Birding On The Battlefield - Palo Alto Battlefield Scores A First In The NPS

Volunteer-In-Park Joanne Hubinger and a park visitor enter observations into Palo Alto’s eBird Trail Tracker Kiosk after completing a Birding Tour. NPS Photo.

People who enjoy bird watching know that good opportunities sometimes occur in unexpected places, and a battlefield in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas commemorating an oft-forgotten war might fit that description. Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park has plenty to offer naturalists and history buffs, and now the park can claim "a first in the National Park System" for birders.

Both casual and serious birders share many of the same questions when they visit a park or similar area: "What birds are found here? Where and when were interesting species last seen?"

In most locations in or out of parks, answers to those queries are often hit or miss, but thanks to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and an electronic marvel dubbed the eBird Trail Tracker, that information will be readily available at Palo Alto Battlefield.

A High-Tech Aid for Birders

The device—basically a user-friendly computer terminal in a kiosk—is a real-time, on-line birding checklist…and a lot more. The "interactive birding tool is customized with park-specific maps and species lists that enable park visitors to enter and review bird observation data for the area."

The kiosk in the park visitor center allows park visitors both to enter their own birding observations and to see what birds have been observed that day, on the past two days, and during the past week and past month. For observations entered and mapped at the park’s eBird kiosk, the visitor can see the exact location in the park where each species was spotted.

According to a park spokesperson, "the Trail Tracker provides environmental education support by providing photos, sounds, and life history information for all the bird species that a visitor might be able to see in the area. During the six months since the Trail Tracker has been installed, over 400 bird observations have been entered."

Palo Alto's kiosk also allows visitors to view information about birds which have been seen at eight other birding spots in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas; the sites are linked through the on-line eBird Trail Tracker kiosk system.

Shared Data Creates a Robust System

Both birders and scientists derive additional benefits from the Trail Tracker through its connection to a much larger system. The kiosk is a component of eBird, "an online database hosted by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to gather, archive and disseminate observational data recorded by birders and biologists in an effort to better understand distribution, abundance, and factors affecting birds on a hemispheric scale."

How did Palo Alto Battlefield end up with the first of these units in the NPS?

Located in the southern tip of Texas, ten miles north of the Rio Grande River and just a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park's location makes it a logical choice for use of the technology. The site boasts a wide variety of habitats for wildlife and is in the midst of prime birding territory. Palo Alto is just one of many stops on the Lower Texas Coast section of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley has long been a favorite destination for birders.

The NPS Gulf Coast Inventory and Monitoring Network made the acquisition of the eBird Trail Tracker possible, with the expectation of providing quality supplemental data for Palo Alto’s bird monitoring program.

Birders Connected to History

Established in 1992, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park preserves the 3,400-acre scene of a key battle during the U.S.-Mexican War in 1846. Although the primary purpose of the park deals with history, there's plenty of interest in the natural world as well. Some of the bird species found in this area were first identified and recorded 166 years ago by U.S. and Mexican soldiers during the United States’ war with Mexico.

Species sighted in the park in more recent years include Harris Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, Green Jay, Harris’s Hawk, Chihuahuan Raven and the colorful Roseate Spoonbill.

Interested in a visit to Palo Alto Battlefield? You'll find information to help plan a trip on the park website.