Corpus Christi is known as the birdiest city in the entire US, so it makes total sense that the local Audubon Society chapter hosted a Big Day competition. We composed a team called Bird is the Word featuring myself, the ecstatic and overly peppy bird lover, Lauren, the down to earth "mom" and driver, Roxie, the sassy snack provider, and Raf, the birding and photography hobbyist. Together we made a pretty good team, though the entirety of Big Day was an absolute shit show. Let me start from the beginning.
I woke up at 4:30 AM hating my life. I stupidly agreed to watch my friend's kinkajous, aka bear squirrels, and had to take care of them before I could meet up with the rest of Bird is the Word at six. Roxie helpfully texted me "WAKE UP" at 5:30 when I was actually attempting to keep the kinks occupied while I cleaned their enclosures, THANKS ROXIE. I ended up being the second person there exactly on time, much to my own surprise. We gathered our resources, stocked up on coffee and car snacks aka junk food at the gas station, and headed out to Hazel Bazemore Park. Hazel Bazemore is where we went to release those Barn Owls, thus a great riparian, woody habitat to see MANY BIRDS. However, before we were to embark on our birdy adventure, we were pulled over by a cop. Of course. We were the only car on the road that early, the cop innocuously pulled off to the side. Our speedometer read an innocent "68" mph, yet his lights clicked on immediately as we passed him and our car was filled with neon light. He asked us how fast we thought we were going and we told him "68". "Really? Because I clocked you back there at 86 mph". Our first thought was, "Are you dyslexic?" We were very close to saying it out loud, as lack of sleep does distort your perception of what is okay and what is definitely NOT OKAY. We were let go with a warning and a speech about how we shouldn't be putting other people's lives at risk. YEAH LAUREN! Once he left, we all side-eyed each other and then slowly made our way to Hazel Bazemore.
Unfortunately, it was still pitch black when we arrived at the gate whose sign read in big, bold letters, "PARK OPENS AT 9:00". Yeeeah right, this is BIG DAY, BITCH. So we snuck through and headed deep into the foliage, where we constantly wondered if we were going to be murdered or not. As I said semi-confidently, though, "No horror movie ever started with birders." I have it hard-wired into me to arrive at my birding location before dawn breaks so I can be present for the morning chorus, or whenever the sun rises and touches the tops of the trees. Birds go absolutely nutters for this and it's one of the best times to go birding. However, we were a little too early for this. We stumbled around in the dark, going off of silhouettes of birds and searching via cell phone flashlights. We did get a couple of nightjar species and then an obnoxious Northern Mockingbird. The mockingbird was the first of many to be seen that day; soon we would be cursing its name.
I hate you (picture by Raf)
Finally, the sun rose and we started seeing different species: an irate male kestrel who kee-kee-kee called at us, a pair of Crested Caracaras (my first to be seen in the wild!), a female Cooper's Hawk, and a Northern Waterthrush! The latter was super exciting because it's the first bird that I've had to ID from the very basics in a looong time; I had to first place it in a family and then ID it from there based on the coloration (which was still difficult to see at that point). It looked like a thrush, so I started there and when I saw the streaking on the belly I was sold! So exciting, but maybe actually boring...
We made it up to the Hawkwatch platform where volunteers were starting to count the daily migrating species. They were AWESOME and helped us with our counts when we told them we were doing a Big Day! They would use their spotting scopes to find birds a mile away (well, it seemed like it) and would ask us if we had seen a shrike yet, or a reddish egret, and if not we gazed at it through the scope and then marked it down. We saw Green Jays, another exciting find, Northern Cardinals, Lincoln Sparrows, Broad-Winged Hawks, Great-Crested Flycatchers, and many others I'm forgetting because we ended up seeing forty species there and it was awesome. I am looking forward to going back with my camera next time!!!
We headed to Polliwog Pond next for a long hike through tall, itchy grasses that didn't yield very much. We did see a large Rat Snake wrapped around a tree branch hanging low over the water, some species of warblers, a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Swainson's Hawk, and a Northern Parula. A funny story about the Parula is a had said aloud just half an hour before, "I want to see a Parula" sort of as a joke, but also not really. My dad has always said I have a magic that allows me to see what I want; while scuba diving I had fantasies of seeing octopi and sea turtles come true and one rainy day while birding in Patagonia, AZ with my mom, we saw a Vermillion Flycatcher despite her insistence that we wouldn't see one. I have faith.
At this point, it was 11:30 and we were STARVING. We decided to go down a marshy corridor leading back to downtown where we were going to eat lunch. This is where we slightly wanted to kill Raf because he would bark, "PULL OVER" in the middle of the freeway, forcing Lauren to stop, reverse, then do illegal U-turns to get back to the side of the road so we could get out and see the creatures. The cool part is we saw a flock of Wood Storks, another life species for me!! However, since both Roxie and I had severe food aggression, we basically attacked Raf...verbally. Oh well, it's like that saying...
We then had a fight about where we were going for lunch and whether or not we should double back for more birds or take a straight shot but in the end I screeched, "IT DOESN'T MATTER" and we ended up trying to go to Chilis, though this was a bust since it was Saturday at noon. So McAllisters it was! Mmmm sandwiches!
After our lunch break, we headed out to Sunset Lake and Indian Point Park, where it started drizzling. Car birding became a much more popular method of travel, after this point. This was the point where our amazing record of finding new species sort of dwindled; now it was time to focus on identifying shorebirds. Ugh, the worst. Some are easy to pick out from a crowd, but others are only distinguished from essentially their TWIN by like, two lines above their eyes or slight differences in the barring pattern on their wings. NOPE. Both places were beautiful, however, one of the best parts of Biggest Day was hiking around places I hadn't been to yet. I miss hiking and exploring the wilderness; it's an important part of my soul.
(photo by Roxie)
After fighting over whether a sandpiper was something we hadn't seen yet or a common species, we decided to head to Blutcher Park, a woody area downtown that I had no idea existed. It's a quiet, shady palace for warblers in the middle of a noisy, highly populated city and a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, upon arriving and sinking into the foliage, we heard the racuous cries of what sounded like a meth-head. It ended up being an old shirtless man and his...family? Out for a walk. At this point, Raf said, "We should probably stick together..." Good point, well made. I was proud of myself because I was the first person to see a bird at Blutcher and correctly identified it immediately, an American Redstart. This is where my success ended, however, because it was so thick with brush and leaves that it was almost impossible to distinguish colors or markings from the cocaine-filled warblers flitting from branch to branch. INFURIATING. While squinting at a branch with binoculars glued to my eye socket, dedicated to my endeavor, Raf approached me from a small ravine with his camera and asked, "Does this look like a Painted Bunting to you?" A Painted Bunting. One of the birds I most DESPERATELY want to see! They are basically the parrot equivalent of a songbird, and Raf's grainy, Bigfoot-esque photo was DEFINITELY of a Painted Bunting. I was so jealous, I immediately careened into the ravine and sat in it for the next ten minutes, diligently staring at the trees and waiting for the Painted Bunting to come back. Raf eventually gently told me he didn't think it was coming back and I had to accept it. I believe my magic was used up on the Parula, but next time I will save some for my bunting.
After Blutcher, it started to RAIN. We ran to the car (Lauren's mercedes that we were slightly worried about parking on the street in the neighborhood surrounding Blutcher Park) and headed to our last spot on the list: Hans Suter Wildlife Reserve. This is the area I explored a couple of months earlier and is also abundant with smaller bird species. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain. Raf was a trooper and made his way into the abyss while Lauren, Roxie, and I all waited in the car for it to let up. It did, slightly, but started to deluge again shortly after the "eye of the storm". I eventually said to hell with it and went to search for birds with Raf.
We saw a total of 85 species and heard 2, a total of 87 for team Bird is the Word! We arrived at the reception dinner soaking wet, covered in mud, and strangely alone. I was under the assumption that Biggest Day worked on America's Next Top Model Go-See rules; if you didn't make it back in time, you were eliminated. That was not the case, however. We were on time and by far the earliest people. Other people started to file in, showered with hair done and nice clothes on while we stood in the corner like a couple of reject forest children. That's a little dramatic, but it seemed that way. The best part of getting there first was filling out our species list before anyone else.
(photo by Raf)
We waited in the lobby, still cold and wet, checking out the silent auction items and chatting with a few friendly Audubon society peeps before dinner started an hour later. At this point, we were once again QUITE HUNGRY so we filed in and waited patiently for dinner while the (coughotcouh) Audubon speaker congratulated us, etc. etc. No one else wanted to sit at our table with us, which was cool because we got more dessert. At one point someone wandered over and I enthusiastically exclaimed, "HI!" He smiled politely, took some silverware, and walked away to which I audibly said, "Okay." It was like we were in high school again. I'm totally exaggerating, since my high school wasn't even like that, but it was funny to watch the people who worked for the institute eventually sit down with us because they felt bad for our ostracization (new word! Make it a thing!). The raffle was a funny experience because the end gift was free passes to the aquarium and we just knew that if we were going to win something, it was going to be those passes. Luckily, we won nothing at all, so that was A-OK with us. As a grand finale to the dinner, they left our team name off of the roster and were never called. Thus, we had to speak up and tell them they left out Bird is the Word, who ended up getting FOURTH in the competition due to our determination. Many other people went home as soon as it started raining, hence their nice clothing. I'm proud of our team, we did super well and even though we didn't break 100 species, we got SUPER close!!
We left as soon as the places were determined in the competition so we could get home as soon as possible. Turns out, it was raining like the end of the world outside, lightning flashing every 2-3 seconds with thunder rumbling primitively beneath our feet in the asphalt. Getting home was HELL. There was a flash flood warning, and despite being pulled over for not doing anything illegal earlier that morning, Lauren now was attempting to save us all in the rising tides and pulled more illegal U-turns, ceased stopping at red lights in the middle of puddles, and even took us the wrong way for 20 minutes just so we could get to higher ground. At one point she screamed for Roxie and I to close our eyes because we were freaking out so much. Luckily, we eventually reached the aquarium and went our separate ways. I had to go feed the kinkajous, much later than originally anticipated, and made it back home around 10 PM. The plan was to go dancing after my Big Day excursion, but I COULD. NOT. RALLY. I am usually the first to rally in situations where dancing is imminent, but this time I couldn't do it. The day had been too full, deliciously so, and hilariously so, but I couldn't go dancing. Instead, I took a shower and went to bed. And that was good, too.
Turns out it was Bikerfest and thousands of motorcycles were absolutely destroyed in the flash floods, since the drainage in Corpus Christi is pretty much the worst and our streets basically immediately flood. They were up to their spokes and handlebars in muddy water and people were still trying to get in and out of downtown into the wee hours of the morning. Thank goodness we all decided to stay in.
I'm super happy I participated in Big Day, but I look forward to not having to get up that early in a long time :)
LIFE BIRDS SEEN ON OCT 11, 2014:
- Northern Waterthrush
- Golden-Fronted Woodpecker
- Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (got a BVD)
- Long-Billed Thrasher
- Green Jay
- Greater Yellowleg
- Great Kiskadee (LOVE THIS BIRD)
- White Tailed Hawk
- Bronzed Cowbird
- Northern Parula
- Black Skimmer
- Marbled Godwit
- Magnolia Warbler