The Record/May 21, 1990
By Neil Reisner
At nearly 3 a.m. on a moonlit marsh in Sussex County, John Urciuoli decided to let loose with his best imitation of a great horned owl.
“Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo. Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo.”
Suddenly, from across the swamp, a great horned owl paused in the midst of a night of hunting to quietly call back: “Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo.”
Score one for Urciuoli. Twenty-two hours and 400 miles later, after countless stops at forests, lakes, and more swamps, Urciuoli and his three teammates from the Sussex County Bird Club met up in Cape May with 39 other teams to find out who had seen or heard the most species of birds.
Welcome to the World Series of Birding, an annual exercise in lunacy for the most passionate practitioners among a passionate breed.
“Seventy-five percent of the people I talk to think I’m weird or crazy; I look at birds,” said Urciuoli, a 275-pound electrician who looks like a linebacker. “The stereotypical bird-watcher is a little old lady in tennis shoes. I guess I’m a lot different than that.”
The World Series of Birding gathers some of the best birdwatchers in the world for a daylong blitz through the Garden State, a springtime crossroad for millions of migrating birds.
The event, which ran for 24 hours starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, is sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society. Participants collect donations for conservation causes.
Some teams scoured carefully plotted routes from High Point in the north to Cape May in the south, driving up to 600 miles to cover the largest number of habitats. Others bicycled through Cape May or spent the 24 hours in Sandy Hook.
One team identified all the birds they could in one Monmouth County park. Another team arranged its route so one member could attend his brother-in-law’s wedding in Fair Lawn. Actress Jane Alexander participated. So did birders from Canada, Great Britain, and California.
“It’s an insane brand of self-abuse,” said Peter Dunne of New Jersey Audubon, who founded the event seven years ago. His team won this year by spotting 210 species. The Bergen County Audubon Society team placed in the top five, with 197.
“It’s a mechanism to direct people’s attention to the importance of New Jersey to migrating birds,” Dunne said.
Sometimes the search is elusive. At dawn Saturday on Sunrise Mountain in Stokes State Forest, the warblers weren’t warbling. The sky was gray with clouds, and there was a bitter wind. Few were singing or flitting around.
The members of the Sussex County team, including Urciuoli and Cathy Walker, an insurance underwriter from Frankford, could barely hide their disappointment.
The day before, said Urciuoli, he and Walker were spotting species right and left. “Now, there’s not a sound,” he said. The team moved on, covering woodlands, streams, and lakes throughout the northwest corner of the state.
“Stop the car! Grouse!” shouted team member Dennis Pegg, a sheriff’s officer from Stillwater, as a reclusive ruffed grouse scooted across the road, a blur in the early morning haze.
“Wild turkey,” came the cry as the birders tooled toward a meadow to spot bobolinks and other field birds. After a 10-second look, the group moved on.
As the Sussex team will attest, birding is one of the most popular sports in the country. Hardcore birders number about 500,000, says Paul Lehman, editor of Birding, the publication of the American Birding Association. “A Field Guide to Eastern Birds,” the most popular bird-watching handbook, sells between 100,000 and 150,000 copies annually, says its publisher, Houghton Mifflin.
New Jersey is a birding hot spot. Its varied habitats provide critical resting and feeding spots for birds migrating north to breed in the spring and south in the fall.
Development in the Garden State and the attendant destruction of habitat is of great concern to birders.
“We used to think that if a given woods is lost, birds can switch to another,” said Charles Leck, a Rutgers University ornithologist. “We’re finding more and more that birds have specific woods and routes they stop on during their trip.”
The Sussex County birders left their home turf at about 11 a.m., heading toward Liberty State Park in Jersey City to look for gulls, ducks, and other harbor birds. At the park they reached 100 birds and thought they might reach their 175-species goal.
But panic had begun to set in by the time the team got down to Cape May. It had taken longer than they expected to bird the shore, and they had seen only about 35 more species sandpipers and other shore birds, herons and egrets, and a peregrine falcon.
At Cape May they had hoped simply to fill out their list. Now, they would have to work hard to equal the 151 species they had last year.
“This is the part where you put a knife between your teeth and charge up the hill,” said Pegg.
Charge they did. They braved fierce mosquitoes to hear reclusive rails and bitterns; they trudged through frustratingly quiet woods; they searched in vain for nesting piping plover. Slowly their count mounted, eventually to 148.
Integrity is basic to birding. Under the World Series rules, 95 percent of the species claimed must be seen or heard by all members of a team. Walker busied herself throughout the day, keeping meticulous records.
“Birders are taken at their word,” Dunne said.
Ultimately, the sport’s honesty put the last hurt on a tough day. When the Sussex team turned in their list near midnight they had to drop two birds that had not been spotted by the entire team, exceeding the 5 percent quota.
But even after more than a day without sleep, the team already was thinking about next year.
“We’ll have to sit down and figure out where we didn’t get things we should have,” said Pegg. “But it won’t be tonight, that’s for sure.”
The fine art and skill of bird-watching
Getting into bird-watching doesn’t require the enthusiasm of participants in the World Series of Birding.
At its simplest, birding is a relaxing hobby that requires only a pair of decent binoculars, a field guide, and a place where birds are, a local nature preserve, a park, or even a back-yard feeder.
At its most ardent, birding can be a consuming, globe-trotting obsession.
“There are elements of a test of skills. There are elements of walking through a gallery and seeing fine art,” said Peter Dunne of the New Jersey Audubon Society.
Dunne founded the World Series and his Guerrilla Birding Team won this year’s competition after seeing or hearing 210 species.
Nothing is more frustrating to a beginning birder than trying to spot tiny bundles of moving fluff through inadequate binoculars. Experts suggest getting the best pair you can afford, with a magnification power of between 7 and 10 and an objective end that is between 35 millimeters and 45 millimeters in diameter.
Dunne recommends going for quality, suggesting beginners look at such models as the 8.5 x 44 Swift Audubon, the 8 x 36 Bausch & Lomb Custom, each of which costs about $250, or the 8 x 30 Nikon binoculars, at about $400.
‘There are many good binoculars for less, but there are no acceptable birding binoculars for less,” he said.
The best book for beginners is “A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies,” by Roger Tory Petersen, the patriarch of bird-watching, published by Houghton Mifflin Co. A handy companion is “A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey,” by William J. Boyle Jr., published by Rutgers University Press.
Beginners can get more tips at New Jersey Audubon’s nature centers, county environmental centers, local preserves, and area bird-watching clubs. Contact New Jersey Audubon headquarters in Franklin Lakes, 891-1211, for information.
The Record/May 21, 1990