June 14, 2018
Seven Saint Vincent College students who call themselves the Bird Nerds participated in the 35th annual World Series of Birding held on May 12 at Cape May, New Jersey, where 68 teams competed to find the most species of birds in a single 24-hour period, from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m.
Donations received in support of their participation were awarded to Wildlife Works, Inc., Youngwood, a non-profit organization the Bird Nerds chose to raise funds for as one of their goals. Contributed funds were enough to support a Barred Owl, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Canada Goose and Ruby-throated Hummingbird for a year.
“In addition to raising funds for conservation programs around the world, there is a scientific value to the competition,” commented Dr. James Kellam, associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College, who accompanied the group. “The bird lists that are compiled provide a snapshot of which birds are at Cape May on a certain day and which birds are not. By comparing these lists year after year, scientists can determine how migratory patterns are changing as well as how changes in habitat affect species populations and distributions. For example, if Forster’s Terns are becoming more common over the years and Common Terns are becoming less common, scientists can start investigating what might have caused the change.”
This was the second year that Saint Vincent College sent a team to compete in the World Series of Birding. They set a goal of finding 97 bird species during the event which was one more species than the team found in 2017. They figured they should do at least as well as the 2017 team because they were a larger team and knew the Cape May region a little better. They didn’t want to over-estimate their talents, though. Most of them were fairly inexperienced birders. As it turned out, their goal was way too conservative. Their official total was 111 bird species. This is the number of species that team members identified on Saturday, either by sight or by sound. They found another seven species while scouting on the Thursday and Friday before the competition, but those do not count in the official total.
There are numerous World Series divisions in which teams compete. The Saint Vincent Bird Nerds team was a “Level 1” team in the Cape May County Category (Level 1 teams are the most competitive). There were only four teams in that category, and they came in fourth place. They were beaten by a team from Cornell University and teams of professionals from South Africa and Israel. “Saint Vincent students say they aren’t really competitive folk, so their relatively poor showing didn’t matter,” Kellam commented. “Winning this competition requires not only superb identification skills (usually by ear), but also a refined strategy that can only be learned by participation over many years.”
“Finding a large number of species in a short amount of time requires a detailed itinerary to visit a variety of habitats at certain times of day,” Kellam continued. “For example, where and at what time would we find the most nocturnal birds? Some species like the owls would be found in forests at night, while the rails could be heard in the marshes at the same time. Those are different habitats and we had to travel between them. We had to be in deep forest to hear the dawn chorus, an assembly of warblers and thrushes that sing most frequently at dawn. Meanwhile, we were looking for certain shorebirds at low tide or high tide or on the Delaware Bay side of the peninsula, or the Atlantic Ocean side of the peninsula; so our timing and travel to these locations had to be just right. We did this better in 2018, which gave us a bigger total.”
“A lot of these birds were new to most of us, so the first step in learning them was identifying them by sight,” Kellan explained. “We had study sessions every Thursday during the spring semester, concentrating on a list of more than 175 species likely found at Cape May. We also spent a 15-hour day on a Saturday in April at Moraine State Park (near Portersville) so we could observe some of the species in real life. Still, identifying some of the closely-related species in the field was a challenge. Was the bill on that shorebird blunt-tipped or sharp-pointed? The answer would help us determine if it was a Greater Yellowlegs or a Lesser Yellowlegs. We probably missed some rarer bird species by assuming, for example, that all the individuals we saw at a certain location had blunt-tipped bills, when in reality one or two could have had sharp-pointed bills. We’ll have to be more careful about this in the future. Also, another way to improve our species total would be to learn more bird calls, since we don’t need to actually see the bird in order to count it.”
Regardless of their performance, Kellam said the students had an amazing experience. “We bonded over the hours and hours spent in the rental van, laughed over things that probably weren’t very funny but seemed so due to lack of sleep, and learned a vast amount of ornithology by conducting this marathon of a survey,” he concluded.
Photo: The Saint Vincent College Bird Nerds who participated in the annual World Series of Birding in Cape May, New Jersey, on May 11 were, from left, Alyssa Baker of Thurmont, Maryland, a sophomore majoring in biology; Rachel Dudek of Spring Grove, a sophomore majoring in biology; Rachael Sarnowski of Bridgeville, a sophomore majoring in biology; Anthony Schaefer of Severna Park, Maryland, a senior majoring in environmental science; Devon Long of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in physics; Michael Kardos of Vandergrift, a sophomore majoring in biology; and Jared Ackerman of North Huntingdon, a sophomore majoring in bioinformatics.
Follow us on Twitter: @MySaintVincent
Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/saintvincentcollege