Posted: August 1, 2008, 12:00 a.m. PDT
The TAMUG WildBirders – Texas A&M University at Galveston students sponsored by WildBird – won first place in the upper coast tournament of the 2008 Great Texas Birding Classic (www.birdingclassic.org). With their win, the students earned the right to give $10,000 in conservation grant funds to the Hooks Woods motte enhancement project by Texas Ornithological Society (www.texasbirds.org).
Led by marine science lecturer and director Susan Knock, Ph.D., the five TAMUG students – Logan West, Chris Roberts, Katie St. Clair, Laurissa Noack and Emily Watson – spent 24 hours during spring migration looking and listening for species within an area bounded by Newton, Orange and Jefferson counties in the east and Waller, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties in the west. The annual conservation competition – sponsored by Gulf Coast Bird Observatory (979-480-0999, www.gcbo.org) and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department – offers tournaments sorted by age group, geographic region, and blindness and visual impairment. In the TAMUG WildBirders’ chosen region, they identified 179 species.
This year’s classic marked the 12th year of the competition, which aims to "increase appreciation, understanding and conservation of birds along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail through education, recreation, nature tourism and conservation fundraising.” The 2008 event also marked Knock’s sixth year as the catalyst behind TAMUG students’ participation, many of whom have never competed.
"This year, Emily was the only other team member that competed before, and that was last year,” Knock said. "One of the most exciting moments in coaching these students is when I realize that they have grown from novice individual birders into a competitive birding team.”
St. Clair, a recent marine biology graduate, said the classic provided her first experience with a competitive birding event. She decided to participate after hearing Knock talk about previous classics. "It always sounded like a fun challenge,” St. Clair said. "I love being outside and being able to observe birds and other animals, so this sounded like a great opportunity.”
The best moment for St. Clair was an early-morning visit to the Big Thicket before dawn. "It was awesome just standing in the dark, waiting for the birds to start calling at 5 in the morning,” she said. "My other favorite part was just being with the team, knowing that all the scouting and practice was paying off.”
Knock sees the classic as a good opportunity for students to learn about birds, encourage conservation and embrace the Aggie Code of Honor. "Sometimes, I can tell it is challenging for the student to admit that they did not get a good enough look at the bird to see any field markings or that they didn’t hear the song,” she said, "but they never break with tradition, and for that, I am extremely proud of them.”
This year’s competition included a triumph of sorts involving Belted Kingfishers, which typically eluded Knock’s teams. This year, however, a student saw two kingfishers excavating a hole along the Neches River. The team scouted the area repeatedly and saw holes in the bank but didn’t see the birds.
"On the day of the competition, we decided to stop and give the birds one minute to show themselves,” Knock said. "Bingo. The kingfisher flew directly in front of us, not 30 seconds after we arrived. Every year, I try to emphasize the importance of scouting, and it is ever so rewarding when the birds reinforce my coaching.”
Knock said participating with the students provides other rewards, too. "Nothing will keep you young like chasing around the woods, parks, beaches and marshes with kids that are half your age and who are four times as fit,” she said. "Every year, I think, ‘Hmmmm. Maybe I’m getting too old to play this game,’ and every year, my students refuse to let me hang up my optics. Their enthusiasm and commitment drives the team, and I thank them for letting me come along for one heck of a ride.”
St. Clair said the students chose the Hook Woods motte enhancement project to receive the conservation funds because the students are familiar with it. "The Hooks Wood project is creating habit at a local birding spot that the entire team enjoys birding at,” she said, "and it is a rich habitat that will only improve with time and support.”
The 2009 Great Texas Birding Classic is scheduled for April 26 to May 3.