For the Birds Radio Program: Heading to Texas
Laura is headed to Texas on a birding trip. (4:16) Date confirmed.
Winter in the frozen Northland has its joys, including chickadees and owls and that most wonderful bird of all, the Blue Jay, but by February, snow gets a bit old for me. So I’m headed for Texas. By the time you hear this, I’ll be down basking in the loveliness of Whooping Cranes and Altamira Orioles and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. I’m going with a group from the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union led by Kim Eckert.
I originally hoped to bring one of my kids, but they all passed on the offer to skip school for a week to go with me. They like going birding just fine when we go on long hikes to see lovely scenery and spectacular birds. A couple of the places on this trip would be wonderful for them, like the boat trip to see Whooping Cranes and the hike through the Santa Ana wildlife refuge, but all three kids felt the house spent in the Brownsville Dump and the McAllen Sewage Ponds would offset those joys. On this trip, we won’t do very much hiking, either. We’ll mainly be traveling by van to places where we’ll sit and watch birds for a bit and then pile back into the vans.
So I’m importing a kid all the way from Washburn, Wisconsin, to be my roommate, 12-year-old Mariah Christiansen. Well, actually she’ll turn 13 on Valentine’s Day during the trip. Mariah’s been my birding buddy for over a year, and is a fantastic spotter. This kind of tour is actually designed for motivated adults, but with her enthusiasm and excellent spotting, Mariah will fit right in.
Preparing for a birding trip is great fun. First, you pore over all the lists and the birder’s guides to the area to whet your appetite. A trip to the Texas coast and the Rio Grande Valley this time of year can easily produce 200 species. There aren’t many lifers down there left for me. I’ve done this trip with Kim before, plus I went down with my husband 18 years ago, so the best I can hope for is 4 or 5 new birds, and chances are I won’t see any. But my Kowa list will grow by leaps and bounds, and I’ll see some dear bird friends that I can’t see anyplace else. Some are drab in color but still fun to see, like the Plain Chachalaca, the Pyrrhuloxia, and the Least Grebe. Others look exotic and flashy, like the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and the Crested Caracara. The first day out we’ll take a ride on the Whooping Crane boat out of Rockport. That will give us wonderful views of this striking endangered species and lots more besides. Last time I was there, I watched a coyote slinking through the marsh, flushing up Clapper Rails which a Harrier kept swooping at but missing. A great many of the birds of south Texas are completely different from the ones we see up here, and it’s even fun seeing familiar birds in new settings.
Since this trip has a leader who’s already planned our itinerary, I don’t have to plan strategy for which places to be at which times to maximize the number of species I see. But I do have to study up on my Texas birds. Some are unmistakeable, like the Vermilion Flycatcher and the Green Jay, but others are strangely nondescript, as dull as the Texas landscape. The bird with the longest name of any North American bird, the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, is as plain as a bird can get. Harris’s Hawk is easy to identify with its striking wing markings, but there are several hawk species that are trickier. It would be embarrassing for one of Hawk Ridge’s so-called authorities to screw up an identification in front of all these Minnesota birders, so I’m refreshing my memory ahead of time. Preparing is fun, and then for the rest of the year I’ll bask in the memories of all the great birds I saw. Yep, going south on a week-long birding adventure is a great way to break up a long, long winter.