BERNARDSVILLE, NJ — When you picture a bird enthusiast, your first mental image may be of an elderly couple trudging gingerly through the woods, peering through binoculars and recording observations in a worn notebook before going home to sip tea and compare notes.
There are certainly birders who fit that description, but that picture couldn’t be further from describing the award-winning Eaglets: A team of teens led by Faith McCarthy, 14, and Maya McGrory, 15, and sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. Brothers Ryley, 15, and Gavin, 13, Wright round out the team.
This energetic group has been birding together since elementary school and will make their seventh appearance at this year’s World Series of Birding on May 12. They will compete in the “Carbon Free Kids” division, which means the group will spend an entire day from dawn to dusk traveling through Cape May County identifying birds, entirely on foot or by bike.
The team was formed when Maya was in third grade, as an after school club led by Jim Wilson at Kennard Elementary School in Centreville. They went to their first WSB that year — the only elementary school team participating.
Maya describes that first experience as “amazing.”
“We were nervous about being the youngest people there, but what we found was a friendly, tightknit group of birders,” Maya said. “They were so nice to us, and we made good friends. We learned a lot and had so much fun.”
They were hooked, and continued to participate, even after they left elementary school and Wilson behind. Now in high school, the team looks forward to going back and renewing those friendships.
But it’s not just a social event. These are serious birders, eager to win and training to get there. The team is now mentored and sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. Executive Director Judy Wink works with the team as the teens prepare.
“These kids are all amazing. They continue to push themselves to conquer new challenges,” Wink said. “They were the first youth team to take on the non-carbon challenge, and now they walk and bike about 30 miles over the course of the one-day competition. These are hard-core birders.”
Maya talks about their training, both intellectual and physical.
“We have to be in good shape to do all that biking,” she said. “So do the adults that go with us. We also train to get better at spotting and identifying birds. Starting in January, we meet weekly to train. We quiz each other on species and habitats, and work with flash cards and birdcall apps.
“When it gets warmer, we bike around to bird watching sites near where we live,” she said. “We practice working together to verify each other’s identifications. Our mentors work with us too, to help us learn and plan for the big day.”
The WSB is the culmination of a four-day trip.
The team, along with mentors and parents, arrives a few days in advance. They spend that time scouting out potential new birding sites and verifying their route for the competition.
The team has perfected the route over the years, yet always looking for new opportunities to gain a competitive advantage. They also hit a few of their favorite restaurants, play on the beach, and catch up with fellow birders and friends from previous years.
On competition day, they are up before dawn and on their bikes.
They “bird” for roughly 14 hours, always accompanied by adults. It’s exhausting, but also fun and rewarding. At the end of the day, when the birding is finished, the team is picked up in a van and heads to the finish line, a rallying point where teams turn in their results and celebrate their accomplishments.
“When you come in, all the other teams clap,” Maya said. “They verify our checklist and post our results on the board. We’re really tired, but we’re also really proud. It’s a fun part of the day.”
The WSB isn’t the only birding event around, but it is definitely the high point of the year for this young team. The rest of the year, they participate in local birding events, and spend time talking with younger birders, including their former team at Kennard Elementary.
“One of the things these kids get out of their passion for birding is the ability to relate to people of all ages,” Wink said. “They encourage younger kids to take their sport to the next level, and then turn around and discuss strategy with accomplished adult birders. They are gaining skills they’ll use the rest of their lives.”
Maya said participating in the WSB has changed her life.
“If you have any interest in wildlife or being outdoors, you’ll love it, it’s so unique,” the teen said. “Every year we can’t wait to go again. I’ll always be passionate about wildlife and protecting the environment so we can keep having events like this!”
Learn more about the WSB, or register a team, at world seriesofbirding.org.