The Family that Birds Together...
Birding Classic road trip unites family members in a quest for togetherness and a bunch of birds.
By Jennifer Bristol
When I was a teenager, I never woke up until my mother made a third trip into my room to give me a final warning. I would lumber out of bed, get dressed, mumble something and get in the car to either go to school or off on an outdoor adventure with my family. Thirty years later, the tables have turned, and now it’s my turn to make the trip down the hall to my mother’s motel room to give her the final call to rise and shine for another day of birding in the Great Texas Birding Classic competition.
My mother got me and my uncle hooked on birding. She was thrilled when I married a man who loved to hike, camp and bird-watch as much as I do. When it was time to choose members for my Great Texas Birding Classic team, my top draft picks were right in front of me.
Even though she may not be an early riser by nature, my mother is still a premier birder who has spent most of her career helping set aside land for conservation purposes. My nearly deaf uncle cannot hear the birds but is an excellent spotter who can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. My husband, a casual birder who has a great eye for wildlife photography, is an excellent navigator and a champ on adventures. Myself, I’m a fair birder with bird-dog hearing and a relentless sense of optimism, so between us we have at least one pair of good eyes, one pair of good ears and one brain full of good bird knowledge.
Enjoying a moment of excitement with fellow birders and staff at Estero Llano Grande.
Our weeklong journey took us from Austin to the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas coast, through the rolling hills and finally to the Lost Pines of Bastrop. We traveled almost 1,000 miles through rain and dust storms to make 22 individual birding stops. We didn’t consider the sighting of a red-tailed hawk at the Dairy Queen in Three Rivers an independent birding stop, more of a happy coincidence, but we counted the bird nonetheless.
Competitive birding is an endurance sport with long hours spent in the car traveling from one eco-region to the next to view a different yield of birds. To fill the void, my uncle read to us from Why Stop? A Guide to Texas Roadside Historical Markers. My mother would chime in with her vast knowledge about how each park or birding center was created, who purchased or gave the land, what wildlife or resource it contained and what birds we might find there. Each story was shared with fascinating detail and heaps of laughter.
On Padre Island, the weather conditions were favorable, and we experienced a fall-out, the occurrence that every birder covets. During the spring migration, strong cold fronts sometimes cross into the Gulf of Mexico and slow the migrating birds down, causing them to use up their stored energy reserves too quickly. The weary migrants are forced to seek shelter and food as soon as they reach the coast.
Birds were everywhere on Padre, a vast array of them just sitting on the ground, too tired to move. I could hardly keep up with scribbling down the names of the birds as my team members called them out. My husband danced around taking photos, while my uncle made friends with another birding team doing an event called the Big Sit.
A young birder at the Pedernales Falls bird blind.
The Great Texas Birding Classic (tpwd.texas.gov/gtbc) is celebrating its 20th year this spring. There are multiple levels for individuals, families and groups to participate. Some teams choose to bird from sunrise to noon, while others bird all day within the boundaries of a state park. Lots of teams choose to do a Big Sit, which limits them to staying within a circle 17 feet in diameter while birding. Younger birders can have their own Roughwing or Gliders teams or bird with adults in the other competition categories. A few teams participate in a weeklong competition. The event runs from April 15 to May 15.
At Pedernales Falls State Park, we ran into another multigenerational birding team with two very knowledgeable kids, ages 9 and 12, their mother and grandparents. The 9-year-old helped us spot an endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
Birding is a great way to connect children with nature. Even though our family now goes on long journeys to bird, we started out making observations in our own backyards and then expanded our efforts to local parks. The spring migration is a perfect time to install a simple feeder that brings in the birds while the males are in brilliant plumage, a prime time for kids to observe them.
A list of recent sightings at Paradise Pond in Port Aransas.
Birding allows me to slow down and exist in the moment. While a birding competition is purportedly about logging as many birds as possible, patience is needed to observe and identify each species. In years past, I often didn’t know what I was seeing or hearing. But with the advent of smartphones and excellent birding apps, I can spot a bird I’ve never seen before and quickly look it up to make sure I am making an accurate identification. At the end of each day, I post all our observations in eBird, a citizen scientist online database that helps ornithologists track bird movements. It feels great to contribute to scientific efforts so easily.
Our family birding adventure took us through eight separate eco-regions, 21 counties, myriad state parks, national wildlife refuges, birding centers and even a few wastewater treatment plants. We spotted more than 200 species of migrating and native birds. In a single day, we stood on the banks of the mighty Rio Grande, looking out into the wilds of Mexico, then drove 480 miles to East Texas to switch regions.
For our family birding team, it’s not about how many birds we spot. Although we’re competitive, it’s more about the journey for us. I’m already planning where we will travel next spring in the Great Texas Birding Classic. In the meantime I’ll find great satisfaction in the birds that enjoy the native plants in my yard.