A lesser birder’s first hard-core birding trip

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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.”

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Gotta like-a Leica’s Jeff Bouton. (Photo courtesy of his website)

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.”

Our new pal Richard Jones

Our new pal Richard Jones, a retired university professor whose specialty was Canadian history. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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, a blend of cloves, cinnamon, peppermint and prayer. I am lovingly mocked.

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Some of our mottled krewe. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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.

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Jen Brumfield in the field (Photo courtesy of her website)

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.

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Birding behind a Mexican restaurant. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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.

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Least sandpiper. Or pectoral sandpiper. I forget which. Can only tell when they’re side by side. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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A juvenile summer tanager. I think. Help me out here, peeps (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, terns do it. And  so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, bees do it. And so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

A male indigo bunting dines with a female ... something ... at the orange cafe. Photo by Terry Byrne

A male indigo bunting dines with a female … oriole? something … at the orange bistro. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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The pied-bill grebe I nicknamed “Nessie.” (Photo by Terry Byrne)

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala are.

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala roam. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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.”

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Jim distracts some of King Ranch’s owners, who sneak up on us unexpectedly. At right is Calvin Rees, who can hardly go a day without photographing birds. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

King Ranch is home to 330 nesting pairs of ferruginous pygmy-owls, accounting for 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.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl, a target bird for my daughter, who lured it in by wearing her craft beer pygmy-owl shirt that day. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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.

Matt's Botteri's sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Matt’s Botteri’s sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

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.

Birders perched on the bar. That's Matt, between my daughter and, far right. (Photo by bartender)

Birders perched on the bar. That’s Matt, between my daughter and me, far right. (Photo by multitasking bartender)

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.

Matt Fraker, a manic birder.

Matt Fraker, manic master birder. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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?

Matt point out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Matt points out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Corpus Christi’s Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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.

The chuck-will's widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

The chuck-will’s widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

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.

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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 physicians 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.

Daughter Cassy in her yellow birding hat and full eye makeup.

Daughter Cassy in her UV-blocking yellow birding hat and eye plumage. (Selfie by Cassy Byrne)

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.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

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 that of 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.

That's me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

That’s me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

Birds in popular culture: Flicks, ’toons and tunes

For those who missed it, I reported in USA TODAY last week on the big birding news that many likely missed.

Bird fans twittered for days about my statement: “Arguably no animal — not even man’s best friend — is as intertwined with human experience as birds, which serve graciously as muse, meat and messenger.”

That bears out in popular culture. A sampling.

5 great under-the-radar bird flicks that aren’t Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (which turned 50 last year):

1. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). This documentary explores the bond between an unemployed musician squatting in San Francisco while tending to a flock of feral cherry-headed conures.

2. Kes (1969). Based on the 1968 novel A Kestral for a Knave, this British film about a boy’s hardscrabble life buoyed by a bird is told in such accented English you might need subtitles or repeated viewings to get all the dialogue. The universal emotion cuts like a knife.

3. Fly Away Home (1996). A Disney-esque tale of a father (Jeff Daniels) and daughter (Anna Paquin) attempting to lead orphaned Canada geese on their migration route.

4. Winged Migration (2001). This spectacular French documentary in the vein of 2005’s must-see March of the Penguins will literally change your worldview.

5. Birdy (1984). Based on the William Wharton novel of the same name, two Vietnam vets deal with their post-traumatic stress in this Alan Parker pearl. One, an avid canary keeper (Matthew Modine), takes his obsession too far and finds sanctuary in believing he is a bird, while the other (Nicolas Cage — aptly named) is enlisted to help free Birdy from his illness.

5 most inspiring TV cartoon birds

1. Road Runner Has an uncanny ability to escape every scrape with danger.

2. WoodstockNamed for the legendary 1969 three-day music and peace festival on Yasgur’s farm in the New York Catskills, Snoopy’s loyal sidekick is famous for busting through pretensions.

3. Woody WoodpeckerVoiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also did Tweety Bird), he’s a rascal who even inspired young boys to imitate his comb-forward hairstyle. (And if you’re still trying to identify what type of woodpecker he is, here’s the definitive word.)

4. Daffy Duck & Donald DuckYou’d think the Looney Tunes mascots might include a loon, but these two resilient comic fowls are linguistic marvels, showing kids everywhere that they can become thhhhomebody even with a thhhhhhpeech impediment.

5. Toucan SamThe mascot for Froot Loops cereal since 1963, he defies birds’ typically inferior sense of smell with an ability to sniff out sugar anytime, anywhere while showcasing an advanced bird brain capable of speaking Pig Latin (OOT-fray OOPS-lay).

6 signature bird songs by humans (selecting just one per decade)

thunderbird11. 1960s: “Surfin’ Bird” — The Trashmen
Released in 1963, it soared to No. 4 on Billboard Hot 100. Its wide appeal and longevity might be explained by it being a blend of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons: Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and The Bird’s the Word, which was sparked by Red Prysock’s radio jingle advertising a cheap brand of wine, Thunderbird: “What’s the word? Thunderbird. How’s it sold? Good and cold. What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price? Thirty twice.”

2. 1970s: “Free Bird” — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Debuted in 1973, it is “the most-requested song in the history of rock music,” says Amazon.com music reviewer Lorry Fleming. The band itself is a bit like a mythical phoenix, having made a comeback after losing key members in a fiery plane crash.

3. 1980s: “The Chicken Dance” — In the repertoire of any wedding band worth its salt
Composed by Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas, the translated name is “The Duck Dance.” The accompanying fad dance, often performed at wedding receptions and safe for the whole family to embarrass themselves with, was introduced to the U.S. in 1981 at Tulsa’s Oktoberfest by the German Heilbronn Band. They wanted to perform it in duck costumes, but couldn’t lay their hands on any, so a local TV station donated a chicken costume, hatching the new name.

4. 1990s: “I Believe I Can Fly” — R. Kelly
Featured on the soundtrack of 1996’s “Space Jam” and forever linked to NBA superman Michael Jordan, the song gained universal fame when used as a wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and, later, on Oct. 13, 2012, as Endeavour’s theme song when the space shuttle program was ceremoniously retired. Given that birds first piqued humankind’s aspiration for flight, this fits even though birds aren’t mentioned (but images of a hawk are overlaid with images of a young basketball player in the official music video, and there were plenty of animated birds in the movie, like Daffy Duck).

Beirne Lowry's eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Beirne Lowry’s eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

5. 2000s: “Where the Stars & Stripes & the Eagle Fly” — Aaron Tippin
Hard to pick just one country song mentioning eagles. Released Sept. 10, 2002, this hit embodies post-9/11 patriotism and the allusion that the eagle and the mystical phoenix are synonymous with the American spirit that continually arises from the ashes.

6. 2010s: “I Like Birds” — The Eels
With childlike awe, this ditty reflects a gentle sensibility and hipster evolution of our love of birds — as understated as a Facebook “like.”

But no song can rival the calming magic of actual birdsong. Happy exploring!

Birding is a bit like hitting the lottery

As folks in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands scramble for a piece of tonight’s record $550 million Powerball jackpot — that’s a half-billion dollars — I can’t help but consider the odds: 1 in 175 million.

Kinda like bird-watching, amiright?

Honestly, what are the odds, on any given day, in any given instant, I might glance out my window to spy a bluebird on the wing? What odds would you give me on spotting three? AND YET …

I had never seen a live bluebird outside of aviaries or protected conservation areas in my life, and even then only glimpses, like a distant flip of a sparkling SOS signal.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sophomore participant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch program is that timing and luck are everything. A bird might grace your yard for just 5 to 11 seconds in its lifetime, because, especially in winter, it may be only passing through. The planets must be aligned just right — first, the rare bird has to wander into the exact global coordinates of your bit of earth, then you have to be near a window, have enough clarity to notice it, enough knowledge to recognize what you’re seeing and BAM! Your life is instantly richer.

Like the other day, Nov. 14 at 11:18:27 EST (all good Powerball picks), when I absentmindedly walked downstairs and opened the front door to see how cold it was, thinking I might get the mail or take a walk, and saw something new perched on the curved iron pole holding the feeders. It sat a little cocky, like a house finch, but it was bigger, rounder and an odd shade of … gray? It bobbed delicately, vogued this way and that, just to show me it was something I’d never ever seen, not in a million years. Not gray, no! Blue! Oh!!! It darted down to our semi-circle of sod destined to be a future English garden, joining two others like it, one bluer than anything I’d known in nature. That one, the obvious male, hopped to the corner near the stoop, showed off its orange and white breast while I tried not to blink or breathe, before I squealed, that high-pitched, teeth-gritted-in-the-dentist-chair kind: “CAMERA!” Whirrrrrrrrrrrr.

By the time I had the camera raised and was switching it on, the three Eastern bluebirds wove a Disney dance, loop-de-loop in the air, sayonara, chica, harp glissando … and they’d vanished, magic.

Not quite that way, it was a little more dramatic. I floated on air the rest of the day, feeling touched by angels. A zip-a-dee-doo-dah day!

When I mentioned to workmate Tom how birding was like the lottery, with probably 1 in 175 million odds of seeing the birds I’ve seen, he begged to differ. “No — 1 in 175 million odds would be when you look out the window and see a 14-karat-gold ostrich wearing a diamond-studded bra crocheting on your lawn.”

Party pooper.

Well, I know money can’t buy happiness. I’ll take a bluebird … or a yellow-bellied sapsucker … any day.

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Tweet THIS: March madness for bird brains

A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched ...

Superhero Cedar Waxwing. Image via Wikipedia

While the chirp of squeaky sneakers, sports commentators flapping their gums, the howl of the crowd and shrill buzzers and whistles invade our home this month, I’ll heed a different breed of calls: the call of the wild.The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us it’s not only peak hoops season but peak beak season … something for the rest of us grousers. It will unveil its organically “seeded” brackets  March 12 (tomorrow!), for a March 13 tip-off of its second annual “March Migration Madness.”

Last year, the Black-Capped Chickadee ruled the roost, fending off a full-fledged threat from the wild card Cedar Waxwing. Who will horn in this year — an actual Gamecock? A mutant Jayhawk? An Oregon duck?

I’ve traditionally been pretty flighty filling out my NCAA brackets — picking my favorite colors and mascots first. But an entire bracket dedicated to colorful birds? Close to heaven. The beauty is, Cornell plucked the top 8 seeds from last year’s fittest and tossed in 4 wild cards, leaving the rest of the Tweet 16 up to us fair/foul-weather fans. We’re being asked to nominate our top bird, then move the flock through its paces with “likes” on Facebook, all the way to choosing the Final Feathered Four and ultimate Chirpion.

Don’t wanna ruffle any feathers here … so which bird is my pick?

Lately I’ve become enamored with the Carolina wren, but as an anti-Tar Heels fan, that’s bad karma. Looking at the actual NCAA brackets provides little inspiration: Louisville Cardinals, Long Island Blackbirds, Creighton Bluejays, Temple Owls, Lehigh Mountain Hawks, Marquette Golden Eagles … hmm.

What birder can forget the thrill of spying an unknown species through the glass? That happened when I first recognized a yellow-bellied sapsucker out my bay window. But as the official mascot of the Cornell site, that cries fowl.

Most recently, my eyes and heart were opened to a lowly (not really) sparrow — dismissing what at first I thought was a song sparrow, until the wondrous jolly beard and clownish crown of the White-Throated Sparrow materialized in my backyard, then again in my mother’s backyard this past weekend. Let’s lift up this sparrow to the Tweet 16. (Below, is the discovery as seen in my mother’s Norfolk, Va., yard yesterday. S/he eventually hops up onto the little pedestal s/he so deserves.)

Meanwhile, back to the NCAA mating dance. One thing’s clear: My birds and I are rooting against all cats — domestic and wild. (Sorry, Hubby, whose Kentucky Wildcats are top-seeded; I’ll overlook the whiskers on the mascot of my own alma mater — good ol’ Sparty of Michigan State — who is both top-seeded and seedy.)

Perhaps this year I’ll have more than March Migration Madness to crow about. Comparing the view outside the window to my husband’s 60-inch flat screen, though … no contest.

Click here (starting March 12) to view the full Cornell Tweet 16 bracket. And here’s an early halftime show: