We were warned that birders were notoriously on time — that “on time” for them could mean up to an hour early. So naturally on Day One of our birding expedition in coastal Texas at the height of spring migration, my daughter and I nearly missed a 6:15 a.m. departure to Kingsville.
We wouldn’t make that mistake again.
As we strolled through the Omni lobby, admiring ourselves in new, starched floppy hats and flak vests, we hit George Armistead, American Birding Association’s membership director, nearly head-on. He had that caffeine-glazed, camp-counselor, coxswain aura about him: “Your van is leaving! I was just about to call you.” Then, in an aside to the finger-thrumming clipboard sentry: “The Byrnes are here and accounted for.”
Tardiness proved advantageous. There was room for only one more to be stuffed into the government-issue white van, where each binocular-draped occupant was intently scoping us out. I was directed to ride in the “VIP” minivan — along with supernatural birding guide Jeff Bouton of Leica, local expert Larry and a spry, chipper 70-something birder from Quebec City, Richard Jones. His other hobby: tending roses.
My eyes aren’t the best, admittedly. Larry’s a bit hard of hearing. Richard? A hoot. As beastie birder Bouton, while driving 60 mph, identifies unheard-of birds darting across predawn skies or perched inconspicuously — the rest of us craning our necks for a great-tailed grackle or a mourning dove— our VIP van gets redubbed “The Short Bus.”
Richard had already been birding for a week in Texas and tells of a chiggers assault at King Ranch. Despite stuffing his cuffs into his boots and stretching woolen socks over his calves and coating himself in bug spray like a basted chicken, he sustained 100-plus bites. Some, on his belly, are half-dollar-sized. He applied the standard birder remedy: dried, clear nail polish, intended to suffocate any clingy or burrowing mite. “I promised my wife I wouldn’t make it a habit!” Jones joshes. Bouton mutters: “And I thought the French were progressive …”
Now thoroughly spooked about bugs, I regret packing only a non-DEET eco-spray, which consists of a blend of cloves, cinnamon, peppermint and prayer. I am lovingly mocked.
Within 70 minutes, we reach our first birding hotspot, a remote road across from a few houses backing to an inlet. Dogs bark, but we hardly notice over the babble of avian delights.
The guide from the other van is a brawny woman dressed like a rapper, with hipster glasses, a black skull cap (it’s 90 degrees), black Eagle Outfitter-style safari shirt and caramel cargo pants. She’s also toting a scope and tripod near as tall as she is. Her voice is husky and certain. She wastes no time plucking species IDs out of thin air. “Brown-crested flycatcher, on the wire … Bewick’s wren, about to pop up … female painted bunting, on the fence … there’s the male … orchard oriole, 2 o’clock … dickcissel flying over … green jay in the mesquite … I hear a bobwhite, in the distance.”
She’s Jen Brumfield of Cleveland, a naturalist dynamo, who has already clinched — read “annihilated” — two Big Year records for Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and raised its profile on the birding map. Jen has a knack for finding birds in strange places, such as the rare brown pelican hanging around Cleveland last summer. Her “Pelly” has its own Facebook page; officials made souvenir T-shirts of it; a local brewery is soon coming out with a tribute, Wandering Pelican Black Lager. Jen picked up Ohio’s first neotropic cormorant just days ago. This is the woman about to show me a treasure trove of birds. I ask her how long she’s been birding. Since age 2.
The bobwhite she pinpoints in a certain clump of grass 200 yards away. “It’s getting closer, moving toward us.” She impersonates the call. Her bird call repertoire is extraordinary.
The bobwhite is getting about as excited as I am. Closer and closer … and then BIG movement. A Cooper’s hawk railroads across the field, bangs into a fence and excavates the bobwhite from her happy place. Amid mournful groans, Jen notes the plump game bird was a female. She puts her scary-real bird calls on hiatus for the day.
Meanwhile, my daughter and I are wearing so much gear, we feel like Navy SEALs. We move in formation with the group from hotspot to hotspot, from amber waves of grain, from sea to shining mudflat.
I rack up 157 life birds over four days, starting with the pair of brown boobies hanging out just outside the hotel near the break wall for the week, which George Armistead showed us through a scope as soon as we deposited our suitcases. Among other species that worm their way into my heart: the crested caracara, the hooded oriole, the inca dove.
I lack sophisticated photographic equipment, but here are a few shots I took using an iPhone and/or basic camera.
At King Ranch the third day, we enter a whole ‘nother world that feels more like Texas than J.R.’s empire. It’s eco-tourism nirvana, and larger than Rhode Island (poor R.I., always getting compared to breadbaskets). Cruising the ranch’s Norias Division, we marvel at unusual mammals alongside avian awes: nilgai (a spooky blue-hued cross between a deer and a cow, but not really, which is indigenous to India), javelina (feisty wild boar), hordes of white-tailed deer and a feral population of East African impala. We also spy roadrunners — but no coyotes, tumbleweeds nor IEDs marked “Acme.”
King Ranch is home to 330 nesting pairs of ferruginous pygmy-owls, comprising 95% of the species’ North American population, explains our cowboy guide, Jim. He won’t guarantee the bird, but we end up seeing two, and I practice digiscoping — in layman’s terms, that’s taking a photo by mating one’s iPhone with a high-powered scope, aligning a pinprick of light with a pinhead lens, and crossing your digits. It’s an art, as demonstrated by Sharon “BirdChick.com” Stiteler the previous night over chow. I try. I keep my day job.
I also manage to avoid bug bites but pick up one or two non-lodged ticks and enough plant life to seed a greenhouse. Matt Fraker, an XXXtreme birder-adventurer with sculpted back muscles, manages to pick up his 700th ABA life bird, a Botteri’s sparrow, posing in the prairie grass like something biblical.
That night is our one free night, with no seminars, presentations or potato dinner, so my daughter and I scope out a few local dives, bird a bit on our own and wind up at the hotel bar on the 20th floor.
After several sleep-deprived nights and craft brews, we get tipsy and decide to go rogue, conspiring to skip our planned field trip the next morning.
Just as I’m composing an e-mailed excuse to George, he appears before me, like Jiminy Cricket or a wagging-fingered, haloed angel on my shoulder.
Hail, hail, the gang’s all here to celebrate their life birds! Matt buys us all a round of top-shelf Don Julio’s tequila rocks to toast that little sparrow in the grass who remains clueless to the consummate joy it gave us hominids.
Matt also happens to have the next day “free” (no scheduled tours, but of course he’ll go birding) and offers to let us sleep in, until 6:30, and take us on a private tour of Choke Canyon to pick up a few straggler species we need. For me, that would be a pyrrhuloxia, which looks a lot like a diseased cardinal.
But instead of sleeping in, I wake with a start at 3 a.m., with visions of 127 Hours in my head. What if Matt is a serial killer who uses inexperienced birders to attract black vultures to his canyon lair? Why is it called “Choke” Canyon, anyway? Will we even have a cell signal out there? Am I a bad mother?
But Matt, like all of the other birders at the ABA annual conference, proves cool and trustworthy. Instead of trucking out to Choke Canyon, he decides to take us to a closer, richer hotspot: Blucher Park, where we pick up nine warblers, watch a great kiskadee devour a songbird and a snake, and track a chuck-will’s-widow like Native Americans until it encircles us in awkward flight like a bat out of hell.
We also run into many birders we know — new friends, old souls — because by now we are a tight group of kindred spirits.
There’s Curtis, the recent widower who spent more than a decade living the gypsy-RV life with his bird-loving wife. He also happens to be related by marriage to someone I work with and is among the few who speak of things other than birds, from Shakespeare to sunsets.
And Peggy from Minnesota, never married, no children, finally retired and taking flight to see the world, connecting the dots of a life well-lived one small wonder at a time.
Classy, cagey Eugenia doesn’t say much but reminds my daughter of Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of Katharine Hepburn; when she speaks, prepare to be zinged. Friendly Raj is one of three physicans who hang together like a fraternity while looking out for the group’s welfare, making sure we stay hydrated. The couple from the Pacific Northwest seems a bit jaded, loath to glimpse yet another yellow-headed blackbird … until that magical Botteri’s sparrow pops their cherry and they light up like Christmas.
A May-December couple from Michigan share their own brand of heartache in a candid moment; the woman represents the only other ginger besides my daughter and puts her at ease about birding in full eye makeup. One of the Margarets is petite, pert and full of pronouncements with her encyclopedic knowledge, then turns out to be the first cousin of another friend at work. Another Margaret, from Oklahoma, is stunned to discover that Calvin attended her high school and knew her brother.
It’s a small birding world, with boundless discoveries. And we have much to learn from these mostly tireless retirees — far beyond distinguishing the sound of a song sparrow from a Bewick’s wren.
Often when I meet someone who knows a birder, they describe them as being “big into birding.”
Yeah. I get it. Big Years. Big Days. Biggest Weeks.
There’s no other way to go about birding but in a big way.