Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Hunt for the Blue Devil

Lower Rio Grande Valley Texas

Big Year Day 38, 39-41

Big Year Total:  421
Coded birds:  25
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine, sea otters, racoon
Miles driven.  10,750
Flight Miles 24,000
flight segments: 24   Airports: 17
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 49
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:13

After I conquered my Pink Menace the American flamingo, my friend Chris Feeney, who had a nemesis bird of his own to exorcise, the blue bunting--his exploits in chasing and not finding that bird in some sense put my 'pink' problems to shame, I gave the bird a little jazz, I nicknamed his nemesis bird the "Blue Devil."  I didn't do this in the sense that it was a mean devil but used the contemporary music definition of the blue devil:
  • Blue devils, demons causing depression, according to some the etymology of the blues music genre
 Missing this bird so many times has led Chris to depression, and well, buntings have a nice singing voice and of course...they are deeply and gorgeous little blue birds.  So it came as a shock a couple of weeks later when what should show up in Texas, but yet another blue devil.  Poor Chris with scheduled medical tests couldn't go but when a second code four appeared--the white-throated thrush and Olaf was back from Alaska, I couldn't get to Texas soon enough!

First, I had just got home from Alaska on Day 38, Feb 7, but with a blizzard raging west of Minneapolis, all i could do was go to my grandmother's house to watch the Super Bowl.  One not wanting to waste a day, i went looking for a stale report of a saw-whet owl in St Croix Falls and in the middle of a massive text with a man named Tony Lau who had seen it three weeks earlier I finally found the roost but unfortunately no owl.  I continued north to Grandma Lucille's.

I needed something so I tromped in the woods in search of the elusive ruffed grouse I had jumped repeatedly in a corner of the family property.  I started making spirals until finally I cut a grouse track.

I didn't see any wing marks at any point so I circles around as it couldn't have gone far.  This circle took an hour.  I scratched my hands on the prickly ash, tripped on the barbed wire and then about the last place I would have looked for a grouse and not 30 yards from where i lost track of the trail, it flushed bird #414

#414  Ruffed Grouse

I went back and took a nap in my old room, sigh, memories, then bad memories, Super Bowl L was a real sleeper...yawn

I looked for the owl again at Interstate Park but again an empty branch.  Snow and ice was coming down so I made for the airport.  Luckily, with my elite status of researching for this big year, I got through the security line in 5 minutes and then I got upgraded.  Then my return got upgraded.  The perks of heavy travel.

I landed in Harlingen and hit the ground running, or speeding, and by 320 I was at Estero and 325, I had a coded life bird, the white-throated thrush.  It could not be any easier.

#415  White-throated thrush

I went to go check a hole for an owl, this would be the 7th time and so I paid my tab $5, and headed to the other part of Estero.  I spotted an ash-throated flycatcher in a tree and then it called briefly before flying away.  I had hoped to eventually see one of these down here in the winter.

#416  Ash-throated flycatcher

Then in my hurry to get to the owl spot on Alligator Lake, I tripped on the bridge, and just wiped out terribly.  I groaned in pain and cursed at the damn boardwalk and my stupidity.  I slowly checked for broken bones, none appeared broken.  My shade on my lens had flown into the ditch and I had scratched my filter but camera looked okay and then I saw things sticking out of my elbow.  I flicked out rocks and luckily the blood cleaned the wound.  My knee was just really bruised.

Then two irritated birders standing by the lake came up to me and I kid you not, one said.  "J%$# Christ stop F%%^& swearing you're scaring the fulvous whistling ducks."

Wait, I need that bird! I thought and forgot about the injury.

#417  Fulvous whistling duck

Okay, maybe my foul mouth got me a bird, but I was hurt, too.  The pain returned to my arm and knee when the owl wasn't there.

Then I went to Frontera Audubon Center for a continuation of a stakeout that seemed that I had stated over a month earlier and in some ways it felt like I had never left.  This time I was searching for another skulker, the blue bunting, the devil in blue.  It was drier this time and the sun was much improved.  That first night, I searched for about an hour as the park was open but alas, I saw nothing.

I knew Feb 9th was going to be a long day of standing, searching, sneaking and that would e good except, my body ached from my fall.  At 0700 I arrived feeling like it was just going to be a long and tiring day.  I had this feeling about a circle of benches I found, that this was going to be the spot, unfortunately by 0830, it wasn't.

I then began to run into people who knew me...a helpful Vet from Houston I had met at Refugio, then I ran into Liz Southworth from Massachusetts.  I have run into Liz at...Nebraska, Arizona, and British Columbia, we have been a day apart a couple of times in Florida, California, and if my memory serves me, once before in Texas too.  She is friend of my 'coach' Chris Feeney but interestingly despite my knowing her, we have never formally met.  Birding is a small circle, sometimes way WAY too small.  It is usually better to be anonymous, and get in get bird and get out but this was going to be a long day, I could feel it and I was not very energetic.  Liz looked left and then I looked right and then I got a call, bird seen!

Well it was but by the time I got there, no bunting even Liz a few feet away didn't see it.  By lunch, Liz was frustrated and went to see the thrush, I camped out at my circle and then at 1200 I vowed to go see the tropical parula.  I can't explain the supernatural sense I get when I'm in the birding 'groove.'  I can sense when the target bird is around and some times when I really in the zone, i can sense what i'm going to see.  Many of you will laugh at this but those of you who have seen it at work, will understand.  I do not understand it.  It isn't a dream.

The night before this, I was dreaming of being on a committee to undertaand why the Kiskadee was looking to die out in a couple of years....I never think about the great why this dream?  Obviously it wasn't a premonition about anything.  While I was listening to a couple of men gab at feeding station C&H at Frontera, I got the feeling.  I do have great low frequency hearing and can detect the slightest of movement, even a mouse step.  I froze instantly.  I saw something out of place deep deep in the woods and sensed a twitch I think, IDK.  If I knew, I could use my "birdy sense."  Initially I figured it was the tropical parula as I was mere feet from when I saw one on December 31.  Then whatever it was twitched.  I zeroed in on the movement.  Then I saw the blue.  It was the blue devil!

Time slowed down as the devil and I did a dance for it to remain hidden and I to try to get a photograph.  I told someone I had it for 15 minutes but it may have been 5 IDK.  I had one great shot at a photo but it moved when I was re positioning around a tree.  Then my autofocus miss fired and I switched to manual.

It made a slow half circle around the feeding station including a little time in the edge of the cemetery next door, but I had it, the blue devil was off the board!

#418 Blue Bunting

I got all the important parts, just not on the same photograph

Unfortunately, Liz was absent and the guys gabbing made me mad, so by the time I found another guy staking out a water hole it had disappeared into the thick brush.  I'm sure it was perched and I spooked it a bit when I sensed it.  Lucky me....again!  That is all I could say.

I then looked a bit for the parula, got sick of Frontera and went to find birds I needed.  I went to Santa Ana..

Santa Ana NWR

#419  Tropical Kingbird

Everyone likes this shot but to be honest after I spied my first tropical kingbird, I found them everywhere.

Here is one when I came back to Frontera,

I saw them at Bentsen, Estero, Anzulduas, and even one on the side of the road in Mission...go figure....

Then back at Frontera, i came face to face with a legend, a hero, a God of men in the birding world, at least I thought so.  Back in Ripon College I learned field birding from Professor William S. Brooks, and my college president, William S. Stott.  Both of these men had cameo appearances in my "Boobies, Peckers, and Tits" project but the man who was THE real man of birding was Benton Basham, the first man to reach 700 on a Big Year, 1983 and held the record during my formative years of college, 1983-87 (I graduated in 1988), he was also the first man to surpass 800 on his life list.  While I was cruising around Frontera, who do I run into but the LEGEND Ben himself.

Although it looks like Neil Hayward and I will be on a boat together in May in Adak (I guess a plane too), I doubt very much that I will run into any of the former Big Year record holders during this big year, in fact even if I did, they wouldn't seek me out and I guess Hayward and I will have some conversations as it is a very small boat for three days but again....birding is a team sport but then isn't.

Here staking out the Blue Bunting water hole was the legend himself, Mr. Basham.  Oddly, Liz came by and gave up my big year plan and then he actually cared about it.  He was such a humble fellow.  Giving advice and to be honest I felt like I was just tussling with the devil in the desert of February in a big year and I run into Moses, and Moses cares enough to want to lead me to the promised land.  Mr. Basham even reminded me of a guru, beard and all.  He was enthusiastic and he actually wanted my card!  He was very happy when I gave it too him too, and just didn't seem to be polite.  Wow!  In the middle of the woods, I find both the devil and salvation, in the form of the legend.

I got fired up with Mr. Basham's positive energy and even my knee and elbow didn't hurt so bad.  Liz and I were going to meet for dinner but first, enthused, I was going to give that old hole one more look, it was only 10 minutes away.

Estero Llano Grande

Einstein wrote that the definition of stupidity is to do the same thing over and over and over again but expect different results.  Seven times I ventured to a certain hole in a box in Estero Llano Grande and 7 times all I found was a hole, an empty hole, including yesterday, not once but twice.  So after parting ways with Mr. Basham, I drove back to Estero and walked to the hole being careful not to trip and looking for any of my missing blood on the boardwalk, I went to the hole and surprise surprise, this time I GOT DIFFERENT RESULTS!  Sorry Mr Einstein.

#420  Eastern Screech Owl

COOL!  Owl number 8 and I was told to have a goal to have them all by the end of June.  11 more owls to go.

On day 41, i overslept, my cell phone battery ran out but it was only 0645, so I dressed and skipped a shower and made for Bentsen State Park and a hook-billed kite flyover...the only thing that didn't work out was the kites.....then I walked the grounds of the nearby National Butterfly Center, and saw nothing of note except another owl, now all the holes seemed occupied, unlike before and just like the tropical kingbird.

This one has a little roof over its head.

Anzulduas Park

Then I went to Anzulduas Park, hoping to see a kite flyover or anything.  There was actually less police and border agents this time, only 14 patrols, last time 21 cars.

What these officers are doing defies my imagination, apparently they are protecting us from this guy

The only person I could see at the park across the border was this guy. Is he that scary?  Is he Poncho Villa's great grand child? Is he plotting a revolution?  I have no time for these border guys, state or federal.  I won't ever talk to them.  They drive around like maniacs and park in front of critical birding habitat.  I actually drove .5 MPH in the park in front of one apparently in a hurry, just to piss off one of them.  Now, I know they are just doing their jobs but they are the visual part of a larger issue.

Here is why I have no time for these guys. The border issue is a joke.  Our enemies are not the Mexicans or Latinos, they have more in common with us than some other nationalities that don't want to be us, or just want to use us.  These fine people are just trying to better themselves and it is sad, truly sad that the Mexican and other Latino elites in their home countries have no time or place for their own people.  Give credit to the Cubans, they at least try to better the whole lot, not just enrich the few.  Now I have Cuban employees, one is the son of Batista's former secretary and they lost everything, and are mad but you know, in 55 years, you have to get over it.  You move on. These people (the peasants) were taken advantage of by the Spanish, then the elites of there own countries and then the US Multinationals, then the CIA....

Secondly, it is these people who are doing the cooking for, cleaning up after, doing all the dirty work here and other places for the older retirees that in many cases, are the ones supporting the politicians who loath these people.  The CNAs at the nursing home who have to clean up your ...well you know...are these people.  The politicoes these conservatives support have came up with such an assinine policy of having 500 Texas state troopers and basically with the Border patrol and line cars end to end from here to Laredo on the border.  Mostly these guys constantly driving and roaring their engines, helicopters buzzing me, and general have even speaker warnings to the immigrants to stay screws up my birding or at least my tranquility!  Seven of these guys drove past me in 15 minutes on the levee at Bentsen!  Was there a second guy on horse back?

Now I was made aware of a shooting at Anzulduas....hell I was shot at in Laguna off the border.  Drugs is the issue, they say.  But with all this enforcement, has the supply of drugs actually decreased?  I have heard that the price of Meth has dropped due to competition from the importers and rural meth labs have been put out of business from Mexican etc competition.  How could this be with end to end border patrols?

Hate my politico opinions....but you see it down here and the stupid checkpoints all over the roads remind of 1938 Nazi Germany..."papers please!"

You know, in all my time at the border, I've seen same amount of illegals sneaking through as supposed extirpated birds...NONE!  What a waste of resources.....

Okay, I AM opinionated.

After my game of chicken in reverse with the cop I stopped and located a black-throated gray warbler in a tree by the bathroom, it WAS a bathroom stop and my camera was in the car....bird #421 none-the-less, and every warbler is a good bird in my book, well now it is in MY book...especially western ones.  So that finished up my birding for the trip....421.  I also added a raccoon at Santa Ana, first coon for the year.

I also saw some truly odd things, use your imagination here.

I saw a man reading a novel at a bird stakeout, camera in one hand, novel in the other...not sure if that is good or a bad thing.  I wouldn't be skua-ing him on a bird stakeout.   Seeing the bunting required full attention.

I then offered an idea to him and the other three there that maybe I should order out pizza for lunch...has anyone ever had pizza delivered to a bird stakeout?
so much to little time...

I saw a woman on a trail in Estero walking 5 dogs on five separate leashes, a big collie down to a tiny chihuahua.  What happens if that coon's cousin pops out on the trail here?
That would be entertaining.

I saw a birder with the biggest camera lens I have ever seen, bigger than mine, she was maybe 4 foot ten, was also packing a large swivel mount tripod.  I wanted to take a picture of here, but well, she was too much for my more modest lens.  The odd thing was she was maybe a mile from her car.  She could be the strongest woman birder...

sigh............I was once lost in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, and now I have been shown the road home...saved by a modern day Moses, Mr. Basham....I was actually going home!!!!

Sadly only for a day...
I leave for Hatteras NC tomorrow

I'm reminded of a religious cliche...
Eat, Pray, Love....

Eat take out pizza at a bird stakeout
pray that the Legend comes and saves you from the blue devil
and love that you are not a dragonfly in the sights of a tropical kingbird

Sorry Chris, but it isn't my nemesis bird



  1. Well, I was close to a fire fight at Anzalduas several years ago. My friend and I were on the far side of the dike (back when it was ok to be there). A Border Patrol vehicle went into the NWR and minutes later gunfire opened up not too far away form us. Within minutes there were 13 Border Patrol vehicles, 3 local sheriffs cars, and a Border Patrol helicopter in the area. I asked about what happened and a park worker said drugs, it happens all the time. Now that area of the park is off-limits. Great birding spot though.

    1. well okay, that is a problem but there seems to be no shortage of drugs, IDK

  2. Guess I will not try a big year until they build a wall..

    1. I've birded with my hind end pressed up against a wall in extreme southern california, it gave off an terrible shadow. Then we will be in east Berlin, and how do we monitor the "wall," gun towers every 100 yards, 50 yards? a mine field? Who gets shot? Me?

  3. The naked one with binoculars ;)

  4. Chris's Blue Devil Party :-)


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