Saturday, December 31, 2005

ENV: About Texas' First Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis
First Record for Texas
TX: Polk & San Jacinto Counties, Lake Livingston
21-23 December 1977

photo by Tony Gallucci and Kelly Bryan

Just thought, since it was CBC season, and with the finding of a new Texas Snow Bunting, that i'd toss a little history out there.

I was living on Lake Livingston in 1977 (actually from 1971-1986) and started what would end up being the first of three CBCs i put together for the four-county area (Trinity, Walker, San Jacinto and Polk -- the area covered in full by TPWDs Lake Livingston checklist -- the CBCs were Lower Lake Livingston, Trinity Peninsula [later renamed Upper Lake Livingston], and JB Ranch).

This first one covered most of the lower lake. What it didn't cover was snatched by the Upper Lake count. Kelly Bryan and i and a handful of other stalwart east Texas birders (i.e. Dean Fischer, Louis Debetaz, Mike Musemeche, Ralph Moldenhauer, John Ford and David Stuart, if memory serves, perhaps some students and others that i've forgotten for now) fanned out around the edges, and worked part of the lake in boats. Kelly and i had the east side and split up for a while to try to get some things that we were still missing. I was ecstatic that i'd found an Ash-throated Flycatcher in perhaps the only "thorn-scrub" patch in the Big Thicket, when Kelly pulled up and told me to park my truck and get in his. I could tell by the look on his face that he'd found something good.

It was, of course. In fact it was to become Texas' first record of a Snow Bunting. Kelly found it serendipitously on the north causeway when it flew across in front of the car in front of his. All he knew then was that it was a small white bird -- and you can imagine what would go through someone's head at the site of mostly white bird -- the dreaded albino or . . . Snow Bunting(?!).

The causeway is not a place where you can pull over safely, so he had to go ahead, turn around and drive slowly back. He found the bird, and knew instantly what it was. He then had to try to crawl along the highway without getting smacked from behind while trying to take pictures with his telephoto. Luckily the bird was very tame -- seems to run in the species -- however there was a stout north wind blowing and besides struggling to hold the wheel of the truck steady, and the camera steady but for the wind, Kelly's fingers were about frozen.

Satisfied that he had at least some identifiable shots (before digital though, so there was no way to know until the pics were developed), he set out to find me so we could try for better pictures. Luckily i was headed his way to brag about the Ash-throat. We spent the rest of the fast-fading light with me hanging out the window with his camera, while he crept along, waved folks around, and sometimes had to just pull ahead and turn around and try again.

We put the word out as soon as we got back to town (no cellphones then either). At the time though, photos for ID were not quite en vogue. They had been accepted for an increasing number of records of rarities, but various pros were still debating whether or not they should be accepted for anything -- and we weren't yet sure how the photos would turn out. We got the word out for folks to come see the bird quickly -- we also didn't know a blasted thing back then about Snow Buntings, such as how long one might linger. Nevertheless, after three days of observers driving in to see it, and us nervous about whether it might leave and take its status with it, the bird was collected (yell at me, if you feel the need to yell).

It proved to be a female. Even the stomach contents were sorted and identified. And the record was published in (then) American Birds.

We thought it pretty special that a CBC had produced a new state record, something that at the time was a singular rarity.

Oddly enough, five years later, Kelly and i were sorting through a huge mass of gulls at the Lake Livingston dam on the fifth edition of this same CBC, and had found a number of new east Texas and area records including a gorgeous Black-legged Kittiwake, Laughing Gulls, and a variety of terns, when we started sifting through thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls sitting on the water above the dam. We silently were hoping for a Little Gull. While Kelly scoped i started making mental notes of the field marks we might need to pick one out. Soon enough Kelly was saying "what has a red bill" -- and i said "well, if it has dark underwings we're on to something".

We were, it was Texas' first Black-headed Gull, which stayed for days, allowed many observers their first look and tons of great photos. If you're keeping track, that's two new state records from a single CBC, a record i suppose is still unmatched, though i quit paying attention long ago.

Speaking of photos, only one photo of the Snow Bunting turned out sharp -- the very last one on the roll.

Be sure to check out the Friday Ark at The Modulator!


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