Our 24 Hour Adventure: The Great Texas Birding Classic

At 11:45 in the evening Saturday night, five Houston Zoo bird keepers and one interactive marketing guru met in the zoo’s employee parking lot and began packing a minivan full of food, pillows, cameras, binoculars, bug spray and bird identification guides. While playing car storage Tetris, everyone simultaneously snapped their heads up to look into the sky, as the comical calls of wild Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying into our Duck Lake exhibit rang out.  I checked my phone; it was three minutes after midnight. Our start time had silently crept by as we worried over how many bottles of water we could fit in the cooler.

“Black-bellied’s at twelve oh three! It counts!”

With that, team Jiminy Frigates started a whirlwind 24 hour Great Texas Birding Classic competition-a quest to identify by sight or sound as many different bird species as possible from midnight to midnight. Our team had never been bird watching as a group before, and no members had ever participated in competitive birding.  After studying the totals of teams from previous years, we set our goals at a respectable number, 150 species. Twenty four hours and 387 miles of driving later, the final total was 178 species. How’s that for coming out of the gate strong?

We began our birding odyssey on Houston Zoo grounds and visited 13 different sites, drove within throwing distance of Louisiana, rode a ferry, and found a new bird in a Beaumont Church’s Chicken. We saw snakes, wildflowers, alligators, frogs, dolphins, lizards, one very sleepy raccoon, not to mention a few birds.

On average, we saw 8 new species of bird every hour, or every 2 miles traveled. Armed with iPhones, we tweeted, uploaded photos, posted blogs, updated Facebook statuses, and may have even involved Tumblr at some point. We were all so happy to see Houston Zoo supporters following along on our adventure, offering advice and encouragement! When you skip a night of sleep, have soggy muddy feet, a mosquito bite on your right eyelid, and only fast food in your stomach, that kind of support really helps.

Many hours of sleep and one scalding shower later, I realize that bird watching isn’t just about staring at some eagles or sparrows through binoculars; it’s about being outdoors and everything else that entails. As soon as you begin to look around you for birds, you notice everything else you’ve been missing; the armadillo by the pond, the beautiful oak tree in your yard, the butterflies flitting around and those flowers everyone says you’re supposed to stop and smell.

Bird watching is something you can do alone, with children, your mother, with a group of friends, or on a romantic date. No matter what, it’s always a fun adventure, and you’ll see something that will amaze you.  As another Earth Day comes and goes, we encourage you to get out and look for birds. You’ll find everything else on the way.

  •  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  •  Fulvous Whistling-Duck
  •  Wood Duck
  •  Mottled Duck
  •  Blue-winged Teal
  •  Northern Shoveler
  •  Northern Pintail
  •  Green-winged Teal
  •  Canvasback
  •  Redhead
  •  Pied-billed Grebe
  •  Neotropic Cormorant
  •  Double-crested Cormorant
  •  American White Pelican
  •  Brown Pelican
  •  American Bittern
  •  Great Blue Heron
  •  Great Egret
  •  Snowy Egret
  •  Little Blue Heron
  •  Tricolored Heron
  •  Reddish Egret
  •  Cattle Egret
  •  Green Heron
  •  Black-crowned Night-Heron
  •  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  •  White Ibis
  •  Glossy Ibis
  •  White-faced Ibis
  •  Roseate Spoonbill
  •  Black Vulture
  •  Turkey Vulture
  •  Osprey
  • Mississippi Kite
  • Notherthern Harrier
  •  Swainson’s Hawk
  •  Red-tailed Hawk
  •  Clapper Rail
  •  Purple Gallinule
  •  Common Gallinule
  •  American Coot
  •  Black-bellied Plover
  •  American Golden-Plover
  •  Snowy Plover
  •  Wilson’s Plover
  •  Semipalmated Plover
  •  Killdeer
  •  American Oystercatcher
  •  Black-necked Stilt
  •  American Avocet
  •  Solitary Sandpiper
  •  Greater Yellowlegs
  •  Willet
  •  Lesser Yellowlegs
  •  Whimbrel
  •  Long-billed Curlew
  •  Marbled Godwit
  •  Ruddy Turnstone
  •  Sanderling
  •  Western Sandpiper
  •  Baird’s Sandpiper
  •  Dunlin
  •  Stilt Sandpiper
  •  Ruff
  •  Short-billed Dowitcher
  •  Long-billed Dowitcher
  •  Wilson’s Phalarope
  •  Bonaparte’s Gull
  •  Laughing Gull
  •  Ring-billed Gull
  •  Herring Gull
  •  Least Tern
  •  Gull-billed Tern
  •  Caspian Tern
  •  Black Tern
  •  Common Tern
  •  Forster’s Tern
  •  Royal Tern
  •  Sandwich Tern
  •  Black Skimmer
  •  Rock Pigeon
  •  Eurasian Collared-Dove
  •  White-winged Dove
  •  Mourning Dove
  •  Inca Dove
  •  Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  •  Black-billed Cuckoo
  •  Great Horned Owl
  •  Barred Owl
  •  Common Nighthawk
  •  Chimney Swift
  •  Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  •  Belted Kingfisher
  •  Red-headed Woodpecker
  •  Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  •  Red-bellied Woodpecker
  •  Downy Woodpecker
  •  Northern Flicker
  •  Peregrine Falcon
  •  Monk Parakeet
  •  Eastern Wood-Pewee
  •  Acadian Flycatcher
  •  Eastern Phoebe
  •  Eastern Kingbird
  •  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  •  Loggerhead Shrike
  •  White-eyed Vireo
  •  Blue-headed Vireo
  •  Warbling Vireo
  •  Red-eyed Vireo
  •  Blue Jay
  •  American Crow
  •  Fish Crow
  •  Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  •  Purple Martin
  •  Tree Swallow
  •  Barn Swallow
  •  Cliff Swallow
  •  Carolina Chickadee
  •  Tufted Titmouse
  •  Red-breasted Nuthatch
  •  Sedge Wren
  •  Marsh Wren
  •  Carolina Wren
  •  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  •  Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  •  Swainson’s Thrush
  •  Wood Thrush
  •  American Robin
  •  Gray Catbird
  •  Northern Mockingbird
  •  Brown Thrasher
  •  European Starling
  •  Worm-eating Warbler
  •  Louisiana Waterthrush
  •  Northern Waterthrush
  •  Black-and-white Warbler
  •  Prothonotary Warbler
  •  Swainson’s Warbler
  •  Tennessee Warbler
  •  Orange-crowned Warbler
  •  Kentucky Warbler
  •  Common Yellowthroat
  •  Hooded Warbler
  •  American Redstart
  •  Northern Parula
  •  Blackburnian Warbler
  •  Yellow Warbler
  •  Blackpoll Warbler
  •  Palm Warbler
  •  Yellow-rumped Warbler
  •  Yellow-throated Warbler
  •  Black-throated Green Warbler
  •  Wilson’s Warbler
  •  Savannah Sparrow
  •  Seaside Sparrow
  •  Swamp Sparrow
  •  White-throated Sparrow
  •  White-crowned Sparrow
  •  Summer Tanager
  •  Scarlet Tanager
  •  Western Tanager
  • Northern Cardinal
  •  Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  •  Indigo Bunting
  •  Painted Bunting
  •  Red-winged Blackbird
  •  Eastern Meadowlark
  •  Brewer’s Blackbird
  •  Common Grackle
  •  Boat-tailed Grackle
  •  Great-tailed Grackle
  •  Brown-headed Cowbird
  •  Orchard Oriole
  •  Baltimore Oriole
  •  American Goldfinch
  •  House Sparrow

Shorebirds are a 'Shore' Thing!

Written by April Zimpel, Houston Zoo Bird Keeper and Member of the Jiminy Frigates.

Right now, during the Great Texas Birding Classic, we are  searching for shorebirds at Bolivard Flats, Rollover Pass and Cameron County Beach! This is our last chance to increase our count numbers significantly!

Keep watching the Houston Zoo blogs, Twitter feed and Facebook to see how the Jiminy Frigates is doing in their quest to find as many bird species as possible in 24 hours for the Great Texas Birding Classic! Join in on the fun and cheer for us online!

American Avocets in breeding plumage.

Because Houstonians live so close to the shore, we sometimes take for granted the fact that we are able to see a wonderful variety of shorebirds year-round. The beaches of Galveston are teaming with avocets, plovers, terns, sandpipers and oystercatchers, while the marshy areas of the coast are filled with herons, ibis and even spoonbills. This area is also an important stopover for many species of shorebirds that migrate from South America hundreds of miles to breeding grounds that can reach up to Alaska.


Most shorebirds are characterized by long legs, toes and bills, built for wading into water or marsh to probe for food. They usually eat a variety of insects, mollusks and other invertebrates and most shorebirds actually time when they lay their eggs so the chicks hatching coincides with the hatching of insect species that the chick will need to grow up healthy! Shorebirds also tend to be more neutral, earth-tone colors to help them blend into their surrounding while sitting on their nest.


Unfortunately, because of their dependence on coastal estuaries and marshland, many species of shorebird are declining. Although habitat loss is the most serious issue these birds face today, they are also affected by oil spills and other forms of pollution. As beach-goers, we can all do our part to make sure these birds don’t have further pollutants in their environment by making sure to dispose of trash properly while visiting the beach. Shorebirds also nest on the ground, so unless it’s necessary, avoid driving on the beach to prevent disturbing nesting birds and crushing eggs. If you’re interesting in learning more about shorebirds please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Shorebird Fact Sheet .

Stalking Rockstars and Other Celebrities: The Jiminy Frigates Search for Warblers

Dawn is always a great time to find birds, and The Great Texas Birding Classic‘s the Jiminy Frigates are currently in Sabine Woods, hoping to find at least 20 warbler species!

Keep watching the Houston Zoo blogs, Twitter feed and Facebook to see how the Jiminy Frigates are doing in their quest to find as many bird species as possible in 24 hours for the Great Texas Birding Classic! Join in on the fun and cheer for us online, or head to High Island later today today to give your support in person!

Several weeks ago, I stopped to fill up my car’s tank at a gas station on Westheimer after work.  At other pumps, several Houstonians were doing the same; it was just another day and another tank of gas, until a man wearing a tuxedo and top hat climbed out of his car.  Like the rest of us, he was running a typical errand, but he didn’t stare into the distance with a blank look on his face and a sense of a mundane routine.  This guy had places to go, obviously. His movements were quick, his purpose evident. He darted in and out of that gas station, and while he filled up his tank as quickly as possible, everyone stared.Where was this man going in his fancy tux? What would he be doing when he got there? Seriously, who wears a top hat anymore?

Cerulean Warbler

While the man in the tux and hat was an interesting sight, I’ve never found people to be as interesting as animals, and currently, the Houston area is playing host to a huge gala of birds in their most extravagant dress. Top hats and tails have nothing on these guys.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Warblers are tiny birds, weighing in at a negligible 10 grams or less (about as heavy as 4 pennies), but don’t underestimate these songbirds for one second! Not only do these birds provide you with coffee  and kill and eat pesky mosquitoes with a proficiency that would put even the most ruthless bug-zapper to shame,  but they are breathtakingly gorgeous.


Houston is just a short drive to world famous birding sites for Spring migration, such as High Island on Bolivar Peninsula and Sabine Woods. Both serve as a ‘gas station’ stop-over for exhausted birds flying from as far away as South America to their northern breeding grounds.  Over 35 species of warblers can be seen in this area during the spring madness, attracting thousands of bird paparazzi–professional photographers, amateurs and bird enthusiasts all looking for the exhilaration of  spotting these winged rockstars  in their most impressive plumage during their layover in Texas. Often, the number of migrating birds finding water and food in these areas can be so high, that the trees and ground seem covered with brightly covered jewels.

Bay-breasted Warbler



All photos captured by Cody Conway on the Upper Texas Coast and used with permission.

Who is Hunting Hoooooo?

Written by Bird Department Senior Keeper Jeremy Whitted, member of the Jiminy Frigates.

The Jiminy Frigates are currently at the Houston Zoo, searching for resident Eastern Screech Owls and Great Horned Owls for the The Great Texas Birding Classic!

Keep watching the Houston Zoo blogs, Twitter feed and Facebook to see how team Jiminy Frigates is doing in their quest to find as many bird species as possible in 24 hours for the Great Texas Birding Classic! Join in on the fun and cheer for us online, or head to High Island later today today to give your support in person!

The Houston area boasts seven species of owl.  We’d be willing to bet you’ve walked by quite a few and never even knew it. They saw you, though.

Burrowing owls, spying on anyone and everyone.

Owls are naturally equipped with military-grade night vision goggles allowing them to see in almost total darkness. Contrary to popular belief, they can see quite well during the daylight too.  Owls have highly developed binocular vision, but cannot move their eyes within their sockets. No worries though! They can also turn their head 270 degrees, so owls are basically a wicked combination of Predator and Linda Blair.

With lop-sided ears, owls can focus auditory signals from prey to triangulate the presence of a mouse without even seeing it. Imagine hitting a bulls eye in the dark by only hearing the dart board rustle against the wall. To be fair, owls have an advantage, the feather structure of their faces act like a satellite dish, funneling sounds straight into the ears.

If you’ve ever heard a plane fly over, you know how loud flight can be.  Pound for pound, many birds are as loud as an airplane when they fly.  Yet owls have much to teach the most advanced flight engineers.  For years, scientists have been attempting to emulate the silent flight of owls. The birds’ primary flight feathers have frayed  edges.  Mathematicians have modeled air flow over these specialized feathers and discovered that these frayed edges disrupt air pressure over the wing, creating less noise than  normal feathers. This makes the owl a silent predator.  Try as they might, modern science has yet to successfully copy this model in military helicopters. In other words, it’s not easy to out-awesome nature.

The majestic Great Horned Owl



Texas Rare Bird Alert!

Yesterday, a coworker asked me if, after work, I would like to drive almost two hours to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge on a wild goose chase.  My answer, “I’m there!”

Technically, we went on a wild Godwit chase.  Brazoria NWR is currently playing host to a very rare visitor, the Black-tailed Godwit. This large shorebird is typically found in Asia, Europe and Africa, and this is the first time it has ever made its way to Texas.

The Gulf Coast, particularly the Texan Gulf Coast, is a wonderful place to be a bird watcher.  From South Padre Island, and all the way up the shore, each year Texas gets more than its fair share of migratory misfits and accidental visitors, making us one of the best birding spots in North America. There’s even a website devoted entirely to rare birds spotted in Texas.

Brazoria NWR is a pretty large place, so we were literally looking for one bird among hundreds of ponds and thousands of birds.  Our plan, look for the group of people on the side of the road staring through binoculars and spotting scopes.  The plan worked perfectly, and we got a spectacular view of the singular bird from no more than 100 yards away.  The friendly group of bird watchers consisted of several Houstonians, a couple who had driven 4 hours to see the bird, and a man from California who flew out specifically to see this rarity.

While seeing such a rare bird (at least for this part of the world) and adding another count to my ‘life list’ is wonderful, the best part of the outing was speaking to the ranchers and locals driving past on their way home from work.  Severals stopped and asked if the bird was still there, and smiled and shook their heads, telling us to have a great day. One man said he’d be by again tomorrow and hoped the Godwit was still around.

Maybe they don’t understand the point of standing around and watching a brown bird bathe and flit around a pond, but they certainly were happy we were there, and hopefully that makes them a little more appreciative of our remaining wild places, and the strange birds (and people) who visit them.

If you’re interested in starting a new hobby, why not try bird watching?  There’s no better way to start than a weekend day trip to the beautiful Brazoria NWR and a glimpse of a very rare bird!  Just look for the group of binocular-faces on the side of the road. Don’t have binoculars? Don’t worry, you won’t be there for 30 seconds before someone offers you the loan of their binoculars or spotting scope!

The Results Are In, and Jeffery's Right Here in Houston!

We’ve reached the end of our blog contest! We’ve followed Jeffery to Italy, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Singapore and all over the US! I have to say, that’s one well-traveled puppet.
We believe this contest and Jeffery accomplished our goal of increasing awareness in the States of the declining population of the Philippine Eagle. 
Raising a thousand dollars for Philippine Eagle conservation is amazing, but the possibilities created by raising a thousand voices for this cause is staggering.What if you tell a friend about this puppet and what he stands for, and she tells her cousin? What if that cousin tells all his friends and somewhere down the line, through the power of social connections, people begin talking, minds start to change, legislation is passed, ecotourism enriches the country, habitats are saved along with the human lives that depend on them, and the 52,177 species in the Philippines, our favorite eagle included, flourish?It’s a very serious thing, the welfare of a biodiversity hotspot like the Philippines, but we’re using the internet and a puppet to get the word out.

You can’t save the eagle without saving its habitat, and Jeffery is here to make people want to save the Philippine Eagle, whether they ever get to see one in person or not.

Along the way, Jeffery has made a ton of friends with the same goals.  We’d like to thank the talented artists at Jeepney Projects Worldwide, Hazel Dawes, one of the eagle’s most avid, talented and generous supporters, local Houston band, The Presidents, and Karlene Co.  Thank you for all your support!

So, now you must be thinking, “I’m really going to miss Jeffery! What will I do without my weekly Jeffery updates?” 

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! You can always find Jeffery on Facebook, Twitter, and now, his very own blog! I’m sure Jeffery will also pop up on Houston Zoo’s blogs as well.  The puppet will continue to travel and cheer for the Philippine Eagle Foundation.
"I think White Sands is a fantastic place to visit, but no aerial tour for me thanks, there are waaaayyy to many missiles and rockets to dodge!!" Linda
"I’ve always wanted granite counter tops, but this may be a little too much over the top!" Linda
"I love to paint, but now it’s time to get off the road and back to the Houston Zoo for the “Bird of Prey” days this weekend. Please join me to celebrate my friends and raise money for conservation!" Tess
Tomorrow starts our Birds of Prey Days!  Please come by and learn about the biodiversity of the Philippines and Texas native birds of prey, check out our Philippine Eagle art, and meet some of our resident birds of prey!
Liberty, the Houston Zoo's Bald Eagle. Photo by Ali Striggow.
Catori, the Houston Zoo's Eastern Screech Owl. Photo by Ali Striggow.


Artwork by Hazel Dawes
Come by and visit!  Oh, and drumroll please…the grand prize winner of our contest is….
Tess with 134 points!  Linda came in second with 124 points and Melissa ended the contest with 112 points!  All three of you have a prize to claim! Thank you all so much for participating, and please contact me at mneal@houstonzoo.org to arrange a way to claim your prizes!

Where in the World is Jeffery? The FINAL Week!

Melissa, Tess and Linda, it’s been a great pleasure!  Thanks for sticking with Jeffery this entire time, and I will be in touch with each of you on Friday, after the final total is announced.  I hope to see you on Saturday or Sunday for our Birds of Prey Days! We plan to have lots of games, keeper chats and opportunities to learn about raptors and the Philippines!

Right now, it’s time to reveal the final photo in our contest!!!

Jeffery visited this public art installation originally created by the art group Ant Farm that encourages visitors to add to the art by spray painting vehicles half-buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Where in the world is Jeffery?


You have until Friday at 10 AM to submit your final captions!

Where in the World is Jeffery? Lucky Week 13

Please don’t forget about our Birds of Prey Days on May 5th and 6th.  The Houston Zoo will be hosting a fun-packed educational event to help raise awareness and funds for the survival of the largest and most endangered eagle in the world, the Philippine Eagle! Meet our birds of prey and their keepers, play games, win prizes, and go wild at the Houston Zoo!


Alright Jeffery fans, this is your second to last chance to make it to the top! Final results will be calculated soon, but I can already tell you, Tess, Melissa and Linda will be winning prizes! This photo may take a little research, and we will only give points to the correct answer, giving the correct name and state (there’s a hint for you!)

Unveiled in 2004, Jeffery visited this Stonehenge replica which matches the original Stonehenge horizontally, but is approximately 14 percent shorter in height than the original.

I may be small, but don't count me out!

This Contest is Intense!

I prefer tasty mice, so I’m sending this to Ara, my BFF in Bolivia. He’s a Blue-throated Macaw, another critically endangered bird. Think he’ll like it?--Tess


So I thought last week’s photo was a little tough, but within 3 minutes, each of our contestants had submitted the correct answers! I’m so happy each of you ladies is excited about Jeffery and this contest!

Before I get to this week’s (the second to last!) photo, I’d like to share some wonderful news with you from the Philippine Eagle Foundation!

Our favorite eagle saviors in the Philippines just announced another first in bird conservation–the first captive breeding of the Pinsker’s Hawk Eagle! With some feathers mimicking a large spike on their heads, these eagles are the punk rock answer to the adorable Philippine Eagle! Just like the Philippine Eagle, this endemic species is threatened by loss of habitat. Guess what? Husbandry practices developed at the foundation for breeding of the Philippine Eagle helped in the breeding of the Pinsker’s! It’s not just one eagle we are trying to save; it’s an entire habitat, and everything that depends on it.


Now onto our current standings:

Tess came in third with the answer, but won the caption contest, to leave her with 102 points

Melissa has 90 points

Linda had 88 points


It’s still anybody’s game!


**Jeffery visited the largest military installation in the United States, where is he?**

Where in the World is Jeffery? Week 11!

Hello Philippine Eagle fans! I have some very exciting news!  Our friends at the Philippine Eagle Foundation recently located an eagle population in the Cordillera Mountain Ranges. Just for reference, this is the first sighting of a wild Philippine Eagle outside of their normal mountain range, the Sierra Madre Range, much further to the south of the Cordillera Mountains.  Jayson Ibanez is our primary contact at the Philippine Eagle Foundation, and has been leading the recent expanded searches for additional wild populations of the eagle.  Funds we raise will help them in these efforts, as well as the foundation’s conservation education efforts in the communities surrounding known eagle nest sites.  Please join us in congratulating Jayson and his team on this incredible discovery! 

There’s quite a bit of pressure on our contestants as the weeks tick away and the point totals just get closer and closer! This one may require a bit of searching, but where in the world is Jeffery?

This monument is dedicated to the lasting memory of Thomas Michael McGinn (1929 – 2007), the founder of Pistachio Tree Ranch. 

The caption contest is going to be the key to winning first place!
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