Competing Bird-a-thon Teams Vie for the Coveted "Brewster Cup"

May 10, 2017

It’s almost mid-May, which means two things – songbird migration is nearing its most colorful apex, and Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon is almost here.  It’s not a coincidence that these two things, well, coincide.

Mass Audubon’s signature fundraiser is timed to take advantage of the peak of spring bird diversity and the peak of birders’ willingness to go out and bird. When crisply breeding-plumed warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks are literally dropping from the sky overnight, including some species we haven’t seen in a year, it doesn’t take a lot of arm twisting to encourage birders to grab their binoculars and get outside for a good cause.

All of the money raised will of course will support Mass Audubon’s conservation work at its various sanctuaries, including protecting habitat for vulnerable species and our important environmental education work with kids and adults alike. But it also pits us sanctuaries against each other in a cutthroat, high stakes, winner-take-all birding battle royal. The sanctuary whose team sees the most species between 6PM Friday and 6PM Saturday wins the coveted Brewster Cup, but of course the sanctuary that raises the most money is the real winner.

Bird-a-thon causes some normally mild-mannered birders to discover their competitive streak. And while binocular-swinging brawls are rare, keeping your local rare birds secret is not. In the week leading up to the big day, a hush falls over local bird email and social media discussion groups, and many rare bird reports go dark. But the real strategy lies in how to deploy the up-to fifty birders each team is allowed to field. If a sanctuary is to have a chance at the Cup, then the various sub teams need to be scouring the state from Boston to the Berkshires and the North Shore to the Rhode Island border. And of course, no team can win without a strong presence on the Cape and Islands, with our treasure trove of lingering seabirds and potential rarities.

In number of both species and birders, no fundraiser can compete with Cornell’s annual eBird Project event, the Global Big Day, also being held this weekend. Last year more than 17,000 birders around the world reported more than 6300 species on the Global Big Day. The goal is to encourage more people both here in the US and around the world to use eBird to report their bird sightings. The eBird website and smartphone app have become indispensable tools for active birdwatchers. I use eBird almost every day for both entering my personal birding checklists and for researching bird distributions and rare bird sightings or even planning a trip. The more people use it, the better a tool it becomes, so I encourage you to check it out if you haven’t yet.

What sorts of birds will all of those eyes turn up here on the Cape this weekend? I am still getting a lot of reports of interesting southern birds and other migrants turning up in backyards and birding hotspots alike, including a Blue Grosbeak in a Harwich yard, several reports of Indigo Buntings at feeders, a Kentucky Warbler continuing at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, and a Swallow-tailed Kite that glided gracefully by the Pilgrim Heights hawk watch in North Truro back on the 3rd. Whatever wacky birds turn up during the 24 hour blitz that starts Friday evening, I’ll be sure to tell you about them next time. But in the meantime, find that Bird-a-thon website and support your local sanctuary. As for me, I need to get back to clearing space on my mantel for that Brewster Cup. I feel like this is the year I’ll finally get to use all that trophy polish I ordered.