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Great Texas Birding Classic: Birding's Super Bowl

Written by Melissa Gaskill.

Photo by Darren Carroll

“It’s a logistical challenge. You’ve got to figure out a maximum number of species and habitats, and the shortest route to get them all.”

- Regular competitor Richard Gibbons, Ph.D. candidate at LSU

 

The Great Texas Birding Classic is one of the biggest and longest birding competitions in the country—the birdwatching equivalent of the World Series or Super Bowl. No surprise that it happens in Texas, where you’ll find 634 species of birds and plenty of spirited birdwatchers. The competition’s late-April to early-May timing coincides with the migration of millions of birds through Texas’ coastal region, a phenomenon repeated in reverse in the fall.

Sponsored by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and open to anyone, the Classic includes regional 24-hour counts for adults and teens age 14 to 18, an eight-hour tournament for young kids, and a 24-hour, in-place count (a.k.a. the Big Sit!, in which a team occupies a 17-foot-diameter circle and lists all birds seen and heard). But the toughest category—a five-day adult competition spanning the entire coast—attracts the truly dedicated. In 2008, Baker and his Reliant Energy Environmental Partners team covered nearly 3,000 miles, from the Rio Grande to the Louisiana border, and logged 316 species, to take last year’s title. After participating in all 12 Classics thus far, the team now has four consecutive wins in the category. Its highest tally: 340 species in 2006.

To get these kinds of numbers, teams begin their days before dawn and end them well after sunset, with meals grabbed on the run or skipped altogether (hence the van’s stash of snacks). Participants prepare for the competition with spotting scopes, high-powered binoculars, hefty and well-thumbed birding guides, CDs of birdsongs, and a wealth of accumulated avian knowledge. It’s all important: A good percentage of birds are identified by their calls. Sightings are often little more than quick glimpses—was that a black hood or a black cap?—and with this many species involved, details matter. Long, heated debates over whether a bird was one thing or another are common. In other words, you need to know your Wilson’s from your Orange-crowned Warblers, females from males, young from mature—whether presented with a picture-perfect specimen or one that just flew through some rough weather and is having a bad-feather day.

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