Birds not usually seen locally spotted during annual Audubon bird count
While people around the region and across the country were crowding into malls or shopping online for Christmas gifts from the comfort of their homes, a group of dedicated birdwatchers were tromping around local forests and fields as they participated in a dramatically different type of Christmas tradition.
Dozens of local residents took part in the annual Spring Creek Christmas Bird Count, which is part of an annual and larger event organized by the National Audubon Society.
Held in late December through early January, the society organizes the counts to get a snapshot of the bird population across the Western Hemisphere. The National Audubon Society has been conducting the count for 118 years, while locally members of the Piney Woods Wildlife Society and the Heartwood Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists have been counting birds since 1986. The Audubon Society conducts its bird census from mid-December through early January, while local birdwatchers conduct a one-day count, which was held on Dec. 16.
During this year’s count, bird watchers counted 5,265 individuals birds of 91 species in the seven different local areas that were evaluated, including Jones State Forest and the Montgomery County Preserve, which is off Pruitt Road in The Woodlands.
The number of birds and the different species spotted was a little below average when compared to other years, according to Claire Moore, an organizer and compiler for the Spring Creek Christmas Bird Count. Still, birdwatchers were heartened by seeing the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered bird that makes its home in Jones State Forest, as well as some other birds that are not usually seen in Montgomery County.
“We got 91 species which is slightly below average than but pretty much in line,” Moore said.
BIRDS NOT USUALLY SEEN IN AREA SPOTTED
Even with the average numbers, organizers were thrilled with the sightings of the red-cockaded woodpecker, and other birds that make rare appearances in the area.
Among some of the more unusual sightings was a spotting of a harris sparrow, a large, elegant songbird that breeds in Canada. The sparrow makes it way down to the south-central Great Plains during the winter, but is rarely seen locally.
“We saw a pair off Spring Cypress Road,” Moore said. “I’ve seen them on the Katy Prairie, but never up here.”
Also spotted was a crested caracara, a bird which is described as a tropical version of a vulture. Widespread in the tropics, the bird has slowly been moving its habit north.
“It’s naturally increase its range and just started to get up to the Houston area,” Moore said. “It’s a real pretty bird.”
SEVERAL RED-COCKADED WOODPECKERS SPOTTED IN JONES STATE FOREST
As for the bird count in Jones State Forest, organizers were delighted with sightings of several red-cockaded woodpeckers, according to Debbie Layer, who led the bird count in the forest.
The woodpecker, placed on the Endangered Species List in 1970, makes its home in Jones State Forest and other pine forests in Texas and across the Southwest. As forests were cleared to make way for development, the bird lost wide swaths of its natural habitat and its populations declined, prompting its federal protection status. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that although the bird’s population has been on the rebound since it was listed as endangered, it will still take decades to restore the species to a secure status in the wild.
“Every year the Jones forest is very important because of that woodpecker,” Layer said.
In all, birdwatchers counted five of the endangered birds, sightings Layer described as a “real treat for us.”
“That’s very unusual,” Layer said. “Because they’re very quiet during the Christmas bird count. That’s the main reason the Jones forest needs to be done every year.”
Layer and others note that new development and traffic noise from the roads that mostly surround the forest has been putting pressure on the woodpeckers. Including the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, Layer and her group counted 30 species of birds in sections on the north and south side of the 1,722-acre preserve where they searched for birds.
They also spotted a cormorant, a bird that’s usually seen along ocean shorelines, five white winged doves, one morning dove and several other species of birds, including cardinals, sparrows and other types of woodpeckers.
Across the U.S., Canada and Latin America thousands of birdwatchers are taking part in the National Audubon Society’s bird count, which runs through Jan. 5. Last year more than 75,000 volunteers counted more than 56 million birds across the Western Hemisphere.