A pair of Great Horned Owls called to one another at the cliff near the creek as I darted to my car in the dawn light. The temperature gauge read 19 degrees at 6:45 am, which is pretty darn cold for South Central Texas. One friend, who has asthma, had already phoned to say she was not going to show up after all. I wondered if anyone else would need to stay home because of the cold. But this was my first Christmas Bird Count, and I wasn’t going to miss it. Besides, being South Central Texas, chances were good it would warm up by afternoon.
Seven of us gathered at the preserve in our assigned area and we divided into two teams, one to bird the preserve, and the other to drive along roads inside our area, picking up whatever birds we saw, ending up at my place to walk and observe. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed to be stuck in a car all morning, but I was with the two best birders in the group, and besides, how would we bird my place if I wasn’t there?
So I climbed in the backseat and sucked it up. Went the extra mile and volunteered to be the recorder. Conventional wisdom has it that you learn a lot by recording and the job is often given to the least experienced birder in the group on that pretext, but I think that’s a bunch of hooey. The list is in taxonomic order, which is a total mystery to rank beginners, and even experienced birders don’t necessarily think in those terms unless they have a pretty solid background in biology. Really, the experienced birders want to be free to look for and at birds and not have to fool with paper and pen along with binoculars, but the “you’ll learn a lot by doing this” is a good way to keep the beginners in the group out of mischief. Since my companions are better birders and were in the front seat with a better view, I decided to be gracious and accept the duty. Pretty sure my feeling of nobility was showing.
Turns out the view from the backseat was just fine. I saw everything they did, and was able to point out a few birds they had missed, including a Greater Roadrunner zipping across the road – being in the front seat, they were looking for “No Trespassing” signs and missed it.
White-winged doves, black-crested titmice (this is the correct plural) abounded, along with Northern Cardinals. I was getting bored and getting writer’s cramp from noting them all. As we went higher and scrubbier, we saw a number of Western Scrub Jays – they are my favorite shade of blue and I love seeing them, despite their being an overbearing bird.
A few homeowners came out to see why a slow-moving vehicle with people peering through binoculars was in front of their homes, but amazingly, they all were friendly and gracious when we explained that we were part of an international bird count. Even the sheriff’s deputy who pulled us over for being stopped on the access road of the freeway (we were scanning a stock tank for waterfowl) was very pleasant. “I’ve seen a number of you people on the roads this morning!”
A stop near the lake yielded our first American and Lesser Goldfinches of the day, plus a female vermillion flycatcher (the male was nowhere in sight – too bad, she caught and ate a tasty caterpillar!) flitting around. Not an officially rare bird for this time of the year, but an unusual one. Have not seen the female before, that I know of, but such a long look with good birders makes it likely that I will not forget her. Is it a Say’s phoebe? A scissor-tail? We didn’t seriously consider this after more than a glance, but the rufous color on the sides did distract us. Listening to my companions speak their thoughts was incredibly helpful to me.
A sharp-shinned hawk was in the field by my gate when we pulled up. A small flock of cedar waxwings flushed up from the Lindheimer’s muhly grass as we drove down my lane. Must take Ron’s word for this – all I saw was a bunch of smallish, greyish birds and would have assumed they were some sort of sparrow, but I yield to his experience. Must remember to ask him what it is that definitively makes them waxwings. I know that when flying, their flock spreads out and crowds together in an undulating pattern, but what was so distinctive when they flushed?
Hundreds of American robins were in the riparian area, and we saw two Savannah sparrows in the large field. One of them took us a good while to identify as it was very still behind a small branch in the tree.
As we headed down the road to our meet-up with other teams at a local restaurant, a flock of birds, between thirty and forty, flew east to west, a yellow glow on their bellies.
“Meadowlarks!” cried Ron.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“They show hardly any tail when they fly,” explained Carolyn. Another piece of information for me to store and put to use on future outings. Small bird, yellow belly in flight, not much tail – likely to be meadowlarks.
This and the dozens of other bits of information passed along through the day make me grateful for the generosity of my companions, who find joy in seeing birds, have little or no ego invested in being the experts and who are at least as eager to share information as I am to learn it.
It fills my heart and gives a sense of rightness to the world.
CBC 2014 @ RockinM