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
April 14, 2014
Team Zeiss searches the sky from a prime perch in front of Cape May Point Lighthouse.
Michael Turek

The weather is still clear when Meg Hedeen arrives at Michael O'Brien's home at close to midnight on a moonless Friday in spring. There's a steady southwesterly blowing off Delaware Bay, but it's quiet here, half a mile inland in a residential neighborhood of Cape May, New Jersey. The stars, still visible, wink down on empty streets that smell of lilacs.

But Hedeen has seen the forecast. The weather radar shows yellow, orange, and red. So she's wrapped her feet in plastic bags. "We're going to get wet," she predicts.

She and her two teammates, O'Brien and Mark Garland, will be awake for the next 24 hours, racing on bikes among the woods, marsh, and beach, identifying as many birds as possible in the 30th annual World Series of Birding.

Around the state, 90 teams—some 650 people in all—are presently poised to do the same. Some will be in cars; others, on foot. Some will cross New Jersey; others, just a county. Some are 3 years old; others, 83. The competition's start is approaching, and just a minute before midnight, O'Brien begins to whistle.

He is hoping that his team's first bird will be a screech owl in the woods behind his house. He calls to it in a haunting whinny. No one breathes. The cricket frogs count time in a sleepy drone.

A distant honk makes O'Brien smile. "We just got our first bird," he whispers.

"Canada goose," Garland confirms quietly. "Not one that we were likely to have missed, but they all count."

O'Brien continues whistling. He's a focused man with a pinched expression behind his glasses and a shirt tucked into light blue jeans. He cups a hand to his ear and hears the faint flight calls of a least sandpiper, a swainson's thrush, a black-bellied plover. O'Brien is considered one of the best birders in New Jersey. In his particular passion, identifying birds by their flight calls, he's among the finest in the world. He has memorized the calls of 1,000 species, a mental inventory of ascending and descending cheeps that is legendary in the birding community and is a considerable asset to his team, the Monarchists. In 2012 he led them to the Cape Island Cup—the award for most birds identified on Cape Island, where he lives.

Standing in his yard now, O'Brien turns his ear skyward with the taut concentration of a man who is intent on winning again. But as the valuable minutes tick by, the owl stays mute.

Finally, the Monarchists decide to head into town to listen for night migrants. They jump on their bikes and pedal into Cape May, pausing at a marsh where O'Brien clucks, unsuccessfully, for a least bittern. But near the coast, the loud surf drowns out the birdcalls, and the sky sparkles with lighting. As team members hunt for a quiet spot to listen, clouds sweep in, swallowing the stars, and the wind shakes pink blossoms from the fruit trees.

"It's not the most auspicious beginning," Garland says gravely.

The concept of a "big day" of birding dates to the 1920s. The World Series of Birding is a more modern affair, born in 1983 over pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon at Cape May's C-View Inn. It all began with a challenge. Pete Dunne and his friends could see more than 100 species of birds in 24 hours, easy. But could they reach 200? They decided that a little friendly competition might help.

So they designed an event. The playing field was all of New Jersey—a perfect state given its diverse habitat, sound highways, and location along the Atlantic Flyway, an aerial interstate for migratory birds.

They developed a rule book. Identification could be by sight or sound, regulated by the honor system. Ninety-five percent of a team's birds must have been seen or heard by all members—from midnight to midnight one Saturday in May.

Each year for three decades, hundreds have participated. The event's popularity reflects a national growth in birding: Some 50 million Americans now consider themselves birders. The World Series draws the most passionate among them for one marathon day in the field.

"It's a little zany," Dunne admits. "That's one of the appeals. How often do adults get to behave like little kids, to stay up all night and eat junk food?"

Dunne's team has won the World Series four times, most recently in 2012. This year, they'll compete in the "Big Stay" category, birding from within a 17-foot circle. Dunne is a committed birder. He even participated in the inaugural event in '84 with Roger Tory Peterson, the father of American birding. But he'll start this World Series at dawn, not midnight. The extra rest is tactical.

It's a rare compulsion that propels a person from a warm bed to a sleepless, soggy day, scouring the sky for birds

"Sleep is a weapon," he says.

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.