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Rare Birds

In May 2023, Annika Bowman shadowed a team of four birders competing to win the 40th annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey, U.S.A. for her master’s dissertation research. For 24 hours, the team engaged in non-stop birding across the state. While the birders watched the birds, Annika watched the birders.



“I wonder if I'd be a better person if I learned to speak bird.” 

Chen Chen, “Winter,” in Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency 


The sky is dark and the marsh insects sing. Team Avian Avarice huddles together in Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Jersey, waiting for midnight. Andrew scans the horizon with his infrared binoculars, looking for any glimmer of bird presence. Rob cups his ears with his hands, trying to amplify bird calls. Justin puffs at his vape pen. Captain Dan’s eyes are glued to his iPhone clock. The World Series of Birding begins at midnight. Across New Jersey, over 80 teams of competitive birders gather in teams of three or more, ready to embark on a 24-hour race to identify as many species of birds as possible across the state. The competitors have been training for this year’s World Series for weeks, months, even years: Honing their bird-sensing and identification skills. Listening to recordings of bird calls. Memorising the Sibley Guide to Birds. Mapping the best route across New Jersey to maximise their sightings. All in the hopes of winning, well, nothing — there isn’t a prize. 


 The members of Avian Avarice — Captain Dan, Rob, Andrew, and Justin — have been birding collectively for decades. Captain Dan has competed in the World Series for the past sixteen years. This year, the team is gunning for first place. They plan to bird nonstop for the next 24 hours, foregoing stops to eat or sleep in the hopes of maximising bird sightings. Even “bathroom breaks are for the weak,” I am told. The team’s car is stockpiled with energy drinks, spare clothing, and 65 meat shish-kabobs. Binoculars swing from their necks, and their clothing is doused in permethrin to ward off ticks. “We don’t mess around,” Captain Dan tells me. Indeed, their competition day schedule includes stops at over 50 unique locations across New Jersey, planned to the minute. Since all members of a given team must “sense” (by sight or sound) the same bird species to “tick” it from their master checklist, any distraction, any wasted time, could result in a missed bird, threatening the team’s chances at victory. As midnight approaches, the group stills, calm determination written on their faces. “5...4…3…2…1…BIRD!” they whisper in unison into the dark marsh. 


The birding begins in the swamps and hardwood forests of northern New Jersey. The team wends their way south through bustling metropoles and suburbs, highlands and grasslands, coastal cities and barrier islands. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S. and lies along the Atlantic Flyway, the region’s great North-South bird migration route. During spring migration, many birds stop to rest and refuel in the diverse habitats of New Jersey, highways snaking below flyways, reticulated habitats converging and dissecting, worlds occurring within and above, mostly unnoticed, except perhaps by the birders. We visit Cape May for shorebirds. High Point National Park for yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The Ocean City Welcome Center for tri-colored herons. A ballpark down the street from where Captain Dan went to college for chipping sparrows. The birders have frequented these locations for years, decades even. They associate particular locations with certain species, their understandings of place entangled with the lives of birds. 

 

The order of priorities for World Series day: “Birds first, safety second.” We drive fast. We weave through turnpike traffic and along rural backroads, stopping every few minutes to search for birds. At each stop, the team launches out of the car and stands quietly, alert and listening. The birders rapidly attune to new environments, scanning for glimmers of bird presence which come in the form of hundreds of different bird songs, single nocturnal flight calls from far above, dark bodies against the dawn sky, the metallic trill of a hummingbird’s wings. They quickly locate and tick each desired species and race back to the car. There is no time to lose.


By dawn, I’m hallucinating birdsong. The fatigue has settled in. I am unsure where one birdsong ends and another begins. Rob teaches me some mnemonic devices, trying to translate bird language into human tongue. “Who-cooks-for-you” (Barred Owl). “Po-ta-toe-chip” (American Goldfinch). “Drop it; drop-it; drop-it; cover-it-up” (Brown Thrasher). But to my untrained ears, the bird songs meld together. It becomes difficult to separate that which is bird — discrete sounds and movement — from the broader ecological milieu. From the wind and the chirping and the rustling. From the mockingbirds mimicking other birds’ songs and the birders whistling their own imitations and the insects making sounds so strikingly similar to bird calls, like that of the grasshopper sparrow, only experienced birders can determine the difference. As we run through High Point State Park, searching for the yellow-bellied sapsucker, I can hear only my feet pounding the dirt, the wind, some indecipherable songs. The birders name species left and right. They almost always agree on the species of bird called out, having spent decades attuning to some music, some instrument I have not. We pass a couple of other teams, sometimes offering a curt nod or wave. Mostly we keep our heads down. We strain our ears for the sound of beak against bark, the sapsucker’s drill. Somewhere nestled between white cedar and yellow birch, the birders hear the call. A faint drumming in the distance. I look around to see if the other teams noticed. If they did, they don’t let on. The birders tick the species, assured by the sound, and we sprint back to the car, careful not to revel for too long.


The competition this year is fierce, consisting of teams of lifelong birders and novices alike. Recently, universities such as Princeton and Cornell have built especially successful teams of students. Last year’s title went to the Princeton Tiger Shrikes, who ticked 205 species on World Series Day. The Cornell Redheads came in at a close 191. Avian Avarice placed third with 177 species. For many of the more seasoned teams of birders, the younger teams are threatening. As one World Series competitor explained, “They're young. They have the energy. They have good ears.” For many teams, this year the goal is to “knock those stupid kids out and win.” However, year after year, achieving high counts of early World Series wins (far more than 200 species in a day) has become more difficult. The birders share tales of past World Series when seeing a variety of species was only a matter of going outside. With changing migration times and patterns and species declines due to habitat loss, land-use changes, agricultural intensification, and climate change, teams rely more and more upon diverse tactics to coax limited individuals into detection on competition day. Rob tells me that he’s heard of teams sprinkling sunflower seeds or other feed in the vicinity of desired birds in the days before the competition, hoping the bird will stick around. Other tactics, such as filling hummingbird feeders before the competition, clapping loudly to scare rails into speech, and mimicking bird calls comprise competitive birders’ defences against absence or silence. 


Scouting is another such tactic, which involves locating single individuals of desired species just before the competition to ensure they’re present and identifiable on World Series day. I joined Rob from Avian Avarice the day before the competition to scout. We met at the Cape May Observatory in southern New Jersey, a popular stop-over point for many migratory species. Vagrant birds such as pelicans and loons can often be seen over the ocean from the beaches of Cape May. As we walked along, Rob explained the importance of scouting before the competition. “You want redundancy,” he told me, meaning a competition day plan that accounts for potential species’ absence and anomaly, a route with multiple locations where difficult-to-find species may visit. In the weeks and days preceding the competition, many teams direct their efforts at scouting. Scouting allows birders to minimise the impacts of broader environmental and species shifts and declines on competition success by locating individuals, and planning routes around singular members of a species. 


Team 1000Birds uses data analysis to shirk absence. As teammate Cliff explained, “At a certain point, it’s a game of statistics... [At certain locations] the statistical likelihood is one [bird] will come by… The question becomes, how long do you wait?” Cliff compiles data from field books, the eBird app, and personal scouting trips on the geographic presence and likelihood of certain species occurrence. He then chooses a route through New Jersey that maximises the statistical probability of seeing one member of the most species possible, lining up points on a map, determining the exact amount of time to spend at a location by the minute to increase the likelihood of species presence. This year, the team placed third in the competition, which teammates attributed to Cliff’s statistical picturing. “Every decision Cliff made was exactly the right decision, not a single error.”


All the planning, practising, and strategizing may still not be enough to ensure encounter. Birding is about being in the right place, at the right time. Environmental change alters these places, alters these times. As Kara from team Nuthatch told me, “I never thought I would see birds disappear in my lifetime, it just was not on my bingo card for my life.” With each box left unticked, each silence, each environment altered, the birders noticed the disappearance of species once present, once counted and counted on.


As the competition nears its end, Avian Avarice stands along a dirt road near a tall grass field, hoping to hear one of the many species left unchecked on their list. The final hours of the competition were gruelling. A hard rain left many species silent. Some scouted birds disappeared altogether, gone north or gathering elsewhere. The team has been awake for over 30 hours. I’ve been awake for 42. Phantom birds call from the trees, swoop low, and dive. Avian Avarice’s checklist remains half-empty. They curse the screech owl, the Sora rail, the whippoorwill.   

 

Midnight nears. Somewhere above us, hundreds of migrating birds flock to the Arctic, calling out to each other along their route. We can’t see or hear them, the birders and I. The night is too dark, the birds too high above, but we imagine. I imagine hundreds of birds, thousands, of all kinds, hoards, droves, all above us. We wait. Eyes closed, feet still, hands cupped behind our ears, bodies poised for sensing the nocturnal flight calls from the blackness above. I hear only silence. A silence which is not silence at all, but insects crying out, planes droning overhead, feet shuffling in the gravel below. An invisibleness, a trembling, a prayer, a conspiracy, a confusion. These are all collective nouns for birds. Words for finding them too.  


I wonder if I'd be a better person if I learned to speak bird,” Chen Chen writes. Before embarking on this project, I did not know wood-pigeon from collared dove. Or that one of each sits outside my window in the early mornings, active at sunrise. I’ve been learning to bird. To recognise movement, presence, and polyphony. Noticing the way my mornings synchronise with that of birds’ for brief moments. I observe their happenings and bustling and noise. We go about our days. I still can’t speak bird, but I’m listening. 


 

Annika Bowman is an environmental writer from the United States. She is pursuing a DPhil in Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Her research and writing focus on the cultural impacts of species loss. 


Artwork by Karolina Uskakovych— a designer, artist, and filmmaker from Kyiv, Ukraine. Karolina is a co-founder of the Uzvar_Collective and Art Director for the magazine Anthroposphere: The Oxford Climate Review. She is also artist-in-residence at Re(Grounding) programme as well as the Digital Ecologies research group. Her current research explores traditional ecological knowledge in relation to gardening in Ukraine.

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