PORT ARANSAS - One of Mikael Behrens' boots sunk into the mud during his trek to Salt Island, and at first, he couldn't yank it free.

"I was getting kind of panicky," he recalled later for friends.

That same day, Denise Dailey - caught up in counting laughing gulls overhead - slipped on a jetty and bloodied her nose and mouth.

She wiped her face with a tissue, and like Behrens, kept birding.

Back inland, Clay Taylor, 62, of Corpus Christi, imitated the calls of a predator, and a vermilion flycatcher popped up from the underbrush where it had been hiding. Its bright, red feathers looked like a small flame on the browned landscape.

"Birding is the ultimate treasure hunt," Taylor said.

Behrens, Dailey and Taylor were among 33 volunteers who counted 147 species of birds Dec. 18 in a 15-mile area.

This is the least amount of species found in 30 years during the effort known as the Port Aransas Christmas Bird Count. The count covers not only Port Aransas but parts of Aransas Pass, Ingleside, Red Fish Bay and San Jose Island.

They think they found less because Hurricane Harvey either killed the birds or because it caused $3.4 million of damage to the nature sites where volunteers can see them.

For example, the category 4 hurricane breached a wall separating a ship channel from the nature preserve in Port Aransas.

Now, with each passing ship, saltwater flows in and out of the mud flats.

And because all that's left of the more than 2-mile long boardwalk is the sporadic pylon, Behrens, 47, and his booted companions slogged through the preserve rather than walked above it to count birds.

Port Aransas is seeking grants and donations with the hope of making the boardwalks both at the preserve and at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center wider, said Colleen Simpson, the nature preserve manager. She said they did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Christmas Bird Counts, such as the one that happened in Port Aransas, happen all over the world during roughly the same time period.

It's said to be the largest citizen science project ever undertaken. It started in the early 1900s as a way to discourage the hunting of birds for sport during the holiday.

While Christmas Bird Count veterans expect to be physically uncomfortable throughout the day, some blinked back tears as they pointed their binoculars to the sky.

Dailey is an Austin resident who volunteered after the hurricane to distribute supplies at the damaged A Laughing Horse Lodge in Port Aransas.

"When I saw the hurricane had hit my favorite place in the whole world - and I'm sorry I'm getting so emotional - I thought I had to do something. I had to do some small thing. I couldn't put a roof on anybody's house, but you know, I was worried about the birds, and I was worried about the people," she said.

Finding 29 red knots - which have been on the decline since the 1980s - on the beach Dec. 18 also lifted her spirits.

Despite living in a trailer while his home is repaired, Beau Hardegree, 54, also counted birds.

He said he welcomed the distraction from his battle with insurance, if only for a day.

In fact, he was somewhat optimistic.

"Things are getting better here, you know? When you drive around, the piles are starting to go down," he said.

There was even more reason to be optimistic when later in the day volunteers shouted the species they'd spotted.

For the first time, they added whooping cranes, an endangered species, to their list.

Scott Holt spotted a pair on San Jose Island in the territory of the Port Aransas Christmas Bird Count and recalled silently handing his wife, Joan, the scope so as not to ruin the surprise and subsequent wonder for her.

The only naturally occurring flock winters on this part of the coast and has increased from 15 in the 1940s to more than 400.

"I've been looking forward to that for decades," he said.

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at www.jessicapriest.me.

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