It took stamina, speed, a chartered airplane, luck and what Roger Tory Peterson described as "the best eyes and ears in Texas" to establish a new record for the number of bird species seen or heard in the United States within a 24-hour period.
The four-man team raced from choice birding spot to choice birding spot, calling out sights and sounds; spotting birds from the air; hopping in and out of a van and barreling along the highway at 55 mph as one yelled, "There's a King rail," and the others yelled back "Yes" and "Yeh" and whoowee it's gone.
Four years earlier, on April 29, 1978, a team of four California birders (nee bird watchers) established the record by recording 231 species. A short time thereafter, Victor Emanuel of Austin, Tex., vowed to recapture the record that had once belonged to Texas. He gathered his team, for the effort called "Big Day," with much the same care exercised by Yul Brynner in "The Magnificent Seven."
Out of the East came Peterson, 74, the grand man of American birding, author of the most popular birding guide ever produced and the man who has seen every species of bird found in the United States save one--Bachman's warbler. Twenty years ago he could have seen a Bachman's near Fort Belvoir, but when word reached him he was in Africa--birding.
Up from Baton Rouge came Ted Parker, 29, a college dropout and a recognized world authority on the birds of Peru, where he has spent 60 of the last 108 months with expeditions from Louisiana State University that have recorded more new species of birds than were recorded in all the world over the last 30 years. He has a subspecies of South American hummingbird named for him--Metallura theresiae parkeri, a coppery metaltail found only in the mountains of central Peru.
The second Austin member was John Rowlett, 38, former Texas state judo champion, PhD candidate in English literature who has taught at the universities of Virginia and Texas. He was an editor of the revised, authoritative "Bird Life of Texas." Peterson says Rowlett "has the best ears in Texas." Rowlett says: "Actually, Peterson has the best ears . . . his hearing is legendary."
Emanuel, 41, spent 11 years studying zoology, biology and government, six of them at Harvard University, and then went on to teach government at several colleges and universities, including Rice. "But my heart wasn't in it," he says. In 1976 he established Victor Emanuel Inc., a commercial bird guiding company. Rowlett is a partner and Parker and Peterson lead tours for the company. Indeed, last Thursday, two days after establishing their new record on "Big Day," Rowlett and Parker left to guide a group of birders in Cuba.
These bird experts are consumed by their passion. They spend most of their time at it. They make their living from it. They seem never to tire of talking about birds and birders. Each of the three younger birders has an early history of discovering birds, roughly at age 8, going about it in isolation, unaware that there were other birders, and having indulgent parents who would cart them off to the woods so they could bird while the parent, totally uninterested in birding, would read a newspaper or book.
They, and Peterson, share something else: a puzzlement and even mild annoyance with non-birders who badger them, asking incredulously why anyone would spend so much time watching birds--the same birds day in and day out, year in and year out. Implicit in the question is the suggestion that birding is a waste of time and that birders are somehow freaks.
Rowlett says: "Birds are incredible esthetic objects."
"I cannot understand why people ask why we bird . . . naturalists can go out every day of their lives and see fantastic things," Parker says. "It is," he continues somewhat emotionally, "a kaleidoscopic experience to see all these birds in one day . . . it is the ultimate test of how good you are . . . there is nothing as challenging as to identify birds by sight and sound, relying on every bit of background information available to you. You have to know every chip note, habitat and microhabitat." It is far more difficult, he believes, "than the average sporting event."
Some birders have nicknames, as do CB'ers. Peterson, for example, is known as "King Penguin," an acknowledgment of his affection for and knowledge of penguins. Emanuel is "Hooded Warbler," after a small, yellow bird which breeds in southeast Texas (where Emanuel lives) and winters in southeast Mexico (where Emanuel birds). Rowlett is "Pepper Shrike," after a cheerful and chunky South American bird. Rowlett is cheerful and chunky. Parker has no moniker.
"Big Day" is not ornithology, says Peterson, it is a game. It also is a fund-raiser for the National Audubon Society. The society will receive more than $100 for each species that Peterson records during "Big Day" in pledges from nonparticipants.
Emanuel picked the "Big Day" sites. They include southwestern Texas, where the team can see birds that reside only in the western United States and some Mexican birds that stray across the Rio Grande River, and areas around Galveston where it is possible to see eastern land birds, shore birds and marsh birds. Indeed, Texas may be the richest birding state in the country.
It is 12:30 a.m. in the parking lot of the Rodeway Inn in McAllen, Tex. Rowlett has already recorded the first of the day's birds. He heard the raspberry call overhead of a dickcissel, a tiny bird that has made its way from northern South America to Texas on its migration north.
Some species are enticed to return the call of a Sony tape recorder--quite cricket under the rules for a "Big Day." But there are worries. For example, do the screech owls of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge hoot a different dialect than the one on tape? But they do respond. So does the least grebe, which Peterson calls "a miserable little bird that looks like a duck" and which is found almost exclusively in Texas.
At the next stop in the darkness, on a country road alongside a marsh, Peterson says he hears a mockingbird about a mile away. Rowlett hears it, too. Peterson says that's "about the limit" of his hearing.
Dawn finds the team on a ranch along the Rio Grande where nine years earlier birders first recorded a Mexican Brown jay. The ranch owners now charge a dollar per birder. When first light comes, so does the profusion of bird calls and birds. The Brown jay is spotted at 6:50 a.m. Three hours later at Falcon Dam Parker hears a Baird's sandpiper; everyone looks up, and sure enough, there it is, winging overhead at 40 mph.
The team's plane sets down on Crystal Beach on the Gulf of Mexico and the team races to Port Bolivar, one of the best areas in the country for seeing shore birds such as sandpipers, terns, gulls and white pelicans. Then off to High Island, an island surrounded not by water but by coastal marsh and the resting stop for just about every land bird that can be spotted in the eastern United States.
It is the early evening of a long day. There is panic that the team is running out of time. But it finds itself in an area far richer in as yet unspotted birds than it thought possible. An attempt at getting a barred owl to respond to a taped call not only brings forth two owls barking huskily but entices one to show itself at 7:05 p.m.
The team huzzahs because they think this is bird 231 and they have a tie, with five hours more to go. A stop to listen for a great crested flycatcher is successful; team members congratulate each other on breaking the record. It is not until the next day that Emanuel discovers he had forgotten to list the common crow, and it was the barred owl and not the great crested flycatcher that was the record breaker.
The quest continues, ending at night in the marshes of Anhuac National Wildlife Refuge with champagne and beer, exuberance and exhilaration.
The new American record for a "Big Day" now is 235, and it belongs to Texas.
And then there is this:
At about 4:30 p.m. the team swerved into a rest area when it spotted a man with binoculars looking up into an oak tree. The four jumped from the van and began to scan the tree. The man lowered his binoculars, looked at the four birders and asked:
"Are you guys bird nuts or something?"