The Daily Review Outdoor Writer John Flores observed this Cape May Warbler while visiting Corpus Christi, Texas, this spring. (Submitted Photo/Courtesy of John K. Flores)
Review Outdoor Writer Flores' year is a good one
In the 2011 movie “The Big Year,” Brad Harris, played by Jack Black, sets out to see how many different species of birds he can observe in one year. In the comedy, he competes against Stu Preissler, played by Steve Martin and Kenny Bostick, played by Owen Wilson.
The movie has all sorts of twists and turns across the United States and Canada, taking the three birders through some absolutely breathtaking country in pursuit of their goal of being the best. To be a birder on this level one has to have an amazing mind that is capable of distinguishing the tiniest details with near photographic memory.
The current American Birding Association (ABA) “Big Year” record is held by American, John Weigel, who spent 2016 observing 780 different species of birds.
Each Spring, from the middle of March through the middle of May, I spend a lot of time in the local bottomland hardwoods and coastal marshes observing migrating birds. I’m not interested in seeing how many different species I can count. I prefer to take their picture, attempting to get the best image I can. Also, the more rare the bird is “to me personally,” the better. But, it’s not uncommon for me to see 20 to 30 different species during my morning outings. This may not come close to a big year, but it is a pretty big day from a birding standpoint.
I’m also someone who enjoys learning all I can about a particular species and the habitat it lives in. This spring I decided to change things up a little. After spending several weekends birding here in St. Mary Parish, I moved these activities westward in late April to the Texas gulf coast towns of Fulton, Rockport and Corpus Christi, and then southwest to the town of Ozona as part of my spring vacation.
Corpus Christi happens to be known as the “Birdiest City in America.” After spending a couple days there, it was easy to see how it came to get that title.
Louisianans are well aware of our ongoing problems with coastal erosion and the loss of wetland habitats. What’s more, how wetland loss impacts our wildlife and fisheries. Corpus Christi happens to have a few problems of its own.
Much of southeast Texas continues to grow in population – a good thing. But, with any increase in human population, there is also an incremental impact on the landscape. For thousands of years migratory birds have utilized this part of the Gulf of Mexico coastline, stopping just long enough to rest and restore their energy, before moving on to their breeding grounds.
While in Corpus Christi, I met Callan Price, who works for Nueces County Coastal Parks as an Environmental Specialist. On a small piece of land, several acres in size along the North Padre Island beach, Price watered various plants near a boardwalk. Come to find out, the little piece of property was part of a habitat restoration project at the Packery Channel Nature Park.
Price said, “The whole purpose of this project is to figure out and measure the migratory birds’ use of the plants here, so we can better predict fallouts and know how to support them to help bird populations sustain themselves. This project is really great, because we know we are gathering information, where someday we can possibly assemble a kind of comprehensive manual for restoration projects or even commercial or home landscaping. It would be great to have plants in landscaping projects that would support our wildlife.”
There were some real treasures along the Texas coastline. A few of the birds we observed and took pictures of were black-throated green warblers, Cape May warblers, American redstart, and black poll warblers. In all, my wife and I counted some 54 different species of birds in the two days we spent in Corpus Christi, many we’d never seen before.
From Corpus Christi we drove west, leaving the humid sea-level ecosystem of the gulf coast, to Ozona, Texas, where the average annual rainfall is 19 inches.
There, we met up with Twistflower Ranch owner Mike McCloskey to do some nature viewing and birding. McCloskey’s 5,800 acre ranch rests in the middle of dry overgrazed habitat that once was short grass prairie, before it was used for sheep and cattle.
One of the problems with overgrazing is the plants that take the place of bluestem and other prairie grasses. And, one of the most damaging plants to those grasses is the tarbush that can range 1 to 4 feet in height. What McCloskey has done is work with various agencies, Federal and State, in developing riparian restoration strategies on his ranch to enhance wildlife by eradicating tarbush.
So far McCloskey has treated some 60 acres and is under a current contract for 600 more – and it seems to be working. McCloskey showed us some knee-high pastures of grass that has come back from desolation.
McCloskey, 72, and a retired environmental engineer is passionate about his quest in restoring his ranch saying, “By the time I die or run out of money, I’d like to restore this land as much as I can to what it looked like in the 1860s or 1870s, before the European settlers came with their sheep and cattle and overgrazed it and let these invasive species of plants come on to it.”
While on McCloskey’s ranch we sat in a blind along Live Oak creek – a dry river bottom that sees water about once every three years. Overlooking a little manmade oasis we sat seeing Scott’s and Bullock’s orioles, pyrrhuloxia, spotted towhee, vermilion and ash-throated flycatchers, and painted and varied buntings – not to mention deer, javelina (peccary), and gray fox.
In all, unofficially, Christine and I saw perhaps another 30 species of birds on Twistflower Ranch, bringing our Texas total to over 80 this past week. When I include my 2018 Louisiana spring birding numbers, I know I’m well over 100 different species of birds that I’ve observed mostly in the wild this year.
His may not be a “Big Year” for the better birders, but this spring it has been for me.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Flores is The Daily Review’s Outdoor Columnist. If you wish to make a comment or have an anecdote, recipe or story you wish to share, you can contact John K. Flores at 985-395-5586 or firstname.lastname@example.org.