Bird by Bird
For more than 50 years, the Freeport Bird Count has attracted sharp-eyed spotters from all walks of life.
By Carol Flake Chapman
As I head out in the pre-dawn darkness of a cool December morning on the Gulf Coast, I’m grateful that the wind has died down, and the temperature has held above 60 degrees. I’m on my way to join a team of birders participating in the annual Freeport Christmas Bird Count, and I’ve been warned that it will be a long, demanding day, particularly if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
The Freeport count is something of a legend among birders, and though I grew up in this part of the world, and my dad often participates, this will be my first count. I’ll be joining the oldest and largest ongoing citizen-science project of its kind in the world.
Like the other counts, now more than 1,500, that take place around the country between mid-December and early January, the Freeport count will take place over a period of 24 hours, though almost all counting is done from dawn to dusk. The object is to count every bird spotted within a radius of 15 miles, and there is an undeniable element of competition involved among different counts.
As Mike Austin, one of the Freeport organizers told me: “There’s always the excitement of seeing a bird that hasn’t been on the count before. But the competition is really to get as many different ones as you can." The top count is decided by the total number of species recorded rather than the total number of birds.
While the Christmas Bird Count itself has been going for more than a hundred years, the Freeport count was started 52 years ago by birding luminary Victor Emanuel when he was just 16 years old. As it happens, birds, like humans, prefer to winter in warm coastal areas, and California and Florida topped the count lists before Freeport entered the fray. But Freeport includes a remarkable diversity of habitat within its range, from beach and marsh to coastal prairie and bottomland forest. In 1972, the Freeport count hit a record total of 226 species, and the count began to top the national list on a regular basis, until a new count, centered on the sparsely populated Mad Island area, just down the coast, took the crown. Emanuel still participates in the Freeport count, and I’ll be joining his team during the latter part of the day.
I arrive at a parking lot on the edge of downtown Freeport, and the rest of the team I’m joining for the first part of the day is already there, plotting strategy. The area to be covered in the count is divided up into 10 sections, with a team assigned to cover each section. I’ll be starting out in the mostly coastal Section 7, headed by birding veteran Elric McHenry, who has been part of the count since 1961.
“This is as good as it gets, weather wise," says McHenry. “We’ve been here in pouring rain and when it’s been cold and icy." McHenry is wearing knee-high rubber boots, in preparation for a tromp through the marshes. Last year, he said, one of his team left a boot behind in the mud.
McHenry dispatches a couple from Houston to cover the tiny town of Quintana Beach, where there is a small bird sanctuary, and some nearby wet meadows. I’ll join McHenry and Leonard Frost, a five-year veteran of the count, as they scour a marshy area under the main bridge to Quintana and then a stretch of Bryan Beach.
"After doing the count for so long," says McHenry, "I look for the same birds in the same places."
McHenry begins to add to the count with the rails he spots deep in the marsh. We pile in McHenry’s four-wheel-drive vehicle and slowly prowl down the beach, and I get carried away by the sight of dozens of sanderlings, the little windup birds that enliven the beach. It’s heartening to see so many, just months after the far edges of Hurricane Ike roared through. We count all manner of gulls as we go along, and I’m amazed at how fast McHenry can identify and number the birds skittering along the ground or swooping by in the air. Birds are identified by markings, behavior and habitat. But this is an art, learned over time, as color and markings can vary, depending on season as well as age and sex.
We come to a new cut along the beach formed by Hurricane Ike and determine that we won’t be able to cross. This is a spot, however, where McHenry usually spots a number of snowy plovers, so we set out on foot for a closer look. I lag behind and spot a bird that looks something like a tern, but I suspect is not a tern. I mention it to McHenry and Frost, and they agree to take a look. And as they backtrack, McHenry spies one, then two, then 12 snow plovers! My bird is a killdeer, which should be more appropriately called a "kill- dee," says McHenry, imitating the bird’s distinctive call.
And now it’s time for me to brave the Freeport Jetty, which has gained a reputation as the toughest assignment in the count, ever since famous birding author Kenn Kaufman, then a novice, was swept off the jetty back in 1973, along with an expensive telescope. This year, only one volunteer is stationed on the jetty, and he’s clearly a hardy sort. When I reach the end of the jetty, trying to avoid the waves that crash over the boulders, David Sarkoci of Houston is sweeping the distance with his binoculars. I try not to distract him, as he explains that his day job is managing public safety systems for the Houston police department, and that he took over the jetty assignment 10 years ago.
Sarkoci points out the buoys that mark the outer edge of the boundary for the count. "It’s been a challenging morning," he says, ducking the spray from a wave. "This jetty is legendary. This is extreme birding." I can’t disagree, as I try to find a spot to avoid getting soaked or swept off my feet.
"There’s a sandwich tern," he says. He’s scanning even as he speaks, and he stops, puts down the binoculars and peers into the scope. "Is that a black-legged kittiwake?" he asks, his voice changing pitch. "Look at the M-shaped pattern. Yes!" It turns out that not only is this an unusual bird to spot on the jetty, it’s the first one he’s ever seen. It’s not often, he says, that veteran birders coming to the same spot will add a bird to their lifetime list.
"I deserve a kittiwake," he says, "after all these years out here!"
Meanwhile, the last two anglers that have been braving the waves at the end of the jetty finally give up, shaking their heads and gathering their gear.
I leave Sarkoci to his extreme birding and head to the Peach Point Wildlife Management Area to meet Victor Emanuel and his team, who have been combing the refuge all morning, with some heartening results. Over a picnic lunch, Emanuel, who leads birders on tours all over the world, talks about why he keeps coming back for the Freeport count. "One of the great things of the Christmas Count, it’s been done over 100 years," he says. "It’s something that you do over and over, and all these memories come back. It becomes a thread through your life. You see the birds that are like old friends."
Over time, the data recorded by the counters, and entered in a central database maintained by the Audubon Society, reveals long-term trends in the numbers and ranges of birds, showing declines in many species and shifts in habitat for others. The data can also reveal a recovery, as with the brown pelican, which had virtually disappeared from the area. "I’ll never forget when I saw my first brown pelican," says team member Fred Collins, whose first count was in 1969, when he was age 20.
After lunch, the team covers the grounds of a schoolyard and then forms a small convoy to survey areas along the streets. Vehicles screech to a halt as Victor sees something in a large grove of oak trees on a vacant lot. Emanuel is a pied piper of birds, I think, as I look around at what seems at first to be some bleak winter branches and brush, and suddenly it is full of rustling and chirping bird life. One bird in particular draws Emanuel’s attention, and he patiently directs me toward an impenetrable pile of brush.
"Watch for how the wings seem to shudder," he says. I peer through the branches and finally see a small brown bird with a rust-colored tail and white ring around its eye. It’s a hermit thrush, according to Emanuel. There is something very appealing about this plain brown bird, and I’m transfixed.
Later, as the sun begins to set, we travel past a gate along some large fields in search of a short-eared owl that has been spotted there before. Though we don’t see one, we do see a vast flying squadron of geese in the distance, numbering in the hundreds, a reassuring sight that seems to stir some ancestral memory of abundance.
It’s finally time to stop as darkness falls. A couple from Houston participating in their first count are still exclaiming over the thrilling sight of a scarlet tanager earlier that day. They’ll be back for the count next year, they say.
That evening, all the teams assemble at a local hall for the Countdown, or toting up of all the birds of the day, by species and number. The ritual includes what Mike Austin calls the Court of Inquisition, which is designed to question the rare birds that have been spotted during the day. The official compilers, Mike Austin and Victor Emanuel, are joined by expert local birder Ron Weeks.
First come the most common birds, seen every year, then the species at least three out of five years. And finally the rare birds, of which one will be declared the "bird of the count." Emanuel looks at his checklist, and species are called out, until a total of 200 are mentioned, a respectable and reassuring number following a major hurricane. Those who have seen unusual birds describe them with the intensity of a witness testifying in court. I’m a little disappointed that Sarkoci’s kittiwake does not prevail as top bird over a ringed kingfisher.
With the Mad Island team counting more than 230 species again for 2008, it’s clear that Freeport may never regain its crown, as more and more people and more industrial plants crowd into the coastal plain. But I’m still thinking about the moment when those little snowy plovers appeared, almost like magic, out of nowhere, and about that elusive hermit thrush, so plain and yet so remarkable. I later learn that the song of hermit thrush is considered by many birders the most beautiful of all. I listen to a recording of its pure, plaintive song, and I realize why the bird count has worked for so long. This is the way it happens for birders, succumbing to this passion and this work, bird by bird. And this is why every bird counts.