By John Mark Simmons
At 4:59 p.m. Friday evening my birding teammate and I had two Red-tailed Hawks in our binocular view. Georgia’s Youth Birding Competition (YBC) was going to start at 5:00pm, in just one more minute! Tim Keyes of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is the brains and brawn behind this fabulous competition. Teams have a 24-hour period to identify as many birds as they can anywhere within the state of Georgia. They must be at the finish line (Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, Mansfield, GA) exactly 24 hours later, checklist in hand. Exactly twenty-five seconds before the clock struck 5:00p.m. the hawks disappeared below the tree line and we never saw them again. That was one species we really needed for the competition, because we usually never see more than one or two of them.
My team, the Mockingjays, included Ben Williams, Sam Bruson, James Barksdale, and me. Ben and I were positioned at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia to begin the competition. Sam and James lived near the coast and couldn’t make it to north Georgia for the start, so for the first eight hours of the competition, only half of the Mockingjays were birding.
The start of the competition was very slow. In the first ten minutes we only had seven species. Our idea was to start near the entrance to the Georgia State Botanical Gardens where the more common birds were. Then we would work our way down to the river to the warblers. As we moved toward the river, the birding got better. We came into a large garden area near the river and easily got Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Summer and Scarlet tanagers, Red-eyed Vireo, and surprisingly, a Yellow-breasted Chat. Before we came to the river we had approximately 43 species. Once we got onto the river trails, the number of birds increased. We found a Barred Owl, which we had found previously on a scouting trip, sitting on a branch hanging over the river. We identified several more key species such as Swainson’s, Prothonotary, Kentucky, and Hooded warblers.
Summer Tanager. Photo by John Mark Simmons.
Ben and I left the Botanical Gardens with about 55 species and visited some other local hotspots. At the other locations we found many more species, including Wood Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, Common Nighthawk, and our nemesis bird: Brown Thrasher (the Georgia state bird!) You might be surprised by how hard it is to find common birds sometimes. To our delight we started our overnight drive to the coast with about 70 species.
At 2:00 A.M. we made one final effort to get our nightjar nemesis, Whip-poor-will. We stopped the car, rolled the windows down, and listened. After about one minute a Whip-poor-will started up in the trees about a hundred yards away. We were extremely happy to end with 70 species for our first day!
Our vehicle rolled into our campsite at about 3:30 a.m., where we met up with Sam and James, completing our team. At 5:30 A.M. we got up and drove to St. Simons Island for our first stop of the morning. The Mockingjays identified many needed species at the island such as Gray Kingbird, American White Pelican, American Golden-Plover, and Piping Plover.
After a couple of hours, we made one final stop on St. Simons,where we were able to spot Common Ground Dove, Painted Bunting, Clapper Rail, and Whimbrel. After St. Simons, we visited our last “big birding spot” on the coast: Altamaha Wildlife Management Area. You can’t do a birding competition in Georgia without going there. You will find great birds! We were able to pick up another 35 species from that location alone, even after birding in bottomland forest, beach, and other marshes. Some of the great highlights from that stop were Least Bittern, White-Rumped Sandpiper, Sora, Baltimore Oriole, and Orchard Oriole. We began the long journey all the way back inland with 132 species.
The Mockingjays spotted five species on the drive to the finish line, including a Mississippi Kite. We arrived at the finish line an hour before the deadline, as planned. We needed to bird that area for some key species. Thanks to an earlier scouting trip, we knew where our key birds were. Our team visited a large field where we heard Grasshopper Sparrow, Prairie Warbler, and Field Sparrow. After that successful stop, we visited a large pine forest for our missing Red-Headed Woodpecker. Within one minute a beautiful male flew in front of us no more than thirty yards away. This encouraged our team, and we moved on with renewed enthusiasm. We heard our last bird species of the competition at the local bird feeders, Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The clock struck 5:00 P.M. and we stopped birding, turned in our checklist, and awaited the announcements with nervous anticipation.
After a delicious dinner and an exciting raptor show courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and sponsors, the announcements began. Starting with the youngest birders, the announcer slowly crept up to our age group: high school. Second place was given to the Chaotic Kestrels with 129 species. I could barely contain my excitement as the speaker announced the first place team. We were ecstatic to hear the name “Mockingjays” spread across the banquet hall. My team had won first place over all divisions with 143 species! Each member of the winning teams received a brand-new pair of Vortex Crossfire Binoculars thanks to the sponsors of the YBC!
What is next for the Mockingjays? Maybe we will attempt to break the Georgia Big Day record of 183 species held by birding legend Giff Beaton. This year was the most fun and rewarding year of the competition since I began participating six years ago. Good luck to all who participate in competitions like this! If the birding starts out too slow for your liking, it’s ok. Our team started out with only seven species in the first ten minutes. Yet that tiny seen turned into the winning number of 143.
Happy birding everyone!
About the author: At 15 years old, John Mark Simmons is a dedicated young birder who has traveled from beaches to snowy mountains looking for birds. He has been birding since he was four years old and is now helping to lead bird walks in his home county. John Mark also enjoys photographing birds while on his adventures. Read more of John Mark's writing on his blog, Two Birders and Binoculars.