Saturday, April 30, 2016

Fifty years ago,


…last Monday, I landed back in The World.  We were so far away and so out-of-touch that was how we referred to home.  “The World.”


Wednesday, I returned to Judy.  I never took her home again except the night before our wedding.  Didn’t want to risk any bad luck by seeing the bride during the day before the wedding, so I had her home by midnight the night before.  Otherwise, we stayed together day and night, staying up all night or sleeping on couches.


Today, Saturday, we decided to get married the following Saturday.  The alternative would have been for me to go on to Fort Campbell, Kentucky by myself and wait another year to get married, so at 20 and 17, we announced we were getting married in a week.  Legal ages being 21 and 18, each of our parents had to sign for us.



Friday, April 29, 2016

While we were at South Llano,


…we saw a lot of birds.  Two of them are rare, with limited ranges in the United States, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo.  We saw the warbler high in a tree.  We got photos of the vireo coming in for a drink.  He moves fast.


Here he is on the approach (over on the left).  That’s a yellow-breasted chat on the right side of the picture (they’re not so rare).


He moves in for a quick surveillance.



There is a female cardinal already in the water, but he goes for it anyway.


Got the shot!


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Amarillo, Texas


Choke Canyon for one night, Llano River for a couple nights, then a tacky RV Park in Big Spring.  By that time we had gone so far north we were just even with Interstate 20, and the southern border of New Mexico.


2016 Summer Trip Map


Now we’re at Oasis RV Park outside Amarillo on Interstate 40, even with Albuquerque.  Looking to the east, we’re just across from Arkansas and the southern border of Tennessee.


We’re one day away from Colorado but now we’re watching for weather windows.  Colorado is having a bout of springtime winter weather again.  We’ll spend two days here in North Texas where it’s still warm, until the weather clears in Southeastern Colorado.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

That doesn't happen very often


We drove into a Verizon dead zone.


South Llano River State Park.  A marvelous place.


Got our usual spot.  We can get satellite TV there, but no cell or internet.  We stayed two days anyway.


This is an emotional week.  It’s the week fifty years ago I came home from Viet Nam.  Judy is tracking it day by day.  Monday I landed at Travis Air Force Base outside Sacramento.  Mom and Dad met me there.  They knew I would be arriving, but these were the olden days; no such thing as phone calls back and forth to coordinate.  No such thing as notice from the Army about what plane I was on.  Mom and Dad (and all the other families) met every plane for days, standing at the chain link fence watching lines of soldiers deplane to the tarmac, each family trying to pick out their loved one, soldiers searching for a glimpse of family after a year of isolation.  I saw mine waving.


Today, Wednesday, I arrived back in Long Beach and rang the bell to surprise Judy.  She says I hugged her so tight she thought she would pop.  She didn’t ask me to stop though.


It gets a little teary, reminiscing.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts from 50 years ago today

Judy has some thoughts as well:

50 years ago today, Steve was at Tan Son Nhut air base, Vietnam,  lined up, waiting for his name to be called, to board a commercial airliner to take him home.  He had been there for most of a week.  He has told me this was the most frightening time in the 364 days he had been in Vietnam.   The base had been under artillery fire off and on.  Scary to be so close to being home.  3 days waiting for your name, lots of guys leaving, most waiting for the next day.  His turn came.

I often try to imagine what he felt when that planes wheels went up. 

I can't.

Life on the road


It was a leisurely start; gone at the crack of 12:30; right after lunch.  A 150 mile day got us to Choke Canyon State Park for the night.




Not much to say.  I know; I’ll make a trip map!


2016 Summer Trip Map


Choke Canyon; a charming place we’re well familiar with.  We didn’t have it totally to ourselves; but close enough.


We were going to go up through Brazos Bend State Park south of Houston, but they’re closed due to severe weather and flooding.  We’ll go west instead.


Warm weather.  90 degrees.


We’re not due in Colorado until next Monday, a week from tomorrow.  We’ll find another easy day tomorrow.  (I don’t mention work much, but I still do (work) (half-time).  Easy days allows time in the afternoons to keep abreast.)


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Time to move on


I checked our top 100 bird rankings on ebird (after the big day).  We’re still not on the radar nationally, coming in at number 195.  Well at least we cracked the top 200 (briefly).  We moved way up in Texas though.  Number 35 in the state.  We didn’t really add anything to Hidalgo County (where we live) with the big day, just the elf owl, but that’s where we bird the most, so we’re at number 12 in Hidalgo.


Now it’s time to move on for our summer trip north.  We’re packing today.  The bus leaves tomorrow and we mean to be on it.



Friday, April 22, 2016

The Big Day


We met up at 4am in Corpus.  We worked our way north to Victoria in the dark, making sure any feeding stations we were going to visit later in the day had birdseed and oranges, then scouted birds in Riverside Park until it was time to start the big event at 8:30am, about two hours after daylight.  The start time defined how much daylight we would have the following morning at the finish.


Years before, we set our Big Day record of 207 birds.  The last couple years we haven’t done that well, finishing in the low 190s, thus the change-up in strategy this time.  Start the day later, after dawn, and bird for 24 hours over parts of two different days.  It’s not any easier, it actually requires more focus over a longer period of time, but it gives us access to more birds in a 24 hour period.


We started off strong with downy and pileated woodpeckers, bluebirds, Mississippi kites, and more before driving out toward the coast.  46 birds.  A few stops in Calhoun County and we picked up 12 more species.  3 birds in Refugio County.  We spent enough time in Aransas County to score another 28, including a couple of really good sparrows, Nelson’s and LeConte’s.  Not going to find those just anywhere.


Spirits were high when we arrived in Nueces County at 11:45am to spend the bulk of our time and get the bulk of our birds.  It takes a lot of preparation for a Big Day, but it takes a lot of luck as well.  Some birds are where they’re supposed to be no matter what.  Conditions have to be just right for migrants though.  Basically, if the weather is terrible, there are probably going to be lots of migrants.  The weather will knock them down and they’ll be standing around in trees and on the ground resting, waiting for us to count them.  We had such a strong morning, but when it came time for migrants along the coast, our luck ran out.  The winds were calm out of the south.  The weather was wonderful.  The migrants were sparse.


Not only were the migrants sparse, but we got a double-whammy.  There was an exceptionally high tide as well.  All the places we were supposed to get shorebirds; there was no shore.  The water was too deep for the little wading birds and they had gone somewhere else; who knows where.  We kept grinding and came up with what we could.  By the time we left the coast at 4pm and headed inland, we had logged 150 species but we were 15 migrants and 5 shorebirds behind.  It was looking grim to even get to 200 birds.


We stopped for gas and some pre-packaged food at 3:30.  The mud flats were flooded at Texas A&M.  It wasn’t that good at Blucher Park either, but at Rose Hill Cemetery it got a little better.  We found a mixed flock of birds.  We followed them and picked off blue-winged, chestnut-sided, and black-throated green warblers.  We found yellow-billed cuckoo, lesser goldfinch and franklin’s gull.  Pollywog Ponds produced eastern kingbird, white-tipped dove, green kingfisher, and dickcissel.  Good.  Nothing much at Hazel Bazemore, but at the sod farm we got a couple more sandpipers and kept on.  We got an anhinga at Wright Ranch Pond and monk parakeet in Orange Grove.  Sandia was productive, yielding another dozen birds including barred owl, great horned owl, and barn owl at dusk.  A three-owl evening.  That was good and the count was encouraging again.  We went back to the coast and struck out on the clapper rail in the dark, but got the Virginia rail.  At 10:45pm, it was time to blow south.  188 birds.  We had planned to be at 195, but that was a lot better than before.  We had done some serious catching-up and our prospects were looking good to at least break 200.


Jon got a burger at Whataburger at midnight.  At 12:30am we stopped at the Sarita Rest Area and picked out a roosting brewer’s blackbird in the trees.  After a long drive, we heard a King Rail in the Tio Cano marsh outside Harlingen at 2:20am.  At 3:00am, Bentsen State Park along the Rio Grande was loaded with Border Patrol and sheriffs patrolling the dark.  We walked on through and got the elf owl, eastern screech-owl and lesser nighthawk, all by sound.  Apparently two guys walking through the middle of border patrol nighttime operations didn’t trigger any alarms and none of them even said hi.  194 birds; a five owl night.


Another long drive in the dark got us to Falcon County Park by 5:00am.  Only a couple more hours until daylight; time enough to go listen for a common poorwill by the border crossing bridge.  We missed on the poorwill, but not on the border agents.  It didn’t take but a few minutes before we saw them headed our way.  Two guys stopped in the dark within sight of the border did set off alarms this time.  We stood outside the car, looking as harmless and innocent as possible while they pulled up.  A short conversation later they headed back to their post, wishing us luck.


We still had time to go scout the house finch at Salineno City Park and see if we could find him in the dark; we couldn’t.  We checked the dirt cut-off road outside Salineno to see if it was still passable after the thunderstorm earlier in the night and it was.  We went back to the county park to wait for dawn.  It didn’t come.  Morning fog had settled in and we couldn’t see a thing.  Neither could the birds and they were barely making a sound.  Finally, about 20 minutes late, it got light and the fog burned off.  The ash-throated flycatchers woke up and started singing, joined by clay-colored sparrow, black-throated sparrow, bewick’s wren, olive sparrow, and cactus wren.  200 birds!  We saw bullock’s oriole, heard a verdin and northern bobwhite, and continued racking up birds.  Vermilion flycatcher, curve-billed thrasher.  205.  We’re doing great.  We headed for the Salineno cut-off road to get the scaled quail.  We didn’t, but we did get the cassin’s sparrow and hooded oriole.  207.  Western kingbird, 208, a new record, and another border patrol agent.


Two guys out in the early morning light, driving erratically, stopping and starting, down an empty dirt road along the border that hardly anyone even knows about.  He lit us up and we had to pull over and wait for him to walk up so we could have that chat and hold up our binoculars.  He took his time.  He was waiting until backup was on the way.  Once we got to talk, it didn’t take long to extricate ourselves and for him to call off the next car that was racing our way to help.


On to the river at Salineno.  Oh no, there is a tour bus of fifteen birders already there.  They might have already spooked some difficult birds, but it turns out they were all right in one place.  They must have been standing around their scopes staking out red-billed pigeons and Muscovy ducks.  We had the rest of the river to ourselves and quickly got off on a trail to the side to pick up brown-crested flycatcher and white-collared seedeater (singing).  210.  Ringed kingfisher, northern rough-winged swallow, plain chachalaca, green jay.  214.  Audubon’s oriole, and a surprise groove-billed ani out on the island chuckling.  216.  Chipping sparrow, and we figured out that unidentified oriole call we had been hearing was actually a clay-colored thrush.  218.  We were out of birds at the river and still had about 20 minutes left, so Jon called an audible and we left early to get the house finch at the city park, and did.  219.  One more trip the other direction through the mud on the cut-off road to miss on the scaled quail and roadrunner got us back to the county park for another try on the red-billed pigeon.  Last bird of the day, right there in the tree, red-billed pigeon.  220 birds.  Time’s up.


We started the day with a couple really good woodpeckers for South Texas, finished with a red-billed pigeon, and set a personal-best 220 birds.  24 hours of birding (and driving); we covered 620 miles over 24 hours spanning parts of two different days.  27 new year-birds for me.


In the planning stage, for several alternative routes, Jon lists every bird possible for us to see and assigns a probability to each one; 100% for a laughing gull, 5% for a wood duck.  We extend the probability for every bird and add them all up to come up with a projected total for each route and fine tune each to come up with the final plan.  The projected total for this exact route, 220 birds.  His projection of the likelihood of seeing each individual bird came out right on the money!  Not only is he as good as he is in locating and identifying birds, he can accurately estimate the total number of birds we’ll actually see.  I continue to be amazed.


A 90 mile drive home for a six hour nap and a return to the real world.  I’m not quite normal yet, but I will be soon.



The Big Day


Alive and well and awake again.  Big Day bird report to follow this evening.



Tuesday, April 19, 2016

We had a good day prospecting Monday morning


A 4am wakeup to meet up with Jon a two-hour drive away.


Lots of good birds.  Of particular note:


Red-billed pigeon



White-collared seedeater



Swallow-tailed kite







Home by lunch.


Tomorrow….  The Big Day.


Expect radio silence.


Monday, April 18, 2016

I was just thinking


…about not getting killed in Viet Nam.  I got to come home alive.


I might have survived because I was so well trained; because I was always aware of my surroundings and never let my guard down.  Or maybe it’s not that I was especially good at not getting killed, it just kind of happened.  I’m thinking of a time in the Central Highlands; somewhere in the neighborhood of Kon Tum and Pleiku.  I looked the old neighborhood up on a map:


Viet Nam Map


Looking at Google Maps now, it seems like there are a lot of towns and roads there, but we weren’t visiting towns then.  We were in jungles and fields with a few villages.  It was like a campout; Boy Scouts, but for keeps.  The sergeant put us where we were supposed to be and told us to “dig in”.  That meant digging foxholes.  It was here I learned an important lesson about holes; one that would serve me well the rest of my tour.  “Never be the first one to dig your hole.”


The problem with being done first is that you’re rarely truly done.  The sergeant tells you where to put your hole, so you do it.  Well, pretty soon, the second lieutenant is going to come around and tell everyone that their holes are in the wrong places; they should be over here. Okay, that’s two holes to dig and you’re still tired from the first.  But it doesn’t end there.  The Captain hasn’t been by yet.  When you get the order to dig in, it’s time to take a break.  Smoke a cigarette.  Get a drink of water.  Watch everyone else dig and say you’re waiting for a shovel.  You want your hole done before dark, but you definitely don’t want to be done first.  Better to only have to dig your hole once.


So here we were, dug in for a long stay away from base camp, foxholes all around the perimeter.  Patrols going out and back every day, looking for firefights.  I was ammo resupply.  Every day fresh ammo came out on helicopters from base camp.  I helped unload it and get it to the line companies that were using it up.  At night we defended the perimeter in the dark, watching for movement, listening for sounds that didn’t belong.  We owned the days.  Viet Cong owned the nights.


Two people per foxhole.  One person awake at all times.  A sleeping person next to a chest deep hole; an awake person in the hole.  That’s a long slow torture, by the way, one person awake at all times.  On the surface it sounds okay, but really it’s not like you’ve got half of a 24 hour period to sleep.  During the day you’re both going to be awake, working.  Altogether you’re going to get 8 or 10 hours to sleep.  That means for each person, 4 or 5 hours of sleep, and it’s going to be broken up into two-hour rotations; except after you’ve done this for a few days you get so rummy you can’t stay awake for two hours at a time, so you start rotating on one hour shifts.  Nights get very long.  Days get very blurry.  Maybe decision-making gets compromised.  Maybe sometimes decisions don’t even get made.


Anyway, one day, nothing happening at the moment, mind wandering, surrounded by jungle, exploring the edges, I wandered off.  I was looking at all the plants.  Maybe I was watching for ripe bananas, maybe I was looking for carnivorous plants, I don’t remember.  I just wandered off.  I wasn’t thinking about where I was or why, I was just exploring.  I found a creek bed and followed it uphill.  I came to a ridgeline and followed it.  I sat on an overlook and admired the vista of uninhabited jungled hills.  It started getting dark.  I had an “oh shit” moment realizing I was away from camp, all by myself, no one knew where I was, and I didn’t even have my rifle.


I headed back.  I was quite a ways out.  There wasn’t an actual trail to follow, but I’ve always been fine with sense-of-direction, so that wasn’t a problem, I knew which way to go, but I didn’t end up back at camp at exactly the point I had left it.  I was walking quietly so I wouldn’t draw any attention, but now I found myself in the gathering dark on the wrong side of our perimeter.  All the rifles in foxholes were “our” rifles, but they were all pointed out where I was.  That seemed like a problem.  I knew I was in the right neighborhood, but I knew for sure I was all the way back when I set off a trip flare.  There is nothing lethal about a trip flare, it is just something to illuminate any intruder so you can kill it; oh, and it makes a very loud POP when it goes off, just to make sure no-one misses that blazing bright light.


“American!  It’s just me!  Don’t shoot!”   I shouted to avoid getting shot, standing as tall as I could, arms in the air.  It worked.  I got back through our lines to the side I belonged on.  I didn’t get killed, but I kind of had to surrender to survive.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

It's almost time


For the Big Day.


Every year I go on a Big Day with Jon McIntrye, to see how many species of birds we can identify in a single day.  This year is going to be different though.  We’re going to do a 24 hour Big Day, but not from midnight to midnight; more like a Big 24 Hours.


Every previous Big Day, we start at midnight and identify what we can in the dark.  Then there is a lull before dawn.  About an hour before dawn it picks up again and it is a birding frenzy until dark.  Then we’re stuck.  We’ve still got hours to go but we’ve already gotten all the birds we can in the dark in the habitat we’re in.  We’ve got time to drive somewhere else; to different habitat, but it will still be dark when our Big Day expires at midnight.  Not the most efficient use of time.


So this year we decided to be different.  We’re going to drive to Victoria, a good birding spot to the north, and wait until after dawn before we start birding; maybe 8:30am.  We’ll bird all day working our way south through the Corpus Christi area.  Then when it gets dark, we’ll drive 150 miles south to the Falcon Lake area, so when it gets light again we’ll be in completely different habitat with different birds to see and hear.  We’ll finish at exactly the same time we started the day before; 8:30am.


Jon has been scouting the north section.  I’ve scouted the south a little.  We’ll scout a little more tomorrow morning.  The Big Day is set for Wednesday.


I’ll report back.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Wild Kingdom


Warning……  NSFW.


The sweet little squirrel as we expect to see him.


The Wild Kingdom version.


Nature is not always pretty.


Friday, April 15, 2016

I've been thinking about




We in the United States are great champions of self-determination.  Nations are sovereign.  They have the right to freely choose their government with no outside interference.  We have institutionalized the concept.  It’s part of the Monroe Doctrine.  It’s part of the charter of the United Nations.


Let the people of any country vote and do what they want.  We don’t want some foreign power dictating what we should do.  We don’t want an illegitimate government imposing its power over people that didn’t ask for it.  We take the moral high ground.  We support the rebels in Syria wanting to be freed from the dictator.  We supported the Contra rebels in Nicaragua wanting to escape the Sandinista government.  We root for the underdog, the people wanting to form their own union.  We broke away from Britain to form ours.  People have the right to choose their own government.  In fact, the U.S. supported the secession of Texas from Mexico, and once Texas became a state, fought a war with Mexico to defend it.



Then I wonder my way back to our Civil War.  An entire segment of the United States, eleven states, chose to secede from the Union and form their own alliance; the Confederacy.  That’s what the people of the South decided.  They didn’t like our form of federal government and wanted something different.  As a practical matter, it would have been inconvenient for the North to lose the agrarian economy of the South that balanced the manufacturing economy of the North, but it would have honored the principle of self-determination that we so strongly believe in.  If the South wanted to leave, why didn’t the North respect the right of self-determination, let them go, and wish them well?


Why was there a Civil War; the War Between the States; the Southern War for Independence?  Sure, there was slavery.  Slavery became part of the civil war, but really, secession was a completely different issue.  The North didn’t go to war against the South because they suddenly discovered the South had slaves; some of the northern states had slaves too.  The North didn’t want the South to leave.  If the South hadn’t had any slaves, the North still wouldn’t have wanted them to leave.


Slavery is a terrible institution.  I would never defend it.  I’m just trying to separate the issues.  We grew up in the west, thinking that the War Between the States was unavoidable, and Lincoln is the hero who kept our union together.  That might be true, I don’t know that it’s not, but I still have this wonder:  Why was it a given that the North had to force the South to stay in a club they didn’t want to be a part of? 


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Some days



…are windier than others.




Snowy Egret.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Can you spot the


Black-headed Grosbeak?






It kind of looks like the trunk of the tree.

















Monday, April 11, 2016

The Old Hidalgo Pumphouse grounds


…in full bloom.


A paradise for hummingbirds.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

This is Henry


…practicing thinking in English.







It’s exhausting.



Saturday, April 9, 2016



Kingfishers are birds that fish.  They perch at the edge of a stream, canal, or lake, and crash dive onto unsuspecting minnows.  There are three kingfishers native to the U.S.  One of them, the Belted Kingfisher is ubiquitous; it lives all over North America.  The other two, the Ringed and Green Kingfishers are only found way south in the U.S.


Kingfishers can be a little spooky, so I don’t get very close to them for photos.  Here is a Ringed Kingfisher, the largest of the three, from a great distance, coming in for a landing.




And here he is a few minutes later, carrying off his prize from a successful crash-dive from that perch he was just on.



I could blow the pictures up more so you could get a better look at him, but they’d just get all grainy: