Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Spring Migration Season 2013

I haven’t written much the last month or so, because I’ve been, often literally, knee deep in spring bird migration season here on the Coast. Instead of one massive post about the experience, I decided to break it up into a series. This is the first. Photo highlights from the entire season can be viewed here.

Flocks at
Dawn, Bolivar Peninsula
Flocks at Dawn - Bolivar Peninsula

I’m having a child in Septemberi. I’ll be a father for the first time. That may seem an odd introduction to a post about birdwatchingii. Like everything else in my life, however, I think the two things are about to be intrinsically linked as my time for all this side pursuit becomes a far distant priorityiii. Not that I’m done with the hobby, just that the amount of my time, effort and mental energy I can dedicate to it are about to change fundamentally. With a child on the horizon, it’s not likely that I’ll have this combination of time and energy again anytime soon, so I am aiming to make this year a good oneiv. Given this realization, my pursuit of feathered creatures up and down the Coast for the better part of the last month and a half has been in the perspective of a last hurrah. As last hurrahs go, however, it was fairly epicv.

Laughing Gulls
Though maybe not THIS much of a hurrah...

I’ve written in years past (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) about my experiences with the odd, rambunctiousnessvi of the spring bird migration season on the Texas Coast. As millions of migrating neotropical birds funnel through the upper Texas Gulf Coast, a corresponding storm of retirees, ornithologists and their ilk, enthusiasts, and unapologetic madmenvii rush to the coast for brief glimpses of a tapestry of feathered blazes of color. People literally travel the width and breadth of the land, across the US and from other countries, to descend on ramshackleviii coastal towns. It’s exciting in about the most odd way something can be exciting. As much as I’ve played an enthusiastic role in this khaki-colored torrent, I can also step back and realize the inherent humor in the scale and intensity displayed in our pursuit of four inches of bird.

A dozen men looking excitedly at the's either Superman, the Rapture, or a warbler.

Got a flat surface? We will make a list on it.

Since this would be likely be my last big migration season for a while, I tried to make it a one sufficiently robust to go out on. My personal goal is to see about 300 distinct species this year. I knew that a vastly disproportionate number of them would be crammed into the month and a half period between late March and early May. So, armed with a new lensix I trudged through blistering prairie, mosquito-infested wetlands, down lonesome beaches, and about every other type of habitat we’ve got (which is no small thing here in Houston) in search of all things avian.

Some of the various terrains over which the Mazda Corporation and I have vehemently disagreed upon in regard to the intended uses of my Mazda 3.

Other things live where the birds are. For example, this deadly Cottonmouth next to my foot.

From my trip out to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge near Austin at the start of the season, to my final Big Day sojourn to the Mecca of High Island in the oil wilds of the Upper Coast, I worked this season hard. I worked it like it was my job. I worked it like a particularly unloved redheaded stepchild. In the month of April there was literally only one or two days in which I did not at least go to the small urban park near work for a lunch hour stroll armed with binoculars.

Doe Ranch
VistaRuss Pittman
Park Art
A range of locales: Balcones Canyonlands, Russ Pittman Park, Bolivar Peninsula, High Island

In all, I traveled about 1375 miles specifically for migration birding. That’s equivalent to driving to Detroit from Houston, or driving back and forth across the entire state of Texas. That’s about $150 in gas alone. I visited 16 public lands by myself, with seasoned veterans, or as a hike leader, including 2 State Parks, 5 National Wildlife Refuges/Refuge units, 3 Audubon sanctuaries, and 8 local parks. The final result was about 215 distinct species, 32 warblerx species, 15 species I had never encountered beforexi, and thousands of individual birds. On the last day of the season I photographed my 350th lifetime speciesxii. Then I photo’d my 351st, then my 352nd, and so on. But the numbers really don’t tell the story. Simply walking around noting birds on a list bores the hell out of me. The unique encounters, experiences, locales, and moments with characters in the field are the things that keep me coming back.

Here are some of my favorite moments, interspersed with some of my favorite photos and videos, of the season :
  • Meeting and getting a chance to hang out with several people in the field who had literally “written the book” about bird species migration on the Texas Coast.

    Close encounter with a Black-throated Green Warbler

  • Joining an overblown cliché of a young Scotsman, with an accent straight out of Trainspotting, for a brief, deadly serious hunt for birds. His mind was so blown upon seeing a Wild Turkey (somewhat rarer in these parts) that he was given over to total euphoria, jumped up and down, high fived me repeatedly, and all but hugged me in his exuberance. You have to respect that sheer lack of irony joy in what he does. It was infectious.

    New lens gets me amazing closeups of Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron fishing

  • Contemplating the Mazda Corporation’s reaction to the sheer disdain and lack of anything resembling concern for my little Mazda 3 as I drove it at barreling speeds down forgotten beaches, over rough prairie terrain, and, most dangerous of all, down surface streets in Houston. Call me crazy, but I really think the little fellow almost cracks a joyous smile sometimes at surviving the ridiculous terrain I send him over.

    Orchard Oriole on Coral Bean, Quintana, TX

  • Getting to hang out with my father-in-law for an impromptu bird hike in an arboretum.

    Lincoln's Sparrow, Memorial Arboretum with Dad McColgin

  • Driving through a cloud of dust from a field being plowed, deep in rural east texas. As the dust cleared, I realized I was surrounded on all sides by the largest gathering of hawks I’d ever seen. Hawks of about every local species had come in to feast on the rodents driven out from the vegetation as the field was plowed. It was almost eerie to see their sharp and motionless shapes appear one by one out of the gloom, like sentinels all around me.

    Sentinel - Swainson's Hawk

  • Forgetting about the birds for a moment for a solitary drivexiii down the near-abandoned beach at Quintana on a beautiful spring day, with the breeze coming off the ocean as the sun set.

    Deserted beach at Quintana

  • Getting the chance to lead groups on hikes in various locations, and learning that it’s not necessary to know more than everyone else on your guided tour as long as you’re sufficiently confidant and excited. “Often wrong, but never in doubt”, as one of my mentors intones.

 Warbler (female)
    Blurry, but first time pictures of two life bird – the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, and my one-time nemesis, the Cerulean Warbler.

  • Being really happy, without a trace of bittersweet, about the poetic justice in reaching my longtime goal of 350 species in what is likely my last active season for a long time.

 Showing OffSemipalmated
 Grosbeak (f)Herring
The unappreciated awesomeness of “ordinary” or unexcitedly colored birds posing perfectly (Swainson's Thrush, Summer Tanager, Great-tailed Grackles, Semmipalmated Plover, Rose-breasted Grosbeak female, Herring Gull in the Surf.)

  • Watching the day break over the Gulf of Mexico as I ate breakfast in the field, on an isolated sandbar, shorebirds scurrying around me by the thousands, circumnavigating a flock of Pelicans holding court.

Bolivar Flats
at Daybreak
Daybreak on Bolivar Flats

Kingdom of the
Kingdom of the Pelicans

  • Being in the middle of a fallout, sitting absolutely still on a path with a couple of old birders for an hour or more, as birds literally swarmed all around us, several of which were new species for me.

    Painted Bunting – Quintana, TX.

  • Meeting a lot of great folks, including the young and shyly exuberant Paula who knows that a day in the field birding is no excuse to forget to be fashionable, and who gave me my very own bird nicknamexiv. She and her father Paul were some of my favorite new friends of the year.

    Paula does her victory dance – Painted Bunting at last.

  • My last full day in the fieldxv, in which I traveled completely around Galveston Bay, traveling over 250 miles for a 16-hour day of birding.
Tiem to stretch after a long trip - Willet, San Luis Pass

It was a great, rollicking seasonxvi, and a great one to go out on. For now, at least… ask me again next Spring.

i Well, not literally of course… I mean, my wife is actually doing the heavy lifting on that bit.

ii I know the preferred term in some circles is “birding”/”birder”. I still find that inherently silly on the surface, as I still don’t think “to bird” is a proper verb, even given its fowling origins. Even more so, I find some of the attitudes behind the insistence on being called “birders” rather than “birdwatchers” a little disturbing. There seems to be a deep-seated need among some types of birders, to differentiate themselves from the common folk who may enjoy birds in their backyard but not devote every moment of free time and earned money to ticking species off a list. This is hardly the case for all birders, but enough so that it warrants a mention. The most staunchly insistent “birders” tend to be listers…those who pursue birds almost to the point of obsession to check them off lists. Don’t get me wrong, I keep a life list, and have no issue with that. It’s just the level of effort and intensity bound up in lists that gets out of control some times. Life lists, year lists, county lists, patch lists…all good fun in the right hands, but with an unfortunate tendency to become the drivers, not the accompaniers, of the activity. Worst are those who think themselves elite and look disdainfully down their noses at amateurs as if there’s something inherently laughable at someone just starting out, or who enjoys, but does not devote a lot of time to, the hobby. The sort of person who literally looks down on another person if their binoculars are not Swarovskis, etc. Anyone who needs to make themselves feel better than others in order to feel ok about themselves is missing the problem. Personally, I like two things about the hobby: 1) the photography challenge it presents, and 2) the chance to watch wildlife. I really am into this for the watching, not just the sighting, but actually just the primal, childish is you must, joy of just watching something else alive on the planet with you do its thing. I have no special love for birds, moreso than other wildlife; we just have a lot of them down here on the coast. I do not have a special love for lists, or for establishing my identity based around my hobby. I certainly have no desire to ever think more highly of myself than someone else based on the gear around my neck or how jaded I am on seeing common birds. I know a lot of great “birders”. I also know a lot who do a disservice to their occupation. If calling myself a birder means getting lumped in with the latter, I’d rather just call myself a birdwatcher. Some may make the argument that because we do a lot more than watch…we listen more than anything else, then birdwatching is just a plain incorrect appellation. I will be the first to agree that the key element in birdwatching is listening for cues to location, but I’ll believe we’re really there for the listening when I see people spending as much on hearing gear as they do on binoculars and cameras. Listening serves the watching, not vice versa. So I remain a birdwatcher, hopefully with the humility that implies. Wow this is a long footnote.

iii Which I am fine with. It’s time. I don’t regret the change, just recognize it.

iv Some people (see note 1 for my general disdain for listers) would judge the value of a year in the field by sheer numbers. While that’s a nice indicator, for me the satisfaction of a good field year is the quality of the observations, and the related experiences.

v Insomuch as that word can be applied to birdwatching. Which is to say, only arguably so, and not without being accompanied by a sufficient level of shame, delusion, or spirits.

vi A term which is oddly but indelibly linked to Theodore Roosevelt in my mind. I think it’s because I once described his writing style as being akin to a mix of scholarly study and rambunctious Tyrannosaurus. Now I can’t use that word without picturing him.

vii As opposed to Mad Men. Although I’m now picturing Don Draper birdwatching. Suited, scotch on one hand, binoculars in another, spewing some undeservedly brilliant copy about an Indigo Bunting or something..”It’s not about the bird, it’s about the feeling. It’s about the childhood wonder. Do you get that from an Sparrow? No. No one’s going to buy your binoculars because of a sparrow. That’s commonplace. That’s their lives 7 days a week. They want to touch the mysterious. They crave to be in contact with that deep well of what they can’t have. They want to go out and see something that reminds them they’re alive and life has more to offer than the everyday. ‘Indigo Bunting – everything else is just a sparrow’.” Then he drinks some more and hits on a buxom field biologist. Don Draper would be a birdwatcher’s birdwatcher. I would go birdwatching with Don Draper.

viii This may conjure up images of quaint little New England tourist towns on the shore. Strike this image from your mind. When I say ramshackle, I mean ramshackle in the sense that these are often places-that-time-but-not-the-petrochemical-industry forgot. Also, places where there may very well have been, at some point in time, incidents involving rams and shackles. Best not to pry too deeply.

ix A slightly older Sigma 400mm f/5.6 AF (non-APO), for those keeping track. A workhorse of a lens, though not of exceptionally high quality. Solid as a rock, but lacking in sharpness unless stopped down. In retrospect I should have tried to dig up an APO version on Ebay. To its credit, its performance in good light is exceptional for its price, but it suffers in low light. Still, a 400mm prime that is decent in decent light and can be easily handheld, for about $275 used is ridiculous. I am straddling the fence on choosing between staying with Pentax, and moving to Canon/Nikon, so I didn’t want to invest a lot in a “better” telephoto lens for Pentax if I was going to abandon the system next year. This was a good compromise lens for the mean time.

x The odd little rockstars of migration birding

xi Or, “lifers”, to the birdwatchers. Yet another term that is equal parts awesome and unintentionally hilarious.

xii An informal life goal for some time. When I originally dipped my toes in the murky waters of birding, it was primarily because I loved the natural world and wanted to increase my knowledge about this aspect of it. Partly, it was a matter of circumstances…I found myself in an area renowned for its avifauna, but not a whole lot else, naturally speaking. So birds it was. Since about 300-500 species are regularly seen during the course of the year in the Houston area, I thought learning and photographing 350 birds (a seemingly insurmountable number at the time) would be a significant milestone in getting a grounding in popular ornithology. The sad thing is that when we first moved to Houston, I was out hiking with a photography group, and one somewhat socially awkward fellow exclaimed to me in an odd mixture of self-conscious pride that he had photographed 350 bird species. At the time I remember thinking, “ok, great. How’s that working for you?”. F&*^ you, irony.

xiii As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we can drive on beaches in much of Texas. And by “drive” I don’t mean, carefully pick our way along a precious habitat. I mean, barrel down the tide line in souped-up 4X4’s crushing anything not fit enough to survive itself the hell out of our way, because f^#% you, nature, that’s why. That being said, and with the proper amount of environmental guilt, it is a fantastic experience to cruise down a beach with no one else in sight for miles.

xiv Yellow-crowned Night Heron. I am unsure why. But I accept it with pride.

xv This “Big Day” will be the subject of a later post

xviWith many thanks to Bill Godley, David Heinecke, Bob Schwartz, Mary Ann Beauchemin, Jim Hinson, Fred Collins, Brazos Bend bird hikers, Paul and Paula, David Sarkozi and Texbirds, the unnamed scotsman, and my long-suffering wife Kate.   

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