What is The World Series of Birding?
The World Series of Birding is a 24-hour competition throughout the entire state of New Jersey where teams must find and identify as many birds as they can by sight or sound with their team. This bird-a-thon happens during peak spring migration as a fundraising effort for conservation; the more birds that teams can find, the more money can be raised for conservation efforts through pledges. It also attracts birders from across the nation, all vying for the top spot in their division and the grand prize: The Urner Stone Cup, for the most species identified by a team!
How have you participated in the World Series of Birding?
The World Series of Birding was how I got my start as a serious birder, but it also gave me my start as a teacher (before I even knew it!). My friends and I competed in the World Series of Birding on a team sponsored by the Upper Main Line YMCA when I was a freshman in high school. Brian Raicich was our coach who took us out on birding field trips and helped us study bird identification by both sight and sound. We also had Mike Mostello, Sally Leathersich, and a whole roster of parent volunteers who helped coach us as well. We would meet weekly from January until competition time in May to study with monthly field trips on the weekend; sometimes to hotspots that we would visit in the competition; other times to just do some local birding to sharpen our skills. No matter where we went, we had the best time together exploring and learning. In our first World Series of Birding, our high school team found 113 species in 24 hours.
How did you prepare for it?
During the next three years of high school, our team became much more serious in both study and in territory that we would cover. Our first year was exclusively in the Cape May vicinity. By my senior year, we were covering most of the southern half of the state. Upon graduation, I joined the coaching staff for our World Series of Birding youth teams at the YMCA. That same year, our teams expanded their territory to cover the entire state of New Jersey. Thanks to the help of the defending championship team, The Lagerhead Shrikes from the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, we learned that the top teams in the competition cover the entire state in their 24-hour route. Their team captain Paul Guris and his crew showed us the best birding spots in northern New Jersey, which turns out is some of the finest spring migration birding I’ve ever experienced (even to this day). If we ever wanted to find the most birds, we would have to cover the whole state. So we did!
Once we began covering the whole state, the commitment to the competition became more intense. The students needed to study more species. They needed to explore more diverse habitats. The logistics for running two or three youth teams across the entire state became an enormous operation. To prepare, students were taking off multiple days of school to scout in northern New Jersey the week leading into the competition. These scouting days were marathons within themselves; sometimes with 12-hour days where we would even pack breakfast and lunch so we wouldn’t have to stop. This intensity was worth it though. We were finding 100 species of birds on just one of these scouting days alone!
What did you learn from the World Series?
Coaching the students through our practice sessions and scouting trips helped me grow both as a birder and an educator. ‘Turns out that these were the days when I was becoming a teacher without even realizing it. Studying bird songs alongside the students helped me develop my own birding ear, which made me a better teacher of bird song. Spending time in the field with the students gave me the opportunity to understand the critical relationship between the birds and their preferred habitats. Most importantly, coaching the students through a grueling 24-hour birding competition taught me the importance of having a positive attitude to achieve. I learned that when times were tough, it only made things worse. When we kept a positive attitude, not only did it make the slower and more challenging times fun, it got us even more amped when the birding got good! And when we accomplished something, it made it even more special since the road that got us there was filled with shared experiences and memories that we all enjoyed.
What are you most proud of?
Speaking of accomplishments, the Upper Main Line YMCA became a decorated organization due to the hard work of the students! During our time in the competition, we earned four middle school division championships and one high school division championship. We even had graduated students come back and form an alumni team to compete in the adult division, earning two second-place championships for most species in the competition (with our highest total of 208 different species!) One award, however, was the most exciting of all: In 2013, our high school team won the Urner Stone Cup for the highest species total of any team that year; even the adults! They were the first youth team in the thirty-year history of the competition to win this award.
The Upper Main Line YMCA retired from the World Series of Birding after 15 years of competition. Although the Y retired from competition, none of us have retired from birding! In fact, I personally have found different yet exciting ways of connecting students with nature since then. As a 4th grade teacher, I take my students out onto our school’s nature trail for bird walks. I also started the Trailblazers program in Garnet Valley School District in 2012, which offers after-school clubs and summer camps devoted to birding. This program gives me the chance to still coach students in birding (without having to be up for 24 hours straight!).