My husband suggested that we “up the ante” and be competitive. He believed that competition would make us more productive and add to the excitement. So we decided to enter the Great Texas Birding Classic.
This birding contest is put on by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Their website bills the event as “the world’s biggest, longest and wildest bird-watching tournament.” It has been held every year since 1996.
The website made participation sound easy and straightforward. It read: “Select your team’s category based on your age, your ability and how much time you have to go birding. Just find some friends and family to form your team, select the tournament that fits your lifestyle, register your team and start counting birds.”
We talked it up to our friends and soon had five willing souls: my husband and me, Nancy Lawson, Kay Past and Linda Vegh. Our category would be Casual Adult Birders which means we all had to be 19 plus years old. No problem there!
Our team needed a name. Since none of us five are “spring chickens” anymore, I suggested The Sprung Chickens. But cooler, less cynical heads prevailed, and we named ourselves Los Paisanos.
Los Paisanos decided the State Park Tournament would fit our lifestyles. We would bird Choke Canyon State Park. The rules stated that we could bird for a single 24-hour day from midnight to midnight. Now I began to squirm. Midnight to midnight does not fit my lifestyle. I do not like to get up before sunrise. Kay Past agreed with me, so we compromised. We decided the team would start just before dawn (to get the night birds) and go until dark.
Later, I found out we could have done a Big Sit! Regional Tournament and stay within a 17-foot circle all day. Or even better, we could have selected the Sunrise to Noon Tournament. Why we didn’t, I’ll never know. I am sure it was my husband’s fault. He never even told me those were options.
The contest rules state that you can choose any day between April 15 and May 15. Since we wanted to get the most migratory species, we wanted to pick a day in the last week of April or the first week in May. We are pretty busy for retired folks. The only day that all our team members could participate was April 30.
With the day selected, I whined some more about having to get up at 4 a.m. in order to be at Choke Canyon before daybreak. Couldn’t we camp out the night before? Then we could just roll out and start birding. We could even listen for night birds from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
The team liked that idea, so we reserved a screened shelter for the night of April 29. Most of us haven’t done much camping in recent years, so we excitedly discussed who had sleeping bags, who had cooking gear, what to eat, how many flashlights we’d need, etc. We forgot all about the arduousness of spending a whole day birding.
But Robert hadn’t. He had his eyes on the prize. He estimated that we’d need to see 90 to 100 species to win. So he scheduled in some scouting time a week before. We drove around Choke Canyon counting birds. We walked out onto the dried up lakebed of 75-Acre Lake to find small shorebirds feeding in the mudflats. We scanned the waters of Choke Canyon Lake with a spotting scope to find cormorants, ducks and herons. Even after five hours of hard work, though, we had only counted 52 species.
We were going to need to get every possible bird species to get close to 90. So we arranged with the park supervisor to get the drip running in the park’s bird sanctuary. Thirsty birds would come to water. We also hung feeders and put out cut oranges to attract orioles, hummers and migrating warblers. The bird sanctuary would be our ace in the hole for concentrating some of the smaller species.
We also secured permission to walk down to the old campgrounds below the dam. This area is no longer open to the public because of TPWD budget constraints. But as a different habitat it promised to hold species that the other parts of the park wouldn’t have. We needed to bird this area to get our count numbers up. We were delighted to have access.
Only Robert and I were able to pre-scout this area. It happened to be on the hottest day since last summer. We took our dog and one small bottle of water and set out at 3 p.m. By 4 p.m., we were at the campground on the banks of the Frio River. It was nearing 100 degrees; our water was gone, and I was thinking of cooling my feet in the river. That’s when we saw the alligator gliding across the small basin in the river. That’s also when I heard a splash at my feet. The dog had gone for a swim! We coaxed her out of the water. But have you ever tried to get a basset hound to do what you want when she wants to do something else? It took a while. Fortunately, the alligator wasn’t hungry.
The dog was cool for the walk back up the hill, but we weren’t. It was slow going for me as the incline seemed to get steeper and steeper. Where was this hill when we were coming down? Robert and the dog watched me from the top. For the first time I had some misgivings about birding this section. But there were too many good species to pass it up. We’d do it, and we’d hope we all would survive.
As it turned out, a cool front blew in the night before count day. Temperatures at 5:30 a.m. were in the 50s. Even Robert’s admonitions that “we are here to seriously count birds” and “we are not here to look at wildflowers or to have fun” couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm. We set out on the morning of April 30 in high spirits. By the end of the day we had recorded 91 species of birds!
We saw many good birds. We each had our favorite: Linda was delighted with the flock of sweet, lovely Cedar Waxwings feeding on the mulberries. Nancy was struck by the exquisite, long-legged beauty of Black-necked Stilts. Kay couldn’t get over the flaming gorgeousness of a male Vermilion Flycatcher. Robert was pleased with his identification of a Pectoral Sandpiper combing the lakeshore. I was happy to see a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, all female. Even without their flamboyant males, these female blackbirds were pretty and special.
Did we win? Did we even place among the teams birding state parks? Well, we won’t know until the tournament is over on May 15. Watch for the final results in a future column.