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Birder competes 50th annual Christmas Bird Count

January 07, 2012 at 07:27 PM

The Associated Press

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) — Bill Graber has watched 50 years fly by, a bird at a time.

The Beaumont birder has just completed his 50th annual Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society, counting the species and numbers with fellow enthusiasts in their assigned area on the Bolivar Peninsula.

The range in which he counts is a 15-mile radius that takes in much of the eastern portion of Bolivar to High Island, an internationally famous area for birders who watch the spring migration.

The Christmas Bird Count aims to achieve specific goals for the National Audubon Society: volunteer observers collect data to allow researchers and conservation biologists to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Graber has observed that northern birds are not migrating as far south as they once were and the Christmas counters also are seeing southwestern species that they hadn’t previously seen.

This suggests the earth is warming, Graber said, and northern species won’t have to dip south as much because they can get what they need closer to home.

“It suggests things are a little warmer on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast than they were 40 years ago,” he said. “Northern birds can get vegetation and food resources (closer to where they originate),” he said.

Bird count’s history

The Christmas count provides continuity of data going back more than 100 years, Graber said.

The Beaumont native has had a hand in almost half of them.

“I began bird-watching as a Boy Scout,” said Graber, 78, who went on to become a physician and now is retired.

“In 1962, when I came back to Beaumont, we didn’t have a Christmas Bird Count. We had a good area along the Texas coast. That first count in 1962, we had 12 people. I was, by far, the youngest at 29,” he said.

In that first count, volunteers were able to compile a list of 97 species. In last week’s count, about 50 spotters counted 185 species. The best year they ever had yielded sightings of 197 species, Graber said.

In 1962, though, he said he and the others didn’t know enough to tally all the species that they later could.

He said the Bolivar count consistently ranks in the top 20 across the country because the Upper Texas Gulf Coast is so rich in birds. There are about 1,700 Christmas counts taking place around the world with most of them in North America. The count is spreading into South America, particularly in the equatorial countries that have tropics as well as mountainous areas, Graber said.

An example of the count’s impact is to spot local trends in bird populations and habitat fragmentation, as well as identify immediate environmental threats, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from improper use of pesticides, the Audubon Society said.

High notes

Graber said perhaps the most memorable sighting he’s ever had occurred on Dec. 28, 1977, when he spotted a brown pelican.

He recalled that he was with fellow birder Royce Pendergast from Orange - she now lives in Houston - when they saw the pelican, whose numbers had sharply declined because of the use of DDT. The pesticide causes thinning of bird eggshells and a resulting failure to produce chicks.(equals)

After DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, affected birds slowly began to stage a comeback. That brown pelican Graber saw in 1977 was the first he had seen since his first count in 1962. Now, there are thousands along the Texas coast, he said.

Graber has acted as the compiler, the person who tallies up each person’s count and then sends it in to the Audubon Society. But he’s giving up that position, leaving the responsibility of coordinating the effort to someone else, he said. Graber just wants to have fun.

He’s also taking part in the Sea Rim Count, which will be tomorrow and covers an area from Sea Rim and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge to Texas Point, to the southern tip of Pleasure Island - where he will be - and across Sabine Lake to a portion of Cameron Parish, La.

A natural question for Graber is whether he has a favorite among all the birds he has seen.

He thought for a moment and replied, “No, not really.”

Then, another pause.

“I went to New Guinea once with my eldest son after he graduated from high school. We were at the top of a mountain and a ribbon-tailed astrapia flew right past us,” he said.

The ribbon-tailed astrapia, a near-threatened species according to the United Nations because it is hunted for its plumes, has a range limited to the subtropics, Papua New Guinea in particular.

“It was the high point of my trip and maybe my whole birding experience,” he said. “There were six of us there. We all clapped for the bird.”

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