Big Day Writing and Reflections

On May 10, 2001, at 6 o’clock in the morning, our birding group hopped in cars and headed to Cape May, New Jersey, to participate it the 18th annual World Series of Birding. The actual event was not until Saturday, May 12, but the group of young birders, grades 6-8 had to do scouting to find where the birds are for the “Big Day”.

The World Series of Birding is an international birding competition that has been raising money for nature conservation efforts since 1984. In this year’s event, 61 teams were participating. We entered 2 teams: The Night-herons made up of Jim, Jessica, Zach W, Kristen, Olivia, Chris, and Jarred and the Creepers made up of Zach B, Ben, Brad, Jessey, Megan, and Ayana. Each team had two support persons, to keep track of species seen and organize the sightings. Support for the Night-herons consisted of Selby and Melissa, and for the Creepers, Will and Libby. Most people wouldn’t know what a Night-heron or Creeper is, but these students had to learn to identify the many species they would see in Cape May.

In the 2 days before Saturday the groups went scouting for places to find the birds. They traveled all around Cape May County, visiting the many hot spots like Belleplain State Forest, Stone Harbor Point, Jake’s Landing, Nummy’s Island, and many more. On the night before, the group sat down to put an itinerary together for the next day.

At 3 o’clock in the morning, Saturday, May 12, the CMS Birding Group got up, got ready, and jumped in their parent driven cars. Their “Big Day” had begun! Their first stop was Jake’s Landing, a forest and marsh habitat where they would listen for night birds and rails. The groups quickly picked up a Great Horned Owl and a Virginia Rail, a hard to see marsh bird. By the time they left, the group had a picked up several other species and felt like they were off to a sound start.

Next they headed for Belleplain State Forest, a great spot to hear warblers. On the way there, the Night-herons heard one sound they hadn’t counted on—a large thud as their mini van hit one of the many guinea fowl that roamed the area. This was not the way to get birds. Worse yet, we couldn’t count it because it was a domesticated species.

The morning continued, and the group visited other spots including the CMBO (Cape May Bird Observatory), Reed’s Beach, and a Wawa for a necessary pit stop. By 10 AM , the groups had made it down at Cape May Point Island. The first stop there was alongside a field, where they hoped to hear a Bobolink, Unfortunately, they did not hear any.

After that disappointment it was on to Higbee Beach. When scouting the day before , they had heard and seen a Black-billed Cuckoo, an uncommon bird.  Sure enough, both groups saw the bird there again, almost in the same place as the day before.  Scouting does pay off! After finishing birding at Higbee, the group moved on to Hidden Valley, a nature area.  Here the Creepers found a rare Red-headed Woodpecker and the Night-herons got a good view of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Next stop was the Cape May Point State Park, followed by the Cape May Bird Observatory where they stopped to eat lunch.  By lunchtime the groups had accumulated over one hundred species, breaking last year’s score of eighty one.  After lunch it was off to the Cape May Meadows and then the Beanery. The Beanery is a private property.  It is farm area accessible to the World Series participants.  Here we found our 19th warbler species, the Northern Waterthrush.

During the rest of the afternoon, the groups went up and down the coast, searching for shorebirds. We found Whimbrels, both species of loons, the rare Piping Plover, and finally a Black Skimmer. Then, at around 8:30 PM, we returned to the Cape May Meadows. It was getting darker outside by the minute, but the meadow was supposed to be a good spot to find the American Woodcock. Sure enough, after a short wait, we heard the distinctive, short, throaty, nasal “eenk” call. The Creepers even saw the bird as it flew by.

When we left the meadows, it was totally dark out and starting to drizzle, but our big day was not yet over. We headed back to the Beanery for one last stop to listen for owls. The group had Ayana imitate a screech owl call, hoping to get an owl to reply. The first response was from a cow! Finally, a barred owl did reply, our 126th species of the day.

After that, the Big Day was pretty much over except for check-in. At the Check-in Point, the groups tallied up their bird species seen. For the final count, the Creepers had 126 and the Night-herons had 124. The counts were good enough to give our teams first and second place in the Youth K-8 Category.

Getting to participate in the World Series of Birding was an experience that none of us will ever forget, for we could just be the future leaders in the field of ornithology. With all of the knowledge we have gained about birding, we will hope to return next year with both a High School and Middle School team.


We were standing in the dark at Jake’s Landing.  It was almost pitch black and silent except for the occasional sound of mosquitoes being swatted.  In the distance a Great Horned Owl hooted faintly.  Suddenly out in the marsh a Red-winged Blackbird called.  Then another began.  Around us on all sides the marsh was starting to come to life. On the horizon the sky was just starting to lighten.  Seaside Sparrows started to call, and rails clapped.  As the sky continued to brighten, the marsh erupted with sound.  Our Big Day had begun.
It was a little before lunch, the sun was high in the sky, but many of the birds were still singing.  The group was at the Cape May Point State Park, following a trail through scrub brush and wetland areas behind the dunes.  We were on a platform overlooking a pond.  Directly across the pond there was a Wood Duck box poking up through the Phragmites.  Poking out through the hole was a silent and motionless blob.  This was the same blob seen the day before while scouting.  It couldn’t be alive.  But then ‘It moved!  It moved!’ someone shouted.  Now all eyes were focused on it looking for some field marks.  It turned out to be a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron.  It just goes to show that it pays to look at something carefully.
It was late in the evening, and the teams were showing signs of exhaustion.  We had been up for 18 hours of continuous birding at this point.  Our teams had hoped to see at least 100 species, and by now our totals had exceeded 120.  So we had surpassed our wildest expectations.  What was one more species?  But we sucked it in and went back out into Cape May Meadows to find that last rare species. Here we hoped on seeing an American Woodcock, which neither team had expected to see.  Our scouting had told us that there was a chance of seeing one here after dusk.  The two teams split, and our team decided to sit in the open field next to the woods.  Fifteen minutes of sitting, and we hadn’t seen our Woodcock.  Then a stubby bird burst straight toward us, but because of the lack of light, I was the only one that could positively identify it.  We couldn’t count it!  It seemed like our time and energy had been wasted.

Should we get up and leave?  It was getting late.  Then from the edge of the woods came a loud nasal “einck”, music to our ears.  All heard and saw it this time as it went through its incredible display.  Our patience had paid off once again.