The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Texas

Covid affected us in virtually every facet of our lives and data from this year will come with a large asterisk.  There will be much discussion on what the data from this season means with the changes in number of participants and the manners in which they surveyed birds.  The birding community did take the new safety guidelines by National Audubon Society seriously.  We canceled gathering in large groups, canceled count downs, reduced use of out-of-home lodging, altered birding group composition, and in some situations canceled CBCs where the risk of virus transmission was not warranted to conduct the survey.

 

I had this big empty feeling after the counts were completed.  I attended 11 CBCs and almost met nobody in the field.  There were no pre-count planning meetings, no car-pooling and no Count Downs where you got to share the results of the day.  I hope you enjoy our birding story below because this might be the closest you will get to the results of the counts.

 

Rarities

 

This was a difficult season to characterize.  If you wanted birds moving south in above average numbers, Texas had large numbers of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Robin, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin.  If you wanted western birds moving east, Texas had relatively large numbers of Mountain Bluebird, Western Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak. If you liked birds with tropical flair, Texas had Ruddy Ground-Dove, Elegant Trogon, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and Blue Bunting.  Lastly, if you wanted an opportunity to find a species at multiple locations which was new to a Texas CBC, we had the Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

 

Texas conducted 103 Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) including reports of 384 species which included the rarities Ruddy Ground-Dove, Mew Gull, Elegant Trogon, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-backed Robin, Painted Redstart, and Blue Bunting.  Spotted Rail, Rose-throated Becard, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Hermit Warbler, Blue Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole were 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.

 

Compared with the last 10 years, 12 species which were found 60% of the time were missed, along with an additional 66 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 eighty-four sets of details for 260 species were provided for the Texas CBCs which included photographs of 232 species.  Five species were deleted for inadequate/unconvincing documentation – Semipalmated Sandpiper, Acadian Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Prothonotary Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler.

 

Matagorda County – Mad Island Marsh led the State and Nation for the 23rd season (14th in a row) with 224 species.  This was the 2nd year in a row it had to deal with a major cold front arriving during the day of the count.  The worst part of the storm fortunately occurred during the night before the count and gradually abated as the day progressed.  Cold temps and strong winds reduced production below expectations.

 

Guadalupe River Delta – McFaddin Family Ranches had 213 species which placed it 2nd in Texas and 3rd in the Nation.  Freeport was next in line with 212 species.  Fourteen additional CBCs in Texas had at least 150 species with most of these counts reporting less species than last year.

 

Jackson-Calhoun Counties reported 191 species and we are looking forward to the day when it will post at least 200.  Corpus Christi had a solid 184 species, San Bernard NWR 180, Anzalduas-Bentsen SP 171, Weslaco 167, West Galveston Island 166, Harlingen and Laguna Atascosa NWR 163, Cypress Creek 162, Powderhorn 161, Coastal Tip and Santa Ana NWR 159, and Corpus Christi (Flour Bluff) and Galveston 153.

 

BEST BIRDS

Pacific-slope Flycatcher – 1st Texas CBC Record.  We knew it was going to be a big year when several Pacific-slope were identified in the fall leading up to the CBC season.  The hype did not disappoint us at a State level with the species identified at Brazoria, Brazos Bend, San Bernard NWR, and Weslaco.  The disappointments were when it was not found on your CBC.

 

Elegant Trogon – 1st Texas CBC Record.  This was a more traditional 1st Record.  It was initially reported on 23 November and the bird continued its presence until at least March.  The only question being whether it would be found on Count Day.

 

Dusky-capped Flycatcher – 4th Texas CBC Record. Found at eight locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and one to the north at Alice during fall/winter.  Santa Ana NWR and Weslaco were the only two CBCs which could locate the species on count day.

 

Blackpoll Warbler – 4th Texas CBC Record.  Rare fall migrant that had been reported on three CBCs during the 80th and 81st CBC seasons.  Jerry and Karen Smith reported it on the Weslaco CBC this season.

 

Mew Gull – 7th Texas CBC Record.  Found by four birders and photographed by Jay Packard on the Abilene CBC and was not discovered afterwards.

 

Ruddy Ground-Dove – 8th Texas CBC Records.  Another phenomenal set of records with individuals of a species found at three CBCs during the same season.  Anzalduas-Bentsen SP in the Lower Rio Grande Valley found the Ruddy Ground-Dove on 15 November and it lingered in the area through 5 February with it being photographed on the CBC by Brad McKinney.  One was found in West Texas at the Davis Mountains SP on 4 December and lingered until 7 January.  The bird was photographed by Carolyn Ohl during the CBC.  The last individual was found on the Choke Canyon CBC by Willie Sekula on 22 December.

 

Blue Bunting – 11th Texas CBC Record.  Species was found from five Texas locations this winter but only reported on two CBCs.   Brian Berry photographed a male at Santa Ana NWR CBC which was originally found on 9 December and lingered for one month.  Tony Leukering photographed a female the day before the Anzalduas-Bentsen SP CBC.  This bird was reported from 3 December to 8 February.

 

Crimson-collared Grosbeak – 11th Texas CBC Record.  There were widespread reports of this species during fall and winter.  It was reported from four locations in the Coastal Bend near Corpus Christi and nine locations from Salineno to South Padre Island in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  The Santa Ana NWR and Weslaco CBCs were the only two counts fortunate enough to locate the species.

 

Count Week

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.

 

I encourage scouting.  It does help locate species for the CBC and manage your time/birder resources.  It is a sick feeling when you miss a species you know was there.  However, it is a worst feeling when a really rare species is found the day after your count that you did not have a clue was present.  Such was the case with the Spotted Rail.  It was discovered the day after the Choke Canyon CBC.

 

Hammond’s Flycatcher was reported at El Paso by Jim Paton the day before and after the CBC.  It has also been reported on seven prior CBCs.

 

EXCLUSIVES

One exciting aspect of participating in CBCs is finding the only species for a count and maybe for Texas.  This season 48 exclusives were distributed over 36 CBCs.   One individual of a species was only reported for 34 species.  This is amazing when you realize birders spent 2584 days in the field and they only found one individual of each of those species.  Production of exclusives varied from four at Davis Mountains, three each at Buffalo Bayou, Matagorda County and Weslaco, and two each at Balmorhea, Buffalo Lake, Freeport, Guadalupe River Delta, Lake Tawakoni, and Old River. One species was found on 25 other CBCs.

 

Davis Mountains had the only (11) Montezuma Quail, (2) Western Screech-Owl, Spotted Owl, and Cassin’s Finch.  The number of exclusives from this CBC hi-lights the uniqueness and scarcity of the seven counts within Texas with mountains.  Buffalo Bayou had the only Common Nighthawk, Painted Redstart, and Dickcissel. Matagorda County – Mad Island Marsh had the only (2) Purple Gallinule, jaeger sp., and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Weslaco had the only Elegant Trogon, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, and Blackpoll Warbler, and Anzalduas-Bentsen SP had the only Swainson’s Hawk.

 

Balmorhea had the only (2) Pacific Loons and Mountain PloverBuffalo Lake had the only (2) Ring-necked Pheasant and (9) Lapland LongspursBrazoria had the only Yellow Rail.  Big Bend NP (east) had the only (4) Gray FlycatchersBoerne had the only Scott’s Oriole, and Chisos Mountains had the only (70) Mexican Jays.

 

Galveston had the only Western KingbirdGuadalupe Mountains had the only Steller’s Jay. Falcon Dam had the only Red-billed PigeonGuadalupe River Delta-McFaddin Family Ranches had the only Wood Stork and Lesser NighthawkFreeport had the only MacGillivray’s Warbler. Houston had the only California GullJackson-Calhoun had the only American Golden-PloverGibbons Creek had the only Great Crested Flycatcher.  Lake Tawakoni had the only Red-throated Loon and (2) Smith’s LongspursLubbock County had the only Long-eared Owl.

 

Old River had the only Broad-billed HummingbirdSpring Creek is the only Texas CBC with resident Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and they found two on Count Day.  San Bernard NWR found the only Painted Bunting, White River had the only Evening Grosbeak, and Uvalde County reported the only Allen’s Hummingbird.

 

MISSED

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 provides an index to the likelihood you Missed species.  Texas CBCs this season individually averaged 13% of their species tally being represented by one bird and 9% state-wide.

 

Twelve species which were reported in Texas in at least six of the last 10 CBC seasons but were not found during the 121st were: 10 of the last 10 seasons – Greater (Attwater’s) Prairie-Chicken, Red Knot, and Mountain Chickadee; eight of the last 10 seasons – Wilson’s Phalarope; seven of the last 10 seasons – Broad-winged Hawk, Parasitic Jaeger, Greater Pewee, Juniper Titmouse, and Louisiana Waterthrush; six of the last 10 seasons – Least Tern, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Wood Thrush

 

THE COUNT SEASON

The 121st Season started on Monday 14 December with five CBCs being conducted and ran for 23 days through Tuesday 5 January for a total of 103 CBCs. Twenty registered CBCs were not conducted.  Saturdays the 21st and the 2nd were the busiest days with 21 and 11 CBCs, respectively.  The 23rd – 25th and 31st were not used to conduct CBCs.

 

Texas rain dancers, holders of weather charms and focused wishes to the Weather Makers were a little more effective this year.  Weather hampered 49% of the CBCs.  Freezing temps occurred on 18% with the 17 degrees at McNary being the coldest.  Fog was not much of a problem with it occurring on only 5%.  Rain only occurred on 17% of the CBCs during this drought.  It was generally welcome except when it occurred on your CBC.  Winds 20+ mph occurred on 18% of the counts with the strongest at 45 mph at Turkey Creek.  The worst weather was likely experienced by the Turkey Creek CBC which had a major frontal passage in the afternoon which included heavy rains. 

 

Total CBCs - 103 (lowest since the 109th season), birder-days – 2584 (926 below last season and the lowest since the 108th season), and party-hours – 7965 (216 below last season and the 2nd highest for Texas). 

 

Even though we lost 10 CBCs and 900 birder days mostly due to Covid, party-hours were the 2nd highest this decade.  Compilers were mostly successful at surveying the same areas.  They just did it with it with less people and had to modify transportation.  Multiple vehicles in a section were common.  Birder composition on boats typically were modified if they were available.  Marsh buggies may not have been available on national wildlife refuges.  Surveys by airboats on state wildlife management areas were restricted to staff.  Lodging at distant CBCs was challenging.  Lodging/facilities on conservation areas were generally not available.  Many birders made long day trips or canceled because of perceived virus risks at motels.

 

My wife and I managed to participate in 11 CBCs with seven in a row during the first week. It was a Great Experience on the Coast being able to participate in many of the Texas Highest Species CBCs.  They were all day tripped.

 

NEW COUNTS

Texas keeps adding and dropping CBCs as birder interest shifts in the State.  Texas added Wharton Peach Creek as the newest CBC this season. 

 

Brownsville, Hueco Tanks, La Sal Vieja, Lake Meredith – East, and Richland Creek Wildlife Management Area CBCs need a new compiler.

 

POPULATION TRENDS

[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 deviated by more than one 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 https://www.audubon.org/conservation/where-have-all-birds-gone]

 

Dry ground conditions prevailed during fall and winter for the 2nd year in a row.  Rainfall accumulation was 10 inches below average for the 40 inches rain-belt in the Central Coast where I live and 16 inches below average during the previous year.  These extended dry conditions in Texas and most of the western states likely influenced migration patterns and survival of various species.

 

Texas CBCs this season had the 2nd highest rate of declining species over the last 13 years.  Population declines appeared to be evenly spread between resident and migratory species.  Migratory species had a higher percentage of species above average than resident species with 25% increasing versus 12% for resident.

 

Waterfowl numbers fluctuate dramatically from year to year depending on food availability in the Flyways.  Greater White-fronted Goose (2860) and “white” geese (56,113) continued to occur in below average numbers.  Half of the puddle duck species and four species of diving duck were below average.  Some of the lower numbers may have been influenced by a major cold front arriving on the first day of the CBC season with strong winds creating shallow bays.  Shallow water and rough conditions made difficult survey conditions for three of the CBCs which typically report large numbers of waterfowl.

 

Brown Boobies occurred again in record numbers with 17 spread over four CBCs.  Northern Gannet was almost missed this year with only two being reported.  Most other fish-eating birds occurred in expected numbers.  Exceptions were mostly related to water conditions.  Lake Balmorhea was very low in West Texas resulting in fewer grebes, and it was very difficult to survey bay waters being whipped by 20+ mph winds.

 

Bald Eagles (338) and Zone-tailed Hawks (11) were above average.  Osprey (1142), Northern Harrier (1363), and Sharp-shinned Hawk (203) were below average.

 

Rails and Cranes as a group were difficult to survey this year with access to boats and marsh equipment being reduced.  Whooping Cranes (110) had their 3rd lowest tally this decade but was within its normal year-to-year variation.

 

Whimbrel (24) and American Woodcock (215) were the only two shorebird species reported above average.  Half of the remaining 27 species were below average.  Bad weather and Kenedy County-Wind Turbines not being conducted hampered results.

 

Ten species of gulls were reported with three being above average and two below.  Four of the seven species of terns/skimmers declined with Gull-billed Tern (118), Forster’s Tern (4379), and Black Skimmer (1467) being reported at their lowest level this decade for the 2nd year in a row.

 

Five of the seven main dove species declined again.  Rock Pigeon (27,111), Eurasian Collared-Dove (4196), White-winged Dove (16,666) and Mourning Dove (16,731) being at their lowest level this decade.  These low numbers are not a one-time dip because of conditions this year.  It is a continuation of several years of low numbers.

 

The Barn Owl (72) occurred at the lowest level this decade while all other owl populations were reported as expected.  I enjoy the occasional owls found during the day.  I particularly enjoy screech-owls when they respond to your calls from inside a hollow tree.

 

The expected nine species of hummingbirds were tallied.  Anna’s (43) and Broad-tailed (14) were reported at the highest level of the decade.  Twenty-one reports of Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Rufous lacked documentation.  Compilers do not appreciate how difficult it is to accurately identify the females and immatures of these species.

 

Woodpeckers were reported in highs and lows.  Acorn Woodpecker (143) was reported at its highest level this decade.  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (1425) and Northern Flicker (1991) were well above average.  However, Golden-fronted Woodpecker (1687), Red-bellied Woodpecker (3342), and Hairy Woodpecker (38) had their lowest tally for the decade.  Ladder-backed Woodpecker (1173) was also well below average.

 

The Prairie Falcon (16) was the only falcon which was not below average.

 

Texas reported 17 species of flycatchers with 10 being at normal levels.  The 245 Couch’s Kingbirds was below average, but what was making the headlines was the relatively high numbers of Pacific-slope and Dusky-capped flycatchersGray Flycatcher (4) and Black Phoebe (173) were also at record levels for this decade and Ash-throated Flycatcher (43) and Tropical Kingbird (164) were above average.    

 

It was great to read the two reports of Northern Shrikes in the Panhandle but disturbing to read the results of the tally for Loggerhead Shrike (1971).  This species has been declining in numbers for the last six years.

 

It was odd this season when only three species of vireos were reported.  There usually are one or more uncommon species.  Corvids were also quiet.  The five species of jays, two species of crows, and two species of ravens occurred at expected population levels.

 

Swallows were all at normal population levels. Black-crested Titmouse (2580), Verdin (383), and Bushtit (462) had their highest tallies for the decade which was a continuation of high numbers from last season.  Brown-headed Nuthatch (78) was at its lowest level.  All nine wren species’ populations were average.  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (3553) had its highest tally for the decade and Black-tailed (93) was above average.

 

Most thrush populations declined last season.  Eastern Bluebird (6837) tally was average and all other regular occurring species were above average. Western Bluebird (456), Hermit Thrush (2422), Clay-colored Thrush (85), and American Robin (102,763) had their highest counts for the decade. 

 

The Mountain Bluebird would have been the Poster Bird for this season if we did not have so many other rarities in the State.  The major excitement generated by the Mountain Bluebird was that it was found on 26 CBCs when 10 or less in a season is the norm.  This species is primarily found on CBCs in the Panhandle, West Texas, and western Edwards Plateau regions.  It was found this season as far east as Lewisville, College Station, and Jackson-Calhoun Counties, and as far south as Falcon Dam.  The 1152 Mountain Bluebirds reported were the highest for this decade, but that number had been topped 11 other times since the 67th CBC season.  This species was special this season for the 15 normally Mountain Bluebird deprived counts, including first count records on eight of these CBCs.

 

The 33 Crissal Thrashers was the highest tally for the decade and the 48 Sage Thrashers was twice its average.  The Sage was reported at dozens of localities on eBird this winter but was only found on nine CBCs which was below expectations.

 

Sprague’s Pipit bounced back from two subpar seasons to produce a tally of 168 which was higher than those two seasons combined.  Cedar Waxwings (50,464) were above average.  The 68 Phainopeplas reported were twice as high as its 10-year average.  The 586 Chestnut-collared Longspurs at Fort Hood were 10 times higher than their 10-year average.

 

Warblers.  Texas produced 22 species of warblers this season of which five were only located on one CBC.  High numbers of warbler species typically occur in diverse woodland habitats near the Coast with some of the more skilled birders required to locate the species.  This season Freeport had the most species with 15, Guadalupe River Delta-McFaddin Family Ranches had 14, Brazoria-Columbia Bottomlands, Harlingen, Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, and Santa Ana each had 11.  The other 97 Texas CBCs had less.

 

Yellow-breasted Chat (2) was the only regular “warbler” reported which occurred below average.  This was an unusual change since Texas led the Nation several times with the most chats.

 

Eight other warbler species whose populations have normally moved south occurred in above average numbers (those whose tallies are usually less than five).  Yellow Warbler (15), Yellow-rumped Warbler (17,179), Black-throated Gray Warbler (16) and Wilson’s Warbler (111) were also above average.

 

WHERE WERE THE SPARROWS?

Sparrow populations trended downward during the last two years.  Twelve species were below average during the 119th Season and 18 during the 120th.  Seven species are below average and four above this season.  Top Sparrow CBCs were Balcones Canyonland with 24 species, Cypress Creek 22, Fort Hood 21, and Austin, Guadalupe River Delta, and Harlingen 19 species.

 

Quality Spartina salt marsh habitat and calm conditions helped locate the secretive Nelson’s Sparrow on the West End Galveston CBC.  The “excited calls” from an IBIRD PRO Common Yellowthroat did the rest.  This was the first time I had used this recording for this species, and Dora Ann and I tallied 43 of the 82 Nelson’s on this CBC which was the most I have found in a couple of decades.  I will definitely try it again in other setting to test its effectiveness.

 

Seaside Sparrows were reported at their lowest level this decade.  Chipping and Lark Sparrows were below average and Black-throated Sparrow above average.

 

Harris’s, Vesper, and Swamp sparrows and Canyon Towhee were below average.  Eastern Towhee was above.

 

This was a good season for lingering grosbeaks with four species being reported.

 

Most blackbird tallies declined this season.  Red-winged Blackbird (587,480), Brewer’s Blackbird (10,670), Common Grackle (32,557), Great-tailed Grackle (107,823) and Bronzed Cowbird (720) were below average for the past decade.

 

Purple Finch (247) and Lesser Goldfinch (1889) were above average for the decade and Pine Siskin (9324) was 2X as high as their average.  House Sparrows (11,882) are still declining, and the Evening Grosbeak at White River was the 1st reported this decade.

 

 

MOST COMMON BIRDS

Nine species occurred in at least 95 of the 103 CBCs in Texas last season.  Five made the century mark.  Red-tailed Hawk occurred in all 103 Texas CBCs.  Northern Mockingbird and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were the next most widespread occurring in 102 CBCs.  Mourning Dove occurred in 101, Northern Cardinal 100, American Kestrel and Savannah Sparrow 98, Great Blue Heron 96, and Killdeer 95.

 

PHOTOGRAPHS

A record 451 photographs were received to document 232 species.  I used 38 of these photos from 26 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.

. . . . .

This was my 15th season editing Texas CBCs.  I have come to appreciate the effort that must have been required by my predecessor, Keith Arnold, who edited Texas CBCs for 35 years.

We reported this season on many birds moving north, east, west and south of their normal winter ranges.  These were not just vagrants. There were numerous major movements of species seeking habitat and food resources.  Did they survive?  Will they return?  Join us during the next CBC Season to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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