GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — With the sighting of a little blue heron, the Sitting Ducks set a personal best Saturday in five years of competing in the World Series of Birding.
The group — Kathy Peterson, of Mullica Township; Chris Marks, of Corbin City; Kris Arcuri, of Absecon; Kevin Lippert, of Galloway; and Tom Baxter, of Cape May — spotted its 84th bird species midway through the 12th hour of its 16-hour vigil atop the tower at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. The group’s last best count had been 83, in 2011.
Armed with powerful binoculars and telescopes, the group began at 4 a.m. working toward its goal of spotting 80 migratory birds in one day. In the early dark hours of morning, they listened, hoping to hear the call of some of the 270 birds on the World Series of Birding checklist. By the time they finished at 8 p.m., they hoped to add a night hawk to their tally.
“New Jersey is so habitat-rich,” said Dale Rosselet, vice president of education for New Jersey Audubon. “People usually think of the state nickname as the Guardrail State instead of the Garden State. But there is extremely rich diversity here.”
Forests, shorelines and mudflats satisfy different requirements for the birds as they traverse the Atlantic Flyway, a migratory route they follow north in the spring and south in the fall. At least half the birds on the World Series of Birding list are migrants, Rosselet said, and many stop in New Jersey en route to their final destination.
While the Sitting Ducks sat, 75 other teams fanned out across the state in search of birds, helping to raise funds and awareness for NJA. In the past 30 years, the event has raised $9 million for bird conservation, Rosselet said. Teams have from midnight to midnight to count as many species as they can. All team members must verify the sighting for it to count.
Teams included youths, carbon-free footprint (boat, bicycle, walking) and limited scope, such as remaining within one county. Some teams crisscross the state, hitting as many places as possible and spending as little as 5 minutes in each as they race to spy as many birds as possible in 24 hours. The Sitting Ducks were competing in the Big Stay category.
“They have to wait for the birds to come to them,” Rosselet said.
That’s quite OK, Marks said. “Traveling the entirety of the state seems challenging,” she said.
“People who travel get a greater number of birds,” Arcuri said. “But this is more fun.”
The day was a success on many levels for the Sitting Ducks, who, in achieving their goal of at least 80 species sighted, saw a tundra swan, a cliff swallow, a saltmarsh sparrow (No. 79), a cattle egret (No. 80), a black vulture (No. 81) and heard a Virginia rail.
“They’re very secretive,” Peterson said of the Virginia rail, which, true to its reputation, eluded the team’s sight.
“You have to hear them,” Arcuri said.
An inhabitant of freshwater marshes, rails use their flexible vertebrae and long toes to maneuver through the dense vegetation in which they hide.
For Lippert, the cliff swallow — a compact bird with pointed, broad-based wings, a small head and medium-length, squared tail — was a “life bird,” meaning it was the first time in his 20 years as an Audubon Society member that he’s seen that species.
The cattle egret, first spied by newest Sitting Ducks member Baxter, was proclaimed as “looking spiffy” by Marks, a science teacher of more than 30 years who in the last 10 years became what she describes as “bird obsessed.”
The great and snowy egrets populating the refuge’s watering holes were dismissed as “common” by the group, which praised the small, stocky white heron with its yellow bill as “a good No. 80 bird.”
The tundra swan elicited more sympathy than excitement from the group as the Sitting Ducks suspected the Arctic bird was at the refuge long past the time it should have departed, because an injury was preventing it from flying away. While easily spotted in the area in the winter, the tundra swan is such a rarity at this time of year that it was not on the WSB checklist and would require the group to file a short report on it to include it in their count, Rosselet said.
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