“Great blue heron. Great blue heron,” called out a birdwatcher as a large blue-grey bird ruffled its feathers at the approaching group.
It wasn’t the sight of the majestic shorebird that tipped the birder off, but its distinctive call that pierced through the crisp morning air. Nearby, someone began setting up a scope as the remainder of the group shielded their eyes, squinting as they looked off into the muddy flats behind the South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center Monday.
The group was one of several fanned out across the Laguna Madre region, carefully counting every bird they could see while making their way through a 15 mile radius of land. It’s all part of an effort by the National Audubon Society to catalog birds across the country in what has become a 115 year old tradition called the Christmas Bird Count.
“We’re taking an inventory of the birds in the area,” said Tamie Bulow, who served as the coordinator for the counters responsible for tracking birds on the north end of the City of South Padre Island. “It’s a citizen science project, so it just gives you an idea of where birds are … where they’re scattered throughout the country,” she said.
And though counts occur across the country, offering plenty of opportunities for birders to participate locally, some use the event as a reason to learn about birds far afield. Such was the case for Irene Fortune and her husband, who traveled to the Island from Loveland, Colorado to count the Valley’s winter avian migrants. “(We’re) having a great time,” Fortune said. “The Island makes quite an impression.” Fortune, a fourth year birder, expressed amazement at the large volume of ducks she and her husband had seen.
Being an experienced birder is not a prerequisite for participating in the annual count, though, as Birding Center Manager Cristin Howard learned. “This is my first time participating in a bird count. … I have learned a lot of valuable information from Tamie and the other birders here,” she said.
She went on to say reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills were her favorite shorebirds, for their peculiar feeding behavior and unique physical features, respectively.
“I didn’t realize that we have to count every single bird. When we were over by the Convention Centre, I was amazed by that,” Howard said. Patience is another lesson soon learned while counting birds, as the process requires a methodical pace to make sure even well-camouflaged birds are counted.
According to the National Audubon Society website, the Christmas Bird Count was started in 1900 by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. With excessive hunting leading to a decline in bird populations, Chapman suggested conducting a “bird census” rather than a bird hunt. The event caught on and has continued to this day.
Data gathered from the counts, which occur as far north as Canada, allow researchers to study long term patterns in bird populations and is used as an aid in conservation.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge will conduct its Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 29. To find out more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuge/laguna_atascosa/.
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