I planned an adventure today. I would bird an unfamiliar locale, seeking a specific new lifer—all based on information I was gathering from the “Birding on the Net” and “TexBirds” web portals.
Multiple experienced birders have gently nudged me these past several months to make use of web resources to better “go after” new lifers and rare sightings. Apparently I was birding in The Dark Ages as one of the few birders not regularly checking these web-based lists of sightings, posted daily by enthusiastic and experienced birders. Actually Elric, my first birding mentor, nudged me toward checking TexBirds a few years ago. Better late than never I guess. And so recently I searched Google, found these web portal sights, book marked them, and started checking daily.
Now an important side note is that I have long been fascinated by Longspurs. I just like the way they look, in field guides that is, as I’ve never sighted one with my trusty 10x42s. I knew that Longspurs were not a common find in Texas even though field guide range maps show all four Longspur species to consider wintering in wide areas of the state. I’ve had experienced birders tell me they’d never seen a Longspur in Texas.
And so my new daily read of “Birding on the Net” was enticing me with multiple entries, each proclaiming the sighting of Smith’s (and perhaps Lapland and McCown’s) Longspurs in a specific area, just east of Highlands Reservoir. With the help of mapquest I realized it would be less than an hour drive to this posted and unfamiliar locale. I detailed my plan these last few days, choosing today’s weather and weekday schedule to go after this new lifer. Today would be my first attempt at a web-enhanced field trip—and a potential homerun sighting of a Longspur!
With binoculars, camera, boots and daypack as my companions, I found my way to this unfamiliar area just north of Baytown. When I arrived at the country road on the backside of the reservoir’s grass levee, I couldn’t figure out HOW to get to the Longspur sighting area without going through (or over) barb wire fencing. I had not realized that this locale was apparently within someone’s private land. Obviously other birders were accessing the locale and sighting multiple species of Longspurs, but no birders were within range (or visible to roadside) for me to ask about a welcoming gate or accompany me through this uninviting fencing.
Call it an excuse, but among other things, I’m a native Texan. And, perhaps more importantly, I come from multiple generations of Texas farmers and ranchers. I wasn’t about to climb over some land owner’s fencing, even if it only bounded multiple acres of “vacant” land and every other birder in the state was jumping fence. My forefathers and foremothers would roll over in their graves. I knew what both my granddaddies would have done if a stranger jumped fence onto their land. None of the web posts that I’d read mentioned the “how” to access this location. And for me, it wasn’t in my genetic makeup to try and find this new lifer under these circumstances. I wasn’t sure if I was being smart or being really stupid; but I was definitely feeling like an ignorant goober—my plan had a critical error: unknown technique for sight entrance. And so, this excitedly planned new adventure was a complete bust. I pointed the car back towards Baytown, disappointed but not frustrated. My family heritage was intact.
Spontaneity can be a wonderful thing. I drove past a brown sign (my favorite sign color) that offered “Baytown Nature Center” with a white arrow pointing toward a different route than my homeward path. I made a quick change of lane and turn, following the sign’s directions. I was spontaneously headed toward another new, unknown locale that was now “off my planning map” for the day.
I have to say, I was not impressed when I drove to the entrance gate of the nature center. I almost convinced myself to save the $3 entrance fee and just head home. But having just been turned away from my day’s goal based on the barbing signs of private land ownership, I was more than ready to contribute $3 toward the public land trust.
It appeared that I was the only car, the only person, in the park. And even though this parkland lay against the shore of the bay, mosquitoes were swarming. I couldn’t complain as I knew these Gulf Coast aggravates were an attribute of the recent rains; a fair trade for this drought-stricken area.
My expectations were low as I rolled down the car window, fought off mosquitoes and raised my binoculars to watch egrets, herons, pipits, plovers and other shorebirds. And then I saw them: Hooded Mergansers!
Hooded Mergansers are an astonishingly beautiful member of the Anatidae Family. And even though their “over the top” head dress would suggest a Dabbling Duck, they are one of the eleven genera (and 23 species) of Diving Ducks. Contrast any of the three species of mergansers to the Northern Shoveler—the Bountifully-billed Dabbling Duck of yesterday’s blog, and you’ll note that mergansers sit low in the water; a ready sign of a diver.
Hooded Mergansers have been a hole, and a sore spot, in my birding life list. I’ve sighted many Red-breasted Mergansers throughout the Upper Gulf Coast. I’ve enjoyed the sight of Common Mergansers fishing the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. But the Hooded has eluded me, each and every winter’s search, in my own habitat backyard.
I spontaneously found myself attempting photos of these shy Anatidae as they purposefully maneuvered away from me, and into the wrong sun direction. But I was not looking for photographic achievement; I was looking upon a new lifer!
These breeding-plumaged Hooded Mergansers, male and female (with some yearlings in the mix) were having some fun:
And just as I’m arriving home as a happy birder, my phone rings. A dear friend, not sighted by me for several months, gives me an unexpected call: “How about lunch—right now? Can you be spontaneous?” Absolutely! And so turkey burgers and three hours of lively conversation were a wonderfully unplanned closure to this surprising day in the field.
Spontaneity is a wonderful thing!