LA WARD – The excitement they exuded standing still on a patch of coastal prairie matched what some may feel on an African safari.

The discoveries were endless.

No sooner had Ron Weeks, Debra Sonsel and Bill Wright tracked an owl to its burrow than they saw a merlin, a small falcon that breeds in the northern U.S. and Canada, burst into flight on the horizon.

“Boy, he is hoofing it,” said Sonsel as Weeks fished out his cellphone from his back pocket.

“People have lists for different areas, so they may be interested in that one,” Weeks explained as he pressed “send” on a text.

This year, 193 species of birds were counted within a 15-mile-wide circle that encompasses parts of Jackson and Calhoun counties.

This was part of an effort organized by the National Audubon Society called the Christmas Bird Count – an effort to count as many birds as possible in a 24-hour period so scientists can evaluate whether populations and ranges are changing. People have been doing this worldwide for 119 years and in Jackson and Calhoun counties for three years.

The count there is particularly challenging, organizer Bob Friedrichs said, because most of the land in the circle is privately owned. Formosa owns 22,000 acres alone.

But with help from the plastic producer and others, it’s become a success.

Formosa, for example, hosted a barbecue dinner for everyone who participated in the count this year.

“It’s about the birds and the environment, and we’re just grateful to help,” company spokesman Steve Marwitz said.

Weeks, meanwhile, considered his participation payback. He organizes a count at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, which Friedrichs went to earlier this month despite it being his birthday.

“I had a birthday cake for him. We did a whole song and everything,” Weeks said.

Other participants became fast friends. Sonsel was eager to learn from Wright, an 80-year-old Houstonian. She works for Calhoun County ISD in the curriculum department and pitched the idea of starting this count to Friedrichs and Bill Harvey, the latter of whom is retired from and a consultant for Formosa.

“Way back in the Dark Ages, a bird study merit badge was required for an Eagle Scout,” Wright said, “and so I got bored in seventh-grade social studies, looked out the window, and there were two different kinds of birds out there. I said, ‘I need to figure out what these birds are because I’ve got to identify 49 for my badge.’”

Weeks and Wright often do multiple counts between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. But Wright said he has scaled back – some.

“In the past, I’ve done six or seven, but this year I’ve only signed up for five. And I don’t do consecutive counts,” he said, pausing, “but I guess I broke that rule today.”

Wright drove Weeks and Sonsel in his SUV through the mud, often circling back to the same patch of prairie to find an elusive white-tailed hawk.

They may not have always found what they were looking for, but Mother Nature did not disappoint.

By day’s end, they had also witnessed about a hundred sandhill cranes take off from a cornfield and photographed a groove-billed ani, an odd-looking black bird with a large, curved beak. The ani, they explained, should be farther south or even in Mexico but was instead sunning himself on a tree at the Formosa-Tejano Wetlands, all too ready for his close-up.

Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at jpriest@vicad.com or 361-580-6521.

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Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest has done a little bit of everything since moving to Victoria in 2012. She was a regular fixture in the Crossroads’ historic courthouses, but now slathers on the sunscreen to report on the environment.

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