning team in the statewide competition identified 229 birds. In the confines of a day, in the space of one state, they encountered nearly a third of all bird species that live on the continent.


Mike, Keith and Dan are in Cape May early to do some scouting. This is an important part of the World Series process, as teams must plan their routes based on where certain birds might be spending their days (and nights). It's not unusual for teams covering the entire state to send out scouts a week early. The highest-performing teams often have multiple scouts in different areas of the state, but the Cape May Island competition is a bit more relaxed -- at least, in theory.

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