World Series of Birding 2008 Report Part 1

I have so much catching up to do before the Detroit Lakes Festival this weekend--how will I fit it all in? In the meantime, I need to catch you up on all the wacky fun that is the World Series of Birding and some of the photos we got like the above red-winged blackbird. Essentially, it's a contest that turned 25 years old this year that requires a team to see the most species of birds in the state in a 24 hour period. There are a few different ways to win, like seeing the most birds in Cape May County in a 24 hour period or what our team did: digiscope as many different species of birds as possible in a 24 hour period. Our team was the Swarovski Digiscoping Hawks consisting of Swarovski Optik Rep Clay Taylor, me, and our driver, Amy Hooper (aka WildBird on the Fly). Incidentally, her magazine WildBird sponsored a winning team as well and you can read about that here.

There was on big challenge for the day: the weather! It rained--blah. It's hard enough if you are a team just trying to see and hear as many species as possible, it's even worse for camera equipment. I was hoping to come home with some really hot shots of shorebirds and species I don't normally see like the brant in the above photo, but I had to settle for just getting identifiable.

I don't think I could do a World Series team any other way than digiscoping. Here we are getting ready to load into the vehicle to get started at 5am. We can't really shoot photos in the dark, so unlike the other teams who drove out to their birding spots Friday night, so they could start the count right at midnight Saturday morning, we got a compartively late start. We were out for a total of 15 hours because of light, as opposed to teams who went for the full 24 hour birding blitz. Digiscoping is a more relaxing way to go.

I've heard people try to say that birding is good exercise. I don't know if I agree with that since you are generally trying to creep through areas looking for species and if you get to a hot spot, you stand around and stare. A world series team is constantly moving at a brisk pace--you need to rack up the species, you can't just dilly dally around. The only problem is that you are out for so long, you tend to load up on sugary drinks and junk food so it counter acts all the movement. It was great for us when we would get to a spot like the above, and you could knock out several species in one frame: whimbrels, short-billed dowitchers, and gull-billed terns.

But, I have to say, I thought we did a few things that would keep us from winning. Clay is my kind of guy. We enjoyed the sport of going out to get bird photos, but when a merlin flew in and landed, we had to take a moment. With merlins, attention must be paid. We saw this bird fly in and land not long after we arrived at this spot. We got an identifiable photo, but Clay, Amy, and I went over to get as many photos as we could. I love that even though it was a competition, we still could take a merlin moment. Incidentally, merlins were everywhere that day. We first saw one at the Meadows and it flew by too fast for us to get a photo, but we watched it fly over a couple of other teams who were not digiscoping and the completely missed it. I wonder how many birds we missed like that?

There were some challenges for me. We didn't see too many feeding stations and I'm used to Mr. Neil's where all I need to do is place a feeder in great sun and bam, I knock off the birds. When I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak overhead, I was sweating trying to line up the scope with the bird popping out periodically from the leaves to sing his song.

Even more shocking was that I was able to knock out a tanager. Again, a not perfect photo, but it's identifiable.

Clay has some mad digiscopin' skillz. I used a point and shoot digital camera with my spotting scope. He uses a digital SLR attached to his. He also has developed a technique of taking his scope off the tripod and holding it to get flight shots--note above. Yes, he's holding a Swarovski 80mm scope that is attached to his SLR--and he can get some great flight shots that way.

Check it out, he even got us a snipe in flight! Snipe are hard enough to find and photograph, he got one on the wing. See what I mean people, mad digiscopin' skillz. You can see examples of this free handed digiscoping technique at this blog entry when Clay and I were at the Connecticut Bald Eagle Fest.

I was really curious who we were going to get swallows, they were zipping around all over the place and that's a challenge even with Clay's technique. Fortunately, a whole line was perched on a wooden railing and we were able to systematically knock off barn swallow and cliff swallow (both above) as well as northern rough-winged and tree all in a few snaps.

I think this is the best photo that I got all day long. It was pouring rain and I was trying to get a white-eyed vireo and for all my pishing, about three catbirds came out to stop and stare. Perhaps they were thinking of incorporating that into their usual mimic song routine?

This is one of the photos that Clay got, his SLR really was able to get the color of this tri-colored heron even in the crappy light. We were actually trudging around through a salt-marsh trying to get a photo of a salt-marsh sharp-tailed, a salt marsh...that's a special kind of stinky.

While Clay got the heron, I got this banded osprey feeding on a fish. When I showed this photo to Non Birding Bill and pointed out the band, he asked snarkily, "Can you read the numbers?" I zoomed in on iPhoto and we could make out a 0 and an 8. He was impressed.

I think this is the last photo that I got for the day. We already had a turkey vulture flight shot, but again, a turkey vulture that was perched in the rare moment of sunshine for the day was just too good to pass up.

We actually ended our day at around 8pm because it got too dark to photograph. We went back to the hotel, showered and Clay worked on our PowerPoint for our checklist presentation. At around 11:30pm, we went to the finish line which was bustling with activity. Here is the long line of volunteers who verify your numeric total of birds. Teams were pouring in all the way to midnight. Teams who were just trying to observe birds were out til the last minute trying to listen for black rail and saw-whet owls.

Some teams were collapsing from sheer exhaustion. Birding hardcore for 24 hours. Could you blame them. There was also some press there--even Animal Planet! They were following one of the teams for a potential birding series pilot. Hope it makes it on tv. After midnight, we went back to our hotel and slept, resting up before the morning awards ceremony.

Here, Clay and I are reenacting me learning that we won--that was total shock. I really thought with some of the birds that we missed, the crap weather, and things like merlin moments that we would come in at a respectable number, but not win. But at 113 bird species identifiable in our PowerPoint, we won.

I was a big ole honkin' cheese ball when we went up to get our award. I think I said "Holy Crap" about four times (although, better than the words I actually used when I learned we won--my mom would get out a bar of soap). I even took a photo of the audience while we were getting our plaque.

Here is our award. They used Clay's photo of a marsh wren in the background. Since Swarovski was the sponsor, the plaque will go to their offices. That's fine they get the award, I got to have all of the fun out in the field.

More to come later.