The 120th CBC in Texas

Texans conducted 112 Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) with 3510 birder-days on the way to reporting 378 species which included the rarities Great Shearwater, Mew Gull, Spotted Owl, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Hammond’s Flycatcher. Red-breasted Sapsucker will be an additional species if it passes Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC) review.  Eurasian Wigeon (UR) was reported 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, 17 species which were found 60% of the time were missed along with an additional 61 species that had been reported at least once during that period.  Texas has the potential to reach 400 species in a season.  The last time this was achieved was during the 2005-2006 season, but it is going to take lots of work and some luck to replicate this.  Six hundred forty-eight sets of details for 282 species were provided for the Texas CBCs which included photographs of 224 species.  Seven species were deleted for inadequate/unconvincing documentation.

Matagorda County – Mad Island Marsh led the State and Nation for the 22nd season (13th in a row) with 229 species which was mostly produced in the morning prior to the arrival of a major cold front slamming into the area with 25 mph winds and a temperature drop of 30 degrees.  The species tally was below average but was relatively good considering the severe weather.  This rural coastal area of less than 1000 people has few resident birders and feeder watchers.  Scouting is mostly done the day before the count and many of the 100+ birders in attendance only visit the area once each year.  As a result there are few stake-outs.

Guadalupe River Delta – McFaddin Family Ranches had its worst species tally with 202, but this still placed it 2nd in Texas and 4th in the Nation.  Twenty-one other Texas CBCs reported at least 150 species.  Freeport tallied 197 species, San Bernard N.W.R. 192, Jackson-Calhoun Counties 185, Corpus Christi 177, West End Galveston Island 168, Harlingen 167, Attwater Prairie Chicken N.W.R. and Laguna Atascosa N.W.R. 165 each, Powderhorn 163, Weslaco 162, Anzalduas-Bentsen 168, Bolivar Peninsula and Coastal Tip 158 each,  Brazoria – Columbia Bottomlands 156, Corpus Christi (Flour Bluff) 155, San Antonio 153, Brazos Bend 152, Armand Bayou 151, and Galveston and Houston 150 each.  Seven of these top CBCs had lower species tallies, five the same, and eight higher than last season.

Great Shearwater – 1st Texas CBC record
reported by Eric Carpenter, Petra Hockey, and Tira Overstreet during the Matagorda County – Mad Island Marsh CBC.  The bird was observed twice off the jetties at the old mouth of the Colorado River.  I had given Eric Carpenter an All-Star CBC cap prior to the count for helping for several years with the Sea Watch.  His response was that he had not produced anything special, yet.  Maybe the cap was good luck.

Spotted Owl - 1st Texas CBC record reported by Lorie Lowrie during the Davis Mountains CBC.  She had been hearing this yard bird for at least three weeks prior to the CBC and got it to respond to tape.

Red-breasted Sapsucker – 2nd Texas CBC record reported by Matt Denton on the Chisos Mountains CBC if it passes review by TBRC. Using visual descriptions, as in this case, makes it difficult to determine if the bird has any form of hybridization.  The 1st record was photographed on the Palmetto State Park CBC in 2010.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - 2 reports for 4th season.  This species is a very rare tropical bird for Christmas Bird Counts.  It has previously been reported at Texas CBCs at Kingsville during the 89th season, Austin CBC the 113th, and Brazoria and San Marcos the 119th. It was photographed by Rick Laughlin at Aransas N.W.R. and reported by Phil Huxford and Cindy Goodrum at Attwater Prairie Chicken N.W.R. this season.

Mew Gull – 6th Texas CBC record.  Photographed within the El Paso count circle in New Mexico amongst a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls.

Hammond’s Flycatcher – 6th Texas CBC Record.  Found by Brad Lirette and Mark Elwonger in the canopy of the live oak forest of Selkirk Island.  All eight members of the section gathered to help identify and photograph this rare bird.

National Audubon Society Compiler Resources mentions “Count week (cw) birds serve as a place holder for that species on your checklist in a given season. They are not at all a part of your official census data for that season's day.”  With this being said, it is still good to know what you missed during count day.

Eurasian Wigeon – 9th Texas CBC record was photographed at Lake Balmorhea by Donna Dittman on 18 December during Count Week of the Balmorhea CBC.  The bird was originally found by Randy Pinkston on 9 December. 

King Eider – was harvested near Eagle Lake in the vicinity of the Attwater Prairie Chicken N.W.R. CBC count circle during the week of the CBC.  A photograph of the bird was sent to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and shared with me by Kevin Kriegel.  With uncertainty on the exact location, it was an anecdote on what may have been.


One exciting aspect of participating in CBCs is finding the only species for a count and maybe for Texas.  This season 43 exclusives were distributed over 28 CBCs.   One individual of a species was only reported for 26 species.  This is amazing when you realize birders spent 3510 days in the field and they only found one individual of each of those species.  Production of exclusives varied from five each at Davis Mountains, El Paso, and Matagorda County, three at Chisos Mountains, and two each at Guadalupe Mountains and Victoria.  One species was found on 17 other CBCs.

Davis Mountains had the only (6) Montezuma Quail, (4) Golden Eagle, (5) Western Screech-Owl, Spotted Ow,l and (2) Williamson’s Sapsucker.  The number of exclusives from this CBC highlights the uniqueness and scarcity of the seven counts within Texas with mountains.

Matagorda County – Mad Island Marsh had the only Great Shearwater, (5) Red Knot, (2) Parasitic Jaeger, Black Tern, and Hammond’s Flycatcher.

El Paso had the only Mew Gull, California Gull, Common Poorwill, Townsend’s Warbler, and Scott’s Oriole.

Chisos Mountains had the only Red-breasted Sapsucker (UR), Mexican Jay, and Townsend’s Solitaire.   

Guadalupe Mountains had the only Mountain Chickadee and Sage Thrasher, and Victoria had the only Common Nighthawk and Dickcissel. 

Attwater Prairie Chicken N.W.R. reported (19) the only Greater (Attwater’s) Prairie Chickens, Buffalo Lake had the only Northern Shrike, and Brazoria-Columbia Bottomlands had the only Henslow’s Sparrow.

The 5th Record for a Little Gull this decade on a Texas CBC was found by Jim Sipiora at Cedar Hill

Freeport reported the only (2) American Redstarts.  Richard Mayfield and Mort Voller reported at Galveston the only Yellow-billed Cuckoo this decade in Texas.  Mountain Plovers winter in several areas in Texas, but only one population consistently occurs in one of the CBC areas.  This year Granger reported 14.

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Santa Ana N.W.R. had the only Hook-billed Kite.  One of the San Marcos crews were taking a leisurely boat ride at sunset and were rewarded with the only Lesser Nighthawk for Texas flying within view.

Howard Davis found the only Chuck-will’s-widow at Sea Rim State Park. 

I always do a self-evaluation at the end of a CBC.  Did I miss species or were they just not there?  Looking at how many species on the count which were represented by one individual could provide an index to likelihood you missed species.  Texas CBCs this season individually averaged 12% of their species tally was represented by one bird and 7% state-wide.

Species which were reported in Texas in at least six of the last 10 CBC seasons but were not found during the 120th were: nine of the last 10 seasons – Red-throated Loon, Allen’s Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Smith’s Longspur, and American Tree Sparrow; eight of the last 10 seasons – Ring-necked Pheasant, Purple Gallinule, and Juniper Titmouse;  seven of the last 10 seasons – White-winged Scoter, Least Tern, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Greater Pewee; six of the last 10 seasons – Broad-billed Hummingbird, Steller’s Jay, Bank Swallow, and Cassin’s Finch. 

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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.  These counties make up the “footprint”.  The impacts of the storm were described in  Habitat damage is still evident in the direct path of the storm.

Bird data were again examined this season to look for recovery from the storm by comparing the 117th, 118th, 119th and 120th 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.  The Inca Dove is the only species to not recover to pre-hurricane numbers two years after the storm.  Even though the House Sparrow appears to have recovered across the area, it is still a very hard species to locate in the Guadalupe River Delta CBC.

Table 1.  Percent change of sedentary species on Texas CBCs from The 117th (year before hurricane)

To 118th, 119th and 120th CBC seasons in comparison to populations in the Harvey footprint

  Footprint       Texas    
  118th 119th 120th   118th 119th  120th
Eurasian Collared-Dove 55 50 43   19 -11 -35
Inca Dove -63 -42 -37   -31 -11 -29
Com. Ground Dove -56 -67 16   -9 15 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker -33 -54 2   -7 -4 1
Ladder-backed Woodpecker -29 -26 -4   -8 -18 -10
Carolina Chickadee -62 13 97   -8 14 42
Titmice -50 15 34   -6 11 -13
Carolina Wren -45 -17 3   -14 1 5
Northern Cardinal -51 -26 -3   1 13 25
House Sparrow -6 16 -3   23 32 34

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The 120th Season started on Saturday 14 December with 17 CBCs being conducted and ran for 23 days through Sunday 5 January for a total of 112 CBCs. The first and third weekends saw the heaviest use with 44 CBCs being run (39%) as compared to the other two weekends which produced 26 counts (23%).  Three days (December 24, 25, 31) were not used for CBCs. 

Weather hampered 54% of the CBCs.  Freezing temps occurred on 13%, fog 9%, rain 23%, and winds 20+ mph 21%.  The worst weather was likely experienced by the Guadalupe Mountains CBC which had to endure winds ranging from 30-60 mph.  Their six birders each put in a respectable six hours to tally their 31 species and reported the only Mountain Chickadees and Sage Thrashers in Texas.  Thank you, Michael Haynie and team.

Texas set records for Total CBCs - 112 (1 more than last year), birder-days – 3510 (277 above 2nd place), and party-hours – 8181 (211 above 2nd). 

The Effort numbers would have been more impressive if all the registered CBCs participated.  I canceled the Kenedy County CBC this season because there were too few boat crews to make the 40-mile run down the Laguna Madre.  Hueco Tanks and La Sal Vieja were canceled for their own reasons.  The compiler for a new count in the Houston area felt she did not have enough time to initiate it this season because of a late approval date.  More importantly, there were several quality CBC areas which lack compilers.  Brownsville has been inactive for three years.  This Lower Rio Grande Valley Area has the highest diversity of parrots (native and introduced) in Texas.  Richland Creek W.M.A. has been inactive for four years.  This is a quality East Texas area actively being managed for wildlife.  Lake Meredith-East has also been inactive for four years.

Texas keeps adding and dropping CBCs as birder interest shifts in the State.  Texas added Round Rock and West End Galveston Island as the two newest CBCs this season.  I was fortunate to be able to attend the new Galveston area CBC.  It attracted 69 birders, accessed private property and was led by a very enthusiastic team.  I enjoy attending new CBCs as time allows.

[The population trend report will compare number of individuals of a species tallied this season to the last 10 years in Texas.  Population changes indicated will be for those reports which changed by more than 1 standard deviation from that species 10-year average unless otherwise indicated.  Percent decreasing is underrepresented because missed birds are not part of the %.  National trend data for > 50 years can be found at]

Table 2.  Percentage of species increasing or decreasing by season in Texas


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

120th                17%                 24%                 59%                 dry fall

Texas CBCs this season had the 2nd highest rate of declining species over the last 12 years.  Migratory species showed a greater tendency to decline with a ratio of 2.5 species declining for every one that was increasing.  Resident species had roughly equal probability of population changes where 34 species increased and 38 decreased. 

Dry ground conditions prevailed during fall and winter.  Rainfall accumulation was 16 inches below average for a 40 inches rain-belt in the Central Coast where I live.  Compiler comments varied from mild conditions have not forced birds south to the Panhandle, dry conditions did not produce enough food to hold birds on the Coast, high tides and bad weather made it challenging to survey birds.  Whatever the reason, we had a below average year for bird numbers and average for species tallied.  I was impressed with the scarcity of birds on many of the 12 CBCs which I attended this past season.  My “Reliable Areas” to find birds were very quiet.

The Drought Monitor image for December 2019 indicated very dry conditions for over ½ of the State.

Waterfowl numbers fluctuate dramatically from year to year depending on food availability in the Flyways. Bufflehead was the only waterfowl species increasing while four species were reported declining.  Widespread availability of water in the Panhandle versus dry conditions with high tides along the Gulf Coast characterized the variability of wetland conditions in the State.  Large numbers of waterfowl were very localized.  The only two reports of White-winged Scoter had either unsatisfactory or no documentation.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department gave me a boat ride across Espiritu Santo Bay during the Powderhorn CBC where we flushed thousands of Northern Pintails, Redheads, and Lesser Scaup.  Very impressive.

Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, Reddish Egret, and White Ibis were reported in near record numbers while Eared and Horned grebes occurred well below average. 

Black Vulture, Osprey, and Swainson’s and Zone-tailed hawks occurred above average and the remainder of the hawks occurred within normal numbers.

Ten species of shorebirds declined with one species increasing.  Black-necked Stilt, American Oystercatcher, Piping Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Long-billed Curlew, Red Knot, Dunlin, Western Sandpiper, and both species of dowitchers declined.  The reduction of reported peeps was likely influenced by the Kenedy County CBC not being run, but the other species had different issues.

Five species of gulls and terns increased and two species decreased.  The 1874 reported Black Skimmers was the lowest number in the decade.  Wintering populations appear relatively stable for this species but breeding populations are declining.

This was not a good season for doves.  Five of seven species declined. Eurasian Collared, White-winged, and Mourning doves were reported at the lowest level this decade, and Common Ground-Dove was below average for the 5th year in a row.

Western Screech-Owl increased and the Eastern Screech-Owl and Great Horned Owl declined. 

Seven species of hummingbirds were reported this season which is below expectations.  Allen’s and Calliope were missed and no unusual species were tallied.

Record high numbers for the decade for Acorn Woodpecker and record lows for Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Northern Flicker showed variability amongst woodpecker populations.

Much lower numbers of parrots have been reported in Texas since the Brownsville CBC has been abandoned.  Green Parakeet posted tally was the lowest for this decade.

American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Loggerhead Shrike numbers were below average this season.  The total from 16 CBCs set a record for the abundance of Black Phoebes (138) this decade.

Mexican Jay and Fish Crow were reported in above average numbers while other Corvid abundances were normal.  Horned Lark was below normal and Cave Swallow was reported at its lowest level in the decade.  Black-crested Titmouse was above average, and Verdin and Bushtit were reported at record highs for the decade.

Wrens and Gnatcatchers occurred at normal population levels.  Most thrush populations declined.  Eastern Bluebird and American Robin occurred at the lowest level for the decade.  Gray Catbird and Curve-billed Thrasher were reported at record high levels for the decade and Sage Thrasher and Northern Mockingbird were below average.  Brown Thrasher and Sprague’s Pipit were tallied at their lowest level in 10-years.

The 25 species of warblers tallied were more than any of the previous five years.  Top CBCs for warbler species were Brazoria-Columbia Bottomlands and Freeport with 14 each, Guadalupe River Delta, Harlingen and Matagorda County with 12 each, and Weslaco with 10. There was not a consistent population trend for warblers this season.  Six species increased and four decreased.  Most changes from average numbers were for those species which should be considered more as lingering migrants rather than wintering populations.

Finch-type birds had mixed trends.  Rose-breasted and Black-headed grosbeak were found on two CBCs each.  Painted Buntings were reported at four sites.  Texas reported 366 Purple Finches last season but only two for the 120th.  American Goldfinches declined from 17,000 last season to 7000 this time. Pyrrhuloxia and Green-tailed Towhee had a “Mini” movement up the Coast, but overall numbers were normal in Texas.  Has anybody noticed House Sparrows have experienced declining numbers five years in a row, and this season’s tally is ½ of its 10-year average?

Boat-tailed Grackle had a record high for the decade with 15,000 while Great-tailed Grackle had a record low with 152,000.  Bronzed Cowbird, Rusty Blackbird, and Eastern Meadowlark were also at record lows for the decade.  Orioles increased overall.

Numerous compilers commented on the lack of birds.  Scarcity of sparrows likely played a major role in this perception.  They represented 22% of the 82 species below average.  Eighteen of the 31 sparrows were tallied in below average numbers this season and 12 last season.  Twelve were at their lowest level for the decade.  The Sagebrush Sparrow was the only species to be above average and its highest number for the decade was posted.  Four of 11 resident sparrows declined versus 14 of 20 migratory species.  I suspect the bulk of the sparrows migrated late or did not fly as far south as Texas.

Top Sparrow CBCs were: Balcones Canyonland and Matagorda County with 19 species each; Balmorhea, Davis Mountains, Fort Hood, and Lake Tawakoni with 17 each; and College Station, Cypress Creek, Hagerman N.W.R., West Kerr County, and White River with 16 each.

Eleven species occurred on at least 100 CBCs in Texas last season.  Eighteen made the century mark during the 120th.  Mourning Dove occurred on all 112 Texas CBCs.  Red-tailed Hawk was the next most widespread occurring in 111 CBCs.  American Kestrel, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Northern Mockingbird occurred in 109.  European Starling and Northern Cardinal occurred in 107, Red-winged Blackbird 106, Great Blue Heron 105, Pied-billed Grebe 104, House Sparrow and Belted Kingfisher 103, Loggerhead Shrike, Killdeer, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and Savannah Sparrow 102, and Great Egret and Orange-crowned Warbler 100.

A record 432 photographs were received to document 224 species.  I used 53 of these photos from 28 CBCs in this report.  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 10 CBCs that spent at least five hours working nocturnal birding; Austin, Armand Bayou, Balcones Canyonland, Bolivar Peninsula, Cypress Creek, Fort Worth, Guadalupe River Delta, Lake O’ the Pines, Matagorda County, and Village Creek Drying Beds .

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I thank Bob Friedrichs for reviewing a draft of this report, Eric Carpenter for providing me Texas Bird Record Committee reviews, and the Texas compilers first for conducting their counts which describes the Texas bird communities and second for submitting documentation of unusual species.

As I finalize this report, there is a world-wide health crisis re-shaping the way we live, work and play.  Our access to private and public lands may be compromised. Be safe. Stay healthy.