Birders Flock To See New Species in Texas in 2014
AUSTIN, December 10, 2014 - The phenomenon of new birds seen in Texas jumped in 2014, underscoring the Lone Star State’s rep as one of the top birding destinations in the country. It also illustrates how technology and social media are changing human culture.
There were three new species reported Texas in 2014, all new to the state’s bird list, pending approval by the Texas Ornithological Society. These include a red-legged honeycreeper that drew flocks of people Thanksgiving Day to Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Valley, a gray-crowned rosy-finch seen north of Dalhart in the Panhandle around Nov. 20, and a pair of common cranes still present as of Dec. 6 at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle. This represents almost as many rare birds in Texas this year as in the previous five years combined. Bird experts call these uncommon sightings “vagrants,” oddities that stray from their typical ranges.
“This kind of stuff awaits any observer who’s out there looking,” said Cliff Shackelford, a bird biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “There will always be vagrants because birds are so mobile they can show up anywhere. We’re probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
What’s fueling the increase? Some birders speculate cheaper gas prices prompted more birders to get out in November, and a continental cold snap last month may have encouraged lots of birds to move in search of food and cover.
But the iceberg’s tip may be more visible these days in large part because of better binoculars, cameras, and audio recorders to capture bird calls, plus social media and mobile apps to tie it all together.
“As soon as people hear about a rarity they get in the car or plane and go, because they can get there in time now,” said Shelly Plante of TPWD, who runs the Great Texas Birding Classic. “People traveling coordinate in real time with people who are already at the sighting location, using social media and texts to make sure the bird is still there. The honeycreeper sighting happened on a Thanksgiving weekend when many people were already off and could pick up and go, and they did. The common cranes at Muleshoe have been there a couple of weeks, and there are still people making plans on Texbirds and Facebook to go see them.”
Although avid birders often spread news of vagrants, they are not always the first to see them. These days, that honor can fall to anyone who happens to be in the right place at the right time.
“These vagrant birds can show up anywhere, including people’s back yards,” Shackelford said, noting it was a backyard birder who in 2012 reported the state’s first Pineywoods record of a common redpoll, a small finch of the arctic tundra and boreal forest. “The takeaway is: if you see a bird you don’t recognize, take a photo. Also, record the call if it’s vocalizing. If a photo is not conclusive, an audio recording can be important.”
Who sifts all those photos and calls? The Texas Bird Records Committee of the Texas Ornithological Society is the authority that confirms or denies a rare bird sighting. A great resource in Texas is the TEXBIRDS listserv, which anyone can join, where people report and discuss bird sightings online. Another big online tool is Texas eBird, where backyard birders as well as those who travel for birding can report what they see year-round, contributing to an international database of bird sightings.
Texas is a particular “birdy” state, with 639 bird species recorded (a number that may increase once review of recent new bird sightings is complete). That’s the second highest of any state, after California. This birdiness is the reason Texas is home to the Great Texas Wildlife Trails, the first birding and wildlife trails created in the USA, and hosts the annual Great Texas Birding Classic, a popular birdwatching event that raises money for bird conservation in Texas.
For more about birding in Texas, or to sign up for the Great Texas Birding Classic running April 15–May 15, 2015, see TPWD’s Birding in Texas web pages. Or, for a focus on Texas State Parks by region, see the Birding in Texas State Parks pages.