Adventures in the Texas Hill Country, the Land of Leopold and a cruise through Alaska
Looking back on it now, after the time and the miles, I realize this is something built in — a clockwork occurrence of yearning and hope in the middle of a beating heart’s winter. Cabin fever. Wanderlust. Zugunruhe, a German term for migratory restlessness in birds.
For a bird like the Arctic Tern, that means packing on the extra ounces and looking northward for the right time to start its yearly trek from the Antarctic to Alaska, where if all goes well, it will tend to a pair of young for a few months before heading back south to start all over again.
For a human like me, it’s poring over eBird checklists, field guides, travel and food websites, stuffing my phone full of music and tuning up my camera, then stuffing my suitcase and agitating over what I’ll forget to bring. Bug spray? Sunscreen? Nutrition bars? Memory cards?
I was pulled back to Texas for the third consecutive spring.
The Hill Country
United Airlines takes me to San Antonio and March weather that’s 40 degrees better than New Jersey. Phone connected, navigation on and playlist up loud. Willie Nelson is on the road again, and so am I, along with my dashboard companions Lyle Lovett, The Dixie Chicks, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Nancy Griffith and the Old 97s.
First stop was a taqueria near the airport that served up a steaming Burrito Jalisco with beer-soaked pulled pork, melted cheese and a tangy red gravy. Charro beans came on the side along with homemade green salsa.
Next came the Alamo and Riverwalk, because I had never been to either. San Antonio was getting ready for fiesta, its annual 11-day extravaganza honoring the soldiers who fought at the Alamo and San Jacinto. Poor planning that I couldn’t stay, but I had some birding to do.
I knew it would be a good week when I found a pair of Zone-tailed Hawks hunting low overhead at the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center outside of San Antonio. Mitchell Lake is an oasis of wetlands in the dry Texas southwest, a pleasure to walk, and the appearance of these dark hawks with their striking white tail bands was one of those moments that keep you coming back for more.
The next day I joined Scott Sutcliffe from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Erik Bruhnke from Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (better known to me from the Cape May Bird Observatory) and a group of Cornell donors who would be my companions for the next few days. Back at Mitchell Lake, we enjoyed seeing good numbers of Least Grebes rearing their young, Pyrrhuloxia, Swainson’s Hawk and soaring American White Pelicans, which always surprise me when I see them so far inland. I would see them again far north of here, but that’s for another day, and in the meantime, we needed to get to the Hill Country for more birds.
We pull out into vast stretches of lonely, past the grocery and liquor stores and nail spas, past the pain clinics and car dealers packed with white pickups.
Dusty main streets advertise the best tacos in town and the year the last football championship was earned. The railroad line and Highway 90 run side by side for miles. Scissor-tailed flycatchers stalk their prey from roadside fences. Wildflowers bloom on the side of the road. Fat cattle graze unconcerned about passing cars.
Eventually the dust gives way to green and the hills roll higher. Waves of onion and corn sway in a fine breeze. Dickcissels call their names from the grasslands.
We are in Uvalde, gateway to some of the coolest birds of springtime.
The checklists don’t tell the story — we got all the great birds including the rare Golden Cheeked-Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. What tells the story is the places where we experienced the birds and the people we met. Otherwise they’re just statistics fading with the next day’s adventure.
The Hill Country in spring opened my eyes, starting with the grandeur of Lost Maples State Park, which gave us our first looks at Scott’s and Orchard Orioles, Black-capped Vireo and glimpses of the Golden-cheeked Warbler. Chalk Bluff Park, a springtime gem by the Nueces River, gave us cherished views of mating Vermillion Flycatchers, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Hooded Orioles, treating us with aerial displays and other rituals of courtship. At Neal’s Lodges in Cancon, where we stayed, we woke up to the sound of a Bewick’s Wren and found a tree loaded with 20 or more Clay-colored Sparrows among other treasures.
But no place was more magical than the Frio Bat Cave. Yes, bats on a bird trip. Erik swore we’d be dazzled, but most of us were skeptical when drove through the gates of a nondescript field and made our way up a winding dirt hill.
Painted Bunting — great! Summer Tanager — always worth the walk! Then things grew quiet and a little dark and Cave Swallows started dancing in and out of a gaping hole in the ground.
The opening act.
The sun lazes down and a clear view of Jupiter dots the twilight. We play around, finding the planet’s moons in the scope. A clear wide sky fills up with stars.
And then it begins for real. First a trickle, then a murmuring, then a steady and noisy swarm as they pour out by the thousands, twisting and winding their way upward. A Red-tailed Hawk picks one off and then gets banged in the head maybe twenty times by other bats in the swarm. On it goes for an hour, literally millions of Mexican free-tailed bats swarming until the sky grows too dark to see. The light from Orion’s Belt helps us back to our cars as we let the experience soak in.
I stay on for a day after our group leaves town. There was more Tex-Mex to be eaten, and a little barbecue, and some family to visit that I hadn’t seen for a while.
But first I had a date with a Golden Cheek. I’d seen the bird at Lost Maples, but it was the frustrating, neck-bending way you often see warblers. There’s the tail … hop. Oh, those wing bars are nice … jump. Now I see it upside down. Oh, now it’s out of view. Now, there’s the head — nice and yellow — stylish black eye line. And then it’s gone.
From all those parts I formed a good impression of the bird, but I knew I could do better. You don’t come all this way to see pieces of a rare endemic.
I made my way up toward Austin and the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge where, by myself and with hours to spare, I might get to know my bird a little better.
I make my way up a dusty hillside to a line of cedar. I walk and listen and hear a buzzy call. I follow the voice along the tree line, the bird teasing me and hopping a few feet away every time I move. Then I see it fly up and perch in the open twenty feet above me. A quiet climb now, camera ready, sun unfortunately a little bit in my eye.
Hikers go by, oblivious to my personal drama. The warbler spooks but does not go far. The buzzing starts again. And there it is, biting at bugs along an open limb — a glorious bird with a striking yellow head on top of a black-and-white body. Its eyes meet mine, and this time it stays — long enough for me to get some imperfect shots and a memory I will keep forever.
Camera away, I watch it some more, peacefully foraging, sometimes singing, both of us loving a Texas day in the springtime sun.
The Land of Leopold
Wisconsin was never all that high on my life list of places to bird — until people started talking to me about Aldo Leopold. Sand County Almanac is one of those books everybody says they have read, or at least know about, and I was one of those everybodys.
But there’s a look in people’s eyes when they talk about this man, and it’s a look you don’t see a lot. So when I had a chance to bird in the land of Leopold with people who had that look in their eye, I knew I had to go.
In the company of a group from New Jersey Audubon (NJA), led by David LaPuma, Director of NJA’s Cape May Bird Observatory, and Drew Lanham, Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology from Clemson University, we made our way to Madison, where Leopold taught at the University of Wisconsin. We traveled out to the prairies and marshlands and forests where Leopold walked, and we talked with those who carry on his work at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, where Drew is a board member. We read Leopold’s words both at his famous Shack and on the bluffs above the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, where Leopold helped dedicate a monument to the Passenger Pigeon, and which later became the subject of his most famous essay.
Read aloud, Leopold’s words resonate like a Magnolia Warbler.
“Land … is not merely soil,” he writes, “it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.”
And: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
And this: “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.”
When we look at birds, we look at ourselves on wings that span the ages. Leopold knew this when he wrote so eloquently about the Passenger Pigeon, cranes and marshlands, chickadees and even Canada Geese.
Wisconsin made me realize that we are in this together, birds and us. Our lives are terminally intertwined. Imagine a world where you heard no birdsong (regardless of whether you know which bird is singing). Imagine never seeing a Northern Cardinal outside your window, or robins on your lawn, or Mourning Doves foraging in the park. They give us so much pleasure, whether we’re actively engaging with them or passively hearing their call as we go about our day.
Wisconsin also made me wonder about myself. Am I a bird tourist, or an advocate for birds? How can I call myself a birder if my actions on behalf of birds fail to rise above just looking at them?
We lost the Passenger Pigeon. Flat out killed it off. Shot them and ate them and put the last ones in a zoo. That can’t happen again. And you don’t have to carry binoculars to be aware of that.
Today’s breeding population of Kirtland’s Warblers is estimated to be a little more than 2,000 pairs. The species almost certainly can’t survive without the intervention of humans, and the good news is that humans appear to be up to the job. Though still threatened, it is currently a candidate for removal from the Endangered Species List.
We stand in a sweet-smelling pine grove in Adams County, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Staff are partnering with the University of Wisconsin to monitor and care for a small nesting population of Kirtland’s Warblers. This year the team banded 29 chicks. Kirtland’s Warblers only nest here, in neighboring Michigan, and in very small numbers, parts of Canada bordering the Great Lakes. Smart birds, they spend their winters in the Bahamas.
Here, on their nesting grounds, you have to manage their habitat. These birds are picky. They like Jack Pine trees. Sometimes Red Pines, like the grove we are standing on this morning. Any other pine won’t do. You have to manage the growth of the trees. And you have to keep away the cowbirds, which love to invade their nests.
Like a bolt of yellow hitting you in the eye, one of the warblers jumps to the top of a tree. Its song is sweet and loud. We capture the moment with our cameras and in our hearts.
Drew softly whistles Penny Lane as we walk through the Buena Vista Grasslands on a wet prairie dawn. Nearby dairy cows scamper and take a look before deciding we are of no consequence. Distant prairie chickens look a little dazed in the damp morning, coming to life only in brief moments when their rivals get too close.
Eastern and Western Meadowlarks sing from the same field, their voices mingling with those of Bobolinks like a Beatles’ experiment in electronics. A Henslow’s Sparrow pops up from the grass and adds complexity to the song.
In his book, The Home Place, Drew writes of the power that lies in the shared pursuit of feathered things. He explains why people like us venture hundreds if not thousands of miles from home to sleep in creaky beds, getting up way too early, eating cashews and jerky for breakfast, washing it down with energy drinks until we feel our stomachs churn, staring at distant birds through binoculars and spotting scopes, getting bitten by all manner of creepy things and in the end learning how to identify not only a good bird but a high-quality convenience store with a good bathroom.
Drew’s words: “As we gaze together, everything that’s different about us disappears into the plumages of the creatures we see beyond our binoculars.”
Half a country away from home, I get it. In birds we find the kinship of shared experience and joy, recognizing, as Leopold did, that “there are those of us who can live without wild things, and those who cannot. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese or wild flowers is a right as inalienable as free speech.”
Before leaving Wisconsin, we stopped in Manitowoc on the shores of Lake Michigan and in a nice surprise met up with Charles Sontag and a group of his friends. The retired University of Wisconsin professor has been birding this area for nearly 50 years. We came here for a much sought-after Little Gull, a European vagrant that has found a home on the lake this spring.
It took about an hour but we found it with a group of Bonaparte’s Gulls, first on the lake shore, then flying overhead and finally back down away from us.
Sontag wouldn’t call the bird until he saw it fly. “Sometimes they fool you in the scope all the way out there,” he says. “Especially with so many Boneys. When they get close you get to know them by their call. Ka-kick, ma-kick, a little like a Black Tern.
“We’re out here almost every day,” he goes on. “You get to notice the smallest things, the changes in wind, the weather, the tides. Then there are the big changes. These pelicans? They never used to be here. What do we have — a couple hundred today?”
Alaska makes you feel tiny, and I was just here doing Alaska Lite — cruising the coastline and the glaciers then inland to Denali and Fairbanks. I was getting tired from all the travel, but happy to breathe the cool wet air all the same.
We cruised from Vancouver, stopping first in rainy Ketchikan, where we (improbably) rescued a Common Nighthawk hiding out in a dark corner. That was hard to explain to the Alaska eBird reviewer, since neither Vancouver nor Ketchikan is a place where you find many Common Nighthawks (thank God for photos).
From there it was up to Juneau, where we followed the antics of a dozen or so Humpback Whales, and where the eBird reviewer didn’t bat an eye when I marked down 35 Bald Eagles. I still can’t get over how Bald Eagles and Common Ravens were more common than crows in Alaska. We saw Arctic Terns on their breeding sites at the Mendenhall Glacier, and we marveled at rugged country like we had not seen since New Zealand. The King Crab and the local beer weren’t too bad either.
We visited with family in Skagway, driving up to a border crossing that was pretty much the opposite of any other I had ever seen. We prowled around the mountain trails where many lost their lives in search of gold.
We visited the graves of pioneers who died in the early days, men and women who would never comprehend the cruise ships and souvenir shops and nature tours that characterize these port towns today. They were rough places. Reading the causes of death provides some clues: Scurvy, “heavy drinking”, meningitis, “murdered in Klondike saloon”, “gangrene lung”, pneumonia, “accident blasting rock”, snow slide, more murder, suicide, and simply “just got sick and died.”
There’s fury in the wild, especially when you try to tame it. The wild often wins in the end.
We pass through Glacier Bay, then inland to Denali. A Golden Eagle soars above us. Caribou dot the hillside. A stray moose passes and deftly manages to avoid my camera. A mama Grizzly attends to her playful cubs while another bear watches from a bed of wildflowers and tall grass.
We are tourists in their wild world. It all looks peaceful on a beautiful, sunny day. We know it isn’t always that way.
I ended this spring in Fairbanks where I came face to face with a pair of Northern Waterthrush that looked at me like I was the first person they had ever seen. Snapping pictures in the harsh glare of the Alaskan summer, I marveled as one flew off while the other fixed me in its gaze, both of us watching. At least one of us wondering.
I put the camera down and just looked, close enough that no binoculars were needed. The pictures would be lousy in this light after all. I looked at the brown and white, the size, the unmoving bill, the eyes that didn’t seem to move.
A tough little bird, I thought. I saw you or your cousin months ago on some brackish water in New Jersey. You were different then, with all that fidgeting, feeding, hopping around. You’re thousands of miles from where you started and you are more seasoned, calmer and wiser, maybe a little fuller in the belly. You made it to your summer home. You’re giving new life in a wetland formed by a long harsh winter.
Soon these ponds will dry and you’ll head back south, starting the pull of migration all over again.
My heartfelt thanks to Scott Sutcliffe, Erik Bruhnke, David LaPuma, Drew Lanham and the many birders I raised glasses with in the spring. Some people have spark birds that inspire their passion. It’s the birders that inspire me.