For the Birds

Meet some undocumented immigrants that aren't illegal

You know you've made it as a Dallas birder when the guard at the south side sewage ponds knows your name.

When you take binoculars on a run around White Rock Lake.

When you check the Dallas Audubon Society to see if there have been any new sightings of birds in the last 30 minutes, prepared to leap from your office chair to get a glimpse of an eared grebe or crested caracara.

Pelicans are among the visitors to White Rock Lake.
George Boyd/Nature's Images
Pelicans are among the visitors to White Rock Lake.

Those are not local music groups. The eared grebe is the common name for Podiceps nigricollis californicus, while the crested caracara is a tropical version of a falcon, sometimes called a Mexican eagle.

They are among us. They look just like you. The English call them "twitchers," people with sensible shoes, well-thumbed field guides and vests with lots of pockets, who make bird-watching a passion, not just a hobby. The middle of May is the peak season for migrating birds and for those odd ducks who love to bird-watch around the 1,119-acre White Rock Lake and other prime viewing spots.

"Texas is one of the best birding areas in the world," says Chris Runk, a bass clarinetist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra who often leads bird walks at White Rock. "People come from Europe to see our birds." They head to High Island, McAllen and Harlingen for glimpses of spectacular Mexican birds.

Local birders are in a position to see rare creatures by taking their lunch hour at White Rock. Dallas is in the middle of a migration pattern from Canada to the Gulf Coast, Mexico and South America. Some birds stop in Dallas and don't leave for a few months, like the unusual flock of 50 to 100 American white pelicans that suddenly appeared a few years ago at White Rock. They now return every winter to glide like stately yachts around the lake, snubbing the smaller birds that trail in their wake to grab leftovers.

Others may be unusual species among the "fall outs," flocks that would normally pass over Dallas but get hit by bad weather en route to their summer or winter homes and must drop for sanctuary. They hunker down, grab a snack at a bird feeder, shake their tail feathers and hit the road again.

And there are the green monk parakeets that stick around all year, escapees from cages that have bred in the wild and can be seen with raucous regularity around White Rock. Runk says that the unusual species sightings have increased in the last few years after a naturalist persuaded the Dallas park service to stop mowing large meadows, which increased bird habitat and food sources.

"The Le Conte's sparrows are only there because of the native grasses," Runk says. "They weren't there two years ago." The population of the endangered least tern has increased in the area because the Dallas Zoo runs a breeding program at the sewage ponds.

"We are one of the few cities that has two educational centers run by the National Audubon Society," says Runk, referring to the Cedar Ridge Preserve (633 acres of protected habitat 20 miles south of Dallas) and Dogwood Canyon, near Joe Poole Lake, which is a project of Audubon Dallas in concert with Audubon Texas and the National Audubon Society. Dogwood Canyon is a slice of the Hill Country, with 250 acres of critical habitat in the city of Cedar Hill, the last known nesting habitat for two endangered songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo.

Birders are often in professions such as engineering, architecture, medicine and other careers that emphasize precision. Runk is one of the top birders in the area, with an impressive "list" of species spotted at White Rock Lake and other habitats.

"Most of us have some kind of list," Runk says. There's a world list, with 8,000 to 9,000 different species, and a North American list. At White Rock Lake, says Runk, a birder can see 175 different species in a good year.

"White Rock has incredible diversity and habitat in a small area," says Runk. The fish hatchery occupies bottomland, with ponds, thick brush and tall trees. This summer, birders might spot a barred owl, red-shouldered hawk or a great-crested fly-catcher there. The spillway attracts gulls, sandpipers and egrets. Other areas provide nesting spots.

At is a list of types of birds seen at the lake. It tells where to find them and categorizes them as abundant, common, fairly common, uncommon, rare and very irregular, meaning once or twice a decade. Well, with a name like hairy woodpecker (very irregular) you wouldn't come around much either.

For Runk, birding had been a hobby until 2000, when a hard-core "lister" loaned him a pair of high-magnification binoculars.

"I realized how much I was missing," Runk says. He now carries a spotting scope on a tripod, which allows him to see details unseen with ordinary binoculars. (On a recent walk with Runk, one birder toted a pair of binoculars that she said cost more than $1,000.)

For the last seven years, Runk has scoped the lake from three points: the Fish Hatchery, Winfrey Point and the dam at the spillway. He contributes to the Dallas Audubon Society's Birding Forecast, which gives local birders information on when various kinds of birds are expected to arrive in the area. Local twitchers then contribute to a first sightings list. Do not get between a fanatic birder and his car as he races to the lake for a glimpse of the black-crested titmouse to add to his list.

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