Publish date:


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

It is 2 a.m. on the salt marsh at Anahuac, Texas, a black-velvet night, warm, moist, entirely silent. A necklace of dim lights is visible across Galveston Bay. A sweet-rotten scent rises from the wetlands. Then, violently, the peace is shattered.

Out of the darkness, blazing with light, splattering through the mud, an extraordinary vehicle comes on like something out of a James Bond movie. Basically it is a tractor, equipped with enormous balloon tires and festooned with spotlights. It tows a tumbrel with a generator aboard that puts up a continuous howl. It is Rolligon, a mechanical dragon. Its purpose is to expose, then intimidate, the quarry that its crew of men, clinging on precariously, is hunting down.

Suddenly it comes to a jolting stop. More lights—hand-held strobes—flash on. And from the men comes a yell of triumph. "Yay!" they shout, "Hoo hoo!" Pinned in the cross beams is the quarry, cowering in the marsh grass. It is five inches long, with a tiny yellow beak, black and sandy markings. "Hoo! Yellow rail," somebody shouts. "We got us a yellow rail!" The little bird comes to its senses and wings off into the night. For the bird watchers on board Rolligon, the big day has started triumphantly.

Bird watchers! Too passive, too tame a word, as they will tell you themselves. Bird watchers no doubt still exist, crouching stealthily, studying a favorite species for hours on end. The men on the Rolligon are birders. They go and they check 'em out, man. And the more they check, the happier they are.

The record for bird species observed in a single 24-hour period is 288. That figure was achieved in Zambia, East Africa, in 1975. The North American record was set in California last year: 231 species. Last Wednesday, starting on that Texas marsh, five men set out to beat both of those figures. They felt that 300 was a distinct possibility. Given the so phistication of their plan, it seemed that their optimism was justified.

The birders gathered at Houston last Tuesday, at the airport restaurant. There was Steve Oresman, a 46-year-old New Yorker, a Park Avenue management consultant who started his birding at age 10 in Central Park ("A great spot. The birds haven't got anywhere else to go"). There was Benton Basham, an anesthetist from Chattanooga, and Jim Tucker, of Austin, Texas, executive director of the American Birding Association, a psychologist and the acknowledged Texas expert. There was young Jon Dunn, from Encino, Calif., one of the group that had set the national record.

And there was the chairman of the board, Joe Taylor of Rochester, N.Y., president of the ABA. Uncle Joe, 65, a rubicund, white-whiskered Mr. Pickwick of a man, started the final planning session with a large tequila on the rocks. "I'm in training," he pointed out, "but not in strict training."

The plan, in fact, was pretty well cut and dried already. The Big Day—the birders' own term for a record attempt—would begin in the Anahuac salt marsh at 2 a.m. By dawn the assault group would be close to Houston again, working the mixed hardwood and pine forest 15 miles east of the city. Next they would drive to Galveston, and Galveston Island. And then they would play their trump card.

At Galveston Municipal Airport, a Lear jet would be waiting. The birders would be whisked down the coast to Rockport, where they would clamber into a rented station wagon and check out the ducks of Copano Bay and the shorebirds of Mustang Island and Oso Bay. That would bring them close to the Corpus Christi airport, where they would rendezvous with the Lear again and hurtle, on to McAllen, to the Mexican border and the birds of the Rio Grande.

Then the big jump, to the green canyons of the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona. Plenty of hummingbirds there, they figured, and maybe a golden eagle. Traveling westward through the day, they would lose some hours in flying, but they would gain light through two time zones. By 3 p.m. Pacific time they would be in San Diego, where the great talents of Jon Dunn would come into play. All the richness of West Coast birdlife would be added to the list, and the last act, in the darkness, would be to drive out to Mount Palomar. For the owls, naturally, which would respond to the taped hootings the team had prepared.

It was a finely organized scheme. But already, at the planning lunch, there were forebodings. Five days earlier a front had come through from the north which, Jim Tucker explained, had forced thousands of migrating land birds heading from Central America to Canada onto the Texas coast. That was fine except that since then there had been warm weather and a gentle breeze from the south, giving the exhausted migrants time to recover and head north again. "The big wave may have gone through," Jim said.

Joe Taylor ordered another tequila to see him through the bad news, then added some of his own. The fragile ecology of the Arizona canyons, green oases in a desert of sand, had been hit hard by the phenomenally cold winter. "A lot of the oak trees are dead," he said. "I don't think we'll see any quail." But the Lear might compensate for all that. California alone would make up the deficiencies. The doubts were shaken off. This, after all, was one of the most ambitious birding expeditions ever planned. No time to sit over lunch harboring gloomy thoughts.

In all probability, none of the late crowd at the Rice Lands Motel 24-hour restaurant at Winnie, Texas was aware that history brushed them on the shoulder on the eve of the big count. Indeed, they seemed more interested in listening to country music on the jukebox than in Uncle Joe's team, which had just risen from a two-hour rest, the last it would get until it returned to Texas early on Thursday morning. Unacknowledged, the team furtively moved out into the humid night.

Long before 2 a.m., the official start time, the team was in position and had seen its first bird, which did not, of course, count—a black-crowned night heron that flapped slowly over the car. "Can't we put it in escrow?" pleaded Oresman. He couldn't, he learned. Like the rest of the team, he had to wait until it was legal time to set off in the Rolligon, the terror of the marshes.

Laymen might well imagine that birding involves, well, a lot of creeping through the woods. Not so. Creeping is too slow. You have to go get 'em, and in a salt marsh a $30,000 Rolligon is about the only way. Rails, tiny, plump, desperately shy little birds, the team's main objective at Anahuac, have to be hunted down, exposed. There are six North American species. In less than an hour, Uncle Joe's boys had checked off five. The mechanical dragon flushed other species too. The total was up to 10 by the time they headed back to the car. Not a high rate of scoring, but these were bonus birds collected in the dark. The big rush would come at dawn. "We have 99% of what we wanted," declared Tucker. "We missed the black rail, but that Le Contè's sparrow was an extra!"

Now it was a mad scramble for the car and the big rush back to Houston. The woods were silhouetted against the sky, but the yellow light was not the dawn, only the glow of the city. The objective at this stage was to gather in a few owls, maybe a chuck-will's-widow that sings before dawn. The team drove along with windows down, listening for calls. When the road went through heavy timber, Tucker, the Texas expert, called for a stop and whistled plaintively at the trees, but no chuck-will's-widow responded, and when the headlamps picked out the golden eyes of an owl on a stump, it flapped slowly away before it could be identified. No need to sweat about that. There'd be owls aplenty when they got to Mount Palomar.

Now, slowly, an undramatic dawn, misty with the promise of sun, began to cast a true light on the woods. And suddenly every bird in Texas seemed to be singing. It was still too early to check species visually, but under the ABA rules a properly identified song is enough. "We should get a Swainson's warbler around here," Tucker said. Magically, as if the bird had been listening, the five clear notes of the little warbler rang out. "Everybody recognize it?" Tucker asked. (The ABA rule is somewhat difficult to interpret on this matter, but most birders take it to mean that 95% of the species recorded must be identified by every member of the group. This was the way Uncle Joe's crew understood it.) Everybody recognized the warbler's song.

At first light birds came thick and fast: the group was scoring at a rate of 1.6 species a minute, and an overall rate of one every three minutes during actual birding time in daylight was all that was needed to crack the world record. The Houston woodlands yielded 45 in all. Time to head for Galveston, picking up whatever chance species the drive yielded.

At the planning meeting Tucker had said, "There'll be, uh, some creative driving this trip." He was entirely right about that. To the imminent peril of other cars on Route 146, and later on Interstate 10, he slammed the car to a halt whenever something of interest turned up along the road. Once it was a hawk on a telephone pole, difficult to identify, even through binoculars, because it was hunched with its head down. If you are a birder you know what to do about this.

Like a grenade man detached from his squad to take out a sniper, Jon Dunn rolled out of the car, sidled across the road and moved up on the hawk, using available cover. Stooping, he picked up a piece of pipe and hurled it at the hawk. The bird flapped away, showing all its markings. Swainson's hawk.

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.

On this leg, though, the Lear did not seem to gain height as swiftly as it had done before. Indeed, within minutes it was descending again. With despair, the birders realized that they were heading straight into Tucson, only 40 miles away. Had to pick up gas, the pilot explained airily. None at Fort Huachuca.

It was the last bitter blow. The birders managed to swallow the explanation that the plane hadn't been flown to Tucson for gas while they were in the canyon because it would have been too heavily laden to land again at Huachuca. But why hadn't arrangements been made ahead for a fuel supply at the Arizona field? Well, uh, said the company later, we were playing it by ear, we had to check as we went.

The birders were hardly mollified. They had made the schedule months before and had confirmed it days ahead. They had gone over it once from the hotel in Houston the previous day. Now the chance of even the national record was gone. It would be dark long before they got to San Diego. No point in going to California at all.

Birders, however, are made of stern stuff. Even while the crew of the Lear was looking for fuel at Tucson, even while it was discovering that the base operator there had run dry, even after it had found some at the plane manufacturer's own establishment, even after their plane had to be pushed around manually because it had been parked the wrong way, even after someone had departed with the pilot's credit card to check that it was O.K. to let him have fuel—even after all this, Uncle Joe's team kept at it, scanning the darkening airfield with binoculars.

And scoring. When Taylor said he thought he heard a quail call, Jim Tucker let out a cry of triumph. "Hey! On that sandpile! Gambel quail!" Game to the end, the others gathered around and confirmed the sighting—183. A gleam came into Tucker's eye. "The owls," he said. "The Mount Palomar owls. We could still get those. We could turn a searchlight on the surf, maybe get some scoter ducks." Like one of Cochise's braves, he was ready to charge single-handed, go out fighting. "Get those birds!" he said like a man in a trance. "Check 'em off!"

Uncle Joe talked him out of it. There would be other Big Days. They had learned a lot, not least about air travel. And Steve Oresman had a contribution. "The Concorde," he mused aloud. "You could do Southeast England. Then Long Island...."



Four members of birding's jet set—from top, Jim Tucker, Steve Oresman, Benton Basham and Joe Taylor—display the fastest glasses in the West.



The Rolligon, with the team in tow, splattered through a salt marsh at the beginning of the quest.