Historical Aspects of the Buffalo Bayou Christmas Bird Count

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The Buffalo Bayou Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was first held in 1978. It was established to document the birds on the west side of Houston, Texas, a part of the city containing good habitat yet also subject to fairly rapid residential and commercial development. After having been the most popular southeast Texas CBC in recent years, on 4 January 2003 this count became the most popular CBC in Texas in the 103rd CBC season: the 26th Buffalo Bayou CBC’s 136 participants were tops in the state, besting the second place finisher by 13 observers.

This is the only CBC within Houston (not to be confused with the inaccurately-named Houston CBC, which is actually in Baytown and vicinity — that’s because when the Houston CBC was started, it was the only CBC in the area, so the founders named it after where they were based, i.e., in Houston, rather than where they were counting). The Buffalo Bayou CBC is centered at the Houston Audubon Society’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary. It extends from Memorial Park on the east to beyond Highway 6 on the west; from the Southwest Freeway at West Belt on the south to FM 529 near Jersey Village on the north. This area includes sizeable chunks of excellent habitat. The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, Art Storey Park, Barker Reservoir (including Cullen-Barker Park), Addicks Reservoir (including Cullen Park), Bear Creek Park, and Buffalo Bayou provide woodlands, bottomlands, brush, prairie remnants, and open water. Waders, ducks, hawks, shorebirds, woodpeckers, and songbirds (including a dozen or more species of sparrows each year) are all represented. Woodcock are sometimes seen at dusk, as well as Barn, Great Horned, and Barred Owls, Eastern Screech-Owl, and more rarely Common Nighthawk. A Harlan’s form Red-tailed Hawk once wintered for over 5 years along Alief-Clodine Road near Eldridge, and for two winters a Harris’ Hawk stayed not far from there. In January 2003, stormy weather brought in a variety of unusual species including Vermilion Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, Tropical Parula, and American Redstart (plus a Western Tanager during Count Week). We have a resident and thriving colony of Monk Parakeets in Alief. Almost anything can stray in from the less developed areas around Houston: Roseate Spoonbill, White and White-faced Ibis, Royal Tern, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, Hooded Merganser, Caracara, Sandhill Crane, Short-eared Owl, and Sprague’s Pipit have all been recorded. The western portion of the circle contains brush that occasionally attracts western species such as Bewick’s Wren, Pyrrhuloxia, Common Ground Dove, and Green-tailed Towhee. And of course the count always produces lots of the more expected city residents: chickadees, titmice, cardinals, several kinds of woodpeckers, kinglets, crows, Blue Jays, wrens, grackles, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, and House Sparrows.

All this is within the Houston city limits. That is what attracts many participants — finding what’s right here in our own backyard, seeing what can make a go of it in the urban environment. The results also provide an indication of the long-term status of Houston’s avian populations. Already we have seen some trends emerging for some species. For example, White-tailed Kites, once seen every year in the fields along Highway 6 south of Westheimer, are now observed only rarely, having been edged out by widespread development. Nearby, White-tailed Hawks, which made their appearance in the mid-1980s after having nested in Barker Reservoir for the first time, are no longer seen since the shooting range in Cullen-Barker Park was built right on top of their nest site. Conversely, the count has documented the recent increases of White-winged Dove and Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Because so much of this CBC area is residential, Feeder Watchers (those who stay at home and observe their feeder, yard, and/or neighborhood) are extremely important to the count and greatly increase the efficiency of the count by observing species that otherwise would not be seen, such as hummingbirds (Rufous is seen every year; Broad-tailed, Anna’s, Black-chinned, and Ruby-throated have also been observed), White-winged Dove, Ringed-turtle Dove, Summer Tanager, and Bullock’s Oriole. You don’t need a lot of experience to help; and Feeder Watchers don’t have to pay the participation fee.

In 1989 began the three worst consecutive years of weather to afflict a Houston-area CBC. In December of that year, count day dawned at 4°F (-16°C); Doug Williams and his party rescued a Wilson’s Warbler whose feet had frozen to an icy cable overhanging Buffalo Bayou. The next year, morning ice storms kept attendance down and left at least one party’s vehicle damaged. Finally, in December 1991, rains were so torrential that the party in our most productive area called it quits at 9:00 a.m. — they simply couldn’t use their binoculars!

In its early years, the Buffalo Bayou CBC drew barely enough participants to adequately census the count circle, with totals of about 100 species. In 1984, the count circle was shifted slightly westward, to its present location, greatly increasing the habitat diversity by including part of Barker Reservoir – species counts jumped to around 110. (This location shift occurred because of record-keeping problems during the first few years of the count regarding the exact location of the circle — not because of a desire simply to increase species numbers.) Recently, the loyal following has grown as more and more people have discovered how much fun this count can be; and with the additional observers have come species totals in excess of 120.

The entire history of Buffalo Bayou CBC results can be found on the Audubon Society’s CBC website.