For the birds

HARLINGEN — Gloria Nelson and her two friends had enjoyed a productive day counting birds in the cold and rain.

In spite of the weather, by noon they had recorded 41 species of birds on their tally sheets for the Harlingen Christmas Bird Count. They spoke excitedly about the morning’s adventures while sitting at a Whataburger restaurant.

“We saw the common yellowthroat, yellow-rumped warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet,” Nelson said.

“My highlight was a barn owl,” said her friend Linda Butcher. They’d been driving around their assigned area near Texas State Technical College and Valley International Airport all morning. Norma Friedrich, one of the co-compilers, had been the driver and also spotted birds.

The count is part of an annual event held throughout the United States. It was sponsored locally by the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society. Counters were assigned one of 28 specific areas within a 15-mile circle extending from Harlingen to San Benito and Rio Hondo. It also spread toward La Feria.

Friedrich and Mark Conway, another co-compiler, were also there to accept the tally sheets of any half-day counters. They’d made arrangements to receive the tally sheets at the Whataburger at 1522 E. Harrison Ave.

They remained there between noon and 1 p.m. However, out of 60 counters, only two came by as half-day counters to deliver their tally sheets. The rest of the die-hard birders would remain in the field the entire day.

Friedrich said the number of counters this year was about the same as last year. This in spite of some extremely disagreeable weather, cold and wet. Rock solid dedication was the order of the day.

“There are no chickens in birders,” Friedrich said. She’d seen her share of birds, too.

Although Butcher spoke eagerly about her barn owl, she declined to reveal exactly where she’d seen it. Conway explained why.

“People like to see barn owls,” he said. “If they keep going back to the same place, it will spook the barn owls.”

Conway himself spent a couple of hours at Hugh Ramsey Nature Park where he counted about 36 birds.

“That’s before it started to rain, about 9:30 a.m.,” he said. “I got in there at 7:30 until it rained.”

The birds behaved differently in the heavy rains than they would in more favorable conditions. They sought cover in the thick brush. Their lack of movement made spotting them difficult, Conway said.

“They try to get out of the wind and rain like people do,” he said.

Nevertheless, he saw some notable birds, including the painted bunting and blue-headed vireo.

“Did you see a verdin?” Nelson asked.

“No,” Conway said. “I didn’t see it. I saw a Cooper’s hawk.”

Nelson mentioned they’d seen quite a few sandhill cranes. She was pleased with the number of birds counted.

“I was surprised we saw as many species as we did for the conditions we had,” she said.

Conway hesitated to say the count would be as good as in previous years. Last year, the count yielded 157 species of birds.

“That’s a good year,” he said. Matching that same number this year would be a little tough.

Nelson, Friedrich and Butcher were technically half-day birders, but for a reason. They were heading out to prepare chili, pecan pie and other eats for the free countdown dinner. The meal was held at the Harlingen Cultural Arts Center at 576 ‘76 Drive next to the Harlingen Public Library.

They were pretty jazzed about starting on the meal, although they couldn’t stop talking about the birds they’d counted.

“We got excited when we saw two white-tailed kites,” Nelson said as they stood to leave.

Friedrich said she’d enjoyed the day with her fellow birders and looked forward to the evening events.

“It’s nice to be with like-minded people,” she said.