Bad News Birders

Mj 618_348_bad news birders
Photograph by Randy Harris

My trick is I wake up early, smoke a lot of weed, and start drinking by 10,” Rodney Johnson says, lighting an American Spirit and pulling out from the parking lot of a strip-mall sushi restaurant in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. It’s minutes before midnight, the official start of the 30th annual World Series of Birding – a 24-hour competition held every May in which upwards of 1,000 international birders race around the Garden State, in teams averaging four people, trying to identify as many bird species as possible – and Johnson, captain of the three-man Diving Dabblers, is explaining how he forces himself to nap before the nonstop event. Johnson, the 47-year-old proprietor of Grand Cru, a craft-beer joint in Rhinebeck, New York, recently shocked the staid birding world by leading the Dabblers – who pregame with tallboys and vaporizer hits – to third place in the 2012 World Series. This year, he’s aiming for the top prize. “We’re not Cornell,” Johnson says, referring to the powerhouse Ivy League student team, “but we’re persistent.”

Formerly the hobby of Victorian-era gentry, birding is now a $30-billion-plus industry with competitions across the globe. Once a year, the best of the best converge on the Garden State in an open competition to take home the Urner Stone Cup, a silver-plated trophy the size of a salad spinner. New Jersey is a strategic location along the Atlantic flyway – one of the Western Hemisphere’s key migratory routes – and has a wide variety of microhabitats that annually draw more than 450 bird species. In the Series, teams employ different strategies to document species during spring migration, when birds touch down to refuel as they travel from sites like South America to Canada. Each team is given an official checklist of 270 species. The team who checks off the most birds will win. For a species to count toward a team’s tally, each member must identify it by sight or by sound, operating on an honor system. To thwart cheaters, the World Series organizers plant red herrings like the Iceland gull on the checklist: As the species is highly unlikely to be seen today in New Jersey, a team will out themselves as probable cheaters should they check it off.

In the Series, teams scout their routes ahead of time, devising secret plans to maximize the number of species they can tally under the ticking clock. Contestants identify birds by sound at night and with the added bonus of sight during the day. “Bird-watching is a misnomer,” World Series founder Pete Dunne says, “because so much of it is done with your ears.” The Dabblers are birding from northern New Jersey to the southern tip of the state in Cape May County, site of the Series finish line, in a sort-of-planned 500-mile circuit. “I’m not as prepared as I normally am,” Johnson says, “but I think we’re guaranteed 190 species.”

At 2 a.m., the Dabblers stand in the pitch-black heart of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a forest about an hour west of New York City. A giant thunderstorm is engulfing the state, threatening to disrupt normal migration patterns. Gray tree frogs ribbit in the rain. Shoes turn into sponges. The Dabblers’ concentration narrows, shrinking the audible world, searching for birdcalls. While teams like Cornell’s study hundreds of recorded birdcalls before the Series, Johnson attributes the Dabblers’ success to an inordinate amount of time spent outdoors. “You can listen to as many recordings as you want,” he says, “but if you hear a bird in the wild, you’ll remember it forever.” Birding since he was a bored kid “on a tractor seat” in rural Pennsylvania, Johnson has exceptional vision and hearing, and enjoys putting his skills to the test every year in the Series. He cups his ears, as does teammate Mark Boyd, a 54-year-old carpenter from Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Dabblers’ third member, Mitch Salem (not his real name), 21, stands with his hands inside his jacket. Every stop along the Dabblers’ route has been chosen to spot specific species. At Great Swamp, the team needs to record the screech owl and the king rail, but the frogs are everywhere, drowning out sound. Johnson claps 10 times fast. “Sometimes it fires the birds up,” he says. It doesn’t work. Johnson asks Salem – the group’s expert owl caller – to imitate the screech owl. Salem emits a trembling, throaty whistle. Once, twice. Nothing. He tries again. The Dabblers hear a soft response. “There,” Salem says. The screech owl is checked off the list.

At 5 a.m., the Dabblers are hiking up Vesper Hill in north-central New Jersey’s Unionville grasslands, when four men in hooded sweatshirts charge past them in the early-morning fog – the first sighting of competition – and quickly disappear again. “I wonder if they scouted up top,” Johnson says, referring to the vesper sparrow, the species the Dabblers have come here to find. Midway up the hill, he suddenly stops and detours right, climbs over a stone wall, and heads into an open field. “He’s bushwhacking,” Boyd whispers, a soggy cigarette dangling from his lower lip. Half Native American and 6-foot-3, Boyd is the long-haired map man for the Dabblers and something of the group’s spiritual center. After a stint in the Army and years of “hanging out with badass bikers and kicking lots of ass,” Boyd sought less dangerous thrills in birding, joining a bird club in 1997 and meeting Johnson, who recruited him to join his fledgling team. Johnson’s instinct is dead-on – they all hear the vesper sparrow’s trill song. The Dabblers cross the species off their sheet and return to the SUV.

Soon after Vesper Hill, Salem attempts to draw out an unseen bird by pishing – making a repetitive sound to engage certain species – with no result. He suspects it’s a mourning warbler. “They’re uncooperative and secretive,” he says, adding that he caught a glimpse of olive green feathers. Salem is studying parks and recreation management at Penn State University. He came to birding via his older brother Adam, who had been a Dabbler until his unexpected death from diabetes in 2012. Back in the car, he confirms the species by playing the mourning warbler’s call on an iPhone – acceptable in the confines of a vehicle but a big no-no in the field, as electronic calls would negate any advantage earned by birders who can naturally imitate calls. Add a warbler to the tally. “Fuck, yeah!” Johnson says. Salem nods: “Best bird of the day.”

By noon, when the team begin driving to South Jersey, they have tallied 120 species – way off their ideal pace. “The goal was to leave the north with 150 birds,” Johnson says with a sigh. Spirits revive as the Dabblers pick up a handful of species from sightings along the highway. On a gut feeling, Johnson detours to a spot he has marked as a backup for finding bobolink, a species they missed in the grasslands. Within minutes, they record a bobolink, a grasshopper sparrow, and an Eastern meadowlark. The team celebrate with soggy sandwiches, but frustrations soon build again as they miss turn after turn while driving south through the Pine Barrens. Around 4 p.m., Boyd asks to stop for a 12-pack. “I’m about ready to bag it,” Johnson growls. Two hours later, the waterlogged Dabblers arrive at the end of their route in Cape May. The team’s tally stands at 158. Most teams finish with an average of 165 birds, so a total Dabblers score of around 190 might take first place. The sun breaks through the clouds as the Dabblers set their scopes atop tripods on the beach sand of South Cape May Meadows. Boyd pops open a Busch Light. Suddenly, the sky spits marble-size hail. Johnson snaps.

“Is that all you got, motherfucker?” Johnson yells, hoisting his middle finger at the sky. He says he wants to call it quits. “What the fuck?” Boyd says. “You don’t want to push for extra birds?” Salem remains silent, nearly asleep on his feet (he and Boyd have been awake for 42 hours). Johnson relents, but at 9 p.m., as the storm picks up again, the Dabblers give up. “This is one of the worst years we’ve ever had,” Johnson says, as they retreat to the Capri Motor Lodge’s warm nest of beer, weed, and dry clothing. Near midnight, the Dabblers leave the motel and arrive at the finish line – a large event space inside the Cape May Grand Hotel – to turn in their final tally of 174. They must wait until morning for the competition results.

The next day, the Dabblers stand over a steaming buffet at the awards brunch, rubbing their bloodshot eyes. “We got fucking third place!” Johnson exclaims. Boyd and Salem look confused. The Dabblers finished higher than the Cornell Redheads, and only 12 species behind the first-place team, the B.B. Kingfishers, an upstart high school group from Berwyn, Pennsylvania. While the Dabblers may have won if they’d toughed out those last few hours, the team seem satisfied – or too tired to care. Called up to the stage and presented with a trophy, Johnson leans into the microphone and grins. “There’s only one thing I like more than the outdoors,” he says to the world’s top birders, “and that may be beer.”

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