I promised birds

This weekend is the annual Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival!  There will be guided tours of the Port Aransas birding suites, boat rides out to Aransas Wildlife Refuge to see the cranes in question, talks about conservation.  All sorts of good things, for the bird nerd in you.  How about a couple of brief birding stories, to gear up?  I don’t have any long, drawn out adventures the way some birders accumulate.  But, the Texas Coastal Bend has some of the best birding in the nation and I’ve seen some cool things.

 Imagine a whole field of these guys.  Image from Cornell's All About Birds, because I'm not that good a photographer.

Imagine a whole field of these guys.  Image from Cornell's All About Birds, because I'm not that good a photographer.

The best birding sometimes occurs during the worst weather.  Right smack dab of the spring migration in April 2013, a cold front hit Port A.  All the birds heading north for the summer hunkered down in Port Aransas for a few days, to wait out the weather.  We were treated to some truly spectacular birds.  The best part: the cold front made them stop, but the weather cleared it up almost immediately.  We strolled around town, peeked out our office windows, and watched with glee as Painted Buntings, Black-and-White-Warblers, Blue Grosbeaks, and all manner of pretty little birds rested for a couple days.  I was (and still am) a novice birder, and had never seen a fallout like this.

Karen, another MSI grad student, and I decided to walk to happy hour that Friday, from work.  Normally, we would get there in about five minutes, but I think we took half an hour there were so many cool birds.  An empty lot filled with Indigo Buntings.  A small flock of White Ibis.  Baltimore Orioles flitting back and forth.   About halfway along our walk, we came to a tree that was chock full of birds.  Mostly warblers that I couldn’t get a good look at, orioles, and then a very distinctive little bird that I’d never seen before.  Small, black, but with bright orange wing and tail bars.  We stared at it, racking our brains.  Neither Karen or I were particularly well-studied birders – we just thought they were cool.

 American Redstart, from the Houston Audobon.

American Redstart, from the Houston Audobon.

Luckily, we live in Port Aransas, where every third person is obsessed with birds.  We continued on to happy hour, ogling other birds as we went.  Shortly thereafter, we described the unidentified bird to a visiting professor, who promptly named it: American Redstart.  Any birders out there probably guessed that immediately, but new to us at the time!  Anyway, that’s the biggest fallout we’ve had here in Port A since I moved down here, but we see lots of cool birds at other times.

I’ll be going out on one of the guided boat tours to see the Whooping Cranes.  I have seen them before, but always from a distance.  In 2011, myself and a postdoc (who is much birdier than I!) traveled up to Inuvik, CA to sample the Mackenzie River.  We saw lots of very cool birds while there – a gyrfalcon, grebes, bald eagles,  lots of ducks, sandhill cranes.  On bright clear evenings, which were wonderfully frequent, we would sit on the porch of the house we stayed in, drinking beer, talking science and hanging out with the few other scientists stationed in Inuvik.  This particular evening, it was just us, flipping through Jorien’s bird book to figure out what we’d seen today.  A long shadow passed over, we looked up, and saw huge crane-like birds overhead. 

Whooping cranes had been officially sighted in Inuvik a couple years before.  These seemed too big, and a very bright white, to be sandhill cranes.  Most likely, that’s what they were.  These days, though, I like to think they were whoopers, though.

 Sandhill cranes at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. 

Sandhill cranes at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.