That man’s silence is wonderful to listen to.–Thomas Hardy
Feeling like a downtrodden character in a Thomas Hardy novel, I continue to battle entropy at home and work and have not been able to get back into the field. The late onset of cooler fall weather hasn’t helped matters–but tonight, a cool front! So don’t give up on us! Sooner or later the photo-birding will pick up again, and we will continue to share our adventures. Birding is fun, and fun will be had again!
Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.–Albert Camus
During the past week or so we’ve been settling into a steady routine of working on the property and taking hikes and local walks. We even took one long hike with the local hiking group. As we walk, we keep learning new tidbits of information about the local natural history: A new bug, here, a new flower, there . . .
On the long hike up the North Fork of Cave Creek, for example, we noticed large chunks of obsidian in the stream bed, and this led to a discussion of collecting rocks and minerals among the group. Turns out there are many places to collect minerals in the area. One of the group leaders even owns an abandoned zinc mine where a variety of ore minerals can be found (thanks A.B.!).
But every so often, like today, we’re taking a day to let the scrapes and bruises heal–and to contemplate what’s next. As you reach middle age, it’s hard to “waste” a day, but sometimes the body just gives out (and stays in)!
When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.–Thornton Wilder
As much as we love birding around the Houston area, the crush of humanity–mostly traffic and yahoo encounters–has become a bit much of late. This sentiment figured prominently in our choice of retirement location: Birding had to be available right outside our door. And now there are many birding sites within a few miles of our desert home. So presently I can work myself into a near stupor with building and maintenance projects and still get out to bird once in a while . . . .
And if the birding doesn’t pan out, as was the case this morning, daubs of wildflower color do dot the landscape and are available for macro work. This day I went out to South Fork, Cave Creek seeking an image of the Elegant Trogon, but had to settle for flowers and bugs (and hearing the bird’s call). Maybe next time.
The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him. –Arthur Schopenhauer
Well, another grueling academic year is in the rear-view mirror, and it’s now time to get my head screwed back on properly. According to the locals, June is the most miserable month to spend in Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Too hot they say! Certainly by late morning it’s too hot for a pudgy 55-year-old physics teacher to be doing hard manual labor outside, but the early mornings, evenings, and nights are beautiful. With the windows open, sleeping is comfy under a wool blanket! Try that in the sweltering hell that is Houston!
Thus far, the birding has all been about flycatchers. Say’s Phoebes and Ash-throated Flycatchers are everywhere, calling and hawking insects. While out binocular birding early one morning, I saw an Ash-throated Flycatcher with a dragonfly slip into a cavity in the bloom stalk of a large dead agave. The next day I came back with the big glass and staked out the agave. In less than two minutes, a flycatcher returned with a grasshopper to feed babies. The bird just perched on top of the agave and would not enter the cavity, probably not wanting to give away the location of its young. I took that as a cue and slipped away with a few images, probably having spent less than four minutes there. All Myiarchus tyrant flycatchers (Ash-throated, Dusky-capped, and Brown-crested) that breed in southeastern Arizona nest in cavities–definitely something to watch out for.
By 9 AM or so, it’s far too bright for super telephoto bird photography. Around this time, I’ve been exploring the landscape for macro opportunities. Splashes of color now dot the Arizona landscape–so off I go looking for bugs and flowers . . . .
Prickly poppy, cholla, desert willow, and a variety of small yellow and white composites are in bloom at my elevation (around 5000 feet). Generally I have been surprised at how few bees and Lepidoptera are around–perhaps a manifestation of the unfolding global crisis in insect populations (Guess who’s to blame? Right!). In any case, the elderberries are also currently in flower, but the fruit is still not ripe. Soon the elderberry trees will be an irresistible draw for many of the birds in the area–and for me and my big glass!
Nobody gets justice. People only get good luck or bad luck. –Orson Welles
Regular readers will no doubt have noticed the precipitous decline in productivity as regards our outdoor adventures. Again, this is the furtherest thing from our desires. Lately life has been eating our lunch. On the latest trip to Arizona, for example, we headed out with high hopes of sunny days in the field, but . . . no! Lousy weather and a broken-down water treatment system guaranteed almost no time out photo-birding. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, though, as far as one of the nightmare projects that have been monopolizing all our time. Hopefully it’s not a train. We stand at the brink of the best of birding times along the Texas Gulf Coast. We have simply got to get out!
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change. –Alfred Lord Tennyson
Over the past few weeks we’ve been slowly getting back to observing nature. It hasn’t been easy, but when it has occurred, it has been a tonic. We haven’t really had time to seek out the new and unusual, but rather have visited several nearby favorites like Brazos Bend State Park and Fiorenza Park.
After next week, we’ll be in the field again regularly, and we hope to rack up some new experiences and species. Until then, we’ll plan, stay local, and reminisce about birding trips of the past. Never has what a long-time birder told us when we were first beginning seemed more true: “Go birding, you’ll live longer.”
Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit. –Edward Abbey
The weather was right, we had the time off, and there was nothing more to be done about Harvey . . . So we set out for the field. East Beach was glorious. A south wind blew across the island slowing the progress of the big, slow-flying birds as they traced the edge of the land. They were the usual suspects: Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, Forster’s and Royal Terns; Brown Pelicans. But as is often the case when I haven’t been shooting for a while, most of the images turned out to be mush, but it was good just to be out again.
The next day I returned to the field. To Brazos Bend State Park I went. This time I took Elisa’s 500mm f/4 lens, rather than my 600mm–I was giving the old shoulder a break. Again the usual suspects. The only thing unusual was the number of warblers. They were everywhere.
Large flocks of Myrtle Warblers probed leaves and hawked bugs from the air. Sometimes they joined Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in hunting in the grass. Common Yellowthroats hopped among the aquatic vegetation. Orange-crowned Warblers were also up to their normal tricks, fishing spiders and insects from dead, rolled up leaves. I spied a single Male Wilson’s Warbler pretending to be a Common Yellowthroat as he plucked aquatic insects from Pilant Lake. Of this bird’s reflection in the water, Elisa quipped: “Look, he brought his own sunshine!” The only missing warbler was the Pine Warbler–perhaps these birds got wind of the coming inclement weather.
All in all, a lovely few days. Can’t wait for the sun to shine again.
The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.–Gilbert K. Chesterton
We know plenty of birders who are perfectly happy birding around the Houston area with never a thought of traveling to bird. Their birding activities often taper off by May with the end of the spring migration. We bird into the summer but by about late June, we are more than ready to say goodbye to the Texas Gulf Coast swelter (and the Summer People and their various noisemakers) and hit the road for somewhere new.
Since we started birding, summer trips are almost invariably well to the north for obvious reasons, ornithological and climatological. After a temporary lapse of reason, we once traveled to the Rio Grande Valley during summer, and we have been known to visit the deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the hot weather–usually in areas that have altitude, though. Right about this time of year I can’t help but think of General Sheridan . . . “If I owned Texas and Hell . . . .”
National parks are prime birding destinations and our greatest national treasure, but we will also travel to state parks, national wildlife refuges, or even simply regions (hopefully desolate) of the country with a different avifauna. Sometimes we travel with the intention of seeing particular species or habitats, other times we’re perfectly open to whatever we find. Sometimes, then, we’re travelers and sometimes we’re tourists, in Chesterton’s terminology.
The greatest danger in birding travel is to remain unchanged by it, to become part of the gawking rabble at the foot of the mountain. Think of the Sinclair Lewis’ satire of travel and travelers in The Man Who Knew Coolidge and their inability to become broadened by the experience. He must have had quite a laugh at the rubes . . . .
To avoid being an ugly birding American is to travel with purpose, general or specific, to place one’s observations from new geographies into the context of what you already know about your birds. You won’t hear a Wilson’s Warbler sing in Texas, but you will in Oregon. To complete the picture, the birder must travel because the birds do . . . .
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it . . . . —Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
This is the time of year for sporadic frustrations. The unpredictable weather, sometimes nice, sometimes oppressive and freakishly warm, can easily become an excuse for doing nothing. Witnessing the saddening, nit-witted babbling of the media during the current silly season of politics doesn’t inspire great energy, either.
The birds and other organisms, however, are still out there and waiting to be observed and photographed! Biologically, there is quite a bit going on along the Texas Gulf Coast these days: Lately we haven’t been disappointed by East Beach or Fiorenza Park.
Our field work is undoubtedly the healthiest thing we do. It is a tragedy when nature lovers sit out a day in the field because of the malaise or exhaustion brought on by our absurdist era or the fear (or revulsion) of traffic jams and hordes of yahoos. This realization is why we drag ourselves out of bed early, even on our days off. We almost never regret getting out there, even if we had to talk ourselves into it in the first place!
When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye. –George Gobel
Last weekend we were on our knees on a hot, humid mudflat getting chewed up by sandflies photographing Least Sandpipers as they plucked insect larvae from the sand–when it started to pour warm rain. I looked up to see blue skies overhead. Noting the trajectory of the rain drops, I noticed that they were being blown at about a 45 degree angle from a small gray cloud coming up behind us from the Gulf. Geez. One good thing: We’re likely not far enough south to contract leishmaniasis from the fly bites!
Elisa beat me back to the truck. Once I got there, we mopped off the equipment with my handkerchief. We sat there, in silence, grimy and soggy with rain and sweat. And then, suddenly, I announced that I was finally done for the summer . . . . I will return to the field only after the the first blue norther, maybe in a week or two (or three).
Summer has many wonders: singing, nesting, and baby birds, flowers, and zillions of cool insects. But enough is enough. Texas, you finally beat me.
A friend who has long since retired and moved from Houston to the hills of Tennessee explained why September is the most trying month in Texas. He found it tough looking at the news and seeing the cooling temperatures and changing colors of the leaves up north—when it is still 95 degrees in the shade here. Houston summers, though, give a great excuse for travel!
In about a month, there will be a few nice days per week. In two months, it will be nice almost all the time. In three months . . . I will be in love with Texas again.
Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.—Lasky, Walleyworld guard (from National Lampoon’s Vacation)
The dog days of summer have us down! Chris’s return to work, illness (minor), and endless bad weather have cut the wind out of our sails. We’re takin’ a break! And we’re counting the days until the first blue norther arrives and brings with it the cold weather species that winter here—like ducks! See you soon!