Bob Duncan, the reluctant birder

The adventure began with a phone call one day in the spring of 1997 from my birding friend Robin Carter from North Carolina. Robin explained that Texas Parks and Recreation was starting a birding competition in April. It would involve the Texas Gulf Coast and would be a week-long event. There would be three Big Days, involving the Upper Texas Coast, Middle Texas Coast and Rio Grande Valley.

Teams would have one day’s break between each event and the team with the most birds tallied at the end of the week would be the winner. There would be categories for Youth Teams, Texas teams and teams from Out-of-State. Robin said that since this was the first year, our team would have a chance if we entered the out-of-state competition since subsequent years would probably have “professional” birders like those sponsored by the big optical companies. Robin had lived in Corpus Christi and knew the area, which was an advantage. Knowing that Lucy and I had birded the area several times, he wanted me to join him, and wanted to know if I knew of any other birder down here who might be interested.


 Now, Big Days are grueling events. Teams usually start at midnight to maximize the chance for owls and goatsuckers and then dash around madly all day birding various habitats. [You have seen the hilarious movie, The Big Year, haven’t you?] Time is of the essence and there is little or no time for a break. Sometimes birders bird into the next night if nocturnal birds are missed. Lucy and I had done several Big Days in our area and were well aware of the how exhausting it could be.

I told Robin that three big days in a week was insane and I was not interested. I called my birding friend Phil Tetlow and told him about the call. To my surprise, he jumped at the idea. I told him he was crazy but after some cajoling I caved in and agreed to go.

 Phil rented the car for us, and when Robin arrived at my house and he got out of his car, I was surprised to see how much weight he had gained since I’d seen him last. The small car Phil had rented would not do, so Robin went into town to rent another one and arrived with a large purple Cadillac-type sedan which our wives promptly named the Purple Pimp Machine.

We arrived in Beaumont on April 19 and spent that weekend scouting east Texas for the competition which started on Monday. We hit the migrant traps on the coast and the pine woods north of Beaumont where we hoped to find owls and pinewood birds such as Bachman’s Sparrow. We checked with the organizers and found out there were only 4 competing teams in the Out-of-State competition, increasing our odds. By Sunday night we were feeling upbeat and ready for a 3 a.m. start Monday morning when the competition began. 

Monday morning we raced to the pine woods and got target birds Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Barred and Screech Owls, a great start.  Beaumont has an excellent sewerage treatment impoundment where birders are welcome and in fact catered to. There we picked up pond ducks that are absent on the coast and had not yet departed for points north.


Then we rushed to the coast hitting lesser known migrant traps that Robin knew about, avoiding High Island where hordes of birders would be a problem for three birders rushing madly about. Sabine Pass, Sabine Woods, Sea Rim State Park paid off with 19 warbler species for the day plus other Neotropical migrants. We met other teams there but sharing information or even hellos was not in the cards. We picked up several “bonus birds,” birds we could not expect like a very late Ruby-crowned Kinglet or birds that could be easily be missed like Merlin, Common Tern, American Robin, and Vesper Sparrow. At the end of the day, three weary birders tallied 167 species and were off to a very good start.

Tuesday April 22, a scouting day, we drove toward Corpus Christi where we would spend the night and we scouted the rice fields, bays and tidal mud flats along the way. We were disappointed to find the rice fields where Robin was certain we would jam on shorebirds were dry and birdless. Nonetheless we were impressed with the sheer volume of birds in the area.

Wednesday began bright and early with birding the Corpus Christi area, an area rich in species diversity, hitting Flour Bluff, Hans Suter Park, Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and Mustang Island. Our list of water-related birds, ducks and egrets was growing by leaps and bounds. At Mustang Island we jammed on hawks, adding species like White-tail and Swainson’s and Crested Caracara.

Heading north toward Port Aransas we logged a bonus bird, Cinnamon Teal. Bonus birds are birds easily missed on a Big Day. At Indianola and Hans Suter Park we added a long list of shorebirds, some of which we missed in rice country, plus gobs of gulls and terns. Going inland at Bennett Park, we started to add inland species like Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.


A bonus Bell’s Vireo was added near Refugio and at Port Aransas we started to pick up Neotropical migrants, logging a total of 33 including a bonus Swainson’s Warbler. Three tired birders ended the day at the Day’s Inn at Port Lavaca. We once again saw 167 species and added 56 new species for the competition, giving us a total of 223. At that point we had no idea how the other teams were faring but we felt somewhat comfortable with our results.

The next competition day would be in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a birding locale that most birders serious about having a big life list must visit. Tropical birds that reach their northern limit barely make it across the Rio Grande. Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, Altimira Orioles, Gray Hawks, White-collared Seedeaters and a host of other species can be found in concentrated areas along a narrow strip of riparian vegetation surrounded by farm land. What original habitat is left is a mecca for rare birds, pockets of protected vegetation along the Rio Grande.

We left Corpus Christi and scouted our way south toward Zapata, a small town on the Rio Grande about 150 miles upriver from the coast where we would spend two nights. The next day was devoted to scouting the area south to South Padre Island on the coast, hitting the hot spots along the way and getting a good idea of what we might find the next day when the competition resumed. At the end of the day we tallied 142 species and felt pretty good about our chances of holding our own in the competition.

Dawn the next day found us at the Zapata airport. In order to maximize our list, we had to have desert birds as well as the Rio Grande specialties and the airport provided that habitat nicely. We logged Common Poorwill, Common Nighthawk, Lesser Nighthawk, and Pauraque as the desert exploded in bird calls in the dim light of dawn. Other desert birds chimed as light brightened – Cactus Wren, White-tipped Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Verdin and others. Back to Zapata where we logged White-collared Seedeater [now Morelet’s Seedeater] at the city park, a stake-out and the only reliable spot in the U.S. where it could be found at that time.


Next stop was Falcon State Park and Falcon Dam where we picked up many specialties and unexpected Vermilion Flycatcher and a Bullock’s Oriole. Proceeding downstream to the little villages of Chapeño and Salineño we continued to add species like Least Grebe, Muscovy Duck (the real wild ducks from which our domestics originated), Ringed Kingfisher, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Curve-billed Thrasher and others vital to a big count. Next was Bentsen State Park, the mecca for listers. There we logged Gray Hawk, Great Kiskadee, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Couch’s Kingbird, Long-billed Thrasher and a real prize – Blue Bunting – plus other specialties including Northern Beardless Tyrannulet.

Next stop was Laguna Atascosa on the coast for shorebirds and waders. While we had already picked up many during the previous two competition days, there were still blanks on our list. Eared Grebe, Anhinga, Greater Flamingo (a real bonus bird), American Golden Plover, Wilson’s, and Semi-palmated Plovers were added with relief.

At that point in the trip we had already logged over 500 miles and fatigue was setting in. Robin wanted to continue to South Padre Island but I was ready for a good meal, hot shower, a beer and a review of what we had accomplished. Fortunately, he persuaded Phil and me to continue.

Padre Island is sparsely vegetated and most vegetation there is ornamental and exists around the Convention Center and condos. When we arrived at the Center, the oleanders were covered with Neotropical migrants. We picked up Nashville and Yellow Warblers, King Rail in the marshes, Snowy Plover on the outer beach, Black Tern and Baltimore Oriole. Three exhausted birders checked in at the LaQuinta Inn in McAllen knowing that we had given it a good try. Robin totaled our birds for the day at 164. We added 44 new species to the competition total, giving us 267 for the three days. We had no idea what the competition tallied but we were cautiously optimistic that we had a chance.

The next day we drove to the headquarters in Corpus Christi, turned in our list and found that we had won first prize in the out-of-state competition. We were each rewarded with a new pair of binoculars. First prize for the overall grand total was won by a Texas team from Houston but we were not too far behind them. After all, local knowledge is everything.

Or you might wish to see more about the Great Texas Birding Classic here: