Five decades ago, when Bill Graber started the Bolivar Peninsula Christmas Bird Count in southeastern Texas, the brown pelican’s future was in doubt. The widespread use of DDT had made the birds’ eggshells too thin, causing the parents to unintentionally crack them during incubation. Despite these setbacks, the species could still be found in small numbers along the Texas coast—but Graber had never seen one during his annual tally. In 1977 his luck changed.

“Lo and behold, in the air, turning around in big circles, was a single brown pelican,” says the father of three, “the first we had had in 15 years of doing our count.” For another decade the lone pelican—a species Graber now calls “dirt common”—was the sole representative of its kind for the Bolivar count. It left quite an impression. “We’ve had some really rare birds,” Graber says, “but that one episode was one of the high points in 49 years of doing this count.”

come this far south.” Pendergast calls this information a good barometer for what’s really happening in the environment, and both she and Graber say they believe these changes result from warmer temperatures.

Such avian acumen comes from Graber’s deep intimacy with his count. “I was 29 when I started. I’m 78 now. So the 50 years just cost me my youth,” he says good-naturedly. Aside from the reliable data these bird counts provide, there’s another important aspect: “They’re fun to do,” Graber says. He plans to continue participating in Bolivar, but with a half-century under his belt, he’s happy to hand over the compiling to a new, younger generation.

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