Archive for the 'Birding' Category

Where to Observe Pelagic Bird Species

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

The ocean is a birder’s paradise. Photo: Camilla Cerea from

This is Passport to Texas

Pelagic bird species live their lives on the open water, rarely touching land except to breed.

[They need] a place where they’re going to have courtship and mating and build a nest so they can lay eggs and raise young. They can’t obviously do that on the water.

Cliff Shackelford is Texas Parks and Wildlife’s non-game ornithologist.

If you’re an angler, if you’re a surfer—you know people that really like to be out on the open water—you like boating, sailing, you’ve got to feel a special connection to these birds. Because these are your birds, because they’re out on the open water just like these people that love to be out on the water. And these birds spend their whole time out there. And it’s just remarkable.

Pelagic species go largely unseen.

In the Gulf of Mexico, we’ll have “strays” that we’ll never know are out there until somebody goes out there to look, or a specimen washes up on the beach. This is not heavily birded terrain; it’s difficult to get to. There are a lot of fishing crews that go out with guided fishing tours. Actually, a lot of birdwatchers have figured that out: don’t wait for a birding group to get a boat full of people to go out to the Continental Shelf to look at birds. Jump in on a fishing tour—one that might be out for two or three days. Instead of fishing for the big fish out there, you’re looking for birds that are also looking for fish.

The Wildlife restoration program supports our series.

For Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti.

Bird Word: Pelagic

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

Albatrosses are just one type of pelagic birds. – Photo © Ed Dunens/Flickr/CC by 2.0

This is Passport to Texas

It’s fun to talk with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ornithologist Cliff Shackelford; I always learn something new—such as the word, pelagic.

Pelagic. These are birds of the open ocean or open water.

Cliff points out we’re NOT referring to birds that hang out on lakes and ponds. We’re talking about the big water.

So, in Texas, the Gulf of Mexico is going to be open ocean, basically. And we have lot of birds: storm petrels, shearwaters, albatrosses…these are pelagic birds. These are birds that spend most of their day, and most of their life, out in open waters.

I wondered: do pelagic bird species ever come on land?

They sleep on the water. They feed out on the water. They’re mostly flying—some of them can probably sleep while aloft. But, they of course, have to come to land when it’s the breeding season. And some of these birds don’t get to be sexually ready until maybe their fourth of fifth year like some of the albatrosses. So they might wander the ocean of the world for the first four 9r five years of their life before they ever really touch land.

A clever way to glimpse this fascinating group of birds…tomorrow.

The Wildlife restoration program supports our series.

For Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti.

Bird Words with Cliff Shackelford: Passerine

Thursday, April 26th, 2018
This black-capped vireo male is a passerine species.

This black-capped vireo male is a passerine species.

This is Passport to Texas

Think of birding as an opportunity to increase your vocabulary. Take the word passerine, for example.

Passerine comes from the Latin, passeriformes—the order of all the songbirds.

Cliff Shackelford is a bird nerd. I mean, an ornithologist.

Passerine is basically a songbird; it’s our perching birds.

And that order includes a big flock of feathered friends.

At least half of the species of birds on the planet belong in this one order of birds. They’re characterized by several things, but the one thing on their feet that’s unique is they have three toes pointed forward and one pointed backwards.

A new word and bird trivia, too? Does it get any better?

Not every bird has that toe configuration. Woodpeckers, for example, have two forward and two back; that allows them to cling to a tree. Some birds have all four digits facing forward, like swifts. Some of the birds that cling to cliff walls and things. And, actually, there is a technical word for passerine’s toe configuration, and it’s called: anisodactyl.

Where else are you going to learn two bird nerd words and avian tootsie trivia? Now go out and impress your friends with your new knowledge.

The Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration program supports our series.

For Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti.

Birds on the Move

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Some birds, like the golden-cheeked warbler are endangered because of habitat alteration.

This is Passport to Texas

According to a National Audubon Society report on birds and climate change, 314 of the 588 North American bird species studied will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

Ornithologist, Cliff Shackelford, says climate change is impacting these species. As the temperatures rise, birds move north. Another reason is habitat alteration.

The interesting thing is that probably four or five decades ago there was another pulse or movement of birds that might not have been related to climate change. And what some people have suggested is a lot of these birds are extending their range because of fire suppression where grasslands were probably a good barrier to a lot of these woodland birds. And now that we don’t have fires to maintain grass, we have trees encroaching. Things like mesquite, huisache and retama are increasing, and a lot of those South Texas birds are moving in response to that.

Some birds, like the golden-cheeked warbler, are already endangered because of habitat alteration. And if something’s not done to restore the habitat, many more birds could find themselves without a suitable home.

They’re specialized they need a very specific habitat and when that is whittled away, they’re not able to adapt to other environments.

The Wildlife Restoration program supports our series.

For Texas Parks and Wildlife I’m Cecilia Nasti.

Confessions of a Birding Classic Ringer

Friday, April 6th, 2018
Find the Ringer.

Find the Ringer.

This is Passport to Texas

In sports a “ringer’ is not a good thing. However, in Great Texas Birding Classic’s Big Sit tournament, it is.

You can have a team with all people who are beginning, and then they just have to be sure they have a ringer or two on their team who can ID the bird for them for it to go on their list.

That’s Texas Parks and Wildlife Nature Tourism coordinator, Shelly Plante who oversees the event. Our colleague, Bob Sweeney, who is an attorney, is also a Big Sit ringer.

You know, I’ve been fascinated with birds since childhood, and even in high school I was out in the field and woods with my binoculars and my book. I just think it’s an exciting, dynamic part of the natural world, and pretty easy if you’re willing to put a little time into it to develop a minimum level of knowledge.

Bob has done that and more, and says he enjoys helping beginning birders gain knowledge and confidence.

I think any teacher has a great feeling when they feel like someone in the class gets it. Someone snaps to it. That Eureka moment may come, not during the Big Sit, but it may be something that was learned during the Big Sit that is then used in the backyard, or used on a hike or communicated to another person who is wanting to start out, so maybe the light bulb when it goes on is the confidence to transmit that knowledge—I know what that is. I saw it in the Big Sit. And here’s why I think it’s that.

The Great Texas Birding Classic takes place April 15 through May 15th. Stay on top of the action at

For Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti