Area waits until Jan. 5 to see if it  retains its first place birding placement

More than 100 birders gathered for this year’s Matagorda County Mad Island Christmas Bird Count. More than 220 species were reported and officials now wait until Jan. 5 to find out if the county retained its status as the first in the nation.

Matagorda County birders will have to wait until Jan. 5 to find out if they are number one once again.

Under the direction of Dr. Brent Ortego, the Matagorda County Mad Island Christmas Bird Count was again a stunning success for birders and the county as well.

“The Christmas Bird Count season is still running,” Ortego said. “We might be number one but we won’t know until after Jan. 5.”

Ortego said this year’s bird count reported 220 species with two of them being new to the annual list. In the past 27 years, the bird count has accumulated more than 350 species 

“We had two rare birds added to our list this year and they are quality additions,” Ortego said. 

This year, a more than 100 birders participated in the event with birding taking place on industrial land, government land along with private ranches that allowed participation.

Ortego said the idea to start this annual event came from a desire to show off the natural resources that are seen in this county. 

“We decided 27 years ago that we were going to run a bird count and show off the resources in this area,” Ortego said. “As we grew, the whole community started to get involved with it and we decided to change the name from Mad Island Christmas Bird Count to the Matagorda County Mad Island Christmas Bird Count to honor and recognize the county for its participation.”

Ortego said the popularity of the Christmas bird counts are growing with every year and the Matagorda County Mad Island Christmas Bird Count is no exception.

“It has grown to a certain capacity where is where we are now,” Ortego said. 

Christmas Bird Counts are laid out as circles with a 15-mile diameter. Teams of volunteers go out and count every bird they see in their territory within the circle. At the end of the day, participants gather together to share their numbers, stories of the day, and usually an excellent dinner prepared by volunteers. 

Participating in a CBC is a great way to spend some time outdoors, learn about the birds in our area, and make new friends. Beginners and children are welcome and will be teamed with a more experienced person. 

Most of the count is on private land and participation in the CBC is the only way to gain access to some very productive wildlife lands. The diversity of the CBC is great and most sections have multiple exclusives. 

The CBC features extensive native grasslands, brushlands, floodplain forests, beaches and coastal marshes. We need skilled birders to scan for pelagics over the Gulf from land, skilled shorebirders to ride on boats to survey expansive mudflats and marshes of the delta of the Colorado River, and birders to survey narrow forest areas along the river for lingering neotrops. 

Digging deep is a common theme. Matagorda County may dig the deepest, with a level of organization and effort no doubt partly responsible for its impressive results. Ortego reports that the 2017 count started at midnight with folks searching for black and yellow rails by all- terrain vehicle and on foot at the Nature Conservancy Mad Island Marsh Preserve. 

A separate group scanned for owls and other nocturnal species until dawn. When dawn came, other volunteers waited in position to greet (and count) the resulting chorus of birds, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department cranked up an airboat to search for waterfowl in difficult- to-reach places. More birders walked the beach, brushlands and woodlands.

Back in 2017, a team at Mad Island Wildlife Management Area reported a black rail; Ortego relayed the news to the Nature Conservancy so its crews could divert to other species. Another location reported a yellow-breasted chat, and he instructed counters on the Western Roads site to stop looking for it and focus on the yet-to-be-spotted yellow-headed blackbird.

“We had a scare late in the afternoon when we realized nobody had mentioned quail,” Ortego recalls. “So, two groups made special efforts to find that species. As the sun was setting, several teams were scanning roosting flocks of blackbirds searching for the still-missing yellow-headed. The South Texas Project team finally found eight. We hadn’t found any redhead ducks so we checked with local fishing guides, with no luck. I remembered seeing a TPWD Coastal Fisheries truck in the Matagorda harbor and emailed the Matagorda Bay ecosystem leader, Leslie Hartman, to ask if her crew saw any redheads. They had, and that brought our species total to 220.”

Ortego thinks teamwork is key in the Matagorda count.

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