Monday, February 22, 2016

The Crane Whisperer

…and the saga continues.

I didn’t get any sleep on the night of big year day #49.

I went on Thursday and applied for a handgun permit.  I owned my first pistol at aged 15, a Ruger Security six, nickel plated .357 magnum.  I won it at Duck’s Unlimited. I traded it away at aged 17 for a trolling motor.  Bad trade, in retrospect but I caught a lot of fish with the old “Esox Magnum”…”big pike!)   The reason me and three office people went to get gun permits…?

       One of my former employees, a man that owned the IRS hundreds of thousands, filed suit on us for obeying an IRS seizure order to send them his final paycheck….tax protestors….they believe in the constitution and say the 16th amendment doesn’t allow income taxes….go figure….but that is is not what kept me up either.

What did was United delaying my 0500 flight so much it might as well cancelled it.  I got something half figured out so, I’d get to west Texas eventually but 2 hour delays become 6 hour delays and then cancelled when I can’t do anything about it…
            I may be ugly, I may be a fat idiotic Swede.  I may not be be the best birder out there, but I’m one wily dude in an airport.  I’ve learned.  So I get up to the woman at United at 0400.  There is a huge line up behind me of similar fated people and I’ve done my homework.  I sart my line…I got a job interview in Midland at noon and I’m so disappointed.  I don’t even know, if it can be pushed back because it is…4 in the morning.  I continue the crocodile tears…I look over at American and sigh…If only I was on American…
            Then she looks up their flight…something she isn’t supposed to do on an award mile flight like mine.  She says “oh they got lots of seats”…she rebooks my ticket on them.  That flight leaves in now 50 minutes….the line at American is going nowhere, so I causally walk into the Premier access line, some place I’ve never had access to “officially” on American and when it is my turn in a minute, the woman looks at me.  She knows I don’t belong.  “The woman at United told me to just use the 1st Class line, plane delay and family emergency.  You are so kind to except a change over ticket.”  The woman pats me on the shoulder, tells me everything will work out, and upgrades me on both segments through Dallas, no I skip the 1 hour security checkpoint, since they’ve just changed the system at Minneapolis and ten minutes later, I’m buying coffee at Starbucks.  Since my wife was flying to St. Martin, one gate over, I said hello and then I got on my plane and arrive to Midland, 20 minutes before I would have on United.
            I was there…west Texas.  The oddest things happen and are seen in west Texas….I may give a list in another blog, like the time a Halliburton truck ran over my cell phone and made a pancake out of it and the ringer still worked, or the story of Eve’s Garden B&B in my BPT book and year, or my lactose intolerant pal who finds out there is lactose in quesadillas as we drive into Bordon County a place with few people, no bushes and especially no bathrooms.  Just look of Judge Roy Bean on the internet and nothing more needs to be said.  Roy Bean is west Texas and west Texas is Roy Bean.

            West Texas Memorial Cemetery.
            My go to spot for scaled quail is two miles north of the airport in Midland, five minutes in Texas, I drive behind the property on the Nobels EOG oil lease, and there are 30 scaled quail running every which way, just like all the other times this noob oil man has been here.  Sometimes they are in the cemetery, sometimes behind.  Again, no way to get a photograph.   I did get a shot of a photogenic curve-billed thrasher.  One year bird, down and then off I headed south.  I once had to attend a burial here, to make it look good and luckily today, only the groundskeeper was there when I paid my respects to Mr. Thurmond.  Poor guy, I don’t know…I bird a lot in cemeteries.  I wonder what my cemetery count would be?

            Down the road I saw something.  It wasn’t initially a bird.  

Okay, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just shake my head….I drove past a stuffed horse or at least what looked like one as I was getting towards Fort Davis and I had to stop.  It was made out of steel but the hat with ears out was real.  This was the Thundering Hooves Memorial Fence.  There were saddles, picture, and even pictures kids had drawn about a horse they owned now dead….many horses…even one mule and a burro named Pedro.  It was odd.  A dedication to a horse so loved the owner had promised the saddle would never be put upon another horse…it was on a log here.  I wanted to cry and then, I spotted a dead roadkill Killdeer, my roadkill list doesn’t have a killdeer so I took a picture..forgot about dead horses and drove on.

Davis Mountains, Texas
Quail never come easy for me and the Montezuma quail especially, this bird is like finding a ghost, the only I’d ever seen in Arizona was dead in front of me seen while relieving myself on the side of a road, somehow, I got things tucked away and my camera on the bird to get a single blurry but ID-able shot. 
As advised by Thor, I called ahead and yes, they have had the quail at the feeders, but when I checked in at 2pm at the state park, the volunteer and flushed four once near the feeders, no one had seen them in the feeders well, since he came and after I got checked in, I read the log, since at least July, when they had started a new log book…….phooey!  Then I found out someone had my camping site and so I had to go and reregister…crud.
I finally looked where he had said they occasionally see them, and I got hot, hungry, so I ate a sandwich but my cheese had melted as it was hot.  I got tired, I got stared at by other campers, and I found a Townsend’s solitaire in a juniper tree…some consolation prize.  I walked trails, staked out feeders and well, I didn’t even hear anything quail like I could have made up to be a quail.  By dark, I was pooped, having not slept in a day and a half so I pitched my tent and prepared for the night.  It was then I noticed that my tent smelled significantly of cow, more precisely, cow manure.  I had switched tents at home as this Eureka one is lighter but I was so tired I didn’t care…..zzzz

It was a thirteen hour sleep interrupted by night sounds.  I had hoped to have had the chance to hear a western screech owl but alas….3 great horned owls or maybe the same one that moved three times and a plethora of noisy Eurasian collared doves.  I crawl out of the aromatic tent and it was about half light and went to the rest room.  I then started my quail hunt and unfortunately, it was more of the same….no quail.  I climbed trails, drove, walked, and even once tiptoed by camping areas 68-70 where the volunteer told me to…no quail.  I then went to the feeders.  At the first feeder I spotted a lone Brewer’s sparrow hanging with two green tailed towhees, another small consolation.   I looked at the map and saw a second set of feeders at the interpretive center and drove over there.  I hiked the trail and was just back to the car and heard some crazy person on the main road in honking.  WTF?  I could eventually see it coming not really all that slow and it honked and then I saw a blur of wings.  IDK, maybe I was a quarter mile away as the crow flies?  But birds flew off the road and they were definitely quail.  Now some birders, possibly that referred to in my opening would have just counted those quail, and been gone but they could have been gray partridge for all I know, and as such I couldn’t count those.  That isn’t birding to count birds like that… 
I cursed at the black car as it turned into an RV Camper spot…and then kicked a rock and sighed.  Missed opportunities…quail…

I drove past the campsites, hiked another trail, went to the overlook, drove out of the park and looked by picnic areas and then frustrated went and took down my tent after a 16th time past campsites 68-70.  My tent was in need of a good airing out, I was frustrated and the only quail in the park almost got killed by some maniac with Louisiana plates.  It is times like this to just give up, so I did.  I threw it all in the car, and I didn’t even take the poles out of my tent.  “F’ this place” I said and was backing out, but vowed, one more, one last drive towards 68.  I had gone 50 yards and then window down I sensed something.  On the side of the road, there they were!
Montezuma quail……

Nothing more to be said.  I took pictures, breathed deeply, and shook my head like I was dreaming and left.
I saw a phainoepepla on way out, hadn't got a good photo this year of one so..

Winkler County, Texas
Of all the oil mavens of Texas, one man alone I would love to have spent a week with…Sid Richardson.  I don’t know if I’d learn the art of business, carousing, drinking, become saved, or learn how to control politicians, but in the end, it would be a hell of a week.  Sid largely, made his first big fortune on drilling wells in the lonesome dry wasteland that is Winkler county, located right where the border of Texas turns from south to west.  These towns…Wink, and Kermit that house this county, are barren, and look like they were run down 30 years ago.  Of the Billions taken out of this county so little has been put back, that some ghosts towns have more going for them.  Largely, in the 20s and 30s nobody had anything so the minerals could be bought for a song and dance and then oil!   The Bass family, heirs of Richardson, have more money than some Treasuries of other countries.
This is also prime bird habitat but there are few roads and even in the oil bust lots of trucks….
I thought I saw a sage thrasher but it was something else and then a bland sparrow came up and went down.  I thought…Cassin’s?  I played its song to remind myself in the car and this bird went nuts…….yup…definitely Cassin’s.  I never left the car.

Then I began seeing birds I could not recognize.  It got out of hand and by the time I got to the sand hills, this strip of sand about 2-20 x 100 miles that goes at an angle through Monahan State Park and up through here, I finally figured it out.  Winter lark buntings changing over to black plumage….I have never seen them in this in between phase. 

All totaled, I bet I ended up seeing 3-4000. 

The sand hills, barren land and if someone would give you $100 bucks in 1925 for a mineral rights…you would laugh at them.

I was making time and stopped at some of the towns.  Seagraves advertised a museum with art exhibit.  I had an urge to stop.  You can see cool things in some of these museums.  It was closed on weekends….alas everything I tried to stop at or shop to browse in…closed.  They did have gas though…

Brownfield TX area
I rolled into the cotton fields north of Seminole Texas where the land grows slightly more fertile in the early afternoon.  I lurked in a park for a moment starring at trees and the grass and to everyone enjoying the park, I’m sure I looked like a stalker.  I got behind a row of cars with consecutively numbered license plates with no added birds and headed for the Mound Lake area, where Justin told me to stake out possible crane fields.  I looked on the public roads north, east, west, and then south of the lake, and then crossed 380, heading even more south.  I stopped, looked listened.  No cranes.
I did find a covy of bobwhite quail after I followed a hawk, which I never adequately identified go into a grove of trees…quail came out the other side.  Here is the last one, or maybe the next to last one, the hawk never came out so maybe he had dinner.

The vigil for cranes continued, I saw what looked like a field sparrow but something about it was wrong.  It had too much of a line behind the eye.  I wondered if it had some hybridization in it and although 90% positive, I second guessed myself and finally in a fit decided it was nothing and I'd call the bird nothing.  I couldn't be positive, so that was that.  Maybe it was just that i was tired and I had just about enough of the nothingness of these cotton, milo, and wheat fields.  I found the road towards Lubbock and after Justin Bosler whom Petra Hockey has nicknamed the Crane Whisperer, graciously allowed me to crash at his place and I decided to invite him to dinner, I headed north.  I came upon a colony of burrowing owls in a prairie dog town and then eventually met Jason and his friend Adelaide from Alpine TX.  They both put up with my BS and we enjoyed great Tex-Mex food.

Morning came early especially when I hadn’t even drank my coffee and Justin called and was on Barn owls.  The problem was I was 20 miles behind him due to me getting lost in SW Lubbock and then deciding to grab something a few days old at a convenience store for food.  Nothing but the best for this birder---day old, day old breakfast sandwich , the best.
I drove at what is now owl speed, something above the speed limit and below getting killed.  I saw Justin ahead and I slowed beside him in the middle of the road and soon barn owls flew overhead in a quarter light….owl number 9.
We stashed my car in a rest area and then spotting a flock of sandhill cranes already moving south x southwest, we followed, then turned, and followed again.  Eventually, some maybe 15 miles from the start, we found the secret feeding location of the 50,000 cranes of Mound Lake.  That was the easy part…now, where was the rare crane?  If it was still even here.  One in 50,000...luck...?  It was like a lottery. We skipped some small groupings, looked at one and Justin looked disinterested, we then trespassed on a field to get a better look but that didn’t feel right so we got on a real road and headed north.  We looked at a flock of maybe 5000 and most of their heads were down and well, we wanted a better group, then we went around the corner and stop on a dust, erosion filling in road and parked, note, NO COROLLAS HERE!  We got out and scoped, I went from left to right and Justin right to left and then….”I got one!” He said excitedly.
Common Crane…code four bird, I’m the second human to see one in North America this year….cool.

Then…I got one, wait…2 cranes?  Then while I was trying to digiscope one it went behind a water tank and Justin called out the locations…there were three locations…?  We had most likely found three birds.  It was a very excited morning out in the cold wind of the Texas Panhandle, we both had the shakes maybe because we were cold or maybe just a great score….”man, Justin, you are my vote for birder of the year in Texas.”  I said and then as he reported it, I learned Justin had given much for these birds…he had reported them, which I am forever grateful otherwise I wouldn’t have known they were around and told everyone to keep out and look for them in the fields and the TX Dept of Wildlife/ game and parks got mad and pulled his Graduate school funding….assholes.  Apparently they don’t like birders……..
Oddly as I was in the car to warm up, good old Jay Lehman, big year birder extraordinaire (4th all time) himself emailed me asking about…common cranes….”Jay, I am just warming up after looking at least two..strange you ask...”  Or something like that, I wrote and Jay got the NARBA alert we sent out in the time between his writing and my reply….Jay, it appears, is also in the ‘zone.’
We drove around finding one again later after they all rotated fields and then as they began the cycle of returning to the water, where I couldn't go.  We found a waterhole of our own and tallied, one gadwall, crows by the thousands, some horned larks and my last year bird for the trip, a pair of McCown’s longspurs coming to the water.  A final year bird for Texas.
Also when we were cruising around we got another rare bird alert…zenaida dove in Florida…as I drove south to Midland Airport, suddenly Wellton, AZ, my next scheduled stop didn’t look very good, and then people started emailing me, one offered to pick me up.  I turned in my car and opened up this computer….only 12,500 miles to Miami on United….when in doubt don’t fly United, but well…what the heck, I hit purchase, and then off I ran for the gate, it left in 40 minutes…"run Olaf, run" a friend wrote me, and run I did.....

Thank you Justin

Big Year Day 50-52

Big Year Total:  450
Coded birds:  29
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine, sea otters,

Miles driven.  11,900
Flight Miles 31600
flight segments: 34   Airports: 21
Hours at sea: 22
Miles walked 53
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:15

Western Midland County
#441  Scaled quail

Davis Mountains
#442  Townsend’s Solitaire
#443  Brewer’s Sparrow
#444  Montezuma Quail

Winkler County
#445  Cassin’s Sparrow
#446  Lark Bunting

Brownfield TX area
#447  Northern bobwhite
#448  Barn Owl
#449  Common Crane

#450  McCown’s Longspur


  1. I do agree that stringers need to be called out, so I like the fact that Olaf put it out there. If the dude is not a stringer, then he should have some accounts to back up his records, especially the more rare birds. It seems strange that the guy was inducted into the 700 club yet when I googled his name I couldn't find anything at all. If he really did it, then congrats and these comments should roll right off his back. We had a stringer in NC not so long ago and people were chasing fake birds that the person was posting, not cool. Olaf, keep up the stream of thought posts. I love them. They put us right out there with you and give us a window into the hectic travel and sleepless nights. I am living vicariously through you until I can retire and do it myself. Cheers.

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