This article was written by chapter member Jennifer Trandell. For over a century, citizens around the globe have participated in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Every year for 117 years, volunteers gather in parks, prairies, woodlands, waterfronts, and in their own backyards dedicated to citizen science and bird conservation. This year from December 14 – January 5 binocular wielding groups across the Houston area assembled in an effort to record the number of observed bird species. The Houston Parks and Recreation Department hosted their Second Annual Christmas Bird Count inviting park employees, master naturalists and volunteers to participate on Monday, December 19, 2016.
The National Audubon Society divided participating regions into 15-mile diameter circles for the official bird count data. The Houston Parks’ designated circle included most of the Innerloop and southeast into Pasadena and South Houston. The circle was further divided into 6 sections comprising several teams of 2 to 4 volunteers. Teams were assembled to include experienced birders and birding enthusiasts to novice participants like myself (but not for long). According to Kelli Ondracek, Park Naturalist and coordinator of the event, “We started this circle last year to try and track the abundance and diversity of birds utilizing our parks and to show how much diversity is found in our urban areas. We are currently working on restoration projects in 6 different parks and we wanted this data to supplement some of our other surveys pre and post restoration. Houston Audubon has been a great supporter of us getting this circle started.”
On the morning of the CBC, a cold front rolled into the city lowering the temperature to 37°F. Dressed in layers, I arrived at 7 a.m. at the designated meeting spot for area 6, team 2, Buffalo Bayou. Clouds blanketed the sky hiding the sun as we introduced ourselves. Immediately, we created a plan to cover our sector, Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd into downtown including Glenwood Cemetery and the Montrose neighborhoods. Once the plan was decided we pulled our jackets tight, grabbed our binoculars with gloved hands and started recording.
The team observed very few birds in the first hour walking along Buffalo Bayou. The steel grey sky and cold concealed more than the sun. As the clouds dissipated and the sunshine warmed the day, our group identified several blue jays, many mocking birds, a starling or 2 and a group of tiny Carolina wrens flitting among the branches of an oak tree (a new species to add to my list of identifiable with it’s yellow tinged belly and jeeting sounds). We also heard the cry of a hawk but were unable to identify the species with certainty. The leader of the group, Bill Wright a volunteer for Audubon, revealed that sound is the least invasive way to observe birds and a positive identifier for species that have similar size and markings.
As the day progressed, the temperature increased and our team recorded some exciting observations, 2 American crows cawing at Glenwood Cemetery, a downy woodpecker, a pine warbler, a great egret and a great blue heron. Overall, our team observed 26 species and walked more than 8 miles. The total number of species for the entire Houston Parks’ circle was 106 down from last year’s count of 130. The cold weather is believed to be the reason for the decrease. Some of the more unique species recorded, according to Kelli Ondracek, “a broad-tailed hummingbird from one of our feeder-watchers and red-breasted nuthatch, Wilson’s warbler, redhead, and canvasback this year and we did not have those last year.” The highest number of single species was white wing dove at 6,324.
Many of the parks and conservancies across the Houston area observed on different days during the 2 week period, including Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Thus, the lower number of observed species on colder days will average out with regional data. I was happy to participate with 60 other volunteers for the Houston Park and Recreation Depatment’s second annual Christmas Bird Count and for the Audubon’s historical bird conservation project.