One of the many special aspects about participating in the same Christmas Bird Count year after year are the memories. Since I have been on 55 previous Freeport counts, the memories have built up. Every time I return, those memories come flooding back—memories of unusual bird sightings and of friends who birded with me. This year’s count provided even more great memories.
For over 15 years, the area I cover in the morning is the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area, which is just east of the small town of Jones Creek. It contains some woodland, but is mostly grassland and marsh. Cullen Hanks, Barry Lyon, and I greeted the dawn at the end of the central road, observing a great variety of waterfowl, egrets, herons, ibis, gulls, and terns. Traveling back inland, we enjoyed wonderful looks at several species of sparrows including a number of Le Conte’s, my favorite sparrow. We also saw some large flocks of Snow Geese and several White-tailed Hawks.
At around 9 am we reached a small area of dense brush where we have seen a number of rare birds on past counts. Cullen’s Dad, Steve, had joined us. He and Cullen walked across the road while Barry and I entered the brushy area on a small trail. Years ago I had seen a Yellow-breasted Chat in this area. This large “warbler” usually winters further south. I was remembering that sighting when Barry said, “I hear a Yellow-breasted Chat!” While we were trying to get looks at the chat, Barry spotted a Prairie Warbler, a species that breeds in small numbers in very short pine stands. This species is seldom seen in Texas away from its breeding grounds. I had seen one on the count fifteen years ago. It has been recorded on only a few Freeport counts. We called Cullen and Steve to come see the Prairie Warbler. Cullen looked at the warbler and then looked at some of the taller trees. He said, “I see a Myiarchus.” We looked in that direction and saw two long-tailed flycatchers sitting side by side. At first we thought they might be Ash-throated Flycatchers since that species has been seen on a number of the Freeport counts, but these birds were bright yellow below their gray breasts. We soon realized they were Brown-crested Flycatchers, a South Texas species that had been seen only once before on the Freeport count. We continued around the corner of the brushy area and spotted two Fox Sparrows, a large bright rufous and white sparrow that is missed on a number of Freeport counts. Completing the walk around this area, we arrived back at our cars. Just then I saw an adult Bald Eagle, a species that we seldom used to see on the count, but that is now more numerous. A few minutes later Cullen said, “I see a Painted Bunting!” We all got on the bird. It was a first year male with bright yellow below and chartreuse above. In about an hour we had seen five species that would probably be seen by no one else on the count. Cullen had obtained good photos of all of them.
Since we had done so well in this brushy area, I suggested we drive back south to another brushy area. We walked into that area. Cullen and Steve were on one side of a big bush when I walked around it. They yelled, “anis!” Evidently I had flushed four Groove-billed Anis from that bush, and they had flown toward Cullen and Steve. We all obtained good looks. This species is seen on less than a third of the Freeport counts.
We met for lunch with the teams that cover nearby areas. Unfortunately, none of them had seen any unusual birds. After lunch we birded the town of Jones Creek. The day before we had asked a number of homeowners for permission to bird their properties. All gave us permission. They were quite friendly and had read about the count in the local newspaper. In one yard we saw a Pine Siskin, a bird that has often been missed on recent counts. In another area we saw a Black-throated Green Warbler. Then further down a road, Cullen and Barry found a Magnolia Warbler, a species that has been seen on very few Freeport counts.
It had been an amazing day with one unusual bird sighting after another. We had seen over 100 species of birds in our area including eleven species of warblers. Ten of the birds we had seen were seen by no other parties.
We ended the day near where we had begun. There we spotted a Short-eared Owl flying over the grassland and marsh. We had it in view for over five minutes and savored its lovely buff markings and floppy flight. This owl sighting was as wonderful as the rare birds we had seen and provided a perfect ending to the day.