Flummoxed by maps and birds
At our first lakeside stop, we watched large flocks of ducks flying high overhead. A small band of Redheads flew low over the water, but they didn’t stop either. I eyed the expanse of flooded smartweed fringing the shore. “It’s probably full of Soras,” I said, but I expressed my doubt that we’d be seeing any.
We crossed a bridge and pulled over again. As we walked back the way we’d come, coots rustled and splashed through the weeds. Then there was another movement — “Sora!” I said.
Lynn and Courtney crowded close, and after a few tense moments, we’d all had good looks at the little rail. A Marsh Wren flitted through the vegetation.
Farther on, we were scoping the water near an oil pump when a white van roared up behind us. A bird tour disembarked. Great.
“What are you kids seein’ out there?”
Kids? Oh brother.
“Blue-winged Teal, Redheads, cormorants, grebes, a pintail.”
Then there was a litany of well-intended questions from the leader. Meanwhile, a raucous voice proclaimed, “Pelican! Pelican!” He directed everyone to … a piece of trash floating in the water, just past the cormorants. We didn’t say anything, instead scoping the Canvasbacks that had appeared.
Pelican-man’s voice easily overtopped the hideous oil pump just behind us. “I think they mighta been right about the pintail,” he drawled.
“Well suprise,” I blurted. But I don’t think he heard, and I was glad.
Then he discovered his pelican mistake. We three kids decided it was time to move on.
So we continued on our way, and before long I was in even more trouble. It started with three Greater White-fronted Geese hanging around on a mudflat. We scoped them, taking time out to look at two harriers that flew by, the second a striking male.
Then a couple little shorebirds flew in and landed on the flats. We got the scope on them, and I decided it would be a great opportunity to have Lynn and Courtney work on the ID themselves. I had my opinion, but I kept it to myself. That decision proved unpopular, but after studying Sibley and studying the birds, Lynn had an announcement: Least Sandpiper.
“Nope,” I said. And everything went downhill from there. My hasty impression of the birds’ size led me to believe they were Pectoral Sandpipers. One bird’s yellow legs were clearly visible when they landed, and the breast was somewhat streaked. But when Lynn protested, I had to start looking for reasons to defend myself. I couldn’t find any.
“Look at them. They’re tiny,” she said. While that sounded just as dangerous as my, “They aren’t THAT small,” she had a point. They were smaller than the clamshells protruding from the mud. Worse, their bills were solidly black, lacking any sort of pale base. And the breasts? Just not enough streaking. I conceded. It hurt.
A kingfisher made a noisy appearance and put on quite a show, hovering high above the water as it hunted fish. Barn Swallows, a nearby shrike, and a Red-shouldered Hawk were nice diversions, and through it all, the three geese stuck in their spot by the shallow water. To our great relief, the white van had not made a reappearance, and we decided to move along.
Coming toward us was a heron. “A bittern?” Lynn hoped aloud. As it flew over the car — brown streaks below! “Yes!” “Bittern!” White-crowned, Savannah, and Vesper Sparrows flitted along the road ahead of us. A pintail nibbled smartweed seeds. We were never far from coots — or from noisy oil pumps, pipelines, and great big trucks.
Vegetation was caked with white dust from the road, evidence of a long drought. Some trees had begun to turn yellow, amber, and even — if one were feeling generous — pale orange.
A large flock flew toward us. That they were not ducks was immediately clear. But if not ducks … what? They flew in large, irregular groups, and as they banked away, their undersides gleamed white. Their wingbeats were deep and regular, and the huge flock wheeled and wandered, apparently without a clear direction. They were too distant to reveal plumage characteristics, even in the scope.
Shorebirds? Terns? Gulls? My internal search engine was coming up empty — or sitting there suspended, unable to complete the request. Nothing in my previous experience or reading was similar. Except … hmm.
We watched them until our eyes failed us, Courtney holding on the longest. I expressed the only theory I had: Franklin’s Gulls. I’d seen them on migration before, over the prairies of western Missouri and over Lake o’ the Pines when I was in college. But I had never seen them in such numbers, and I didn’t know anything about their migratory behavior. Subsequent research, however, seemed to confirm my hypothesis.
By then, the day was warm and quiet. Before we left the refuge, we were treated to a roadrunner, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet.
DENISON, TEXAS — The last time I’d been to Hagerman, Jason and I also stopped at Loy Lake in Denison to pick up the Barrow’s Goldeneye who’d been hanging around. It couldn’t hurt, I thought, if we stopped by the little park today. I didn’t remember exactly where the lake was (actually, I had no idea), but after all, Denison isn’t very big.
There ensued a classic battle of the sexes, Lynn and Courtney fumbling with the map and begging that we stop for directions while I remained certain we’d find Loy Lake if only we kept driving. I finally did stop at a gas station to ask, but the establishment was closed. Then we found a park, but it was the wrong one, and all we saw were Little Leaguers.
Loy Lake, it turns out, was labeled plainly on the map after all, but by the time we figured that out, we bolted for Oklahoma instead.
LAKE TEXOMA, OKLA. — We rested on the shore, quiet. A pair of Ospreys hunted for their supper, and gulls floated high in the evening sun.
A white-fronted goose chased a cormorant over the water, and we could hardly believe our eyes. After a spin on the playground equipment, we finally headed for home.
And there, right on our way, was the lake. Loy Lake. After all our wandering around.
LOY LAKE, TEXAS — Light was failing, and the Barrow’s Goldeneye had been gone nearly four years. But across the water, I found a prize: A Wood Duck rested on the shore. Lynn had asked for a Wood Duck that day, and there he sat, still and magnificient.
The day was full of bungles, but there at the end, I did something right.