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.
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 nctexasbirds.com/wr-lake.htm 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.
Being a top birder means paying attention to often subtle details and being fast on the trigger...uh, binoculars. "It really helps to start early," says Runk. "Really good birders are fast. Most of us, that's where we fail."
Runk's aural ability gives him a leg up on other birders. "I've read that 80 percent of birding is listening," he says. "I think it's very important to hear the birds." Stop on a walk near the White Rock Fish Hatchery, close your eyes and listen. City sounds fade away and bird chirps, cheeps, twitters and tweets emerge to guide your steps.
Runk works with a project in Galveston to monitor the state's population of pretty piping plovers. (Say that fast three times.) He goes to High Island in the winter four or five times to sit in the rushes and count endangered birds, which have been banded, and then e-mail the names of what birds show up and when to a central Web site. It has yielded some surprises.
"One of those exact birds showed up at the spillway about two years ago," Runk says, a reminder that killing habitat in Dallas may harm birds that count on the lake area during their migrations, not just local populations.
Runk doesn't count himself among the top birders in the area. He mentions, among others, Lynn Barber of Fort Worth, who has the record for the number of birds seen in one year in Texas—525—and Brian Gibbons of Richardson, who has sighted a number of rare birds at White Rock Lake.
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It can be a jungle out there. Runk braves rain and snow and has been bitten twice by dogs to bag a good sight. He's spotted coyotes as well as mink and a fox at the lake. And of course there are the packs of spandexed bicyclists to avoid.
Photographer George Boyd, a retired Air Force major, started photographing the nearly 300 species of birds and other wildlife at the lake two decades ago, often from a portable blind. His pictures are on exhibit at the Bathhouse Cultural Center and available on note cards and DVDs. He's seen the bird population change: Boyd no longer spots quail, but the white-winged doves have increased as game birds seek shelter from hunters.
A former hunter, that's something that burns Boyd: city dwellers killing the birds and wildlife for sport. After the shooting of a barred owl in its nest, the park department posted signs banning hunting and trapping.
Runk knows that many non-birders think twitchers are loons. He wants to attract young people and minorities to the sport. "It's basically us old white guys," Runk says.