What can be Learned from Local Breeding Bird Counts?
by Ro Wauer
I completed two breeding bird counts last week, recording a grand total of 59 species, 47 species on each. The two surveys - the "Fanin Count" runs from near Schroeder, through Mission Valley, and north to Upper Mission Valley Road; the "Yoakum Count" runs from SH 3010 south of Yoakum, west toward Cuero, and northwest across the Guadalupe River toward Cheapside - provided a good prospective on the area's birdlife this time of year. Such counts when conducted for several consecutive years offer information about what species occur now and what changes have occurred with our breeding bird populations. Such counts, undertaken annually all across North America, including 132 in Texas in 2004, are extremely worthwhile in understanding our birdlife. Each count must start at dawn and run 25 miles with three-minute stops every one-half mile. The results are reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Breeding bird counts are our very best method of determining what species are currently present and their abundance. What are the most abundant species in our area? This year, northern cardinals led with 142 on the Fanin Count and 128 on the Yoakum Count. Other abundant (50 or more combined) species included, in descending order, cliff swallows (157), painted buntings (92), mourning doves (78), northern mockingbirds (63), Carolina wrens (61), white-eyed vireos (60), cattle egrets (59), and American crows (55). Surprisingly low numbers of purple martins, blue jays, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, and common grackles were detected. If such trends continue it will suggest a problem of some sort.
At least two species were found on my two counts for the first time: Mississippi kite and Eurasian collared-dove. Although Mississippi kite, a small streamline raptor, nests in the area, such as along the Guadalupe River in Victoria County and at Lake Texana, the area is on the southern edge of its known breeding grounds. But Mississippi kites can be common throughout South Texas during migration, when several flocks of a dozen to a hundred or more birds are possible. Then they spiral down to resting sites in the evenings, and spiral up again to continue their migration the next morning. And post-nesting birds usually spend considerable time flying over Victoria and other towns, catching cicadas that fly out of the high foliage.
The Eurasian collared-dove has literally invaded most of Texas during the last 15 years. I wrote about one of the earliest sightings in our area at Six Mile, near Port Lavaca, in this column on July 12, 1998. On the Yoakum Count this year, I found a significant population of these birds in the Memory Garden area of DeWitt County. The Eurasian collared-dove is a large bird, even larger than the white-winged dove, and it has a rather distinct three-syllable call, like "kuk-kooooo-kook," with emphasis on the second syllable. And it seems less nervous than white-winged and mourning doves, often sitting for long periods on wires along the roadways, sometimes allowing a surprisingly close approach.
Also, with any count of this type, there usually are some surprises. Perhaps the most exciting for me was the 62 Franklin's gulls found wheeling over a field just south of Cheapside. This Count date of May 31 seemed a little late for these Laughing gull look-alikes. Both species possess a black hood, red bill, and dark gray back during the breeding season, but Franklin's possess underparts tinged with pink; Laughing gull underparts are all white. While Laughing gulls are the single most abundant gull along the entire Gulf of Mexico and are present year-round, Franklin's gull are migrants only. They pass through Texas in spring en route to their breeding grounds in the northern prairies. I just happen to catch them on there way north.