Up for the count

New Jersey: Teams from around the world--including one from Centreville Middle School--will soon flock to Cape May for the annual World Series of Birding.

April 23, 2000|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's the World Series, and the students in the Ecology Corps at Centreville Middle School in Queen Anne's County have their eyes on the Orioles. The kids are also watching out for cardinals and blue jays, purple sandpipers, Bonaparte's gulls, Carolina wrens, black scoters and more than 200 other species.

This world series, of course, has nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with birds.

Each year on the second Saturday in May, the planet's top bird-watchers converge on Cape May, N.J., for the World Series of Birding. Teams compete for honors and to raise money for conservation causes. And this year, the kids from Centreville are going head-to-head against the best.

Sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society, the 17th annual competition will see 60 teams fan out through marshes, woodlands and meadows in a 24-hour, rain-or-shine contest to log the greatest number of species.

The event is a highlight on Cape May's birding calendar, but noncompetitive birders as well as plenty of nonbirders are also drawn to this charming seaside resort.

In addition to prime beachfront, Cape May boasts more than 600 Victorian buildings, antiques shops, art galleries, restaurants and lovely inns and B&Bs. In 1976, the entire city was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Cape May County lies on the southernmost tip of New Jersey on a peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Delaware Bay. Two flyways -- routes regularly traveled by migrating birds -- converge over the confluence. The year-round migratory activity and variety of habitats results in an enormous diversity of bird life. Some 400 species have been observed.

"The Cape May area is one of the Top 10 places in the world to go birding," says Sheila Lego, marketing director for the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory, the group that sponsors the birding world series.

Dean Cramer, superintendent of Cape May Point State Park, estimates that of the 800,000 people who visit the park each year, about 100,000 are birders.

The 190-acre park maintains a variety of trails and a wildlife observation platform. During the fall migration, nearly 60,000 raptors -- birds of prey -- pass Cape May Point.

In late October and early November, birders can spot an average of 500 hawks, eagles and falcons winging by on the northwest winds in a single day.

The Cape May Bird Observatory is the main organization for birding and butterfly-watching in Cape May County. The observatory's Northwood Center, tucked in the woods at the north end of Cape May Point's Lily Lake, is one of two facilities operated by the group.

The center is the ideal first stop for visiting birders. The knowledgeable staff provides information, and birding books, equipment and accessories are for sale.

Birders can also contact the Northwood Center for information on Cape May accommodations, restaurants and attractions that are observatory members. Member businesses identify themselves as "birder-friendly" and help underwrite the group's operating costs.

The Northwood Center is also where Sheila Lego and her staff organize the Birding World Series.

Challenge for students

It was a birding field trip that brought Centreville Middle School's Ecology Corps to Cape May County last year the week after the Birding World Series.

"The kids talked with the people over there," recalls George Radcliffe, Centreville Middle School science teacher and Ecology Corps adviser. And they decided to enter this year's event.

Anyone can enter, Lego says, but the competition is serious. "We treat the kids as full-blown competitors."

Last year's winning team, sponsored by Nikon, recorded 223 species during the 24-hour competition, and the event raised more than $600,000 for conservation efforts.

Radcliffe started Centreville's Ecology Corps in 1991 and has seen his students get state and national notice for their work on water-quality monitoring and habitat improvement projects.

The corps "used to be trail-building and habitat construction," Radcliffe says, "but now it's more environmental science."

World Series rules require that a team can only record a species if every team member sees or hears it.

"It's really hard when all of the team has to see the bird and identify it," explains seventh-grader Libby Aull, a corps member. "The kids are learning that this is as much teamwork as it is looking at birds."

Sixth-grader Adam Wieczorek, also on the 12-member team, says he is "looking forward to learning all the different birds and being in a major competition with my friends." (At least a dozen other Centreville Middle School students will be on hand to support the team.)

To learn to recognize the many species by sight and sound, the team has been listening to tapes of birdcalls, and has taken training trips to local wilderness areas.

All teams in the competition must cross the finish line at Cape May Point State Park's environmental center by midnight.

Birding areas abound

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