A greater yellowlegs wading bird at the Mad Island Marsh Preserve in Texas
Greater Yellowlegs The Mad Island Marsh Preserve protects 7,063 acres, including rare tallgrass coastal prairies. © Karin Aigner

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Marsh Madness

Every winter, birders take part in the Christmas Bird Count. And for five years, the team at TNC’s Mad Island Marsh Preserve has come out ahead.

By Scott McMillion, Freelance Writer | November/December 2013

The tide is dropping, lowering an already-shallow creek of brackish water and leaving three canoeists in a bit of a pickle: The birders in has long since become too skinny for them to turn their craft around. Progress comes only by stowing the paddles and tugging the boat along by hand, one fistful of swamp grass at a time, hoping to find more water.

Soon, even that option peters out. With the canoe aground on an oyster reef, Darrell Schwebel climbs out to reconnoiter; he reports deeper water on the other side of the mud island just a 50-yard portage away. Bea Harrison, who’s riding amidships, clambers out of the canoe and immediately sinks to her thighs in the muck. She struggles to free herself while keeping a notepad and binoculars dry and a smile on her face, but the ooze’s suction plucks one of her waders halfway off her leg. She’s not a large woman, but it still takes two big men to grab her by the boot tops and lift her to a patch of grass where she won’t sink.

Caked in silt and standing on slick ground, Harrison goes back to work. She scans the grasses and rivulets looking for birds, but instead spots her husband, Jim, and another man, riding squeaky-clean in a second canoe, chuckling at her predicament.

“I spotted a couple bill-capped birders,” she says as if she’d just seen some exotic fowl. “And they’re preening.”

Tugging at the canoe, Schwebel leads the trio through the waist-high jungle until he finds a narrow animal trail that leads to the water. The mud makes it easier to shove the boat along, but the path also reveals fresh alligator tracks, each footprint the diameter of a skullcap or a sizable steak, with four splayed toes ending in impressive claws.

Schwebel points out that a gator’s feet are disproportionately small compared with its body, so this one might be a big fella. With that piece of information in mind—and visibility through the weeds only a yard deep—it is time to get back in the boat.

This is birding, Texas-style. It’s serious business, and these folks have come here to uphold the Matagorda County Mad Island Bird Count’s winning reputation in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. For 13 of the past 14 years, the birders in and near this Nature Conservancy preserve have identifi ed the most avian species in a single day in the United States. This massive census is serious science wrapped in friendly competition. If the birders here can collectively identify more than 220 species, they may win again—and they refuse to be hindered by alligators or mud, feral hogs or mosquitoes, darkness or fatigue.

Volunteer David Cimprich at Mad Island Preserve
Teamwork Nearly 120 volunteers—including David Cimprich—spend a night and day birding at TNC’s Mad Island Preserve and in parts of Matagorda County. © Karine Aigner

Like most Christmas Bird Counts, the 2012 Mad Island count doesn’t actually occur on its namesake holiday; instead it begins December 17, at the crack of midnight. Birders rise from cots, bunks and couches in buildings peppered across the Conservancy’s 7,063-acre Mad Island preserve. A few hours ago, these people were sharing a lasagna dinner and divvying up search zones within the preserve and surrounding area. Now, they’re wandering the darkness, cocking ears for owl hoots in some of the last remaining original tallgrass coastal prairie along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

The Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve, as it’s formally known, lies within the Central Flyway, one of the four main migratory bird routes in North America. Since 1990, the Conservancy has worked here with Ducks Unlimited and the state of Texas to restore the wetlands and coastal prairies. Resident birds and migrating flocks use this as a resting spot or come here seeking a meal. The salt marshes—full of insects, reptiles, fish and crustaceans—are complemented by rice fields that work like wetlands.

“This is a habitat where a lot of ecoregions come together,” says Brent Ortego, a diversity biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife and the man who has been running the count here since its inception, in 1993. He knew the Mad Island count had the potential to be good, in terms of the number of species, but he never imagined it would be the best in the country.

“It’s become much better than we expected,” he says. At one point, beating the count in Freeport, Texas, was a major goal. Today, says Ortego, competition from Freeport “is no longer a concern.”

By 4 a.m., the count is in full swing, with a dozen or more enthusiasts loading into vehicles carrying well-thumbed bird books and hand-held spotlights that stab into the dark.

Others take turns splashing around rice fields on all-terrain vehicles, seeking secretive yellow rails, a notable item on any birder’s life list. Jim Harrison, a retired Conservancy staffer, plunges a four-wheeler into the rice field, carving a luminescent wake through the water, while standing on the machine’s foot pegs and fixing his eyes along the beam of its headlights and his own headlamp. Birds fly up all over the place: a barn owl now and then, but mostly snipe and willets. He drives with a steady and tender slosh punctuated with a pounce-and-halt combination of gas and brakes.

He finds his treasure—a yellow rail, not much bigger than a sparrow and huddled in the water. Its eye gleams as it holds a position just long enough for Jim to make a firm identification: the dark cap, the yellow eyebrow, the dark brown mask. Maybe 17,500 of them remain in the wild, according to the National Audubon Society, and they’re skittish, scampering into cover when approached, preferring a ground escape to an aerial one. Few people ever see them on the wing. Even fewer can claim a ground sighting. Nobody else will spot one this day, though the team of 119 people collectively spends 358 hours and traverses 832 miles, scanning sky, brush, ponds and shorelines.

Bird counts “give you an annual snapshot of what’s here,” explains Rich Kostecke, associate director of conservation for the Conservancy’s Texas chapter and one of that state’s top bird experts. When combined with the other concurrent bird counts, the data allow scientists to identify threats to birds. For example, are some species choosing to winter farther north as the climate changes? Does a dearth of fresh water during drought increase salinity in the bay, which would alter blue crab habitat, which would make great blue herons work harder for a meal? How does a major wildfire displace birds? Those snapshots can build an album with a story to tell.

Over the past century, Audubon has collected invaluable ecological information through this type of citizen science. And people have a lot of fun gathering it. “One thing that gets people fired up is the competitive aspect,” Kostecke says. “But it’s a seriously friendly competition.”

A flock of geese fly above the preserve
Birdland The preserve protects 7,063 acres and attracts many types of birds, including these geese. © Karine Aigner

Some birders put in a few hours during the count, but others, like Schwebel and the Harrisons, get serious and spend most of the night and all day in the field. At dawn, they park the ATVs and launch canoes. By lunchtime, having survived the portages, swamp carnivores and tidal currents, they gather at the preserve’s headquarters, a lodge on stilts, with a couple dozen other birders who spent the morning on foot or in cars, counting birds. Lunch hour is time to ladle soup and lick pencils, to fi nd out who has found which birds.

Many people in the room, which is on the southern end of the 15-mile-diameter bird-counting circle, bear evidence of their morning, with mud splotched to the waist. Others sink into chairs, sore of foot, and exchange stories. Some are bug bitten. But everybody pays attention as Kostecke runs through the checklist.

“Anybody get a purple gallinule?” he asks. “A purple gallinule would be good.”

Nobody raises a hand. But the day isn’t over. Empty spots in the list of birds sighted in previous years mean an afternoon of trying to fill in the blanks and hang on to the team’s championship. For Bea Harrison and her companions, it also means an afternoon on foot, carrying a stout stick to fend off rattlesnakes and rousting a wild hog from his daybed. Other volunteers continue to search nearby farm fields, lands around a chemical plant, the cooling ponds of a nuclear power facility, the intracoastal waterway and the forested banks of the Colorado River.

A successful count relies on access, Ortego stresses, and landowners in the area have been remarkably cooperative, opening gates to strangers and even chipping in to fund the barbecue that feeds the hungry birders after a long day in the field. The Conservancy supplies vehicles and boats, expertise, and bunk space in the lodge, an old farmhouse and even a barn. And local boat owners haul people to barrier islands, where they might just spot something rare, like a magnificent frigatebird stealing scraps from gulls that are stealing scraps from shrimp fishermen.

The birders gladly accept the hospitality.

Binoculars and a Sibley Field Guide to Birds
Counting Birds The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Counts began as an alternative to Christmas Day bird hunts in the 1800s. © Karine Aigner

By the time the count ends at 6 P.M., 18 hours after it began, the purple gallinule is in the bag, so to speak. The big flock of birders gathers in a cavernous community hall to reward themselves with a well-deserved Texas barbecue: brisket, chicken and ribs. In the middle of dinner, Ortego approaches the microphone and shuffl es the results from the 38 groups. Plastic spoons freeze in midair. A hush falls. The word is coming.

“I think we’re going to be number one again,” Ortego announces. It is what the crowd wants to hear. Applause erupts. People whistle. The title will stay on the Texas Gulf Coast; Mad Island will record the highest number of species for the 14th time over 15 years. And among the 232 species counted that day, Ortego proudly announces, soared a magnificent frigatebird.

Birding doesn’t offer crowns, but it does offer laurels. And every year, the birders come back to the Texas coast to do it again, aiming for another victory.

Jim and Bea rarely miss a Christmas count at Mad Island. They have been birding all over the West and say this count is as much fun as they have all year, sleep deprivation, gator dodging and all.

“Still,” laughs Jim, “I’m glad it’s only once a year.”