Rather spontaneously, some friends and I decided to fly to south Texas for a weekend of birding. All of us had been before (on separate trips) and had missed seeing target birds. Most birders want to see as many species as possible.
There are about 650 regularly occurring birds in North America and another 350 visit sporadically. Birders keep life lists to track each species seen, and it’s a thrill every time a new species can be added. I am in spitting distance of 700 species, and I’m eager to reach that milestone number. Our weekend trip was another chance to see new “lifer” birds that we had failed to see before.
We had a dozen target birds, the vast state of Texas and very limited time. Our statistics, by the end of the weekend were these:
- •Hours spent in Texas: 50
- •Hours (cumulative) spent sleeping: 9
- •Miles driven: 1,057
- •Total species seen: 118
- •Lifers: one for Carl, three for me and seven for Kyle (this month’s photographer)
- •Total number of insect bites suffered: infinite
All those miles and hours spent driving fostered many conversations. One debate we particularly enjoyed was the requirements to call yourself a birder.
How do you measure up? Ask yourself the following:
- •Are you willing to forego sleep for multiple days to be in the field for both dawn chorus, when birds wake up, as well as at night to see and hear night birds such as owls?
- •Do you consider gas station bathrooms a luxury (compared to the alternative: the great outdoors)? •Will you happily carry 10 pounds of optical equipment for several hours and miles?
- •Do you enjoy eating all your meals on the go, in the car?
- •Can you spend hours walking in pouring rain with no umbrella, getting eaten alive by bugs, not see your target bird and consider it a day well spent?
- •Do you frequently run into people you know while birding, no matter what state or continent you’re in? •When you’re on vacation, is the town landfill a must-see destination?
Avid birders will readily answer affirmatively to each of these questions. The last one, about landfills, may seem like a trick question, but birders know that town dumps are often hot spots for birds. Omnivorous or scavenging birds such as raptors, gulls and corvids find easy pickings at landfills, so they are usually worth checking out.
The highlight of our weekend trip was a visit to the landfill in Brownsville, Texas. We were hoping to see a very special visitor. The Tamaulipas crow is common in its home range around Tamaulipas, a northeastern Mexican state. Most American birders, however, strictly differentiate their life lists by a total world list and a more specific list for the area defined by the American Birding Association (ABA).
The ABA area includes North America north of Mexico plus the Hawaiian Islands. For it to count on an ABA life list, the goal is to see the Tamaulipas crow in the U.S. rather than in Mexico. Only one or two of the crows come far enough north to Brownsville every couple of years. My friend Carl, the most experienced birder in my group, had tried unsuccessfully for more than 10 years to see the crows there. Tamaulipas crows are similar to North American and fish crows habitually seen in New Jersey, but they are smaller, have a bluish sheen to their feathers and a distinctive call.
On our weekend trip, we birded all over south Texas and saw spectacular birds such as the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. Both species have very limited ranges. The only place in the world the warbler nests is in central Texas. It relies on a (disappearing) specific habitat that includes deciduous hardwoods and mature juniper trees, and it uses the shredded bark of the junipers to build its nest.
The vireo similarly relies on very unique conditions that include brushy vegetation and junipers in rocky areas recovering from recent wildfires. Their nesting range is limited to just a speck of land in Oklahoma, central Texas and northern Mexico.
Given these required conditions, the birds are not easy to see; we were lucky to have great chances to study both. Then we made the five- hour drive down to Brownsville, got within sight of the landfill, but just as we pulled up to its entrance, saw workers shutting the gates.
Nooooooooo! It was the last night, the last chance to try for the crows. We couldn’t believe we missed our opportunity!
Frantically, we called and waved to the workers. One finally saw us, standing and waving, weighed down by scopes and cameras. His shoulders slumped, and he shook his head. Ambling over, he said, “Birders, right? Here for the crow? How far did you drive?” We babbled our sob story and begged to be let in after hours. Sighing, he simply said, “Get in the bed of the truck, I’ll drive you up there.” We scrambled in, ecstatic.
At the top of the mountain of trash, we encountered two amazing sights: first, birders we knew from home in Florida were there, second, they were pointing to a pair of Tamaulipas crows. Score! The thrill of seeing a lifer, the happiness of being with and running into friends sharing that rare experience with you—it’s all part of what makes birding so addicting and wonderful.
As you finish with this column, are you ready only to turn the page, read the next article? Or are you tempted to go explore the woods, see what you can see, maybe run into friends, find something amazing? If so, perhaps you can call yourself a birder.
Kyle Matera, Kenny Miller, the author, Carl Edwards and Andrew Virdee. Golden-cheeked warble