Birding Big Year 2016

May 30, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 7: Edwards Plateau to the banks of the Rio Grande

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Texas, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 9:54 pm
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Salineno crossing of the Rio Grande

Burn, Born, or Bernie?  It is slightly unsettling to wake up in a Texas town I cannot pronounce.  In a private moment Google saves me yet again.  I am able to join the breakfast conversation with Harry, Ken and Lisa, and sound like a local – Boerne is “Bernie.”  I know how silly a person sounds mispronouncing local place names.  A few days ago, Harry and I practiced saying Hachita, New Mexico: not hat-Cheetah, but whah-He-ta.  I marvel at how visitors to City of Rocks and my regional area completely botch the pronunciations:

CORRECT                      BOTCHED
Almo                               Elmo, Alamo
Elba                                 Elbow
Cassia (Cas-shuh)      Cass-ee-uh
Declo                               Delco
Cache (Cash)                 Ca-shay

The last morning of March in the Texas Hill Country couldn’t come more perfect. Last night’s rain and the rising sun reintroduce me to the concept of humidity – that strange climatological phenomenon not experienced back home in Idaho (or as people east of the Alleghenies pronounce it: Iowa). Today is another crucial leg of the epic big year trip.  Ken has promised to guide me to the endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers of Friedrich Wilderness Park managed by the City of San Antonio.  I am skeptical that any place within the limits of the 25th largest metropolitan area in the US could qualify as wilderness, but Ken is uncompromisingly confident.  We say our goodbyes to Lisa, and follow the pilot car of captain Ken through suburbia.

OK, I stand corrected. What a great park.  The lot is full of cars and joggers prepping for a workout.  Most have ear-buds inserted and dangling, evidence that they are not birders racing me to the whereabouts of warblers.  Ken praises the park as a great close-to-home winter training ground for summer’s western adventures.  I am not impressed – show me the warblers! We pass a person on the trail about every two minutes and I wonder if warblers will be wary. Ken leads us into the right habitat of Ashe Juniper and Plateau Live Oak.  I hear nothing.  Wait! I do hear a faint buzzy zeedle zeedle zweeeee tsip (or as they say in their winter home of Mexico: zeedle zeedle zweeeee tsip).  Golden-cheeked Warblers never sound like tourists.

Fixated now on the call, I side-step my scout and rush 20 yards up the terraced limestone trail until the song resonates from the canopy directly above. Yep, that’s him!  Now all I have to do is find him.  Suddenly a UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle – aka Ultimate Torture d’Vice) pulls up with trail crew.  I no longer can hear the warbler over the motor.  Patiently waiting for the crew to pass or cut the engine, I watch horrified as the two-man crew begin to dump and spread gravel, and then proceed to run the machine over it for compaction. Are you kidding me?! I am losing it man! Ken senses a Mount St. Helens-like frustration rising from my gut to my mouth.  mere moments before my language breaks forth like lava, my six and a half foot, 250 lb. San Antonio “big brother” turns back down the trail and has a “conversation” with the oblivious and admittedly innocent crew.  Seconds later in relative silence, I relocate the zeedle and begin the task of pairing song with sight.  A life bird does not count by sound alone and must be observed visually. Fifteen minutes later, after suffering what birders diagnose as “Warbler Neck,” I get a 10-second unobstructed view of my quarry.  A photo is out of the question. I pride myself on getting the hard shots of uncommon birds, but this misbehaving bird, oak-choked foliage, and this into-the-sun angle will defeat even the best photographer (or as a Facebook friend accepting the auto-correct once called me a photo gopher).  Come to think of it, that sounds about right.

Harry is relieved that I am satisfied with the observation, fearing a long boring trip back to Kerr Wildlife Management Area if I had failed to locate the warbler here.  Ken is proud to have proven up on the promise.  Shortly, a husband and wife volunteer survey team reaches us and shares their findings.  They mention a few other birds seen close by that are needed for the big year list, and so off we go.  Anything seen now is icing; I got what I came for.  Soon we are relaxing on benches below one of the oldest working windmills in Bexar County, listing and snapping photos of #163 Black-and-white Warbler.  White-eyed Vireo and Northern Mockingbird also make the list before reaching the vehicles.

Heartfelt valedictions are shared but not belabored. I may see Ken in Almo before the passing of summer. Soon Ken is headed back to Boerne and we descend the Balcones Escarpment of San Antonio toward the border town of Laredo and the Rio Grande. With every passing mile, the temperature rises, until we find ourselves parked on the black asphalt of Laredo Walmart, cooking at 105 degrees.  We need ice and lots of it.  The chest is a slurping pool of tepid water.

From Laredo we make out like bandits to San Ygnacio, Zapata, and Falcon Dam.  Bob Jennings led me here in February ’93, where I was privileged to be the novice member of one of the greatest birding teams ever assembled: Bob Jennings of course, and Bob G. from Kansas, Don from Arkansas, Wally from Tulsa, Jim and Gerald from I now forget where, and Jay – a retired snowbird I first met while working Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas. It was in this area that I scored Common Black Hawk, Brown Jay, Olive Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater, and Northern Jacana.  I am looking to list these again for the Big Year.

I follow the signs to Falcon State Park where we plan to camp for the night, but I get so turned around, I find myself nearly Carretera a Septina Base Militar headed straight into the international border patrol station without a clue or passport.  I pause just short of the booth like an outlaw fearing capture.  Slowly I back up and reverse course, hoping to find some place to bird along the river below.  We find it in the small Mexican-American village of Salineno. The village is over 280 years old, and prior to that served as an important crossing of the grand river by prehistoric inhabitants and Native Americans.  Salineno once served as the headquarters of the vast Rancho Salinas.  A short drive through the plaza, the road descends to the smooth flowing Rio Grande. Reeds disguise the banks on both sides, but the old river crossing is evident. I pause to skip a rock to Mexico. This is as good a place as any to smuggle marijuana or hunt for border birds.  I strike off upriver while Harry guards the gear. Once again I am trying to find success during the height of siesta.  The sun directly overhead hails (hells?) on us unrelenting.  But a bird is whistling just ahead, and so I press on in the oppressive furnace.  A perfectly field marked male White-collared Seedeater perches on a stalk of river cane – small and boisterous. #166 – Yahoo! (or as they say in Texas – Wahoo!).  Nothing else flits, sings, calls or flies.

Enough of the day remains that we decide to push on to Mission and find more modern accommodations.  Besides, I have arranged for a 7 a.m. rendezvous in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park with Russell – my new found birding buddy I met back at City of Rocks on January 7 and with whom I birded unsuccessfully for Sharp-tailed Grouse the following day.  The distance and traffic soon prove me right.  It is nearly dusk when we roll into Mission Motel 6.  Like a saddle-worn, unshaven, and dusty cowboy, I freshen up, put on a respectable shirt and head out with Harry to find a saloon and restaurant.  No Taco Bell for us, we are on a mission in Mission to find authentic Mexican grub.

A few miles away, a modern strip mall proudly displays the name of a restaurant that sounds Mexican enough (which as a tourist I dare not pronounce), so we pull in and take a chance.  A large dining area of perhaps 20 tables spread before us, but only three are taken.  Well, it’s Thursday night, so perhaps that’s to be expected.  We are escorted to a booth with cloth-wrapped silverware, and are handed pretentiously over-sized menus entirely in Spanish.  Harry and I struggle privately with the contents and the prices.  The waitress stoically offers to take our order, but we pepper her with questions.  What is this; what is that; why is this priced at $120?  In broken English she attempts to answer questions the usual customers need not inquire.  Finally, I ask, “Do you have Chile Relleno? She pauses briefly, raises her nose slightly and states, “We’re not that kind of restaurant!” Finally, we order something akin to sweet goat meat wrapped in a soft flour tortilla – $15.  There’s little else on the plate but a pepper that Harry dares me to eat.  I happen to love peppers, but from the moment I stick my fork into it, my eyes water and I begin to sweat.  By the time it reaches my mouth, Harry is asking the waitress on my behalf for first aid and a second glass of cold water.  “Just pour the water over my head kind sir.  I am about to spontaneously combust!”

Back at the motel, Harry flips through the channels while I update my notes and edit photos.  I quickly conclude that I am in desperate need of a big day.  My numbers are embarrassingly low for someone who has just spent three days birding Texas.  At least the pressure of listing the Golden-cheeked Warbler is behind me.  I am consoled by the knowledge that tomorrow I will once again be birding with a birder (sorry Harry, but you are no help – and bats don’t have feathers, nor do they count).  Russell has been in the area for weeks, and should help me cut the id time in half as well as lead me directly to the hotspots.  Speaking of hotspots, I may have to sleep standing up tonight for fear that the weaponized pepper (most likely banned by the Geneva Convention) may return a modo de esófago. Buenos nachos?  Unlikely.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 8: Bentsen-Rio Grande to Goose Island)

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