May 19, 2006

Birders vie for World Series glory in N.J. swamp

By Jon Hurdle

GILLETTE, New Jersey (Reuters) - On a moonlit night in a
New Jersey swamp, four men stand silently, heads bowed and
hands cupped behind their ears, as they strain to hear faint
sounds in the surrounding acres of mud and vegetation.

Suddenly one urgently whispers: "Sora," and the others turn
in the direction of a squeal he heard but they did not. As they
resume their listening poses, the sound recurs a few moments
later and the men nod to each other in approval.

It is enough. The brief noise from the depths of the
appropriately named Great Swamp is the call of the Sora, a
small marsh bird. The Sora follows the king rail, American
bittern, gray-cheeked thrush, Swainson's thrush and veery on
the four-man team's list of species seen or heard in this
year's World Series of Birding.

It's a grueling 24-hour event that began in 1984 and many
birders around the world see it as the top challenge in
competitive birding.

These four men, who call themselves the 4 Loons, are among
almost 1,000 contestants who competed to find the most bird
species in New Jersey -- acclaimed by birders as one of the
most productive birding states in the nation -- from midnight
to midnight on a recent Saturday.

In the process, the competitors raise thousands of dollars
for conservation from pledges they gather.

The 4 Loons, now in their ninth year of competition,
consider themselves, despite skills that most people would find
amazing, in the middle rank of competitive birding.

They finished 14th in the series last year with 174
species. This year, they hoped for 180 but ended up with only
150 after their van broke down in the early hours of the event
and they had an agonizing five-hour wait for a replacement

Team members Bill Reaume, 37, an elementary school
counselor; Mike Lyman, 31, a biologist; Scott Fraser, 37,
co-owner of a software company; and Art McMorris, 61, a former
neuroscientist, are like most birders passionate and committed
to "getting" the most number of birds.

But their name signals that they recognize the eccentricity
of the event and know that many people, including some birders,
may not understand why they are willing to stay up all night
and drive hundreds of miles for visual or aural glimpses of
distant birds.

"Most people think we're mad," said Reaume.


The winning team in this year's event -- organized by the
New Jersey Audubon Society -- was the five-person Sapsuckers,
sponsored by the prestigious Cornell University Laboratory of
Ornithology, which recorded 229 species, seven more than the
winning total in 2005. Competition is run on the honor system.

Success in the World Series of Birding requires far more
than showing up at a marsh or a wood with a pair of binoculars
and hoping for the best.

Top teams spend a week or more "scouting" the state's best
bird areas so they can be reasonably confident of finding
certain species in their high-speed, 24-hour chase through the
state. That way, they hope to spend just a few minutes at a
particular site before moving on to "get" the next bird.

Pre-event intelligence is freely shared among the teams,
although they are fiercely competitive on the day of the event.

The goal is to increase the number of birds that all
competitors can see and hence to maximize the amount of
per-bird sponsorship money raised for conservation

The 4 Loons were raising money for a migratory bird study
run by the Pennsylvania branch of The Nature Conservancy.

To maximize their birding opportunities, teams plan their
route with military precision.

The 4 Loons plotted exactly when to visit a certain spot
where they hoped to hear the drumming of the ruffed grouse.
Their scouting indicated the bird would sound at about 5:05
a.m. if the weather was clear but probably wait until 5:30 a.m.
under cloudy skies.

Waiting for a bird is considered unacceptable when others
could be "got" in a different location.

The object is identification, by eye or by ear. For those
who hope to win, the briefest flutter or squeak is sufficient
for a check on the list, provided it is conclusively agreed
upon by all members of the team.

Asked what stops a team from cheating, the 4 Loons bristle
at any suggestion that they would list a bird that had not been
conclusively and honestly identified. Any birder who tried
would quickly be found out by fellow birders who know which
birds are likely to be in which locations.

"Birders are pretty quick to ascertain other birders' skill
level," said McMorris. "You would never fool anybody and you
would never be able to show your face again.

"Besides, it's no fun to cheat," he said.