Texas produced 110 Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) with 3173 birder days on the way to reporting 379 species which included the rarities Costa’s Hummingbird, Greater Pewee, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Pygmy Nuthatch and Northern Parula were observed only during Count Week. Each of these species added excitement to the usual drama of each count’s pursuit of the best section, and highest local, State and National species tallies.
During the last 10 years, 13 species which were found 60% of the time were missed along with 93 species that had been reported at least once during that period. Five-hundred-sixty sets of details were provided for the Texas CBCs which included photographs for 203 species, but four species were deleted for inadequate/unconvincing documentation.
Matagorda County–Mad Island Marsh led the State and Nation with 237 species during a very pleasant day; light winds, partly cloudy, and cool temps. Weather of this type does not happen often, and the 125 birders enjoyed a great day.
The Blue Mockingbird is a very rare tropical bird previously reported twice on United States CBCs. The first in Arizona during the 92nd season and the second at Santa Ana N.W.R. on the 103rd. The one reported on the Laredo CBC in the “river bend” area this season will be the Best Bird for Texas if accepted by the Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC). It was observed for about an hour in thick brush along the river by Tom Langshied, Jim Sinclair, Barbara Rapstein, Whitney Lanfranco, and Liz Phillips.
The Fork-tailed Flycatcher is a very rare tropical bird for Christmas Bird Counts. It has previously been reported at Kingsville CBC during the 89th season, Austin CBC the 113th, and in a Florida CBC during the 106th. This season four were reported on Louisiana and Texas CBCs. The San Marcos CBC bird was photographed by Sheri Miles and Colton Robbins on 12/16/18 and was never relocated. The Brazoria–Columbia Bottomlands CBC bird was first identified by Aaron Tjelmeland on 1/4/19, photographed by Joe Fischer during the CBC on the next day and observed by many through 2/15/19.
The Golden-crowned Warbler is another tropical species rarely found in the United States. Texas has had three previous CBC records. The first was at Santa Ana N.W.R. during the 90th CBC, Anzalduas-Bentsen on the 96th and Weslaco on the 108th. Two birds were reported by many observers in the Weslaco CBC area from 9/26/18 – 3/1/19. Brett and Lareina Niland found one in their section during the CBC. The compiler, John Yochum, wanted to obtain the all-time CBC high (2) for the species and assigned birders to locate the 2nd bird, but it was missed during count day.
The Greater Pewee is a very rare visitor to Texas and a rare winter bird anywhere in the United States. The all-time high count for this species is two which has been achieved five times. One Greater Pewee made a visit to the Buffalo Bayou CBC for several years. Bob Sanger reported one this season on the Brazoria-Columbia Bottoms CBC. This sighting is currently under review by the TBRC.
The Costa’s Hummingbird occupies southwestern deserts and occurs regular on CBCs in California in appropriate habitat. The species has been reported three times on Texas CBCs during the last decade. It was observed on the El Paso CBC in Barry Zimmer’s yard this season. Acceptance is pending approval by the TBRC.
One exciting aspect of participating in CBCs is finding the only species for a count and maybe for Texas. Texas had 46 exclusives spread over 31 CBCs. One individual was only reported for 26 species. This is amazing when you realize birders spent 3173 days in the field and they only found one individual of each of those species. Production of exclusives varied from four each at El Paso and Matagorda County, three at Davis Mountains, and two each at Attwater’s, Anzalduas-Bentsen, Freeport, Guadalupe River Delta, Guadalupe Mountains N.P., Harlingen, and Laredo. One species was exclusive to 20 other CBCs.
El Paso reported the only Costa’s Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Plumbeous Vireo, and Scott’s Oriole.
Three CBCs reported the Yellow-throated Vireo but only one was accepted which was at Matagorda County. The Yellow-throated Vireo is very rare on CBCs in Texas and it is believed that many reports of this species are mis-identified Pine Warblers. Both species can have bright yellow throats, breasts and spectacles along with white bellies and wing bars. They each have dark lores and eyes. Bill size is much larger in the Pine than most warblers and this bill size potentially fools birders to think that it is a vireo.
Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh had the only Purple Gallinule, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, and MacGillivray’s Warbler.
Davis Mountains reported the only Montezuma Quail, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker; Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken N.W.R. the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and Eastern Kingbird; Anzalduas–Bentsen Hook-billed Kite and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet; Freeport Wilson’s Phalarope and Parasitic Jaeger.
. . . . .
Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas on 26 August 2017 as a Category IV storm and created significant damage to human and wildlife habitats on the central Texas Coast. Harvey Footprint - 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. The impacts of the storm were described in https://www.audubon.org/news/the-118th-cbc-texas.
Bird data were again examined this season to look for recovery from the storm by comparing the 117th, 118th and 119th 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 in the first CBC season after Harvey, and populations of six species were still suppressed one year later.
Table 1. Percent Change of Sedentary Species in Texas CBCs from the 117th to 118th and 119th CBC Seasons Comparing Population Shifts in the Harvey Foot Print to All of Texas.
Foot Print Texas
118th 119th 118th 119th
Eurasian Collared-Dove +55 +50 +19 -11
Inca Dove -63 -42 -31 -11
Com. Ground Dove -56 -67 -09 +15
Red-bellied Woodpecker -33 -54 -07 -04
Ladder-backed Woodpecker -29 -26 -08 -18
Carolina Chickadee -62 +13 -08 +14
Titmice -50 +15 -06 +11
Carolina Wren -45 -17 -14 +01
Northern Cardinal -51 -26 +01 +13
House Sparrow -06 +16 -23 -32
* * * * *
THE COUNT SEASON
The 119th Season started on Friday 14 December with four CBCs being conducted. Winds ranged from 20-30 mph during each CBC. Weather changed to lighter winds, partly cloudy skies and pleasant temperatures during the following week and then switched to frontal passages every few days for the remainder of the season. The season ended with eight CBCs taking advantage of the last day being on a Saturday. This weather pattern produced 18 CBCs with wind > 20 mph or raining which was 50% less days of bad weather than last season.
Nice weather contributed to producing better participation this year. The 3173 birder days was the 2nd highest for Texas, 7800 party-hours 5th, and 29,975 miles 10th. This was more birder effort than expected considering 10 Christmas Bird Counts were not conducted.
NEW AND VACANT COUNTS
Texas keeps adding and dropping CBCs as birder interest shifts in the State. Texas added Erath County and Proctor Lake as the two newest CBCs this season. They will contribute data in lightly birded areas of the State.
Many factors impact CBCs. Most compilers deal with landowner access and weather on a seasonal basis, and birder recruitment all year long. However, a Federal Shutdown is a low blow. It is not expected, and it can hurt birder participation for years. We were fortunate they held off the partial shutdown until after the first week of CBCs were conducted. At least 15 Texas CBCs contain part of a national wildlife refuge, and six have part of a national park within their boundaries. Three counts were not run because of the shut-down; Santa Ana, Sea Rim, and Trinity River. Other CBCs with national parks had reduced assistance or access. The Partial Federal Shutdown likely contributed to the record number of low tallies of individuals of species in Texas.
Seven recently conducted CBCs were not surveyed this year.
Brownsville CBC – quality bird area centered on the city of Brownsville. Compiler left and nobody assumed leadership role.
Canadian River CBC – Initially started to feature Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Panhandle birds. Count is centered on the Canadian River in the NE corner of the Panhandle. The CBC stopped when the compiler moved. Part of CBC contains a wildlife management area.
Fort Clark Springs – Brackettville CBC – Centered on Brackettville. Contains at least one park and has mostly rural landscape. Compiler moved.
Lame Meredith (east) – Contains the portion of the lake which has water – most of the time. Compiler moved.
Pineywoods – Contains dam of Lake Livingston. Compiler moved.
Quanah – bi-state count contains the town of Quanah and the Red River. Compiler moved.
Richland Creek W.M.A. – Contains the W.M.A. and part of the Richland Chambers Reservoir. Compiler moved.
Santa Ana N.W.R. – compiler moved.
There are many historic CBCs that have been conducted and abandoned over the years that are not on this list. If you are interested in starting a new CBC, check with me and I will let you know if there is a historic count in your area of interest.
[Population trend report will compare number of individuals tallied this season to the last 10-years in Texas. Population changes indicated will be for those reports which deviated by more than 1 standard deviation from that species 10-year average unless otherwise indicated. National trend data can be found at https://www.audubon.org/conservation/where-have-all-birds-gone]
Table 2. Percentage of species increasing or decreasing by season in Texas.
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
119th 15% 27% 58% wet fall
This season Texas CBCs had the highest rate of declining species over the last 11 years. Wet ground conditions prevailed during fall and winter, but summer was very dry. Rainfall accumulation by June was 15 inches below average for many regions in the State. Fall rains made up those deficits creating the wet conditions experienced during the CBCs. Birding weather during the days of the counts were better than most years. The ratio of increasing species population to decreasing was 1:2 for all species. Resident species showed a greater tendency to decline this season with a ratio of four species declining for every one that was increasing.
Waterfowl numbers fluctuate dramatically from year to year depending on food availability in the Flyways. Blue-winged Teal, Black Scoter, and Bufflehead were the only waterfowl species increasing while 13 species were reported declining. Widespread availability of water may have spread waterfowl across the landscape rather than being concentrated in key places.
Black Scoter is usually a challenging species to locate in Texas because they forage far off the beach. This season 149 were reported from seven CBCs when the average over the last 10 years was 13. Two were amazingly found far inland at Austin. The Redhead tried its disappearing act again this season with over 100,000 being concentrated at one site in the Laguna Madre while 30,000 were scattered over the rest of Texas.
Plain Chachalaca, Northern Bobwhite, Montezuma Quail, and Wild Turkey decreased while no species of gallinaceous birds increased. Heavy spring rains were reported to have suppressed ground nester reproduction.
Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Little Blue Heron, and White Ibis were reported in above average numbers while White Pelican and Cattle Egret occurred below average. Brown Booby reports are becoming more common along the Coast, but the one reported on the Brazos Bend CBC was a major surprise.
I do not normally discuss exotics in this State report, but the flamingo on the Central Texas Coast is special. This banded bird, a Greater Flamingo from Africa, escaped from the Kansas Zoo in 2005 and eventually paired with a banded American Flamingo from the Yucatan. They roamed the Texas Coast for over a decade. The native flamingo eventually disappeared, and the zoo bird is still free in the wild.
Four species of raptors increased – Black Vulture, Hook-billed Kite, Golden Eagle, and Bald Eagle. Black Vulture posted its 2nd highest tally for the decade. Hooked-billed Kite reports used to be an annual event, but this was our first tally in five seasons. Bald Eagle numbers are continuing to increase state-wide even though the tallies at Matagorda County have declined during the last two years following their record count of 120. Reduction of catfish farm acreage might be the main cause for the local decline.
Numbers for White-tailed Kite, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Ferruginous Hawk have dropped. All but the Ferruginous Hawk posted their lowest number for the decade. This is good news for the Ferruginous since they were below average during the last two seasons. Sharp-shinned numbers continue to drop.
Texas produces large numbers of avian scavengers with Black and Turkey vultures, gulls, and Crested Caracara being the main ones. What is supporting this large population? My first thought was deer road kills providing a major food source for migrating and resident scavengers inland during the fall. It is not unusual to see a freshly killed deer on the road every day near Victoria.
State Farm insurance monitors deer vehicle collisions in order to set their insurance rates. Surprising to me, Texas is below average in the Nation. National deer collision rates are one deer collision per 167 drivers per year with Texas being relatively safe with one deer collision per 266 drivers. Where is the most likely state to hit a deer with your vehicle? West Virginia with a rate of one per 46 drivers.
Getting back to the scavengers, drivers do hit many deer and small mammals in Texas providing food for a very robust scavenger population. It does not look like it is the only factor which results in so many scavengers being winter or year-round residents.
Three species of shorebirds increased and five decreased. Wilson’s Plover had its highest tally (49) of the decade with Galveston reporting 85% of the birds. Willet and Long-billed Dowitcher also came in with their highest tally of the decade. Three CBCs in the Laguna Madre accounted for 75% of the Willets.
Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, Red Knot, and Wilson’s Snipe all had their lowest tallies of the decade. Much of their lower numbers might be related to the vast number of wet fields on the landscape which would have allowed the birds to disperse widely making them more difficult to count. Sadly, this is not the case for the Red Knot. There have been less than 50 individuals during six of the last 10 years with only three being reported this past season.
Numbers for gulls and terns were mostly as expected with only two species posted above average. Record lows for the decade were set for Herring Gull, Sandwich Tern, and Black Skimmer. Black Skimmer numbers have been declining for decades with only about 2000 being reported during each of the last three seasons.
Rufous and Buff-bellied hummingbirds were reported at their lowest level for the decade this season. Hummingbird reports have declined over the last two seasons. A peak of 340 was tallied during the 112th season and the low of 136 this season. Have the numbers of birds declined or is it more due to diminishing landowner interest?
Doves did not do well again. Six species were below average. Rock Dove, Inca Dove and Mourning Doves were at their lowest level for the decade.
Kingfishers and woodpeckers in general occurred below average. Ringed and Green kingfishers occurred at the lowest level for the decade for the 2nd year in a row. Red-headed Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker occurred above average and Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and Hairy Woodpecker all occurred below average.
Sapsucker, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker occurred above average and Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and Hairy Woodpecker all occurred below average.
Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, and Great Kiskadee occurred below average. Another group of species possibly showing low numbers because of the absence of Brownsville and Santa Ana N.W.R. CBCs.
While many species declined this season, vireos were mostly reported above average. White-eyed and Blue-headed were tallied at the highest numbers for the decade.
Green Jay, Mexican Jay, and American Crow numbers declined. Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Cave Swallow were also below average.
Bushtit continued its above average numbers this season and was joined by White-breasted Nuthatch. Red-breasted Nuthatch posted its 2nd highest tally for the decade. Carolina Chickadee and Brown-headed Nuthatch continued their low numbers this season. Tufted Titmouse was below average but Black-crested counts were normal.
Exceptional numbers of Townsend Solitaires were reported this winter. The Clay-colored Thrush had a low tally which might have been a victim of the federal shutdown.
Record numbers of Gray Catbirds were reported this season. Northern Mockingbird numbers were reported below average for the 3rd year in a row. Brown and Long-billed thrashers also occurred below average.
Sprague’s Pipits occurred 40% below its average for the 2nd year in a row. Wet fields likely contributed to Sprague’s not occurring in their traditional locations. The dry upland short grass pasture where I could normally find more than a dozen at the Attwater CBC was covered by tall, thick grass and produced zero Sprague’s.
Twenty-two species of warblers were reported this season with seven species occurring above average and two below. I used to take Black-and-white Warbler for granted, but in recent years they have been challenging to locate at most CBCs. We reported the highest tally for the decade this season. The same could be said for Black-throated Green Warbler. Tally for four seasons this decade was below 10 in the State. This season we had 23 Black-throated Greens which was the 2nd highest tally for the decade.
Sparrow numbers were down. Twelve species of sparrows were reported below average.
Have you ever used Audubon’s “where have the birds gone link”? It provides spacial distribution of population changes for many species. Seven of the 12 species of sparrows reported here as having short term declines were identified as having long time declines by Audubon’s trend calculator.
The tally for Song Sparrow was above average with the help of an amazing 440 reported at the White River CBC. Sounds like they were about as common as the 3192 Savannah Sparrows at the Matagorda County CBC.
Summer and Western tanagers have gone from being very unusual species to be an uncommon expected species on many CBCs.
Northern Cardinal and Pyrruhloxia were reported in below average numbers while Painted Bunting was reported in record numbers (5) for the decade. Contrasting to this Audubon’s Oriole had its lowest tally.
Purple Finch. What a season! The average report for Texas during the last decade was 50 per season. This season we had 366 birds from 34 CBCs. Nacogdoches had 58 by itself. Cypress Creek, Lake Tawakoni, and Turkey Creek CBC each had over 25.
MOST COMMON BIRDS
The Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel occurred in every CBC. Both species along with Mourning Dove are traditionally the most widespread. The Mourning Dove and Ruby-crowned Kinglet occurred in 108, Northern Cardinal 107, Northern Mockingbird 106, Great Blue Heron 105, European Starling 104, Killdeer and Savannah Sparrow 102, House Sparrow 101, and Belted Kingfisher and Eastern Phoebe 100.
It is a challenge for a species to be found in every count. Some of our unique CBCs have very little habitat diversity. The Kenedy County – Wind Turbines CBC which I compile is an example. The area has extensive wetlands and grasslands which supports many thousands of waterbirds, but has little brush or trees. This CBC on the Coast has never broken 100 species and only once has had a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Two hundred fifty-five photographs were received to document 203 species. I used 36 of these photos from 17 CBCs. I encourage compilers to submit photos of birds reported on their CBC. I need more photos for documenting unusual species. I also use photos of common species to help tell the story of population trends of many species that are not rare.
I tip my hat to the nine CBCs that spent at least five hours “owling” in the dark; Austin, Armand Bayou, Freeport, Guadalupe River Delta, Longview, Lake Tawakoni, Matagorda County, Nacogdoches, and San Antonio.