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March 1, 2004
Blind and Out-of-State Categories Added for ‘04 Birding Classic
AUSTIN, Texas Fresh elements for the Great Texas Birding Classic this April 17-25 include what is believed to be the world’s first birding competition for blind and visually impaired participants and another new competition category for out-of-state competitors.
The new ‘Outta-Sight Song Birder’ Tournament developed from the interest of a group of visually-impaired people in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Supported by two Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grants totaling $66,000, this group has been learning birdsongs since last fall and developing their ability to identify birds by sound. The nonprofit Rensselaerville Institute is the conduit for these grants. It supports community volunteers it calls “Sparkplugs” to help schoolchildren, disadvantaged youth, people with visual impairments and other audiences in the Valley learn through nature outings. After they were exposed to birding through this program, 12 visually impaired Valley residents approached Birding Classic staff about creating a new competition category.
“Birding was something that never crossed my mind when I was sighted,” said Raul Reyes, who lost his eyesight in middle age as the result of a laser surgery accident in 1989. “We’re very excited because for the first time ever, they are going to give us, the blind, a chance to participate in this event, and for many of us this is very exciting, a chance to go out and do something. And birding, it’s something that’s free because there are all kinds of birds in the Valley, and we have beautiful parks there where we can listen to the birds. Anybody who wants to join can contact us.”
Birding Classic organizers say calls and e-mails to major birding institutions such as Cornell University and events such as the World Series of Birding indicate this is likely the world’s first birding competition for the blind and visually impaired.
“Although the concept of blind birding may sound unusual, the best birders often first identify the presence of a bird by its call and then look to see the bird,” said Shelly Scroggs, Birding Classic coordinator in the TPWD Wildlife Division. “Birding Classic teams often start competing at midnight on a competition day and bird through the night by ear, so what these visually-impaired competitors are doing is building on established practice.”
The other new Birding Classic category this year is the Migration Challenge, developed to recognize out-of-state competitors who often travel long distances to participate and are birding in unfamiliar territory.
During the past eight years, the Great Texas Birding Classic has drawn hundreds of birding competitors from across North America. Thousands of birding tourists also come to Texas each April to companion events along the coast.
Organizers say that it is the longest competitive birding event in the United States, with an impact that reaches far beyond Texas. This is because the Texas coast is important stopover habitat for birds that continue up the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. Species include many neotropical migratory songbirds, among the nation’s most colorful and popular species, which migrate huge distances between South and Central America (the neotropics) and North America.
Since TPWD started the Birding Classic in 1997, winning teams have directed $351,000 in prize money to buy, restore or improve Texas coastal bird habitat. This year, winning teams will direct a total of $51,000 to habitat conservation projects they choose. Teams are also eligible for a variety of prizes, such as binoculars, cameras and field guides, donated by event sponsors.
Classic prizes and tournament categories are set up to accommodate birders of all age groups and skill levels. The main Birding Classic for adult and senior participants takes place on three separate days for the upper, central and lower coast. Most teams choose to focus only on one of the three coastal sections. Roughwings (13 and younger) and Gliders (14-18 years old) compete on either Sunday, April 18 or Saturday, April 24. For those with maximum endurance, there is also a five-day Weeklong Tournament covering the entire coast. In 2003, the Big Sit! Tournament was added for birders wanting to stay in one place all day—teams in this category bird from a 17-foot diameter circle. One tournament coordinator called the Big Sit! a “tailgate party for birders.” College teams interested the Sectional or Weeklong Tournaments can take part in the College Challenge, giving the top team bragging rights over all other collegiate competitors.
The new Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament will take place April 18 in all coastal sections. Teams may have a maximum of one sighted person, who must compete blindfolded, although they may have non-competing, sighted drivers and volunteers to help lead them. Teams can be mixed-age and consist of 3-5 people. More detailed rules are available for this new category.
For the new Migration Challenge, the top single day and weeklong out-of-state teams will take home a Migration Challenge prize and top honors for their state. Birding Classic organizers say they hope to see even more out-of-state teams participate this year.
Birding Classic prize money for habitat conservation comes from corporate sponsors, including Reliant Energy, ConocoPhillips and various optics companies, including Swarovski, Eagle Optics, Leica, and Bushnell.
For more information about the Birding Classic, phone toll-free (888) TXBIRDS, Ext. 2, or visit the TPWD Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/gtbc/).
For more about opportunities for the visually impaired, including birding, contact Jane Vaninger with the Texas Commission for the Blind at (512) 377-0376.
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