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Being a top birder means paying attention to often subtle details and being fast on the trigger...uh, binoculars. "It really helps to start early," says Runk. "Really good birders are fast. Most of us, that's where we fail."
Runk's aural ability gives him a leg up on other birders. "I've read that 80 percent of birding is listening," he says. "I think it's very important to hear the birds." Stop on a walk near the White Rock Fish Hatchery, close your eyes and listen. City sounds fade away and bird chirps, cheeps, twitters and tweets emerge to guide your steps.
Runk works with a project in Galveston to monitor the state's population of pretty piping plovers. (Say that fast three times.) He goes to High Island in the winter four or five times to sit in the rushes and count endangered birds, which have been banded, and then e-mail the names of what birds show up and when to a central Web site. It has yielded some surprises.
"One of those exact birds showed up at the spillway about two years ago," Runk says, a reminder that killing habitat in Dallas may harm birds that count on the lake area during their migrations, not just local populations.
Runk doesn't count himself among the top birders in the area. He mentions, among others, Lynn Barber of Fort Worth, who has the record for the number of birds seen in one year in Texas—525—and Brian Gibbons of Richardson, who has sighted a number of rare birds at White Rock Lake.
It can be a jungle out there. Runk braves rain and snow and has been bitten twice by dogs to bag a good sight. He's spotted coyotes as well as mink and a fox at the lake. And of course there are the packs of spandexed bicyclists to avoid.
Photographer George Boyd, a retired Air Force major, started photographing the nearly 300 species of birds and other wildlife at the lake two decades ago, often from a portable blind. His pictures are on exhibit at the Bathhouse Cultural Center and available on note cards and DVDs. He's seen the bird population change: Boyd no longer spots quail, but the white-winged doves have increased as game birds seek shelter from hunters.
A former hunter, that's something that burns Boyd: city dwellers killing the birds and wildlife for sport. After the shooting of a barred owl in its nest, the park department posted signs banning hunting and trapping.
Runk knows that many non-birders think twitchers are loons. He wants to attract young people and minorities to the sport. "It's basically us old white guys," Runk says.
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