Posted: June 1, 2010, 12:00 a.m. PDT
We have scouted our locations, reviewed tapes of bird calls, loaded up our team of six (five competitors and me, the noncompeting driver) into the spacious 4-wheel drive pickup truck, loaded the coolers with caffeinated sodas, filled large thermoses with scalding-hot coffee, and cached bags and bags of snack-type treats. Now it begins, this 24-hour franticness called the Great Texas Birding Classic, an annual event sponsored by Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
We are the TAMUG WildBirders — four competing students (Laurissa Noack, Katie St. Clair, Nikki Darwin and Jason Perry) and one faculty (Susan Knock) from Texas A&M University at Galveston — the core of which won first place in the upper Texas coast division of the previous two Classics. As in the previous two years, we are sponsored by WildBird, and this year, Kowa Sport Optics also signed on as a sponsor.
The pre-competition scouting is complete, itself quite the adventure in stamina and anticipation -- two long days and around 500 miles traversing and traipsing around this ecologically diverse and aesthetically striking area that abuts the Gulf of Mexico and is riddled with rivers, bayous, swamps and ponds. The destruction and saltwater inundation along the upper Texas coast caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008, and the historically severe drought of 2009, are well behind us now. The impacted areas have been thoroughly rinsed and water tables recharged by significant rain (greater than 30 inches) during the fall and winter of 2009.
The spring of 2010 is indeed dramatic in its vibrancy, and the proliferation of flora sustains a very diverse and thriving assemblage of avifauna. The rivers and bayous are up and flowing, as are our hopes and competitive juices.
We start competing at 3:45 a.m. Some of us are "morning people,” the often-dreaded morph of the human species that awakens happy and chipper. The others remain valiant in their efforts at groggy nongrumpiness and, lying in our sleeping bags, we start birding by ear. Soon, all five competitors announce "Barred Owl — got it.”
We have our first two species by sound before we have left the warmth of our night’s cocoons. Up and at ’em, we pack our gear into the truck and are off. There are other owls, nightjars, the ubiquitous Northern Cardinal and the Wild Turkey to find (the bird, not the Southern alcoholic beverage) before the sun pokes above the horizon.
It is 4:15 a.m., and we have less than 20 hours before we must submit our list of species for the Classic. More than 400 species occur along the Texas coast during the spring migration. Can we find and identify 200 species on this first day of May?
We rush to get Louisiana Waterthrush, Brown-headed Nuthatch and then the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker that we know should begin its morning activities at precisely 6:26 a.m. today. People, including us, track the exact time that these birds "come out” in the mornings, then subtract approximately 50 seconds for each subsequent day due to the daily photoperiod change at this latitude at this time of year.
No time to dilly-dally, so we head to our next site where we hope to find American Goldfinch and House Finch. This site requires additional strategy: I must stop the vehicle before the fence of a certain yard containing numerous bird feeders; otherwise, the dogs bark frantically and scare off the birds.
After quietly extricating ourselves from the vehicle, we see several species on our list but unfortunately no goldfinches; we hope for success at our alternative site for this bird. Moving onward, the dogs hear us, and the birds have flushed.
Moving on, we observe Greater Roadrunner and a surprise Northern Bobwhite, then what appears — at first glance — to be pine cones as they are silhouetted against a warming sky — a congregation of stunning Cedar Waxwings adds some color to the vibrant symphony filling the sky. We find ourselves willing enthusiasts of this luxuriant avian performance.
Time flies by. Twenty-four hours pass quickly, too quickly, when competing in a birding competition. The species tally is mounting, helping us to overcome mid-morning drowsiness. We rush off to find "old faithful,” the reliable Yellow-breasted Chat that we always see on the same loblolly pine.
We add "machine guns,” "squeaky toys” and "peter-peter-peter” to the list (Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and Tufted Titmouse, respectively). Next is the Belted Kingfisher that we scouted several weeks beforehand, excavating a hole in the river bank. On our recent scout, however, it failed to show up.
Susan decides that we will give it one minute to show itself; then we will leave with or without it on our list. Time is precious. After 30 seconds, the bird "called and waved” ? a spectacular early-morning fly-by.
Who’s next? Ah, Bald Eagle, Fish Crow and Swamp Sparrow. Off we go, time’s a wastin’. Cruising by a hayfield meadow, we see yellow caps (nape) with white scapulars and rump perched next to a beautiful black bib draped over a lovely yellow chest and flanked by rusty shoulders — Bobolink and Dickcissel in the same view.
All morning, our mantra has been "let’s get to the coast” — the famous spring-season birding areas of High Island and Bolivar Peninsula. There, we hope to add numerous Neotropical migrants, then abundant shorebird species to our list.
We arrive later than hoped for, but once there, our list quickly rises. This is where we experience a difficulty associated with having five competitors on the team; each person must identify each species on the list, and it is difficult for all five on the team to "get on” each flittering bird in the oak-dominated canopy and mixed undergrowth that are the core of this essential stop-over habitat.
The Audubon Society sanctuaries at High Island are indeed jewels, and besides the impressive number of "little colored jobbies,” there are scores of bird enthusiasts bending and contorting to track these small creatures. Though diminutive in stature, these birds stand tall in appeal.
Along Bolivar Peninsula, still noticeably scarred from Hurricane Ike, we fortunately observe a plethora of shorebirds and other water-associated species; various sandpipers, godwits, phalarope, terns, gulls, American Oystercatcher, Long-billed Curlew, Black Skimmer, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, rails, plovers. The diversity and abundance is indeed staggering.
It is now thoroughly dark, and we are very nearly out of time. We drive to our last spot hoping to find a Black Rail. The coffee is flowing, and we refresh our memory of the distinctive voice of this extremely secretive and declining species — a repeating "kik-kee-derr.”
Circumstances can be both serendipitous and disheartening. For weeks prior to the 2009 Classic, a few team members heard the call of a Black Rail among the oaks and manicured lawns around a particular classroom building on the TAMUG campus — certainly not the habitat of rails. Further investigation revealed a Northern Mockingbird that apparently had added the call of this rail into its repertoire of phrases.
Our minds racing, we deduced that there must be a rail in the nearby wetlands; the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos — "mimic of tongues”) had located a hard-to-find species for us. We arrived at our wetland site, quietly extracted ourselves from the vehicle, surreptitiously swatted the nearly hawk-sized mosquitoes and listened…
Susan begins calling "kik-kee-derr” and, to our joy and surprise, one answered her. We heard the call repeated to us several times and added the species to our list. Pre-scouting a couple of weeks before this year’s Classic had revealed a Black Rail in the same location, but a week prior to competing, the only rail found was dead and desiccated; sorrow at the loss mingles with the understanding of the cycle and recycling of nature.
This year’s Classic is essentially over for us, but the memories and camaraderie shall last long after I awake exhausted but appreciative in the morning. All that remains is to electronically submit our list before the fast-approaching cutoff time.
We sought birds in pineywoods, among oaks of the chenier plain, in salt and freshwater marshes, gulf beaches, bay marshes, sloughs and bogs and ponds, Audubon Society sanctuaries, rice fields, aquaculture farms and fish hatcheries, national wildlife refuges, national forests, suburban yards, agricultural hayfields and pastures, along dirt roads and concrete highways.
The pace is predominantly frenetic — often identifying raptors, vultures, pigeon and doves at 70 miles an hour (or thereabouts) — but also sedate and rejuvenating when we hear water babbling in a brook, the whistle of a breeze through pine needles, the cacophony of a rookery in full production or a Chuck-will’s-widow singing in deep pre-dawn darkness.
This year, the TAMUG WildBirders identified 196 species, sufficient for first place and very near our hopes of 200 species. This is a thrill for the team, but infinitely more rewarding is the time together and the appreciation of witnessing many of the marvels of nature.
The Classic is primarily a conservation vehicle; prior to this year’s event, the GTBC had contributed a tremendous $686,000 directly to avian habitat conservation along the Texas Gulf Coast through the conservation grant funding. Though we have added to our personal carbon footprints as a function of competing in the Classic, I rest easier knowing that the habitat restoration and conservation made possible by the entry fees paid by team sponsors will enable substantive and temporal benefit to the physical environment and the birds that depend on it.
The TAMUG WildBirders wouldn’t compete but for Susan Knock's lead. She teaches undergraduate and graduate field-based ornithology classes at TAMUG, fostering a new generation of "ornithusiasts” — individuals filled with enthusiasm for observing and identifying birds in their natural habitat as a recreation. For eight years, many of these students have competed alongside her and experienced the joys, frustrations and delirium associated with this manic enterprise called the Great Texas Birding Classic.
Andrew McInnes competed on the TAMUG team multiple times and continues at the university as a graduate student in the marine science department.