Christmas Bird Count Bastion
Texas birder Bill Graber celebrates his 50th, and final, year as the Bolivar Peninsula count’s compiler.
Five decades ago, when Bill Graber started the Bolivar Peninsula Christmas Bird Count in southeastern Texas, the brown pelican’s future was in doubt. The widespread use of DDT had made the birds’ eggshells too thin, causing the parents to unintentionally crack them during incubation. Despite these setbacks, the species could still be found in small numbers along the Texas coast—but Graber had never seen one during his annual tally. In 1977 his luck changed.
“Lo and behold, in the air, turning around in big circles, was a single brown pelican,” says the father of three, “the first we had had in 15 years of doing our count.” For another decade the lone pelican—a species Graber now calls “dirt common”—was the sole representative of its kind for the Bolivar count. It left quite an impression. “We’ve had some really rare birds,” Graber says, “but that one episode was one of the high points in 49 years of doing this count.”
Today about 30 people participate in Graber’s count, guided by this knowledgeable man, who keeps a world list, a Texas list, even a Jefferson County list. Graber, who’s been an Audubon member for 60 years, has six bookshelves overflowing with bird guides. Six-feet-two and ruddy complexioned, he wears his hearing aids only when birding or listening to calls. He has become his town’s go-to birding source, and years as the compiler have made him a self-taught authority when it comes to Texas’ coastal birds.
Graber welcomes anyone’s participation in the Bolivar count. Longtime birding companion Royce Pendergast describes Graber’s leadership style as easygoing and laid back, though he’s also somewhat of a perfectionist. “In retrospect, there were a lot more birds [that first year],” Graber says. “Where were they, and why didn’t we get them? The answer is lack of experience.” Graber tweaked and modified his CBC strategy until he came up with a technique that was just right—and one he still employs. “I ask the same people to go back to the same area year after year,” says Graber, a retired urologist. “Because of that, they get to be expert as far as knowing what birds are in their areas, knowing where the microhabitats are, what birds they should be finding there, what birds are unusual.” One CBC year, his counting technique resulted in 197 species tallied (the group averages about 180).
Graber’s data have also shed valuable light on wintering birds in Texas. For example, Bolivar Peninsula tallies revealed that the number of northern birds spending winter on the Texas coast—species like pine siskins and slate-colored juncos—has decreased, and that birds from the Texas-Mexico border have started showing up for the first time. “Birds like white-winged doves, caracaras, and white-tailed kites are birds that we get every year now that for the first 15 or 20 we didn’t at all,” Graber says. “A few northern birds [no longer] come this far south.” Pendergast calls this information a good barometer for what’s really happening in the environment, and both she and Graber say they believe these changes result from warmer temperatures.
Such avian acumen comes from Graber’s deep intimacy with his count. “I was 29 when I started. I’m 78 now. So the 50 years just cost me my youth,” he says good-naturedly. Aside from the reliable data these bird counts provide, there’s another important aspect: “They’re fun to do,” Graber says. He plans to continue participating in Bolivar, but with a half-century under his belt, he’s happy to hand over the compiling to a new, younger generation.