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Flock Together
In the World Series of Birding, one Washington team hopes to soar to victory

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.

Keith and Dan have known each other since Dan was 16 years old. They are opposites in stature and sentiment -- Keith is large and boisterous; Dan is slender and soft-spoken -- but they're kindred spirits when it comes to observing the friendly skies. When they first met, Keith was leading bird walks for a Washington area Wild Bird Center and Dan had just received his driver's license. Dan was intent on using his newfound freedom to discover the natural world, and the Wild Bird Center was a favorite destination. He felt birding was like "opening up a field guide and having the pages become reality." He had spent years studying bird images in books, but he hadn't been able to locate the birds on his own. Laughing, he says of the more elusive species, "I had started to doubt their existence!"

Keith, now employed by the Project on Government Oversight, chuckles. Recalling those long-ago bird walks, he says: "Dan has an incredible mind. I remember we'd see something and he'd say, 'That's on Page 46 of the Peterson guide.' And we'd all go, 'Who is this kid?'" Dan lowers his head demurely, but it's clear Keith isn't exaggerating. Dan, who holds a PhD in ornithology from Cornell University, knows his birds.

Mike's interest in birding start-ed with backyard observation, and it grew into something with more gravity. He says: "For a period in my teens and early 20s I would work at some construction job so I could bird. I was pretty much birding full time, but if you want to get good, you have to put your time in." In his younger years, he became frustrated because he was seeing birds he couldn't identify, but then he met a schoolteacher who helped him research species. That emboldened Mike to continue birding, but he adds, "There's always mystery."

Keith says, "Whenever the mystery goes away, you're not a birder anymore."

***

Tonight, the Cape May Bird Observatory is hosting an annual "swap meet," a get-together that allows competitive birders to share knowledge before the World Series begins. The meet is held in a room strewn with maps and charts detailing sunrise and sunset times. After birders have said their hellos and given hugs to friends they haven't seen since last year's event, a representative of the observatory proceeds to review birds that should be in the area: snow goose, wood duck, bald eagle, blue jay ... the list goes on at length.

During the session, commonly seen birds are openly discussed and suggested locales are shared, but when the facilitator mentions a rare bird the room goes silent. The World Series is considered a very different experience from standard birding; there is little time to relax, and people are not readily willing to share their rare finds. When the group gets to the owl section of the roster, the facilitator says: "We don't talk about owls. Shhh! Don't want anyone taking your bird!"

***

Birding is a practice that requires meticulous attention -- in observation and study -- and that impulse has led to a preoccupation with listing. Most serious birders keep "life lists," lists of all the birds they've ever seen. Some keep sublists of birds they've seen in certain countries or yards, or in the confines of a year or day. Others try to see the same bird species every day for a year. Birders, when not being competitive with one another, tend to find ways to compete with themselves.

In scouting, the Kingfishers aren't yet engaged in high-stakes birding, but each time a team member spots a bird, the others seem more motivated to find the next species. The team has already covered a lot of ground on this, the last day before the competition. On their way to the Rea Farm, a former lima bean production area commonly known as the Beanery, Keith drives through a residential neighborhood full of ranch houses and slows as he passes one with a particularly shady yard full of bird feeders. He says: "This is one of the spots we look for birds. It's a drive-by." The group also knows which houses have hummingbird feeders, making some homeowners unknowing allies in the Kingfishers' World Series attempt.

With both hands on the wheel of the team's Toyota 4Runner, Keith leans forward and says, "Check out that T.V." He's not talking about a flat screen; he's referring to the gently curved wings of a turkey vulture.

***

The air blowing over Cape May Island smells feral, earthy, like salt marsh and wet sand. But the town of Cape May comes across as impossibly tame, with its Victorian architecture and multimillion-dollar mansions overlooking the ocean. The island is also home to the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, an institution that takes up too much land to be ignored. Each year, the Kingfishers and other competing teams get permission to scout the area.

As they watch the arrival of other teams seeking admission, the Kingfishers set species goals for the next day. Mike says, "We wanted 145 last year."

Dan sets his sights on a win, adding, "150 would seal the deal." He sees the Cape Island Coyotes arrive and says of the team: "We beat them last year. The team to beat is the Zen Zugunruhe."

Because of a graduation ceremony, parking at the facility is limited, so officials have asked an on-site escort to ferry the birders to various sites in a van. The birders pack in, some four to a seat, careful not to knock one another in the head with their large tripod-supported scopes and high-performance binoculars, which often cost about $1,000.

The birders are silent in the field, but when they return to the van, the conversation migrates from equipment performance to the dangers of interacting with wildlife. Back in the privacy of the 4Runner, the Kingfishers share the information they've gathered from their competitors. It has less to do with the location of birds than it does with strategy. "The Zen group is going to try to sleep at 2 in the afternoon," Keith says. "Then they're getting up at 10 so they're not groggy at 12."

Mike says: "Well, I'm going to be groggy. How hard is it to spot an owl?"

Dan and Keith look worried, but they don't fight for an early meet-up. Keith says, with a hint of sadness in his voice, "This is probably why we've never won."

***

At the motel, the three men gather on the front patio as Keith pulls out a map. Dan pops a chocolate chip cookie into his mouth and props his socked feet up on the patio's metal support beams. They're planning driving routes when Mike, out of nowhere, shouts, "Oh, boy!"

His team members don't ask what he sees; they simply follow his gaze to a large tree that is shading a nearby lawn. It looks as though a crow has found a nest belonging to a smaller species. Mike continues, "That crow is looking into a cavern. Someone's in trouble!" His voice takes on the tone of a sports announcer: "It's a bit too far for him to get in there. No, wait. He might have a shot." When the crow loses interest, Mike moans, "Oh, it's over. He's moving on."

***

In birders, the compulsion to track birds and explore new habitats seems directly related to the impulse to expand one's life list. At the mention of life lists, the group gets a little uncomfortable. Dan shifts his weight. "I don't want to talk about mine. I'm bashful."

Mike prods, "Oh, come on!"

Finally, Dan concedes, "It's somewhere in the realm of 2,600 or 2,700."

Mike nods in approval. It's an admirable international count. He claims he can't remember the exact number of species he has seen in his lifetime but that it's somewhere in the same ballpark. "The real goal is to see every bird there is," he says, "but I don't think that's possible." Even so, plenty of well-known birders have dedicated their lives to trying. An exemplar of this is the famed Phoebe Snetsinger, who, after finding out she had terminal cancer, went on to pursue birds for another 18 years, becoming the first person in the world to identify more than 8,000 species.

The idea of keeping a frantic, World Series-style birding pace every day seems to exhaust Keith, who promptly goes to bed. Planning session over, Mike whips out his iPod. He cues up a playlist of bird songs and turns the iPod screen toward the cement patio so he can't see what's playing.

"Black-legged kittiwake!"

He turns the player over to check his work. He's right.

"American woodcock!"

Again, correct.

***

At the stroke of midnight, World Series competitors embark on their birding extravaganza across New Jersey. There is no starting line. The Kingfishers spent most of the night seeking shelter in the 4Runner because of rain. It's now 5 a.m., and the team is huddled in a Higbee Beach parking area. The sun and moon are still fighting for claim of the moment, and the group is straining to hear a bird they suspect might put on a show. Keith says, "We're here to meet Robert White, Bob White, that is." Jordan, who arrived in Cape May just in time for the competition with no chance for a substantial nap, smiles at the way her father refers to the bird's name as if it's the moniker of an old college buddy.

The group decides to give Mr. White 20 minutes to show up. At 5:10 a.m., a caravan of cars pulls into the small lot. Keith sighs and whispers, "Keeping this a secret has proved to be a complete failure."

After the cars are evacuated, the Kingfishers resume a studious stance. Jordan cups her hands behind her ears to amplify the nuances of the world around her. Trees, alive with foliage, look like giant primordial creatures standing watch over the scene.

The group continues to peer into darkness as the rising sun creates a halo of light behind them. Dan takes a step back and whispers to Jordan. There's excitement in the other group. They also begin to murmur.

From somewhere near the woods a call goes out:

"Wewhewhewewhewewh."

Then "Mewmewmew."

And louder.

"Woowoowoo."

"Zewzewzew."

These aren't the calls of birds; they're the sounds of a desperate birder inviting birds to speak. "At first I thought it was actually an owl, but then it started to sound like a bomb dropping," Mike says.

The team piles back into the 4Runner, and as Keith accelerates he says, "Stick your head out the window, Jordan." She obliges in order to catch bird calls in passing.

Less than a minute later Keith says, "Catbird! Clean it up!"

After the Kingfishers individually confirm that they've heard the bird, Jordan pulls a clipboard close to her face. She checks off the box next to "catbird."

It's officially sunrise when Dan hears a chickadee. Keith pulls the car over in a field by the side of the road. One bird becomes two. Two become three. Three become four, until the world suddenly comes alive with bird song. Keith says, "This is an orchestra!"

***

Jordan is majoring in biology at Oberlin College in Ohio. When she returns to class on Monday, she will be faced with five days of final exams while recovering from a period of birding-induced sleep deprivation. This was a sacrifice she was willing to make. In Jordan's life, birds trump nearly everything. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't birding," she says.

She was 4 years old when Keith, then a budding birder himself, began taking her on the nature walks he led for the Wild Bird Center. "Jordan and I kind of learned to bird together," he says.

Jordan agrees: "I've hypothesized that's the reason it's worked out so well. It's a mutual respect."

In elementary school, Jordan went to a career fair where she recalls someone telling her that she could make a career out of anything she loved. "I remember thinking, 'I love birds,'" she says. "'I'm going to make a career out of birds!'" In high school, Jordan didn't have many friends who could relate to her passion for birding. In fact, many of her peers didn't understand her interest at all. That made events such as the World Series and other extracurricular activities, including birding camp, important to her social life. Even though some of Jordan's closest friends are other young birders competing in various levels of the World Series, there will be no socializing until after scores are posted. Jordan has won the World Series twice as a member of a youth team, but she hasn't won a competition in the adult division -- yet.

The Kingfishers continue along their planned route, and Jordan spots a barn swallow as Keith directs the team, "It's already seven. Time to move!" And move they do, in typical birding fashion: Walk a few feet, pause, look around, listen. Repeat.

Mike shouts when he sees a blue-headed vireo, and the team runs and jumps in line behind him, making the World Series birder cry of discovery:

"Got it!"

"Got it!"

"Got it!"

***

At the Kingfishers' next stop, Cape May Point, Mike devours a peanut butter cup and stands poised to run up a ramp to scan the coastline. He waits for his teammates, saying: "I don't want to see a shearwater on the beach and be the only one there. It would be better not to see it at all than to see it alone."

Just before 1 p.m., the Kingfishers decide to visit a habitat at the end of a pocked path. The team is on the prowl for a thrasher, and Mike claims the end of the road seems "pretty thrasher-y." Along the way, they pass a slightly overweight, shirtless man with binoculars strapped around his bare shoulders.

"Check that out," Keith says. "He's bringing sexy back to birding!"

Mike says: "Are you kidding? Sexy never left!" The group laughs.

***

Though Zen Zugunruhe (pronounced ZUK-un-ROO-huh) is a Kingfisher nemesis during the World Series, the Kingfishers have a great deal of respect for the team's name. The word "zugunruhe" means "migratory restlessness." Dan explains that the term came about when scientists caught migratory birds and put them into cages. Even though the birds had no indication of season, day or night, their internal clocks told them when it was time to go.

Jordan stops to rest, leaning over with her hands on her knees. Even though the group is driving a great deal, it's not unusual for a competitive Cape May Island World Series team to walk up to 15 miles in the 24-hour period. Catching her breath, Jordan says: "When you see a bird that's rare, it's not just that it's beautiful; it's a rush! With a warbler, it's not like you can go out every day and see it, because that warbler is going to migrate. It's not like a cardinal at your feeder." She pauses, as if contemplating the beauty of the common bird. "But you also have to appreciate the cardinal. Any bird can fly away at any minute."

By nightfall, the Kingfishers' goal is to beat their number from last year, 132. "We have two hours," Mike says. "The question now is: Are we going to get any more birds?"

Hoping to spot a nighthawk, the group drives to Sunset Beach, where they park under street lamps that are attracting insects almost the size of small hummingbirds. Keith explains that driving ranges are especially good places to see nighthawks, and Dan interjects that baseball stadiums are also ideal. He says: "I've seen them at baseball games. I've watched them instead of the players. There's a lot of free time at a game like that. If there's time to eat peanuts, there's time to watch nighthawks!"

But on this night, the nighthawk fails to appear. The group makes a final trip to Cape May Point. Jordan can hardly walk because of a leg injury sustained while running to catch sight of a bird. Elsewhere in the state, other teams are dealing with trials of their own. One gets a flat tire, and the replacement car hits a deer during delivery. Another suffers food poisoning from the dozen cheeseburgers packed to get them through the long hours.

In the Cape May Point parking lot, puddles glisten like miniature round moons in a dark asphalt expanse. Jordan flips open her cellphone under the rotating beam of the Cape May Lighthouse and makes an announcement. She's just received a text-message report from the finish line, where results are posted to the public on a dry-erase board. The Coyotes have turned in their paperwork, and they've tallied 138 birds.

Mike, dismayed, says, "We couldn't get seven more birds by this point."

Keith loops his thumbs around his binocular straps. "Well, we could, but it would take a miracle," he says.

"A real, religious miracle," Mike says.

The group loiters, crestfallen and unsure of what to do next. Finally, Mike perks up and says, "Let's keep fighting for pride."

They begin to strategize about where to end the competition. "Whether we come in second or whether we come in last, I had a great day with you guys," Keith says.

Dan shakes his head. "I see a group hug coming on."

***

As the competition comes to a close, Jordan reviews the team's species list to confirm that everyone is comfortable with the tally. She wears a headlamp while reading the list aloud. At 11:45, the count stands at 135. Dan says, "There's always going to be that bird, the bird that got away."

There are no cheering crowds at the World Series finish line, which is in a fire hall, and the parking lot is empty aside from a few birders leaning against the building. Inside, there are tables laden with pizza and fruit. The Kingfishers sit down to watch the last minutes of the competition.

The team members are disappointed that they are, indeed, the current runner-up for Cape May Island, and most teams have yet to report. "I really underestimated the Coyotes," Dan says. "I shouldn't have, but I did."

Mike consoles him. "We've got a respectable score. We're on the board."

Just when the team begins to think the reigning champions might miss the deadline, Zen Zugunruhe rushes through the glass entry doors with three minutes to spare. The group runs to the reporting tables as the Kingfishers look on.

Then, an official pops the top off a dry-erase marker and posts the winning score: 151. Zen Zugunruhe has beaten out a newcomer team, Fly or Die, to win the Cape Island Cup by one bird. Ultimately, the Kingfishers tie for eighth place in a category with nine teams. Mike studies the board in awe. "I'd like to know what they got and how they got it," he says. "You know, so we could learn."

It's time for the Beltway Kingfishers to return to their motel to finally rest, so they walk back into the night. In late morning, they will awaken to birdsong -- the sweet sound of possibility. The World Series might be over, but the chase never ends.

Leigh Ann Henion is a freelance writer. She last wrote for the Magazine about bullfighting in Ronda, Spain. She can be reached at lahenion@gmail.com.

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