by Greg Whittaker
On Monday, 15 April, we participated in a big day, chasing birds from midnight to 8:30pm over 300 miles and 3 counties. Along with team members Kristen Vale, Jeff Sexton, and Clayton Leopold we identified 163 species of birds from Sabine Woods in Jefferson County through Lafitte’s Cove in Galveston. Our team was sponsored by the Galveston Island Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, who generously provided the $1000 support that allowed us to go on this avian mad dash across the upper Texas coast. This is the 23rd year that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has held this “biggest, longest, wildest birdwatching tournament in the U.S.!” The Birding Classic’s mission is to increase appreciation, understanding and conservation of birds through education, recreation, nature tourism, and conservation fundraising. The winning birding teams get to decide how the conservation grants are allocated and last year over $35,000 was awarded to 7 state-wide projects.
This year’s Birding Classic runs from 15 April – 15 May and the field includes 135 teams and activities ranging from half days to a week, and geographically from a 17-foot diameter circle for big-sits to state-wide chases with categories for youngsters through seniors and even a category for human-powered vehicles.
Our team name, the “Chasing GREGs”, was based on the 4-letter common name code for GReat EGret, and our pre-trip strategy of engaging Greg Miller’s experience and knowledge in planning a big day. This second, and more famous, Greg is the real-life person that Jack Black portrayed in the film “The Big Year”. Greg is a software engineer and data crunching is his passion. Using eBird data to identify the best locations for seeing the most unique species in the shortest amount of time is an important aspect of planning a big day, or big year, and we appreciate having Greg lend his valuable insight.
Having the 5 previous days of Featherfest trip listings was a strategy we also chose in making our big day decision. With over 230 species seen during this year’s Featherfest, and having cumulative lists over the past 14 years to work from, we anticipated getting at least 150 species with a list approaching 200 within the realm of possibility.
Our big day offered mainly expected species and a few surprises, but mostly, it was a great day to be outside with people that enjoy nature. Seeing Whooping Cranes and a Bald Eagle in the same field was pretty cool and normally all 4 of us would have spent a lot more time appreciating those majestic birds, but the nature of the big day motivated us to check them off the list, snap a few pix and move along. Right after dusk we ticked off Green-winged Teal, Great-horned Owl and made a collective fist pump as we watched the Barn Owl sail across the field at Lafitte’s Cove. I think we all experienced an adrenaline hangover as our 2019 big day officially came to an end.
Greg Whittaker, Author
Greg Whittaker is Moody Gardens’ animal husbandry manager and a birding enthusiast. He chairs the Galveston County Audubon Group and serves on both the Houston Audubon and Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council Boards of Directors