Wednesday, November 2, 2011

One Hour in Bentsen SP: Fishing, Hunting, Living and Dying

I rode my bicycle over to Bentsen SP mid-morning, just for a quick hello and my version of a personal “I’m Back” greeting.  I rode and stopped and stood, with intent towards a commitment to be present more often than not for this coming winter season.  Today would begin what I hope to be a many year relationship of getting to know this place—as much as it would let me; and as much as I would let it, from the constraints of trails, paths, benches, bird blinds and hawk towers.
The park appeared empty, almost.  Parking my bike in the old picnic area, I walked partway down the once intended boat ramp, a great place to view the westward Resaca.  I almost missed sighting a man fishing, hidden behind a concrete barrier.  The angle of cast of his rod’s line caught the sunlight, and then caught my eye, appearing as if a long singular spider web trailing across the water.  Just as my eyes followed the shimmer of line, he leaned around the concrete barrier, giving me view of his head and upper body. He gave me what many would call a fleeting glance before he turned back toward the Resaca and rhythmically cast his line into the water.  I sensed his glance to have an experience with it, even though his eyes were shielded by what appeared to be expensive sporting sunglasses.  His glance may have placed me into a specific table within his brain’s database that included multiple object fields: probable tourist, female, birder, old fart; and maybe one attribute field: funny hat.  But the experience of his glance felt more like a system’s engineer’s summation of all my attributes, a specific database column utilizing a singular parsing key:  U.S. citizen. 
Whether the fisherman was a well-off vacationer, pursuing a well-financed hobby, or an experienced field agent with the day off (or perhaps working the field), I do not know.  Regardless the correct attribute for fisherman type, I did not continue down the ramp to water’s edge, as originally intended. I believe in honoring a person’s staked-out locale space, especially when they are a solo sportsperson engaged in the bounty of a day outdoors.  But I did give him more than a fleeting glance as I moved back to the upper bank, watching an osprey fish through my 10x42’s.  His gear, including complete “fishing attire” was new, and appeared expensive.  He even had a hand-held fishing net, with body strap, slung across his back in similar manner to my well-worn day pack.  It was the kind of net that lake fisherman will use when fishing from a small watercraft, dipping the net into the lake, below their catch, and lifting the fighting and flapping fish onto their boat’s base decking for reckoning a keep or a throw back.  This fisherman’s net, slung so neatly across his back, looked as though it had never touched water. He looked nothing like, and certainly dressed nothing like, the local residents I have occasioned to find fishing this point. Whether fishing for fish, or for people, I can’t say.  But I pondered the analogy of a fisher of men, and what citizenship could possibly mean, in a kingdom come.  But then a Sharpy caught my eye.
Most raptors, like most sparrows, give me fits in the field.  It was a LONG time before I’d claim either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-Shinned Hawk on my lifelist.  Elric would tutor me with e-mails to differentiate.  His analysis was spot on, as always, as I studied field guides and purchased hawk-specific books such as “Hawks From Every Angle” by Jerry Liguori.  With studies and homework done, I’d return to the field and be graced by one of these two beautiful raptor’s, of genus Accipiter.  And my confidence would wane, and my homework would fail me.  But just as many hours in the field has helped my confidence on SEEING the “obvious” differences between a Song Sparrow and a Lincoln’s Sparrow, multiple sightings have eased my apprehension in identifying a Cooper’s versus a Sharp-Shinned (Sharpy), especially when the Sharpy lands in a tree some twenty yards from my 10x42’s. 
This Sharpy was hunting rather than fishing.  Great-tailed Grackles were its prey, even though several Chachalaca’s were squawking and attempting to hide, at ground level, just below the grackles.  I was watching from behind a birder’s wooden fence blind, with fence top only a few inches higher than the crown of my head.  I stood, peering through a square hole in the fence, one of several holes placed at multiple heights, for birders young and old, and everything in between. 
The commotion associated with the Sharpey’s hunt was raucous and dynamic.  I was pondering the choice of grackle over the chicken-like Chachalaca when the sounding screech of a chosen grackle pierced my ears.  The Sharpy’s chosen prey initiated a frantic escape path that per chance, took it directly over my head, barely clearing the wooden fence.  The Sharpy was about six inches behind it, same altitude, and the whoosh of breeze onto my trusty hat was well within my personal space’s comfort zone.  I staggered backwards, turned and watched the surprised Sharpy break chase.  I was an unexpected addition to the hunting grounds, unsighted until the chase bird cleared the fence’s bounds, within inches of my hat.  The Sharpy broke with upward flight, as would be expected, banked, and landed in the original tree’s sighting.  I had impacted the environment, just by standing, per chance, on an unplanned flight escape path.  I unintentionally thwarted the hunt.
Just as I wanted to give the fisherman his locale rights for a time of fishing, I knew I needed to retreat this area to allow the predator to have a successful hunt.  I moved on, slowly birding the adjoining park area.  Within ten minutes I heard a burst of commotion from behind me, followed by that unmistakable cry of the victim, and knew the Sharpy had successfully attained his day’s daily bread, a probable Great-tailed Grackle.
I continued my walk around the old picnic grounds, with Resaca to the westward side, Ebony and Mesquite trees within the grounds, and untamed thicket toward the east.  My hello and “I’m Back” personal greetings to this unique habitat were greeted by a Vermillion Flycatcher.  I’d like to say THE Vermillion Flycatcher that graced this area last winter and spring.  Something familiar—meeting my expectations of knowing a place. 
As I circled and birded back and toward my bicycle, I caught sight of a large raccoon, moving slowly across an open area.  I raised my binoculars and watched it slowly, and what appeared to be painfully, move toward brush and water.  Two good front legs and back right; but she was dragging a motionless back left leg.  Her mouth was open, in the gaunt position of the dying.  She turned and looked at me.  Death was on her face, worn openly atop her black mask.  My stationary stance appeared no new threat, and no miraculous reprieve from her position in life, so she slowly continued her path, left leg motionlessly dragging behind her.  She may have worn death in her eyes, and she may be near death, but she had not accepted it. I realized her innate natural strength and tenacity to live was worthy of calling beautiful, painfully beautiful.  I don’t know how many human eyes had caught sight of this specific animal, but I wondered that mine might be the last.  Tribute was due. 
I was seeing nature do what nature does; one short hour in Bentsen SP.