So close, yet so very far away
Sometimes the birding gods smile upon you and you go birding and find exactly what you were looking for. Even better is when those birding gods really love you and that bird you were hoping to see pops out right in front of you—like last weekend when the elusive and endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler hopped out of a tree and skipped around on the dirt path just a couple of feet in front of us during our Austin Audubon Birdathon.
Then there are the other times, when the birding gods aren’t so nice. You could get up at o’dark thirty and at the end of the day find that you didn’t get much of anything except for maybe pigeons, starlings, grackles and a mockingbird that you thought was a red-sholdered hawk.
But alas, the birds require us to get up at ridiculous hours, sporting khaki pants and jackets (and let me point out: khaki is not my color), with expensive binoculars dangling around our necks, carrying big-ass camera lenses. Who does this?
Well, we do.
Last month Steve and I headed to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge so we could see the Attwater Prairie Chickens courting ritual. We had been talking about doing this for a year and planned our trip months ago so to make sure that we were going to be able to get a room at one of the few nearby hotels, but most of all, make sure we were booked on one of the shuttles that take you to a restricted area of the refuge. The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is in Eagle Lake, Texas—about an hour’s drive west of Houston. Dare I say that of all wildlife courtship behavior, bird courtships seem to be the most interesting to observe, and prairie chickens are among the most elaborate. During March and April the males go out to a lek, just after sunrise and stand atop a little mound of dirt, drum their feet as though they’re stomping out a fire all the while filling up their air sacs on their necks and making what is described as a booming call. It sort of sounds like the low bass note you get when you blow into a large empty 2-liter Coke plastic bottle.
After a two-hour drive from Austin we arrived at the refuge just as the refuge Visitor’s Center was closing. We checked in at the desk where a ranger was still hanging out even though it was past 4:00. “You’ll want to get here early,” he told us. “The vans leave at 7 o’clock, but you’ll see people lining up at 6:30 or even earlier.” Most weekends you have to reserve a place on a van in advance, but this weekend was the Attwater Prairie Chicken Festival and they would be shuttling several vans between the refuge headquarters and the lek all morning, so we didn’t need a reservation. A lot of birders were expected, but the ranger assured us it would be no problem. “The shuttles will keep going all morning, so you’ll get there,” he explained. “But you might have to wait if you’re late.”
Duly noted, I thought, as I imagined a bunch of khaki-clad middle-aged birders fighting for room on one of the vans, wielding their tripods as weapons.
We drove around the refuge on the auto trail to see if we could find anything interesting and found a place to park near a gravel path that took us to a bridge over Coushatta creek. The birds were quiet during this late afternoon, but it was a beautiful spring day and I was just happy to stretch my legs and let the sun pour down on me as we walked by little white and purple wildflowers dancing in the light breeze.
Though the birds were quiet, the alligators were on the move, like these two that met up after coming from opposite directions. I’ll be honest, I was kind of hoping for a territorial battle moment, but that didn’t happen.
Bird of the day was this Crested Caracara who gave us great views.
And the day ended with pie, because PIE.
It’s show time!
Usually, there’s negotiation between Steve and I when the alarm goes off. “Honey, you go ahead and take the shower first this morning,” I’d offer.
“I’m okay,” he’ll respond with barely a whimper. “You can go ahead,” and then he rolls over, giving me the signal that it’s my turn to see how long it will take for us to get hot water. We showered, dressed in our khaki uniforms that we had laid out the night before and grabbed our bag of granola bars, cheese sticks and drinks with enough caffeine to at least keep us from starting off the day grumpy. We hardly ever get fed at the free breakfast buffets at hotels because we’re up before even their cook shows up. One day, after I’ve counted all the birds in the world, I’ll sleep in, stumble down to the hotel breakfast area and experience the pleasure of making my own waffles by pouring the Dixie cup full of batter into the big cast iron waffle maker that you flip upside down. And then I’ll slather the miniature Nutella package all over the damn waffle and I’ll pocket a couple more Nutella packages for later in the day.
I’m afraid that waffle-making dream is a long ways off for me.
Well, damn. We arrived at 6:40 and there was already a long line of folks we could see from our car as we drove up. All the parking spots were full and a man directed us onto the gravel where we parked our car next to others who—just like us—apparently thought 6:00 was too early to stand in line for a 7:00 start time.
We took our place at the end of the line, and others followed behind us. First two then four more then in just five minutes 10 more people took their places at the end of the line. We were all just quietly standing and there were a few quiet conversations. “Have you been here before?” someone would ask. “No,” another would say. Maybe that’s why we’re here at the end of the line. Clearly, we were rookies at this. But then scores more arrived, lengthening the tail of the line and I felt a titsch smug about the fact that we were here earlier.
It was chilly and I was glad I brought a polar fleece jacket and my gloves. Others were not bothered by the brisk air, and showed up in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. There were wide-brimed safari-type hats, baseball caps and those without hats. There were cameras of all sizes-—long lenses, short lenses and even itty bitty point-and-shoots. We were all there to witness the public display of affection of birds. Now, for humans, unless you’re a person on The Bachelor, the manner in which we humans court is generally private because it carries with it such personal risk that the last thing you’d want is a bunch of people photographing it and tweeting or blogging it out to the world. No one needs to be rejected publicly. But here we were, holding our breath to watch these birds try to attract a mate.
It’s not just the act of courtship, though, that draws many of us to these leks to observe. Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens are declining in numbers. The Attwater Prairie Chicken—a sub-species of the Greater Prairie Chicken—is one of the most endangered birds in North America and its future seems to be hanging by a thread. The invasive red fire ants are aggressively feeding on everything in these prairies, most of which are food sources for the Prairie Chickens. And with development encroaching on Texas prairies, the habitat is growing smaller. Not helping are the floods that occurred over the past two years in the Houston area, which resulted in no successful nests in 2015 and 2016.
The birders all seemed well behaved and we were in the fourth van that left for the lek. There was no pushing and shoving and really no grumpiness. Just the smell of coffee on everyone’s breath that filled the van. We rode on a dirt road for about 10 minutes to the restricted area while the refuge worker who drove us explained a little about the area and what we were expected to see, along with a reminder to be very quiet. When we arrived we set up our camera next to the 20 or so other birders that were there so far. Little patches of dirt, like pitchers mounds, stood out atop the green prairie grass. This is where the displaying was to take place, but no prairie chickens were around.
Sometimes I searched through my binoculars and other times I looked through my camera lens. I went back and forth, trying to see if I could see any movement. And occasionally I’d tire from all the squinting through optics and just looked with my eyes.
“There’s one,” someone said in loudish whisper. He pointed to the field. “By the fence, just to the right of that tree.”
I followed the finger of the man and pulled my binoculars up to my eyes. I saw it, but it was way out there. I expected to have that breathless moment—to be filled with awe and wonder of the Prairie Chicken. But I didn’t. He was just an orangish spec in my binoculars and even my 600mm lens couldn’t really get a close up. I saw it, but was it walking around? Was it doing it’s dance? I couldn’t tell. I took a few snaps with my camera and then went back to my binoculars. Perhaps there were just too many of us for the prairie chicken to have come any closer.
So close, yet so far.
It’s times like these when I wonder why I even have a big-ass lens like a 600mm. And then I wonder why I get up so early, only to have to squint to see the bird or be disappointed when I look through all my photos and realize I don’t have anything remarkable.
But then I realize this: I got to see this bird.
No, really. I GOT TO SEE THIS BIRD.
These endangered birds (this Attwater Prairie Chicken, the Golden-cheeked Warbler) are not going to be around much longer if we can’t figure out how to help them. I realize it’s complicated. There’s a constant battle between development and preserving habitat for wildlife. Trust me, I know this. I grew up in Oregon during the most heated era of the Northern Spotted Owl issue and this was before I knew anything about birds, so I grew up (brace for it) not caring one iota. I didn’t know what the big deal was with saving some owl I had never seen before. I grew up in a paper mill town and trees were important to the economy there. My father was in the home building business and the price of timber was critical to the stability of his employment. I remember walking into our house after school one day and was surprised to see my father lying back in his recliner with his eyes closed when he should have been at work. When I asked my mother why he was home she whispered to me that he got laid off from work and I went quietly to my room as my father sat there trying to figure out how he was going to pay bills without a paycheck.
So yeah, I get it.
It took 30 years later for me to understand the other side of the matter and I often feel like I’ve got feet planted on both sides of the issue. It’s an odd place for a birder to find herself. That guy I married, who gave me bird feeders as a Christmas gift when we first started dating, got me to start looking and to start caring, and that’s where we all need to start. Caring enables us to try harder to figure these things out.
It’s not just a matter of keeping certain species around for our enjoyment, but if we have a chance to keep the chain intact we should. Imagine a world without birds and we’ll be in a world overrun with insects, and let me be clear about this: That is absolutely terrifying to someone like me who seems to attract every mosquito on the planet and killer bees. But a plague of insects aside, birds have taught me that I’m a steward of this planet and I can change the way I see things. I can’t solve all the problems, but I can certainly look for ways to solve problems–or at a minimum not be the problem.
Sure, I didn’t get good looks at that Attwater Prairie Chicken, but guys, I SAW IT.
Thank you, birding gods.
Check out these links for more information:
- The Last Dance: Saving the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (A wonderful 8-minute video from the Texas Parks and Wildlife program.)
- Friends of Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge
- Attwater Prairie Chicken – U. S. Fish and Wildlife
Want to donate to help the Attwater Prairie Chickens? You can by choosing it when making purchases on Amazon through the Amazon Smile program. I just did and you can too. It’s very easy.