Competitive Birding for Conservation


Birding can be great for conservation, particularly when birders put their money where their binoculars are. The Great Texas Bird Classic, organized by Texas Parks and Wildlife, raises tens of thousands of dollars annually in support of conservation projects throughout the state.

The Rules – at least those applicable to this story…

  • For a species to be counted, a minimum of two members of the team must hear the call or see the bird.
  • A team’s list may not include more than 5% “dirty” birds. A “dirty” bird is any species that is not observed by all team members.
  • A team’s list is based on the honor system and only rare species require documentation to be valid. Most birders take the honor system very seriously.

Setting the Groundwork

My team, the Dirty Swainsons — named for the dirty Swainson’s Thrush and dirty Swainson’s Hawk found during last year’s birding competition — chose to compete in the State Park Big Day category. Teams pick one state park to count as many species of bird within 24 hours (midnight to midnight). Our pick? Estero Llano Grande State Park in deep South Texas (Hidalgo County, which borders Mexico). This site has consistently produced top five teams in the past, putting us in a good position to make a run at winning the category. The last step was to pick a day: Monday, April 18.

BobcatCaleb Gordon, a fellow Dirty Swainson, met me at the park the night before. We wanted to get acquainted with the park and scout productive sites for the next day’s competition. Caleb and I were encouraged when we were able to count over 80 species in just the final three hours of sunlight. The true highlight of the evening came when a mature Bobcat leisurely walked the trail in front of us. The Big Day was looking good — as long as we were able to keep the momentum and didn’t miss many expected birds.

At 10 p.m., Caleb and I decided it was time for dinner before heading to the hotel. After a quick shower and just over an hour of sleep, I was back in my truck headed to the park.

The Big Day Begins

The truly tragic part of this story is that despite our nocturnal efforts and sacrifice of sleep, we ended the night birding with exactly the same number of species that we could have observed during the thirty minutes before sunrise.
In the parking lot at midnight, the team — now with our remaining birders Mike Dreibelbis and Joanna Sblendorio — geared up, packing provisions for the long day ahead. Our plan was to begin with night birds and nocturnal migrants, some of which make distinct flight notes most easily picked out from the quiet night sky. We could hear the wild calls of Common Pauraques through the darkness. Caleb, an accomplished ear birder, was diligent for hours listening for migrants overhead.

The truly tragic part of this story is that despite our nocturnal efforts and sacrifice of sleep, we ended the night birding with exactly the same number of species that we could have observed during the thirty minutes before sunrise.

As the eastern sky began to lighten, we had a woefully short list of night birds including the Common Pauraque, Great-horned Owl, and Eastern Screech Owl. We heard a call that we believed to be Barn Owl, but chose not to count it because we were not certain of the identity.

Pre-dawn is a time of increasing bird activity. As shades of deep blues, violent reds, and radiant yellows vie for room in the sky, the songs of territorial males announce that day has come. These birds are declaring their territories to competitors and advertising their availability to potential mates.

With the morning bird songs and fly-over, we quickly amassed several dozen species. We didn’t come across anything out of the ordinary but we all enjoyed the colorful diversity of the birds and their songs that the park provided.

It’s all about strategy

As the accumulation of new species slowed, we decided to look for ducks, shorebirds, and wading birds — birds that like to hang out in or at the edge of water. Our fortune soon picked up, one of the shallow ponds at the park was about halfway dry. This provided a nice combination of standing water, shallows, and mud flats. Mud flats are particularly important habitat for shorebirds and wading birds that like to poke around in the mud in search of invertebrate food.

Altamira Oriole

Likely my favorite South Texas specialty was the bright and striking Altamira Oriole.
We excitedly called out new species: “Black-necked Stilt!” “Lesser Yellowlegs!!” “Western Sandpiper!!!” These wetland areas proved to be extremely productive.

Several of the relatively common species we saw throughout the park are found nowhere else in Texas and, in some cases, the entire United States. Species like Green Jay, Olive Sparrow, and Plains Chachalaca. Likely my favorite South Texas specialty was the bright and striking Altamira Oriole. We were excited to have picked up almost all the expected specialties before mid-morning and began to work on a strategy for the remainder of the day.

By 10:05 a.m. the team had counted 80 species with only a couple of dirty birds. We needed 110-115 to place competitively and, despite our high number, we worried that we were running out of new birds to count. Time to look in new habitats and areas of the park.

If you can’t stand the heat…

During the lulls in bird activity, I was grateful to be part of a team of strong naturalists. No one scoffed or chastised me as I began to look for lizards and frogs. Joanna even got involved when she pointed out a Couch’s Spadefoot Toad.
The park boundary is formed by a high berm along an irrigation canal at the southern and eastern edges. Using the berm as a vantage point put us in a great position for swallows at nearly eye-height as they darted and skimmed along the canal. We were able to identify all of the expected swallow species and even picked up a couple of new sulky songbirds, but they just wouldn’t sit still long enough to provide enjoyable views/photographs. Despite this success, not all was going well. The berm provided an excellent platform to view migrating hawks but we were unable to pick any out from a nearly panoramic view of the sky.

As the midday heat set in, the bird activity precipitously dropped; our work to increase the list became increasingly difficult.

Couch's SpadefootDuring the lulls in bird activity, I was grateful to be part of a team of strong naturalists. No one scoffed or chastised me as I began to look for lizards and frogs. Joanna even got involved when she pointed out a Couch’s Spadefoot Toad.

The noonday sun was out in full force, and the team decided to head to the parking lot to recount the day’s list and enjoy some cold refreshments. We were concerned with the absence of several species, but with a list of 100 species, food in our bellies, and several hours remaining we were sure we could find more new birds.

A fitting end

Texas Tortoise eating cactusSince we had covered most of the park during the morning, we decided to head out once again for the berm and the big skyward views it offered. The strategy paid off almost instantly. We quickly added several resident and migratory raptors including White-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Mississippi Kite, White-tailed Kite, and Peregrine Falcon.

But the thrill of the moment was quickly tempered by heat and exposure to a furious sun. The remaining afternoon hours of the competition would be spent searching in the shade of the diverse wooded areas. On our way to seek shade, we spend a couple moments watching an old Texas Tortoise greedily munching a prickly pear cactus.

Stilt SandpiperOur adaptive strategy worked well. Much like we were looking for a reprieve from the heat, so were the birds. The park has several great viewing areas where visitors can sit comfortably in the shade and watch water features, birdbaths, and feeders. They attract a variety of birdlife and allowed us to add a couple of more species — including Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Black-and-white Warbler — with little effort.

As the day wound down and evening approached, we took short jaunts to search for new birds. Between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. we added our last three birds of the day, Crested Caracara, Upland Sandpiper, and Osprey. Facing near exhaustion, getting back to our jobs the following day, and a 5-hour drive home, we decided it was time to call it a day — a Big Day.

A good way to win

At dinner that night, I tallied the day’s list: The Dirty Swainson’s counted 123 bird species in 18.5 hours with only two dirty birds . This effort tied the tournament’s highest ever count in the State Park Category. Our list held out through the duration of the competition despite a strong showing by the resident Estero Llano Grade team with 113 species.

With first place, we were given the opportunity to award a $5,000 grant to one of many possible birding projects in support of Texas State Parks. We decided to donate our grant to the good folks at Devils River State Natural Area to provide funding for birding friendly enhancements at their new headquarter building.

About the Author

Romey Swanson

As the Conservation Project Manager, Romey Swanson assists the Director of Land Conservation with acquisition and stewardship of conservation easements. Duties include building and maintaining relationships with rural landowners and educating them on the benefits and requirements of conservation easements. In addition, the Conservation Project Manager creates maps and related georeferenced files as well as documentation and analysis of HCC’s existing and potential conservation easement projects. Check out Romey's personal blog: Modern Texas Naturalist