Austin City Limits and Beyond
The Cactus Motel, nearly hidden in last evening’s 9:30 darkness, is a welcoming sight. The hamlet of Balmorhea is almost asleep, but the motel proprietor is waiting for us. She tells us the moniker, Balmorhea, is a combination of names of three entrepreneurs in the early 20th Century. Balcombe, Morrow and Rhea also put their business minds together to develop what earlier folks called Mescalaro Springs. Water was in bountiful supply and with the addition of a railroad, Balcombe, Morrow and Rhea would be rich. Balmorhea grew to around 5,000 but is has since dwindled to 527 souls. Once a prosperous oasis in otherwise parched western Texas, Balmorhea struggles with a broken infrastructure and hope that tourism will save them. At least that is what I tiredly understood from the owner of the Cactus Motel, who happens to be a retired schoolteacher and active mayor of Balmorhea.
9 April 2010
The stopover in Balmorhea is to furnish us a little rest after three days of hard driving. Austin is a short day beyond, and we do not wish to arrive exhausted and cranky. In addition, according to a bird-finding guide, there is some good birding in the region. Balmorhea got its place in what we call the Blue Book, which is loose-leaf binder containing our itinerary. One of the first pages had, under Bakersfield, California, Rose-ringed Parakeek, a possible motel for lodging, a map of Beale Park and other details. Under Balmorhea, I listed the page numbers for the localities described in our bird finding guides, a possible motel and what birds we might find that would add to our lists. The lists we are keeping are a combined trip list, and regional lists. Today, I will begin the first regional list that will include most of the sighting in Texas. The hopefuls worth searching for near Balmorhea Lake are Mexican Duck, King Rail, Poorwill, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Cassin’s Sparrow. Mexican Duck is presently no more than a subspecies of Mallard. Mexican Duck and Curve-billed Thrasher are in taxonomic flux and I want to see them again. Not one of the bird species listed for Balmorhea are new for me, but the rail, Poorwill and the two sparrows will be new to Linda’s life list.
Linda tells me last night she is delighted with the motel and loves the bed so much she says she will sleep in the morning. Therefore, reasonably early, I slip out the door and drive south to Balmorhea Lake. Par to the course, I miss the turn to the lake and end up driving a couple of miles in the wrong direction. A man is standing near a pickup at the edge of a pasture. I ask directions to Balmorhea Lake. He smiles as his upper false teeth succumb to gravity, nearly clattering to his lower jaw. His skin is dark and weathered by decades in the Texas sun. Despite his apparent age of 70, he is slim and straight in worn cowboy boots, a heavily starched long-sleeve shirt with discolored flowers typical of modern cowboy shirts. The snaps in the front and on the sleeves and sun faded brimmed hat present a prideful man. He begins to tell me how to get to the lake, but, although I am a stranger to these here parts, I know he is telling me to go south when I need to go north. I ask again and he realized the confusion.
He said, “I know zactly how to git there. I cain’t tell you, but I’ll show you.”
He jumps in his truck and drives only a few yards. I follow. Before I can open my door, he is out of his white pickup and standing with a pointed finger. “Down there. Turn right after the road does a couple of jigs.”
Driving in the direction he points, the otherwise straight road curves slightly in one direction then the other before straightening out again. I’ve passed the jigs. Just beyond is a sign, the one I initially drove by in my early oblivion. Fields, probably for hay, pasture, and scrub are the view until I arrive at the entrance of the property surrounding Balmorhea Lake. A few rolling hills rise on the east side of a large reservoir that occupies about 600 acres and supplies irrigation water to surrounding agricultural endeavors. In Texas and elsewhere you do not want to call a ranch a farm, so when in doubt say agricultural endeavor.
Based on the finding guides, the lake has great potential for shorebirds, grebes and more, but not today. Least Sandpiper is the only shorebird; there are token Pied-billed and Eared Grebe and a smattering of Ruddy Ducks and Blue-winged Teal. I drive up to a small building, painted white probably to keep it cool and to disguise its aging exterior. In front of the building is a hand- painted sign announcing that anyone at the lake must pay a $4 fee or be prosecuted. Although there are some early people fishing, paying for such a meager list of birds is not in my budget. I do not violate the sanctity by driving beyond the sign, turn around and slowly pass a ramshackle picnic area at the edge of the reservoir. A single Least Sandpiper picks its way along the shore. I look for roadside sparrows in the rolling hills finding Pyrrhuloxia and Black-throated Sparrow. Outside the reservoir property, I stop and walk the road. Wintering White-crowned Sparrows pop up in the bushes. This is not birding at its best.
Maybe an 8th of a mile from the car I hear a meadowlark, but it is neither a Western nor an Eastern Meadowlark. It is the so-called Lillian’s Meadowlark, a taxon I had observed in previous years in southeastern Arizona. The singing bird was perched on a wire above the car, poised to leave a whitish mark, possibly on the windshield. However, I did not collect any souvenirs and contrary to a recent publication, I am not ready to accept Lillian’s Meadowlark as was recommended in a recent scientific paper. It is not specifically distinct from other meadowlarks. Admittedly, I recall, I had nearly embraced the idea of a third meadowlark, even to the point of drafting a proposal to the A.O.U. Committee recommending recognizing Lillian’s Meadowlark. However, the more I looked into the matter, the more I realized there are too many reasons for maintaining the status quo, that is, Lillian’s Meadowlark is a member of the Eastern Meadowlark. Bob Dickerman, who has worked with meadowlarks far more than I, emailed that the published study recommending Lillian’s Meadowlark to species status is flawed. Wesley M. Lanyon was one of several earlier investigators of meadowlarks. It was my pleasure to meet him on one of my trips to American Museum of Natural History. I did not then know that “Bud” Lanyon had a son, Scott, who would become the third author of the 2008 meadowlark paper, and who will surely go back to the drawing board. As for meadowlarks, the situation is far more complex than simply recognizing a new species. Clearly more information is required before making any changes. I quickly emailed Dick Banks that should a proposal be adopted to change the present status of meadowlarks, I would be happy to supply information that would delay making a taxonomic mistake.
Back at the motel, Linda is having coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls with Joy Lewis, owner and manager of our motel and mayor of Balmorhea. Joining, we hear stories of getting the motel in order (she had purchased it only a year ago), local government corruption, the difficulty of running the town and the pleasure of living in Balmorhea.
Later, Linda and I hurry out to Balmorhea Lake. We might have gotten a King Rail, but it seems doubtful. More people are fishing around the shore and our time is limited. Searching the rolling hills is fruitless, but near the stop where I found the so-called Lillian’s Meadowlark, I hear and eventually see two Cassin’s Sparrows. Linda gets them in her glasses. She is the first one on this trip to score a life bird. From the reservoir, we head southwest to Balmorhea State Park. It seems the Balmorhea name is everywhere. There is even an Austin band named Balmorhea. As for the state park, we halt at a sign indicating we will have to pay $6.00 each to enter. All we want to see is the huge swimming pool. I ask the female clerk if we can just have a peek for gratis. She agrees, with the caveat I return the slip of paper she hands me within 15 minutes. We hurry to the giant swimming pool just beyond a cyclone fence. College-aged people are entering and exiting a door of a changing room. The pool is indeed huge. A brochure tells us it occupies 77,053 square feet, with the water temperature of 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit all year in sections for wading and for adults it gets up to 25 feet deep. It is fed by the Solomon Springs that bubbles 22-28 million gallons of water daily. We rush back to the car and tour the tiny park, check out its birdless and relatively new mitigated wetlands and back to the motel. If only we would have had a few more hours, we would head for the Davis Mountains, a location we had to skip in our 45-day trip in 2005. Time. Where does it go? Linda’s missing Montezuma Quail will have to wait.
10-12 April 2010
Stopping over in Sheffield, a region along the Pecos River would be great. There, we would see birds one thinks of seeing in Texas, such as Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Green Kingfishers. Two new vireos, Gray and Black-capped are said to be there just waiting to be added to Linda’s list. However, not now and we charge onward to Austin. The granddaughters are great. Sabine, soon to begin her first grade, is passionate about birds but does not ignore her friend, who Jennifer had agreed to host while the mother was away on business. I decide that any serious bird talk with Sabine will wait. The new granddaughter has yet to reach the terrible-two syndrome and Linda enjoys holding and listening to her.
Luckily, Linda’s Texas grandchildren, and mine in Virginia, apparently are unharmed by the fact Linda and I have not been there for every birthday, new tooth or whatever. One of these days, we have to get to Virginia. I have not met one of my grandchildren and the other I have not seen in too many years. I hope no one thinks anyone had been traded for life birds.
Days pass quickly, with walks in the local park where I see several White-eyed Vireos and at night hear Great Horned Owls. It is Monday. Tomorrow, I have to say, I am trading my time in Austin for a life bird as I ready for another journey down the Rio Grande.
13 April 2010
As Linda and I watched the network news while back in Oregon, we hear of murder and mayhem along the Rio Grande. I cringe, knowing Linda is alert to the report and thinking about my plan, albeit whirlwind, trip down by the river. The news gets worse. The anchor announced the most dangerous areas are Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo. It is wonderful to have someone care about you so much, but Linda does worry. There is not quicksand or a cougar around every bend of a trail, but drug traffickers are indeed a worrisome crew. Those very three locations, those most dangerous, according the news, are places I will possibly be. Laredo, I will just a drive through, as I exit the interstate to head southward on U.S. 83 toward, yikes, McAllen, and, double yikes, Brownsville. As for Brownsville, I may check one neighborhood for the unlikelihood of an early Yellow-green Vireo. At least one had been coming there since 2005. A satellite photo of the region looked ok, with some relatively large houses. A nice neighborhood? Just the place a drug kingpin might like to hang out in. McAllen, which would be the place I might spend a night or two, but nearby Weslaco is more convenient. I make the promise to Linda that I will be in behind my locked motel door well before darkness.
The promise made, I kiss Linda and wish her enjoyment with the grand tikes. I head through San Antonio just in time for morning rush hour. Compared to driving in Washington, D.C., it is a breeze except Texans drive more aggressively and in larger vehicles than I recall now from memories over 10 years ago on the Potomac. West of San Antonio, traffic thins on the remaining trek to Laredo. With about 235 miles behind me, I drive to the last exit off I 35, which is Exit 0. It is the end of the line, but not the end of THE line. U.S. 83 eventually turns south. I am ready for birds.
In about an hour, I arrive at San Ignacio where I reread my notes on finding White-collared Seedeaters. I find Washington Road, and the dirt scrape that goes down to the Rio Grande. An open area just above the road appears to be the place to park. I pull off the pavement as a county police vehicle rolls up. I flag the driver to ask if it is ok to park at the side of the street. The driver said sure, although it would be ok drive down the road to the river. It looks too rutted so I don’t. I need the walk. Down by the river, I look for Muscovy Ducks. Trees, some impressively tall, some not so tall, bushes and vines at least come close to a riparian zone along the river. It has been a struggle to conserve what riparian habitat remains, but this tiny parkland is encouraging, not if to a birder, maybe to a few good birds. Where trees and bushes stop, marsh, with stretches of cane, begin. Watching and listening, I negotiate the rutted road from the street to the river. Nothing is on the brownish Rio Grande. I check out a trail, and something darts into the tall cane grass. It could have been anything. I return to a narrow dirt road that parallels the river. The road is full of deep ponds of water surrounded by mud. Trying to stay out of the pools and the mud, tramping along the sparsely vegetated center and alternating from one side to the other side of the road is a balancing act. It is humid and hot, but expected mosquitoes are not a problem. The road ends at an opening at the edge of the river. I search again for ducks, but there is nothing to see. This is discouraging. The only way to the car is to slip and slide back down the road I just took. About half way there, two White-collared Seedeaters cross the road, land to my left at the edge of some cane just long enough for me to see a small bird sporting a black cap and yes, a white collar. I barely glimpse the other bird, but do see that it lacks the black cap and is buffy below. In seconds, the two disappear in the vegetation bordering the river and in a few more seconds, when, presumably the male begins singing its head off from some hidden perch. After 15 minutes of the extended serenade, I give up trying to see my new lifers.
White-collared Seedeaters are often described as tiny in some field guides, and they are small, being within the size range of Lesser Goldfinch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Sedge Wren, species that are not usually described as tiny. My impression of the size the two seedeaters is they do seem tiny compared to the kinglet and goldfinch that often perch in plain view. Of course, Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in a redwood are tiny. Size is often an elusive concept, is hard to describe, and seems to change depending on location including what species are nearby and what vegetation they are associating. The seedeaters I saw are tiny like most Sedge Wrens I have encountered by providing a tiny opportunity to see them, a tiny time for checking it off on your list. At least that is the situation in the lone star where the species is rare, Texas being the northern limits of a species that ranges all the way south to Panama. I suspect that seedeaters may appear larger further south in their range, a kind of Bergmann’s Rule in reverse. Sure, size does matter, but only matters a tiny amount.
Retracing my often-slippery steps, I arrive a few yards downriver, just before the road turns and heads steeply to Washington Street. A Border Patrol vehicle is parked near the river on the flat at the end of the rutted road. I spot the tracks left by the guards and look toward the river. The two are looking toward the ground and circling in a counter-clockwise path. That was my path, a counter-clock one when I first arrived. I had looked up the river and turned back from the water to further search for seedeaters. The guards do not see me and I do not want them to think I am a threat. I yell, “Hi, those are my tracks.” They look a little embarrassed, having been so busy looking down and not seeing me. They said there was no worry since they could see the tracks were from hiking boots. Huh? Are hiking boots something immigrants do not wear? Anyway, we talk briefly, me introducing myself as a birder and one of them announcing excitement about retirement. He is only 30 something and has many boots to track before reaching his goal.
Besides Laredo and San Ignacio, White-collared Seedeaters are often reported in Zapata, barely 10 minutes down the river. I had noted in the blue book that the Zapata library is the place to find seedeaters. I will never know. The view while departing San Ignacio is filled with blue-black clouds, angry with rain, dropping larger and larger chunks of water with such force the windshield wipers could barely keep up. At the outskirts of Zapata, the deluge fills the outside lanes of the road, and making it impossible to see past the waterfall. I pull over and wait. Unlike San Ignacio, Zapata offers, in addition to several fine eateries, at least five food groups, the various fast-food establishments. I settled on a quick burger and wait out the torrential rain.
The stay is longer than I have time. While waiting for the storm to pass, I call the owner of the old RV Park at the end of Chapeno Road. He tells me the gate is locked but I’m welcome to climb over and walk the short distance to the river. In about an hour, I am out of the rain and down Chapeno Road. Reports of Muscovy Ducks suggest these fowl are rather easily spooked. The area, except for the distant barking dogs, appears deserted. Importantly, there are no human tracks, either in the mud or the sun-cracked dirt, that indicate humans crossing the border. In fact, other than the earlier tracks of the two border patrol agents, no one had walked the muddy shore for at least a day. I hop the gate and trudge along a dirt road to the river. I look up and down the muddy Rio Grande. Brown-crested Flycatchers and a couple of Couch’s Kingbirds on shore remind me where I am while Double-crested Cormorant, Common Gallinule tell me I could be in lots of places.
Back on the pavement, I drive down River Road at Salineno, again to the river. A man driving an electric golf cart and his two passengers, probably his children, coast to the river’s edge, then turn. He smiles and waves as he passes. Everything looks familiar yet different from five years ago. Some of the vegetation is taller, bushier, or missing. A sturdy fence encompassing the seasonally occupied Salineno Birder’s Colony keeps people out. All is quiet with the exception of a herd of at least a dozen bleating goats. The winter human occupants are long gone. There’s no one to tell me where to find my target species. I climb out of the birdmobile and first scan downstream, then upstream. If there is a Muscovy Duck, I hope it isn’t on the Mexican side of the river. Scanning upstream takes a while since it is possible to view a long stretch of river before it makes one of its numerous bends. At first, I see nothing. Far up the river something dark, maybe a piece of wood, a silly coot, I don’t know, sends me dashing back to the car for the scope. I almost forget how to unlock the door. Returning I cannot relocate the mystery dark spot. I take two deep breaths, carefully evading inhalation of any gnats that are close by and look again. There it is, my wild black version of the barnyard duck, a wild Muscovy Duck.
Had my car not broken down in 1963, a visit to the Rio Grande would not have produced a Muscovy Duck. The tropical cavity nester, then unknown in Texas, had been nearly eliminated from Mexico from year-round hunting, but the placement of thousands of nest boxes by Ducks Unlimited of Mexico has contributed to population recovery and expansion. Wild Muscovy Ducks were first known in Texas in 1984. As a species, feral Muscovy Ducks occur worldwide and are even established in Florida.
It is a long way to Florida. I’ll be happy getting to Weslaco before dark. A promise to Linda is a promise. By sundown, I will be safe and sound, with, thanks to Ducks Unlimited of Mexico and San Ignacio, ABA number 644 and 645 are securely ensconced in my life list.
14 April 2010
The Weslaco motel was newly built, the price is right and it is on Texas Boulevard a couple of quiet blocks north of bustling U.S. 83. It is perfect for a couple of nights. The alarm rings at 6 a.m. I’m anxious to get going, but take time for a quick breakfast and a check for rarities using the motel computer. There’s nothing new. The blue book tells me a Northern Jacana had been at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The last sighting was a week ago, but just being at Santa Ana is thrilling, drawing me like a magnet to its possibilities. Anxiety also haunts me about arrangements to see a particular Yellow Warbler, one that is breeding in the mangroves near Port Isabel. Although I left a message yesterday, I again phone Scarlet Colley who has been monitoring the birds. She tells me to be ready to go at 5 p.m. The stormy weather looks worrisome, but I can only hope for the best.
In the meantime, I head south on Texas Boulevard to the edge of town and park in the lot behind Audubon House of the Frontera Audubon Society. In 2005, this property introduced to me more birds typical of the lower Rio Grande than any of the other places, including Sabal Palm. Suddenly, that year, Linda and I were surrounded by migrants, White-tipped Doves, a Crimson-collared Grosbeak, screaming Plains Chachalaca and more. Today is my third visit. I pay the entrance fee and start out on a great bargain. The chachalacas are not so noisy and many old acquaintances are absent, but every turn along the numerous paths supply great entertainment. Other than one workman, I have the place to myself. Sooner than I realize, I feel my blood sugar dropping. The pocket of jerky and nuts are gone. After a couple of wrong turns, I find the path to the waiting birdmobile.
I snack southward to U.S. 281 and turn right toward Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Even though I have to be at Port Islabel at 5 p.m., I must schedule some time to search for the refuge jacana. Rain begins falling in sheets on the highway. Someone must have forgotten that highways require at least some camber so rain will drain to the sides. Luckily, the newish tires help prevent hydroplaning, but it is slow going. I park outside headquarters and wait. The rain diminishes enough and I trust a raincoat will keep me dry. Checking in, I ask directions for the jacana and if any of the trails are flooded. I stuff the map provided in a pocket under my blue raincoat. Passing a few older birders, whose glares at the dark bleeding clouds turn to look at me as if I’m crazy. They are probably correct, but I don’t care.
Trekking down along a levee, I turn right on a paved service road. The large raindrops pound my hood and prevent hearing beyond the splashing of my boots slogging along the trail. Vegetation of varying heights, some over my head wave in the light wind and bend down from the weight of the constant rain that is now becoming a welcome drizzle. In a few yards, I come to a sign pointing to the left. The trail to the Pintail Ponds is short and slippery, the mud amazingly more slick than I encountered up river. Walking the trails is like stepping on a smooth class plate covered with cooking grease from the burger I bought in Zapata. Somehow, I manage to keep upright. There should be an Olympic event for walking such slippery trails. I could have been a contender. Finally, it stops raining and I begin seeing some of the usual suspects, such as spoonbills, more species of herons than anyone in Oregon could expect to see in a lifetime, Olive Sparrows, but no Northern Jacana. A Common Moorhen, mostly hidden in grass, got my pulse up, but, to paraphrase a famous Texan politician, I know jacanas and this one is no jacana. The search lasts one and a half hours. The mud is now sticky and clings to my boots. Broken plant stems mix with it, forming a gray adobe paste. I am standing two or more inches taller until I kick hard enough to make the formed mud fly off my elevator boots. Fortunately, I’m able to wash the stucco down to the rubber soles before entering headquarters with my negative report. I’ll return tomorrow. Maybe someone will have relocated the jacana, but since it hasn’t been seen for a week, it may be gone. Perhaps, tomorrow, two more Swallow-tailed Kites will fly over as they did yesterday. Or…
My itinerary excludes Sabal Palm Audubon Center, the 500 plus acre sanctuary on the Rio Grande near Brownsville. The site might be harboring some of the fugitive species I am missing such as Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. Linda and I didn’t find them in 2005. Today could offer a chance at one, but the whole idea is moot. Homeland Security built a fence, often called a wall, preventing access even to the owners, the National Audubon Society. I was on a call list if access would be granted this year, but the phone never range. The day before leaving Austin, I called the Audubon office. Progress toward access to the beautifully unique Sabal Palm is not possible, in essence, the region is across the border.
It is a few miles to Port Islabel. The drive is uneventful, including a brief visit at Resaca de la Palma State Park for a Groove-billed Ani. Maybe one was there, but so were two giant bus loads of young schoolchildren, all of whom appear disinterested in silence or stillness. I drive east, reaching Port Islabel a couple of hours early for the boat trip, but with time to check out South Padre Island. Hungry, as usual, I decide to fortify my icebox with a stop at a MacDonalds for a couple of dollar specials. However, nothing is near one dollar, in the town where the word center ends in re, yet a street sign forgot an “l“ in Atoll. Atol, not even a mother could love that ugly misspelling. Birders at the World Bird Centre dress better than those at Santa Ana. Well, maybe not, but I bet more than half of them are not willing to cake their lower extremities with Rio Grande mud. There is a small spot of natural habit there and several warblers are resting and foraging there. The Black-vented Oriole, reported and photographed there two days earlier is gone. Forlorn birders, including myself remain content with Northern Parula, Black-throated Green and Hooded Warblers and Blue Grosbeaks. As with a Rufous-backed Robin a couple of years ago in Santa Ana, I’m too often a day late and a bird short.
The mangrove warbler hour finally arrives and thankfully, the weather is holding. I phone Scarlet Colley. No answer. I leave a message and begin to worry that my window to see a Mangrove Yellow Warbler is not in the cards. While waiting for a callback, I visit a small section of woods surrounded by many of the birders I saw at the Centre. There is barely enough bird activity to help thwart my worries. At last, my cell jangles. Directions are given to meet George, Scarlet’s husband at Port Islabel. I cross the high arching bridge. Four loaded barges knocked out a 160-foot section of the bridge in 2002, causing five vehicles to plunge into 50 feet of water. Crossing the 78-foot tall bridge for the second time isn’t turning on my acrophobia so much. No matter, I check for any barges navigating below as I approach the bridge and heed the sign that say, “when flashing,” watch out for pelicans. The lights are flashing, but I stare down the road, not looking down while watching out for a safe crossing.
I park in front of the Colley residence and meet George. He drives us to the dock where I expect other birders. I am the only passenger of a small snub-nosed craft that, although possibly not sea worthy, rides smoothly and quietly into the windy Laguna Madre. On the boat, I sit in a lawn chair on the perhaps 10-foot wide deck. My windbreaker is marginally warming. George pilots along the shore where a Purple Sandpiper had been seen, but it would not be observed by us today. There are shorebirds, three species of plovers, Sanderling and Least Sandpiper. At least one of several Dunlins have streaking along the flanks toward the under tail coverts indicating the birds belong to a subspecies breeding in Arctic Canada.
The little boat that can took us to an elongated island of black mangrove. George, an affable character, gestures toward the island, and tells me to watch and listen. The wind bears down, causing the mangrove to waver. An occasional yellow leaf in the mangroves quickens my pulse, but the leaves are motionless except for the stirring wind. The boat putters quietly along the leeward side of the island. A song cuts through the sounds. We scan the mangrove. George, who has ferried many birders to this very place, spots the singer and directs me to a male Yellow Warbler. It is not just any Yellow Warbler, it has chestnut on the side of its head, and its song is not of the Yellow Warbler I know.
One of the last big projects I undertook at the museum was of a study of the geographic variation in Yellow Warblers. It started with scrutinizing something H.C. Oberholser wrote in the “Birdlife of Texas.” He believed that he determined the correct scientific names of two northeastern subspecies based on specimens from their type localities. My examination of the situation took me back to naturalist in the 1700‘s and King Louis XIV. My homework was thorough and the results overturned Oberholser’s unfounded conclusions. In the beginning of my study, I had no intentions in attempting to work out subspecies limits beyond the northeastern populations. I was too busy worrying about other matters, such as geographic variation in Steller’s Jays, Wrentits, Cliff Swallows and others no longer recalled. Something about Yellow Warblers hooked me. Their range is so huge, their plumage coloration and pattern is so variable and they are my favorite color. Many warblers ago, in a world literature class, the teachers asked why Dostoesky extensively uses yellow in “Crime and Punishment.” The class offered a plethora of ideas, views based on some idea of symbolism. Maybe yellow, in Dostoesky’s time was associated with sickness, lunacy, jaundice. Opinions bounced from one student to the other as time ticked forward, the professor resting as the banter continued. We were getting nowhere and the teacher was not offering guidance. Finally, impatient with what I thought was an abuse of the clock, I raised my hand and presented my idea, which is partly why I later took up studying the geographic variation of Yellow Warblers. My comment to the class: “Maybe he just liked the color yellow” didn’t get me an A, but who knows for sure why Dostoesky used yellow or why I felt a passion to study Yellow Warblers, a project that would consume time away from other, maybe even more rewarding studies. Who knows?
My published status quo definition of the Yellow Warbler was a species ranging from North America, the Caribbean islands and Middle and northern South America. The concept of the species included the northern migratory birds, the so-called resident “Golden” Yellow Warbler, the one with a chestnut cap breeding in the islands, and the “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler residing in the remaining tropical range. Both “Golden” and “Mangrove” birds breed mostly in mangroves, but never mind that. Subsequent to my research in the mid-1990‘s, the genetics of many populations of all types of Yellow Warblers have been examined, but all populations need to be investigated. So far, studies are fairly clear that the northern migratory Yellow Warbler, the one breeding mostly north of the border, is specifically distinct from all other types of Yellow Warbler. As for the others, they very likely consist of at least two additional species. It is no simple matter and even more species are likely hiding among the tropical forms. For example, the birds breeding on the Galapagos may be a distinct species from all the above. Knowledge of the complex is now just rounding the tip of the iceberg. The A.O.U., the organization that makes decisions on all these studies, has yet to rule that the northern birds, our familiar Yellow Warbler, is specifically distinct from the others. Making a decision without all the facts about the other populations avoids any titanic mistakes, but a piecemeal approach might keep the peace since birders have been waiting a long time for what seems the obvious in so far as recognizing more than one species of Yellow Warbler. I tend to agree with the birders; a piecemeal approach would get to some of the truth. As more data are amassed, more truths will come. We will never have all of the facts, but we will have some of the facts, and why ignore them. Someday, when there is more and better data published, someone will write a proposal splitting at least our northern Yellow Warbler from the southern complex. Will there be a decision before I teeter off into that big museum in the sky? I am yellow with envy of anyone knowing the outcome.
Finding the warbler took only a few minutes. Our stint at identifying the shorebirds took longer. Back at the Colley house, Scarlet, George and I chatted about Yellow Warblers and some of the people who had come to be shown what may be a new species breeding north of Mexico.
The long day passes sunset. I call Linda from Los Fresnos. Guilt sweeps through me since it will be later before I arrive at my motel in Weslaco. My promise of being in before dark is broken, but I am back at the motel, with no incident, safe. Old mud cakes my pants below my knees, I am hungry, tired and grateful for the day.
15 April 2010
Morning begins before the 6 a.m. alarm with a quick breakfast and check of the motel computer for any rarities. There are no rarities. There also is no rain as I drive south on Texas Boulevard, wistfully glance at Frontera’s entrance driveway and then turn up river to Santa Ana. Volunteers and staff are busy starting their day at headquarters. No one has anything new to report. I told one woman behind the desk that I’m glad to see the border wall had not gone up in the refuge. She tells me everyone in the refuge is delighted and even more so now since, apparently, funding for the border wall is at least postponed. As she relates this, she nearly cries from joy, as do I.
Gene Wilhelm, who has led hawk watches at the refuge for several years, saunters west along the levee with several visiting birders. The wind is blowing and blue-gray clouds scutter from Mexico. One is ominously low, creeping not far above the scattered trees at headquarters and disappearing over flat cropland to the east. An unidentified hawk, at least to me, and three vultures sail in the bluster. The hawk watchers, the group of birders, are armed with scopes, binocs and raptor experience. Swainson’s Hawks are called well before I am able to know their kind. This reminds me of Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, when, in 1962, Maurice Broun correctly identified black specks long before they flew over another group of birders on a hawk watch. After a brief introduction, the wife of the group leader told me one day some years ago during a hawk watch, the wind blew noted raptorologist Bill Clark’s hat into the canal immediately east of the levee. The water was shallow. Somehow, Bill skidded down the steep bank into the water and rumor has it that he has not been seen at a Santa Ana hawk watch since.
The leaders, Gene and Joanne, asked me to stick around and predicted a four-kite day. The prospect of all those kites, especially the possibility of a Swallow-tailed Kite tempts me. If only, there was some other species, maybe an ani or Blue Bunting, to make staying along the river more promising. There is not and I’ll get a Swallow-tailed Kite on another trip, perhaps in Florida.
Those dark clouds are piling up, forming one continuous mass as I head north on U.S. 281, toward Austin. A detour to Edinburg Lake, stated by some sources as a descent birding site, is not at all fruitful. What “lake” I could find is hemmed in by private property. Back on the highway, rain begins falling, sometimes just lightly to be annoying, freckling the windshield with tiny dots just dense enough to turn on the windshield wipers. That is followed by quickly turning them off, before the rubber sweeps again, squawking on dry glass. Such little things are annoying, especially on long solo drives. By the time I reach Alice, heavy rain has washed away any Rio Grande mud on the birdmobile and almost washed away Alice. I reach the refinery at Three Rivers where tanker trucks are lined up for refills, the full ones heading away from town. Once again, I detour, heading west on a state road. The heavy clouds begin to empty. The wipers are at full speed, which allows me to see except when I meet an empty tank truck, refinery bound. Their spray is momentarily blinding. Water collecting in the deep furrows in the pavement made by thousands of full tanker trucks makes forward travel difficult.
It is a relief to turn off what is becoming a waterway and into Choke Canyon State Park. The park borders the Choke Canyon Reservoir, a water supply for Corpus Christi, a little less than 75 miles to the south-southeast. The reservoir is almost 100 feet deep suggesting there was once a canyon. A pleasant ranger at the entrance station of the Calliham Unit tells me what I want to hear. A Northern Jacana has not left the park. Driving to the site, 75 Acre Lake, is almost pleasant; no trucks and the incessant rain is momentarily diminishing. Again, though the rain falls heavily. Pulling into the end of the parking lot, I face north, as suggested by the ranger, and look through the blur of rain and at water and marshy shores. I am hungry, it is raining and there are no breaks in the clouds. I eat and scan the far shore, eat and scan and worry. In the west side view mirror, I see there’s someone walking up to the car. With the window barely rolled down, I chat with a birder who is asking where the jacana might best be seen. I point and said I was just about to don my raincoat and go hunting. About that time, a pickup pulls up to the right. He is fishing and said to watch out for mean catfish and alligators. It seems Choke Canyon is the westernmost breeding range of the American Alligator. Great, rain and more rain and alligators. This is not a place to repeat Bill Clark’s hat trick.
Scanning the far shore, I see a flash of yellow. It is not a small flash. It is bigger than a goldfinch and smaller than a cab. The size of the flash is a perfect match for the open wings of a jacana. At least, I think so. I stare through the scope at the spot until my right eye screams to blink. Before my peripheral vision gives up, I see another pickup idling nearby. A ranger is looking at me. I am parked diagonally across two handicap parking places and quickly selected “R” for rectify and park in a place on the other side of the fisherman. With the downpour abating to a hefty drizzle, the raincoat is enough to keep me and my optics dry. The birder, the one who asked me about the jacana, is a dozen steps ahead of me. I catch up with him and we end up on a point of land offering a view north. Again, I scan the far shore, but there is no flash of yellow. I spot Fulvous Whistling-Duck, a species I had not seen since the days they were tree ducks. Black-necked Stilts help the silly coots from seeming so boring. It is hard to keep the scope dry and I wonder if I should go back for the tripod. Normally, it is possible to hold the scope steady when looking at birds well beyond my 10X binocs, even when I zoom it up close to 30X. Today it is too wet, too windy and I cannot find a fixed prop such as a tree to steady me.
Just as I am thinking how I might walk along the far shore, how I might flush the jacana, how I might get eaten by an alligator, the fellow birder announces he’s going back to get his son who has their scope. They, father birder, son birder and birding scope return in a few wet minutes. Four more eyes might help. The scope, sitting on a tripod, is aimed perfectly at the shore nearest us, not the one where I saw flashing yellow. I hear “I’ve got it.” What magic words. I look in the direction to no avail. The two birders, satisfied, offer me a peek. I congratulate Dick Canning on finding the jacana and thank him profusely for the use of his scope. There it is, standing at the edge of the water, looking better than I had felt but worse than I am now feeling. Even though it is not standing on a lily pad, it is, after all ABA number 646.