The early-morning air held a slight chill as eight people gathered in an open area along the shore of the Colorado River near the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa on December 28, 2013. They peered through binoculars up into winter-bare trees, looking for a bluebird someone thought they had spotted. As he searched, Gus Cothran heard a soft voice say, “Is that a bald eagle?” Re-aiming his gaze, Cothran found himself looking at one of the majestic birds. It turned out to be half of a pair, the other sitting on a nearby nest.
“The eagles were definitely a surprise,” says Cothran, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University. He and his wife, Marian, had come to Lost Pines to participate in the 2013–14 Christmas Bird Count. Some 70,000 volunteers across the Northern Hemisphere counted species and individual birds in their respective specific areas, each for designated 24-hour periods between December 14, 2013, and January 5, 2014. The count, an annual event sponsored by the National Audubon Society, began in 1900 and ranks as the longest-running citizen science project in the world. Data collected by participants help Audubon identify species at risk and guide the organization’s public policy and conservation strategies.
Citizen science efforts such as this one are “foundational to conservation policy in the United States,” wrote David Yarnold, Audubon president and CEO, in the organization’s magazine in 2012. These programs influence allocation of state and federal conservation dollars, land-management decisions and wildlife policy.
Christmas Bird Count data in particular are also increasingly important in documenting changes in bird populations. The yearly counts have spotlighted a decline in the numbers of many common birds, including the northern bobwhite, and also helped document how conservation efforts brought back bald eagles and led to significant increases in some waterfowl populations.
Texas hosts dozens of Christmas Bird Count events each year, and thanks to the state’s geographic diversity and location along migration paths, participants routinely tally more species than just about anywhere else. Matagorda County, on the Gulf Coast between Houston and Corpus Christi, led the nation for the 2013–14 count with 228 species. Statewide, Texas events have totaled as many as 630 species.
Lost Pines Count
The Cothrans had participated in five previous counts in Brazos County before heading to Bastrop for this one. “We just did a half day at Lost Pines but saw some excellent birds,” Gus Cothran says. “In addition to the eagles, we saw two or three ospreys, one of them carrying around a fish and then eating it in a tree. We must have seen at least 10 caracaras, and I’ve never seen that many.”
The day before the count, Lost Pines held workshops in which participants learned about types of feathers, bird sketching and how to create a bird-friendly backyard habitat. They also got tips on identifying birds that look alike, such as all those maddeningly similar sparrows or the oft-confused orange-crowned warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet. Groups went to work at 6 a.m. the day of the count, although those in Birding 101 met at 10 a.m. for basic instruction before heading into the field.
Matagorda County Count
The Nature Conservancy’s Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve takes in 7,063 acres of marsh and wetland that provide habitat for some 250 species of birds along with other wildlife. The preserve is part of the Matagorda County–Mad Island Marsh Preserve Bird Count.
“We started right at a minute after midnight and had our first bird within 10 minutes,” says Richard Kostecke, associate director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. Although there’s always that hard-core group of people raring to go right at midnight, most participants come out around sunrise, he says. “The official count period is midnight to midnight, but we generally wrap up by midafternoon. Odds are you’ve found everything you’re likely to find by then.”
The day started off cold at Mad Island but turned mild and sunny with no wind—excellent birding conditions. The highlight was a family of whooping cranes. “During 21 years of holding counts, this was only the second time that we found whooping cranes during the event,” Kostecke says. “The past few years, they’ve just disappeared on the day of the count.” Other good finds on the preserve were a broad-winged hawk, Swainson’s hawk and wood stork.
Participants don’t need impressive birding credentials. “We welcome anyone and everyone,” Kostecke says. “We’ve had a range of people—families with young kids, college-age kids and older folks—with a variety of experience, from professional researchers to those who have barely paid attention to birds before. We pair new folks with people who know the area and the birds. Someone new to it can serve as an additional pair of eyes to spot things. The whole spectacle of it and the activities and excitement can get people interested in birds and conservation.”
While official success is measured in how many species are seen, Kostecke says the real value of the count as a citizen science project is counting the number of individual birds year after year. “That provides information on population trends, what is happening, how certain species may be reacting to climate or habitat changes and so forth,” he explains. “The most useful scientific information is often from the more common birds, too, as we just don’t have enough information on rarities.”
The Matagorda event participants counted 1.7 million individual birds—1.4 million of them red-winged blackbirds or brown-headed cowbirds. Both types of blackbirds roost in dense marsh vegetation and forage on waste grain and seeds in the area’s agricultural fields, and so are easy to count when flying between the two. Experienced observers estimate the number of birds in a large flock by extrapolating from a known number, explains Brent Ortega, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist and bird count veteran. He counted birds with oysterman and ecotourism guide Ozzie Arnold and brother James, who drove their boat around the maze of intracoastal waterway and river channels toward East Matagorda Bay.
Blackbirds and cowbirds aside, the wetlands of Matagorda County attract many species in large numbers, and they tend to be more visible in the open coastal landscape, which helped boost the count there.
That evening, organizers announced the final compilation of counts from around the county: Matagorda County’s number, at 228 species, was the highest in the U.S.
The Rio Grande Valley has some of the most diverse habitat in Texas, home to 1,200 plant, 300 butterfly and about 700 vertebrate species, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This swath of South Texas is home to the World Birding Center, nine sites along a 120-mile stretch that as many as 500 bird species call home or pass through at some point during the year.
The Brownsville Christmas Bird Count was held December 18 at eight locations: Resaca de la Palma State Park, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, The Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, Sabal Palm Grove Audubon Center and Sanctuary, Fish Hatchery Road, Padre Island Boulevard, downtown Brownsville and the University of Texas at Brownsville campus.
Matagorda County plans to hold its count on Monday, December 15. The Lost Pines event will offer workshops and events on December 20 and plans to hold its count the next day.
“I absolutely think the count is a good way for beginners to get involved in birding,” says Lost Pines 2013–14 participant Cothran. “The beginners in our group were very happy to have experienced people along. They got a good look at a nice-looking pine warbler, bluebirds and roadrunners—and good photos as well.”
Melissa Gaskill is an Austin writer who specializes in nature topics.