Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Big Day (Part I of II)

The 2010 Great Texas Birding Classic Tropicbirds Team. From left to right...bottom: Spencer Hardy, Chip Clouse (team mentor/driver/cook), Andy Johnson. Middle: Neil Gilbert, Harold Eyster. Top: Marcel Such. Oh yeah, and that's Furious George in the front.

0300 hours

We’ve been awake for an hour, but our bird list stands at only one: a Northern Mockingbird singing across the street from the Tropical Birding house where we were staying at High Island. A fierce wind rips through the treetops at Smith Oaks, where we are listening for owls.

I can’t blame the owls for remaining silent on such a windy night.

We trudge back to the car, our minds still dull with sleep. Somehow, every speck of dust and crumbled leaf manages to blow into my eyes and get wedged between my contacts and eyeballs.

0600 hours

All is silent save for the whispering breeze in the pines and a few distant Chuck-will’s-widows chanting the night away. We had already heard Chucks; Eastern Screech-Owl is our real quarry here in the Piney Woods well over a hundred miles northeast of High Island. Raising my chin, I whistle through a large glob of saliva on the back of my tongue, making a trembling whistle that sounds vaguely like a screech-owl.


I continue whistling for a minute, and then—“There!” Spencer, one of my teammates, whispers and gestures off to the woods to our left. No one else heard it, but fortunately it continues calling so the rest of us can hear its muffled whistle. Another joins it, and then another.

0900 hours

I lean over the backseat of our fifteen-passenger van (dubbed the “Smelly Sanderling”) and rummage through the large cardboard box of food in the trunk. “Don’t run into anything!” I shout over my shoulder to Chip, who is behind the wheel. Apples—no, dried apricots—no, JERKY—yes!

“Gotcha!” I hiss as I snag three bags from the jumbled box. “Wild Chicken Barbecue, A1 Beef Strips, or Tender Beef Nuggets,” I announce.

“Let’s try the A1,” Spencer decides.

After a brief tussle, I manage to rip open the bag. The sharp scent of A1 sauce invades the interior of the van, adding to the mixed aromas of dirty socks, mud, and dried mango slices. Stuffing a couple slabs into my mouth, I pass the bag to the waiting hands a couple rows up in the van. The jerky tastes like leather soaked in A1 sauce—which is basically what it is.

Suddenly, someone shouts “HAWK!” through a mouthful of the jerky. Chip reacts instantly, whipping the van to the shoulder with alarming speed. Doors fly open, feet crunch on the gravel, binoculars rake the sky. There it is—a small, slim bueto with pale crescents at the end of its wings. “Red-shouldered,” I shout, directing my teammates to the bird. “Got it?”


“Let’s go. GET IN THE CAR!” I yell, following my teammates as they plunge back into the depths of the Smelly Sanderling. We were stopped for less than twenty seconds.

“We’re out of jerky,” Marcel announces as we speed away from the scene.

1200 hours

Large portions of many big days are spent driving. It’s only noon, but we have already been awake for ten hours, and the two and a half hour drive from the Piney Woods to Winnie is taking its toll. I glance over and notice my teammate Harold is sleeping, his head slumped against the window as he gently snores.

Sleeping is a cardinal sin on big days.

I jab him mercilessly until he wakes up.

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