As we turned around the corner, on our way back to the pond, Hawkeye yelled, “Bird!” My head swerved just in time to see a black-bellied whistling duck. Only Hawkeye and I saw it. But as we walked around the freezing pond the little whistler came around near us. It was strange to see one walking all alone.
Usually they stay together in groups of twenty, crowding you and whistling for bread. But this one was all alone.
Later, when we got into the car though, twenty more flew in. And it just might not be a coincidence. They say Texas is the best place in the U.S. to see black-bellied whistling ducks, but we have not seen them since that day. Could they be avoiding us? Could these ducks be smarter than we think? Or… could all ducks be smarter than we think?
Maybe not. But it took some brains to figure out how to photograph the next few ducks.
Black sunflower seeds littered a glistening, greasy driveway below the late-model marigold, chrome-trimmed car. Behind the low, rear left tire, a score of house sparrows darted from place to place pecking the ground. Popping the seeds open they quickly gobbled the insides up. I had this bird but I hadn’t had its picture.
“Look, common ground doves.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw there in and among the small little brownish birds, a few larger grayish birds. My focus stayed on adjusting the viewfinder of a camera I was still learning to use. I had that bird, but didn’t have its picture either.
When finally finished with my fumbling, I pointed the camera’s elongated lens toward my seed-eating subjects. They scattered like a frightened flock of birds – which they were of course – but the term means so much more to me now.
I realized then and there that I wouldn’t be able to photograph the birds we see and also narrate our adventures in doing so. “Mimic, would you mind taking over the narrative?”
“Sure,” he said, always ready to help. “But where should I begin?”
“Now is as good a place as any. We just spotted Egyptian Geese and…”
After admiring the Egyptian Geese for a while, we decided to make a turn-a-round and head back to the duck pond. We drove to a turn-a-round, turned around, and on the way back Hawkeye yelled, “DOVE!” When Hawkeye says ‘bird!’ or a bird name, all eyes focus on where she’s pointing.
Snowfeather and I got a good view, since the bird was out our window. Beaker had to get closer to me to see it. But what where we looking at? – A white-winged dove walking on the sidewalk. One of the larger doves, white-wings are distinguished from the others by the white edge on their wings. In flight you mainly see a blur of black and white. Which is what we saw when this skittish dove thought the huge silver beast was too close for comfort.
When we drove away I asked Beaker, “Did you see that white-winged dove?”
He answered, “No.”
I was surprised. “What? You didn’t see that white-winged dove just now?”
His tone of voice changed. “Wait. No, I saw it but I didn’t get a picture of it. That’s what I meant.”
I reassured Beaker. “Don’t worry. White-wings are really common. You’ll get pictures.”
Although Beaker didn’t get pictures of that dove, that day, he did get some of the other birds.
Hawkeye drove so that I could ride shotgun, camera in hand, telephoto in place, ready to shoot any bird that crossed our path. Snowfeather and Mimic sat in the backseat, peering out their respective car windows, wide-eyed and ever alert to the slightest bird-like movement. As we passed the neighborhood mailbox I heard a shout from behind. “A cardinal!” I think the intent was to shout but the delivery was poor.
Snowfeather’s ‘shouts’ register as whispers on a decibel meter so unfortunately for us nobody heard, or at the least fully understood her words until we had passed that little bird by.
No worries though, cardinals are fairly common and we were certain we’d see another soon enough.
We’ve learned to bird wherever we are. So when we needed to visit the nearby Wal-Mart to supplement Mimic’s winter gear with gloves, it wasn’t a problem. It was another opportunity!
As we pulled around the back entrance, Hawkeye shouted, “bird!” and promptly hit the brakes. The usual “Where? What was it? Which way did it go?” questions flew out as she circled the car back around and parked next to the curb. All eyes darted about the wooded landscape behind the store. “Is it a female cardinal?” Hawkeye asked.
“I don’t believe it!” Mimic said gleefully. “It’s a Black-crested Titmouse!”
I didn’t believe it either. I wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was, but it sounded rare and I knew I’d need a picture to prove we spotted it. I fumbled about for a minute or two. New cameras need some braking in.
“It’s right there.” Fumble, fumble.
“It’s on that tree.” Fumble.
“The small one, next to the bigger one.” Fumble, fumble, fumble.
Fingers pointed in the general direction of a grove of small trees. Some had a few leaves barely hanging on. There was a plastic bag stuck on a branch, but nothing that looked like a bird.
In the end, my three fellow birders saw it, identified it and counted it. I didn’t. And that was the second bird that got away. The next was soon to follow.
Mimic turned to me in the checkout line, “Did you see that House Sparrow?”
“Where outside, before we came in?”
“No, back there. Up high in those big-beam-things, above the fish and bird-seed-area.”
“That sounds like the ideal spot for a bird. You sure it wasn’t a Store Sparrow though?”
“Pretty sure,” Mimic replied, “since there’s no such thing as store sparrows.” He smiled, I smiled back. It was a proud father and ‘chip of the old block’ son moment.
Soon it was time for lunch. When we pulled into the parking lot of our favorite Thai restaurant, Hawkeye shouted, “bird!” (There’s a reason she’s called ‘Hawkeye’. She’s got eyes like a hawk.) I looked around feverishly not wanting to miss another. “In the bush next to the rail on that landing above the stairs. See it?” – I saw it!
As a group we had seen, four birds, three species and countless pairs of gloves. This however was the first bird I had seen and identified since leaving the house. There in the shadow of shopping center shrubbery was a little brown House Sparrow. “I think he’s following us.”
For most of the year the Roadrunner, a bird native to Texas and very common to the area, had eluded us completely. After repeated trips to the nearby state park, arriving early each time and driving slowly down the road, we finally saw that evasive little bird! It wasn’t ‘running’ though, it was just standing there on the side of the road…
That is until I grabbed for my camera. ‘BEEP-BEEP!’ – in a flash it was gone! The elusive Roadrunner had eluded us once again.
(note: Roadrunners don’t actually make the ‘beep-beep’ sound – but they are very fast.)
We had a very productive ‘birding’ visit to the coast this weekend and saw many migratory bird species. I think the birds were as surprised as us that Texas has been so cold so early this year!
That is an American Oystercatcher. You don’t normally see these birds in Texas, so sighting this bird was a rare treat for my family and I. For my son (the bird expert) this made the 109th bird species sighted this year!