Birding by the Numbers
Bird watchers brave the cold to tally species for the Christmas Bird Count.
By Melissa Gaskill
Oysterman and ecotour guide James Arnold steadied his boat as I boarded with then-Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Brent Ortego. While Arnold wound through a maze of channels toward East Matagorda Bay, I clutched a clicker counter, tallying brown pelicans. The mild, sunny day turned cold with dark clouds churning overhead as we glided alone in a sea of tall grass and slate-colored water, like explorers of a mysterious new land.
For that Matagorda County Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 19, 2011, other volunteers fanned out across marshes, woods and beaches, and the 244 species they spotted placed Matagorda County No. 1 in the U.S. that year.
More recently, in the 2017 count, Matagorda County reported 220 species, ranking it No. 1 for total species for the 11th year in a row and 25th time overall.
Birding at Hamilton Pool Preserve west of Austin.
Organized by the National Audubon Society, the annual Christmas Bird Count takes a snapshot of bird populations in locations across the Western Hemisphere, creating a database that Audubon shares with federal, state and private authorities. It influences allocation of conservation dollars, land management decisions and wildlife policy and, increasingly, documents change in bird populations. Counts have identified a decline in many common birds, including the northern bobwhite. The count previously helped document recovery of bald eagles and significant increases in waterfowl populations thanks to conservation efforts.
The events (nearly 120 across the state) welcome birders of all skill levels. Organizers try to place novices in groups with more experienced birders, giving the latter an opportunity to pass their knowledge to the former. Participants discover new areas and often see rare and unusual birds. Between the wildlife, unpredictable weather, occasionally remote locations and subtle but unmistakable air of competition, the CBC qualifies as bona fide adventure.
“To me, a lot of the adventure is being able to access property that’s not available otherwise,” says Ortego, longtime compiler for the Matagorda count and now retired from TPWD. “Many private ranches and corporate properties open to people only for this event. In addition, sometimes you’re covering vast spaces or traveling into remote areas. I rode an airboat for 40 miles across the Laguna Madre during the 2017 Kenedy County CBC and tallied over 100,000 shorebirds. There are at least four CBCs in Texas where birders hike across mountains.”
The Brazos Bend count circle outside Houston includes a number of those normally inaccessible lands, as well as Brazos Bend State Park. As I arrived there for last year’s count at 7 a.m. on Dec. 16, sunrise remained a mere suggestion. I waited with section leader Bruce Bodson at the Nature Center and watched the park wake up as the rest of the team arrived. Crows stirred in the trees, and white ibises and whistling ducks flew overhead as we set off down the Pilant Slough Trail. It took several hours to make the mile-long route through the woods, given frequent stops to look for or identify birds.
Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
The trail ended at Elm Lake, largest of several bodies of water in the 5,000-acre park, which also includes bottomland and upland coastal prairie. A 1.7-mile loop around the lake presented a veritable jackpot of birds: coots, blue-winged teal, common gallinules, grebes and more. Since the competition tallies both the number of species and total number of individual birds, team members divvied up the work, one person counting all the gallinules, for example, and another the coots. It required a sharp eye and good concentration.
In the end, the count totaled 143 species, according to Justin Bower, compiler for the Brazos Bend locations.
“That was nowhere near our best year, but not bad,” Bower says, especially given that Hurricane Harvey flooded much of the park a few months earlier. “The weather for the count was pretty decent, and we had a good, solid effort. Teams dug deep.”
Brazos Bend birders.
Digging deep is a common theme. Matagorda County may dig the deepest, with a level of organization and effort no doubt partly responsible for its impressive results. Ortego reports that the 2017 count started at midnight with folks searching for black and yellow rails by all- terrain vehicle and on foot at the Nature Conservancy Mad Island Marsh Preserve. A separate group scanned for owls and other nocturnal species until dawn. When dawn came, other volunteers waited in position to greet (and count) the resulting chorus of birds, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department cranked up an airboat to search for waterfowl in difficult- to-reach places. Arnold once again motored a crew to wetlands across the bay. More birders walked the beach, brushlands and woodlands.
When Arnold’s boat returned, Ortego checked the results and called section leaders to let them know what species were missing. A team at Mad Island Wildlife Management Area reported a black rail; Ortego relayed the news to the Nature Conservancy so its crews could divert to other species. Another location reported a yellow-breasted chat, and he instructed counters on the Western Roads site to stop looking for it and focus on the yet-to-be-spotted yellow-headed blackbird.
“We had a scare late in the afternoon when we realized nobody had mentioned quail,” Ortego recalls. “So, two groups made special efforts to find that species. As the sun was setting, several teams were scanning roosting flocks of blackbirds searching for the still-missing yellow-headed. The South Texas Project team finally found eight. We hadn’t found any redhead ducks so we checked with local fishing guides, with no luck. I remembered seeing a TPWD Coastal Fisheries truck in the Matagorda harbor and emailed the Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader, Leslie Hartman, to ask if her crew saw any redheads. They had, and that brought our species total to 220.”
Arnold thinks teamwork is key in the Matagorda count.
“We really have the system down,” Arnold says. “If there is a bird that hasn’t been seen, some of the section leaders divert to find it. Everyone works together. All the people involved is what is fun about it.”
The people are one of the things Bower loves about the count, too, especially the sense of community at Brazos Bend.
“I’ve done a lot of counts and each has something they do exceptionally well,” he says. “Brazos Bend has put a lot of effort into fostering that sense of community, the idea that we all went out and did this together. We have a lot of newcomers and first-time birders, but also those old- timers who have been here for 30 years. A lot of the same people keep coming back.”
Rio Grande Valley
The Rio Grande Valley count (including Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Anzalduas County Park) also sees many people return every year, according to compiler Roy Rodriguez, but welcomes newcomers as well.
“I try to give everyone assignments they are comfortable with and partner them with the right people based on skills, birding experience and physical ability,” Rodriguez says. “Some sections require more walking, some are pretty rugged, and sometimes you have to bushwhack overgrown trails. At the same time, you get a chance to go to places you normally wouldn’t be able to.”
In the Rio Grande Valley, 11 different habitats overlap within 140 miles, Rodriguez says.
“In many places, you have to travel quite a bit to go from one type of habitat to another where you see different birds,” he says. “Here, you see five or six different habitats just within our count circle. Some people come just for that diversity. Travel 15 minutes in either direction and you see something different.”
The Matagorda count offers great habitat diversity as well.
“We are in a fantastic location down here; we have everything,” Arnold says.
“We have a river, bay, tidal marshes, grasslands, the Gulf, brushlands, woods and enough vagrants that add flavor to the count,” Ortego adds. “An important aspect is that we have access to lots of private property, and a lot of boaters.”
Birders at Estero Llano Grande State Park.
The Valley’s Bentsen-Anzalduas circle has averaged about 163 species in recent years. Its 2017 count of 158 included a male red-naped sapsucker (a western species) and a chimney swift, which should no longer have been here by the count date. Things like that make the count interesting, Rodriguez says.
“The CBC has been going for 118 years, and the data tell us what populations are changing,” he says. “So, it is not just going out and getting some fresh air, birding with people and being social. You also contribute to scientific data on the conservation of birds.”
Bill Supulski and his wife, Dottie Lamolinara, counted birds in downtown Mission.
“A lot of people don’t think they’ll see a lot of numbers or species in town, but it is an important part of getting good data,” Supulski says. “We’ve been doing it since 2010 and can see a lot of changes — areas developed into businesses and parking lots. Every year we find something that other people don’t get. A few years ago, we saw a red-crowned parrot, another year, cactus wrens. The past couple of years, though, birds have been fewer in variety.”
Varied habitat also presents a challenge, says John Kaye, a count master at Bentsen.
“You go from backyards to open plowed fields to quarries to wooded areas, constantly seeing a different variety of birds,” he says. “And you’re looking for 150 to 200 species depending on where you are. Because habitat is so scattered, the count here involves a lot of driving. Another challenge is finding roads where you can actually slow down to look at the birds. There’s quite a bit of traffic, so you have to choose carefully.”
Across the State
Counts take place in the state’s major urban areas. In Houston, the Buffalo Bayou count includes Memorial Park, Houston Arboretum, Addicks Reservoir, Bear Creek Park and other locations. Because so much of this area is residential, participants can observe in their own yard or neighborhood rather than joining a team in the field. The 15-mile-diameter Fort Worth area centers on the Joint Reserve Base west of town and includes 17 areas. San Antonio’s count covers mostly the southern part of Bexar County.
Those in search of more rugged adventure can count in places such as Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the Nature Conservancy’s Love Creek Preserve and Lost Maples State Natural Area in Bandera County, or San Jacinto Wilderness in the Big Thicket. These may involve hiking into remote areas, climbing mountains, and even kayaking or canoeing.
The 119th annual Christmas Bird Count offers plenty of chances for adventure at multiple locations on various dates in December 2018 and January 2019.
An epic adventure, Ortego muses, would be to attend all the state’s top counts in one season.
“It would run something like: starting on Monday in Corpus Christi, then Freeport, Matagorda County, Powderhorn, Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, Guadalupe River Delta and, finally, on Friday, San Bernard refuge. I do most of these each year and it’s lots of fun.”
Consider yourself challenged.