Ok, so the holidays are over. We did the New Year’s Eve thing, and sang Old Lang Syne (whatever that means). It’s still January, and the forecast for the hill country this week is depressing. As I sit here sneezing cedar pollen all over the living room, my mood is like the weather—cold and gray.
“If you’re going to sit there on the couch sulking, why don’t you take down the Christmas tree?” my wife asks.
“It’s not even Valentine’s Day yet, and I can’t take the tree down. I’m busy.” I reply.
“You’re not busy, you’re just staring blankly out the window!” she says.
“I’m not staring blankly out the window,” I respond calmly. “I’m watching a titmouse.”
She rolls her eyes at me, but it’s true. For a few days now, I’ve been watching this little pair of birds get a head start on their nest for the spring. One of the birds spends the day perched atop a bench on the front porch, chirping constantly, while the other one tirelessly brings twigs or pieces of bark to make a nest. Using my keen outdoor skills, I quickly deduce that the bird making all the nagging racket is the female while the one doing all the work is clearly the male! I thumb through my Field Guide to Texas Birds and make a snap identification of the pair. Tufted Titmouse.
Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the notion that someone would actually waste their time watching birds. Now that I’m passed the half century mark, though, watching birds doesn’t seem all that bad. Heck, it’s more fun than jogging any day, and I kind of like instantly recognizing that cascading cadence I hear outside as the call of a Canyon Wren. In fact, I’m changing my new year’s resolution from jogging every day to sitting in my living room and watching birds until spring has sprung.
Back to the titmouse. The name of the bird may make you feel uncomfortable, and that means you need to grow up and practice a little maturity! It’s not their fault they have an awkward name, and they wouldn’t know it anyway. They’re birds for crying out loud! It’s not as though they’re getting chosen last for the kickball team because of their names. “Oh alright, we’ll take the Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and you take the Tufted Titmouse.” Even if they did know their name, they should at least be thankful they aren’t called something really embarrassing like the Blue-Footed Booby, which doesn’t come around here, and I don’t blame them. If my name was Booby I wouldn’t show myself in Texas either! You have to wonder though, don’t you, what kind of mad ornithologist (that’s a scientist who specializes in birds) would go around giving birds these kinds of names? Maybe the scientist was chosen last for kickball one too many times, and is now taking out identity issues on certain bird species by vexing them with awkward names.
We have a plethora of bird species here on the Frio, Nueces, and Sabinal. The rivers and riparian zones along the edges make ideal bird habitat. It’s not unusual to see Red-Tailed Hawks, Belted Kingfishers, and even Peregrine Falcons perched in the sycamore trees along the banks. Currently, here at the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp, we have a pair of Great Blue Herons which I almost see daily, wading and fishing the shallows. We also have migratory birds that spend the winter here on the headwaters of the river. Hugh Schneeman, known as “Hoochie,” argues with me over the identification of a flight of waterfowl that hang around this time of year. He thinks they’re coots, but they aren’t coots, they’re White-Winged Scoters. American Coots don’t have white patches along their wings, and scoters do, so there! I often refer to Hoochie as an “old coot,” and sometimes I get the feeling that he thinks of me as the south end of a north bound horse, but those are species-related terms of endearment and not intended for harm.
The highest honor in my brief bird watching history happened just last week. I was driving the family home from church on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone in the car but me was asleep, and I was having a hard time keeping awake myself. We had just gone through the camp entrance up at Highway 83. As we approached the big hill that descends into the canyon, I saw a large bird heading right toward us about 50 feet above the road. I was immediately impressed by its wingspan which must have been six feet from tip to tip. At first glance, I thought it was a large Crested Caracara bird which is typical for that airspace. However, there was something different about the way this bird flew. As it got closer, the realization of what I was looking at hit me, and just before it was about to pass over the car, I slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car and screamed at the family, “Hey everyone wake up and look- it’s a bald eagle!” Sure enough, there was a magnificent specimen and symbol of our country right over the car! It even did a mid-flight roll, allowing my wife and I to make a positive identification before it winged off toward the sun. I could tell the kids were excited as well. One of them actually woke up, glanced out the window, and mumbled, “that’s great dad,” before flopping back asleep!
Isn’t it fascinating that we have the pleasure of living in such a beautiful area where we can see and experience these wonderful creatures? Many of us are reminded of this privilege often by visitors, and folks from metropolitan areas who don’t get to live in this environment. May we never take it for granted. The responsibility of taking care of creation was the first job given to the first man. How exciting, then, that we have the honor of continuing that legacy- even if it means watching birds with funny names.
Don’t worry about the weather. It won’t be long before spring will have sprung, and we’ll be sitting in the river- complaining about how hot it is.