Who is the best in birding?
76 teams. 24 hours. 1 goal: Win the World Series of Birding.
WOODBINE, N.J. - The team of 20 competitors had been on the move since before dawn Saturday, so by 11 a.m., they were ready for a pit stop at the small headquarters building of Belleplain State Forest.
But in the intense, 24-hour contest known as the World Series of Birding, a pit stop is no time for slacking off.
"Hey guys! There's a bluebird!," team leader Mike Crewe cried as he stood in the parking lot. "Quick. You got to get this."
Out came multiple pairs of binoculars, and sure enough: a brilliant flash of blue.
The members of the Cape May Bird Observatory's Century Run team spotted three more species in rapid succession. A white-breasted nuthatch, a hummingbird, and an eastern phoebe. Check, check, check.
Then it was back into the two large white vans, and on to the next stop. No time to linger when 75 other teams were crisscrossing New Jersey, scanning the skies to identify as many birds as possible.
The competition lasted from midnight to midnight, with top teams expected to spot close to 200 species. Crewe's crew was somewhat less hard-core, planning to stick with it from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., but there was no mistaking their passion.
Team member Roger Horn, a construction manager from Upper Black Eddy, in northern Bucks County, has been hooked on birds for 20 years. He was introduced to the activity by his wife, Kathy, and now the two volunteer for New Jersey Audubon, host of the World Series.
"It's that piece of awe and wonder in nature you experience whenever you see those beautiful birds," Horn said, explaining his motive. "It's something I just have to do every day."
The one-day competition has been held every year since 1984, and teams have raised more than $9 million for conservation programs by securing pledges from sponsors, said Dale Rosselet, New Jersey Audubon's vice president for education. Some teams obtain support from companies that make fancy binoculars and telescopes.
Though many of the competitors were seasoned birders, with hints of gray in their plumage, 16 youth teams were registered this year. Last year, a trio of teenagers sponsored by the Upper Main Line YMCA took the top prize, with 186 species.
Crewe, leader of the Century Run team, does birds for a living as program director of the Cape May Bird Observatory.
A wise-cracking Englishman, he joked about Americans and their use of the term "World Series" for this and other events that are not truly global.
But in fairness, a good portion of the avian world is passing through New Jersey this time of year.
The state is a major flyway for migratory birds heading north for the summer. And it encompasses a rich diversity of coastal and inland terrain, with Canadian zone forests to the north and a Carolinas-type habitat to the south, event founder Pete Dunne said.
The Century in the name of Crewe's team meant they were shooting for 100 species.
No sweat. They hit the century mark with a red-tailed hawk a few minutes after noon, in a field near Dennisville, in northern Cape May County.
Crewe's wife, Megan, who leads birding tours for a living, marked each find on a list.
"Meadowlark!" she called out.
"Yeah, we got him," her husband called back.
Then, once again, back into the vans.
A glossy ibis, a gull-billed tern, and a prothonotary warbler were waiting.