Why We Do It? Birdwatching, That Is

Technically it’s no longer bird watching, it’s birding.  I don’t know that there’s a big difference, but birders are pretty sensitive types, and I, for one, don’t want to get on their wrong side of one.

To answer my own question; I don’t know why I do it.  Furthermore, if you would have accused me forty or thirty or even ten years ago of becoming a bird watcher (birder) I would have guffawed and maybe taken a swing at you. BTW, in the UK, birders are called twitchers, but we all know they have a tough time with the King’s english.   I am, and I do, watch birds that is.  Worse yet, I try, mostly in vain, to take photographs of them.  They are harder to get in focus than your average grandkid who missed his dose of ritalin.  Before I go any further with this inquiry, some facts are in order.

Birding, birdwatching, or twitching is the largest participant sport in the world.  What!!!  No way!!!  What about soccer/football, you say?  Or track and field or fishing.   Nope here’s the facts.  Other than birding, soccer is by far the largest with two hundred forty million registered players worldwide, but in North America alone there were sixty million birders in 1980.  You extrapolate that to the rest of the world, particularly to Europe where it’s even more popular, and you come up with a number of, give or take, 600 million.  Don’t fight the math.  I’m right.  So I’m a member of a very large sporting fraternity.  There are about ten thousand known species of birds in the world, nine hundred twenty five in the US and Canada, six hundred twenty in Texas, and one hundred twelve at Lyday Farms (my personal birding domain).  So we’re also a very global activity.

North Americans spent roughly thirty billion dollars on birding activities and equipment, which is one of the reasons I like birding.  You can spend as much as you want on gadgets and still find other stuff you just “have to have”.  Guide books by the thousands, binoculars that are light as feathers and which can see feathers clearly even in low light hundreds of yards away, spotting scopes of extraordinary magnification, bird houses, bird feeders, bird feed, digital recordings of bird calls, cameras, tripods, monopods, camera lenses, bird art and on and on and on.  Then there’s travel.  Most birders, sooner are later, tire of the birds right around them and seek out new climes to spot new species.  There are travel agencies that specialize in group or custom birding trips to everywhere from the Aleutian Islands to Zanzibar and everywhere in between.  Or there are people like me that just add on a day or two of birding wherever they go in the world.  It’s on these trips that I was introduced to bird guides…the human kind.  These are an unusual breed of human.  They are, of course, expert in their field of endeavor and can identify birds by sight, sound or even flight pattern.  They are in tune with nature and the natural world in a way that you or I can only aspire to.  They are conservationists and active stewards of the earth and all it’s inhabitants, and they, most importantly, are very happy doing what they do.  I’ve never met a bad or a mean bird guide.  I wish I could say that about any other profession.

My first encounter focusing on birds, other than when as a twelve year old I tried to shoot turkey vultures on the wing with my .22 and kill sparrows with my slingshot, was in Africa.  S. and I had added a safari in the Krueger National Park to our tour.  The Krueger is a vast habitat of pretty much every species of animal in South Africa including the elusive big five (rhino, leopard, lion, water buffalo, and elephant).  S. and I were fortunate to spot all five within the first twenty four hours of our visit, and I quickly concluded that once you’ve seen one elephant in the wild, you’ve pretty much seem them all.  Kind of like cathedrals in France.  But birds were different.  They were everywhere and each was different from the other.  The magnificently colored Rollers, stately eagles, agile kingfishers, storks, herons, bustards.  All sizes, all shapes, and all colors.  They perched and fed or merely watched us watching them as if they owned the place.  I offered our spotter and driver a tidy financial incentive if they could help me spot seventy five species in the next two days.  It was money well spent.  This nascent interest in birds traveled with me back to Fannin County and my farm.  I started buying bird field guides with a passion.  Cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes, digital bird callers, bird literature, and on and on, soon to follow.

I’ve now been an active birder for almost ten years and plied my scant skills on every continent except Australia with growing interest in not only birds, but bird and wildlife habitat, endangered species, and the natural world in general.  In fact, I would say that birding has served as my window to the natural world and nature.  Quite a step for a city boy who couldn’t tell a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher from a Mockingbird not long ago. I also must admit that as a kid I pinged a few .22 rounds at Turkey Vultures circling overhead and shot at sparrows with a home made sling shot.  More recently, but not since birding overcame me, I’d even blasted away with a 20 gauge at doves, quail and pheasants.  I can’t now remember why I did those things, but the sport or blood lust or whatever it was that caused me to get pleasure out of killing flying creatures has been entirely displaced by walks through the woods or pastures with binoculars and camera in hand hoping to see and hopefully photograph a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

When you think about it, birding and hunting have much in common.  It is, after all, about the creatures and the opportunity to fine tune your senses in order to find them.  You get to spend time gulping in fresh air and often arise at ungodly hours to pursue your passion.  They are also activities that can be done in the company of others or alone as one chooses.  Any duck hunter worth his waders is equally proficient as the most proficient birder in identifying the various species of ducks and understanding their habitat and habits.  The difference is that one is done with a gun (or some other killing instrument) and the other is done with binocs and camera.  Oh yes, you don’t have to kill anything to be a successful birder, and you don’t have to clean and eat stuff that doesn’t really taste very good unless you make it taste like something else.  Be honest, none of you hunters have ever figured out a way to make a dove taste good without disguising its natural taste.

I would say that age, life style and having too much time on your hands could have something to do with interest in birding except that I’ve seen people of all stripes happily birding away pretty much everywhere in the world.  If anything, birders are a more diverse lot by every dimension than those that pursue other outdoor interests.

So I guess it’s just what I want to do.  You outta try it some day.

The Great Spring Break Road Trip – Part One

S. and I were sitting at he kitchen table at the farm in the midst of an unusual spring cold snap (that’s what they call them in the country) and she said, “wouldn’t it be nice to take a few days off and do something out of the ordinary”.  These words to my ears were like catnip to a cat.  I immediately ran through several really outrageous ideas before I hit upon a semi-reasonable, semi-likely to get agreement on idea of a few days on the gulf coast of Texas.  When she retorted with the not surprising query of “what in the #@*# will we do there”, I was ready.  “Oh, I don’t know.  Perhaps we could check out the antique shops and art galleries.”  It’s not for nothing that I’ve been married for forty-three years.  “And if we have a little extra time we might take a look at one of the coastal wildlife refuges.”  See how cleverly I slipped that in.  She didn’t say no, so I quickly set about seeing what I could get set up on short notice.

My initial thought is that we’d do something we’d not done for a long, long time…..A ROADTRIP.  Further research banked the fires of my roadtrip ardor when I discovered that a) the Texas gulf coast covers a lot of territory, and b) all of it is a long ways away by car.  I didn’t think that S. and I would survive ten hours in my Tahoe arguing over what road to turn on next and which fast food joint to stop at.

Having come to my senses, I decided on a SWA flight to Corpus Christi and a short drive to Rockport and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Google led me to Capt. Tommy Moore, the don of birdwatching in the environs of Rockport.  Captain Tommy, as it turned out was quite the character.  To his credit he quickly sussed out that S. and I weren’t going to be in the normal run of his birder tour groupies.  We wanted a hotel suite for our stay in Rockport and a private boat with guide for our foray into the wilds of Aransas Bay.  To that we added a requirement for catered lunches and a private guide for our tour of the Fennessey Ranch (another birding hot spot).  He started seeing visions of $$$$ signs and gave us his best.  He put together an itinerary that I could only disclose to S. in small doses.  A full day birding and fishing trip on Aransas Bay with Rhett Price and his 23’ open fishing skiff, a half day group birding trip with Capt. Tommy on his shallow draft boat the Skimmer followed by a forty-five minute drive to the Fennessey Ranch where we would be guided by Nan and Lyndon for a birding tour of the ranch of indeterminate length.  You can see why it wasn’t a good idea to roll this all out to S. at one time.

The flight to CC was uneventful and blessedly short, and I successfully bargained for an upgrade with Hertz.  Except for some really bad gumbo and fried shrimp (never eat at a restaurant named Joe’s) we set out for the short drive along the coast to Rockport.  We found the Lighthouse Inn, the top dog of the hotel trade around here, and entered the somewhat schmaltzy lobby.  Let your imagination run free on what you might find in the way of interior decorating for a hotel in the shape of a fake lighthouse.  While I was looking for the valet parker and baggage handler, the hulking girl behind the deck shoved a luggage trolley at me and said ominously, “get this back here real quick; we might have a rush later.”

Our “suite” was the farthest from the lobby of any of the sixty-four rooms and took approximately twelve minutes to walk to, if the elevator wasn’t otherwise occupied.  It met the technical definition of a suite (bedroom and separate sitting room), but the total square footage was about the same as the Mercury Grand Marquis that Hertz had foisted on me.  It had a deck the size of a Fed Ex envelope which provided a partial view and full smell of the commercial fishing docks adjacent.  Not bad for $175.00.  After a scouting drive around the area, we partook of the free peanuts and cheap drinks in the bar….which was quite lively hosting most of the traveling drummers in the area.  We’d inquired after the “best” restaurant in the area and wound up at Hemingways which wasn’t too bad.  We arrived at 6:30 and found a ersatz mahogany dining room half full of non-descript tourists. The place was pretty well cleared out by 7:15.  They must start early in these parts.

The next morning, after a short drive through ominous fog and drizzle, we arrived at Pelican Point public boat ramp which was populated by groups of guys huddled around their boats quaffing a morning brew.  I almost lost S. when she saw the open skiff that Rhett already had in the water.  But she’s a gamer, and we boarded with some trepidation about the weather but more about the lack of a WC.  Rhett looked like a healthy 35-40 and seemed to know his business.  He’d been fishing and guiding in the area for eleven years having arrived here from Kansas or somesuch.  He said that Capt. Tommy had picked him for us because he “knew something about birds” and I suspect, because he was willing to take us.  He and S. hit it off well spending much of the trip discussing the perils of raising teenagers in the internet world.  We’d been out less than thirty minutes when Rhett put the brakes on and pointed to some white flecks on the horizon.  “Whoopers” he intoned.  I spent several minutes trying to adjust my binoculars while he continued to approach the shoreline a hundred yards or so from the birds.  For those of you who don’t know, Whooping Cranes, the largest of the worlds shore birds, had dwindled to defacto extinction in the mid 80’s.  Through careful conservation practices and committed conservationists, both public and private, the flock had been nurtured back to a population of 500 or so.  What we were seeing were the remaining few of the whoopers that had not yet left for their long migration to Canada.  During the course of our visit I saw seventeen of these still endangered birds, many of which were “on the wing”, beginning their annual journey to their northern breeding grounds.  Think of it.  I saw over 3% of the entire species.  Applied to human beings, I would have to see 3.4% of 6.5 billion or 221,000.000 peeps.  Or about as many as I saw on my way from the airport to my hotel in New Delhi.

Everything was downhill after spotting the whoopers.  I saw, but couldn’t identify about another 15-20 species and identified and took pictures of 5-10 species.  My interest in adding to my birders “life list” waned as the pressure on my bladder increased.  This particular crisis was abated by sneaking a few moments in the stern pretending to search the sky for more whoopers with my pants unzipped.  We fished for a perfunctory twenty minutes or so and then headed for port to let S. have her head in browsing the cutsy shops of the historic downtown Rockport.  A short day and easy money for Rhett and another smart decision for me.

As one can only digest so much of this drama at a sitting, I’ve made the editorial decision to write this in two parts.  Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of “The Great Spring Break Road Trip”.


More later.