The setting: upper Texas Coast. The time: mid-April. The team: Ethan Gyllenhaal, hailing from Chicago; Sarah Toner, who adds to the large troop of Michigan birders; Galen Frank-Bishop, emerging from Middle of Nowhere, Massachusetts; and Maia Paddock, from Pennsylvania. The leaders: Chip Clouse and Jen Brumfield, both fearless beasts. The goal: to see birds, or more specifically, enough birds for Chip to let us shave his head.
Our scouting days were full of birds, camera wars, bad puns, pop culture quote references (winning!), yelling into ditches for bitterns, and remarking about how redneck everything was. Thursday, we cleaned up at Anahuac, getting both species of bitterns and many gators, which Ethan suggested we should “curb stomp”. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were exciting for the first twenty or so, but were soon ignored. Rollover Pass was swarming with birds, including a Laughing Gull that Ethan spent thirty minutes changing to a Franklin’s Gull. That night we spent eating shrimp gumbo with the Tropical Birding crew. The big bird on Friday was found over the small town of Fred–a Swallow-tailed Kite less than twenty feet away, circling close to the road. We piled out of the van, took some pictures, and gave life bird punches all around. That night we slept three hours before starting the big day.
On the big day we were stalked by Jeff Gordon. He drove a red Kia Soul behind us, leading to him being dubbed the Red Tail. The big day started with an average of one bird every three hours. The marsh where we had decided to start was eerily dead, besides a distant Great Horned Owl. We were all fairly sure this silence was caused by the black demon fox with glowing eyes that we saw there. However, with the break of dawn, the birds came out and we scored Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Pine Warbler, and Bachman’s Sparrow in a matter of minutes. We continued throughout the Piney Woods, Martin Dies Park, and the fish hatchery, scoring almost all specialties. Scanning the Purple Gallinule area did not get us a gallinule, but “double Swallow-tail Kites all the way across the sky!” made up for that. By this point we were running a little over an hour late.
After “rolling through the ‘hood” to get House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon, Fish Crow, and American Robin, we sped to Anahuac. We power-birded the fields on the way, mopping up all of the specialty species such as Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Our stops at each field only lasted about a minute plus the three seconds it took to get in and out of the car. Anahuac itself was not as productive, Boy Scout Woods was extremely crowded and yielded a disappointing twelve species, and Rollover Pass filled only a few checklist holes. We spent our last light on the Bolivar Flats, finding most of the missing plovers, Baird’s Sandpiper, and plenty of gulls. The Wilson’s Plover and Baird’s Sandpiper were coming very close to us, which lead to a quick abandonment of the “no cameras on the big day” rule. At each gulling spot Ethan would laboriously scan every gull and tern, trying to pull out a rarity.
At this time we were facing 174 birds and darkness. A lack of Roseate Spoonbill was fixed by a trip to a rookery where a Swainson’s Thrush was also heard. Easy Barred and Barn Owls helped for the night birds. A Clapper Rail called in a roadside marsh. This left us with 179 species and roughly two hours until midnight. From this point on, the deal was to bird until 11:00 PM or 180 species. Chip’s phone GPS guided us to Double Bayou Park in the middle of redneck land. A sign said that this park was under “constant surveillance”; we wondered if the barking dog was the surveillance system. As we sat there, Sarah asleep, Galen nodding towards that direction, and Ethan and I completely hyper on lack of sleep, I heard it. We all piled out of the car for three individual screech owls, giving us the 180th bird. It was 10:50 PM.
Back at an IHOP, we ate pancakes as we entered our checklist online. It was past 1:00 AM when we all finally got to sleep. Compared to the rest of the days, the awards day was inconsequential besides finding out that we had won with what we thought was a measly 180 birds. Finally, because of our victory, our end goal was reached: we shaved off Chip’s hair.