Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Brown Booby and two Black Terns at Matagorda County, Black-vented Oriole at Brazoria, and Trumpeter Swan at Spring Creek were the headliners for a state that hopefully is starting to recover from four years of drought. Timely rains fell through most of the breeding season. Even though rainfall amounts were not enough to remove most of Texas from drought status, it did moderate the drought and make conditions much more favorable for nesting than in the previous four years.
A major cold front blew through Texas during early November and is believed to have facilitated early exit by many Neotropical migrants. In addition, >50% of the 107 CBCs reported some form of adverse weather during count day with two additional CBCs cancelling due to weather. Overall, the season was relatively warm making birding difficult along the Coast because of heat and high mosquito populations.
This was not a good year for irruptive species. Few montane species were reported. The normal large numbers of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, blackbirds, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches did not make it to southern counties.
A total of 3079 birder days used 7901 party-hours (1% increase) at 107 CBCs (2 less than last year) to produce 377 species, 21 infraspecific forms and 11 exotics. Seven traditional CBCs were not run this season. The species total was about the same as the last four years. During the last 10 years 19 species were missed which were found 60% of the time and 109 species that had been reported at least once. Band-tailed Pigeon, Varied Thrush, and Henslow’s Sparrow were found during Count Week, and six reported species were deleted for various reasons. Most compilers were very cooperative by providing >85% of the required documentation for unusual sightings with ½ of species being photographs. Some traditional high elevation species for the State were missed when the Guadalupe Mountains CBC birders could not work effectively in >50 mph winds.
Matagorda County was Number One in the Nation for the 8th year in a row with 234 species and Guadalupe River Delta was 3rd with 211 species. Freeport had 190 species, Port Aransas 187, Bolivar Peninsula 178, Corpus Christi 172, San Bernard N.W.R. 170, Attwater N.W.R. 167, Corpus Christi-Flour Bluff & Weslaco 166, Houston 164, Galveston 165, Laguna Atascosa N.W.R. 160, Anzalduas-Bentsen S.P. 159, Galveston & Kingsville 158, Harlingen 157, Brownsville 155, and Brazos Bend S.P. 153. Orange County & Sea Rim S.P. had 150 species and all other Texas CBCs had less. Species tallied by CBC varied widely. Some produced one of their highest species tallies like Houston and Port Aransas while other had their lowest in the last 15 years like Freeport, Guadalupe River Delta, and San Bernard N.W.R.
Reporting sightings is getting easier with the development of numerous educational materials which can be used in the office and field, and production of better optical equipment & lighter cameras to take birding. Texas birders submitted documentation on 261 of the 377 species reported and provided photographs of 158 of these species. A total of 487 sets of details were submitted and this was 89% of those desired.
The Pine Warbler likely provides the greatest identification problem for woodland birders when you consider the high variability of its appearance and overall abundance. Every documented warbler and vireo is compared to this species in the editing process, and an occasional correct identification is likely deleted or questioned when the observer did not take the time to describe their bird sufficiently to eliminate this and other similar species. Pine Warblers only occurred in about 53% of its abundance over the last two years resulting in less ID issues.
After reporting 342 species over 21 years the expectation of new birds at Matagorda County is one or two per year. This year an amazing six new species were reported and five of those were only found there in Texas. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and uncommon migrant that typically finishes its fall migration in October, was photographed by Bob Friedrich’s team. Being the 1st Texas CBC record earned it the designation as the Best Bird for the CBC and the STATE this season. Its presence was not unprecedented. Ron Weeks has found four at the same turf grass farm after the CBC season within the count circle last year for a record latest date.
Petra Hockey’s “Sea-Watch” at Matagorda County again produced Big Dividends. She reported a Brown Booby (2nd Texas CBC record), Black Tern, and two species of Jaeger. Brown Boobies have been reported regularly on the Coast this fall, and there were hopes multiple birds would be found during the CBCs. None had been reported in Matagorda County, but despite excellent CBC results, the area gets little off-season birding coverage. The Black Tern is very rare on Texas CBCs with only 15 previous records. Sandy Dillard alerted us about the presence of the species with a sighting the day before. To our surprise, the CBC not only found presumably that bird, but also another one over nearby catfish ponds.
A major surprise was the 3rd Texas CBC record of a Black-vented Oriole at Brazoria. The bird was originally reported as an oriole by the landowner and fortunately it was photographed with a cell phone. The photo was good enough to warrant further investigation. Tom Taroni, Charlie Brower, Ron Weeks and others were able to get confirmation of the bird the following day.
Another Great Bird was the Trumpeter Swan found within the Spring Creek CBC during the fall. It was seen by many and lingered into the winter making it the 3rd Texas CBC report.
One exiting aspect of participating in CBCs is finding the only species for a count and maybe for Texas. There were many “exclusives” this season. Texas had 46 instances where a species was found at only one CBC and 31 of these instances only involved one individual of a species. This is amazing when you realize birders spent over 3000 days in the field and they only found one individual of each of those species or a species was found only at one CBC. Production of exclusives varied from nine at Matagorda County, four at El Paso, three at Attwater’s, and two each at Brownsville, Freeport, Houston, Lake Tawakoni and Spring Creek. One species was exclusive to 20 other CBCs. Exclusives ranged from the expected Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken at Attwater N.W.R., Mexican Jay at Chisos Mountains, Montezuma Quail at Davis Mountains, Little Gull at Dallas County, Allen’s Hummingbird at Victoria, Red-cockaded Woodpecker at Spring Creek, and Red-throated Loon & Smith’s Longspur at Lake Tawakoni to many surprises for birders.
Tundra Swans were found just outside of the Matagorda County CBC circle during the fall by Ron Weeks. Several observers found the species after the initial sighting but always just outside the count circle. During count day Cathy Wakefield and Kirk Feurbacker reported the swans. With them being outside all season, we got out the measuring- sticks (gps) to verify their location and they made it inside by 10 YARDS!
Lingering Magnificent Frigatebirds are generally rare during Texas winters. The Port Aransas CBC was fortunate to have three sightings. They whittled this down to two birds based on descriptions and locations of reports. The board walk at the South Padre Island Convention Center produced another good bird when a Purple Gallinule was spotted under it during the Coastal Tip CBC.
American Golden-Plovers are rare during winter with only one CBC record in the last 10 years. Matagorda County thought they would be able to add one to their list when they monitored what appeared to be a cripple for weeks leading up to the CBC, but they missed it on Count Day. However, Richard Peake found one in alternate plumage on the San Bernard N.W.R. The plumage stage was rare for the season – as was the bird.
Gulls created some excitement with Blaine Carnes finding the Little Gull in Dallas CBC, a Great Black-backed Gull being photographed at Houston CBC, and a Thayer’s Gull spotted by multiple observers far inland at the White River CBC. This was the 1st Thayer’s on a Texas CBC in 11 years.
Nighthawks used to be relatively frequent for a rare wintering bird, but they are very scarce now. Most identified birds in native habitat turn out to be Lessers, as was the case at Matagorda County this season. Whips & Chucks fall in the same category; formerly expected but now rarely found. Freeport located two whip-poor-wills for their CBC.
The Greater Pewee made it appearance for the 3rd year in a row in the Buffalo Bayou CBC area. It was photographed during the count and seen by many throughout the fall.
CBCs with small numbers of birders and low numbers of birds frequently do not add many species to the State tally, but those situated in unique habitats like in West Texas or along the Mexican border like Del Rio always have the potential to have exclusives. That was the case this season with Hueco Tanks CBC finding the only Long-eared Owl. El Paso CBC reported the only Broad-billed and Broad-tailed hummingbirds, Plumbeous Vireo, and Red Crossbill, and Victoria CBC managed to locate the only Allen’s Hummingbird. Del Rio CBC located Bank Swallows and photographed White-collared Seedeaters.
Lingering warblers were scarce resulting in above average reports of one individual. Warren Pruess located a Tennessee at Eagle Lake and I lucked out when a Prairie emerged from roadside hedges at Attwater’s N.W.R. CBC. At the lower end of the Coast David Benn found a Magnolia at Sabal Palm Sanctuary within Brownsville CBC and Santa Ana N.W.R. CBC reported a Tropical Parula. At the upper end Houston CBC found an American Redstart. Along the Central Coast Matagorda County CBC reported Blue-winged and Black-throated Blue. Further inland, San Antonio CBC photographed a Louisiana Waterthrush.
This was a relatively good year for orioles. CBCs reported eight species. The Black-vented was mentioned before and Bolivar Peninsula CBC photographed an Orchard Oriole. This species has been deleted several times during the past decade because birders just casually reported it without documentation.
A number of species reported this season are rare, but with as many birders as Texas puts into the field one usually shows up somewhere. Such was the case for the Black-headed Grosbeak at Anzalduas-Bentsen CBC, and the Dickcissel found by Barry Lyon at Freeport CBC.
All too often we locate a bird that frustratingly defies identification. Such was the case at Harlingen CBC. They photographed a bunting that we are just going to leave it as bunting sp.
With only one individual found for each of 31 species during over 3000 birding days, it is likely there were several more species present that were not found during the CBCs. The Band-tailed Pigeon and Varied Thrush at El Paso CBC, and the Henslow’s Sparrow at Nacogdoches CBC were only reported for Count Week. Looking at the data for Texas during the last decade, there were 19 species which were reported on 60% of the CBCs that were missed or not adequately documented. They were Muscovy Duck, Ring-necked Pheasant, Pacific Loon, Hook-billed Kite, Swainson’s Hawk, Wilson’s Plover, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Calliope Hummingbird, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Yellow-throated Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Wood Thrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
As in past seasons, I try to identify shifting populations in Texas as monitored by the CBC. Groups of species are discussed in phylogenetic order below and species with significant breeding habitat are in bold. Population trends are identified each season by comparing the results of the season for each species to the average number reported for the previous 10 years. I view a population as changed if it varies from the 10-year average of a species by greater than one standard deviation; i.e., Mottled Duck 10-year avg = 2416, std dev = 498, 1575 during 114th = population decrease.
Many factors affect the number of birds available to be counted with habitat conditions believed to have the greatest influence. Short term localized events like hurricanes/wild fires, and season long rainfall patterns can have dramatic effects on habitat conditions and the availability of food which in turn affects bird reproduction, migration patterns and winter densities. Another factor to consider is the timing of the CBC. David Wolf once mentioned in his Special Accounts that he felt his CBC was mostly monitoring late fall migration. He scheduled his count on the 1st weekend to maximize the Nacogdoches CBC’s opportunity to tally migrants. Late dates are also popular with some CBCs if they happen to be in migrant traps or southern latitudes to maximize the number of migrants that will arrive to winter. The most popular day this season was as expected the first Saturday with 20 CBCs. The 2nd most popular was the last Saturday with 13 CBCs and eight on the 27th which was also a Saturday. December 22, 25 and 31 were the only dates not used for a Texas CBC.
Count Day weather can have significant effects on birder production and willingness to stay in the field. Texas has a wide range of climatic conditions with north to south and east to west distances across the state being >700 miles each. Temperatures ranged from 18 degrees at White River CBC in the Panhandle to 77 degrees at the Chaparral W.M.A. CBC in the xeric Brush Country and Kenedy County Wind Turbines & Matagorda County CBCs on the Coast. Twenty-one experienced freezing conditions and 17 had days with at least 70 degrees temperatures. Twenty-five of the 107 CBCs experienced winds > 15 mph and the Guadalupe Mountains CBC for the 2nd year in a row had winds > 50 mph. Thirty of the CBCs had some level of rain with seven experiencing heavy showers some time during the day. I personally experienced the rain at San Bernard N.W.R. along with many birders trying to bird under an umbrella all day. At least I was not in one of the vehicles which got stuck in the mud. Thus, > 50% of the Texas CBCs had some adverse weather during the day of the count with two cancelling due to adverse weather. These factors contributed to our results or lack thereof.
However, the impact of drought was the biggest issue over the last several years. Texas has experienced severe droughts during the years 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013. This year the drought was somewhat moderated with dry conditions being mostly in the central part of Texas. East and west Texas received enough rains to bring it out of the drought.
Countering several years of dry conditions in Texas, there was an abundance of water in the major waterfowl production areas for three of the last four breeding seasons in Saskatchewan and the Dakotas which produce most of the ducks and many of the grassland birds wintering in Texas. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 2014 estimate of breeding ducks (http://www.ducks.org/hunting/migration/2014-waterfowl-forecast) in the traditional survey area was 49.2 million ducks which was the highest estimate since they started standardized surveys in 1955.
Birds depending on wetlands had mixed responses. Again many natural shallow water sites in Texas were dry except for those that were filled by fall rains, and rice production and its availability after the growing season were very limited near the Coast. Due to water shortages the Lower Colorado River Authority delivered no water to rice growers in the vicinity of two major CBCs; Attwater N.W.R. and Matagorda County. Production of rice, and availability of irrigation water in the fall for waterfowl impoundments has significant effects on waterbirds along the Coast. Waste grain is a major food supply for wintering waterfowl, cranes, blackbirds and their predators. Flocks of 20,000+ Snow Geese along the Coast used to be common. Today, if a flock of 2000 geese occurs along the highway, this is a must stop for birders.
Deep lakes and tidal areas still had water. Many tidal wetlands which were normally fresh had some salinity and this affected their suitability to species. Shallow sea grass beds which grow in low salinities appeared to have poor production this season. Deep water birds generally did OK under these conditions with several species showing noticeable above average densities.
Despite duck numbers being at their highest levels in the continent this century Canada Goose, Ross’s Goose, Mottled Duck, Northern Pintail, Bufflehead, and Common Merganser showed declining number while Gadwall and Redhead were above average. The Mottled Duck continues its long term decline.
The Northern Bobwhite which is a species of National Concern had its highest tally in seven years.
Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Little Blue Heron which breed in the State were counted in below average numbers. Double-crested Cormorant, American Bittern, Least Bittern, and Reddish Egret were reported above average.
Raptors as a group show 11 species increasing and seven species decreasing. Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Crested Caracara increased for the 2nd year in a row, and Sharp-shinned Hawk and Harris’s Hawk decreased for the 2nd year in a row.
Aplomado Falcons via hacking programs by Peregrine Fund have done well on Matagorda Island in the Aransas N.W.R. CBC area. They have been breeding on the island for over a decade with some using native vegetation for nesting, but other individuals still find the hacking towers to their likings.
Piping Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, and Dunlin increased while Mountain Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Curlew, Stilt Sandpiper, and dowitchers decreased. A large part of the increase could have been related to a good day at Kenedy County CBC where over 100,000 shorebirds were counted on its extensive wind tidal flats comprised mostly of Dunlin, Western, and Least sandpipers. When falcons are actively herding shorebirds, flocks like in the photo below can occasionally be found. The more typical situation is like the 2nd photo below where 30 miles of light densities of shorebirds occur at the edges of the flats.
Kenedy County also produced an impressive tally of over 360 Piping Plovers on the wind tidal flats. This is the largest number ever reported on a CBC.
In general, gulls and terns were reported in good numbers with the exception of Royal Tern which was below average. Six jaegers were reported by three CBCs which is unusual for Texas in that jaegers tend to stay far offshore and out of site over the Gulf of Mexico. It also helps to have experts operating the scopes assigned to “Seabird” Watches.
Doves were relatively abundant with five species being above average. Eurasian Collared-Doves, White-winged Doves, and Mourning Doves had record tallies. The expansion of the collared-dove has been amazing with increases almost every year since its arrival. I took a vacation this summer traveling to North Dakota and saw them in every town visited. Mourning Doves were benefitted by fall rains which did not allow farmers to plow under the stubble from their grain crops resulting in food remaining all winter.
The Great Horned and Barred owls both had record tally years. Little effort is used to survey owls and high number years usually coincide with increased effort and conditions suitable for owls to be heard calling. The Barred Owl graph characterizes a species which appears to be relatively stable and any major changes in reported numbers is likely related to effort used in the survey.
Monk Parakeets continue to increase and were reported at eight sites this year. Exotic parrots have seldom been tallied on Texas CBCs and it is not clear how many are present. Brownsville made specific efforts to monitor theirs and reported four species: White-fronted, Lilac-crowned, Red-lored and Yellow-headed. With increasing concerns about the status of the native Red-crowned it will become increasingly important to monitor exotics and their interactions with this species.
Modest numbers of hummingbirds were reported. Buff-bellied being a local breeder has been declining throughout the period of the drought. Species from the genera Archilochus & Selasphorus might show lower numbers in part due to my requiring documentation for all females making many individuals only identified to the genus.
Woodpeckers did very well for the 2nd year in a row. Eight species increased and one decreased. Most increasers recorded their highest tally for the last 10 years and they were all local breeders except for the migratory Northern Flicker. Are woodpeckers responding to increased tree mortality during the drought that likely has increased their food supply in the short term? Nobody is monitoring their food, but droughts stress and kill trees. [The Texas Forest Service estimated that 301 million trees in Texas died due to the 2011 drought.] Stressed and dead trees are very susceptible to wood boring insects which woodpeckers eat.
Tropical and Couch’s kingbirds continue to increase. The Guadalupe River Delta CBC produced an amazing 207 Couch’s from the 615 reported for the State. Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet, and Eastern Phoebe breed in Texas and their populations were lower than normal this year. The Ash-throated Flycatcher is also a local breeder. It’s recent greatly reduced numbers coincided with the drought.
Hutton’s Vireo, Blue Jay, Western Scrub Jay, Mexican Jay, American Crow, and Common Raven all increased this year.
The Cave Swallow numbers declined again this season. Cave Swallow numbers show major shifts in birds per party-hour each season. This species’ numbers are tallied by relatively few people each year and this species is not a good species to track with effort. Most individuals are likely tallied at roost sites in old swallow nests at night with the total tallied having little to do with the effort of the CBC. Despite this situation, it has shown a steady increase over the years as more inland CBCs figured out how to monitor the species. However, this is the 2nd year in a row that numbers have declined. Availability of food during the drought and during winter cold snaps has been shown to be associated with mortality of this species.
Black-crested Titmouse, Verdin, Canyon Wren, Carolina Wren, and Bewick’s Wren all showed increases which is a pleasant change from the suppressed numbers reported during drought years. Tufted Titmouse and Winter Wren numbers dropped.
Eastern Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, and European Starling increased with Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird, Long-billed Thrasher and American Pipit declining.
With the Sprague’s Pipit being reviewed for federal listing, much more attention is being paid to this species status. The 135 reported this season is about what was expected, but the 49 reported at Matagorda County CBC was much higher than normal at that site.
Warblers mostly had poor showing with Orange-crowned Warbler, Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, and Common Yellowthroat numbers declining. Nashville Warbler was the exception with increasing numbers. Summer Tanagers were reported more frequently than normal.
The Olive Sparrow was the only sparrow-like bird reported below average. Spotted Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Black-chinned Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Harris’s Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, N. Cardinal, and Indigo Bunting were all above average. These results display an opposite pattern from last year where there were more species declining than increasing.
Large flocks of blackbirds and grackles did not migrate south into Texas. Common Grackles and American Goldfinches were reported in below average numbers. Eastern Meadowlark, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Cassin’s Finch, and House Finch were reported in above average numbers. The Lesser Goldfinch increased again this season for the 6th year in a row. It has been progressively increased during the last five seasons.
I hope you enjoyed looking at these brief snapshots of population changes. It is easy to jump to premature conclusions with population changes occurring at the same time of major events like droughts, wet years, lack of irrigation water, hurricanes, fires, and bad weather during count days. Longer studies usually show that continental responses by avian populations are much more complex and can be very difficult to predict.
I tried to include as many photographs of birds as possible taken during CBCs in this regional report to document rarities and show species of interest. This is all dependent on the birders photographing the birds and submitting them with their results. This Regional Report is the product of over 3000 birder days in the field in Texas.