SI Vault
Clive Gammon
May 07, 1979
A team of birders used a mechanical dragon and a plane to cover the Southwest in a try for a new 24-hour world sighting record, but, alas, the jet lagged and the warblers lammed
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May 07, 1979

The Great Bird Bash

A team of birders used a mechanical dragon and a plane to cover the Southwest in a try for a new 24-hour world sighting record, but, alas, the jet lagged and the warblers lammed

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The Houston Ship Channel docks yielded a red-breasted merganser, apparently unmindful that it was swimming on the surface of one of the most heavily polluted bodies of water in the U.S. The team hurtled through Bay Town and Texas City. Amid the shipping in Galveston it found a glorious roseate spoonbill. And then the station wagon was screaming to a halt at Kempner Park in the city, alongside an old mansion almost submerged in greenery, a crumbling pile that looked like a Fellini film set. This was the place for migrant warblers. Three days earlier, when Tucker checked it out, it yielded 19 species of warbler.

But now came the first piece of really bad luck. The warblers had left for the north. The birders checked off only four species. And when they moved off again, to run along the beaches of Galveston Island, Tucker was downcast. "The world record has probably slipped away," he said. "We've lost at least 20 species here."

The North American record, though, still appeared to be within their grasp. And the Lear was ready and waiting at the airport. As the jet climbed almost vertically, Tucker was muttering over the checklist. "One hundred fifteen," he announced finally. "I'd aimed at 130 by the time we boarded the plane." By now it was past 9:30 a.m. The team was half an hour behind schedule. And at the next stop, at Rockport, they fell even farther behind the clock.

That was, Tucker confessed later, because they enjoyed themselves too much, because the birding was so magnificent. The total they achieved was outstanding: 42 species, some of them what birders laconically call "good." Meaning rare. A grasshopper sparrow for example. A buff-breasted sandpiper and an upland sandpiper. A purple gallinule, an imperially hued member of the coot family. Oso Bay, the last stop before the rendezvous with the jet at Corpus Christi, was particularly rich: almost the whole family of plovers, from semipalmated to Wilson's, turned up. But by the time the team was in the Lear again, they were 90 minutes behind schedule.

On board, a hasty conference. The national record was still a strong possibility, but the schedule would have to be amended. At the next stop, the Rio Grande, only 15 minutes' birding would be possible. And the time in Arizona would be cut to one hour.

They figured without the Lear and its crew. They had been told the flying time to McAllen would be 20 minutes. It took 35. Instead of keeping to a low altitude for the short hop, the jet took time to climb to 30,000 feet and to descend again.

And the birding at Santa Ana, on the Rio Grande, was disappointing also. Because they were so late arriving, they had hit the dead time of the day—the warm, humid noontime when the birds just shut down for their siesta. Only seven species did Santa Ana yield.

But the really bad news came once the team was airborne again, on its way to Ramsay Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains. Steve Oresman spoke to the pilot, then came back and broke it. "A head wind of 150 knots," he said. "It's going to be three hours to Fort Huachuca, not two."

The mountains around Huachuca were magnificent, redolent of history, of Cochise's last stand for the Apaches, but by now Uncle Joe's team was a little too sick at heart to appreciate them: the birders, too, seemed to be heading for certain defeat. On the ground, locals who had volunteered to drive the team up into Ramsay Canyon had been patiently waiting for hours, and as soon as the jet pulled up they had the team aboard. The chance of even the national record now was slim, but it was still there, barely.

And it flickered to life a little more when it became plain that the birders had hit a good hummingbird day. Of the 20 species on the North American list, eight were identified. A hen golden eagle sat on her aerie on the high cliffs. In all, 18 species were added. Now the list was up to 182 and in an hour the team was back in the jet again. Dunn, a young professional birding guide, second only in California to the great Guy McCaskie, had maybe an hour only to show his skills when the team got to San Diego, but there might be something to be squeezed from the dark hours as well. The 24 hours would not be up until midnight, Pacific time.

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