The Business Birder:  Winter in Lubbock Redux

 

 

Redux?  Who knew I would ever use that word?  It is one of those words that you have to hold your pinky out when typing it or reading it.  This is much like the time I surprised Martha Stewart by using the word “garnish” without the word “wages” following it.  I was writing my recipe for Uncle Juan’s Smoldering Mexican Grits.  But that is another story.

 

Some day, I may turn into a wordsmith.  I may even use “draconian” in a sentence.  Uh…..maybe I should look that up before I use it. 

 

In the meantime, I make up some words of my own.  For example, “Dilbertesque” is an adjective qualifying anything your boss or fellow workers have done or not done that should be immediately e-mailed to Scott Adams.  Like when Human Resources issues a draconian personnel policy update that resembles the tax code in clarity.

 

I think I should move on to the real story.  My primary client for the past year or so is in Lubbock, so I have been privileged to do a lot of winter birding around Lubbock over the past two winters and to use it as a base for other trips.  I made several trips in November and December 2001.  The winter birds arrived and my observations included: Ross’s Goose, Canada Geese (by the tens of thousands), Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall.  Lubbock County truly deserves its reputation as a winter goose resort.

 

On January 5, I visited the Muleshoe NWR, approximately seventy miles from Lubbock.  The previous October, I had visited Muleshoe for the first time and heard of a Great Horned Owl who (“who” is possibly a play on words here) lives near the ranger’s residence.  It was mid-day then and there were plenty of leaves on the trees and I did not find the owl.  However, in cold and bleak January, arriving about dusk, I easily spotted the owl.  And as I walked down a nearby trail, I passed its mate just fifty feet or so to my left.  I got great looks!  On my return hike, I accidentally flushed the second bird and it promptly joined its mate and I was able to observe both for another fifteen minutes, until my fingers turned blue.

 

Other Muleshoe birds included:  Sandhill Cranes (by the thousands), White-crowned Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Curved-billed Thrasher, American Robin, American Kestrel, and Western Meadowlark.

 

The next day back in Lubbock, I birded around the Canyon Lakes.  There was a funny look to a flight of approximately a hundred Canada Geese landing on Canyon Lake 5.  On the trailing edge was a white bird, a Lesser Snow Goose.  Never seen that before!  However, at Lake 6, among a huge raft of Canada Geese, I found two pairs of Snow Geese, so maybe this is not so rare.

 

I was back in Lubbock on February 5.  It snowed all day, yet it did not stick on the roads, making it a winter wonderland for birding.  I birded around Buffalo Springs Lake and found: Cinnamon Teal, a Yellow-headed Blackbird among hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Ring-necked Duck.  The best find of the day came as I was leaving.  A flock of Western Meadowlarks perched in small shrubs and on the ground was highlighted by the backdrop of snow.  Their colors were never more brilliant.  

 

 

While birding at Buffalo Springs, I heard of a Gyrfalcon in downtown Lubbock from a guy from Fort Worth, who came to Lubbock just to see the Gyrfalcon and was also birding other areas around Lubbock. I told myself that I would pick it up tomorrow.  I should have left immediately for the water tower because it was a Texas state record and the most southern sighting ever for the bird.  Who knew? 

 

You guessed it, I stopped the next day on my way to the airport and the bird was out.  Species seen at the Canyon Lakes during this trip, included: Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Double-crested Cormorant, and Canada Goose.  On February 6, I added: American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Wood Duck, and Lesser Snow Goose at Clapp Park.

 

Back in North Carolina, I looked at the Llano Estacado Audubon Society (LEAS) Web site and found that an estimated 300-400 birders had traveled to Lubbock to see the Gyrfalcon and many more were expected to come.   The LEAS Web site reported that the Gyrfalcon left about 8 AM and returned to its roost around 6:30 PM daily.  I decided it was time to join their listserver for the future.

 

Well, I joined their listserver and, because I had trips planned to Rockport/Corpus Christi in March and High Island in April, I decided to also join TEXBIRDS.  And, since I planned to go on my bird club’s Washington State trip in May, I decided to go ahead and sign up for Tweeters.  A day or so later, I discovered my mistake.  Suddenly I was getting 60 additional e-mails a day! 

 

I had to temporarily unsubscribe to Tweeters and just wade through all of the Texas and Lubbock e-mails.  There was some great stuff in these e-mails. I had to print or delete just to keep up with incoming messages.  While I enthusiastically recommend this method of getting bird alerts and trip reports, just be aware of the volume.

 

When I returned to Lubbock on Monday night, February 18, packing my scope, it was drizzling mud.  You have to know the weather in West Texas to understand.  When it rains or snows, it is often preceded by strong wind that creates a sand storm.  

 

The next morning was clear, windy, and cold.  I saw the Gyrfalcon the moment I arrived near the water tower, about 6:30AM, just before dawn.  It was hunkered down on the lee side.  I set up my scope a block and a half away across 34th Street, hoping it was a safe distance to prevent scaring the bird.  As the light got better, I was starting to get really good looks at the bird.  The bird turned around for me, preened itself, and at 7:15 AM it hopped to the left on the rail, using its wings as an assist, so I got to see its side and stomach. It traveled a few feet and rested for 30 seconds and then hopped again in the same manner.  This was repeated a third time and, then after another few seconds, it flew off for the morning hunt.

 

Her movements bothered me.  I thought it may have moved to the left three times to clear the rail, in order to fly perpendicular to my position.  Each time it moved, however, it seemed that one of its feet was a little gimpy.  The moves were sort of a combination hop and limp. The rail was narrow and slick, so maybe that is why its movement looked funny.

 

Anyway, I visited the water tower again on the morning of the 20th and again the bird was on the lee side but far enough to the east that it could dive directly off the rail.  It did not do the hop, skip, and jump thing as it departed at 7:17 AM.  I was a little closer this time, using the trunk of my rental car as a blind.  I only observed her for about ten minutes but during that time, I watched as she scratched her ear with her left foot and then chewed on her right foot in typical preening behavior, so I was probably wrong about the gimpy leg or foot.

 

In the afternoon, I headed out to Bosque del Apache NWR near Socorro, New Mexico.  I took a vacation day on Thursday so that I could swing by the Bosque on my way to the Lubbock airport.  Swing by?  Well, it was a twelve-hour round trip for four hours of birding.  But well worth it!

 

To get to the Bosque from Lubbock, I took US 82 southwest to Brownfield and then took US380 to San Antonio, NM.  At San Antonio, you take a left on to NM 1 and travel eight miles to the visitor center and tour trails.  The trip was approximately 340 miles plus approximately twenty more miles to the Holiday Inn Express in Socorro.

 

The weather in West Texas and New Mexico can be very unpredictable this time of year.  Following Monday night’s mud bath, a secondary front with thunderstorms and heavy rain came through Lubbock on Tuesday afternoon and it was cold and windy afterwards.  Wednesday’s weather featured 30 plus MPH winds and sand storms.  Let’s see, Gyrfalcon on the lee side, you know who had the wind in his face. 

 

I was lucky on my drive.  I received no tumbleweed strikes.  I still vividly remember my first strike many years ago while I was in the Air Force stationed at Clovis, NM.  I was hit from the right front by a tumbleweed, almost as large as the Volkswagen bug I was driving.  

 

The sand storm was pretty much lost in New Mexico since the scenery turned into range land and oilfields, instead of plowed fields. 

 

The trip itself was worth the drive.  You pass through at least five life zones.  There was also Tatum, New Mexico, which is undoubtedly the metal arts capital of the world.  Go and you will understand.

 

Just past Caprock, NM, a town with two road signs and only one house, you come over a ridge and immediately the landscape improves.  In the distance you can see mountains that are approximately 125 miles away, including the snow covered peaks of Ruidoso.

 

Shortly you will pass Mescalero Sands, known for prairie chicken dancing from early March through mid-May, with peak activity in April.

 

Next are the Pecos River riparian area, Overflow Wetlands Wildlife Habitat Area, and Bottomless Lakes State Park, all located in close proximity to US 380 and to each other.  I will make time to stop on my next trip.

 

Bitter Lake NWR is only eight miles off US 380 and only a few miles before Roswell; however, it had the same birds that I would see later at the Bosque so I kept going.  I need to go back to see the Snowy Plovers and Least Terns that nest there in the summer.  Also, I did not take time in Roswell to see the UFO’s.  Between the Texas state line and Roswell look for Pronghorn Antelope along the way

 

The next site of interest, just after Carrizozo, is the Valley of Fires.  It features the Carrizozo Malpais black lava flow that is 44 miles long and 4 to 6 miles wide.  It will wait for you; it is only 5, 000 years old.  Next trip I will hike the wildlife trail, which has darker-than-normal animals, who have adapted to the black rocks of their existence. 

 

The trip over the mountain pass takes you through the historic village of Lincoln, the Lincoln National Forest, and Capitan, where the Smokey the Bear Museum is located.  The area looks good for a “quaintesque” summer vacation.

 

US 380 then crossed the White Sands missile range.  There was a construction delay and the flag person told me that US 380 was scheduled to be closed the next morning for a missile shot.  I have managed to stay away from bears, rattlesnakes, quicksand, etc. on my recent adventures but this was something else.  I immediately decided to leave the Bosque a little earlier than planned the next morning to escape a long delay or possibly being vaporized.

 

I made the Bosque by 4:30 PM MST and had almost two hours of birding time.  The NWR is on the Rio Grande and features numerous water impoundments, marshes, and agricultural fields.  The number of cranes, geese, and waterfowl was incredible. 

 

Returning the next morning, I set up my scope.  There were 40 plus MPH winds from the Northwest gently caressing my face.  How cold was it?  It was definitely colder that absolute zero, which I think is about 273 or 373 degrees Kelvin (from Kelvin and Hobbs fame).  Without any real scientific evidence to cloud my impression, I would say it was as cold as the hearts of the Pacific Legal Fund, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, and James Watt, all combined.  (And may Mr. Watt return to earth someday as a Spotted Owl and face Gale Norton driving a bulldozer.) 

 

Cold?  Little did I realize that, in only a few weeks, I would discover something that was colder.  The commode seats at the Padre Island National Park are stainless steel.  Now that was really cold!

 

Anyway, back to the Bosque.  The fly-out that morning was as spectacular as all of the pictures I had seen.  My birds observed on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning included: Pied-bill Grebe, Western Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Lesser Snow Goose (tens of thousands), Canada Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Cinnamon Teal (3 males over the two days), Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck (one with a blue bill), Northern Harrier, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ring-necked Pheasant, American Coot, Sandhill Cranes (tens of thousands), Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Mourning Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

 

Bald Eagles, who had probably migrated with their food supply, provided a show.  On the first afternoon, I was standing at the foot of an impoundment.  My scope and I were partially blinded behind my rental car trunk.  Suddenly, a large flock of Shovelers, who were scattered around and foraging near me, took to the air as if shot from a shotgun.  There were Shovelers going in every direction.  All I said was “Where is he?” and looked up to find an adult Bald Eagle bearing down on my position. 

 

The next day I observed an adult and two immature Bald Eagles opportunistically sitting in the marsh, waiting for the fly-out.

 

My return to Lubbock was not impeded by the missile shot.  I heard an announcement from a Las Cruces radio station that the highways would be open all day.  I am sure it was the wind.  If they had shot a missile off in that 40 MPH breeze, they would probably still be looking for it. 

 

I as I approached the mountains, Mother Nature had one more treat left for me. A beautiful set of snow clouds formed and it started snowing once I attained a little elevation.  The snow was worst at Indian Divide, which is at 6900 feet.  It continued to snow through the Lincoln National Forest, Capitan, Lincoln, and almost to Roswell.  It was beautiful; yet, if the snow had started a little sooner, I may not have made it over the pass.  As it turned out, the west-bound side of the road and not my side was being plowed; so for the most part, I drove over the highest elevations on the wrong side of the road.

 

For the Bosque trip, I used and recommend the New Mexico Wildlife Viewing Guide by Jane Susan MacCarter.  It covers all sites along the way, birds, other animals, geology, and describes the life zones involved.  Also, the Friends of the Bosque Web site provided a map and other information.

 

During the trip, I was unofficially field testing the Tattler Tri-pak from The Wandering Tattler (800-231-9209).  It is advertised in several birding magazines.  The Tri-pak allows you to comfortably carry a large tripod and scope on your back and it allows the scope to be quickly shed for set up.  I have a relatively small, padded tripod bag.  My tripod can be folded, with the Tri-pak attached, and still fit the bag.  I recommend it to all.

 

What can I say?  This part of the country offers excellent winter birding.  I cannot wait to go back to Bosque del Apache, next time with more time and probably in early December. 

 

***

 

The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, NC area.  An average birder by any measurement, in winter, he goes where the cold “trade” winds take him.

 

Note: I spent up to two hours of Web research on James Gaius Watt, former Secretary of Interior.  Hoping to find out, if nothing else, if is he still alive.  I found him mentioned in many articles, especially concerning the appointment of current Secretary of Interior, Gale Norton.  He is or was her mentor.  One article even referred to her as “James Watt in a skirt”.  I will have to seek professional counseling to erase that image from my mind.

 

I searched the History Channel, Biographry.com, and many other sites.  No luck.  I finally found a site that had a short biography of him.  He was born in Lusk, Wyoming.  So I next journeyed to the Lusk Herald Web site and, finding no articles in their archives concerning Watt, I sent them an e-mail asking for help.  No response.

 

Well, if I had found that he had passed away, I would have made some crass joke about how his heart had warmed greatly since he assumed room temperature.  Not knowing his status, I would never stoop to the level of using such a line.     

 

John B. Ennis ã 2002

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