Birds of the Prairie

Millions of Birds Flock to the Katy Prairie for Winter

It is 6:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day. I am driving north on Katy Hockley Cut-off. Just five hours ago, I was ringing in the New Year with my family and neighbors who at this moment are sleeping soundly in their beds. I am on my way to join a dedicated group of bird watchers who spend every New Year’s Day in the fields north of Katy as part of the Audubon Society’s Annual Cypress Creek/Katy Prairie Bird Count.

As I arrive at the staging area at Paul Rushing Park, I am greeted by the man heading up the 28th annual Bird Count, Fred Collins, a biologist on staff with Harris County Precinct Three. Dressed in camouflage attire from head to toe, he assigns each group a portion of the area to be observed. I join experienced birders Tracy Keltonic, Margi Elliott and Scott Kiester, a geologist and Texas Master Naturalist.

Still under the cover of darkness, off we go with our binoculars, notepads, cameras, and the bird watchers bible, Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds. Much of the land being surveyed belongs to the Katy Prairie Conservancy, the non-profit organization that currently owns and protects 17,000 acres around Katy.

“Bird counts are a way of monitoring the health of our land,” explains Wally Ward of Katy Prairie Conservancy. The information gained also helps the Audubon Society develop accurate statistics on migration patterns and species numbers for their national count. In addition to a vast assortment of year-round residents, millions of migratory birds and waterfowl winter on the Katy prairie each year. My group has been assigned to the Warren Ranch, a cattle ranch dating back to the 1850s. A portion of this 6500-acre ranch was recently purchased by the Katy Prairie Conservancy. The land contains a sizable lake, which serves as a magnet for waterfowl like snow geese and other species. “More birds are found at Warren Lake than at all of the other areas combined,” explained Collins. “Eagles come here to feast on fish or the waterfowl resting on the lake.”

Sure enough, within minutes of my arrival, my companions direct me to the day’s first reward – a bald eagle in the wild. This majestic creature would be one of 14 bald eagles spotted in this year’s count. Throughout the day, I continue to be amazed at the birding ability of my companions. Their trained eyes can distinguish between different bird species by their silhouettes and formations in the sky. They discern species by the color of their plumage, shapes of their beaks, and by their calls and behaviors. According to Keltonic, the hawk-like turkey vulture soars gracefully on wind currents while a black vulture flaps its wings more and has a shorter tail. Keltonic credits Collins for many of her birding techniques. “Fred taught me a method of sighting birds that involves picking an area and staring without focusing,” explains Keltonic. “Any movement in the brush quickly reveals the hidden residents.”

At our next location beside Cypress Creek, Keltonic ties a tape recorder to a tree branch and plays the call of a Screech Owl. Using sounds to call birds is known as pfishing. It works. The trees come alive with birds chirping warnings that a predator is nearby. A rare Roseate Spoonbill takes to the sky. With its distinctive pinkish plumage, it has only been spotted 4 times out of 28 Bird Counts.

After a brown-bag lunch, I catch up with Collins as his group is performing perimeter counts along privately owned fields. Using another tape-recording of a Screech Owl, Collins elicits a response from an actual Eastern Screech Owl, perched within the brush alongside the roadway. I learn how fortunate I am to experience this extremely rare encounter on my very first bird count. For Collins, it is only his first such sighting in 40 years of bird counts.

Although the Bird Count volunteers represent a variety of backgrounds and occupations, they all share a love of birds and enjoy spending their holiday, sloshing through marshes and navigating remote back roads for nature’s sake.

“This experience expands your horizons from backyard birding, allowing you to see things you haven’t before,” says Scott Keister. For Katy resident Charmaine Ganson, she participates in the count because she enjoys watching birds and looks forward to rare sightings. “Last year, a Wilson’s Snipe was a good find as was a Red-headed Woodpecker,” explains Ganson. Each birder keeps a personal log of lifetime species sighted. For Keltonic, the day’s sightings brought her lifetime count up to 413 species.

According to Collins, birding requires special skills. “Birders need the ears of a five year old, the eyes of a twelve year old, the energy of a toddler, the endurance of a marathoner, the balance of an Olympic gymnast, a photographic memory, and the processing capacity of an Intel chip,” says Collins. “But given that most of us possess few of those, no matter, for the most important thing is to possess the desire to enjoy and learn about nature.”

THE COUNTS
After more than 10 hours in the field, the bird watchers congregate at Carolyn’s Country Cafe. Here, the groups tally up their finds for the day. This year’s 57 observers sighted 145 different species, just one less than the Bird Count’s all-time high a decade ago.

All Time Highs
While the numbers of ducks and geese were down, a number of all-time highs were observed including, Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Black Vultures, and Crested Caracara. This year’s Bird Count also included a Golden Crowned Kinglet that was not seen last year.

Missing Birds
Sadly, birders say there are now noticeable species missing from the 2005 count, including White Pelican, Wood Duck, Ferruginous Hawk, Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, Horned Lark and Eastern Towhee.

For More Information
To learn more about Katy Prairie Conservancy and nature-viewing opportunities, visit their website at www.katyprairie.org.

To volunteer to help with the 2006 Bird Count held on New Year’s Day, email fred_collins@hctx.net.

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