Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Familiar Field

It can be quite exciting to venture to new and faraway destinations.  For a birder, it means doing some pre-trip homework to become aware, if not familiar, with the probable “gets” of a new habitat.  Spending time in the field fumbling through bird books, clueless to an unfamiliar species, is NOT a good way to bird.  But even with lots of prep work, it can be an exhausting experience “learning” the new field.  Respecting an unknown hike and an unfamiliar habitat, while “chasing birds” is both invigorating—and exhausting.
And then there is the return to the familiar field.  I have friends and family that are multi-generational land owners.  They "know" their land, whether a quarter acre or 200 acres, or something in between.  They mend fences, make trails, plant gardens, create pecan orchards; they chase feral hogs and “walk their property.”  Some keep yearly bird counts of species sighted, and sometimes I get an invitation to participate, which is great fun.
At this time in my life I have no interest in private land “ownership”.  I love being a communal land “owner”.  I am partnered with the community of U.S. citizens, taxpaying one and all, in the acquisition and maintenance of national, state, county and city parks, generally described as public land.  My most beloved spots are national and state communal land sites. We call them our national and state parks, or some similar designation, including national forests, grasslands and seashores.  They are well kept secrets, mid-week, during the public school year.
Planning that next trip to some new and/or faraway destination is an important (and time consuming) part of my weekly habit.  Researching and studying probable avian “gets” is my favorite subject of study. Visits to this nation’s great state and national parks are a purposeful part of what gives my life meaning.  And yes, I keep a birding life list.  And yes, it is an adrenaline rush when I see new beauties, and add entries to my Excel spreadsheet for species, locale, date and observation notes.
But then there is the return to the familiar field.  For me, it is not a privately owned farm or ranch.  It is a day trip to Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP).  I have spent many an hour, many a day, many a season at BBSP; I know its trails better than any other site, and the locations within the park to “best get” species ranging from Anhinga to Vermillion Flycatcher.  I know winter has arrived when the park is abundant with Yellow-rumped Warblers.  I know summer is around the corner when I sight the lovely Purple Gallinules, seemingly resented by the year-round Moorhen residents.  

And yet, just as any land owner will tell you, I have not spent enough time at this place.  And I will never really know this place.  Take away the well-maintained trails, and it would be a wild, hostile habitat for anyone to traverse.  At best, land and habitat can be familiar. And so I recently returned, spending a glorious day, to bird and hike this familiar field, what many call the jewel of the Texas state park system.
I had no expectation of picking up new lifers.  This would be a day to raise binoculars in praise of the known, the familiar.  A day to celebrate spring mating and nesting; to walk “my” property in the solitude of mid-week, and bask in the dry “cool front” that was surprising Gulf Coasties with glorious weather.  But as any land “owner” will tell you, the land and the wildness we call Mother Nature, always surprises.  And so, this glorious day at BBSP was a day to sight the familiar —and a day to sight surprises: two new birding lifers and two unfamiliar species found in no avian field book.
 A mated pair of Blue-winged teals:

A Boat-tailed grackle, not to be confused with  the widespread  Great-tailed Grackles that are found in parking lots and city parks, and numerous other "human locales".  Note the non-reflective brown eye of the Boat-tailed, and note its restricted range in any birding field guide.  The Great-tails have eyes that shine and reflect light, looking almost reptilian. I love the springtime call of the Boat-tails, sounding like Mexican castanets.

The elegant posture of a Great Blue Heron:

Springtime can add the interesting challenge of identifying juveniles of famiar species.  No--not a Great Egret; no, not a Snowy Egret; this "not so great" photo is a juvenile Little Blue Heron in its white plumange:

And parent Little Blue Heron fishing in a secluded pool:

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron treats me like a hawk:  if it doesn't move, maybe I won't see it:

And two wonderful avian surprises!  The American Bittern is a somewhat regular "get" at BBSP--but today, fully out in the open, my long-awaited "get" of a new lifer:  the Least Bittern.  Photographers will say "poor photo".  Birders will say "you got full visibility of the Least!"

And while looking straight above me, attempting to photograph a beautiful Yellow Warbler, I caught another species in my binocular field of view--it also seemed to be watching the Yellow Warbler.  I captured several photos, and returning home, poured over this photo (not exciting to look at in this blog) and other similar photos from a few different angles, magnifying on my computer,and viewing pixel by pixel. With the help of multiple field guides, and web sightings posted from others, I gained  confidence in  identifying this female Bullock's Oriole.  Her yellow was brightest on sides of neck, auriculars and malar, distinguishing her from the "drab first year" female Baltimore Oriole.

Some non-avian surprises:
“The mud snake is a large non-venomous, highly-aquatic snake that is seldom seen because of its secretive habits.”

And a water moccasin, unknown species type:

BBSP is known by most tax-payers as "the alligator park".  I find it an amazing place that I can spend a few hours birding and easily sight over 50 different bird species.  But I also must remind myself to respect the best known resident.  I have come close to stepping on two, while walking and craning neck to the tree tops for warblers, vireos and such.  

On this particular day, I came upon an unfamiliar human male, stopped mid-trail by below alligator, at edge of trail.  As the other human stood, pondering the situation, I re-positioned camera and daypack, deciding to carefully (and quickly) walk past the alert alligator.  As I got ready to make my move, the unfamiliar male human called out "I think you'll be OK."  

I turned to him and gave the gentlest look that also expressed "you THINK I'll be OK?"  No words were needed.  I walked past, then decided to turn and capture this photo.  I then decided to give the unfamiliar human male a moment of grace, turning my back on his challenge and continuing down the trail--but listening carefully should there be a sudden need to...

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