My Bird Problem
A few weeks after I heard Al Gore speak at the Ethical Culture Society, I went back to Texas. According to my new AviSys 5.0 bird-listing software, the green kingfisher that I'd seen in the last hour of my trip with Manley had been my 370th North American bird. I was close to the satisfying milestone of four hundred species, and the easiest way to reach it without waiting around for spring migration was to go south again.
I also missed Texas. For a person with a bird problem, there was something oddly reassuring about the place. The lower Rio Grande Valley contained some of the ugliest land I'd ever seen: dead flat expanses of industrial farming and downmarket sprawl bisected by U.S. Route 83, which was a jerry-rigged viaduct flanked by three-lane frontage roads, Whataburgers, warehouses, billboards suggesting VAGINAL REJUNVENATION and FAITH PLEASES GOD and DON'T DUMP ("Take your trash to a landfill"), rotten town centers where only the Payless shoe stores seemed to be in business, and fake-adobe strip malls so pristinely bleak it was hard to tell if they were still being built or had already opened and gone bankrupt. And yet, to birds, the valley was a Michelin three-star destination: Worth a Journey! Texas was the home of President Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, neither of whom had ever been mistaken for a friend of the environment; its property owners were famously hostile to federal regulation; and yet it was the state where, with some serious driving, you could tally 230 species of bird in a single day. There were thriving Audubon Societies, the world's biggest birding-tour operator, special campgrounds and RV parks for birders, twenty annual birding festivals, and the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, which snaked for twenty-one hundred miles around petrochemical installations and supertanker hulls and giant citrus farms, from Port Charles to Laredo. Texans didn't seem to lose much sleep over the division between nature and civilization. Even ardent bird lovers in Texas referred to birds collectively as "the resource." Texans liked to use the oxymoron "wildlife management." They were comfortable with hunting and viewed birding as basically a nonviolent version of it. They gave me blank, dumbfounded looks when I asked them if they identified with birds and felt a kinship with them, or whether, on the contrary, they saw birds as beings very different from themselves. They asked me to repeat the question.
I flew into McAllen. After revisiting the refuges I'd hit with Manley and bagging specialties like the pauraque (No. 374), the elf owl (No. 379), and the fulvous whistling-duck (No. 383), I drove north to a scrap of state land where the black-capped vireo (No. 388) and golden-cheeked warbler (No. 390), two endangered species, were helpfully singing out their locations. Much of my best birding, however, took place on private land. A friend of a friend's friend gave me a tour of his eight-thousand-acre ranch near Waco, letting me pick up three new inland sandpiper species on wetlands that the federal government had paid him to create. On the King Ranch, whose land holdings are larger than Rhode Island and include a hundred thousand acres of critical coastal habitat for migrating songbirds, I paid $119 for the opportunity to see my first ferruginous pygmy-owl and my first northern beardless-tyrannulet.