Monday, May 3, 2010

The Big Day (Part II of II)

Birding Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. From left to right: Spencer Hardy, Neil Gilbert, Charles Hesse, Harold Eyster, Andy Johnson, Marcel Such. Photo by Chip Clouse.

1500 hours

Afternoons are generally less productive than mornings for birds, yet we are still racking up the birds. We did not pass the one hundred mark until past noon, but in slightly less than three hours of afternoon birding we have found over sixty new species!


Most of the morning was spent either tracking down breeding passerines in the Piney Woods or sitting in the car scanning for raptors and trying not to fall asleep. Dozens of new species awaited us on the Bolivar Peninsula. The first few minutes at Rollover Pass were exciting, indeed—terns! plovers! gulls! herons!

Now, however, we are cleaning up. Standing on the edge of Frenchtown Road, we scan the shorebird-laden ponds for uncommon species. “TEXAS TRUCK!” someone yells. We hurriedly shuffle farther off the road as the oversized pickup roars by. Returning my eye to the scope, I pick through the ranks of dowitchers and Dunlin, hoping for a…

“Hey, can I borrow the scope for a sec? I think I see a Baird’s,” I quickly surrender the scope to Andy, who zeroes in on a sandpiper the rest of us had passed over. “Yup—Baird’s!” We cluster around the scope, each peeking through for a second before moving aside so the next teammate can see it.

“Baird’s—good!” our British mentor Charley Hesse exclaims. “We need to be getting to High Island…”

1800 hours

High Island. If you are a birder, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s famous.

We are finding out exactly why as we frantically chase new birds as the daylight fades. At times, we barely move at all, too busy picking through the dozens of warblers filtering through the trees to keep walking down the trail. Other times, we sprint down the trail in a ragged pack after that alleged Canada Warbler, or Bay-breasted Warbler, or…

A brilliant male Scarlet Tanager flashes through the mulberry tree just overhead, yet I ignore it. We’ve already seen dozens. Big Days are no time to appreciate birds; the last hour of daylight is particularly hectic. A clump of leaves quivers in a nearby oak—I nail it with my binoculars and am quickly greeted by the flaming orange throat of a male Blackburnian Warbler. I ignore it, too. On any other day, I could spend an hour watching a single Blackburnian Warbler. But today is a Big Day.

Tennessee Warbler…Black-and-white Warbler…Golden-winged Warbler…Baltimore Oriole…Red-eyed Vireo…Magnolia Warbler…Swainson’s Thrush…Blue-headed Vireo…with every new migrant, our list creeps closer to two hundred.

I whip my binoculars to my eyes for perhaps the five hundredth time in the last half-hour. A new face pops out from behind a leaf. “CHESTNUT-SIDED!” I yell. My teammates hustle into position and quickly find the bird. Yet another species added to the list of birds we can ignore for the next six hours.

2100 hours

“Who-who who who, who-who who-WHOOO?” My Barred Owl imitation is so pathetic that we can’t help but laugh. In reality, it’s not that funny—but when you’ve been awake for nineteen hours, almost anything seems funny. Even tripping over a pebble…

I try to whoop again. And once again, it sounds like a gagged tomcat.

My crude imitation is enough to fool (or seriously tick off) the local Barred Owl. Only a couple of us are looking up when it flashes over—a big, blocky bird, the white spots in its wings glowing in the moonlight. It apparently isn’t very impressed, since it remains silent and never reappears.

But it was enough. Two people are enough for it to count.

0000 hours

It’s over. Actually, it ended fifteen minutes ago when we filed up the steps into the Tropical Birding house (our base of operations) at High Island. I lie on the thin, lumpy mattress, joking with my teammates and not even trying to sleep. I’ve been birding nonstop for twenty-two hours, but I do not feel tired. Yet.

I blame those two bowls of ice cream.

It’s over.

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