just east of Houston
laughing gulls replace vultures
in the raucous sky
just east of Houston
laughing gulls replace vultures
in the raucous sky
Stretch your arms, rock to and fro
on the abandoned tracks, imagine
you’re a great ocean bird. Swoop,
dive, fly up to dizzying heights, peer
down to a rippled carpet, the ocean,
far below. Lean into your dive, feel
gravity’s pull, the insistence of textbook laws,
the water miles away. Accelerating,
you race until at the last moment,
wings straining with the effort, you pull
up. Soar away from collision, use
momentum to regain the sky. Eager
you test yourself against another drop.
Open your eyes. Disoriented, you’re standing
on the broken tracks, arms outstretched.
A flock of gulls about their business stays
a safe distance away. They have no idea
you flew with them. They watch
you with aviator’s eyes, making sure
you never attempt to get too close.
Walking home, you wonder if the sky is
farther away than ever, if you’ll ever belong.
Early Sunday morning,
we sat on the seawall
watching a laughing gull
eat a fish. There wasn’t
much happening, just the
gulf falling and rising
with the sea’s slow breathing
porpoises jumping over
waves, pelicans floating
above the shore and that
gull working on his fish
while glancing upward at
a sky filled with thieves.
During the second week of January 2009, while walking along the trail that runs down to the little pond in our neighborhood, I decided to make it a point to come out at least once a week and count birds to try to get a sense of what birds are in the neighborhood, when they’re here and how many I could see.
I jokingly called it my Pond Trail Big Year, mainly because I didn’t expect to see all that many birds on our little stretch of trail. It turned out to be more of a medium or even small-sized year, but still worth every moment. Keeping counts and lists is cool, but for me it’s more of a memory tool since I’ve never been terribly competitive about such things.
I managed to keep my commitment to birding the trail at least once per week, expect for a week in May when we were in Missouri and a week in August when we were working at Camp Periwinkle. In all, I counted 61 species on the pond trail and if I also include the birds I saw at my house and the birds I saw on the regional trail (with which the pond trail connects) leading to the lake where Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls and Greater Roadrunners can be seen, the number jumps to 67 birds seen on foot, which is a decent number, I think, for someone still learning to find birds.
It wasn’t long before I started paying attention to more than just the birds. There are trees, wildflowers, rabbits, turtles, deer, butterflies, snakes, and frogs out there. I started to try to pay more attention to those things as well, and it wasn’t long before I went beyond just birding to a different kind of seeing that seemed more a witnessing the little patch of nature just beyond my yard.
Some of my most memorable days include the day after one of our hailstorms when I saw an Osprey and a Black-and-white Warbler on the same day; the day I discovered the Blotched Water Snakes that live under the bridge; or the time I watched a Yellow-crowned Night Heron catch and kill a crawfish (which made me realize that being boiled alive is probably the easy way out for a crawfish compared to the hard way administered by the night heron).
There were times, particularly during last summer’s especially brutal drought-ridden days of infernal heat, on which I had to force myself to get out, knowing I would see only grackles and vultures, but even that was fun since I really do like those birds quite a bit.
I learned a lot about the seasonal migration patterns of my local birds. Things like when the different duck species come and go from the pond, which ones just pass through and which ones stay. I learned where to look for different kinds of birds and what to listen for and how to let my ears guide my eyes when trying to find something.
In addition to learning a lot about birding, I realized some things about the kind of birder I am. I rarely drive to go birding and when I do, it’s usually just to go somewhere else in Austin like Hornsby Bend. There’s something immensely satisfying about walking out one’s door and seeing the birds that live nearby. Considering the toll taken on all wildlife by cars and roads, birding by foot just seems a bit greener, and getting to know an area inspires a deeper understanding of a place that goes beyond the superficial. I think I’d rather know every bird in my neighborhood than see every bird in the state (which isn’t to say I don’t try to see as many birds as I can; rather, I’m just not going to kill myself—or anything else—to do it).
Other people joined me on these walks: my wife (quite frequently), my parents, my father-in-law, various houseguests. It was fun to be able to share some of the discoveries I’ve made, and those were some of my favorite walks.
Here’s the final 2009 Neighborhood Small Year list with stars next to the ones that were life birds:
I’m looking forward to my next walk. I’ll probably keep walking the trail weekly since I did that anyway, but if I don’t feel like it, I won’t. It will also be nice to enjoy walking without listing and counting, though I’ll still list occasionally and continue posting those numbers to ebird for whatever scientific value it may serve.
This was a good exercise for me, but I’m glad to be able to just get back to walking and enjoying the birds, which is what it’s supposed to be about anyway.
Last week, after visiting Orange, we went to Galveston. We decided to take Highway 87 along Boliver Peninsula and see what was left after Hurricane Ike and then ride the Ferry over to Galveston. R and I have both spent a fair amount of time on Boliver over the years so it was shocking to see how much of it was gone. I’m not talking just houses destroyed but land that’s just not there anymore.
We watched the map on the car’s navigation showing roads leading off to the left, toward the sea, but those roads aren’t there any more. Just the gulf, much closer to the highway than I remember it being. Out on the water, we could see posts that once supported houses, now supporting pelicans.
Closer to Crystal Beach, there was much rebuilding going on. Despite the rebuilding effort, the ferries were running at reduced service so it took over an hour to get on, but when we did we were rewarded with the usual avian accompaniment, though we didn’t see any porpoises this time.
Among the laughing gulls, one bird stood out, but it was moving too fast for an ID. I snapped a bunch of pictures and when I got home I was able to ID him from this shot: Sandwich Tern. A lifer for me.
And, because I love gulls, the squabble of laughing gulls one always finds chasing the ferry. Check out the dispute in the last one.
When you grow up with the Navy, you get used to certain things, particularly salty air and the cries of gulls. Things not easily come by during a typical day in central Texas. Thank goodness for the Ring-billed Gulls, then, that come to the lake near our house every winter.
My gull fix is only a short bike ride away, even if I drove the other day.
I ignored the other birds, ignored everything, focused on the mass of white specks floating on the sparkling water.
flash of white
against the blue
plunges into cold
I can watch gulls for hours. I love the way they fly, so graceful. Lazy one minute, and diving for a meal the next.
Watching gulls is watching wind come alive.
wind takes form
a gull streaks across
Cold air riders come to spend another central Texas inland winter, they bob on the surface, cry and take flight.
The wind pushes them around a bit, but it’s all for show.
They are in control.
a cry, a soaring gull
comes up with lunch
i come back for more
Seagulls have always fascinated me. As a boy growing up on naval bases I used to enjoy watching them dive from great heights and skim across the surface of the water. I always thought of them as the ‘eagles of the sea,’ despite the fact that the sea eagle is an entirely different type of bird. I also conveniently ignored the fact that most seagulls are really scavengers that would prefer trailing garbage scows looking for moldy refuse rather than preying on the creatures of the deep.
Their flocks, which at distances appear to be great swarms of white insects, enthralled me and often, as a teenager living on the shores of Narragansett Bay, I would hike out to a small bird sanctuary and spend hours watching them argue with one another on the beach, chase one another through the air, and at times my gaze would fix upon one lonely gull flying high above the others majestically scanning the world below his steady wings as if he alone were the king of all he surveyed.
Gulls are interesting fliers. They can soar for long distances, gaining speed as they gently descend, or they may flap their long wings and execute cunning maneuvers with great skill and daring, wending their circuitous way among their kin. They are just as interesting in repose, however. They may bob up and down on the swelling waves for hours on end looking more like a duck than the great and mighty seagull.
Occasionally in fits of anthropomorphic fancy, I have decided that seagulls are sentient in much the same way as people. I’ve read that gulls have been known to live up to forty years and one day, as I sat on the railroad tracks on northern Aquidneck Island staring out at the gulls calling and chasing each other away from their food, I began to wonder what thoughts might come to a mind that spends hours on end, year after year, soaring over the desert of the sea.
Here are a few of the better pictures of birds from Saturday’s trip up the Canyon of the Eagles.
This is a bald eagle. They roost there this time of year. We mostly saw juveniles, which look more like hawks because they don’t have the white heads yet. This is the best shot I could get of an adult. A 300mm lens doesn’t do it justice, but that’s all I’ve got. It looked stunning through the binoculars.
Next up we have some pelicans chilling with a flock of ducks…
A couple of blue herons standing in a tree on top of a cliff…
And finally some seagulls who didn’t mind getting closer to me and my camera…
On Saturday, we went for a river cruise up the Colorado north of Lake Buchanan. The trip, called a Vanishing Texas River Cruise, was a Christmas gift from my parents, and they joined us for a beautiful trip into the Canyon of the Eagles, a bit of the Texas Hill Country that I’d never before seen.
The cruise starts on the far north end of Lake Buchanan at Canyon of the Eagles Park and goes upriver for about two hours. A tour guide points out various landmarks, relates the history of the region, and talks about the different bird species that roost along the river.
This is ceremonial rock. It’s near where the lake starts to become the river.
Bird watching is the main draw and as we got away from the lakehouses and into ranch country we started to see a pretty good variety of birds including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, blue herons, pelicans, an osprey and some hungry seagulls, as well as a few herds of cattle and some goats.
This is a waterfall near the point where the boat turns around just south of Colorado Bend State Park, about twelve miles up from where we started.
The trip provided a nice way to see a slice of the hill country on a perfect spring day. At times I could look around and see nothing man-made, getting a glimpse of what this region might have looked like when the first Spanish explorers stumbled through searching for gold.
Despite the name, the river itself does not vanish, but as development in the hill country continues, the wildness is vanishing, though nothing actually disappeared while we were out there. In fact we saw quite a bit. Hopefully the ranchers and conservationists can hold out so that the river scenery and the bird species that depend on it don’t vanish too quickly.