Transcript: Lillian Armstrong (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 2: Lillian Armstrong.

Stormy Bell: Welcome back to The Art of Volunteering. I am sitting here with my friend Lillian Armstrong with the New Jersey Audubon Society. Right? Did I get that right?

Lillian Armstrong: Well we have been called New Jersey Audubon Society, but we really go by New Jersey Audubon now. It’s in our official legal name but we go by New Jersey Audubon most of the time.

Stormy Bell: Awesome. Very good. Well we were just, before we hit record, we were talking about volunteering and how it can be a core value to one’s life. That you can start volunteering when you’re in the third grade and you can go all the way through to your nineties. I’d just like to hear your thoughts on that. Can you bring us up to speed and then I’ll ask you about how you volunteer.

Lillian Armstrong: Sure. I believe in my case it does come up as a core value in being a Girl Scout. In a college sorority there are very important volunteer opportunities. Volunteering is a way to give back and something to feel good about especially when you feel as though you really made an impact on someone’s life or within a community. So I think that if we grow up doing some volunteering along the way, it stays with us as something that we realize we enjoy and makes us feel good.

Stormy Bell: Absolutely. It connects the world. It connects to the community but it connects the world the way we can all come together and affect our communities for the good. I’m from a perspective [where] there’s enough going on in the world that’s not good, let’s focus on something that is. How people help each other or help their community is so vital.

Lillian Armstrong: As you know but as you said also you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Stormy Bell: That’s true.

Lillian Armstrong: We all walk through life and you know if we’re lucky enough to have a job, a job that we enjoy, you have a circle there. You might have church or another hobby but often through volunteering, you’re gonna meet people that you just wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Stormy Bell: And it enriches your life as well as their life.

Lillian Armstrong: Yes.

Stormy Bell: Well circling back to the New Jersey Audubon and your volunteering and your volunteer management. Tell me how you got started in volunteering. I know you’ve done volunteering with the New Jersey Audubon before you came on. Is that correct?

Lillian Armstrong: Yes.

Stormy Bell: Tell me, how did you start? Did you start on a bird walk or seeing a bird in your front yard? Like what started this?

Lillian Armstrong: Well actually I started volunteering in bird conservation before New Jersey Audubon. When I was in San Francisco, I volunteered for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. That is an organization that conducts a migration count in the fall from one of the mountains just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. That was just such a fantastic experience. I love raptors. Raptors are keystone species for a lot of people when it comes to what got them into birding because they’re big, they’re easy to see, and they’re relatively speaking, easy to tell apart. So I started volunteering to count migrating raptors there and I built lifelong friendships. That was years and years ago. As I came back and forth to visit my parents, who had relocated from North Jersey to South Jersey, they were volunteering at New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory. My mother volunteered in the store and my father volunteered on walks [and] field trips out to various locations, his favorites being Bell Plain in the spring and Stone Harbor Point also during the spring and summer. So with that, when I would come back I would find myself going with him to volunteer. I think one of my first volunteer experiences was at the finish line of the World Series of Birding, which was very exciting indeed. We would greet the teams as they came in, check off their totals on paper, ask them questions about any kind of species that we were like “Really?” I wasn’t that good of a birder to be asking those questions at that time so it wasn’t me doing that but just to be part of such a legendary event, and weirdly now I’m running it. Now I run the World Series of Birding and we do count on volunteers, even though we’re electronic now. Everybody puts their list in on their phone and submits them et cetera but we still rely a lot on volunteers for those and our large events our festivals in the spring and the fall. That is where I’m now in a position of volunteer management and place so much value and appreciation on those who are willing to volunteer.

Stormy Bell: That’s awesome. Now I imagine for the New Jersey Audubon that you have people who have such a passion that they want to give back. So how is recruitment? Is it an easy thing to do for your events? Do you have like a pool of people just waiting to help?

Lillian Armstrong: Everyone brings their own skills to the table. We certainly have the core and it’s a large core of people who are expert birders who do have that passion for birding. They just take so much joy out of sharing that passion with people and bringing them along the continuum of learning. The thing about birds and birding is that you’re never finished. You’ll never know everything. From you know beginner birding identification where you’re looking for shapes, colors, and markings. Then along the way you’re looking for behaviors that can actually narrow down what type of species it is. To sound learning to bird by ear, which is very challenging for most people. Those who are quite expert at it are very impressive and can help other people along. So we’ve got that core volunteers but there are always volunteers behind the scenes, greeting people, people management, crowd control, [and] help with technology; setting up digital projectors, remote controls, and things like that. There’s no end to the help that we can use around large events.

Stormy Bell: I would assume it ebbs and flows with events, but how many volunteers do you have with just the New Jersey Audubon?

Lillian Armstrong: I can speak closer to the Cape May Bird Observatory, where we have 60 to 80 stalwart volunteers. They might volunteer year round, because there are birding opportunities year round, or they might come in when we need more hands at special events. New Jersey Audubon as a whole has I’m sure closer to 200 volunteers around the state. Many of them are kind of centric to one of our centers which we have five within the state.

Stormy Bell: Around the state. Okay.

Lillian Armstrong: Yes. They’re doing everything from helping with invasive plant species management, to bird identification, [and] helping in the stores. So as I said we can use people with all kinds of different skills and there is often that underlying passion for birds and wanting to protect them and wanting to protect the habitats in which they thrive.

Stormy Bell: Awesome. Awesome. What’s the longevity of a volunteer for the New Jersey Audubon? Do they just come like one time and that’s it or do you have people who last years? How long do they stay?

Lillian Armstrong: Definitely, definitely the latter. Definitely the latter. I think that the primary reason that people stop volunteering is they move somewhere else. I think that they probably look for volunteer opportunities wherever they move. We have people who have been volunteering for 40 years. I can think of some of our most active volunteers now who just started within the past five and I can see them volunteering long into the future. I think and strongly believe that they do it because they love it and we love them for it.

Stormy Bell: I’m sure you do. What’s your age range? How young do you go and how old do you go for volunteers?

Lillian Armstrong: We have young people that volunteer in various ways. We have active core up at our center in Bernardsville. One young man who had volunteered and participated in the World Series of Birding over the years is about to go off to college. He decided that he wants to you what his mentor did for him. So he is volunteering his time and gathering a group of young people every Saturday between now and the World Series, which is on May 14, and teaching them all about the World Series of Birding. All of the things that are important to remember about bird identification and about the honor system that we use. There are no bird police out there to make sure you’re right so to help them understand how important it is to really be critical about your IDs, et cetera, et cetera. So I love that story that’s happening right this minute as it’s being passed down to another it’s not quite a generation yet. There isn’t that much of an age gap between them.

Stormy Bell: Right. Right.

Lillian Armstrong: But carrying the torch at the very least. So the age range is all over the place.

Stormy Bell: Tell me you just a little bit on the, the birding side, why is Cape May like the birding Mecca? What makes it so rich for the, for the species?

Lillian Armstrong: Cape May is at the midpoint of the Atlantic Flyway. Migratory species travel north in the spring to their breeding grounds. Some of them stop in Cape May to feed while they’re on their way to sustain their energy. We think particularly of shorebirds during the northbound migration, because the migrations are so long. The endangered Red Knot is migrating literally almost from pole to pole, from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic where it actually has its breeding grounds. A critical stop along that very long migration is the Delaware Bayshore where horseshoe crab spawn. They come to the shore at high tides and drop their eggs into the sand. Those eggs are fat and protein rich and the birds will stay a few days bulk up in order to successfully complete the remainder of their long migration. That’s one of the most dramatic stories in all of bird migration.

There are other very long distance migrants, many of them shorebirds. Others go from South America, various places in South America, to the Boreal Forest. So up into Canada where the dense forest remain healthy. You know knock on wood. What Cape May, along the way, has worked very hard to protect those natural areas that serve as critical stopping points for feeding, resting, and allowing birds to go farther. We do have species that do nest here so they’re at the end of their northern migration when they get here. One of our favorite spots in the springtime is Belleplain State Forest. It’s a huge tract of land that is a healthy forest. Not technically. I don’t think it’s technically old growth yet but it’s a mature forest where we have breeding Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Yellow-throated Warblers, Worm-eating Warblers and some very neat species to see that do come and stay for the summer. It’s the same in the fall when the birds are southbound. In the southbound migration one of the highlights is the raptor migration that folks see from Cape May Point Hawkwatch. That’s where we have a counter and seasonal naturalists out there to help people identify the species and also talk about their journeys and their life histories. Cape May is a great place to learn about natural history and bird migration because we’re just kind of right, smack in the middle.

Stormy Bell: So with that I want you to love on the New Jersey Audubon. So tell me, you had a couple things coming up in May. You have the festival and the World Series of Birding. Love on them, go for it.

Lillian Armstrong: Well the World Series of Birding was a personal, wonderful experience for me the first time I did it. For some birders it’s the highlight of their birding year. The World Series of Birding is a 24 hour birding competition where from midnight to midnight on May 14th folks are gonna be out seeing as many species as they possibly can. Seeing and identifying either by sight or sound as many bird species as they can. Not the number of birds, the number of species. This had been a New Jersey centric event up until the pandemic. Everybody came to New Jersey because it’s in the middle of the flyway so technically you should see a whole lot of species at the peak of spring migration in New Jersey. And that remains true but when people couldn’t come to New Jersey we said we want you to be in the World Series anyway. So why don’t you participate right where you are.

The first year when we were really in the thick of the COVID-19 [pandemic], we actually required people to stay within 10 miles of home and keep their carbon footprint low and keep their exposure low. So that was the first year. It was May of 2020 and we had an amazing number of participants from all over the Atlantic Flyway. We did kind of restricted to the Atlantic Flyway just so that in some way we’re seeing the same birds. They’re on the journey, they’re on the Atlantic Flyway. We lifted the 10 mile radius rule for 2021 and still had a lot of participation and some teams did bird together again. Because one of the rules of the World Series of Birding is that everyone has to ID the species. A team is not just one expert birder and everybody running around behind them. It is an opportunity for everyone to get on a species, everyone to enjoy identifying it, learning about it, et cetera. While we allowed teams to remain separated in 2021 some teams did follow their COVID precautions and bird together again because it’s so much fun. It is so much fun.

This year we’ll be back to everyone being back together but we will allow teams to participate from outside the state of New Jersey. The thing that differentiates the World Series as a birding competition and fundraisers is that teens can raise money for the conservation organization of their choice. The conservation cause of their choice. They just have to pay an entry fee in order to use the World Series of Birding as their fundraising platform. After that they can set up their own mechanism for donations, et cetera, et cetera. We don’t collect their money and pay it back to them. They have to do all that themselves but they keep all their winnings. We have organizations within the state of New Jersey have turned this into a $10,000 fundraiser year. It’s a line item in their budget. We gotta go out and do our fundraising with the World Series of Birding and make $10,000, $12,000, $14,000. So their followings really get into this event. Now my our friends up at Maine Audubon also are raising $5,000, $10,000 in the World Series of Burning, but they’re birding in Maine and they’re having a blast with it. So if there’s a silver lining, a little bit of one, that it got us to open up this event to a larger audience and it’s just a blast.

There’s a website [you] can check it all out and anyone can participate in the World Series of Birding it’s not just for experts. When the event began, we’re going on 40 years here, it started out as 13 teams and they all covered the whole state of New Jersey. That was the goal. There was one competition to see as many species as possible within the state of New Jersey. It seemed like no one to get over 200 species back then and they thought that if they added a little competition, maybe some folks would and they did. So there are teams that see over 200 species in 24 hours, as many as 230 species in 24 hours. That is wild and crazy. Turns out not so many people are that crazy so there are a whole bunch of different ways to participate. You don’t have to drive all over the state of New Jersey. You can focus on your county, you can do a big sit, you can stay in one place all day and compete with other people who have chosen that special one place to stay all day and see how many birds they can identify from there. You can do it in the carbon footprint category, where you’re not allowed to use motorized vehicles. You can walk, hike, ride bikes, paddle a canoe anything that doesn’t use a motorized vehicle. There are youth divisions and then there are New Jersey Audubon ambassadors who are raising money for New Jersey Audubon and they can kind of do whatever they want. If they want to follow the traditional rules and stay together and identify all the birds as a group, they are welcome to do that. Many of them will because it’s so much fun. They can also be scattered around and share lists and share sightings and the honor system will still apply. They can also be across state boundaries. We want as much participation as we can while keeping the integrity of the competition, the competitive side of it because there are teams that are out there that like they’ve never won it and they really wanna win and that’s great.

Stormy Bell: What do you win? What’s the prize.

Lillian Armstrong: You win your team name and your individual names emblazoned on a trophy, a big silver cup. You win the honor of holding onto a beautiful plexiglas trophy for the year, which you do then have to return, and it will go to the win the next year. Mostly you earn the envy of other birders and the nod to your skills and effort that you put in on that day. There’s quite a bit of honor to winning one of the categories of the World Series of Birding.

Stormy Bell: Oh, I could absolutely see that. That’s definitely a badge of honor. Absolutely. Well you mentioned where you can find more about the World Series of Birding. How can people find you if they wanna connect with you to learn more about birding or the New Jersey Audubon or the World Series of Birding? How do they find you?

Lillian Armstrong: Well I’m the special events director do I oversee the World Series of Birding and our two major migration festivals, the Cape May Spring Festival, and the Cape May Fall Festival. In May, the World Series and the Spring Festival are back to back. The World Series is May 14th and the Spring Festival is the very next weekend. That is open for registration. You can find all of that at and click on programs and under programs you’ll see special events and the festivals, the World Series of Birding, and some other things are listed there. My name is Lillian Armstrong, and you can find me on our website under the staff listings at the Cape May Bird Observatory. And as you can see, I can talk about these things all day long. I love, I love what I do, and I love the volunteers who, who help. It’s, it’s really an honor to work with all of them.

Stormy Bell: That’s awesome. Well, thank you for being my guests on the Art of Volunteering. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I always enjoy when we have the opportunity to talk. I just wanna thank you for being on and come out to the New Jersey Audubon. Let’s see how many of our viewers can join the World Series of Birding. All right. Thank you.

Lillian Armstrong: Thank you Stormy.

Stormy Bell: All right. Have a great day.

Lillian Armstrong: You too.

Show Notes & Links
New Jersey Audubon –
Golden Gate Raptor Observatory –
World Series of Birding –

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