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Event spotlights state's fowl friends
Bird's-Eye View

Every April, hundreds of birders from across the country grab binoculars and field guides and descend on a 41-county stretch along the Texas coast for an event organizers call "the biggest, longest, wildest bird-watching tournament" in the United States.

Eager for a glimpse of a buff-bellied hummingbird or a red-cockaded woodpecker, contestants hike through swamps, forests and beaches as part of the Great Texas Birding Classic (GTBC). Now in its ninth year, the GTBC raises money and awareness to protect habitats for millions of birds that migrate between the Americas.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has sponsored the event since its inception in 1997. The 2005 event, which runs April 16 to 24, marks the first time that TPWD is co-hosting the event with the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory (GCBO), a nonprofit organization in Lake Jackson, Texas, that promotes habitat conservation for birds throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

"Having the GTBC tournament co-hosted will help us reach even more people with our conservation message," said Carol Jones, education program manager for the GCBO.

Feathering the nest
Since the event began, winning teams have directed more than $400,000 in prize money to restore Texas coastal bird habitats. Prize money is provided through registration fees, which vary depending on the participant's age group and type of tournament, and depending on whether a participant registers independently or as part of a sponsored team. In 2005, winning teams will donate their $51,000 in cash prizes to habitat conservation projects they choose.

The GTBC takes place along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, which links 310 bird-watching sites along the Gulf Coast. The event coincides with the annual spring bird migration in Texas, when more than 400 species flock to the state's coast. The Texas coast is an important stopover for birds that continue up the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways--routes that migratory birds follow, said Shelly Plante, TPWD nature tourism coordinator.

The weeklong GTBC is the longest competitive birding event in the U.S., said Plante. In 2004, the event attracted 288 birders, an 87 percent jump from 2001, when 154 participants competed. By mid-March 2005, 239 contestants had registered for the 2005 GTBC.

Teams can compete in "sectional" tournaments in the upper, central and lower coastal regions of the state, while birders with maximum endurance can compete in a five-day tournament that covers all three regions.

Watch the birdie
The GTBC offers activities for birders of every level and age group. Children 13 and under compete in the "Roughwings" category, while those 14 to 18 compete in the "Gliders" category. Adults and seniors over age 60 also compete.

Birders who want to take it easy can compete in the "Big Sit" tournament on April 17. Teams in this category watch birds from a 17-foot diameter circle that they bird from for the day, anywhere along the 41-county Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

"The Big Sit is perfect if you are mobility-impaired or want to sit with your family," Plante said.

Jesse Huth, 13, of Wimberley has "birded" since he was 6 years old. In 2004, Huth's four-person team won second place in the "Roughwings" age division by spotting 102 different birds in the central coast area.

In 2005, Huth will move up to the "Gliders" age division and scout for birds in the upper coast. Huth said he most wants to spot a bird called the prothonotary warbler.

"It's got a very yellow belly," Huth said, "It's a really striking bird."

Huth is preparing for the 2005 GTBC by quizzing himself on different bird species.

"I like the challenge of finding new birds and identifying them and getting to be outside with nature," Huth said.

In 2004, TPWD expanded the event to include a competition for blind and visually impaired participants. In the 2004 "Outta-Sight Song Birder tournament," which took place throughout all three coastal regions, the winning team found 40 different species by identifying bird calls.

Birding explosion
"Wildlife watching," primarily birding, brings an estimated $125 million each year into the Rio Grande Valley alone, which includes Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties, said Nancy Millar, vice president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Texas Nature Tourism Council.

Birding accounts for about 2,500 jobs in the Valley, ranging from suppliers of birding-related paraphernalia such as field guides to bed and breakfast and hotel employees, said Millar.

"There has been a real explosion of interest in birding down here in the last decade," Millar said.

Keith Hackland is a birder and owner of Alamo Inn, a bed and breakfast in Alamo, near McAllen. Hackland's inn caters to birders, who account for 80 percent of his guests.

"This winter, we're turning birders away," Hackland said. "We're seeing more and more of them."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that each sighting of a rare bird species can attract tourists that will bring an additional $100,000 into a community, Millar said.

"People will hear about the bird, fly here, get a hotel and eat a meal, just to see the bird," she said.

An estimated 69 million people nationwide bird-watched in 2000, according to the U.S. Forest Service's 2000 National Survey of Recreation and the Environment.

The subtle tourist
TPWD has no estimates available on the economic impact of the GTBC, said Plante.

It's difficult to estimate the economic impact of the event, said Ann Vaughan, executive director of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce/Tourist Bureau. Port Aransas has hosted the GTBC three times and has five bird-watching sites on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

"It is hard to put an amount on the direct benefit during that particular week because birders are a different type of tourist," Vaughan said. "They are out birding and on the run, more than [they are] in the shops spending money. But they're going to stop and they're going to eat and they're going to buy gas and spend the night."

A GTBC host for 2005, the Rockport-Fulton area has six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, said Diane Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a little more subtle," Probst said of the GTBC. "You don't feel the big influx because they trickle in."

Rockport-Fulton also hosts the Hummer/Bird celebration every September. More than 5,000 people attend the four-day event, which centers around a mass migration of hummingbirds, primarily the ruby-throated hummingbird, through the area.

At Alamo Inn, Hackland said he caters specifically to the needs of birders, who rise early to catch a glimpse of their feathered friends.

"We have a special extended continental breakfast that's available for birders 24 hours a day with trail bars, bottled water and lots of fruit and things that birders can stick in their pockets when they head out at 5 a.m.," Hackland said.

Birds of a feather
While most birders flocking to the GTBC are Texans, the event draws nature lovers from all over the country. In 2003, 91 percent of the 322 participants were Texans, and 9 percent came from 16 other states.

David Womer, a New Jersey naturalist/biologist and former Texan, has traveled to Texas every year for the event since 2000. In 2004, Womer's team identified 285 bird species, winning third place in the five-day tournament.

"It's a grueling event," Womer said. "It's pretty rough on your body--birding for five days straight--but that's what makes it kind of fun. In New Jersey you can hit all the bird habitats in a day. In Texas, there's times you're driving for hours and not adding any birds to your list."

Host cities say that sponsoring the GTBC and other birding events puts them on the map for birding.

"It reminds everyone about who you are and it gives you exposure," said Probst.

"People used to walk in here and say 'where is the beach?'" said Vaughan with Port Aransas' Chamber. "Now people walk in and say 'where is the birding center?'"

Karen Hudgins