Inside the World Series of Birding

Eyes trained on the beaches, marshes, and skies, hundreds of birders descend on Cape May, New Jersey, for the annual World Series of Birding. The next 24 hours will separate the warblers from the wrens. Let the games begin.
By Jacob Baynham

The Monarchists also have a secret weapon: Ron Rollet, a chef. He rolls into the parking lot of a birding area in a RAV4 at 5 a.m., just as the dawn chorus of song-birds is erupting from the cattails. So far O'Brien has picked out a blue grosbeak, a yellow warbler, and an orchard oriole. Out of the Toyota come fresh scones and a Thermos of café au lait. Chef Rollet keeps the Monarchists well-fed during the event.

The scones are especially timely. The Monarchists have dodged downpours all night, darting out during lulls. The weather has put the birds down, too. So although a screech owl finally returned Garland's call at 2:30 a.m. ("Small triumphs!" he cheered), the team's list of migrants is thin. Two more members, LuAnn Daniels and O'Brien's wife, Louise Zemaitis, joined the team at 4 a.m., adding extra eyes and ears. But the group is still struggling to cover diverse habitats. And they've had some run-ins with a dark Toyota Prius full of four men—Hedeen's husband among them. They are team Zen Zugunruhe, and their arsenal of tripods and expensive scopes marks them as stiff competition for the Cape Island Cup.

By midafternoon, the Monarchists have been soaked several times over. But they've reached a state of loopy euphoria, and fate is smiling on them. When they set down their bikes at Higbee Beach, the sun pokes out from behind the indigo clouds, and Hedeen points skyward.

"Ooh, merlin!" she shouts.

The others look up, and after a round of high-fives, check a species off their list.

"You are on fire!" Garland tells Hedeen, who spotted a belted kingfisher earlier.

Even the circumspect O'Brien waxes optimistic about the day. "It's better than we might have expected," he says.

As the team enters the adjacent woods, I ask Hedeen why, of all Earthly creatures, birds captivate her most. "They're beautiful, they sing, and they change with the seasons," she says. "What's more beautiful than a wood thrush singing in the woods?"

I put the same question to Garland after his call for a barred owl brings in a tufted titmouse and a crow, but no owl. He began birding in college to experience nature. "I find it very satisfying to understand what's going on in the world around you," he says. "There are still mysteries. There will always be mysteries. But I understand more than I used to."

It's a rare compulsion that propels a person from a warm bed to a sleepless, soggy day, scouring the sky for birds. But as O'Brien lifts his binoculars—his fingers splayed gracefully along the barrel—he looks like a conductor raising his baton. Indoor comforts couldn't hold a candle to his rhapsody right now.

At the awards brunch the following morning, the Grand Hotel's ballroom fills with birders, rested and swapping stories over pancakes. Binoculars sit beside their coffee mugs. They're a mixed bunch—old and young, male and female, tattooed and straight-laced. The Monarchists arrive in matching shirts. Their final tally was 139 birds, a solid score given the weather.

The winner of the 2013 World Series of Birding is the B.B. Kingfishers, three bashful high school boys who traversed the state in a minivan, identifying 186 species. Everyone is happy for them. "It's a little like golfing," Pete Dunne says. "There are hot young birders coming along, making a shambles of everybody's expectations."

In the end, the Monarchists win the Carbon Footprint Challenge (for doing the whole event on bikes), but the Cape Island competition winner is team Zen Zugunruhe, by just 18 birds. After breakfast, participants share sightings. The grasshopper sparrow, the yellow-crowned night heron, and the yellow-billed cuckoo draw "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd.

Later, a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, winner of Cape May County with 166 birds, steps onstage. The captain says a few words, and ends with a joke.

"Michael O'Brien is walking through the woods," the joke begins, "when he hears something. He stops to listen. 'There's a flock of birds,' he says. 'They're 100 miles offshore. The fifth from the back is breathing hard. It must be a steller's eider.'"

The ballroom dissolves in laughter. The joke confirms what everyone already knows: that Michael O'Brien is the Chuck Norris of birding. O'Brien laughs along. But later, in private, he's compelled to set the record straight.

"First," he tells me, "if it were a steller's eider, you wouldn't hear it. Second, it'd be nowhere near New Jersey."

Jacob Baynham is a writer and adjunct journalism professor in Montana. He writes for Men's Journal, Outside, and Esquire.

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