TPWD News Release — May 8, 2006
McALLEN, Texas — A team of veteran birders from Texas and Pennsylvania persevered through lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and constant fretting about the whereabouts of a much younger opposing team to win the coveted weeklong competition category in the 2006 Great Texas Birding Classic.
The 10th Annual Great Texas Birding Classic concluded April 29 at midnight on the lower Texas coast in McAllen, and winners were announced for all categories April 30. (See complete results below.)
The weeklong winners were the Reliant Energy Environmental Partners, comprised of Bill Baker of League City with Reliant Energy, Cecilia Riley of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson and Tom Roberts of Pennsylvania, who also works for Reliant Energy. This team successfully defended their weeklong win from last year, but there’s a tale of perseverance overcoming adversity here that goes back to the Classic’s origins.
You see, Baker’s the only person to compete in the Birding Classic weeklong tournament all 10 years. And while he’s on top now, he knows how it feels to be on the bottom.
“In 1997, we weren’t just last, we were embarrassingly last, we set the standard for last place,” Baker said. “So we began to work on our birding skills, evaluating the coastal birding trail maps and learning all the sites, and each year we improved our total. The first year we identified 198 species, and this year we finished with a record 340, beating the contest record we set last year at 332.”
Two weeks before this year’s Classic, Baker’s team member Lalise Mason of Houston went into knee surgery that was supposed to be a simple outpatient procedure, but she developed life threatening blood clots in her lungs and ended up in intensive care for days. Her husband Greg was going to go with the team, but finally decided he needed to stay with her. Lalise has since recovered for the most part, and hopes to bird the Classic next year. But on April 23, Baker had to find another competitor, fast.
“I called Cecilia on Sunday evening and she agreed to do it, and we started the tournament Monday just after midnight,” Baker said.
All this to chase birds for 120 hours straight? It begs the question, why do they do it?
“There are two main reasons,” Baker said. “First, my company continues to sponsor the tournament for habitat conservation reasons, and we’ve been doing habitat protection and restoration for 10 years now. Personally, I do it because I enjoy it, it’s fun, it’s a learning experience, and you meet some of the neatest people from all over the world as you go through the week—not just tournament participants, but people from Germany, Japan, England, Canada, Mexico.”
Throughout the week, the Reliant team kept looking over their shoulders for another team, the Nikon Wildbirders, who were decades younger and hungry to reclaim the top title, having won it back to back in 1998 and 1999.
“The Wildbirders are incredible birders,” Baker said. “They’re young and have a lot of stamina. And at our age, it’s like okay, the only way we can beat these guys is to try to work smarter. I will admit that team set the standard for the coastwide Classic several years ago, and they have really pushed everyone else to be better. My hat’s off to those guys, they come from out of state to do this—I live here.”
In a decade of birding the Texas coast, what’s changed?
“You do see things lost through development,” Baker said. “But you turn around and also see things preserved, which gives you encouragement. Several sites with grant funding from Classic are now places we visit during the tournament. I think we may be making some gains in wetlands, particularly coastal marsh, but in upland habitats, particularly prairies, we’re losing the battle. We’ve probably lost more than 98 percent of the original Texas coastal prairie, and that’s continuing.”
The 11th annual Great Texas Birding Classic will take place Saturday, April 21 through Sunday, April 29, 2007. For more information on the Classic and on general birding opportunities along the Texas coast, see the Web sites for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.
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