By ALEXANDREA BAILEY
The “The TOS Shorebirdies”, a South Padre Island-based, all-girl, birding youth team, has won first place in the RGV region as they competed in the “Roughwings” (13 years and younger) category of the annual Great Texas Birding Classic [GTBC], a birding competition hosted by Texas Parks and Wildlife each spring.
The team was led by Javier Gonzalez and Remy Vargas, naturalist educators at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
This competition is enjoyed by birders state-wide and is intended to help inspire people to enjoy the outdoors and to see as many bird species as possible during spring bird migration through the state via friendly competition. Funds collected through registration fees are then awarded to conservation projects through grants, which keep nature and birding thriving across Texas.
The TOS Shorebirdies team, made up of youth, Elle Hable, Olive Volz, Mackie Mayfield, Isabel Cruz and Kenlee Scalan, were sponsored by the Texas Ornithological Society and competed against two other “Roughwings” teams in the region. They took advantage of a peak date of spring migration on Saturday, April 30, 2023, and strategically birded different hotspots and environments on South Padre Island in efforts of tallying as many species as possible.
Their day started at the SPI Birding Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary, where some of the team had honed their birding skills attending summer camps and special events in years past. With the birding knowledge gained from prior experience, coupled with finally being tall enough to look through the spotting scope, they scanned the wetlands and quickly grew a bird list with the species that they are most familiar with as coastal residents. Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, Great Blue Herons and other large wading birds were all checked off the list with confidence for a great start.
The challenge came when they had to identify shorebirds; sandpipers and allies, according to Gonzalez. Most of which were in their spring breeding plumage and looked much different than how the team were used to seeing them, but their bright spring colors made them a bit easier to identify.
“Birding field guides were passed around and eyes shifted back and forth between the birds and the turning field guide pages in hopes of finding the right match and adding a new species to the list. Some birders will skip the sandpipers because of how challenging they can be to identify, but when competing every species counts and one species can set a team over the top and crown the winners. As coastal birders, shorebirds are the team’s backyard birds and namesake, so they took advantage of their higher diversity along the coastline and checked off Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin, Greater Yellowlegs, Sanderlings and others as they migrated through. Some species making their way to northern breeding sites as far as Canada, Alaska and the Arctic circle,” said Gonzalez.
After a successful search for the secretive Least Bittern in the cattail marsh, an important plus one to the list, the team went on to the native gardens around the birding center’s building and sat on a bench in the shade looking on to a water feature and the orange halves they had stuck on some tree branches earlier in the morning to attract the birds. There they cooled off and enjoyed Baltimore and Orchard Orioles eating at the oranges, and other songbirds foraging in the trees and coming down to the water. Beautiful views of migratory American Redstarts and stunning Magnolia Warblers re-energized the team and the resident Great Kiskadee family reminded the team of where they are, the southern coastal tip of Texas.
After a quick lunch the team moved on to the SPI tidal mudflats north of the Convention Center for a quick pass to tick coastal seabirds like Terns and Gulls. There they added Sandwich Tern, Least Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer and spotted one of the highlight species of the day, according to Gonzalez, a pair of Red Knots, long-distance migratory shorebirds in their brick red breeding plumage.
A pass through the Convention Center gardens helped to add a few more songbirds like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Summer Tanagers and a couple more warblers including Chestnut-sided Warblers and Tennessee Warblers. They carefully sifted through all the trees at the important migratory rest stop.
“The late spring heat was rising, but the team knew they had to keep pushing. Energy was wearing thin, but it’s the last couple of hours in the effort are the most important,” said Gonzalez.
Their next quick stop was the polo field next to the Franke Realty building on the north end of the city. In the grasses and colorful Indian Blanket flowers they spotted grassland birds like, Eastern Meadowlarks, Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks. The highlight at this spot was a life-bird species for the whole team. Looking carefully, they spotted a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers probing the dirt for bugs as they foraged between the red-orange flowers.
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