*not pictured: the Common Pauraque that we only observed from the ranger’s scope, nor the Golden Fronted Woodpeckers that were often seen, some even from just outside our hotel, and many others
It’s a crisp Saturday morning in the Rio Grande Valley. The air has that just-after-a-rain feeling, when the clouds had finally burst and released the humidity and all the plants look freshly washed. A cool, refreshing breeze is blowing over us, assisted by the forward momentum of the electric tram.
We are in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, home of one of the nine World Birding Centers along the southern edge of Texas. This park is unique in several ways, and one of those ways is that vehicles are not allowed in the park. Once you pass the park gate, you are either walking, riding a bike, or riding one of these electric trams (kind of a bigger fancy golf cart).
We rode the tram twice: once on Saturday afternoon for the Nature Tour, and once on Sunday morning for the Bird Walk. Both times, we had the same guide, a ranger named Roy who had some interesting stories to tell. We did not realize when we decided to do both these activities that it would be mostly the same stories and same tour stops between the two days, but I understood. He had somewhat of a script that he probably gave day after day in this job, and we were probably the rare visitors that came to both.
I try to find the joy in all experiences, so even when when we stopped for a long time to watch the same bird feeding station we spent time at the day before, I found new things to delight in, like the fact that my two year old could now point out and say “chachalacas” when those heavy brown year-round residents showed up at the feeder, or that instead of seeing a handful of Green Jays like the afternoon before, a handful of Great Kiskadees were present this time around. I was entertained trying to get pictures of all the characters in this little nature play. I would just sit on a bench or on step, feeling the breeze on my face and listening to the bird calls, feeling happy just to be out here.
I could tell my ten year old was bored of it, though. Sometimes he was engaged and listening, but when Roy started into a story we heard the day before, I could hear my son sigh, or see him start circling or flinging his hands around, habits he has developed to “entertain himself”, he says, when he gets bored. Sebastian was having a hard time with the sitting still, watching and listening part, so this day, Jason just took off down the road on a hike to the Hawk Tower with Sebastian in the backpack, saying we could catch up with each other later.
As we drove further down the road to other feeding stations and viewing areas, I thought about how it was going for Jason and Sebastian. I knew exactly what Jason would tell me if I asked him how that morning was for him, that the peace and solitude had been refreshing, that the weather was perfect, that he really enjoyed just sitting at the top of the Hawk Tower watching the raptors soar and holding Sebastian in his arms. At one point, he was mentally considering what he would say to that question, and came up with the same answers. I didn’t even need to ask him, then, because I already knew. When we finally did talk about this the next morning, we had a bit of a laugh about this because it is tied to this long-standing joke that we are already in each other’s heads, often thinking the same thoughts or predicting the other’s thoughts with startling accuracy. I suppose it is something that happens in most marriages.
On our way to the overlook by the oxbow lake, we were approached by an older man (looked to be retirement age) carrying a camera with a nice, big lens. He flagged the tram down, and then started harassing poor Roy about the feeding stations. He was basically expressing anger that all the feeding stations were not full. He said he had called the office just yesterday, and a few days ago, to verify that the “provisioners” would be freshening the feeding stations this morning. Roy explained to him that it was Spring Break, and the volunteers he usually had to do that job were usually leaving the park by this time (“winter Texans”), and that they usually stopped feeding the birds around this time of the year each year because food was plentiful and bird feed would go to waste, so they had only fed at certain stations. The birds had not been coming around so far even to usual expectations, so feeders had kept seed in them longer than desired. All these logical reasons fell on deaf ears, as the man remained angry. He then dismissed Roy with a wave of his hand, saying, “Well, thanks….FOR NOTHING!”
I have been thinking about this man ever since. My son and I talked about his response. I tried to get my son to think about this from Roy’s point of view, from the man’s point of view, from our point of view. We tried to imagine what kind of scenario would even result in that man having the right to be so mad at Roy for that, or so disrespectful that he would stop a ranger in the middle of a tour and give him his piece of mind like that in front of all those passengers. Could this man have gotten away with acting like the world revolved around him all these years? Has life never taught him otherwise?
Maybe he spent a lot of money to come to the Valley and had specific target birds he wanted to get, or certain shots he wanted. Maybe he is a professional photographer and not getting his shots meant he didn’t recoup his trip expenses. Maybe he is having a Big Year and this just wasted his time because he didn’t see anything exciting. Does any of that justify his behavior?
I was talking to my son about that side. I told him that we had spent money to come here as well, and I had target birds I wanted to see. We were wrapping up our visit out here, and I had only one target bird left unfulfilled (the Altamira Oriole), but I explained to my son that even though we would try to find it in the area by the World Birding Center buildings, and maybe again the next day at the tropical section of Estero Llano SP, if I didn’t see it before we left, I wasn’t going to cry about it or blame it on the rangers for what provisions they did or didn’t leave out.
I felt very fulfilled and happy with our bird count for this trip, despite the fact that rangers at both parks we went to talked about how low the species lists were compared to normal. Where they usually were finding 60-70 species, we only found 40-50. Perhaps it is because I am a beginner birder, or perhaps it is because I have low expectations, but I was quite thrilled to have found all the birds we did find.
I think living with the attitude I have will help a person be happier in life than the angry guy is, but I also wonder sometimes if it allows me to accept less than what others would. I have had a couple people in my life tell me I should be a bigger diva, that I should stand up for myself more, demand more in my life, but sometimes I wonder, if I am happy with this, why argue the point?
As luck would have it, though, right after we talked and as we literally left the paved stone area of the park and headed to the parking lot, I saw the Altamira Oriole I was talking about, feeding in the trees above. My feeling when I left the park was one of satisfaction, that I had gotten everything I wanted out of it. I guess I could be more like that dude, but then I would be less happy with life, and that seems like a trade off I am not willing to take just to get my way more often. I feel like in the end, karma will reward those who treat others (including park rangers) with kindness, and perhaps those dudes who need to chill will find karmic justice for their actions as well.
This day, the destination was Elm Lake. Jason decided to come along (and bring his camera), which meant we were a little later than expected, but also that we could capture a little bit more of what we were seeing. Janey was already counting birds when we got there, and I joined her at the wildlife viewing platform while Jason got Sebastian situated. We all set out to look for the Vermillion Flycatcher, who did not show himself this morning, before turning to start around the lake on the eastern edge.
It ended up being a short and cold morning of birding halfway around the lake before Janey needed to leave. It seemed like it was going to be a nice day, but a chilling wind picked up as we walked. Mostly, the birds that we counted this morning were the usual suspects: cormorants, ibis, whistling ducks, herons, a pair and a trio of blue winged teal, egrets, coots, moorhens, grebes. A fun find was an immature Little Blue Heron, who was actually white in its adolescent plumage. New for my yearly list this morning were the tree swallows, a dozen or more of which were flying in slow circles around the lake. I also had not found a Tri-Colored Heron yet this year, so I was able to check that one off the list.
After Janey left and it was just the three of us, Sebastian was unusually sleepy and wanted to be held. Jason carried him in his arms while I carried our packs. For quite a time, we sat on a bench in the sun at the Pilant Lake trail intersection, just watching and listening to nature. A gator floated to the top of the water and then submerged again. I took some pictures of a coot that was hanging about, and Jason taught me about how to use the histogram to determine color correction.
I had wanted to go for a longer hike this morning, but since we had to carry a sleeping toddler, we decided to just head back to the car. On the way around this western side of the lake, I started to see a little bit more birds. I recognized a little call of a woodpecker, and looked around to find a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker feeding in the trees on the left side of the trail.
Sometimes there are some good waterfowl to be found in New Horseshoe Lake where the Elm Lake Trail starts to curve back to the parking lot, but this day there were only three ibis in there. As we walked back, I saw quite a bit of bird action in the trees along the path. Almost everything I set my sights on turned out to be a Yellow Rumped Warbler, the bain of all local birders it seems, but I did catch a sight of something that looked different, and took a picture (since I now was the holder of the camera, since Jason’s arms were full of kid). Looking at the picture when we got home, I thought maybe it was a kingbird, but Janey thought it was actually the female Vermilion Flycatcher. This was close to where the male has been hanging out, so I guess that would make sense.
As we were loading up the car, I saw a big flash of grey feathers, and went over to investigate. I was excited to catch sight of a big raptor in the trees, and slowly approached the tree to try to get a good shot. This is the best shot I could get before it flew off, but it was enough to identify this as a Cooper’s Hawk (good sized one, in my opinion).
After this, Sebastian was now awake and wanted to play. He asked us to take him to a playground, but the one at the park is not great, so we compromised on going to the Nature Center instead on the promise that he could see a baby alligator. Lucky for us, there was a volunteer with a baby alligator already out for touching. Sebastian was timid at first, but eventually touched the baby alligator, along with a great many other items in the nature center.
We explored bones, teeth, feathers, shells, nests, honeycombs, and marveled over pictures and specimens of wildlife and insects. He went through the nature center about five times. His favorite activity of the day was pressing the red button next to the carving of the owl, which played owl calls, and then turning to us and saying “doggy!” Apparently some of the owl sounds are similar to dog barks to Sebastian. We tried to get him to go on the volunteer-led Creekfield Nature Walk, but he was interested for all of about five minutes and then ran off back to the nature center. After several attempts, we finally got him on to a trail to look for more birds. I did manage to see a blue-headed vireo, a bird many folks on the bird walk in Kleb Woods that I went on Wednesday were seeing but I didn’t actually sight myself so therefore did not count.
We decided to leave the park because Jason was getting hungry and Sebastian’s antics were becoming intolerable to me. I thought Jason was taking the less direct route home, and his agenda became slightly more clear to me when he explained he had a craving for a bbq baked potato, but he told me where he was going, he mispronounced it so that led to some confusion and then some debate on how to pronounce “Schulze’s”. Turns out I was right, and I am putting that down on record because he hates to admit that and it doesn’t happen very often. Best BBQ in Rosenberg, and on that, there is no debate between us.
It was early in the morning on a Saturday, and the park wasn’t officially open yet. My friend Janey and I are walking in that slow, quiet gait that birders develop along the southeast section of 40 Acre Lake, scanning the tree tops for signs of the Barred Owl that has been spotted out there. I thought I saw the slow descent of a large bird above us, and soon we were rewarded with a visual sighting of this remarkable creature, much to our excitement. It was a great start to a fun couple of hours filling a checklist with observed species.
We don’t own a great lens for birding and I wasn’t tracking our finds on E-bird, but simply recording the new species for my yearly list on GNotes. Someday we’ll be able to invest in a good lens for the Nikon. Janey has a great camera, though, and gets some amazing wildlife shots with it. For the curious and to see some good shots, you can see Janey’s checklist here. We found about 32 different species of birds.
The highlights, though, included these moments: a couple of Carolina Wrens singing and posing on and around a dead log, the owl of course, the Anhinga, and the American Bittern that was just right there in the light of the morning, slowly catching several crawfish in the shallows. We noticed the photographer first, a man who had gotten himself a sweet little spot along the bank to sit for focused shots, and then we watched this creature for a while. Viewing it with binoculars, I could really see the detail on the intricate beauty of the feathers.
We saw and heard a lot of bird action in the nearby wild rice, and after some back and forth, ID-ed a Common Yellow Throat. On the way out, we stopped for a bit to try to figure out who we heard singing in the upper brush. We saw a Gray Catbird, but this was not the one we were listening to. Janey thought she saw a White Eyed Vireo but wasn’t sure when she had to leave for her volunteer training session. I really wanted to know what it was to claim it for my finds list, so I prowled through the brush and then finally just sat on a bench for a while, and was rewarded by the bird coming right out into the open for me to get a good look and verify that it was, in fact, a White Eyed Vireo making that bright little song.
On the way home, I noticed that initially when I was driving, I was still scanning for birds, and it was distracting. It made me think about this article a friend had posted on Facebook about developing situational awareness. In a way, birders are using situational awareness when they are out looking for birds. You have to become more mindful of your surroundings than usual. You become more in touch with your senses, more sensitive to the sounds and movements around you.
That is one of the skill sets that I have been building going on birding walks with the Audubon groups. I used to walk through the woods and miss most of what was going on around me, because I wasn’t paying as much attention. In order to find birds, your eye has to seek out the anomalies in the environment: the slight fluttering of wing, movement of little bodies from one branch to another behind the shrubs. Then, when you leave the woods and start driving, you (or at least me) have to turn it off at some point, because it is hard to maintain that kind of focus on slight movements when you are going sixty miles an hour.
We tried teaching mindfulness in the workplace this past year, and I haven’t heard any feedback from others about how it worked for them, if they noticed anything different while practicing these techniques. I do use this kind of mindful awareness to do aspects of my job, as it helps me notice more aspects of animal behavior. It is calming to use that kind of focused awareness, and you also need to stay calm to be proficient at it. In that situational awareness article, they actually talk about this, stating that when a person is not calm, they tend to develop tunnel vision and miss some details around them.
I feel much calmer after practicing this in the forest, which is why these kind of activities are good mental breaks for me. I was very relaxed and happy driving away from the park. I am going to continue more of this over the spring, maybe even next weekend with Janey, maybe even with Jason’s camera. It helps me to be a better mother and wife when I have time to get into the woods, clear my mind, and really focus on the present, with the therapy of wing and wind.