Beating the best at birding: Dayton man wins Canadian bird identification competition

How many birds can you spot and identify in just one day?

For Josh Fries, a physical therapist from Dayton, the answer is 104.

The 33-year-old became the first American to win Canada’s 22nd annual Botham Cup Bird Race, a 24-hour bird identifying competition hosted by Pelee Island Heritage Centre. The competition challenges birdwatchers to spot and identify the most amount of bird species on Pelee Island, Ontario over the course of one day.

The competition is wrapped into the Heritage Centre’s annual fundraising banquet over Mother’s Day weekend that hosts a Canadian author and a celebrity birder each year. This year’s banquet included author Randy Boyagoda and Canadian ecologist Ian Davidson. The event is emceed by legendary Canadian author and birdwatcher Margaret Atwood.

Over the 24-hour period, Fries spotted 104 individual bird species on the island all on his own. Many of the competitors and winners over the years have been teams of bird identifiers. Another catch to the competition is that it is totally green, meaning no one could travel around the island by car. Participants had to walk or bike their way to bird-identifying victory.

Fries never put his birding skills to the test in a competitive fashion until this opportunity came up. He said he was just searching for vacation spots when he stumbled upon the Botham Cup Bird Race, which he attended with his wife, Sarah. The couple have always enjoyed hiking together, and about five years ago, birding became his new hobby to pursue while traveling. He said it helps him connect back with nature in new and exciting ways.

“I feel that by getting into it and learning a lot about these parts of nature, it makes you appreciate it and makes you cherish what’s around you more,” Fries said. “It makes spring more interesting because things are flying around that we don’t get to see often. I (also) think it really adds depth to your experience in nature and helps you see more beauty in things, or at least that’s what it does for me.”

As he began to get more and more into bird identifying, Fries started reading about and researching different bird species, where they can be found in the world and how to tell individual species apart from one another.

Discovering the intricacies of bird identifying stemmed from an interest he had in college: entomology, or the study of insects. Fries would go around parks and trails and identify bug species, similarly to what he now does with birds.

Fries also noted owls are one of his favorite finds. He said he doesn’t often spot owls out in nature, which makes them more rewarding to see. He is also interested in migration patterns of bird species, making warblers cool to spot in particular.

“Warblers are just beautiful, but they are only here in the spring a month or a month and a half, depending on what kind of warbler it is,” Fries said. “So I really enjoy the time when they’re around too.”

Fries said he will likely return to Pelee Island next year to defend his title. Banquet attendees joked with him about coming back for future competitions after becoming the first American to win.

“A naturalist who goes over all of the checklists at the end of the competition was like, ‘I’m going to have somebody who lives on the island and knows the birds really well come out and compete next year, so we don’t let this happen again,’” Fries said.

The banquet is also known for a goofy tradition involving rubber chickens. Some are auctioned off while others are passed out by Atwood herself. She also leads a few songs during the banquet, which involve a chorus of rubber chicken squeals, of course. Fries said the “totally preposterous” chicken song renditions just added to the fun and flavor of the whole day.

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