LOWER TOWNSHIP - Tom Reed, a recent Rutgers University graduate from Middle Township, has been on a quest to complete a "big year" - an effort to find the most birds in New Jersey in 2011.
This month he racked up his 338th bird, setting a state record. The bar was set at 337 in 2002 by Pennsylvania resident Rick Wiltraut. To succeed, Reed had to find some species so secretive that most people will never see them in their lifetime.
Wiltraut, 55, of Saylorsburg, Pa., has been birding with Reed on boat trips and sent him a congratulatory email.
Reed added four more species this month. But at 342 birds, he can't rest. He recently learned that another birder, Upper Township resident Mike Fritz, is hot on his heels and having an equally successful big year in New Jersey with at least 340 birds.
On a recent muggy day, Reed, 23, hoped to add a Hudsonian godwit, a shorebird rarely seen in Cape May's marshes. Toting a nicked and dented spotting scope on his shoulder, Reed trudged up the clamshell path at the Lower Cape May Meadows. He has spent about five of every seven days this year looking for birds.
He conceded his hobby is unusual.
"I've had friends since I started birding who still don't really grasp the concept - and that's fine," he said. "If anything, being a birder gives me a greater appreciation for stranger hobbies that my friends might have."
His odyssey began on New Year's Day, when he got off to a fantastic start by racking up 105 species. But the first 100 are infinitely easier to find than the second 100. And finding more than 300?
"It's a lot of birds," said Mike Crewe, director of birding programs at New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory. "In a state as small as New Jersey, you have to imagine that's pretty good."
"That is an amazing accomplishment. It took me over two years just to get 300 birds - and that's in different states," said Melissa Roach, a hawk counter for the Cape May Bird Observatory.
Born to bird
Reed grew up in the neighborhood where five generations of his family have lived - Reeds Beach, situated between the Delaware Bay and marshland. There, he said, there were few recreational choices for children. But there were plenty of birds. Each spring, tens of thousands descend on the beaches to fatten up during their migrations between South American and the Arctic.
"You pretty much live on a wildlife preserve. You can't help noticing - even at 9 or 10 years old - there are all these cool things around you," he said.
The first bird he took an interest in was a pelican he spotted during a fishing trip on the Delaware Bay. Later, his mother signed him up for a birding workshop at the nearby Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.
"There was no looking back," he said.
Most South Jersey birders are casual enthusiasts - people who enjoy walking a trail at Belleplain State Forest or going on a whale-watching trip out of Wildwood Crest. But New Jersey also attracts serious - some might say obsessive - birders from across the globe. This is the quirky, competitive side of birding.
There are big sits, in which people try to find the most birds from one place, and big days, in which birders dedicate themselves to a 24-hour scavenger hunt.
"I've even heard of a toilet list - seeing birds from one's toilet. Theoretically, you could be in Australia and add to that list," Crewe said, quickly adding, "Not everyone is like that."
Then there are big years in which people compete against each other and themselves.
Hollywood will lampoon the compulsive side of birding next month with the "The Big Year," a comedy starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The film is based loosely on a true story about three people facing different crises in their lives who drop everything to chase, or "twitch," birds for a year.
The biggest of all competitions is the annual World Series of Birding each May, which concludes at Cape May Point State Park. Teams of birders routinely find more than 200 species across New Jersey in 24 hours. Reed, who earned a degree in environmental policy this year, competed in his first World Series at 11.
These competitions rely almost entirely on the honor system. Reed has been a guide-for-hire for New Jersey Audubon since he was a teenager. He said he counted only the birds he was certain he properly identified.
"Your reputation is the currency of birding," Reed said. "With some of the harder-to-find birds, they're also the harder-to-identify birds."
Along with common birds, Reed tallied a magnificent frigatebird, anhinga, pink-footed goose, purple gallinule and wood stork. Competitive birding has taken him from Cape May to the Delaware Water Gap and back across 18 counties. It's been a year of frustration and fruitless days.
"After (Hurricane) Irene went through, a bunch of us went down to the grill at Sunset Beach and - like crazy people - waited for birds to come out of the storm," he said.
He tallied a black swift - a Caribbean bird seen for the first time ever on the East Coast - but missed the white-tailed tropicbird, all three of them that sailed over Cape May Point.
Reed soon will start his first post-collegiate job counting nearly 1 million seabirds for New Jersey Audubon at the Avalon Sea Watch, a census that since 1993 has been used to study migration patterns in the Mid-Atlantic.
Reed figures he might be able to add a couple to his list during the count. But the long hours on the research project could tie him to the Seventh Street jetty when enticing rarities pop up elsewhere.
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