Monday, October 13, 2008

Bird enthusiasts taking note of new sightings

By Tara Sullivan
The Baytown Sun

Published October 7, 2008

Bird watchers across the Texas Gulf Coast are taking note of Hurricane Ike evacuees of the winged variety. September and October are peak months for the annual spring bird migration, so while it is not an unusual time for non-native birds to pass through the region, some odd varieties have found their way to Baytown. Many of these might never before have set foot - or feather - on Baytonian soil.

Baytown resident and avid nature watcher Bert Marshall said new birds began cropping up near his home almost immediately after the storm had passed. He even recalls several birds that were noticeably wet, tired and flustered, including a rare leucistic hummingbird who stole a moment to fluff his weather-beaten feathers.

Since few nature enthusiasts go birding during inclement weather, it's not entirely understood how our feathered friends make it through. Some speculate that when there is a change in air pressure, birds fly low until they find a cave or other hallow cavity for shelter. Other birds might simply change their migration route, navigating around the bad spot. Whatever the reason, Marshall and other Baytonians are urging everyone to take a moment to really look at Baytown. Because of the migratory season, many of our native birds have already traveled south to Mexico and a throng of newcomers have taken their place.

"If you really take a moment to get to know your city - and you can't know it from inside a car, you have to walk it - you're bound to see some amazing nature," Marshall said.

Chaparral Village residents found this out by simply looking out their living room windows. These folks now share their neighborhood with several green and yellow parakeets that don't appear to be displaced pets, but rather their slightly larger, wild cousins. The tiny flock might have been blown in from as far away as Florida or as near as Kemah, where wild parakeets are fairly common.

As he watched an unknown type of bird, yellow as the sun with black and white striping on the wings, Marshall smiled. With an Audubon society field guide in one hand, his binoculars in the other, he was obviously delighted to host his new guests.

Speculating on how the newcomers might affect the existing ecosystem, Marshall said he thinks most of the visitors will remain simply that, eventually making their way back to wherever they call home. Still, he does recall a story regaled by his father of the Cattle Egret and how those familiar white birds we see over cattle pastures came to Texas. The story goes something like the birds were blown in from their homeland - an area stretching from Africa to Northern China, and on South to Australia - during a hurricane.

Though the story is only one of many theories explaining the sudden arrival of these birds to Texas during the mid-1950's, history lends an anchor of support by noting that Hurricane Alice trampled southeast Texas in 1954. By 1958, the Cattle Egret were roosting in Galveston and they've since become a norm of the Gulf Coast.

So while it's hard to say if the recent bird sightings mean parakeets and other colorful birds will regularly grace our birdfeeders, bird enthusiasts are satisfied to just watch and wait.

Eddie V. Gray Wetlands Center Education Coordinator Sallie Sherman said new sightings are not unusual after a big storm. Her biggest concern lies in the loss of trees and bushes, which may effect native bird populations.

"I can see how after the spring migration, there will be so many less trees for these birds," she said. "It's sad."

Sherman said December's Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count might present a clearer picture of who's been where. The bird count, an annual Audubon tradition, designates regions of the country (which includes the Baytown area) for bird watchers to watch, record and report back their sightings.

For now, Sherman said she would be one of the many Baytonians who've lately grabbed a pair of binoculars and started looking.

Bird watching field guides, which include color pictures and descriptions of many birds, are available at most bookstores and usually cost less than $20.

To check bird sightings in the region, to share your photographs or get help identifying a bird, visit www.texbirds.org.

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