This photo of a Blue Jay by Daniel Kelch was taken a couple days after the Dec. 17 Bell County Bird Count, but it was captured in the general area near Salado where the count was administered. This year, 27 members and friends of the Twin Lakes Audubon Society counted 112 species inside the 15-mile diameter circle northeast of Salado.

4,650 birds counted locally in 15-mile circle; Harris’s Sparrow, ducks seen in big numbers


While many Central Texans spent Dec. 17 wrapping Christmas gifts and planning stocking surprises, about 27 die-hard residents gathered near Salado to count birds.

The Christmas Bird Count is a lesser known holiday tradition that dates to 1900 nationally and to 1987 in Bell County.

The local version is organized by members and friends of the Twin Lakes Audubon Society, and is held at about the same time each year in the same area.

“It’s always in the same place, that way we can compare our counts from year to year,” said Gil Eckrich, president of the Twin Lakes group. “The local Christmas bird counts are always taken in the same 15-mile diameter circle — the center of the circle is the Armstrong Community Center northeast of Salado. The community is about gone except for the center, which is still used quite a bit.”

Eckrich said the counting circle includes part of Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir, and a boat is used to count waterfowl in the lake.

“This year, we counted 4,650 birds,” he said, “and that includes 112 species. That’s down just a bit. In the past two years we counted 120 and 122 species, respectively.”

“Some species haven’t shown up in expected numbers because of climatic reasons, but others — Harris’s Sparrow and several duck species — are here in larger numbers than we’ve ever seen. There were a lot of waterfowl in the counting circle on Dec. 17.”

“Every bird seen or heard that day is counted,” he said. “It’s not just a species tally — all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the number of birds in the circle that day. The totals can be compared to counts in other years to track long-term bird trends. Over the long haul, data can reveal the decline of some species and the recovery of others.”

In Texas, last year’s Christmas counts showed the biggest decline in bird numbers in 14 years.

Eckrich said one reason for fewer birds and bird species is because of shrinking habitat.

“There’s a lot of new homes and other development going into the area where we count,” he said. “A lot of our wild areas are being lost, not just in Bell County, but nationwide.”

Another reason for a drop in the number of species could be related to the Feb. 2021 extreme winter storm, which “did kill birds over a large area.”

Eckrich said Twin Lakes is still compiling numbers and will send the Bell County report to state and national levels where they will be consolidated into a single report.

Nationally, the Christmas Bird Count is one of the longest running citizen science projects in the world, and it was started as a means to reduce the number of birds killed during holiday hunts.

Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in a precursor to the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition — a Christmas Bird Census — that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

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