Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Texas birds, and a tale of woe

I was updating that last post with a different pic of the SBDO and I got a little carried away adding photos, so I went ahead and chopped that one off and am moving on to another potential lifer/mystery bird:Okay, here goes: DUNLIN? I thought I had a Dunlin last year at SPI, especially when the tour group leader ID'd a Willet as a Dunlin. But this one feels like a real Dunlin; I even looked at the silhouettes in the back of The Shorebird Guide (TSG) and hit right on it. The bill is what is telling me it's a Dunlin, along with his size. Coloration helps, but the size, the shape, the length of the tail feathers in relation to the body (what's that called again? rear projection or something?) are bigger factors, I'm sure. I really wish I'd taken TSG with me to Texas, but I had so much other stuff to carry that I had only my Sibley. I saw these birds while standing on the sandflats past the Convention Center, where you can drive your car right onto the beach (bayside) and the sand is flat and hard, like Daytona must've been when they started racing cars down there.

Anyway -- I felt shaky about the terns and the gulls, but this one I feel pretty sure about.

Now to the tale of woe that was our fruitless (and falcon-less) search for the Aplomado Falcon.

Mary and I went down to the Valley with a certainty that we were going to see the APFA; after all, I'd been tracking the ABA Rare Bird Alerts daily for like a month before the trip, and the APFA appeared almost daily and always in the same spot. How could we miss? We'd go down, get on "Old Port Isabel Road," and there the bird would be, circling around majestically in the air or perhaps perched on a cactus in some photogenic fashion.

We had Mary's iPhone with us and had locked in the GPS coordinates given on the RBA so we were all set; we went to South Padre Island first, then on our way back from the beach we took the turnoff.

First of all, without the GPS telling us where to go, we'd never have found this "Old Port Isabel Road." It's a dirt road with no marking signs at all. So we drove on this crappy dirt road full of trenched-out areas and treacherous holes, glad the entire way that we were driving a rental car. We finally got to the GPS spot indicated on every single report of the APFA, got out of the car, and looked to the skies.

And looked to the cactus.

And looked to the brush.

You get the idea.

You must understand that we haven't lived in the Valley for a long time; I'd forgotten just how huge a landscape can be when it's flat as a pancake and covered in low brush, mesquite trees, and cactus. You can drive for miles and it all looks exactly the same, mile after mile after mile. So we stayed there for about an hour or so, peering around at the empty sky and the endless coastal brush country to no avail.

We did see about a million Loggerhead Shrikes:
So that was something.

"Well," we thought, "we can come back tomorrow, and maybe we'll ask someone in the meantime for a little more, uh, direction."

We went the next morning to Estero Llano Grande SP where we met the actual guy who'd posted a bunch of those RBAs on the APFAs in the previous month! He works there at Estero Llano! So we ask him, and he gives us what sounds like can't-miss-it! directions which Mary claims at the time to understand (she lived in the Valley as an adult, whereas I never went back after leaving for college). She's been all over the place down there; we find we'd been on the right road but we just weren't looking in the right place! There's a nest, don't you know, and it's right on top of this 7- or 8-foot hack tower (WTF?), and it's about as far from the road as those cattails over there across this lake, okay?


And, he goes on to say, not only can you get Aplomados out there, you can also practically trip over all the Cassin's Sparrows fluttering about! All you have to do is get on the dirt road, go to a big clump of cactus--can't miss it!--and play your BirdJam Cassin's Sparrow calls. They will just about fly into your car, there's so many of them! Can't miss it!

So. By this point, the guy's got us so worked up that all other thoughts -- of White-throated Thrushes, of Rufous-backed Robins, both of which were very close to where we actually were at that very moment but we didn't see the W-T Thrush when we looked earlier and the Rufous-backed was in some butterfly park nearby; of exact distances to drive or maybe a landmark or a distinctive tree or SOMETHING TANGIBLE -- were driven right out of our heads.

We had Aplomado Falcon Fever with Acute Cassin's Sparrow Syndrome.

We were gonna see these birds and nothing was going to stop us this time! We were gonna get two birds with one crappy dirt road! We couldn't miss!

So we drive halfway across the Valley again, this time getting to the road from the other end of it, from a highway with which Mary is more familiar. Can't miss! We know where we're going! We're just gonna look for that hack tower, by golly! Then we're gonna trip over some Cassin's Sparrows and see some more Aplomados! It'll be better than a David Attenborough Life of Birds moment, dammit!


So we get to this road that Mary knows, and there's construction. We have to detour around the construction, and somehow I take a wrong turn... and yet we still get to the axle-breaking crappy dirt road that is Old Port Isabel Road! Our APFA Fever is at like 106! We're on the road and we're going slowly, slowly, slowly this time, eyes peeled for this hack tower, cameras at the ready, bins strained to their limits!

And we look.

And we look some more.

And we see a lovely Curve-billed Thrasher:Hmmm, look at all the cactus here. Let's play the Cassin's call!

Nothing. The thrasher just looks at us.

We drive on. We see the lovely Pyrrhuloxia framed by the rustic barbed-wire fencing that is soooo Texas:Scenic.

We looked for at least an hour for this "hack tower," but we never found it. We realized that probably the guy had his spotting scope with him so seeing this 7-foot tower was easy, but with just our bins we saw nothing.

"My scope! My kingdom for a scope!"

We also played that Cassin's Sparrow call almost non-stop and got nothing more than a little Lincoln's Sparrow who, I could almost swear, said something like, "I think the fever's broken now. You can go home."


Anonymous said...
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John said...

Yes, those are Dunlin at the top.

I've also had a lot of occasions when I wished for a scope. Since I do a good bit of coastal birding, there are a lot of long distances involved, and sometimes the bird I want is far from the road or trail.

dguzman said...

John, we never even saw anything that looked like a manmade structure of any sort. Nothing. Just trees, cactus, TUVUs. Sigh. And YAY! Dunlin! I knew it!

mgstarboard said...

delia, just read the latest post and I just wanna say - you got it! the aplomado tale I mean is right on as I was there and all you know.
you failed to mention that it soon became a 'sick' joke to us and that we soon began to id that bird everywhere we went - just to get it off our chest and hearts and liver - you know the rest of the organs. anyway - i have a question??? did we see the pyrrhu on the hwy between brownsville and spi - from your last entry that's what I took it to mean but it made me do a pyrrhuloxia - 'whatchoo talking 'bout Willis' thing (btw - that was HILARIOUS!!) 'cause I didn't remember seeing them down in the Valley but rather only around campbellton/falfurrias - am I getting old? did we see they on the "aplomado-NOT! trail? signed confused mary

dguzman said...

Mary, yes! Don't you remember that we saw that one Pyrrhuloxia on that crazy ass road? We may have been arguing and at each other's throats at the time and perhaps you forgot. But yes, we saw him there. And yes, I forgot about how many "aplomado" calls we made after that -- sigh. What did we get, seven or eight?