From the Pen of Carter Smith
For any casual observer who happened to watch it go down, it must have all seemed a bit surreal. There I was, waiting patiently, and, I presumed, unobtrusively, for a colleague at the bottom of the escalators in the lobby of the Harlingen airport. All of a sudden, a doctor in scrubs, and in a hurry, looked my way, did a quick double-take and made a rapid beeline toward me.
I wasn’t sick.
But, I was wearing a Texas Parks and Wildlife hat and embroidered shirt, which apparently grabbed his attention. Breathless in his approach, the doctor quickly introduced himself as “just having flown in after a long shift at the hospital in New York.” Picking up on my obvious befuddlement, he explained further that he had caught the “red-eye out of La Guardia and had exactly 12 hours to do two things before catching a flight back home.”
Both involved finding and seeing birds, rare ones in fact. One was a blue mockingbird, which had made a rare trek north out of Central America and found itself in a wooded neighborhood on Weslaco’s outskirts. The other was the ferruginous pygmy-owl, a rare bird but a full-time resident of the ranch country north of Raymondville. Both were “life birds,” the kinds that cause birders to do seemingly curious things at curious times, all so that the proverbial life birds can be added to the pursuer’s list.
The good doctor needed advice, and quickly, about how to find them both. In the absence of any other obvious expert, I looked enough the part to warrant his solicitation. I gave him a couple of names and numbers of locals to call about where to find them and general directions about how to get there. As far as I know, he saw them both, checked them off on his life list, and headed merrily back home to the next round of patients awaiting him.
Say what you will, but serious birders are, if nothing else, a rather focused and determined lot.
I will confess that I represent more of the casual kind, an intermittent bird watcher with good, but not great, binoculars, a pretty well-thumbed copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America that I generally keep handy, and a penchant for focusing on the birds I already know, not the ones I don’t, such as the endless varieties of sparrows that all look pretty uniformly brown and white, flitting maddeningly in and out of sight. In short, I enjoy seeing birds from the perch of a deer blind, from the bow of a boat, on walks along a trail, through the windshield during drives in the country, and in countless other settings that lend themselves to less serious, but no less enjoyable, avian viewing.
But, to be fair, I’ve had my moments of focus as well. From treks to watch lesser prairie-chickens on Panhandle leks and nesting black hawks along Limpia Creek to migrating peregrine falcons on Padre Island and wintering whooping cranes in St. Charles Bay, I can relate, at least in part, to the single-minded zeal of the most serious of birders.
Thankfully, Texas has plenty to offer both the most serious and the most casual of birders, often in the same places, looking at the same species. Such is true whether one is seeking a big kettle of hawks caught up in a fall or spring skyward thermal, a “fall-out” of colorful songbirds in a coastal woodlot during a late-season cool front, South Texas specialties in the “monte” around Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, or one of our dressiest avian denizens, the improbably colored male painted bunting.
If you are looking for places to get your start, look no further than some of the locales featured in this edition. And, if you are like most birders I know, meaning you can’t sit still or stay in the same place for long, plan out your trip using the regional Texas Wildlife Trails as your guide.
Designated loops within each region of the state feature various sites on public and private land where folks can chase the species of their choice to their heart’s content.
I hope you’ll get outside with the birds this year and enjoy some of the best of Texas.
Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.