It's the World Series, and the students in the Ecology Corps at Centreville Middle School in Queen Anne's County have their eyes on the Orioles. The kids are also watching out for cardinals and blue jays, purple sandpipers, Bonaparte's gulls, Carolina wrens, black scoters and more than 200 other species.
This world series, of course, has nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with birds.
Each year on the second Saturday in May, the planet's top bird-watchers converge on Cape May, N.J., for the World Series of Birding. Teams compete for honors and to raise money for conservation causes. And this year, the kids from Centreville are going head-to-head against the best.
Sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society, the 17th annual competition will see 60 teams fan out through marshes, woodlands and meadows in a 24-hour, rain-or-shine contest to log the greatest number of species.
The event is a highlight on Cape May's birding calendar, but noncompetitive birders as well as plenty of nonbirders are also drawn to this charming seaside resort.
In addition to prime beachfront, Cape May boasts more than 600 Victorian buildings, antiques shops, art galleries, restaurants and lovely inns and B&Bs.; In 1976, the entire city was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Cape May County lies on the southernmost tip of New Jersey on a peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Delaware Bay. Two flyways -- routes regularly traveled by migrating birds -- converge over the confluence. The year-round migratory activity and variety of habitats results in an enormous diversity of bird life. Some 400 species have been observed.
"The Cape May area is one of the Top 10 places in the world to go birding," says Sheila Lego, marketing director for the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory, the group that sponsors the birding world series.
Dean Cramer, superintendent of Cape May Point State Park, estimates that of the 800,000 people who visit the park each year, about 100,000 are birders.
The 190-acre park maintains a variety of trails and a wildlife observation platform. During the fall migration, nearly 60,000 raptors -- birds of prey -- pass Cape May Point.
In late October and early November, birders can spot an average of 500 hawks, eagles and falcons winging by on the northwest winds in a single day.
The Cape May Bird Observatory is the main organization for birding and butterfly-watching in Cape May County. The observatory's Northwood Center, tucked in the woods at the north end of Cape May Point's Lily Lake, is one of two facilities operated by the group.
The center is the ideal first stop for visiting birders. The knowledgeable staff provides information, and birding books, equipment and accessories are for sale.
Birders can also contact the Northwood Center for information on Cape May accommodations, restaurants and attractions that are observatory members. Member businesses identify themselves as "birder-friendly" and help underwrite the group's operating costs.
The Northwood Center is also where Sheila Lego and her staff organize the Birding World Series.
Challenge for students
It was a birding field trip that brought Centreville Middle School's Ecology Corps to Cape May County last year the week after the Birding World Series.
"The kids talked with the people over there," recalls George Radcliffe, Centreville Middle School science teacher and Ecology Corps adviser. And they decided to enter this year's event.
Anyone can enter, Lego says, but the competition is serious. "We treat the kids as full-blown competitors."
Last year's winning team, sponsored by Nikon, recorded 223 species during the 24-hour competition, and the event raised more than $600,000 for conservation efforts.
Radcliffe started Centreville's Ecology Corps in 1991 and has seen his students get state and national notice for their work on water-quality monitoring and habitat improvement projects.
The corps "used to be trail-building and habitat construction," Radcliffe says, "but now it's more environmental science."
World Series rules require that a team can only record a species if every team member sees or hears it.
"It's really hard when all of the team has to see the bird and identify it," explains seventh-grader Libby Aull, a corps member. "The kids are learning that this is as much teamwork as it is looking at birds."
Sixth-grader Adam Wieczorek, also on the 12-member team, says he is "looking forward to learning all the different birds and being in a major competition with my friends." (At least a dozen other Centreville Middle School students will be on hand to support the team.)
To learn to recognize the many species by sight and sound, the team has been listening to tapes of birdcalls, and has taken training trips to local wilderness areas.
All teams in the competition must cross the finish line at Cape May Point State Park's environmental center by midnight.
Birding areas abound
The state park has several areas that attract birds and birders. The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, also called South Cape May Meadows, is a short stroll up the beach from the city's mile-long oceanfront promenade, a concrete walkway along the ocean.
Located to the east of the state park, the bird refuge offers two paths leading out to the ocean shore, past swans and rafting ducks feeding in the freshwater ponds. Geese waddle through the refuge's meadows and songbirds dart through the cedar trees and back-dune bayberry bushes.
Sunset Beach, on the north side of the state park, offers excellent birding, and as its name suggests, stunning sunsets. Shorebirds skitter along the water's edge and gulls and loons ride Delaware Bay's short chop washing past the hulk of the Atlantus, a World War I-vintage concrete cargo ship lying derelict just offshore.
Banks of sparkling, surf-polished gravel, washed down from the upper reaches of the Delaware River, collect in the lee of the rock jetties. Some of the pure quartz crystal gravel pieces are clear and can be polished and faceted to become "Cape May diamonds."
North of Sunset Beach, Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area encompasses much of the Delaware Bay shoreline to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry inlet.
Sand dunes, shrouded by wind-beaten trees and vines, back the narrow bay beach. Sweeping dry meadows and freshwater marshes stretch landward and provide sanctuary and feeding grounds for migrating raptors, ducks, geese and resident muskrats, egrets, herons and bitterns.
Local legend holds that the site was once home to a saloon catering to the pirates and "shipwreckers" who preyed upon merchant vessels rounding Cape May Point.
Today, the preserve allows visitors to explore the beach grasses, freshwater ponds and tangled maritime forests.
Not all the birding hot spots are along the shore. "The Beanery," one of the newer venues, is a mile inland in West Cape May. A family-owned lima bean farm, the 83-acre tract has been leased for birding by the Cape May Birding Observatory. The area has proven to be a fertile birding ground, and one not generally known to out-of-staters.
Nests for people
Regina and Harry McCarren's Twin Gables Bed & Breakfast is typical of the businesses that assist the observatory's research, conservation and education programs. Located in Cape May's historic district, Twin Gables is a Victorian-era summer home, one of the resort's many "painted ladies."
Twin Gables evokes the graciousness of Cape May's early-20th-century charm in its furnishings and the McCarren's attention to their guests' comfort.
Cucina Rosa, a casual Italian restaurant on the Washington Street pedestrian mall, deserves its excellent rating from Zagat's restaurant survey.
For lighter fare and carryout, Cape May locals know that the sandwiches, salads and soups at the Depot Market Cafe are creatively prepared, freshly made and can fill a strong appetite. Both restaurants support the observatory.
Scores of B&Bs;, inns, guest houses and other vintage buildings give Cape May one of the largest collections of authentic Victorian structures in the nation.
The area's popularity has caused inevitable difficulties, though. In season, traffic and parking are a problem, and new non-Victorian construction prompted the National Park Service in 1995 to add Cape May to its endangered landmark list. One hotel owner's plans to park guests' cars on the back lawn has many Cape May residents up in arms.
For Centreville's middle-school students, the city's charms and problems may very well go unnoticed.
"We've set high goals," George Radcliffe says of the birding competition. "I asked the kids, 'If your goal is to improve yourself, who do you play against?' You play against the best."
"When I see the World Series of Birding, I see a challenge," says team member Zachary Baer. The seventh-grader isn't worried about winning, though. "The best part is being ... the first Maryland middle school to compete in this challenge."
WHEN YOU GO:
Cape May is less than four hours from the Baltimore area by road and ferry. Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and stay on U.S. Route 50. Turn left on State Route 404 and pass Denton. Turn left on State Route 16 and continue into Delaware. Turn right on State Route 1 in Delaware and then left on State Route 9 at Lewes and follow the signs to the ferry.
* Cape May Chamber of Commerce
* Cape May Point State Park
Lighthouse Avenue, Cape May Point, N.J. 08212
* Cape May Bird Observatory Northwood Center
701 East Lake Drive, Cape May Point, N.J. 08212
* Twin Gables B&B;
731 Columbia Ave., Cape May, N.J. 08212
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry
Baltimore-area travelers heading to Cape May and New Jersey's southern resort beaches have the option of riding the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across Delaware Bay. It's an enjoyable passage.
About 1.4 million people and 410,000 vehicles make the 17-mile, 70-minute crossing between Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J., every year. Though many passengers are commercial or business travelers, many others include the ferry as part of their vacation.
"We are turning our business from just transportation to tourism," says Larry Sharp, director of marketing for the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which owns the five-ship fleet.
Each ferry carries up to 100 cars on its lowest deck and 1,000 passengers on its enclosed upper decks. Shipboard facilities vary from boat to boat, but the recently refitted MV Twin Capes, flagship of the fleet, features a 100-seat, glass-enclosed dining area with provisions for live entertainment, an open-air cafe with full bar, children's playroom, gift shop and a sun deck.
The ferry authority also operates shuttle buses on either shore, making it possible for vacationers to leave their cars at one terminal and still enjoy the attractions on the other side. Additionally, the company sponsors activities including family cruises, guided tours of Lewes, Cape May and Wildwood, N.J., and naturalist programs.
Standing on the ferry's upper deck, facing the open bay, passengers get a feeling of expansiveness. Land does not come into sight until after clearing the outer breakwaters. Churning along at 15 knots, the boat picks up a pronounced roll as waves wash in from the nearby Atlantic. Oceangoing tankers and cargo freighters cruise past on their way to and from berths in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Sunsets over the bay, and Delaware's level coastal plain, fill the sky with colors.
Ferry charges vary depending on time of year. Currently, round-trip for a car one one person is $36. For more information about rates and schedules, call the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, 800-643-3779
AN IDEAL DAY
Sunrise -- A birder's day starts early. Watch the sun rising from the top of the dunes at South Cape May Meadows and spot feeding songbirds and waterfowl.
8 a.m. -- Breakfast at your B&B.;
10 a.m. -- Orientation at Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center.
11 a.m. -- Visit Cape May Point State Park to climb the lighthouse, explore the trails and wander through the museum of local and natural history.
1 p.m. -- Lunch at the Depot Market Cafe.
2:30 p.m. -- Explore the beach, marshes and meadows at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.
5 p.m. -- Comb the beach for "Cape May diamonds" and watch the sunset at Sunset Beach.
7:30 p.m. -- Dinner at Cucina Rosa.
9:30 p.m. -- An evening stroll on Cape May's oceanfront promenade.