Tuesday, September 25, 2012

West Texas Sightings

During the process of checking that all our bird lists were entered in our bird spreadsheet, I came across several non-bird-related observations/lists that I noted in the bird notebooks.  Here is one of them, titled West Texas Sightings, from 2/18/2002.

Caprock Escarpment
Mid-day flatland mirage
Pinkies liquor store
Hwy 87
Prairie dog town
Double Mt. Fork of the Brazos River
Rough-legged hawk
Windmill farm
W. TX wind
Coyote roadkill
Buddy Holly statue & W. TX Walk of Fame
Huge cotton fields
Mesquite trees
Lubbock Lake
Oil derricks
Charolois cattle


I would also like to report, for the official record, that driving fast on 87 while listening to Terry Allen's West Texas classic "Amarillo Highway" is really cool.  This being said, I hope that experience was not truly as close as I'll ever get to heaven.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fall Warblers

The stars of this weekend's birding trip were warblers.  We did not see a lot of them, but we managed to see and identify five species overall.  The emphasis here is on "identify" because warblers in the fall are wearing their drab plumage (protective coloration for the winter) and the species look much plainer and more alike than they do in the spring (dressed up for mating season).  Peterson's field guide has a special section devoted to the field marks of these "confusing fall warblers."

But as far as fall warblers go, the ones we saw were relatively non-confusing.

We saw a Canada warbler at two different times, with Robert and me getting very good looks at the birds and not questioning its identification.  When Robert was updating our bird spreadsheet when we got home, he said, "So how confident do you feel about the Canada warbler?"  I asked, "Why, is it not supposed to be here?", and he said, "Because we usually apply a higher confidence threshold when identifying a life bird."  I said, "But the Canada isn't a life bird, is it?!"  Not until I saw the big empty space next to Canada warbler in my birder's journal did I fully believe it.  We've been looking for the Canada warbler ever since we moved up here (for example, our weekend trip up north this summer was in great part to find the Canada where it nests) and have checked so many warblers against the Canada in the book that when we finally did see it, it just looked clearly like a Canada warbler.  Even in its fall plumage, that gray/black necklace is still noticeable and distinctive.

Photo from McGill Observatory's excellent photo library

Our warblers:

Common yellowthroat
Wilson's warbler (our first state record)
Black and white warbler
Orange-crowned warbler (our first state record)
Canada warbler - Life bird #480

So, two weekends, two life birds.  Life is good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Weekend Birding

I've been enjoying the opportunity afforded by my leave of absence from grad school to return to a favorite activity - weekend birding.

Last weekend, we went to a national wildlife refuge about an hour from home.  I had woken up with a headache, which I treated by drinking a cup of caffeinated tea.  (The best thing about not drinking caffeine regularly is that it is really effective when I do use it medicinally, generally for headaches or tiredness or both.)  I was also in a very irritable mood, and unfortunately it was exacerbated by the tea, which left me with jangled nerves.  I was so irritable that my very irritability was extremely irritating.  It took me about 10 minutes after arriving at the refuge to calm down enough to even want to look at birds.

Only a few minutes after we got underway on one of the hiking trails (with me still feeling irritable but not like murdering anyone), we saw a magpie fly past us, close enough that it was obviously a magpie without even having to think about it.  This was really cool, but ... wait, there aren't magpies around here.  Confusing.  We soon were inundated with loud, raucous blue jays (an external manifestation of my mood?) and I thought, Maybe that was a blue jay we just mistook for a magpie for some weird reason.  Whatever.

We actually saw a good number of species on the trail, and gradually the weather warmed and I switched from complaining about being slightly chilly (which I usually like, actually) to being way overheated.  The sun was fierce.  I desperately had to pee and did so on the side of the trail, managing to pee on my own shorts in the process (DUH), yet another source of irritation.  (Although I do think peeing on one's shorts is preferable to peeing in one's shorts, neither is that great.)

Just as we reached the end of the trail, there was a man and woman with two dogs standing there.  One of the dogs (a small one, of course) was barking at us like crazy, and the woman was telling him to be quiet, to no effect on the dog (though it made me feel less irritated to know that she disapproved of her dog being a maniac).  I had a strange but wonderful thought as we approached these creatures:  What, you want a piece of this, little dog?  I could totally kick your ass.  When I mentioned this to Robert, he said, Isn't he just the right shape and size to be a soccer ball?  The idea of being able to take this dog did wonders for my mood, in keeping with abundant research on social comparison theory which finds that downward social comparisons (comparing yourself to those who are inferior on a relevant dimension) leads to self-enhancement and an increase in subjective well-being.  (Interestingly, recognizing the total bogosity of comparing my bad-assedness to that which was, at best, a 10 pound dog did not appear to undo the beneficial effects of this comparison, though at this point, I was also feeling generally amused.)   The man showed us a small bull snake he had caught in his cap to photograph, and that was really cool and cheered me up, too.  I was also cheered by the fact that we were moments away from sitting in the car with the A/C cranked up.  (In the event, it felt better than I even thought it would.) 

We had brought our lunch and went to the HQ building to look for a picnic table, which they did not have.  However, on the bulletin board outside there was a poster asking people to call or email the refuge staff if they saw a magpie on the refuge.  In my strange mental state, this struck me as completely hilarious and I laughed hysterically for an overly long period of time (I noticed this as I was doing it but Robert refrained from comment).  When we got home, Robert looked it up online and found out that a magpie has been seen intermittently for the last year or so, including a couple times last month, if I recall correctly.  So, it probably was a magpie and we just got incredibly lucky to see it. 

Tam's Favorite Bird Says "Hey"

After eating our lunch in the car, we were game for seeking more birds so we went out on the other hiking trail.  Within minutes, we saw ..... American tree sparrows!  Life bird #479.

After that, we didn't see a lot of birds.  When Robert mentioned the lack of birds, I decided to surprise him with an unexpected "goose."  (He was walking in front of me, so this was an irresistible opportunity.)  In the next second after goosing Robert, I shrieked.  He turned around and said, What?  I said, Oh my god, a snake.  He looked over at the side of the trail where a striped snake was visible in the grass.  I said, No, it was in the middle of the trail and I almost stepped right on it; I must have scared it away with my shrieking.  Robert hadn't seen it at all due to being distracted by the goose.  (I'm glad he didn't step on it while distracted; the poor snake doesn't deserve this kind of treatment.)  I asked Robert what kind of snake it was, and he didn't know, and in one of those moments where you have a thought but no idea why, I said, Maybe it's some kind of garter snake.  When we got home, Robert looked it up and it was a kind of garter snake (eastern garter snake).  If you'd asked me what a garter snake looked like, or if I had ever seen a garter snake, I cannot remember this at all, but maybe I have more familiarity with a garter snake that I realize.  Or maybe garter snake just sounds like a normal kind of snake, a prototypical kind of not-obviously-dangerous snake.  It turns out there aren't many different kinds of snakes in this state and none outside the southeastern corner of the state that are poisonous.  Having grown up in the land of the rattlesnake, the cottonmouth, and the copperhead, I find this really strange.

Depressing side note:  You know how the word "decimated" means reducing something in number so only 90% of the original amount remains - what is the term for reducing something so only 0.02% remains?  This is what we've done to the tallgrass prairie, according to information they have posted about their ongoing attempts to manage land on the refuge for oak savannah (oaks with an understory of tall grass and prairie flowers).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It's Official

In pro-grad school news:  Tam has passed her second (and last) qualifying exam!

And in anti-grad school news:  I am taking a leave of absence from my program this semester.  The paperwork was taken care of this morning so I am officially on leave until the beginning of the spring semester in January.  It feels good.  I'm glad to have the time to recover and reconsider my next steps (which will not, I think, involve returning to my program).

Oh, come on.  That's fine as an official statement but let's be honest.  It's completely fantastic.  A celebratory dance is in order.