LAKE JACKSON, Texas — The world’s longest bird watching competition is changing to a new “big weekend” format this year, marking the first year the Great Texas Birding Classic will hold the majority of competitive categories and events all on a single day. Also, thanks to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant, prize money for conservation projects has increased this year from $52,000 to $73,000.
Since 1997, the Classic has raised more than a half million dollars to conserve wildlife habitat on the Texas coast, protecting critical stopover spots for songbirds that migrate between the Americas. Winning teams get bragging rights, plus they help allocate prize money to projects that protect or improve bird habitat.
Each spring, the Classic draws hundreds of birding competitors from across North America. Thousands of birding tourists also come to experience the phenomenon of spring migration at companion events held along the coast.
The event’s impact extends far beyond Texas, because the Lone Star coastline is important stopover habitat for birds that continue up the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. These include many neotropical migratory songbirds, among the nation’s most colorful and popular species, which migrate huge distances between South and Central America (the neotropics) and North America. Many of these birds are believed to be declining, and many experts suspect habitat loss to human development is a key factor.
This year, the Big Sit! competition took place Sunday, April 15 and the weeklong tournament starts Tuesday, April 17, with the rest of the competition taking place on the weekend of April 21-22. (Big Sit! Teams compete to see who can count the most bird species from within a 17-foot in diameter circle during 24 hours.)
On Saturday, April 21, youth competitions will take place for Roughwings (ages 13 and under) and Gliders (ages 14-18), as well as adult sectional tournaments and the Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament for birders with visual impairments. This means sectional teams that have traditionally competed on separate days on the upper, central and lower Texas coast will all go out on the same day. Roughwings and Outta-Sight team checklists are due by 10 p.m. that day. Gliders, adult sectionals and weeklong teams are all due by midnight that night.
Because of the new big weekend format, the annual awards event will be held later in the day to give judges time to make it through all of the checklists. The Awards Lunch will take place from noon-to-2 p.m. Sunday, April 22 at the Plantation Suites in Port Aransas. Anyone may attend, but tickets must be purchased in advance—call ahead for tickets by Monday, April 16 to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory at (979) 480-0999.
This year, a grant from the USFWS Texas Coastal Program has allowed organizers to increase the Conservation Cash Grand Prizes. In previous years, the event has generated $52,000 for on-the-ground habitat projects. This year, organizers plan to give away $73,000, allocated as follows:
- 1st place sectional categories will increase from $3,000 to $10,000 each (the most significant change, enhancing regional conservation efforts)
- Lone Star Bird Award for the Big Sit! category will increase from $1000 to $3,000
- 1st place weeklong category prize remains the same, $20,000
- 2nd place weeklong category will decrease slightly from $12,000 to $10,000
- 3rd place weeklong category has increased slightly from $9,000 to $10,000
The Classic continues to illustrate the connection between wildlife and habitat. To excel in this type of competition, birders say you have to know where to find the birds; habitat diversity is the key to species diversity. Some birds are found in coastal marshes, others on the beach, on prairies, or in woods. Texas has a large range of habitat types, which is why a wider variety of bird species is found here than in any other U.S. state.
The Classic pairs teams of birders with corporate sponsors to raise conservation funding. This year’s major sponsors include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — Texas Coastal Program, ConocoPhillips, Reliant Energy, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, AEP Texas, and Swarovski Optik. Other sponsors include BASF, Chaparral Energy, Corpus Christi Convention & Visitors Bureau, The Dow Chemical Co., Eagle Optics, Freeport LNG, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, McRee Ford, NatureViewing, NBID Associates, Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce/Tourist Bureau, and Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce.