For three Main Line high school students, the night was already bad. And it was about to get worse.

It was a quarter to midnight. They were standing in a North Jersey swamp, listening to owl calls.

In 15 minutes, a rigorous statewide birding competition would begin. They would spend the next 24 hours crisscrossing New Jersey, looking - and listening - for every bird they could find.

Suddenly, it began to rain. Five minutes later, the birds that they intended to tally stopped singing.

Then a huge bolt of lightning lit up the sky. They sprinted toward their van.

Not a great beginning.

But 186 species later, the B.B. Kingfishers shocked the expert adult birders, and themselves, by becoming the first youth team to win this month's New Jersey Audubon's World Series of Birding, a birding treasure hunt that started 30 years ago and now attracts thousands of participants.

Names on the trophy are some of the nation's elite birders. Now they include Ben Bussmann of Wayne, a senior at Conestoga High; Nathaniel Sharp of Wallingford, an 11th grader at Strath Haven; and Austin Smith of Malvern, a 10th grader at Great Valley.

"It was incredible," Bussmann said of the hearty kudos the team got from the other competitors. "Not everyone would be as accepting of a bunch of high school punks . . ."

But birding groups all over are trying to attract youths. As for the B.B. Kingfishers, regional birders have been helping and cheering them on for years.

"It's just an absolute thrill," said Meadowbrook birder Bert Filemyr, who was part of a Delaware Valley Ornithological Club team that won 10 times before stepping aside in 2011.

All three youths are part of an "earth service" program at the Upper Main Line YMCA. Much of the time, the youths are maintaining trails, yanking invasive plants, restoring natural habits and the like.

But every Tuesday evening, a subgroup meets to learn about birds.

Brian Quindlen, a schoolteacher and coordinator of the program, runs through 10 or more birds a night. The youths learn what the species look and sound like, what kind of habitat they live in.

Then, there are endless hours in the field.

Eleven years ago, Quindlan himself was a youth birder at the Y. He and a few others saw a brochure for the competition and immediately agreed: "That's crazy! Let's do it."

YMCA teams have been competing ever since.

Bussmann joined the group in the sixth grade. He was disheartened at first; everyone else seemed to know so much more. "But I stuck around. I would get to see these incredible things - beautiful birds everywhere." He began competing in 2007.

In the weeks before the competition, the youths took scouting trips.

They left little to chance. They checked out habitats. They studied statistics, lists, even routes and GPS coordinates from past years.

"The amount these kids have to digest and coordinate, it's amazing for students of this age," said Brian Raicich, leader of youth development at the Y. The stereotype of a teenager is sitting in front of a screen "and never seeing the light of day. These kids are fully immersed."

This year's event was May 11. As the day wore on, Bussmann, Sharp, and Smith raced from swamp to forest, beach to meadow, checking off species.

A big moment came in a North Jersey forest, where they heard a bee-buzz-buzz-buzz - to them, the unmistakable call of the golden-winged warbler.

They hesitated. That species is thought to be gone from New Jersey. But they knew it could be no other, so they logged it.

Later, judges questioned them closely, and left the bird on the team's tally.

The event works on the honor code. It's not as if someone would claim to have seen, say, a pink flamingo - at least not a real one - in New Jersey, anyway. What would be the point? The idea is to have fun, test yourself, and raise money for conservation - nearly $1 million by this year's participants.

The B.B. Kingfishers and fellow YMCA teams are still receiving pledges, aiming for $1,000 for ecological restoration at the Y's Cassatt Preserve.

The B.B. Kingfishers got to the finish line at Cape May's Grand Hotel by 11 p.m. and watched as the totals were posted. Soon, it became clear: They'd won the youth division!

Then Sharp said, "Uh, guys, take another look . . ."

Just before midnight, no other team, adults included, had a higher tally.

The current Delaware Valley Ornithological Club team, the Loons, came in second with 182 birds. Four short.

"The kids have been coming up so much . . . we knew it was going to happen sooner or later," said an organizer, Marleen Murgitroyde. "People were very proud."

To Raicich, what's impressive is when members of his program go on to environmental and educational careers themselves.

This fall, Bussmann plans to study at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

And, just maybe, compete on an adult team in the World Series of Birding next year.

Contact Sandy Bauers

at 215-854-5147, sbauers@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.philly.com/greenspace.