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.

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. 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.