Look, up in the sky! Rare bird becomes Texas tourist attraction

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on June 8, 2012 at 7:11 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 8 at 7:20 PM

HOUSTON—Hey, it’s only a bird. But don’t tell that to the crowds gathering alongside country roads in Brazoria County.  Clusters of cars and trucks parked next to swampland are bringing visitors, from as far away as California, who try to catch a glimpse of a surprise tourist attraction.

“It’s a Eurasian species,” explained Gary Hodne, a geophysicist from The Woodlands who’s also a bird watcher.  “The black-tailed godwit.”

Never before has one of these particular godwits been spotted in Texas.  But someone who knows his flying critters noticed it early last week and spread the word through a website.  Soon enough, bird watchers – actually, they prefer you call them “birders” – started driving and flying hundreds of miles to try to glimpse this rare visitor. 

“This is like Elvis showing up,” said Lee Gaston of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who works in the refuge.  “Yes.  If there’s an Elvis sighting, people show up.  Black-tailed godwit?  The people are going to come.”

Birders keep lists of the species they’ve spotted, sometimes scrawled in old notebooks or nature manuals, often with notes indicating when and where they first saw certain creatures.  And yes, they’ll drive hundreds of miles just to add another species to their so-called “life lists.”

“If you’re just into nature, birding is a good way to learn about the species you’re seeing in the field,” Hodne explains.  “And the more you learn about it, the more you realize there’s an awful lot to see.  Texas is a real good state for birding anyway.  And this has never been seen in Texas before.”

If it matters to you – and it really does matter to birders – black-tailed godwits are identified by the distinctive white feathers on the bottoms of their wings.  A photographer named Michael Gray snapped some especially striking pictures that clearly identify the species. They’re fairly common in Europe and Asia, but they’re only rarely seen in the United States.

“He obviously got with a group of birds that were getting into some trade winds,” Gaston believes.  “And he came on across the Atlantic with the wrong group, because he seems to be the only one.”

So for the past couple of weeks, birders have followed the complicated directions to a remote part of the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge where the black-tailed godwit has been feeding.  They’re dragging along spotting scopes, expensive binoculars and cameras with huge lenses, setting up on the roadside and trading rumors about where the visitor was last sighted.

Refuge officials expect especially large crowds this weekend as word spreads through the media.

“It’s going to happen,” Gaston predicts.  “People are going to get off work.  They’re going to hear about it as the word spreads and somebody might have a picture.  And sure enough, this road right here is going to be packed with people looking for that bird.”

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