Thursday, January 5, 2012

Supporting Bentsen State Park's Christmas Bird Count

Have you ever studied really hard for an exam, and then after taking it, felt like it was almost too easy?  Have you ever walked out of an exam and felt disappointed that your hard studies and knowledge acquired just weren’t exercised by the test?   Well, that was a bit of my sensation after yesterday’s experience with the Bentsen Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

Don’t get me wrong.  It was an amazing day and I’m extremely happy to have participated.  I learned some things and I met some extraordinary people.  But yesterday was what birders call a “dead day” in the field.  Our team of six experienced birders, working one of several zones for the count, only sighted some 45 different species for the day.  Other CBC teams birded different habitat zones within Bentsen, and the total count for the day’s CBC will be much higher, but probably not one for the record books.
As with many circumstances in life, there is a cause, or multiples causes, that will explain the effects for most of life’s situations. Sometimes we choose to ignore the causes.  Sometimes we want to deny the causes.  And sometimes we just don’t understand the causes.  And we find ourselves in life situations that leave us feeling confused or disappointed; or victimized; or perhaps other situations that leave us feeling blessed by some life “gift” that we just don’t understand.  I believe it is the understanding of life situations that enables us to learn; to grow; to better equip ourselves for the good, the bad and the downright wrong of what each day of living can throw at us.
Experienced birders won’t write off a dead day as just an accidental circumstance.  The cause or causes will be discussed and evaluated.  All living habitats are undergoing change.  Some changes are so slow that all but the experts do not notice them.  And some changes are so rapid that they impact havoc on all involved.  Survivors of Hurricane Ike, and of the Bastrop County fires, are easy examples of victims created by rapid, unexpected change. 
And for Bentsen State Park, is there some significant causal impact that might affect the birding habitat?  Two specific events can be considered causal factors influencing the current habitat:  flood and drought.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Our CBC day placed us in the field soon after 7:00 a.m.  This untouched photo appears dark, as dawn was just arriving:

Our group of six experienced birders was led by “Red” and “Louise”.  These two fascinating birders have been married over 50 years, and have birded Bentsen State Park every winter since 1984.  Red is pushing the age of 88 and Louise is within two years of that number.  Red walked and birded (and cleared debris from the trail) a good three hours before taking a rest to sit for awhile.  Louise walked and birded the day, with the rest of us striving to keep up.  Her skills with aural cues and bird calls were extraordinary.  She did not delegate the record keeping for the day, just as other good CBC leads don’t.  And so she walked, birded, and real-time recorded (with pencil and small pad), the days sightings for both unique species and total numbers of each species sighted.  She told us stories of this wonderful place.  She shared her some twenty-seven years of experience with the land's habitat, pointing out the locations where past year’s valley “specialty” species could be found, but are now mostly absent.
And although the team’s human factors made the day a good one, this field day was wearied by a dead day of birding, the current consequences of recent flooding and drought.   July 2010 brought Hurricane Alex to the mountains of Northern Mexico, the causal event for torrential rains that flooded the Rio Grande, the Arroyo Colorado, and pretty much all of the RGV’s floodway system.  Bentsen State Park was flooded, with different areas of the park completely underwater between a period of one month and six months.
One might think the below photo is a result of drought, but in fact it is a result of a key habitat area being underwater for some six months.  The impact on birding habitat is obvious:

But flooding also provides long term benefits.  The RGV is a known jewel to both birders and produce consumers.  This area is famous for its farming, especially of citrus products.  And the richness of the soil is in fact based on a long history of natural flooding.  This land is constructed of layer upon layer of sediment created by centuries of the Rio Grande flooding.  Geologists would call it a rich and fertile alluvial plain.  Native shrubs and trees such as Cedar Elm, Sugar Hackberry, Rio Grande Ash, Anacua and the beautiful Texas Ebony provide botanical canopy.  And this canopy brings birders from around the world to chase the valley specialties.
And so just as naturalists and farmers alike were reacting to the significant flooding of 2010, the 2011 drought brought significant impact to the RGV, just as it damaged much of Texas.  (Reference my August 2011 blog post on the drought conditions at Brazos Bend State Park and my December 2011 blog post on “Hundreds of Millions Dead”—the impact to Texas trees.)
The impact of the 2011 drought on the Bentsen habitat is still being realized.  This photo of an open field area with riparian wood and Resaca (to the right and left), would normally be spilling over with species such as sparrows, meadowlarks and pipits.  But yesterday there were none.  As one of the most experienced of our team noted, the field was obviously absent of insects.  The drought’s damaging impact on the food chain was staring at us, silent:

But we continued our birding through multiple habitats, with part of our day alongside the Rio Grande River, quite full to its banks this day:
And even though yesterday was a “dead day” for our birding team, time will bring end to the current drought cycle—or it will bring a slow change to a more arid habitat—and new bird species already finding their winter home here, such as the beautiful Verdin and Pyrrhuloxia, better known to southwestern locales.  Neither of these species were to be found in the RGV when Louise first birded this land.
For me it was a rewarding day to both learn from, and enjoy the company of other passionate birders.  I learned yesterday that the song of the Olive Sparrow is a series of sharp, hard chips that increase in frequency upon ending.  I learned from a more experienced birder to think of the sound of a basketball, dribbled on court as it is lowered and stopped on the wooden surface by the dribbler’s hand.  The Olive Sparrow sings the song of a basketball player that elegantly dribbles the ball to rest.
I also learned that if I have the rare opportunity to bird this place the next twenty-six years, I may be able to share stories of both the hardships and the benefits of habitat change.  This year's myopic view of the flood and the drought may soon be rewritten, within the upcoming years, of habitat changes that bring a bounty of specialties to this place.  To know a place, as to know a person, takes time--and simply being there for both the bad days and the good days.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that contrary to popular opinion, birders DO have a wonderful sense of humor.  And so a last photo to honor this dead day in the field.  When all else fails, a sense of humor can go a long way for making even a dead day, a really good day:

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