Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Diamond (or some other Jewel) in the Rough

Late August is, at best, an interesting time to go birding in Arizona. In many ways, it is not ideal. Most of the summer breeders have concluded their business. Some have already left, and the majority of the remainder are coy and clandestine in their behavior. The allure of large-scale shorebird movement in a few weeks further contributes to the end of August seeming rather plain by regular birding standards. 
As is often the case, good birding is a question of knowing where to look, and then looking there for long enough (and also being a bit lucky). While most of Arizona's breeders have concluded by now there are a few species that are just gearing up, perfecting their beach bodies, their vocalizations, and their most enticing pheromones.
Magill Weber, an under-40 female ABA birding phenom with 730+ species, joined Butler's Birds for a foray into the Santa Rita grasslands to collect some nocturnal Year Birds and observe these better-late-than-never breeders in their brushy habitat, at their brushy best.  


Before the sun was up, driving Whitehouse Canyon and Proctor Road yielded Common Poorwill and Mexican Whip, as well as Elf Owls, though the Whiskered Screech near Kubo Lodge had vacated the premises. But the nocturne critters were only the appetizer. We had come to feast on passerines, little, loud, dull passerines.
Cassin's and Botteri's Sparrows both breed comparatively late in the year, waiting for the post-monsoon vegetative boom to start their mating songs. Once they start, these otherwise inconspicuous birds don't stop. We heard both at 5am, before sun up, and heard them all on the way out of the canyon again at high noon. Both birds score pretty solid points for their vocalizations, Cassin's all the more so for its flight displays. But my goodness is this Botteri's a crappy looking sparrow or what?


Truly, this bird was hit on the head--repeatedly--with the ugly stick. But hey they've found their niche and they fill it very well...or at least they will until the grasslands in the Santa Rita foothills are claimed by the ravenous mesquite. Despite my denigrations, these birds are still Sparrows and thus we must love them. It was a pleasure to see and hear so many, even if they were kinda turdy for photos.
Grassland birding is always a pleasure despite the species diversity being pretty low. This is largely because it's done half from the car, and because some of the other birds rubbing shoulders with the drab Sparrows are really, really ridiculously good looking, even if they avoid the camera more than Zoolander. How many Blue Grosbeaks do you see modeling?

 

After our early morning success with the sparrows, we returned to the famous Proctor Road turn off from the mouth of Madera Canyon. We had heard some of our Nightjars here earlier in the morning, but now were looking for Varied Buntings in the bosque and whatever else might be recuperating along the creek. The Buntings were not home but an interesting hummingbird added some intrigue to the little expedition.
The bird was entirely dark green on the breast and belly, which combined with the long bill to suggest Broad-billed was present. There was also some buffy, rufous tones on the tail primaries when this bird briefly hovered, which were also outlined in white. The tail characteristics combined with the gorget size and shape--which did not continue onto the forehead--to suggest Broad-tailed as the other piece of this puzzle. So, in the interest of science and labeling things, here is a possible Broad-Broad Hummingbird, also known as the General Hummingbird and the Side-to-Side Semi-Selasphorus.
Further input on this apparent hybrid's ID is appreciated. We named it Prius.


After trailing up and down Whitehouse Canyon Road and pretty much maximizing the Maderan lowlands, we decided next to head down along the dusty road towards Florida Canyon. We were not intending to gain altitude here nor to scrounge and scour for the resident Rufous-capped Warblers, but again were targeting the liminal grasslands and mesquite bosque, this time for a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers and Rufous-winged Sparrows.
The Gnatcatchers eluded us--no surprise at midday--but Rufous-winged sparrows, as always in this area, showed and sang very nicely. I was on the wrong side of the car/sun/bird/hemisphere to capture the birds this time around, so this shot is borrowed from an older post.


Magill called it early in the morning, and her premonitions were correct: Rufous-wings and Varied Buntings go wing-in-wing, err... hand in hand...really it's more like shrub-in-shrub. We had a few sightings of the VABUs throughout the morning but nothing great, nothing that did this plum pudding of a bird justice. There are not enough green birds in north america and there are also not enough purple birds in North America. Thank you, VABU, for bringing some royal colors to the continent (Purple Sandpiper and Purple Martin do their best).
This face-melting male was first perched high in a mesquite, quite near the road. When we came to a stop he ducked down lower into the tree, but in doing so actually offered better looks. For a moment he seemed crouched and poised for take off, ready to disappear into the drab, thorny wilderness and take his eximious colors with him.  

It's like a tye-dye Bobolink

Painted Bunting gets a lot of praise for its color palette, and with full justification. The boldness and the strength of its color-combo really is unrivaled in North America. And I'm not one to push against the conventional wisdom, not too much in birding, anyway, but man, a spiffy VABU can give the PABUs a run for their money. It still comes in second, I suppose, but there's an allure here in how the VABU tries to get every cents-worth from its single purple color spectrum, while the PABU just shamelessly raids several.
At any rate, there really isn't a species of bunting in North America that won't require maxillofacial surgery if gazed upon for more than ten seconds continuously. This post was written from a hospital recovery room. Scroll through the next few images quickly, or join me at St. Joe's.


After spending much of the morning chasing little drab birds through the thorny scrub and abrasive, chigger-infested grass, getting a full frontal flash of VABU was a cathartic experience. Not only did the bird show well, but it gave a little concert of its varied vocal talents too after getting comfortable with the audience. These birds do not have rainfall-contingent breeding like the Sparrows, so it was surprising to see this bird singing out its territory a good 3 or 4 weeks after the normal breeding timeframe. Life may never be the same. To anyone in Arizona or Texas trying to escape the late summer doldrums, I highly recommend a heavy dose of this bird.
Only in birding is bunting really knocking it out of the park. YeAh I sAiD It!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Take a Deep Breath: Birding in the Great Smokeys

While dawdling in North Carolina I had the great fortune to spend a few days in Waynesville, which is only a delightful 30 minute drive from some excellent birding trails in the Great Smokey Mountains, and equidistant from Asheville NC, one of North America's weirdest and most entertaining places.  Leaving before sun up, there was the predictably thick layer of fog along the mountain road, but even after the sun had its say, the mountains seemed to continue producing their own as the thick trees transpired with the cool morning air. It was beyond lovely, and it felt almost vulgar to zoom my focus in from the scenery and look at the little, mortal things. 


Juncos and Indigo Buntings were among the first birds to great the dawn, as well as Cedar Waxwings and a resident Golden-crowned Kinglet--a bird it felt very strange to see in late June. Because I couldn't find the famous Art Loeb trailhead, which I had driven past, I spent the morning on Black Balsam. It didn't pass through as much pine as Art Loeb, but the habitat was still gorgeous and there was plenty of activity. Chips and squeeks issued forth from the many tangles, while little flashes of yellow were more tantalizing, dare I say titillating, than an all-you-can-eat Thai buffet. 
The Chestnut-sided Warblers, seen the day before on Clingman's Dome, were still present and vocal, and another colorful lover of the elevated brush popped into view as well.  


Almost every eastern Wood Warbler feels like a long-overdue lifer, even though my opportunities for seeing them have been few and far between. It must be the saturation, the fact that so many of these birds' images are used on bird books, posters, club and company insignias, event or festival signs, and so forth. It's very understandable that these colorful fellows are the poster-children for birding paraphernalia, but the side effect is that, for one such as myself, it's like I've been missing a big, obvious, existentially essential aspect of North American birding (and to that point, I guess I have). 
The Hooded Warbler, with its obvious cowl, tries to stay out of the spotlight. The hood also doubles as a veil of anonymity for these birds, who have very controversial stances on Capital Punishment. J.J. Audubon nicknamed them "The Cheerful Executioners."


The Black Balsam trail was also the site of another personal victory, though one with less clear photographic proof. Through the misty morning the simultaneously mournful and delightful call of the Veery echoed forth from the thickly vegetated hillsides, as it had done the day before. This is a common experience any time I've birded near thick woods in the east, but never before had I actually seen the bird. 
Many of them called far from the trail, and the dew-soaked grass had already made my trousers chilled and uncomfortably form-fitting. But one bird called out just close enough to the path, and after some thoroughly saturating bush-crashing and a not inconsiderably amount of pishing (which may have had no effect), I finally stole a glimpse and a poor photo, of this woodland operatic phantom.   


As I mentioned before, one of the main attractions in Carolina was being able to explore beautiful areas without any pressures from time, temperature, or the Border Patrol. Taking scenery shots that really capture the atmosphere and environment of an area is very difficult, unless you're Jen Sanford. It's funny that in retrospect, scene shots such as the one below are pretty ubiquitous for the area. An American Dipper or two on the creek rock would be the only possible improvement.


It was a bit disappointing to miss the higher, thicker pine forest due to my choice of trail, but the alpine meadows and liminal brush between them and the deciduous woods had plenty of good stuff. The birds mentioned earlier made for a wonderful opening, but the last lifer of the day stole the show. Even with the incredibly high standards set by the Wood Warblers, this bird is a real looker. The vast majority of their breeding habitat is far to the north in Canada, but plenty of these birds, like many other Warbler species, stray down from their more northern range and breed along the Appalachians. 


The yellow spectacles and prominent eye, plus the bird's quaint accent and charmingly good manners all make it a winner. But best of all, this bird comes with its own built-in carcanet, a dripping medalion that draws the eyes up to the pure yellow throat and simultaneously down to the breast. Many would-be femme fatales and even ambitious trophy-wives cannot pull off this look, this balance, so well as the scrub-loving Canada Warbler. It's aboot time someone did it right.


I will have another opportunity to bird in this area, on the Tennessee side, next June, but for sake of my sanity and living in the moment, etc., I should say nothing more than that I am looking forward to it tremendously. There was still some birding work to do in Carolina, even after returning from the mountains. A little chunk of territory, Wayne County, needed to get its eBird information on the map.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Carolina Birding: Fun in the Sun and Green Glorious Mountains

Greeting Birders, Non-birders, and B.I.nocular-curious Bros who are sneakily reading here but if caught by your roommate Bradley would claim it's only because you were googling 'Boobies" and 'Breeding Great Tits' and not because you're a closet bird nerd. 
I have done woefully little birding in the last few weeks, what with school getting back in session and Butler's Birds taking the backseat to having a job and other considerations (bird blogging is predominantly a financial burden). But migrants will be coming south soon and we're lurching to another exciting time of year. Without more Arizona material though, it's back east we go.

After the Great Texas Birding Adventure it would have been such a fizzle-out, such a quiet goodnight, to merely head back to Phoenix and enter a state of torpor for the rest of the summer. The Texas trip was tremendously birdy and successful by my less-than-expert standards, but it was also pretty exhausting, perhaps by anyone's standards. Sometimes one has to vacation from a vacation, and in that pursuit I went to spend time in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Of course, one doesn't go to Carolina and visit neither the coast nor the mountains. In fact, I was fortunate to see both. 
The gorgeous ranges to the west promised plenty of resident lifers, beautiful birds I could see, or not, on leisurely hikes through alpine meadows and semi-rainforest, quite the contrast to the time-budget, smash-and-grab (careful around Endangered Species) birding in Texas. 

: :: ack. swoon :: :

But first, a little demonstration of uncommonly seen bird behavior: sunning. North Carolina is fraught with Eastern Wood-Pewees. These are way better than Western Wood-Pewees because they vocalize loudly and humorously, while also being generally more accommodating. 
One such EAWP was getting the ol' preening gland fired up for some vitamin D-fueled, anti-parasitic hygiene. Or, according to some, this bird was playing dead as part of an elaborate reuse to lure in morbidly curious prey like House Finches, a demonstration of predatory thanatosis otherwise known to occur predominantly in species of ciclid fish...

(No finches, or even flies, came to investigate the carcass)

Can you imagine if we regulated our hygiene this way, sticking our faces into an oily gland (it'd have to be the armpit) and then a rubbin' it all over our bodies? Actually...I take it back. That sounds nice.

"Yeah! Fresh!! Deodorant is for chumps!"

One of the first spots I visited for recreational hiking was Clingman's Dome, named of course after Sir Reginald B. Clingman, who was well noted for the size of his kopf. The Dome features a 1/2 mile walk up a busy paved path that takes one to a lookout near the Carolina/Tennessee border, a pulchritudinous and panoramic view to be sure. Even better, the Dome trail intersects with a 1 mile stretch of the Great Appalachian Trail, the really big one some people take from Georgia or wherever up to Maine. Following this wilder trail I could hobble my ol' bones into the thick forest that carpets the Great Smokies. I felt like the Last of the Mohicans--except less agile and with a camera--exploring the dense woods. Of course where there's vegetation and water, and even some cooler temps, there are birds.
And darn it all, if I must come out of vacation to do scrutinize them, then so be it. The Eastern Towhee mirrors its western cousin well with its ever present pillaging and calling from the understory, a credit to whatever the hell a towhee actually is (it's a pneumonic name, for their calls?).


It's not often I get to sample flavors of non Oregon-race Dark-eyed Junco. In fact, Baskin Robbins doesn't even carry it anymore. Slate-colored is probably the most common, or at least the most widespread in North America, but it's still a change for a Phoenician. Turns out immature DEJUs look like an emo subspecies of Pine Siskin. Maybe we all are a little Emo Siskin in our immature, angsty days. Shoot, if the corners of my mouth were yellow and droopy too I'd be a party defecator (actually this guy was pretty chipper).


Where the trail was thick and overgrown the sounds seemed as muffled as the light, and this added to a very primordial feel in these old mountains. But where there were openings the light and sound reverberated (ok, light doesn't reverberate, leave me alone). The excitement of hearing a new bird call is  a recognized and yet still under-appreciated buzz. Several new calls still belonged to birds I had seen before, though not recently, but some were new entirely. One such squeaky serenade belonged to the Chestnut-sided Warbler, a much wanted and long waited Warbler species predominantly of the east. This bird's cheery song was a new one, but one with which I quickly became familiar.



The first couple of birds I picked out were distant and backlit with the overcast weather, but this warbler, even being somewhat mildly colored compared to its cousins, is still done justice with the saturated colors. Pretty but professional...this is a Warbler you can take home to your parents!



I'm trying to talk about this all cool, like it was no big thing, but truth be told I was fairly beside myself. Wood Warblers are not a group we see much of in Arizona. These colors and these songs are a rare thing indeed in the southwest. The vagrants we pick up are usually young or in bad shape, so I had long been yearning for some real, East Coast Warbler exposure. The more I stared, the more I ogled and frothed at the mouth, the more I muttered expletives and incomprehensibles, the more the intricacies  of this bird affected me. Close up Warbler require medication soon afterwards.    


It was cathartic. I was finally in the beautiful green country, the overgrown, rolling mountains with Warblers buzzing around, and I was comfortable. There was no sweat nor were there thorns, just soft and lovely nature stuff in which I had all day to wallow. I didn't realize, until that moment, how much I had really been yearning for the experience. I don't precisely recall, but I'm pretty the entirety of my being melted into a large, pulpy puddle. Fortunately, I was on a decline and the puddle must have seeped downhill. I regained consciousness near the car, and quickly made plans to get back up into the mountains the next day. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Bro, Do You Even Pish???

Even though they all have one terrifying thing in common, bird nerds are a pretty diverse bunch. There are the retiree birders, the hardcore listers, the young upstarts, the field biologists, the feeder watchers, and various other tendrils of the kraken. And like the birds themselves, there are many possible hybrids between these different species of nerd. Bird populations fluctuate. Ranges expand and contract. Some species thrive while others fade away, often replaced by adaptive, aggressive, or more versatile species. The same could be said of many breeds of birder. 
A recent, widely, and rightly mocked article on Esquire bemoaned the changing social scene of the birding community. With great trepidation it pointed to the increasing popularity of birding--even as a mild past time--not only in the mainstream, but in more stereotypical groups such as the "emo type" and the "frat-boy" birder. The author wanted to keep birding a small, esoteric hobby for himself, like a high schooler who just discovered a new Indie band and who doesn't want anyone else to know about it. The author is a jealous birder, even protective, but not a conservationist. Alas that none of the his revelatory, insecure premonitions seem to be transpiring. The number of "emo type" birders in North America is the same as the number of Piping Plovers breeding in Florida.
Nevertheless, the times they are a changin', and not necessarily for the better. Habitat loss and roving gangs of windmills are wreaking havoc on North American bird populations, many of which are in sharp decline. Esquire not withstanding, most people agree that awareness of birds and the need to protect their habitat needs to be expanded. 


There are initiatives underway to increase urban birding, and with that, diversify birder demographics. Qualifying species as 'endangered' can help with protection, but the political backlash here sometimes causes more harm than good. Whatever the other helpful solutions may be, birding also needs to become more popular with the mainstream. The endeavor itself and what it stands for (conservation) needs to become a commonly understood value, something vaunted and publicized in ways that might make the more timorous bird nerds flush for cover. 
To whom do do we turn? Who can bring birding into the mainstream? Who can infuse it with energy and money? Who can make it infectious even for those who'd prefer to mock it ironically from the sidelines? Without further adieu, I present to you a very special species. I present to you, the redeemer of North American birding.

The ill-fitting tank top, the crew socks with loafers, the sideways cap, the dangling lanyard, the vacant, empty-heaed expression...yes, yes you know who I'm talking about, and I realize what a radical proposition this is but I shall endeavor to justify. The salvation of birding, or rather of birds, lies with the Bros. End the brohibition!
They have the social capital. They have the energy. They have money. They tend to have wealthy parents. They get really, really excited (stoked) about stuff that they think is cool, and then they devote considerable time to it. 
Beer with me here; think about this for a minute. If we as bird nerds could get Bros to devote the same amount of time towards birding, and the conservation of bird habitat, as they devote to the muscle factory, bird-dogging chicks, and fussing with their facade, we would be knee-deep in Whimbrels (the very best depth of Whimbrels). This thing, it aint' pretty, but it's loud and really friggin' zestful. Get enough of them together and you've got a social force, one that is tech and media savvy. Let's put this creature to work for the birds:


Now grant me a little time here for specific exposition and specification. For you see, there are a couple different breeds of Bro, and we need to identify their positive, useful attributes first and then examine ways in which we can bring them into the fold, even if this will make the fold stink like Axe body spray and lavoris. I am willing to step in here, despite the perdition into which it may drag my soul, and aid in some Bro identification. After all, I attended an all-boys high school that literally had 'Bro' in its name, and can consider myself an experienced expert in Bro field studies. 
Real quick, here's an Elf Owl, before the lack of birds drives you away.


First, we'll start with the genera. There are two genera of Bro in the western world, with distribution concentrated primarily on the coasts including the Gulf, and also Syracuse, New York. We'll examine the first genus is more specific detail because it can be harder to identify, with its more subtle plumage and sociable behavior. Identify we must if we are to tag and drag such a specimen into the world of birding. We must understand it and approach it with caution, for it is insecure and easily startled. 
There are various species within this genera, distinguishable by voice and subtleties in plumage as well as range (east coats vs. west coast) and choice in footwear. This is the pampered Bro, genus Broticus Casanovicus, which includes the more localized East Coast species Prepicus Topsiderii, and we need all of them. Yes, I know it's more disgusting than a juvenile Mockingbird, but look nonetheless! 


See that douchebag? We need him. We need him because he has money and his dad has money and his Uncle Jim in Cape Cod has money. He has a yacht, and at night he parks his yacht inside the floating garage of his dad's yacht. This birder has capital, and this birder has clout. Not only that, but unlike some lawmakers or radical political friends, this target demographic is gettable. Why? Because even though this studmuffin has two collared shirts, both collars popped obviously and a puka shell necklace, he is incredibly insecure. I know he talks and swaggers big, but trust me. I have lived near this species of Bro before. I have studied it in the wild. This is its morning routine: 

"Alright you scrawny bastard. Everyone is watching. Everyone cares a lot, a real lot, about what you do and how you do it and how good you look while doing it. Don't mess this up and hate yourself forever. Are you ready??"

With the right approach, with some wheedling and cajoling and coddling and well-veiled ironic compliments, we can turn the morning routine of the Cash-Loafer Bro into:

"Hey there you magnificent bastard! Are you going to go find a MEGA today and then tweet it to your 700,000 followers!? You bet you are! And then you're going to put away more Jack Daniels and Coke than a graveyard shift liquor store shelf stocker!"

While most species of the Broticus Casanovicus genus are more localized, they have a considerable social weight across the continent relative to other groups. Their clout and capital influences advertisers. It makes politicians take notice. Species in this genera may seem insecure, but they tend to work at financial firms, at investment brokerages and software development companies while also taking classes in business management. Of course, not all Bros are bursting at the seams with Benjamins, but compared to other associations Bros tend to flash their cash and find outlets for their enthusiasm more so than many others. If we could harness their burgeoning financial power as well as their raw enthusiasm directed towards hair configuration, we could probably create infinitely renewable energy. At the very least, we would gain a privileged and powerful ally in the conservation of birds and their habitat. But how do we get its attention? First, let's look at field identification This photo was taken when the wild Bro species thought that Calvin Klein might have been looking.

                 

Although there is some considerable variation by species, there are some commonalities across the genus that we will discuss here. The sunglasses are often resting atop the crown but seldom warn. There is always at least one and sometimes upwards of six adornments on the wrists, neck, and/or ankles, which often involve the shells of small mollusks, hemp, or hardened leather. This is a species of Double-Collar Popped Bro, and while no other species of Bro shows two popped collars, one is typical of many species in this genus. 
Expression is also key when identifying Bros. If no one else is paying attention to the Bro, it will often assume stank-face pose, undergo a brief, 7-second existential crisis (the longest recorded attention span of a Bro) and go change its shirt, or simply remove its shirt. Luckily that was not the case with this specimen, which was tamer than some. 

                 

How can birding appeal to Bros? Well, starting off with a treatise on the ecological value of American Dippers is not the best angle. In fact, you'll probably get called a crass name like 'queer-mo'. 

A cool bird, but not of intrinsic value to a Bro, not like 14 Bald Eagles all in a pile. American birding cannot move forward without piles of Eagles!

Take the competitive angle. In your workplace or at family get-togethers, around your apartment complex and at your local pub, don't try to avoid the Chest-bumping Sidehat or the Oakleys-at-Night Owl. Most Bros are collegiate, and you'll find them concentrated on college campuses. Just think of how many are at U of A, a stone's throw away from Madera Canyon--and many have to take an environmental science class anyway! Words like 'face-melting' and 'crush' go a long way to setting the tone, but once you get a couple of Bros checking out the eBird Top 100 lists for their state or county, their high-adrenaline machismo drive, which is closely linked in the brain to the desire to feel popular and respected, will take over. This is not hypothetical. I have personal experience in getting Bro acquaintances involved with various hobbies they first thought were lame. Pretty soon they were so obsessed and one-track about the whole thing, sending constant phone calls and invitations and buying all kinds of products, that I was overwhelmed and driven away.
On a related note, it's true that greater Bro involvement in birding might seem unsavory to some birders, especially birders who are big fans of Esquire and quiet walks in the park. Increases in Bro birding would also bring some other repugnant behaviors as well, and it's fair to assume that the number of Natural Light cans along Antelope Island  or Lake Merritt would increase. Even so, it's a cost/benefit analysis that favors the Dudes. Though it seems like sacrilege to see a Bro with a Sibley's sticking out of his trousers, do not shun the blasphemer...continue the conversion.


I realize how iconoclastic this perspective is, how seemingly antithetical the involvement of Bros is to the values we draw from spending time in nature and with birds. Whether the Bro is a more refined East Coast specimen or the lower-middle class apartment type picture below, what force can they really bring? Remember, in the case of publicizing birding, any press is good press, and some of their worst character flaws can be great attributes. Combine the capital of Brotics Casanovicus with the raw energy and drive of the more common Broticus Slovenicus, the sort of fellow who will unabashedly lifer-dance in an apartment complex, and even in smaller numbers you have a dynamic force.

                           

Don't believe me? How many Bros did it take to destroy the Aztec Empire, an excursion widely believed to have taken place simply because they made a wrong turn on a cerveza run?? So when Pledge to Fledge and other birder involvement initiatives come around, I challenge you to really make a sacrifice for the birds. Don't try to lure your grandmother or your little brother or the co-worker or friend whom you kind of want to flirt with but are nervous about directly addressing in a 1-on-1. These people will already be sympathetic to your causes. 
Try to get a Bro out birding. Tell him he might find a new species and get to name it. Tell him he could be number 1. Tell him there are lots and lots of available chicks in the birding scene. Prevaricate like no other; he won't even remember what you said. Whatever it takes to get 'em outside, a couple of flashy birds and a competitive edge will take care of the rest and give many the national park a much needed bolstering.
Next spring break? Yosemite baby!  

*No Bros were harmed in the making of this post, although someone other people might have been.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Texas Birding: The Final Chapter and No Room for Tears

Even though the solid birding continued through the Bolivar Flats and in Galveston Bay, the smell of the sea and the thrill of new birds could not dissuade a rising feeling in my gut. No, this was not the same familiar gut feeling that came after eating at too many roadside diners. This was a pain of sadness, of melancholy, for I knew my time in Texas was drawing to a close. I knew there were still birds to see, but also plenty for which I had passed the opportunity to see. Luck had not provided Brown Jays nor Mexican Crows nor Becards, and I failed to turn up Red-billed Pigeon through my own endeavors. That wasn't even the worst of it. Purple Gallinule and Fulvous-whistling Duck both continued to elude me, as did Ringed Kingfisher. While I was eagerly anticipating a return to civilization, booze refills, and showers in Austin, I mourned the continued absence of these birds from my life, a life that already lacks big piles of cash, big piles of babes, and big piles of jet skiis. Surely I could get at least one more bird?
There was one last glimmer of hope between Galveston and Austin, one faint possibility of grabbing a figurative toothpick (the worst kind, by the way) and snatching just a little bit more victory from between the teeth of the jaws of defeat. 
Brazos Bend SP had a solid eBird list, it was reasonably en route, and it had one of my truant target species listed there. The first bird I saw was not such a target bird, but an FOY Mississippi Kite is a pretty sweet flyover, even if it's a silhouette. These birds are singularly attractive, and I need to pay them a visit at their tiny breeding spot in St. David, AZ again.


Brazos Bend is pretty well known in the Texas birding circles, especially for an inland site, but to an outsider it had no notoriety relative to the famous coastal or river valley sites. The layout is more or less similar to other state parks one would expect in such areas, several vegetated lakes with grassy walkways bordered by thick deciduous woods. It goes without saying, this being a Texas park, that there were also Purple Martin colonies supported on the premises.



There is always an easiest way to do a thing, and then a panoply of comparatively easy ways to do that same thing. Seldom do I land anywhere on that spectrum.
I hit Brazos Bend at about 1:00 in the pm and about 100° on the thermometer. This was impeccably poor timing even with a MIKI near the parking lot. Luckily the lugubrious pond reptiles didn't utilize watches, and thus didn't know any better. Red-eared Sliders were quite common at the water features, and sported varying amounts of home-grown salad on their trailers.


The Brazos Bend target bird would be in the same sort of muck as the hestian reptiles, so I spent the first hour or so circulating the lakes and putting some final touches on my two-week sunburn--I was determined my neck would peel like an onion, or die trying. A species of softshell turtle, maybe a Spiny, was surprisingly removed from its element, perhaps in a solar-charged attempt to rid itself of a discomforting collection of leeches.


The organization and maintenance around the Brazos lakes really was on point. Large willow and oak trees dripping with spanish moss lined the grassy expanses and many waders populated the densely-padded banks. Contemplative Anhingas surveyed overhead, pondering just exactly what the hell kind of bird they really want to be. 


There were no rare or unexpected waders, but Brazos boasted very respectable diversity, including the birds shown below and also two Ibis species and some other deemed unworthy of the camera.


I would also be remiss not in mentioning that the deeper, more open sloughs had some oversized aquatic lizards whose parents never taught them not to stare. The fellow shown below was maybe 5 feet long in total, which means he still has a few more years to go until sexual maturity. Five feet tall and sexually immature...we all remember that awkward age. 


The grassy, picnic type areas were productive as well, though they held little promise of new birds. Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireos both sang from the thicker trees surrounding the openings, while Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Common Crows gave their same old shtick where they had the space. I know that any references to Poe on a bird blog should be accompanied by a photo of a Raven, but look at this Crow. It actually looks that eloquent, morose ol' necrophiliac. Maybe there's something to reincarnation after all. Maybe I anthropoemorphize too much.


The wooded areas also provided some clear looks at Tufted Titmouse, a bird I saw surprisingly little of in Texas, and one which to my shame I had never photographed before. It's always them young ones that can't stay away from the camera. Profile duck-face! This TUTI would later upload this shot to its FB page for sure totes, accompanied by many like pokes.



More worthwhile and not far away was an ebullient Northern Parula. My prior sightings of this bird were mangy vagrants in Arizona, always in non-bedding plumage. Finally I had my face properly melted, that is, melted all the way through, not just melted around the edges and left with a cold center like a friggin' Hot Pocket.


These birds might well be accredited as one of the top ten most gorgeous passerines in North America if they weren't also among the most common, widespread, and conspicuous eastern warbler species. It requires some skill not to oversaturate and expose this bird when it's in direct sun. I do not possess this skill. The southern Parula populations start their breeding in March. Time and food permitting, they sometimes have a go at a second brood before the season is over. The image of virility. 


After completing a few of the various lake circuits I was pretty pleased with Brazos Bend, and able to say it exceeded my expectations (which, of course, were lower than they should have been). But apart from opening yet another county account I had added nothing of real note to my trip list. 
On any given trek when the target birds aren't showing the seed of doubt starts to grow. It can grow and grow, spreading throughout one's body, sapping the limbs of their strength and the mind of its will. It's at this pivotal time when the hardcore and/or vacationing birder has to murder that seed, kill it with some sort of toxic spray, like say, bourbon or something, and then press on. 
Luckily the Bulleit rye had one swig left in it, and luckily the PUGA was frolicking in the pickerel weed, around the last and largest of the lakes, a weed in which it is very good to frolic. I have dipped on this bird before as a vagrant in AZ. I managed not to see it ever before in Texas, nor when birding in Florida. Finally, I got to put this gorgeous swamp chicken to bed, and then make cuddle spoons too.
#loveyouhateyougallinule


This particular specimen was a wonderful ambassador. The years of frustration could finally be released, leaking out of my face as I wept openly, softly at first and then with tremendous violence. The bird came very close, no doubt attracted to the cloud of dragonflies eating the cloud of non-dragonflies around my head. Crush you very much PUGA.


Red-billed Pigeon was a lost opportunity and Fulvous Ducks just weren't in the cards. Nevertheless, with a pretty full sense of satisfaction, I completed the trip to Austin where I spent that evening and the next recuperating at the domicile of one of Texas's crustiest and simultaneously gracious birding machines. 
Ah...to be under a roof and with plumbing again, to eat non-chain burgers, to sleep with straightened legs and parallel to the ground...these are commodities that soft, squishy, modern humans should not avoid for long, which domestic Purple Martins appreciate very well.

"Verily, my favorite burger comes with a generous topping of flies"

"Only barbarians and Cave Swallows sleep so impiously such as not to have a roof overhead"

The Austin revival was sorely needed, though I hit a run of bad luck bird-wise in the area. I was able to get quick, distant looks at a Ringed Kingfisher staked out by Nate at Roy G. Guerrero Park, but failed to turn up Barn and Eastern Screech Owls at either of their predictable spots. For my final morning of birding in Texas, I could turn up no more than an Indigo Bunting and some young didn't-know-any-betters in the form of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Eastern Phoebe.


Oh cruelty of cruelties, I still had to spend the night at the friggin' airport in SAT the next day after a series of mechanical problems and my continual parsimoniousness. Even going quietly into that last goodnight, the Texas birding was nothing short of phenomenal. I had never been birding out so long in any given day, seen so many birds in general nor recorded so many lifers as I did during my time in Texas. It was a wonderful trip, well worth the tormenting two year wait, and I want to thank everyone who helped along the way, especially Mike Motto at the Iowa Voice, Nate McGowan at This Machine Watches Birds, and the nice lady at Budget who knocked an extra $40 off my rental car because I was a "nice seeming young man." 
You all are almost as awesome as the birds. There will be more coming from farther east soon.