Illustration © Adam Grason
Birding's Tailgate Party
Texas’ Big Sit contest is fun for all, not just hard-core birders.
By Russell Roe
In the Great Texas Birding Classic, one of the top birding events in the country, bird watchers fan out across the state to do just what their name implies: watch birds.
Sometimes, the birds watch them back.
Who knows if the people watching is as satisfying as the bird watching? We come in all shapes and sizes, just as birds do, and exhibit some pretty odd behaviors, but there’s only one species of us. That checklist is pretty short.
By contrast, 2019’s top Birding Classic team logged 357 species of birds.
Each spring, the Birding Classic attracts dozens of teams across the state to view and enjoy our rich and varied bird life. Birders venture out on frenzied Big Days or comprehensive statewide weeklong forays or traverse the boundaries of a state park. In addition to those state-trotting categories, there’s a category that caters more to the lounge-chair birding set. It’s the Big Sit, described as “a tailgate party for birders,” though some teams take it quite seriously (they can’t help themselves).
In the Big Sit, teams establish a 17-foot diameter circle and see how many birds they can identify from inside the circle in a single day. It’s one of the most popular and accessible (and snack-friendly) categories of the Birding Classic.
Shelly Plante, nature tourism director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, calls the Big Sit the “5K run of birding.”
“You pay your money, get a T-shirt and go bird-watching for a good cause,” she says. “I have always been interested in the Birding Classic being for everyone. It’s not just for the ‘listers’ or the hard-core birders. For people who just enjoy looking at birds, the Big Sit is a wonderful opportunity to bring them to the Classic.”
For myself and my TPWD team that participates in the Big Sit each year, it means doughnuts, breakfast tacos, camaraderie with co-workers and a day of watching and learning about birds. And … yeah, I was just making sure I mentioned the doughnuts and breakfast tacos.
For Port Aransas, the Big Sit gives the coastal community a chance to show off the nature-oriented side of the town and the region’s incredible bird life. Organizers invite city officials, locals and visitors to view resident water birds and whatever birds are migrating through at the time.
For the Kempf family of San Antonio, the Big Sit is a chance to spend a day together, talk about birds and bond as a family in a natural setting.
Being in one place all day allows for close observation of birds, says 19-year-old Delaney Kempf, whose family does its Big Sit in Seminole Canyon State Park each year. In a case of the birds watching the bird watchers, some of the birds also engage in close observation of the Kempfs.
“Sometimes you get these birds that’ll get used to you and sit there for hours on end,” she says. “There’s a Say’s phoebe and a rock wren at Seminole Canyon in our ‘sit circle.’ Year after year, these two birds will sit there. They’ll check you out. They’ll watch you, and you’ll watch them. It’s a cool, special privilege. One of my favorite things about the Big Sit is that you can watch these animals for an extended period of time.”
BIG SIT RULES
• Birds can be identified by sight or sound.
• Observations must be made from within a 17-foot diameter circle. If a bird is seen or heard from within the circle but is too distant to identify, a team member may leave the circle to get a closer look. If a bird is observed while outside the circle, it must also be observed from inside the circle.
• Only one team member needs to identify the bird (other categories require more teammates to make IDs).
• The same circle must be used for the entire day.
• Any date between April 15 and May 15 can be selected, and teams may participate for up to 24 hours on their chosen day.
I arrive for my shift at the Big Sit around midmorning at McKinney Falls State Park, not far from TPWD headquarters. The bird activity has died down quite a bit already. Thankfully, there are some breakfast tacos left.
“We’ve got 20-23 birds so far,” says TPWD biologist Tania Homayoun. “Not bad. It has slowed down in the past hour. The morning chorus is where we get the most.”
Let’s see what’s on the list: black-crested titmouse, white-eyed vireo, yellow-billed cuckoo, egg and cheese, egg and bacon. Sorry, I can’t concentrate on birds when there are breakfast tacos to be eaten.
Our TPWD team started when the Great Texas Birding Classic, which began as a coastal tournament, went statewide in 2013. Folks from TPWD’s communications group formed a team and recruited birders from other parts of the agency to help.
Each year, we pick a spring day to get together in our 17-foot circle in an area park and tally some birds.
“I think the people who join want to learn more, or maybe just want a couple of hours out of the office,” says Julia Gregory, who captained the team for several years. “Some want to find out if birding is something they want to do. There’s camaraderie. We always have a lot of fun. We always have food. We see birds.”
Peering through her binoculars, Tania points out a yellow-rumped warbler.
“They’re getting ready to migrate north,” she says. “You can see a yellow band across the back end near the tail.”
Julia says that having a work team is a good way to meet co-workers and do some team-building. She’s right. Being with co-workers whom I don’t normally see on a daily basis and engaging with them in a shared activity outdoors has helped me build new work relationships.
Julia also says the Big Sit always helps her learn more about birds.
“I think it’s a good way to learn,” she says. “The best way to learn birds is to go birding with good birders.”
Tania, one of our expert birders, tells us there’s a broad-winged hawk overhead.
“What clues me in is a really strong black band and really strong white on the tail,” she says as we raise our binoculars to see what she’s seeing. “The bands on the tail are very bold.”
For me, it’s always a crash course in birding. Our group will see a bird, I’ll read about it in one of our colorfully illustrated guides, and the wide, wonderful world of bird watching starts to open a little more.
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
Guide books can help with bird identification.
Photo by TPWD
The TPWD Big Sit team searches for birds at McKinney Falls State Park.
Photo by TPWD
The team often tallies 50 species, including birds such as the red-winged blackbird.
Team Port Aransas
“We want to reach 100 species by noon — that’s our goal,” says Scott Holt.
“We’re up to 65 so far,” adds Joan Holt.
The husband-and-wife Holts and a handful of others have set up for their Big Sit with spotting scopes and binoculars in an elevated gazebo at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, with a vast area of wetlands stretching out before them.
The Holts have been leaders in the Port Aransas bird-watching community for decades. When they started hosting Big Sits in the early 2000s, they invited city leaders and community members to join them.
“We get realtors, bankers, the mayor to come,” Scott says. “I had no idea if people would come out or not. It’s become a community event.”
“Usually the sheriff comes,” Joan says. “He comes after church.”
The Big Sit has been a way for the Holts and others to show off the birds and other natural assets of a place that’s known mainly as a beach town.
In 2019, their Big Sit coincided with the Texas SandFest sand castle contest, which attracts thousands of visitors to the beach. In the afternoon, several sunburned festgoers found their way to the birding center, where the Holts and others were happy to share their binoculars and offer impromptu lessons in birding.
The Big Sit has raised awareness of the value of bird watching and nature tourism in the city.
“Towns like Port Aransas have done a great job in using the Big Sit to promote birding at their nature centers while also using this event as an opportunity to engage and educate city leaders,” says Shelly Plante. “The event shows the value of nature tourism to city leaders in a very clear way while still having fun.”
Port Aransas sits in the migratory flyway, and hundreds of migrating species pass through each year. In addition, coastal birds such as the roseate spoonbill, reddish egret and black-bellied whistling duck keep bird watchers busy.
“We need somebody to see a green heron,” says Joan, looking at the team’s list. “We still need cliff swallow and tree swallow.”
Former Mayor Georgia Neblett has been staking out a corner of the gazebo with her binoculars trained on an area near the parking lot. She saw an orchard oriole while walking in and is determined to see it from the Big Sit circle.
Georgia attended the Big Sit when she was mayor and has been back most years since.
“Bird watching has added a whole other element to spending time outside,” she says. “Here, I learn birds that I don’t know well and enjoy the camaraderie and excitement.”
Photos © Kuhlken Photography
The Port Aransas Big Sit attracts dedicated birders and members of the community to the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center to count birds such as the common gallinule (above) and the black-necked stilt.
Lauren and Garrett Kempf wanted to foster their daughter Delaney’s love of birds. They didn’t realize they’d get hooked themselves.
In 2019, the family came in third place in the Birding Classic’s statewide weeklong category and participated in two Big Sits.
They’ve been doing Big Sits together for the past three or four years at Seminole Canyon State Park in West Texas.
“My mom and dad have always gone birding with me,” Delaney says. “We found birding as a really cool way for the three of us to get together.”
At Seminole Canyon, they mark their viewing circle with rocks and make a day of it with reclining chairs and an ice chest full of food and drinks.
“Definitely the highlight of the Big Sit last year was a red-tailed hawk flying overhead with a snake,” Delaney says. “We were watching it for a little bit and realized the snake was still alive. At the same time, a group was walking by on a rock art tour. We were pointing out the red-tail, watching it through binoculars, and we all realized the snake was actually a diamondback rattlesnake. My mother jokingly said she thought it would be funny if the bird dropped the snake, and everybody just scattered.”
Photos © Delany Kempf
The Kempfs of San Antonio (above) travel each year to Seminole Canyon State Park for their Big Sit, where they might see scaled quail, house finches and other West Texas birds.
Delaney started birding at age 12 in a San Antonio youth birding group and now, at 19, keeps birding as an adult.
Their Big Sit trips to Seminole Canyon have become a family tradition.
“It’s great to sit with my parents, now that we’ve done it a few years, and to remember, like, what we saw two years ago,” she says. “We joke around. I think it’s a great way to bond with your family and connect with them.”
She says her parents are improving as birders.
“My parents like to say they’re bird watchers but not birders,” Delaney says. “They love to watch the birds but don’t really know them. They’re wonderful at ID’ing them now. Now that they’ve gotten to learn more about them, I think they really enjoy talking about them, learning things like what does this bird do, where does it come from.”
The rock wren and Say’s phoebe that show up have practically become part of the family, too.
“It’s a cool way to observe those birds,” Delaney says. “They’ll call, preen, hunt for insects. It’s great to watch them.”
They may even be watching you, too.
Russell Roe is managing editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine and an aspiring birder.
BIG SIT TIPS
• Decide who will make up your team. Teams can consist of one person or dozens (other categories require three to five members).
• Invite good birders, especially if you’re not an experienced birder yourself.
• Bring binoculars and field guides.
• Find a good site. The best sites have multiple habitat types, including water. But a backyard works fine, too.
• Make your circle visual with tape, rope or some other signifier.
• Plan your day. Have people sign up for shifts, or consider a partial day of 7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.
• Bring food and drinks to fuel your birders. Snacking is encouraged.
How to sign up
To sign up for the Great Texas Birding Classic or to learn more about it, go to birdingclassic.org.
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