The 118th CBC in Texas

Texas produced 110 Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) with 3048 birder days on the way to reporting 379 species which included the rarities Tundra Swan, Red-throated Loon, shearwater sp., Black-legged Kittiwake, Sabine's Gull, Thayer's Gull, Glaucous Gull, Elegant Tern, Greater Pewee, and Tamaulipas Crow. Each of these species added excitement to the usual drama of each counts pursuit of the best section, and highest local, State and National species tallies.  However, our main thoughts throughout the season were on the aftermath of The Hurricane.  

Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas on 26 August as a Category IV storm and created significant damage to human and wildlife habitats on the central Texas Coast.  The Aransas N.W.R., Guadalupe River Delta, Port Aransas, Rockport, Victoria and Welder Wildlife CBC circles received significant wind and water damage as it moved inland.  Neighboring CBCs Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi-Flour Bluff, Jackson – Calhoun and Powderhorn received tropical force winds which also appeared to impact resident bird numbers.  Reports from the Port Aransas, Rockport and Aransas N.W.R. areas immediately after the storm were few to no land birds (doves, cardinals, grackles, House Sparrows) left alive and no leaves remaining on trees in these coastal communities.  As fall migration continued after the storm along this major migration corridor of the Gulf Coast, many species were challenged to locate food and cover.

Rockport is known for its large hummingbird concentrations during August/September.  Hummers are typically treated to thousands of sugar water feeders by local residents each year. Weeks after Harvey many residents were displaced and there was little water or sugar available to people or birds.  Resident birders still present in the impacted areas reported massive numbers of hummingbirds attracted to available feeders.  Lorrie Lowrie from the Rockport area fed up to 15 gallons of sugar water during one day to hummingbirds.

Photo: Photo of two of forty feeders managed by Lorrie Lowrie near Rockport post-Harvey

After Hurricane Harvey moved inland, it stalled south of Austin and returned to the Coast passing over Victoria for the 2nd time and then moving eastward to Louisiana dumping up to 50 inches of rain in Southeast Texas over 15 additional CBC circles creating record floods in a number of locations. 

Photo: Hurricane Harvey flooded areas (ScienceMag.Org)

HARVEY FOOTPRINT

Avian impacts from the hurricane are difficult to quantify with CBCs.  Many of the species present at the time of the storm (Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Painted Bunting) do not winter in the area, and some of the local breeding bird populations which were pounded by the hurricane (Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Mockingbird) are augmented by migrants during the winter.

To investigate avian impacts from the hurricane, data from the 10 CBCs mentioned above that were slammed by the hurricane winds were considered to be in the “Harvey Foot Print”.  CBC data were compared between the 117th and 118th seasons for population changes in relatively sedentary species in the Harvey Footprint vs the entire State.  Eight of ten species populations examined showed much greater declines as compared to State trends.

Photo: Carolina Chickadee was one of the species hit hard by Hurricane Harvey

Table 1.  Percent Change of Sedentary Species in Texas CBCs from the 117th to 118th CBC Seasons Comparing Population Shifts in the Harvey Foot Print to All of Texas.

Harvey    
  Foot Print Texas
Eurasian Collared-Dove +55 +19
Inca Dove  -63 -31
Com. Ground Dove -56 -9
Red-billed Woodpecker -33 -7
Ladder-backed Woodpecker -29 -8
Carolin Chickadee -62 -8
Titmice -50 -6
Carolina Wren -45 -14
Nothern Cardinal -51 +1
House Sparrow -6 -23

* * * * *

The 118th Season started on Thursday with the Fort Hood, Guadalupe River Delta, Love Creek, and La Sal Vieja conducting their counts. It progressed through its normal schedule of CBCs with generally mild weather until a cold front arrived on Sunday followed by rain all day Monday which was the date for Balcones Canyonland, Houston Central, Matagorda County, and Port Aransas. Average temps for the season were 42 for low and 58 for high which was somewhat cooler than last year.  It rained on 37% of the CBCs and had fog on an additional 9%. The season ended on 5 January with Anzalduas-Bentsen, Burnet County, and Big Spring CBCs.

Matagorda County – Mad Island Marsh led the State and Nation again during a rainy day with 220 species.  There was very close competition at the National level.  San Diego had another banner year with 217 species.  In Texas, Guadalupe River Delta – McFaddin Family Ranches produced 212 species, Freeport 204, San Bernard N.W.R. 179, Jackson-Calhoun Counties 173, Atwater Prairie Chicken N.W.R. 169, Corpus Christi 167, Powderhorn 164, Anzalduas-Bentsen 158, Galveston and Weslaco 156, Bolivar Peninsula 153, Laguna Atascosa N.W.R. 152, and Corpus Christi – Flour Bluff 151.

Participation dropped to 3048 birder days which is the lowest number in six years and 7504 party-hours which was the lowest over the last nine years.  Lower participation likely impacted the results along with the storm damage.  The fact that 2017 was the 3rd warmest and the 20th wettest year on record would have been the focus of discussions on a normal year.

Tamaulipas Crow was the only additional species reported during Count Week.  During the last 10 years, 11 species which were found 60% of the time were missed along with 84 species that had been reported at least once during that period. 

A total of 524 sets of details were provided for the Texas CBCs which included photographs for 204 species, but five species were deleted for inadequate documentation.

BEST BIRDS

The Top Species this season was the Elegant Tern at Freeport making its first appearance on a Texas Christmas Bird Count.  This is a West Coast species which over winters in very small numbers.  The Freeport bird will be one of only two reported in the Nation this season.

Jeff Gerbracht reported the 1st Sabine’s Gull on a Texas CBC at Lake Tawakoni during 1994 and Texas finally got its 2nd at Armand Bayou.  Linda Kuhn was able to photograph the bird which had originally been found on 11/18 and lingered to at least 12/29.  This bird was also one of two individuals reported this year on a CBC in the Nation.  Armand Bayou did not stop with this gull.  They also reported a Black-legged Kittiwake.  This is only the 3rd CBC season the species was reported this decade in Texas.

Photo: Sabine’s Gull photo by Linda Kuhn on Armand Bayou CBC
Photo: Black-legged Kittiwake photographed by Chuck Davis on the Armand Bayou CBC

The Tundra Swan which is only reported every other year on a Texas CBC was reported at Wichita Falls this season by Debra Halter, and Terry and June McKee.

Red-throated Loons are rare in Texas but typically at least one is found each year.  This season one was located on White Rock Lake on 13 December by Tal Roberts and was found by multiple observers during the Dallas County CBC.  Rarer still is the Thayer’s Gull which was also on the count.  This species is very challenging to identify.  See Below.

The Houston CBC boat party got its own rare bird.  They spotted a Glaucous Gull on a sandbar and Gregory Page was able to photograph it.  Glaucous are typically only found on Texas CBCs about twice per decade.

I extend my gratitude to the Texas sea-watchers.  They scan for birds for endless hours on jetties frequently in bad weather hoping for the occasional rare bird.  This season David Sarkozi was rewarded with an observation of a shearwater sp. at Freeport which is only reported about once per decade on Texas CBCs.

Greater Pewee.  What can I say?  It is not supposed to winter in Houston.  It is not supposed to winter anywhere in the United States as far as that goes.  Yet, this species has been reported six years in a row at Buffalo Bayou CBC.

It has been 18 years since a Tamaulipas Crow has been reported on a Texas CBC.  We are going to have to wait at least one more year.  This species was reported at several locations this fall giving hope that one would be reported on multiple CBCs.  Did not happen.  The closest which we got was during the count down of the Rockport CBC a local diner described what seemed to be the species the day before the count.  Larry and Judy Geiger were able to find it within the count circle the next day and multiple people were able to photograph the bird outside the count circle. 

This species used to be locally common in the vicinity of the Brownsville landfill as recent as the 92nd CBC when 221 were tallied.  Changes in the manner which the landfill was managed has been reported to affect bird use which resulted in only 15 being reported in the next eight years.

Participation dropped this year.  Only 7504 party-hours and 28,015 party-miles were reported as compared to 7970 party-hours and 30,730 party-miles last year.  The party-hours was the lowest in the last nine years and the party-miles was the 2nd lowest this decade.  I looked at participation in the path of Hurricane Harvey to determine if the participation changed, but it was roughly the same.  We did get more rain than normal with 37% of the CBCs having some precipitation.  Rain traditionally lowers participation and impacts tally results.

EXCLUSIVES

One exciting 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 44 instances where a species was found at only one CBC and 28 of these instances only involved one individual of a species.  This is amazing when you realize birders spent 3048 days in the field and they only found one individual of each of those species.  Production of exclusives varied from five at Davis Mountains to four at El Paso and Freeport, three at Armond Bayou, and two each at Attwater’s, Coastal Tip, Dallas and Lake Tawakoni.  One species was exclusive to 20 other CBCs.

Davis Mountains had their traditional Montezuma Quail and Western Screech-Owl, plus Allen’s Hummingbird, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and Pygmy Nuthatch.  El Paso added Long-eared Owl, plus Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, and Costa’s hummingbirds.  Freeport reported the only shearwater, Pomarine Jaeger, Elegant Tern, and Prairie Warbler.  Armand Bayou tallied the only Black-legged Kittiwake, Sabine’s Gull, and Calliope Hummingbird.  Attwater’s found one of the few Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chickens left in the state, plus a Prothonotary Warbler.  Coastal Tip reported the only Wilson’s Phalarope and Least Tern, Dallas Red-throated Loon and Thayer’s Gull, Laguna Atascosa Great White Heron and Bay-breasted Warbler, and Lake Tawakoni Pacific Loon and Smith’s Longspur.

THE NUMBER ONE

I am fascinated by the Number One as it pertains to CBCs.  Number One State, CBC, Party and Birder all have their place in a competitive environment.  Finding the only one bird is also pretty interesting.  Was it the only individual out there or was there not enough quality coverage to find more of that species is a question I ask myself many times as a compiler.  Finding one individual excites me.  Yet, at the same time it makes me very nervous in that we need to do a better job because I believe there are other expected species with one individual which we did not find.

Texas CBCs reported 27 species that were represented by one individual.  CBCs with 100 or less species averaged 13.8 % of their species being represented by one individual.  CBCs with 101 – 150 species had 10.5% species comprised of one individual.  CBCs with 151-200 species had 8.6% comprised of one individual, and the three CBCs over 200 were comprised of 12.3% by one bird.

What does one individual mean?  It appears to mean that with better coverage you will have more species and less species with one individual.  However, some years just confound the averages. 

POPULATION TREND

(Population trend report will compare number of individuals reported this season to the last 10 years in Texas.  Population changes indicated will be for those reports which deviated by more than one standard deviation from that species 10-year average unless otherwise indicated.)

Table 2.  Percentage of species increasing or decreasing by season

SEASON            INCREASING     DECREASING                 NO CHANGE

109th                19%                 16%                             65%     Hurricane Ike

110th                24%                 14%                             60%     drought

111th                30%                 4%                               66%

112th                26%                 22%                             52%     drought

113th                19%                 24%                             57%     drought

114th                13%                 21%                             66%     drought

115th                25%                 15%                             60%    

116th                21%                 16%                             63%

117th                20%                 15%                             65%     warm

118th                17%                 20%                             63%     Hurricane Harvey

This season’s results show similar patterns to the worst CBC season for declining species over the last 10 years in Texas.  The 118th season was only the third time this decade where declining species outnumbered increasing species.

Waterfowl numbers fluctuate dramatically from year to year depending on food availability in the flyways.  Wood Duck and Cinnamon Teal increased in Texas while Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, and Common Goldeneye decreased.  Redhead distribution was very spotty varying from good numbers at traditional Port Aransas to almost none at Matagorda County.

Photo: Wood Ducks photographed at Brazoria by Dora Ann Ortego increased this year
Photo: Waterfowl photographed by Rich Kostecke at Matagorda County

 

Plain Chachalaca and Ring-necked Pheasant increase while Northern Bobwhite and Wild Turkey decreased.  Hurricane Harvey severely reduced the numbers of the Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken.

Herons and egrets were reported in normal numbers.  Neotropic Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and White-faced Ibis increased while Roseate Spoonbills declined.  Large numbers of American Bitterns were reported at Matagorda County (28) and Guadalupe River Delta (19) by use of airboats on the State wildlife management areas.  I was on the airboat run with Kevin Kriegel on the Delta where we flushed 16.  Great tool for accessing dense marsh far from roads.

Photo: American Bittern photographed at Matagorda County by Dora Ann Ortego
Photo: Black-crowned Night-Heron photographed by Shirley Stafford in Big Spring declined in Texas this season

Raptor numbers were relatively stable with a few exceptions.  Golden Eagle was reported more than twice as high as the last six years.  Bald Eagles continue to be reported at record levels and Zone-tailed Hawks have become expected in many CBCs where it used to be rare.  Both Black and Turkey vulture were reported below average which is likely indicative of poor weather in traditionally high count areas.  Sharp-shinned Hawks were reported at the lowest number for the decade and Ferruginous Hawks had a 2nd below-average year in a row.  Harris’s Hawks were reported at several sites during fall where they traditionally did not occur with regularity.  There was speculation they were spread by Hurricane Harvey.  The CBC tally did not show any unusual distribution and was only the 3rd highest for the decade.

Photo: Harris’s Hawk photographed by Bob Friedrichs at Guadalupe River Delta
Photo: Even though it has become expected at many sites, the Zone-tailed Hawk photographed by Allison Peeler on the Davis Mountains CBC is still a beautiful hawk worth sharing.
Photo: Yellow Rail photographed shortly after midnight at Matagorda County by Rich Kostecke
Photo: Airboat Run with Captain Ziegler located miles of shorebirds in the Laguna Madre at the Padre Island National Seashore on the Kenedy County CBC. Note: those are not mountains in the background. They are sand dunes.

Rails are challenging to survey.  Special techniques are often required for the rarer Black and Yellow rails.  This frequently involves working at night and many times driving ATVs through very dense grasslands.  The rail teams at Matagorda County and San Bernard N.W.R. continue to do a great job locating Yellow Rails.

Franklin’s Gull primarily occurred in above average numbers because of one large flock spotted flying across the Guadalupe River Delta.  Gull-billed Terns continued to be reported in record numbers.  However, Bonaparte’s Gull was reported in the lowest number for the decade which is likely indicative of a late migration.  Black Skimmer were also reported at their lowest number for the decade.

Doves did not do well.  Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, and White-tipped Dove were reported in the lowest numbers for the decade.  Mourning Dove and Greater Roadrunner were below average.

Most owls and nightjars occurred at expected population levels.  The exceptions were Barn Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, and Common Pauraque.  They each were reported at the lowest levels for the decade.

In general, the diversity and abundance of hummingbirds in the eastern count areas had dropped during the drought years and have not recovered, yet.  Archilochus and Selasphorus hummingbirds are very challenging to identify in the field.  Many birders do not take the time to satisfactorily document these species and as a result they are only allowed to be identified to the genus.  This might be partly why the numbered of accepted Black-chins was the lowest in the decade.  Buff-bellied numbers have also dropped to their lowest level in the decade.

Kingfishers and woodpeckers in general occurred in below-average numbers.  Ringed and Green kingfishers occurred at the lowest level for the decade.  Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Pileated Woodpecker all occurred below average.  It is unusual for almost an entire guild to decline in numbers.

Last year was an amazing year for falcons with most species occurring in above average numbers.  This season numbers were more average.  Peregrine Falcon was the only species reported in below average numbers.

Flycatchers occurred in fairly normal numbers with the exception of the occasional rarity.  Hammond’s Flycatcher is rare on Texas CBCs.  The two photographed by Rich Kostecke and Romey Swanson at Love Creek were exceptional reports.   Black Phoebes are not rare in Texas but are rare in the eastern part of the state.  The Black Phoebe found at the Guadalupe River Delta by Bill Lindemann made the day for several birders on this CBC.

This was an exceptional year for Steller’s Jay and Common Raven with both having their highest tally of the decade.  Sadly, the Steller’s were only reported from three CBCs.  Many eastern counts would place out a welcome mat for them if they decided to go east.

Tree Swallow and Bushtit were reported at their highest number this decade.  The Pygmy Nuthatch on the Davis Mountains CBC was surprising in that this was only the 2nd report this decade.  Titmice, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper were reported in below average numbers.  While Carolina Chickadee numbers declined greatly with the hurricane, it should be noted regardless of the hurricane, chickadees have been declining during each of the last three seasons.

Northern Mockingbird and Sprague’s Pipit were reported in their lowest numbers for the decade.  This is the 2nd year in a row mockingbirds were tallied in lower than average numbers.

Photo: Sedge Wren was reported in above average numbers. Photo by Bob Friedrichs at Guadalupe River Delta
Photo: Mountain Bluebird photographed at Amarillo by Tom Johnson

Twenty-three species of warblers were reported this season with Mourning/MacGillivray’s, Bay-breasted, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Black-throated Green, and Wilson’s warblers occurring at above average, and Black-and-white Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat occurring below.  Freeport reported the most species of warblers with 13.  It was followed by Matagorda County with 12, Guadalupe River Delta 11, and the rest of the CBCs with nine or fewer species.  The Mourning/MacGillivray’s, Bay-breasted, and Townsend’s were especially nice since these were the first Texas records for the decade.

Photo: The Black-throated Gray Warbler photographed at Matagorda County by Sue Heath was 1 of 10 reported in Texas
Photo: American Redstart photographed by Mikael Behrens at Guadalupe River Delta

Lots of polarity was seen in the sparrow group.  Seven species were reported above average numbers and eight below.  LeConte’s Sparrow had its highest tally for decade while Olive and White-crowned sparrows were reported at their lowest level.  The Blue Grosbeak reported by Eric Carpenter at the Guadalupe Delta was the 2nd record this decade.

Photo: Baird’s Sparrow at Comstock was the first report this decade. This is a very challenging species to locate and identify.
Photo: Nelson’s Sparrow photographed by Harry Forbes on the Jackson – Calhoun CBC
Photo: Seaside Sparrow photographed by Harry Forbes on the Jackson – Calhoun CBC
Photo: Brewer’s Blackbird photographed at Anzalduas occurred in above average numbers in Texas

This was a good season for most finches.  Purple Finch was the only species occurring below expectations.  Cassin’s Finches were reported at three CBCs in above average numbers and Red Crossbills were reported at five counts.

Photo: Scott’s Oriole photographed by Barry Zimmer at El Paso was 1 of 3 reported in Texas
Photo: Cassin’s Finch photographed by John Groves at El Paso
Photo: Red Crossbill photographed by Carol Bailey at Big Spring

MOST COMMON BIRDS

The Red-tailed Hawk was the most widespread species occurring on 109 of the 110 Texas CBCs.  The American Kestrel and Mourning Dove occurred on 108, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 107, Northern Mockingbird on 105, Northern Cardinal and Great Blue Heron 104, Killdeer 103, Savannah Sparrow 101, and European Starling and Loggerhead Shrike on 100 CBCs.  The least abundant tallied were the 27 species where only one individuals was found.  These single individuals represented 7% of the species. 

THE NIGHT

I love birding the night.  It typically is quiet and very peaceful with just you and your target birds.  Give me a clear and cool night with full moon and lots of stars and I am happy.  Shooting stars are a bonus on those nights.

What is the advantage for birding the night?  In many situations it makes it easier to tally species hard to locate during daylight.  In addition, it allows us to monitor species that are not possible during the day, and tally species at a time which does not conflict with surveying other species. 

How many species can you tally in a night? Forty is pretty good on the coast.

I tip my hat to the CBCs that spent at least five hours working nocturnal; Balcones Canyonland, Fort Worth, Lake O’the Pines, Nacogdoches, and Tyler, and a salute for those working more than 10 hours – Guadalupe River Delta, Freeport, and Matagorda County.

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