Every species counts the same on the World Series of Birding. If it is a common bird that can be seen many times during the day (like European Starling), it adds one species to the team total. If it is a rare bird and is lucky to be seen and identified (like Eurasian Collared Dove), it still only adds one species to the team total.
There are about 150 species that are common enough in the habitats we cover that we have an excellent chance of identifying them and adding them to our species list. We still have to work and make sure we identify them but they are hard to miss. It is on the rest of the 70 or 80 species that we focus most of our scouting efforts. On the big day, these are the species we really work on!
Here is the background on one of the tough species - Cattle Egret. This species was originally native to parts of Southern Europe, tropical and subtropical Africa and humid tropical and subtropical Asia. Before 1877 there were no reports of this species in the New World. The species first arrived in North America in 1941 (these early sightings were originally dismissed as escapees), it bred in Florida in 1953, and has spread rapidly throughout North America. It is a migratory species that appears in our area in early April and is here until early October. It is most commonly associated with field and pastures, especially those with grazing cows and cattle, where they follow the mammals and feed upon the insects they stir up.
This species used to be much more prevalent in New Jersey that it is now. That causes problems for World Series of Birding teams. We only need to see one of them on the big day but it is hard, if not impossible, to predict where they will be on the big day. There are two areas they frequent in New Jersey, one is the Compromise Road area in Salem County and the other is a couple of locations in Cape May County. For several years our team swung through Salem County and routed in several locations the egrets frequent. Scouting allowed us to know where they were during the week preceding the big day but that was no guarantee. We would figure out a route that went past all the locations they had been seen and we hoped we would find one. Most years we saw one or more Cattle Egrets at the horse farm on Compromise Road. One year there were none there on the big day but we did see one flying across a field as we were leaving the area - whew!
Over the past couple of years our route has evolved and we have made a strategic decision to remove all Salem County locations from our plan and concentrate on Cumberland and Cape May Counties in the south. So we need to have locations for Cattle Egret in Cape May County. The good thing is that Cattle Egrets are big and easily identifiable. So during scout week they are rarely overlooked and with the sharing of information among teams we all know where Cattle Egrets are being seen in the days up the big day. One traditional spot for them is on the front lawn of a nursing home on Route 9. There are no cattle there but the field seems to attract and hold them. One year we drove by on the big day and there were several along the road. One year there had been several hanging out all week on the lawn but the nursing home mowed the lawn the Thursday before the event and the birds disappeared to parts unknown. We knew they had gone but we were driving by there as part of our route so we slowed down and looked. Nothing. But we also knew there was a little patch of suitable habitat behind the home so we pulled in, drove around the back and sure enough there was one there! Two years ago we drove by the place and there was one feeding on the front lawn. This was the first time any had been seen there that year.
Last year (2010) we checked the nursing home lawn everyday during scouting and never saw a Cattle Egret, but there was a small flock of six birds hanging around Cape May Point. During scout week we tracked these birds and we knew the three locations they frequented. Unfortunately one of the locations has several fields that were not visible from the road and the owners are not birder friendly. During scout week Cattle Egrets were often seen from the road but they often walked over the rise to the back fields where they disappeared from view.
On the big day we drove by the nursing home - nothing. We drove by spot number one in Cape May Point - nothing. We drove by spot number two in Cape May Point - nothing. We drove and stopped at the third place, the fields where they were seen most frequently - nothing. We checked every white bird flying around - nothing. That was it. We had run out of spots to check. We moved on. We did not see a Cattle Egret in the World Series in 2010. That miss has been the subject of considerable good natured discussion among team members in the months since the 2010 event. Many other teams also missed Cattle Egrets but some teams were lucky and were in the right place at the right time. We were not.
This year Cattle Egrets will again be a problem. There was a report of one seen on the nursing home lawn about two weeks ago. There was another report of a couple of them in another Cape May location. Lots of time will be spent trying to nail down a good location for this species during the scouting this week.
If you know of any good locations for Cattle Egrets in Cape May, let us know.