Sunday, April 14, 2024

Birding in LBJ's footsteps

Lyndon B. Johnson once describes his favorite and luckiest number, "four." "That's what I want you to remember. If you don't get your idea across in the first four minutes, you won't do it. Four sentences to a paragraph. Four letters to a word. The most important words in the English language all have four letters. Home. Love. Food. Land. Peace. . .I know peace has five letters, but any damn fool knows it should have four."

Olaf, also likes the number four, it is better than three and twice as good as two, but his favorite words would be bird, wife, cats, unlike three letter words like dip....

We headed in the direction of Johnson City Texas.  Johnson City is the boyhood home of our 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson and his home, the LBJ Ranch is just 15 miles west of town.

In many ways, LBJ's ranch is the coolest presidential home ever.  Besides having a 6,000 foot runway and being the home of prized Hereford cattle then and now, you can walk in the footsteps of a leader that many reviled at the end of his reign, however, like quite a few presidents, LBJ should be remembered better. 

LBJ was our first Western bred and born President.  Unlike recent Presidents who attended IVY League schools, LBJ went to SW Texas State Teachers College, dropped out went to California, and returned as graduated and then briefly taught as a teacher.  LBJ did attend Georgetown Law School for a time after he was elected to Congress, however the only thing he got from that was a date with Lady Bird, who he asked to marry him, she put him off for a few more dates, but finally agreed. In Congress, he was probably the most savvy Majority leader in the US Senate until McConnell recently.

He has great quotes, possibly the best of the 20th Century, many almost beat Yogi quotes:

I may not know much, but I know chicken shit from chicken salad.

On the media:  If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read "President Can't Swim"

On Liberal Democrats (his own party):  Don't spit in the soup, we all have to eat.

On being President: Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There's nothing to do but to stand there and take it.

On the CIA: The CIA is made up of boys whose families sent them to Princeton but wouldn't let them into the family brokerage business.

Visiting Seaworld: Why does Sea World have a seafood restaurant I'm halfway through my fish burger and I realize Oh man....I could be eating a slow learner.

 Unlike other President's graves, LBJ's looks just like a normal one.

Compare this to the worst President of the 20th Century, Warren G. Harding.  The ego of the bad man still lives on.

LBJ was somewhat larger than life, but anything from perfect.  He was a lady's man and when he went to Congress, he was dirt poor.  How the couple made their fortune was all (well if you ask LBJ, he said so) Lady Bird's doing.  In 1943, she spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase KTBC, an Austin radio station. In 1952, she added a television station, always getting favorable FCC rulings.  She invested $42,000 total, which by 1990 became $150 million.  

Famously in 1968, he pulled out of reelection after a poor showing in New Hampshire.  Hubert Humphry got a late start and then was passed by Robert Kennedy, before he was assassinated and after a convention riot, HUMPHREY WON.  The Democrats went on to lose to Nixon, and the rest is history.  In 1972, LBJ donated the Ranch to the US Park Service and then a few months later, at only 64 years of age died three days after Nixon's second inauguration in January 1973.   

The LBJ Ranch house, however cool it is....has been CLOSED since 2018 due to structural issues. Maybe, maybe they say it will reopen in 2025, but in typical government fashion, everyone it appears to be working from home, including the construction workers. The new normal, everyone in the government works from home, and nothing gets done and the world is always the same.  The man giving info at the park?  A person from Ireland on a student visa to learn "tourism."  The cool old Air Force 1/2, Gulfstream, also closed.  You can see it but they have surrounded in with fences and orange tape, what harm can you cause by walking around a decommissioned old airplane?  You drive 30 feet from it?

There were a lot of lark sparrows around.  Birding, near LBJ's grave was a little slow.

Scissortail flycatchers were around as well.

The countryside was in bloom, too.

We went to Perdernales State Park to see a bird.  It turns out we were turned away.  It was also closed, due to it being full, "Come back tomorrow."  The ranger told us.  You can tell that Texas has too many people and not enough parks....when they are full to day visitors.

I wanted to see Golden Cheeked warblers, but at this park, they would have to wait a day.  We went to lunch.

I tracked down the Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City.
It turns out they also had one a few years older (below), since after building a courthouse in Blanco, they voted to move the county seat to Johnson City.

We ate lunch and Silja wanted to take a motorcycle for a test ride, but again that would not be possible

After looking around for another place for the warbler, I dipped and went back to the RV.

The campground we were at is unique.  It not only has one helipad, it has two.  Who brings their helicopter with their RV, or who goes to a RV resort with their helicopter.  I guess this one does rent cabins.  Our RV is just behind the pad

We were back to the park this morning and on my fourth trip to get a photo of the Golden Cheeked warbler in my life, I hit paydirt. Having seen that birders I know were here recently, it would be bad if somehow, I had dipped on both LBJs ranch AND the warbler so at least I got the bird.  I am not missing photos of many breeding birds in the US, last year I FINALLY photographed the Colima warbler, and now this......

It was a pretty good haul of them, some pretty good pictures, despite being dark and overcast.

There was this "starcircle" at the park with purpose unknown.  

Driving around the Hill Country, many of the ranches and ranchers seem to have a lot of hat but no cattle, to steal words from LBJ.  Big prices for 20-50 acres of dry land--all because residents from Austin want to have some place to go.  We prefer west Texas.  I am glad we came, and if LBJs White House opens up, I would advise you all to come here and see it, but do not hold your breath.  Getting anyone to work seems unlikely. The Golden cheeked warblers are neat little birds with an isolated range.  Other than that, the Hill County seems to be a lot of hype, a lot of people, and well, probably not our scene.
I looks a lot like Lawton Oklahoma without the crowds.

working our way north


Monday, April 8, 2024

Solar Eclipse Report from Texas


Our eclipse glasses ready and tested, we got up at 6 am and headed towards Eagle Pass Texas, weather be damned, we were going to see the eclipse if it killed us.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  My grandma Lucille saw one in 1954 cooking breakfast but for us, alas seen some partial events but never totality.

The drive to the place where it would be total was close but not that close. It was a long trip and about 70 miles away from Eagle Pass and in the middle of nowhere, we had a flat tire.  Undeterred, we pulled into a truck stop north of Laredo, but the compressor was broken.  Limping the car nine miles up the road, we found one that worked or at least it was supposed to work.  It finally did and we were back on the road.  I had planned a random stop at a wayside on the US Highway west of Eagle Pass but driving through Carrizo Springs, a Texas Highway Department sign said "NO STOPPING FOR ECLIPSE ON THE HIGHWAY."  Cops were everywhere or so it seemed.  Texas was going to punish anyone apparently, spitting on the sidewalk, illegals, people seeking birth control, and eclipse watchers.  I suspected the penalties would be severe but, we kept going.  How many people could be at a picnic area two hours before an eclipse?

The answer was a lot.  Some had tented overnight, even.  

We drove up a few miles past the picnic area and pulled into ranch road while Silja hopped a fence, found a bush, and I read a sign, and got honked at for apparently breaking another Texas law...heck the flowers need water in these parts.  We went back and got ready for the show.  The parking lot was full, so we pulled on the shoulder, probably illegally.

The busy traffic kept driving past and almost all of the trucks and some of the cars on the highway honked and we could NOT tell if they were jeering or cheering....But who cared?  I just wondered if the sky would clear enough, it looked doubtful and then, like I am always the lucky birder, I was ALSO the lucky eclipse watcher, the sun began to appear... and then it started.

A squadron of old planes flew over

I got bored and looked for butterflies seeing a gray hairstreak, a common butterfly in the USA, but got a nice shot.

It started to get dark, headlights came on automatically, so I got ready and back to my post and then the traffic stopped honking, in fact, the traffic pretty much stopped, and everyone was on the side of the road, ignoring the Governor's orders.

Almost totality!

Then a total eclipse and you could see flares of the sun!!  The crowd of onlookers on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere in SW Texas cheered.  It was grand, it was great, it was un-describable and it was dark.

Well it was dark until some people who had not left their car in an hour opened their car door and their headlights came on.  They got jeered by many for ruining the moment, but their lights went off.

And then it was past, nearly 4 minutes later

That was that, for ten minutes, traffic stopped and the America came together and even the border guard at the check station up the road was asking what we saw and Silja showed the officer a picture of totality.  The other officers had on their glasses.  

We drove back and heard four more hours of our book on tape about someone who bought and old mining town in California.  It was a bucket list type event, but it was not on either of ours but probably should have (the eclipse, not buying a ghost town).

The wonders of this world are beyond description



Sunday, April 7, 2024

Fences, Jays, and things that go Hoot in the Night


So, if you build a fence around your house, yet one without a gate, they would call it a decorative fence.  If you built a pasture and put a fence around it on three sides, you would be chasing cattle all over the countryside and the other ranchers would laugh at you.  Here near Roma, Texas, they are building a wall (Texas is paying for it), billions of dollars' worth of wall, yet the wall has a door, (many doors) a door for Olaf to go through as well as anybody trying to get in or in my case...out.  Is it decorative, is anyone laughing?

My wife and I went out to the Santa Margarita Ranch north of Roma, Texas it was a guided trip with Cameron Cox, who does many of the day treks.  We sat and watched the Rio Grande for a while, hoping for something interesting to fly by.  The tiger heron that had been here and seen by many had disappeared two weeks back so I would not tally that lifer bird.  We saw local specialties post up and some fun ducks on the river.

A Mexican duck on the US side of the river

Silja had tripped over our cat Snoball and was injured, having hurt her calf muscle but was game with a game leg and came with and was able to keep up slowly.  After nothing exciting was going on, we went walking to the brown jay area.  Many butterflies were in flight, so I took the time to identify two lifer butterflies, both very small ones.  I snapped some photos.

Elada Checkerspot

Texas crescent

We did not see the jay and Silja kept on the bench and the rest of us went exploring.  One man wanted to see a seedeater, and I just wanted the brown jay.  I returned to the bench and Silja proudly showed me pictures of the jays she had seen in my absence on her cell phone.  That begat an uneasy 45 minutes as I hoped they would return and my wife would not have a lifer bird up on me.  All that came were noisy golden fronted woodpeckers.

But as the guide and the other birder returned so did the brown jays and I had tallied my lifer bird for the day, second for the trip.

That was about all to say about this day.  We ate at Stripes, we avoided the Starr county and state troopers, We paid the $140 per person fee, I guess a bargain for lifer bird 829 and drove back to camp.  Camp was having an "Olympics" Silja won woman's cornhole, and then there was an event called Charmin-Plunge (what can be done with two people, male and female, a plunger and a roll of toilet paper).  We participated in it, and set the best time so far on our first run, then on our second run, Olaf went for broke, blew away the competition but on crossing the finish line in 7.4 seconds, wiped out backwards and injured his wrist and other body parts.  That was it for our "Olympics" but a gold medal and bragging rights for people we did not know was (almost) worth it.

Now both of us were injured so, we took it easy for a few days until our second outing at the Santa Marguerita Ranch.

Mottled owls have 2 documented ABA appearances.  On Feb 23, 1983 a road killed specimen was found near where we are camping in Hidalgo County.  It was a suspected find, with many thinking it had fallen off of a truck.  The bird does live about 60 miles from the US-Mexico border, however.  In 2006, for five days over July, another one was seen here.  As such, it was a bird on few people's bird lists and few thought they would ever see,

Then, they found one on the ranch north of Roma in Starr County while calling for tawny-collared nightjar, a bird never seen in the ABA area but lives even closer.  This mottled owl has stayed put in the few trees on the US side of the border.  The night outings are once or twice a week and last night twenty-one of us went out and we were not disappointed.  It was like they knew exactly where it hangs out.

  The mottled owl is a species I never ever thought I would hear let alone see (unless I was in Mexico or in Central America, but I have now seen it.  It sang once, we looked at it for a minute and then it flew away silently into the night, and we looked for other night creatures.

Western screech owl

  We found a screech owl and saw no illegals, one border guard, heard a coyote, and lots of frogs and common pauraque's.  There was a poorwill way out in the distance and a lesser night hawk and a couple of great horned owls near or on the border wall. 

We saw a blind snake (one of two species) which was better than the six foot diamondback seen brown jay hunting by the other two birders.

All of this fun for just $100 seems the tow guides doing this have a little business venture , but for an owl of this magnitude, again, a bargain.

Tomorrow through the haze and clouds we will look for the eclipse near Eagle Pass, what will we see, if anything, I shall report to you....

Home at 2 am from owling and up tomorrow before dawn to drive to a celestial event wears on an older I am hitting the hot tub...the wrist is sore but hopefully on the mend....campground games....we need to pass on them in the future.  Cats...well we love the cats...Snoball is doing fine.

A three lifer trip! far


Sunday, March 31, 2024

A Fan of Warblers


It was old-time birding. Drive, drive, drive, crawl into a hole in the brush, wait patiently, slap mosquitoes and then see nothing consequential.   Crawl out, decide to pack it in, see a couple birders about a block away and wonder what they are looking for, and drive back to camp without asking them.

The fan-tailed warbler has vexed me before.  I dipped in Arizona before Covid, missing it by half a day and when I saw one in Brownsville show up, I had just been there and knew we would be coming this way in the spring, and figured it would be gone by the time we showed up or, just before I flew in, so I stayed in Florida and wrote.  I just could not justify a chase.

We drove this week to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for the eclipse and some birding.  It was somewhat uneventful on the 1400-mile journey.

I saw the first (apparently) documented limpkin in Orange County Texas

We camped near Rockport, Texas on the beach at Goose island State Park, missing the whooping cranes by a day.  Then arrived in Edinburg on Friday.  Silja promptly stepped on our cat and tripped significantly hurting herself, but Snowball is just fine.  Now she has a limp and has not birded with me.

Seeing that the fan-tailed warbler (seen much earlier this winter in Texas) had been refound, I could not resist going after it. This species is actually a bird from the other side of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, and how and why one got on this side of the mountains, it a story no one knows. With the potential of a rare lifer, I drove down to UT-LRGV campus to see it, but as it turned out, the only bird I found that I had never seen in the US, was a red-lored parrot.

The problem being, that this species of exotic is not on the official list, so all I got was a photo of a bird I had seen in Costa Rica in 2019.
As noted, I was looking for the warbler in the wrong spot and saw nothing, meanwhile 200 yards away, it was seen by four birders, one even got a photo.  This bird is not that easy to photo since this bird likes living in the shadows deep in the undergrowth and does not sit still.  I needed some more luck.

So, with Silja still hobbled, I returned to the scene of the crime.  I stopped at Stripes and had the usual birder breakfast today for an Easter morning, that is, a breakfast taco and bug spray, I usually try to not spray the bug-spray on the taco, but that is not absolute.  Finding where some crazy birder had trapsed into the underbrush (or maybe it was a wild pig?) I followed.  It was wet with dew, full of thorns, ruts, brush, and it was very buggy.  I kept thinking that I needed some luck, since this bird was about to reach "NEMESIS" status, that is, three dips.  I wondered, maybe I should take my clothes off for luck?  No one was on campus, and I was in the middle of the brush anyhow, but then not watching where I was stepping, as I found an opening, I slipped and landed on my bum. A bird landed on my hat.  I saw the yellow belly of the fan-tailed warbler on the brim looking at me like it was mocking me, OR maybe just sparring the world from naked Olaf, who knows with birds.  The birding Gods were being kind, that was certain.   

It was even too close to photo, too close to do anything, and it wandered off and then luckily in the murky hole I was in, it showed up again. It hesitated just enough to get a few somewhat focused shots.   I had the iso at 2000 and it was not high enough, but I got the bird!  And a photo...

I crawled out of my hole after seeing it feed with some olive sparrows and I found a couple of German birding tourists.  I gave them the quick skinny and somewhat reluctantly they followed my game trail back into the brush, hopefully as lucky as I was, and hopefully they had bug spray.

ABA Continental 829 (including the cattle tyrant probably will be added to the list), as I try to clean up some long-lasting missing birds I need.  World lifer 1909.  

Tomorrow, hopefully, another bird and another story.


Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Trip report the Canary Islands

Agatha Christi once wrote in a novel set and written in Puerto de la Cruz Tenerife Canary Islands Spain

“Mr.Satterthwaite passed on down the cypress walk to the sea. It was rather wonderful sitting there--on the edge of nothing--with that sheer drop below one.  But he found no inspiration there, and turning slowly he walked back along the path between the cypresses and into the quiet garden.”

I, however on that very same cliff WAS inspired.  Most of our trips or so it seems, are learning events.  We learn how to get through an airport, get a rental car, order food in a foreign language, how to find the birds and what unfamiliar calls are, or drive on the left.  We just spent 9 days in Tenerife on the Canary Islands and a day in Iceland after going for a week to Wisconsin and Minnesota for Christmas.  I have made some additions to "Olaf's Rules."

1) Never check in luggage.

This is an old rule, but recently we have forgotten.  Icelandair bullied us to check a suitcase in Minneapolis and we did not have to, and we checked one going home that we definitely did not have to, and it is still out there ...somewhere, carrying my tripod, two monopod walking sticks, a bathrobe, a pair of Crocs, a field guide, and an 800 camera part I just got in from losing it in Bhutan.

2)  Christmas trips are two long

being gone 17 days over the holidays is too much, thing need to be fixed in the future.

3) Why are we going to a place that is typically cooler than Florida when we have a house in

 Florida plus and RV spot?  The Canaries are nice but from Tampa we can be to Puerto Rico or Panama in 3 hours by plane, and almost any Carribbean Island in four.  Tenerife was 6 hours from Minneapolis plus another 6 to Tenerife.  The flight home was 6 plus 8 to Orlando with an overnight in Keflavik near a volcano that is ready to blow again, and possibly a closed airport.  

4) Do not eat squid ink, it is a little salty going in, but what comes out a day or two later is a little much

So with that introduction, we went to Tenerife, just off the African coast of Spanish Sahara, we met up with our son Allwin, his girlfriend and her parents.  We've known then for many years,  Allwin is a research Chemist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.  It is much easier to get to Tenerife for him.  a Four hour flight

We stayed in a nice VRBO and hung out on the tropical island.  The house was in the middle of a banana plantation
We had a nice view of the ocean, and of the city below us.  We went up to the volcano, Teide that last erupted in 1908 and could threaten the entire eastern US coast.  The barren landscape was used for the movie "Planet of the Apes."

The most common critter in this massive desert is the Gallot's lizard

We also saw endemic butterflies like the 

The Canary Speckled Wood Butterfly, and we also saw African blues

The beaches are down steep cliffs, wavy, black sand beaches and filled with shadows

Ancon Beach
Some impressive waves

We even saw a few surfers.

One (in)famous beach, the naturist Playa Patos, just below our house, had had its stairs eroded 9 years ago, then in 2023, they spent 30000 euros to replace them.  On December 24, five days before we arrived the cliff failed and blocked the beach.  The local city closed the access and put up a barricade fence. But intrepid souls climbed the fence and then went down the stairs and then in barefeet or flipflops crossed the fifty meter high pile of rocks.

We had an eight course meal at new years (see previous blogs) and hiked and saw a few sights including Agatha Christi's famous steps

The port, just another place to take one's clothes off for sun

red rock crab

Of course I drank lifer beers
I saw nine lifer birds for my world list and photographed 8 of them, six of those pretty good.  The Bolle's Pigeon went unphotographed, saw one and heard one.  Birder Neil Hayward was on the island but he was a day ahead of me in seeing birds and we never met up despite me reaching out.  Oh well.

Tenerife Blue Chaffinch, maybe a population of 5000 birds on the one island

(White tailed) Laurel pigeon, maybe 5000 on three islands having been split from the Madeira Laurel Pigeon and is near threatened

Island canary

Canary Island Chiffchaff

Canary Island chaffinch

Berthelot's pipit 

Barbary Partridge, here and North Africa

African Blue tit

Tenerife is not a birdy island. I also saw some avian creatures.

common buzzard

Common sandpiper

Eurasian blackcap

Eurasian kestrel

European robin

Gray wagtail

Little egret

The super skulky Sardinian Warbler

Yellow Legged gull, despite being an island, saw a grand total of just four gulls all were this species

  It was really a nice vanilla trip and then...we started for home. We got notified of a strike so we headed to the airport extra early but there was nothing looking like a strike, just long lines at the food court and a crowded airport.  We had a long wait.

Allwin's flight to Frankfurt and ours to Reykjavik were at adjoining gates, so we bid farewell and off we went to Iceland.
The six hour flight ended and my suitcase never came off the carousel  "Sir, your bag is safe and checked for Orlando."  So we went to the hotel and slept.  The Blue lagoon opened up that morning but many thought it was risky as another volcano eruption is imminent (has not erupted as of today) so we went to airport and I birded a little outside.

I picked up a nice redwing, have not seen one for a few years and after a hot dog we went through security.  Everything was going fine and then, it did not....I broke a zipper on my favorite jacket that morning, I have had the jacket for at least 25 years.  I love that jacket.  decided to throw it away before security.

It was very sad throwing away an old friend, 

So we went through customs and Silja got the random selection for extra screening.

Back at Christmas we have a newer tradition, we go to my uncle's place on Christmas eve to his gun range and shoot.

My daughter Lauren and Silja target shooting

Afterwards we ate Swedish meatballs with Grandma Lucille's recipe!  
Son Tyko with meatballs

So back to Iceland, they swabbed that jacket of Silja's for explosives.....and forty minutes later as I was wondering if she had been kidnapped.  She was finally released from her secret room.  She was mad and upset and vowed that Iceland was never going to be in our future again.  

So after more lines we got on a plane and 8 hours later aboard a 727 Max 9 (with a plug) that would be grounded a day later, we arrived in luggage however has never been seen again.......
Iceland(air) again is on my S#$$t list 

You know it was fun, it was nice, but was it real nice and fun.....?  Silja picked up a bug on a plane,  we have jet lag, my luggage is ....somewhere.  I am out a tripod a teleconverter some Christmas gifts, a kilo of prized coffee and a favorite hat.  I ruined a jacket and well, that is that.



Birding in LBJ's footsteps

Lyndon B. Johnson once describes his favorite and luckiest number, "four." "That's what I want you to remember. If you do...