As 2018 “Year of the Bird” winds down I am formulating a plan to deal with all the data I’ve generated through the year with the Moody Gardens property surveys. Several things happened in the past week that remind me of the value of citizen science in understanding how and where birds live their lives.

First and foremost was participating in the 41st annual Galveston Christmas Bird Count.  CBCs as we birdnerds call them have been performed across the United States for 119 years.  The Audubon Society oversees the CBC efforts and compiles the data from thousands of 15-mile diameter circles across the United States.  Each circle has a CBC manager that organizes a team to conduct a one-day survey between 14 December and 5 January that creates a snapshot of bird abundance and diversity.  Galveston Bay has 5 different CBC circles around it’s perimeter with 11 throughout the Greater Houston area.   

Galveston’s CBC was conducted on Tuesday, 18 December with more than 50 volunteers participating in teams counting 8 different areas within our circle. The Galveston circle is centered just west of Pelican Island encompassing areas on the mainland including much of Texas City, Virginia Point, Bayou Vista, Tiki Island, West Galveston Bay, North and South Deer Islands.  Here on Galveston Island, the perimeter of our circle encloses all of Sportsman’s Road and Ostermeyer Road, transecting the beach at 8 Mile Road.  Surveyors scan the Gulf waters all the way east on Galveston and across the Bolivar channel to Rettilon Road.  The West End of the Bolivar Peninsula includes the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, Horseshoe Marsh and town of Port Bolivar.  The remaining arc encloses a large expanse of Lower Galveston Bay including the Texas City Dike and Skyline Road with a large area of the Lower Bay’s Western Shoreline.

According to Richard Mayfield, our Galveston CBC compiler, we typically see about 160 different species of birds, with a high of 175 in 2011 and a low of 144 in 2009. At the end of the CBC we assemble at a restaurant to recover from a day of slogging through marsh mud and prairie thickets for a fun and well deserved refueling and data download.  This year’s count was particularly enjoyable as we were treated to a great meal in a nice location at Fisherman’s Wharf.  The Galveston Parks Board and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau have taken the initiative to elevate Galveston’s birding activities to higher prominence in the City’s nature tourism story.  They graciously hosted this year’s meal and those of us that made it back from the field in time to take in the sunset and the great food they provided thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of ticking off species as we read through the list.  Data is still being compiled with a few write-in species making their way through the approval process.  Preliminary numbers suggest an average year with somewhere between 150-155 species for 2018.  If you are interested in joining us in 2019, the count will be on Tuesday, 17 December from dawn till dusk.  We gladly take volunteers from novice birders to experts to help us see, identify, count and record all the birds we see across this 177 square mile area.  We would be particularly interested in folks with boats that are large enough to comfortably host perhaps 6 people while being shallow draft enough to navigate the Bay shoreline.

The second example of citizen science data sharing came in the form of a picture taken by one of our Moody Gardens employees enjoying his newly acquired camera lens. Dusty Durbin took the photo of the Osprey above at 8-mile Road and Stewart Road.  A relatively common bird here on the Island through the winter, he noted that this one had bands on its legs.  Using the network of colleagues that readily provide advice, we were able to get this photo into the hands of a wildlife biologist at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota that recognized the colored and numbered bands as those he’d applied to a nestling in July 2015 on the bank of the Yellowstone River in Montana.  This bird, 41/C, was photographed and identified here in Galveston in January 2016, strengthening the researcher’s observations that these birds are surprisingly site faithful in their winter habitat.  Citing another local winter bird, 10/B that spent 4 winters on the same tree in Seabrook, the researcher has since been able to identify its nest site in Montana.  The observations of people in unrelated pursuits in distant areas over several years successfully connected the natal nest site, winter site and adult nest site for this bird.

Using birdwatching as an excuse to spend time outdoors is a complete reward on its own. Taking the extra step to record your observations from simple lists, through photos, videos and recorded calls adds value.  Providing that data to untold numbers of researchers compiling census trends, identifying shifting ranges and altered phenologies or localized extirpation events is critical to understanding how the natural world works and is changing around us.  I would encourage anyone that spends time outdoors looking at birds to consider putting those observations on eBird for others to see.

I also hope everyone is enjoying this holiday season in whatever tradition you hold dear. Peace.