Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place

Sanctuary vs. Sanctuary in This 24-Hour Bird-a-thon

Jess Huddy /

Did you catch it? Bird-a-thon fever was in the air this past weekend! Mass Audubon’s flagship annual fundraiser, Bird-a-thon pits sanctuary against sanctuary in two important categories: fundraising and birding. 

Each sanctuary can field a team of up to fifty birders who comb the state in a battle to identify the most bird species in 24 hours. This is a friendly competition, but gamesmanship and secrecy are inevitably employed by the top teams, who may keep certain rare birds quiet lest the competition catch wind. Every species counts in the cutthroat battle for the Brewster Cup, awarded to the sanctuary reporting the most species. Birders may eye each other suspiciously as they file in and out of the standard May birding hotspots, like Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, while they wonder which sanctuary the others are birding for.

Sanctuaries may even attempt to steal talented birders from the other teams, like the Red Sox and Yankees vying for a top pitching prospect. But this kind of skullduggery is rare, and mostly the birders you encounter are just having fun and willingly share their sightings.

But strategy is key, and a competitive sanctuary needs a plan. If you don’t have sub-teams covering the Outer Cape, the Islands, the Berkshires, Bristol County, the Connecticut River Valley, and most importantly, Essex County, you won’t have a shot at the title. It takes somewhere between 220 and 240 species for a sanctuary to win the Brewster Cup, which is a tall order for just 24 hours.

The Berkshires hold forest and marsh birds hard to find in the more developed east, like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Common Gallinule, and Alder Flycatcher. The Connecticut Valley and the Quabbin reservoir can hold lingering ducks and rare breeders like Cerulean Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher. And Essex County just has some of the best all-around birding in the state, especially at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which teams neglect at their peril.

The beaches, marshes, and forests of the Outer Cape always factor heavily in the results, with prize birds like Parasitic Jaeger, Little Gull, and Roseate Tern at stake. So as you can see, it takes a strong sense of the avian biogeography of Massachusetts to plan a winning effort.

So have I ever quarterbacked a winning team, you may wonder? Sadly no – in three of the last four years, my Wellfleet Bay team has taken second place to the seemingly unbeatable juggernaut of Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, our largest sanctuary. Always a bridesmaid and never a bride.

But while ultimate birding glory has eluded me, it’s ok. Because, in addition to being a great excuse to get out and do nothing but bird for 24 hours during the best birding time of the year, Bird-a-thon is most importantly a way to raise money for all of the conservation, land protection, and environmental education work Mass Audubon does. And there’s still plenty of time to help the fundraising effort and donate to your favorite sanctuary, or to one of the other organizations holding Bird-a-thons, like Maria Mitchell Association and Linda Loring Nature Foundation on Nantucket who hold theirs in April, or Manomet, who runs a fall Bird-a-thon every September to benefit their long-term bird banding research.


Of course, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t holding out hope that Wellfleet Bay will take the big prize this year. My teams performed admirably and I know they left it all on the field, gave 110%, and various other applicable sports clichés. But will it be enough to unseat the perennial champs? We won’t know for a few weeks, so you’ll have to stay tuned.