Why is this bird drawing people from far and wide to downtown Corpus Christi?

The cattle tyrant, a flycatcher bird never before seen north of Panama, has made its debut in North America. But how did it get here?

By Raul AlonzoDecember 1, 2023 11:29 am,

Over the years, there have been many efforts to revitalize downtown Corpus Christi as a means of drawing in tourists. And, driving down Schatzell Street one Saturday afternoon in November, you might think that’s been a roaring success when you see a group of people walking around with cameras and binoculars.

But they’re actually here to see another tourist to the area – one that’s never before been seen in North America: the cattle tyrant, a flycatcher bird native to South America.

It’s an unusual sight to be sure. The cattle tyrant had to have traveled nearly 3,000 miles and crossed several borders to make it to its current stake-out spot near a sushi restaurant and parking garage in downtown Corpus. And ever since it was identified, scores of birders from all over have made the trip to catch a glimpse of it.

Raul Alonzo / Texas Standard

A group of people gather to take photos of the cattle tyrant as it perches in a tree in downtown Corpus Christi.

Michelle Samples was one of them. She made the four- to five-hour drive from the Temple-Belton area to try and get some photos of the bird, which she was able to do five minutes after she reached the location.

“This is really cool,” Samples said. “This is, I mean, I don’t know. I feel like I won the lottery.”

David Essian, a postdoctoral research associate at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, was the first to identify the bird while driving downtown on the morning of Nov. 12.

“I saw the back of the bird as I was approaching from about 20 feet away,” Essian said. “And I thought, ‘oh, it’s kind of a weird bird.’ It’s got kind of a puffy, dusty brown back and long tail. And then it flipped around and had this bright yellow belly, and it ran with really long legs across the street. And I just had really no idea what I was looking at at first.”

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That combination of traits didn’t square with any North American birds Essian was familiar with in the area, so he says he shifted his frame of reference to birds he’d seen or wanted to see in Latin America.

That’s when he realized he was looking at a cattle tyrant.

“Some people were also confused or like ‘you mean you saw a cattle egret, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I saw a cattle tyrant,’” Essian said.

Raul Alonzo / Texas Standard

David Essian stands near the intersection of Schatzell Street and North Chaparral Street, seen over his shoulder. The location is where he was first to identify the cattle tyrant, and has since become the area the bird now calls home.

After the news was shared on a statewide groupchat used to alert hobbyists to rare bird sightings, hype around the tyrant began to build. The story soon was picked up by local news, then statewide, and eventually birders nationwide picked up on the story.

Suddenly, it became common to see groups of people holding cameras with powerful long lenses standing around the intersection the cattle tyrant seemed to call home.

Among those was Patricia Wayne, an artist from Spring, Texas, who made the trip of some 300 miles with her husband to spot the bird. Not wanting to risk it leaving, they came straight to the spot and were elated to snap photos, which Wayne uses to paint portraits of the birds she spots.

“I’m sure this one would definitely attract some attention,” Wayne said. “A lot more than a mockingbird.”

Judy Kestner, membership secretary for the Texas Ornithological Society, said the number of people coming through the area to see the bird has been steady.

“As the word spread, you know, more and more people come, and really there’s probably not a whole lot of people at the same time down there, but they come and go and from all over the place,” Kestner said. “It’s wonderful.”

The mystery, however, remains as to how exactly the cattle tyrant – a bird used to open marshlands and pastures of South America – found its way to a part of Corpus Christi known for its restaurants, bars and general nightlife.

Vagrants, or birds that are found outside of their wintering or breeding grounds, can appear in unusual locations for a variety of reasons. Some, like the trio of flamingos that recently took up residence in nearby Port Aransas, are blown off their usual routes by powerful storms. Kestner also said that younger birds sometimes get the inclination to go out and explore beyond their usual ranges.

Raul Alonzo / Texas Standard

But while any one theory on the cattle tyrant is inconclusive, Essian says there is one that seems to be gaining traction among enthusiasts: that the bird stowed away on a ship that eventually docked in the Port of Corpus Christi.

“If the bird was able to get on a ship somewhere on the Panama Canal, the ship could have come straight here. And this was its first stop,” Essian said. “So I think that it probably just saw an opportunity to get off of the little floating island that it had been on for a while. And downtown Corpus Christi is really close, and it found a dumpster with maggots and decided that was good enough.”

While sightings of birds like the cattle tyrant aren’t something to expect often, Essian does hope it’ll spur locals to take notice of Corpus Christi’s vibrant birding environment.

“I like seeing a lot of people in downtown Corpus Christi enjoying birds,” Essian said. “And I think that, you know, for people who come visit it, it would be nice if they let the business owners in the community know why they’re here, because I think this community is just an amazing place to bird. And I think if we sort of highlight the economic benefits that it can bring, it could result in some sort of conservation efforts on the part of the city.”

In the meantime, the cattle tyrant continues its reign of terror upon the maggots and flies of downtown Corpus Christi’s dumpsters. But prospective birders should make their plans to visit soon, lest they miss out on a first-of-its-kind sighting.

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