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.
In the past it had taken about 300 birds to win the Classic. And although it didn't look like either the Zeiss Guys or Team Realtree would approach that number, it didn't seem to matter. Not at that moment anyway. Each new bird was a tiny victory.
Day 5: Port Arthur "Seriously? Counting birds?" The leather-jacketed biker raised one eyebrow. The red bandanna tied around his forehead lifted slightly. In the lobby, a few feet away, Texas wildlife officials were setting up the judge's station for the Classic, which would end at noon, just a few hours away. "Counting birds?" the biker repeated. "You mean, like vultures and shit?"
The teams had begun the event's final day up north, mostly mopping up, staying near enough to Port Arthur to turn in their lists on time but trying to fill in the blanks on individual counts. The Zeiss team began the day inland, at a forested state park, where they had camped the night before. Team members had slept badly. And now their attempt to spot a Carolina chickadee was being thwarted by the nonbirders in a nearby campsite. It wasn't just the classic rock blaring from a portable radio. It was a highly misplaced sense of tidiness: The "outdoorsmen" were sweeping away the detritus at the campsite with a gas-powered leaf blower. "Our victory," Manson observed in a dry monotone, "is not yet secure."
Besides, perhaps, whether vultures are countable (two species are), the question most folks pose about competitive birding concerns honesty. What makes the teams tell the truth? The event's foundation is a more than 370-species official checklist. The birds on it are species that participants are likely to see (although nobody spots them all). The trickier birds also occupy a secondary list of more than 120 so-called Texas Review Species. When teams claim to have seen one of these birds, they're required to submit a report form for rare species. Birds not on either list require additional documentation, usually photographs. Judges can reject a sighting if they don't find the team's evidence convincing.
Other key regulations: Sound identification is acceptable, but attracting birds with audiotaped birdcalls is not. Every team member must see 95 percent of its listed birds (the remainder can be sighted by as few as two spotters). Team members must stay within shouting distance of one another at all times. Cell phones aren't allowed. Sick birds count; dead ones don't.
The teams straggled in. Team Realtree reported 284 species, but Riley was still frustrated over the team's failure to see a white-tailed kite. "Six hundred miles of coast," she said, "and still none!" At about 11:00 Brandes appeared with the Zeiss list. He looked spent. "It was fun,"he groaned. The count: 264.
Nick Block and the WildBirders arrived at 11:54. By this time, their pelagic gamble was common knowledge; whether or not it had paid off was still unclear. Chief judge Cliff Shackelford, nongame ornithologist for Texas Parks & Wildlife in Austin, doubted the voyage would make a difference. "The margin of victory is never neck and neck," he said. "It's usually at least five to seven birds."
Except for this year.
The team Block had been most worried about was sponsored by Swarovski. Its members were experienced, older, and had the fatigue-cutting benefit of a noncompeting driver. Team Swarovski's final tally--300--was good enough to win in many other years. With the five-day format, however, it was worth just a tie for fifth place. The fourth- and third-place squads saw 301 and 308 species, respectively. The two top places were taken by the two youngest teams. Cox and Block, who had planned to compete together, who had been separated by circumstance, both scouted extensively. Both slept little.
But only one team spent eight hours at sea. During the first hour of the voyage, Block and his teammates saw a sooty tern--a bird that doesn't even make the Review Species list. An hour later, as the fishermen were casting for snapper, a flock of gulls swarmed the boat. A pomarine jaeger--with its four-foot wingspan and jet-black head and back--swooped in. It's on the event's master checklist, but no other team reported one. Despite the promising start, for the next five hours the WildBirders saw nothing. They returned to Port Aransas with just two new birds.
Still, taking the ocean trip was only half of their hoped-for winning strategy. Opting for the voyage meant skipping the legendary birding spot of South Padre Island--it was simply too far away from the port. Fine, Block thought. Instead, he spent weeks scouting a spot nearer to the boat dock. None of the teammates would tell exactly where they went, or what or how many birds they saw. Only the final tally would reveal if the move has pushed them into the lead.
The competitors went to bed. The judges counted. At an awards brunch the next morning, the winners were announced. The five-day event had been decided by just four birds. Cox's squad, Birds Galore!, saw 321.
Block's squad saw 325.
The WildBirders were ecstatic. And all of the teams gathered at the brunch (only Manson, utterly exhausted and collapsed in his hotel room, was missing) were surprised and slightly tickled to see the two youngest teams, as Brandes put it, "kick so much ass."
The WildBirders' $20,000 first prize was awarded to the Packery Channel Sanctuary Acquisition Project (as was the $3,000 prize Jesse Grantham's team won in the single-day Central Coast competition). The Packery Channel project has received prize money from the Classic for three years running and uses it to purchase undeveloped housing lots on North Padre Island, preserving them as valuable habitat for migratory songbirds.