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.
The group headed toward the El Rio RV park, a trailer camp that bills itself as a birder's paradise. Another team rumbled by, throwing up a cloud of dust. The Zeiss squad scanned the chaparral. Something fluttered from the brush--a fist-size bird, mostly gray, with a black tail and the matching spring-plumage cap--and Kosciuch shouted, "Gnatcatcher! Gnatcatcher!"
"Play of the day," screamed Marx. High fives all around.
Day 3: Port Aransas Nick Block and the WildBirders were considering a gamble.
To win a birding race, you need more than speed. You need to scout, learning where the local birds are, and to network, gathering intelligence about conditions along the coast. You need to bird with people who work well together. And you need to plan your route carefully.
Or, just maybe, you need to risk it all.
The year before, Block had been on the winning team with another young birder, 22-year-old Cameron Cox. The two had planned to join forces again, but Cox moved, and when Block couldn't find him, he was forced to form a new squad. (Cox later resurfaced on another team, Birds Galore!) Block's first enlistee was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Texas, Graham Gips. He had competed in birding events before (that was good). His dad was willing to lend his Ford Explorer (that was better).
Until a week before the event, neither 17-year-old Christian Nunes, a high school student from Rhode Island, nor 19-year-old Matt Hafner, a University of Maryland student, had met Block in person or, for that matter, even been to Texas. They had grown acquainted through the online Teen BirdChat listserv. Block had chosen the pair for his team carefully. He was certain they brought skills he and Gips lacked; many of the migrant birds that touched the Texas coast were native to Nunes's and Hafner's home areas.
The team's primary strategy was to use its youth to the fullest advantage. No WildBirder ever slept more than four to five hours straight during the entire event; only two nights were spent in motels. When Gips returned his father's Ford, it had nearly 3,300 new miles on it. The WildBirders put their driving time to good use, scouting dozens of nesting species and then using the nights to spot them. That left the daytime open for a bet-the-house tactic.
The WildBirders debated their day-three plans right up until the final moments. The Classic has always allowed competitors to extend their hunt into the Gulf of Mexico, but no team had ever actually tried it. It was too risky; it could cost nearly an entire day. Block estimated that a water trip could net up to four extra birds--or it could yield nothing. The WildBirders decided that if they did well the first two days and could find a boat in Port Aransas that would return to land by 4:00 p.m.--giving them a good part of the evening to keep birding--they might hazard it.
At 7:00 that morning, the teammates joined 20 other passengers, all fishermen, and steamed out into the Gulf. The adventure hadn't gone off in total secrecy, however. They had been spotted on the dock, and by afternoon the news was out. The consensus was that Block's team had made a mistake. "To me,"Brandes recalls, "they'd seriously compromised their chances. I didn't see how a trip like that could be productive."
When the WildBirders returned at 3:30 that afternoon, they didn't say a word.
Day 4: High Island Bird Sanctuary The contest's only all-woman squad--sisters Cecilia Riley, executive director of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, and Joan Holt, a marine biologist at the University of Texas, and their friend Jane Kittleman, a retiree from the town of McAllen--had competed in every Birding Classic since the inaugural event in 1997. Their best finish, third place, had come in 2001, and they had entered this year as Team Realtree Roadrunners. Realtree, a maker of camouflage clothing, had also attired them, making them extraordinarily easy to pick out, even in the sanctuary crowds.
The three women maneuvered past the amphitheater bleachers surrounding Purkey's Pond (rest rooms and souvenirs to the right; yellow warblers and rose-breasted grosbeaks straight ahead) to a jasmine-scented area that's known as the Cathedral. Here, among the branches of a willow tree, they identified a Tennessee warbler by the preponderance of green on its back. This migrant, which had eluded the team earlier, was a good catch.
Moving on to High Island's largest open area, the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary, they joined a steady stream of visitors making their way down a dirt trail. Just around the bend, they found thousands of herons, cormorants, egrets, and roseate spoonbills covering a tiny island at the center of a pond, obscuring trees, water, even sky. The island seemed almost like one undulating bird, or a spattered paint spill, as the deep blacks and whites of the herons and egrets merged with the luscious pinks of the spoonbills. The rookery was humming; the combined calls of thousands of birds seemed to blend into a nearly seamless mega-sound, harmonic and dissonant at once, broken only by a stray coo or squawk from a hungry hatchling.
The assembled birders--dozens of them--were stunned, awestruck. For every adult bird, there seemed to be a half-dozen offspring, bobbing in and out of nests. For a moment, the contest was forgotten. Then a voice bellowed: "Hey! There's an anhinga over there!"
All day Riley, Holt, and Kittleman had been smarting over an earlier missed opportunity to bag this gawky marsh bird. Now they clattered across the boardwalk and spotted it just above glassy Smith Pond; the three-foot anhinga, with its long, snakelike neck, hung for a moment, then alit on a stump, assuming its classic hood-ornament posture, wings spread for drying.