Birding for the New Generation

A novice birder discovers the nation’s number one Christmas bird count offers something for people of all ages and skill levels.

Counting Birds at Mad Island Marsh Preserve

What's it like to participate in the nation's number one Audubon Christmas Bird Count?


With pen in hand, new conservation writer Bronwen Taylor recounts her first foray into the field—a weekend at the annual Mad Island-Matagorda Bay Christmas Bird Count.

For 112 seasons, professionals and amateurs alike have assembled for the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the longest running wildlife census in the world. The Nature Conservancy of Texas has been involved for 19 of those years, partnering with Matagorda County to host the Mad Island-Matagorda County Christmas Bird Count; this season, it was held December 19, 2011.

Off We Go

Participants met at the Conservancy’s Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve and were lead into the proverbial brush by preserve staff Julie Sullivan and Adam Hinkle, Brent Ortego from Texas Parks and Wildlife and Rich Kostecke, associate director of conservation for the Conservancy. I know next to nothing about birding, but I can spot a good story and a fun adventure. So, I set my GPS to the Texas Gulf Coast and headed to Mad Island.

After the three-hour drive, several rounds of introductions, a sprawling welcome potluck and a bird count tutorial, I was exhausted. As my thoughts drifted to bedtime, Kostecke announced that we had a choice: the count would officially begin at 6:30 a.m. (nixing any notion of a leisurely breakfast), but those who wanted the ‘full experience’ should meet at 4:00 a.m. Night birding, he explained, is the only way to catch a glimpse of various types of owls and the elusive rail, a bird species common in wetland areas that tends to be more active at night.

Meet the Birders

I was thankful the 4:00 start was optional; I chose, instead, to get to know my bunkmates—two six year old girls, Alle Sigg and Aidan Lyons-Allen, and Aidan’s mother Kelly Lyons, a biology and ecology professor.

“I was raised by a very urban lawyer from New York [so] I did not have any role models in South Texas who spent time outdoors,” she said. “I found a real love for the outdoors when I moved to California and began camping. One summer of that and I was sold on the idea of studying nature.”

That love of the outdoors is something she wants to instill in Aidan. “I live a pretty urban lifestyle, so it’s hard to always teach them [and] get them to recognize the importance of nature,” she said, explaining why she’d chosen to spend a weekend with two elementary-age girls trekking through Texas marshland. 

Seeing adults prioritize nature is critical,” Lyons added, before telling me of an instance that punctuated her point. While combing the preserve for birds, she and Parker Shuerman, of the Conservancy’s Texas Fire and Conservation Team, “both saw roseate spoonbills for the first time and openly rejoiced—I was jumping up and down and he threw his arm around my shoulder. This was surprising for the girls [but] they were delighted to see us so happy about such a simple and wild thing.”

Getting Our Count On

By sunrise, most of the early morning warriors had returned; their stories were enough to make me regret those extra hours of sleep: racing across a vast, muddy marshland in the back of an all-terrain vehicle, outfitted in knee-high mud boots and headlamps, holding on tight as the ATV pitched to and fro. “It’s not for the faint of heart!” said Anne Zuparko, a Conservancy marketer.

Energized, the night birders jumped immediately into the morning fray to map out the day’s activities. Once everyone had their assignments, we dispersed; by truck, ATV and on foot, we stretched out across the preserve, binoculars in hand. And you know something? It was actually pretty awesome. I was gleeful at correctly identifying my first bird, a white-tailed hawk.

We're Number One!

That afternoon, we met up with other groups for the bird count’s closing ceremony. As Brent Ortego called out the names of different species, the call and response cadence was reminiscent of a bingo hall: white tailed hawk? Yes! White ibis? Yes! Forrester’s stern? Yes! In the end, coordinators reported a record-breaking 125 participants and a total of 244 identified species, making Mad Island-Matagorda Bay the most diverse count in the nation for the 14th year.

A New Generation of Conservationist 

A while later, Lyons told me in an email that she’d witnessed her daughter Aidan “[sitting] by the window watching birds through the [binoculars] with the intention of seeing the markings.” It was then, she realized, her lessons about nature were sinking in. 

While Aidan is still a bit too young to understand the implications of her day of citizen science, she knows the basic importance of a healthy environment. “Nature helps you breathe!” she told me. “And it gives you food.”



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