Written by Kelsey Low

I started 2017 with a goal: to see 100 species of birds at the Arboretum in a single year. On Friday, December 15th I finally achieved my goal. I’ve seen everything from American Kestrels to Yellow Warblers. However, some birds stand out as favorites. Here’s my top 10 list of the 100 birds of 2017.

10.) Orange-cheeked Waxbill

This is the only species on the list that I’d never seen before. Orange-cheeked Waxbills are an African species that were brought to Houston as pets and then escaped in a big flock, forming a self-sustaining “feral” population. Thankfully they don’t seem to be causing too much trouble for native species.

Photo by Pearly 85

Orange-cheeked Waxbill

9.) Indian Peafowl

Another exotic, and a noisy one! At first I thought someone was mimicking a peacock call over by the ravine, but by the third day of screaming we realized that it was really a bird. He probably escaped from captivity somewhere along Buffalo Bayou. He wandered off after a few days – hopefully he found his way home.

Indian Peafowl

8.) Merlin

I only caught a glimpse of this tiny falcon flying over in the savanna restoration area, but it made a big impression. This was the Arboretum’s first recorded Merlin. Until recently, the Arboretum hasn’t had much open space where they can hunt. Seeing them here for the first time is a good sign that our savanna and prairie restoration is working!

Photo by Bill Thompson


7.) Blackburnian Warbler

Another new species for the Arboretum. When I first started birdwatching I was captivated by pictures of this species in my field guide. It took me a long time to see my first Blackburnian Warbler, and then I never saw another until this year, when I saw three together in a tree right next to the Nature Center!

Photo by Paul Hurtado

Blackburnian Warbler

6.) Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hurricane Harvey’s high winds and heavy rain destroyed a lot of flowers, which was bad news for migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Thankfully the Arboretum’s flowers and hummingbird feeders were protected from the storm. Hummingbirds from all over west Houston came here to feed and recover – it was magical to see so many here at once.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

5.) Eastern Screech-Owl

Almost every year we get a pair of nesting Eastern Screech-Owls, and 2017 was no exception. A pair nested in the box right behind the Nature Center building and gave us wonderful views throughout early spring. One of the biggest highlights of my year was seeing their fluffy little chick leave the nest for the first time.

Photo by Christina Spade

Eastern Screech Owl

4.) Osprey

We don’t see many water birds here at the Arboretum, and the few we do see are usually “flyovers” on their way to and from Buffalo Bayou. That’s why it was a real treat to get a good, long look at an Osprey flying over the Meadow during the Second Saturday Bird Walk in March.

Photo by Christina Spade


3.) Dark-eyed Junco

I have always had a soft spot for Dark-eyed Juncos as they are quiet, friendly birds. When I did bird banding work after college they were my favorite species to work with. Although they are common elsewhere, we had never seen Dark-eyed Juncos at the Arboretum until this year. That makes it species #167 on the Arboretum bird list.

Photo by Cephas

Dark-eyed Junco

2.) Painted Bunting

Another first for the Arboretum, and one of the most colorful birds in Texas. Male Painted Buntings are so brilliant they look fake. Even the “dull” females are vivid lime green. I lucked out and got to see a male and female together at the Meadow during fall migration.

Photo by Dan Pancamo

Painted Bunting

1.) Swamp Sparrow

It’s not the rarest species or the most colorful. I’ve seen them before in other places, and other people have seen them before at the Arboretum. But when I finally got a good enough look to identify that small, brownish gray bird chirping in the Meadow on December 15th, I got a thrill. A Swamp Sparrow – my 100th bird of the year here at the Arboretum!

Photo by Don Faulkner

Swamp Sparrow

The Swamp Sparrow is a great bird to end with for 2017. It’s a common winter resident here in Houston and looks a lot like other sparrows. It’s also very good at hiding. I might have overlooked the bird entirely if I hadn’t been desperately scanning the Meadow to reach my 100th species. That’s my biggest lesson from my year-long quest: EVERY bird is exciting if you give it the attention it deserves! I’ve seen lots of new species, but I have also learned to appreciate our “regular” species. I’ve learned a lot about where to find birds here, how they behave, how they sound, and how they change through the seasons. And there’s still so many species I haven’t seen! I wonder if I can see another 100 birds next year…