The World Series of Birding happens May 8 this year. Pray for me.
You may recall that Maine Audubon entered a team into this event last year. You may also recall that the appointed day turned out to be the worst May snowstorm Maine has experienced in recent memory. It was 24 hours of rain and snow, often blowing sideways.
Worst. Birding. Day. Ever.
New Jersey Audubon stages the competition every year. Prior to COVID-19, the entire event was confined to New Jersey. Expert teams from all over the country flocked there. Each team would crowd into a vehicle and charge from place to place, conjuring up a big list of sightings. It was hardly social-distancing.
The pandemic changed all that.
The format was revised. Teams would stay in their own states, and members would bird separately. They could communicate by phone, text and email, keeping each other informed about the birds seen, and those still needing to be seen. Team Maine Audubon consisted of four expert birders in Cumberland County, and me in Penobscot County, where it snowed. Heavily.
The competition is open to all 17 states along the Atlantic Flyway, plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because the first Saturday in May is always the designated day, Maine is at a significant disadvantage. Many of our birds simply aren’t back yet. Worse, many Maine-breeding birds are actively migrating through other states, where they can be counted by our competitors.
Ah, but Maine has a secret weapon: Our habitats.
Think of New Jersey. Its tallest mountain is only 1800 feet high – a cute little hill, to be sure.
Maine has a hardwood forest in the southern part of the state, transitioning to softwood in parts of the north. Unlike most of the other states, we’re almost Canada. There are birds up here that aren’t down there, ever. There are birds in our ocean that aren’t in their ocean.
Furthermore, Canada’s northern latitudes are still frozen at this time of year. Some of Canada’s nesters linger in Maine through early May. Purple sandpipers, harlequin ducks, and even snowy owls often don’t leave for the arctic until Memorial Day.
In short, because Maine is an extraordinary place for birding, Team Maine Audubon has a chance to do well … that is, if it doesn’t snow.
There is one rule change this year that might make all the difference. Last year, under strict health safety protocols, team members could venture no farther than 10 miles from home. Since Maine is more than three times the size of New Jersey, that left a lot of Maine’s valuable diversity out of reach. This year, team members can go anywhere in the state. I intend to.
Team Maine Audubon’s Cumberland County members have the southern half of the state well-covered.
Scarborough Marsh is the state’s largest saltmarsh, and they’ll score a lot of species there.
My wife and I have the job of scouring northern and Down East habitats, searching for birds that aren’t found south of Bangor. Sandi and I will look for spruce grouse, Canada jay, boreal chickadee and black-backed woodpecker.
With luck, maybe we can conjure up a few red or white-winged crossbills, or some pine siskins.
Some readers may roll their eyes, and wonder why anyone would turn the gentle art of communing with nature and wildlife into a competitive sport, charging around, disturbing the poor little birdies. Actually, just hearing a bird is sufficient to tally a positive identification. You can hear a loon a mile away. I can hear forest birds singing out the car window at 40 mph. There’s no need to disturb the birds, and in fact it’s against the rules. It’s still communing with nature, just at a somewhat accelerated pace.
It’s also a major fundraiser. Maine Audubon was genuinely surprised by the generosity of donors who pledged support to last year’s team, despite the daunting challenge that the team faced in a too-early competition under harsh weather conditions, or perhaps because of it. Thousands of dollars were funneled to Audubon’s education and conservation programs – enough to encourage the team to try again. Find details at maineaudubon.org/worldseries.
Ultimately, this kind of birding isn’t for everybody, or nearly anybody. But it is a showcase for Maine birding in general, and an invitation to get out of our own backyards and explore a little.
The diversity of Maine’s habitat is available to everyone, just at a slower pace.