Annual bird count holds big surprises

Published 10:24 am Friday, January 20, 2012

The 37th annual Christmas bird count in Austin had some bigger highlights than usual this year.

Austin birdwatchers not only recorded two new species on the local bird count, they added the 99th and 100th birds to the total list of species. The two newcomers, a bufflehead duck and spotted towhee, had local bird watchers very enthused. Audubon members, neighbors and friends visited John Garry’s yard numerous times to catch a glimpse of the towhee, which was many miles east off its beaten path.

The local count, which was just one of the nation’s Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, took place on Dec. 18, 2011 in and around Austin. The Austin Audubon Society usually holds the count on the Sunday before Christmas. While many other birds may be spotted in the area during the winter, only birds spotted by Christmas count participants on the day of the count are recorded.

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“So we always want to see them on that day,” said Terry Dorsey, who has participated in the local count since it started.

Dorsey also compiles the final list of local sightings each year.

“The number of species we see each year is about 40, 45 — sometimes 50,” he said.

This year, 15 field observers and three feeder counters spotted 42 species in the area. Among the two new visitors mentioned, some other rare visitors included wood ducks, a snow goose, a brown thrasher and a merlin. While members have seen eagles before, too, they’ve never seen them like they did this year.

“Nineteen eagles is an unusual number,” Dorsey said, and added four or five is closer to the norm.

And once again, Dorsey and others thought it was interesting that a blue heron showed itself at the same location it has for the past three years on the day of the count.

To Austin Audubon members, the count holds some bragging rights. Dorsey said observers gather at the end of every Christmas count and talk about the trends they saw. However, they let the tension build before spill the beans on what rare and exciting observations they made.

“It’s a sport, like anything else,” Dorsey said about counting the most birds and finishing with the best results.

Observers have noticed that the count fluctuates every year, depending on the harshness of the season and the weather on the day of the count.

“Every year has something different about it,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey and others theorize that the mild winter thus far has meant birds have more readily available food sources, so they don’t visit bird feeders as frequently.

Austin’s Christmas bird count isn’t nearly as old as the nationwide count, which was the 112th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. According to the Audubon Society, the first Christmas Bird Count happened on Christmas Day of 1900. What used to be a hunt turned into a count, as people were concerned about declining populations.

And as the nation’s count is going strong, Austin’s is, too. The friendly competition of spotting the rarest bird has many locals returning to the Christmas count each year.

“We’re always looking for that big year, when the unusual specie comes,” Dorsey said.

For complete historical listings of the local Christmas bird count, contact Dorsey at Nationwide results will soon be released at