5 Days, 5 Nights, 3,000 Miles, and 10 Hours of Sleep—but Who's Counting?
Contestants in the Great Texas Birding Classic face off in fierce competition. The real winners, though, are the birds themselves.
Two hours before dawn, and the valley's blast-furnace heat was already intensifying. Four men padded along a dirt road. A half-mile away, flatbed trucks made their way along Highway 83, a narrow strip of asphalt near the U.S.–Mexico border, angling north and west from the Gulf Coast.
The men raised their binoculars briefly to watch a satellite move across the horizon. "You think they threw us a red herring?" The men had been told they could see a common poorwill here, but after a few minutes of searching, Michael Manson was beginning to wonder. The tip had come from a competitor. "No," he said, answering his own question. "They wouldn't do that."
Not even to gain an edge in what has become the Ironman of birding marathons: the Great Texas Birding Classic.
Each spring along the state's 500-mile Gulf Coast, from Brownsville to the Louisiana border, teams of three to five birders battle for five straight days—sleeping optional—to see who can bag the most bird species. At stake are bragging rights and $50,000, which will be spent on habitat conservation. By the time the dust finally settles over sanctuaries up and down the coast, sponsorship money will have been distributed to projects ranging from the acquisition of bottomland hardwood forest to the restoration of tallgrass prairie.
"From a conservation standpoint, you couldn't ask for a better event,"says Jesse Grantham, Audubon's director of bird conservation for Texas and a participant in a one-day variation on the main event. "The Classic has a product at the end other than just a long list of birds. You come back with something accomplished."
From a birding perspective, you couldn't ask for a better venue. More than 75 percent of all bird species occurring in the continental United States have been reported in Texas—about 600 in all. These include migrants from Mexico and Central and South America as well as vagrant species that wander over the border.
The experience is addictive. Manson, a biology professor at Texas A&M, was competing for his fourth straight year, as was A&M bioacoustics specialist Scott Brandes. Their team, the Zeiss Guys (sponsored by the binoculars maker), also fielded two newcomers: A&M graduate students Damion Marx and Karl Kosciuch.
Right now all four were frustrated. The poorwill was nowhere to be seen, and other competitors were arriving, along with the sun. A dusty Ford Explorer driven by Nicholas Block, 21-year-old captain of the Classic's youngest team, the Third-Basic WildBirders, and a onetime student at Rice University in Houston, pulled up.
"So, where'd you end up yesterday?" Block asked Manson. Silence.
"What, do you think I'll steal your birds?"
"Yeah," said Manson, only half-joking. The Zeiss Guys moved down the road. Roosters began to crow around nearby homes. Manson pursed his lips just so and let out a soft exhalation. The response: a gentle, onomatopoeic whistle. "That's it," Manson said. "Let's go!"
Day 2: Zapata Brief pit stop for the Zeiss team. A sun-beaten digital thermometer above a bank reads 115 degrees. Milk shakes are critical fuel for competition. Dairy Queens up and down the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, which the Classic traces, benefit from the thirst-driven participants. This year 236 people from California to Rhode Island, and from seasoned adults to "roughwings" (aged 8 to 13), competed in either the full five-day tournament or single-day contests. Since the event attracts a growing number of nature tourists to the birding trail, communities en route that have preserved habitat for good birding are able to cash in.
"Many of these communities are rural," points out Shelly Scroggs, who coordinates the Classic for Texas Parks & Wildlife. "And birders travel during the nontypical travel season. By putting prize money back into the trail, we're hopefully creating new sites and new opportunities for communities along the coast to feed their economies year-round."
The Classic is said to be the "biggest, longest, and wildest" birdwatching tournament in the United States—and this year it became even more fanatic. Contestants used to bird for three 24-hour days in different coastal regions, spaced out by two days of nonbirding rest. But since most teams spent that downtime scouting, the staff changed the Classic to an official free-for-all. Now teams can bird anywhere in Texas's 41 coastal counties, for the duration of the event.
Which means that for most teams, moments of avian pandemonium—seven or eight species in a few minutes—are punctuated by intervals of driving, driving, and more driving. The Classic is not so much about science as sport, and one that ratchets up the profile of birding from a leisurely pastime to a pursuit a little nearer the Cannonball Run. A British tourist marveled at the Zeiss team during a roadside chat. "You're not birdwatching," he said. "You're bird racing!"
Before Zapata's scorching heat drove them indoors, the Zeiss Guys ranged across a small park near the Rio Grande's Falcon Dam, searching for a black-tailed gnatcatcher. The local rare-bird alert had reported several nesting there.
The group quickly saw a Couch's kingbird and a Bullock's oriole, and got a good telescope view of a crested caracara—fairly spectacular, with a hawk's silhouette mated to a vulturelike, carrion-tearing beak—soaring above the dam, which divides the Rio Grande into lazy wetlands on one side and a vast reservoir on the other. But the gnatcatcher, a bird the team would be unlikely to see anywhere else, remained elusive. "The toughest thing is to decide how much effort to expend on one species," said Manson.