As far as birding event pecking orders go, the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s (TPWD) Great Birding Classic is nestled in the top of the ranks in regards to popularity, numbers of entrants and money spent on projects via grants. This year the tournament runs from April 15th – May 15th and is billed as “he biggest, longest, wildest birdwatching tournament in the U.S.!” The event’s mission statement is, “To increase appreciation, understanding, and conservation of birds through education, recreation, nature tourism, and conservation fundraising.”
The competition is held every spring in Texas and people can participate either as individuals or on teams. The goal is to see which team can identify and count the most birds during the event. The event is popular and teams come from across the country to participate in it.
There’s a myriad of categories to accommodate all ages and skill levels, including a youth category for children 13 and young, a teen category for 14 – 18 year olds and adult categories. Teams are comprised of 3 – 5 birders and must choose a category to compete in. There are even categories for visually impaired birders.
Prize money is awarded to teams who identify the most species.
The event has significant corporate sponsorship that includes Toyota and the Texas Ornithological Society.
Shelly Plante is the Nature and Tourism manager for Texas Parks & Wildlife and she’s the driving force that makes the Great Birding Classic a success, “I’ve been part of this for 22 of the 23 years and it’s grown each year. There is something for everyone from youth to adults, from amateurs to experts. It’s a great way for families to spend time together.”
The event draws in people from all over the world who come to test or show off their birding skills. As Plante points out, the number of participants is impressive, “We have around 750-800 entrants and 125 teams. The tournament used to be just on the coast and it was mostly for experts. We wanted to expand and open it up so we created more categories and reduced the registration fees.” Plante says that the longevity of the tournament over the years means that some people who started participating as youths are now giving back to the tournament, “We had a young man who started out participating as a youth. He continued to participate in the tournament over the years, grew up, went to college and is now a business owner giving back to the tournament.”
Plante points out that the competition can be used as a learning experience for more than just the birders, “One team out of College Station participated last year and invited the public out to their location to do bird walks. People were able to come out and learn about birds while the team participated in the tournament.”
In 2018 there were 423 species of birds identified in the state. That was 2 species short of the record of 425, set in 2014.
The tournament gives back to the state in the way of funding for different programs and habitats because any funds left over from the prize money goes to projects around the state.
Another way that the tournament gives back is through grants. TPWD encourages local visitor and tourism bureaus to use the event as a way to attract visitors to their areas. To this end, TPWD awards grants to communities for projects. Last year the event raised enough money for TPWD to award $35,500 in grant money, which brought the total grant money awarded throughout the 22-year history of the competition to $954,000.
The tournament categories are; adults, competitive birders; youth; teenagers; adults and kids; limited mobility; visually impaired and blind birders; wildlife trail site managers and community leaders and convention and visitor bureaus.
The categories and guidelines are; “Roughwings Regional Big Day Tournaments” for youth 13 and younger on 3–5 person teams who will bird up to 8 hours in a single day; Gliders Regional Big Day Tournaments for 14–18 years olds, teams of 3-5 people who will bird for 24 hours (midnight to midnight); Adult Regional Big Day Tournaments, must be at least 19 years old, teams of 3 - 5 bird for up to 24 hours; Adult Statewide Big Day Tournament, 19 and up, teams of 3-5 who bird for up to 24 hours; Adult Statewide Weeklong Tournament, 19 and up, for teams of 3-5 and is for 6 consecutive days; Big Sit Regional Tournaments, all ages, for 1 or more entrants, up to 24 hours in a single day (midnight to midnight; Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament, all ages, for teams of 3-5 up to 12 hours in a single day (midnight to midnight), Human Powered Tournament, all ages, team of 3-5 for up to 24 hours in a single day (midnight to midnight); State Park tournament, all ages, team of 3-5 for 24 hours in a single day (midnight to midnight); Sunrise to Noon Tournament, all ages, teams of 3-5 from sunrise to noon; Texas Two-Stop Tournament, all ages, teams of 3-5 people, up to 48 hours in a two-day period.
More information, event rules, tournament advice, registration information, grants, ways to participate and the history of the tournament can be found on the TPWD website at: https://tpwd.texas.gov/events/great-texas-birding-classic.