Barnegat’s ‘Captain Alex’ Majewski Wins World Series of Birding Trophy

May 15, 2019
Supplied Photo AVIAN IQ: Alex Majewski (left), who spotted 155 bird species in one 295-mile travel day, meets David Lapuma of the Cape May Bird Observatory.

Alex Majewski and his teammates on the Friends of Forsythe Ospreys birding team have won the “Limited Geographic Area” category of the World Series of Birding. New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding is the largest and most prestigious birding competition in the country. It was formed as a fun and interactive way for birders and their sponsors to raise money for the conservation projects and organizations of their choosing.

Some teams opt to tackle the entire state while others, like Majewski’s team, chose the Limited Geographic Area (LGA) of Ocean County.

Starting at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, May 11, Majewski and his teammates Brian Vernachio and Tim Bardar traced the highways and byways of Ocean County looking and listening for as many bird species as possible. They drove 295 miles and walked 14.9 miles to find 155 birds in the 24 hours. But, explained Majewski, the scoring depends on a “par,” just like golf, and the team had the highest par, 87 percent. The close contender in the next LGA was the Ridge and Valley Wrenagades with 140 species and 86 percent. The par is determined by what species of birds should be available to spot in the particular area.

Majewski said the success of the day was linked to the number of hours the team spent scoping out the hot birding spots in the county before the day of the World Series. “Three weeks prior to the day, every free minute we had we spent scouting birds and doing extensive fieldwork. Not only do you have the breeders and nesters; you also have the migratory birds passing through to the northern U.S. and Canada.”

Point of order, the birders have to be within eyesight of each other as they search and find or hear birds – in other words, the three don’t go off in different directions and come back with bird sightings. It’s all very honorable: The group must verify the sightings, and a bird can be identified by its distinct call.

“We also were fine-tuning our skills regarding bird calls. There’s something called the morning chorus, where you might walk out and hear 20 different bird songs. You have to be able to differentiate between them,” said Majewski. “I equate it to a conductor of an orchestra. He may have 20 to 30 musicians, and he can tell if the alto sax is off key. I can’t do that, but he wouldn’t be able to walk in the woods and say, oh that’s an Eastern phoebe, like I can.”

The team started at midnight at Cattus Island County Park. “It was a perfect night, 68 to 78 degrees and no wind.”

They then drove to Lakehurst to a spot on the railroad tracks where they heard a barred owl. “During the day you can’t play a recorded bird song or imitate a bird, but at night you are allowed,” explained Majewski. “Brian has all the owls down, and he started hooting and we heard the call back. This time of year they are raising their young already.

“Then we were off to the marshes and woods of Barnegat and down to the wildlife management area in Stafford – the Bridge to Nowhere.

“From there we drove to Beachwood and a place called Dover Bogs in South Toms River, where we saw six nighthawks. This was at 5:30 a.m.” They hunt at night but come back to the edge of the marsh around dawn to roost, he explained.

In all their travels during the day, they kept their eyes on the roadsides. “We knew there is a eagle’s nest on Hooper Avenue between Bricktown and Toms River, and there he was sitting on the tower. We ID’ed him going 35 miles per hour. But if he wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have stopped; you can’t get hung up on one bird.”

They drove to Miller Airpark, then over to Double Trouble State Park, getting there around 8 a.m. Then to Island Beach, back through Toms River to Point Pleasant and Manasquan Wildlife Refuge and the Wildlife Management Area in Bricktown, then to Colliers Mills. At Colliers Mills they walked about a half mile and counted a redheaded woodpecker, grasshopper sparrow, and a kestrel – the smallest falcon.

Then it was back to Waretown and Wells Mills County Park, the bay shore and marshes of Barnegat. Around 2:30 p.m. they set out for Great Bay Boulevard in Tuckerton and traveled to the end to see the herons, egrets, rails and red knots. “That was a great sighting. Red knots are usually found on the Delaware Bay shore. They migrate from the tip of South America to the polar regions of Canada.”

Next on the agenda was walking the mile loop on Bonnet Island in Stafford Township, part of the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge. “It’s a great spot for migrants. Then we went to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, and we really were beat. We didn’t want to walk the sand from the South Jetty to the ocean, but we did and saw the piping plover. She must have been sitting on her eggs as she was very well camouflaged.

“We also saw some lingering sea ducks: eiders and scooters.

“Then we went back to Manahawkin’s wildlife area to hear whippoorwills and chuck-wills-widow calling at the edge of the marsh. This was at 9 p.m. and it was dark and starting to rain, so we quit around then.”

They still had to get to the finish line at the Grand Hotel in Cape May. “It was great fun.”

That morning, Sunday at 10 a.m., they learned they had won the Limited Geographic Area trophy during the awards brunch, also held in the Grand Hotel Ballroom.

“Besides the fun and glory of winning, the World Series of Birding is a way to raise money for the Friends of the Forsythe National Refuge,” said Majewski. “Because it’s a federal refuge, they don’t have money for programs. So the nonprofit friends groups are the fundraisers of the refuge, and we run the educational programs.” Majewski is on the board of the friends. On Thursday he will be giving a migration station program to four area middle schools.

New Jersey has 254 species of birds seen in the state in one 24-hour time span, he said of the competition. “The North American list of species seen is under 1,000, and in New Jersey you can see 25 percent of those birds, and we are a small state. It speaks to the biodiversity of our bird life.”

Majewski’s interest in birds started in the late 1970s, he said. “I was a science geek in high school, and I saw a kestrel in Bayonne. When I see things, I want to know what they are and what they do. After college I became hard-core.”

Majewski is also known as Captain Alex as he runs a party boat out of Bob’s Bay Marina in Barnegat. He also takes kayak tours around Ship Bottom and Bonnet Island and points out bird life. You can find his website lighthousesportfishing.com.

Fishing is his livelihood, but birds are his passion.

“We went on a vacation to Belize over Christmas, and I bought a book on Belize birds. Not that I was going to be birding the entire time, but birds are all around us. What other type of animal can you be sure of coming into contact on your daily travels?”

— Pat Johnson

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

Brian Vernachio at Island Beach State Park. (Supplied Photo)
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