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I.D.I.O.T. HEROES

By Dan Oko

Birder Kenn Kaufman quips that great Texas birding classic participants fit the idiot acronym: Incredible Distances in ornithological travel

In the predawn light, we stretched our ears to pick out the call of the barred owl — who-cooks-for-you… who-cooks-for-you-too — from the morning bird chorus. This chunky, round-faced owl is common in much of the eastern two-thirds of Texas, and we wanted it badly. This wasn’t a casual birdwatching expedition, the kind where you get up late, drive to a few places and carefully plan lunch. I was with a team of three competitive birders aiming to win the fifth annual Great Texas Birding Classic.

To have a chance at winning, a team probably has to spot at least 300 bird species during a five-day period in April. The playing field consists of the entire coastline of Texas, about 100 miles deep and more than 600 miles long between Mexico and Louisiana. Drive where you want, eat when you can, sleep if you have to and, if you want to win, you’ll have scouted the habitat before competition begins.

My team, Environmental Partners, was sponsored by Reliant Energy and led by a Reliant executive, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that we were listening for the barred owl on the 12,000-acre grounds of Reliant’s South Texas Nuclear Project near Bay City. Its prairie wetlands projects teem with shorebirds and waterfowl, and the owl should have been somewhere in the woods along a creek. Rolling up to the guardhouse in a big black rental van, we were issued orange safety vests to keep security from mistaking us for trespassers or terrorists. Unfortunately, the vests did nothing to protect us from the voracious mosquitoes, and our search was interrupted often by the sound of one hand clapping.

Mosquitoes weren’t supposed to matter. This was competitive birding, after all. We didn’t just want this owl, we had to have it. It’s a standard. Just hearing its call would be enough for us to check it off and move on. And moving on was essential. There was no telling where the seven other teams had gone in pursuit of winning Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s annual birding classic. Birding like this resembles golf. It wasn’t us against the other teams. It was us against the course. Whoever knew the habitat best and covered the most of it, would win.

Since its inception in 1997, the Great Texas Birding Classic (GTBC) has emerged as a one-of-a-kind birding event that spans the coastline of the Lone Star State. No other state has the range of birds and habitats that exist along the Texas Coast. But the amount of birdwatching that goes on in the GTBC is surprisingly small. The competitors carry binoculars and spotting scopes all right, but once they’ve picked up the identifying marks, they rarely pause to actually watch. And if they hear the bird distinctly, they check it off the list without lifting their binoculars.

Birding skills are certainly required, but stamina is essential. In Kenn Kaufman’s phrase, most GTBC participants can be referred to by the IDIOT acronym: Incredible Distances In Ornithological Travel. He ought to know. In 1973 he dropped out, not to join a commune or study for the Zen priesthood, but to chase birds. After a few months he had dissected and trisected the United States from California to New Jersey, had been to Alaska and realized he was on the way to setting a record for identifying the most species in a year. He redoubled his efforts, hitchhiking and sleeping in ditches and scrounging information on local specialties from local experts such as Victor Emanuel. In the end, his list numbered in the 670 range. He didn’t win the contest, but got something better. The book he wrote about his experience, Kingbird Highway, The Story of a Natural Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand, has become a birding classic.

Now a legendary birder and field guide author, Kaufman offers this about his coming-of-age experience: “[W]e were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We were out to seek, to discover, to learn, to find as many different kinds of birds as possible — and, in friendly competition, to try to find more of them than the next birder.”

Kaufman has gone on to become one of the nation’s most distinguished birders; his field guide is considered among the best. He still comes to Texas at least once a year, and was a contestant in the second Classic, coming in at second place in 1998 as part of Team Audubon. That gives an idea of what the competition can be like.

Texas may be emerging as the leader in this unlikely sport, but it is not the only game in town. An Audubon group in New Jersey kicked off the trend in 1984 with the World Series of Birding. As opposed to the travel-intensive GTBC, the World Series is a one-day event that takes place each May, when the neotropical migrants (many of which have passed through Texas a month earlier) arrive in the Northeast. The cumulative total in New Jersey is 314 bird species, although the tourney’s most successful teams have counted 270 or fewer in a given year.

Kevin McGowan, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a member of last year’s winning World Series team — the Swarovski Sapsuckers, which identified a remarkable 224 species in one day — says that as more and more people have become birders, competitive events are reaching professional levels. Winning teams often include longtime birders and professional ornithologists.

“It used to be you could string together a few nice birding places and look for species,” says McGowan. “Now, it’s become like professional skiing. These guys go down these six-mile courses and are separated by just a few thousandths of a second — and you say, “How did they do that?” Birding has gotten to be like that. It’s gotten incredibly nuanced.”

I had joined the Environmental Partners when they were 36 hours deep into competition. Bill Baker was the honcho, a native Texan and ex-military man with a graying brush cut and a gung-ho attitude. He loves any excuse to get outside, even if it means he has to take a cell phone with him and stamp out a few brush fires back at the office. With him were Breck Sacra, his lieutenant and quite a capable birder, and Tom Roberts of Reliant’s Pennsylvania office. Roberts, a Harley-riding hunter from the East Coast, was doing surprisingly well at spotting birds, considering Texas was not his regular ecosystem and he missed his baby daughter.

The team had started in the Rio Grande Valley looking for such South Texas specialties and Mexican species as the clay-colored robin and Tamaulipas crow. By the time I met up with them, they had 48 hours left in which to find nearly 100 birds. During those two days, we would drive another 1,000 miles, mostly through East Texas. As we rolled from site to site, the team gave me a crash course in field marks, bird songs and the logistics of competitive birding.

Baker and his bunch were not worried about older teams that might have an edge in experience. They were worried about the young Kenn Kaufman types, who haven’t changed much since the ’70s, only now there are more of them. These college-age birders can get by on a few hours sleep, shake off long drives in cramped back seats and see it as part of the adventure. Middle-aged birders tend not to be so patient with suffering.

Back at the South Texas Nuclear Project, the sun was up and the spring morning was growing muggy. The mosquitoes weren’t about to let up, but neither were we. The STNP is a regular stop for birders participating in Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Counts. The grounds provide habitat for about 225 species, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons and white-tailed hawks. Baker and the others led the way, making the peculiar pish sound that birders use to bring curious birds out of the brush. As we hiked through the elms, oaks and pecan trees, we spotted a handsome red-shouldered hawk perched on a snag, but this common species only inspired a modicum of approbation. The warblers — or “wobblers,” as this group had renamed the small migrants — remained elusive.

In a shallow wetlands near the entrance, we spotted a couple of more useful species, the buff-breasted sandpiper and black-bellied plover. The morning had been a success, and we piled back into the van, repeating the mantra: sharp-shinned hawk, northern pintail, Wilson’s phalarope…

According to TPWD’s Cliff Shackelford, who heads the state’s Partners in Flight program, more species of birds are found in Texas than any other state. Largely because Texas acts as a funnel for migratory birds, the diversity of species is higher here during spring and fall migrations. Overall, 622 species of birds have been recorded in Texas. Half of those birds are generally available during GTBC; given that the North American continent, north of Mexico, has 900 species, that’s a remarkable chunk of feathered fauna. Texas’ proximity to Mexico and Central America also means that the state has some 40 species considered Texas specialties. Competitors have even turned up a never-before-recorded species for the state. In 1999, a king eider was found during the GTBC near Freeport.

Even so, Shackelford noted, depending on weather, prevailing winds and the ongoing whittling away of wildlife habitats across the state, there’s plenty of sport involved when it comes to tracking down specific species.

“Time is your enemy,” said Shackelford. “You don’t worry about ubiquitous species, and you try to find birds on habitat. But we’re talking about birds. They’ve got wings. It can be frustrating, but that’s what keeps birding so exciting.”

Desperation was beginning to set in for Environmental Partners. On Friday morning, having driven 2,762 miles, we had only 269 birds — and a new mantra began: Warbler, grosbeak, tanager, vireo…. Above all, warblers. “We’ve got to have the wobblers to compete,” Baker says. “We’ve got to have wobblers.”

So we pointed the black van northeast toward High Island, a famed migrant trap at the neck of the Bolivar Peninsula. High Island is not really an island but a salt dome covered with mature trees that forms the first landfall for weary birds coming north across the Gulf of Mexico from Central America. We bounced between two wooded properties owned by Houston Audubon Society and found a rash of small birds commonly associated with the coming of spring. Rushing hither and thither, we picked up an American redstart, ovenbird, summer and scarlet tanagers, and — yes! — wobblers: black-throated green, Nashville, yellow, magnolia and blackpoll.

We were charging hard. We’d broken the 3,000-mile barrier, but were three birds short of the magic number; 300 species was looking unobtainable. So we made a pass through the East Texas Pineywoods for specialties such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, brown-headed nuthatch, Bachman’s sparrow and pine warbler, then returned to High Island and the Upper Coast. We hit the nearby Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw a Wilson’s warbler and heard a yellow rail.

When we got back to High Island we heard that a rare Texas visitor, the Cape May warbler, had been spotted in Smith Woods. I couldn’t possibly have identified the bird on my own, but I’d been poring over the dozen or so pages of warblers in the field guide and learning to identify birds on the wing by observing the team. Along with the team, I spotted a flicker of color. It was the Cape May, with its distinctive throat stripes, a life bird for each member of the group. Shortly after, the team picked up its 300th bird, a cerulean warbler, and then another unlikely find, a magnificent frigatebird, a huge seabird blown inland by strong offshore winds.

That night we arrived at the official check-in at Port Arthur, sunburned, bleary-eyed and high on adrenaline. Midnight was still a couple of hours away, but we decided to grab dinner instead of scanning the parking lot for oddities. The team had identified 301 species, which they hoped would pass muster with the judges, who usually knock a bird or two off everyone’s list.

At the awards banquet the next day, I finally saw our competition. The top teams did indeed include a mix of radical young dudes in addition to some older birders. Full of raw enthusiasm, the young birders told tales of running out of gas along abandoned stretches and risking precious hours on a boat ride to pick up pelagic species rarely seen inland. What Baker said about this being a tourney for all ages came back to me. There are even chaperoned teams featuring grade-school and high-school-age kids competing in the Roughwings and Gliders categories, representing a promising new generation of birders.

All teams had combined to spot 361 species altogether, a record high for the Birding Classic. The winning team, at an average age of about 20, was the Third-Basic WildBirders. They locked into first place with 325 species. This team met and formed thanks to Internet sites dedicated to birdwatching, and seeing those young guys, punchy from lack of sleep, wearing scruffy jeans, dirty T-shirts and puka beads, I couldn’t help thinking that Kenn Kaufman would be proud.

The next place team, Birds Galore!, came in with 321 species, and in third place were the Dow Skimmers with 308. As for the Environmental Partners, they lost just one species from their total (a sooty tern with doubtful identification was kicked out by the team of judges), but at 300 were in no position to challenge the winners. They tied for fifth with the Swarovski Roadside Hawks, but were still pleased to have broken the elusive 300 mark. Their outlook was philosophical. Days earlier, Baker had told me how he felt about the final standings.

“We’ve already won,” he said. “The money goes to the birds, it stays in Texas and protects their habitat. So any way you look at it, we win.”

This year’s Great Texas Birding Classic takes place from April 26 through May 4. Teams must register by April 4 to avoid late fees. Late registration continues until April 26. Winning teams have the opportunity to select the habitat projects that receive a total of $51,000 for acquisition, restoration and conservation. Over the past five years, winning teams have donated $300,000 directly to on-the-ground habitat conservation in Texas.

For more information about the Great Texas Birding Classic, including schedules, registration information and new features planned for the 2003 event, go to <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/gtbc>, call (888) TX-BIRDS or e-mail gtbc@tpwd.state.tx.us.

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