Linda Woodard, right, and Turk Duddy search through binoculars for a Cooper’s hawk while competing in the World Series of Birding at Southpoint Sanctuary in Biddeford Pool on May 9. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Six passionate birders from Maine scurried at a mad pace from 3 a.m. to well after dark last weekend – first in snow, then in rain and gusting wind – while competing as a team against some of the nation’s best in the World Series of Birding.

The annual event, hosted by New Jersey Audubon, requires a team of birders to identify as many species as possible in 24 hours. Typically, teams gather in New Jersey, piling into cars and racing around the Garden State while competing in what is called a “Big Day.”

But the pandemic forced major changes this year. Rather than gathering in one place, birders were required to compete within 10 miles of their homes. This year’s event included 91 teams along the Atlantic Flyway from Florida to Maine, as well as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The new rules put the Mainers at a distinct disadvantage because many species have yet to migrate this far north. But that didn’t stop the team assembled by Maine Audubon from trying to beat the odds on a Saturday that felt more like March than May.

“This is not extreme birding,” Turk Duddy said at Biddeford Pool, as he stood in 30 mph winds. “Extreme birding took place earlier (in the day) on Goose Rocks Beach, when the wind and the snow and ice was in our faces.”

A gold finch perches on a branch at Gisland Farm Audubon Center during the World Series of Birding. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Duddy and his partner, Linda Woodard, the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center director, birded around the Kennebunks. Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox took Greater Portland and Nick Lund, outreach manager for the non-profit, birded around the Scarborough area. Bangor-area birders Bob and Sandi Duchesne, members of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter, rounded out the team.

All are considered among the state’s top birders and birding guides. But when Hitchcox arrived at Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery in a cold rain at 7:30 a.m., he looked around and dropped his head.

“Usually this time of year, I’m leading birding walks here and there’s 50 people, sometimes up to 100. And we could have 60 species,” Hitchcox said as only a few dog-walkers passed. “It’s silent. It’s remarkable.”

Doug Hitchcox found this field sparrow at Gisland Farm during the World Series of Birding. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

He identified just eight species – only two of which were new for the team. Then he moved on to Martin’s Point Health Care Center along the coast where he scanned the mouth of the Presumpscot River with binoculars and a scope – only to come up empty as far as new species.

By mid-morning it seemed the Maine team would fare poorly. Most years, the top World Series teams find close to 200 species in New Jersey. Last year, the event was won by a Cornell University team that found 207.

Even on a good year when the sun is out, Maine simply has fewer species to count. The state’s record Big Day score is 178, according to the American Birding Association, the best keeper of state records. Woodard said her team’s best score in Maine Audubon’s annual spring birdathon was 150, and that’s birding from Rangeley to Wells with no 10-mile-radius restriction.

Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist for the Maine Audubon, scans the trees in Evergreen Cemetery during the World Series of Birding. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

This year at Kennebunk Plains – where Woodard and Duddy typically find close to 30 species – they found fewer than 10.

“Turk and I never saw a woodpecker, not a downy or a hairy,” Woodard said. “We were shocked. Some birds just weren’t out. They were hunkered down.”

As the wind died down and the sun came out at 1 p.m., the pace picked up for the birders. A half hour later at Biddeford Pool, Woodard and Duddy got a text from Hitchcox. The team had identified a total of 101 species. Their goal at the day’s start was 100.

A red-winged blackbird sings in Biddeford where the Maine team birded on May 9. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

So Hitchcox – who had created and continued to update a Google spreadsheet with the 301 birds that have ever been seen in Maine during the second week of May – texted the team those birds they stood the best chance to find, and told them get going.

At that point, Woodard and Duddy had birded nine straight hours, but they shifted to another gear. Rather than go to places they knew had lots of birds, they went where the team needed them.

Bald eagle, incredibly, remained a species they still needed to find.

“We knew a place by the Kennebunk water treatment plant, so we went there,” Woodard said. “Sure enough, we got there and a bald eagle flew right in front of us. I ran to the car and grabbed my phone. I was so excited to text everyone ‘bald eagle’ and hit send. Everyone texted back: ‘Great!’ ‘Yeah!’

“We were all sending each other texts late into the evening. There was so much excitement when someone texted. I didn’t think I’d feel that way.”

Each year in Maine Audubon’s birdathon, Woodard is more interested in an unusual find than compiling a high count. One time, her team found a great horned owl with two babies and the team lingered in a Falmouth grove to watch the family. But on this day, she was more focused on her team’s collective joy in a hard-fought score.

The Maine Audubon team ended up with 138 – a score that ties for eighth on the American Birding Association’s all-time best for Maine. It also was the 23rd highest score out of 91 teams in the World Series, which was won this year with a score of 274 by the team from Cape May Point, New Jersey (although it involved 25 birders covering 13 different states).

“It’s unbelievable to think we all stayed within 10 miles of our home, birding in a snowstorm – and got (138) species. I am really proud of that,” Woodard said. “But we’re Mainers. We like to go against the odds and persevere.”


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