MCLENNAN CO., TEXAS — A Marsh Wren gurgled from the cattails below me, and a small movement caught my eye. Swamp Sparrow. Somewhere out in the marsh, a Sora whinnied. Another answered.
A gravel road ran below the observation deck, but no trail led down to it. Did that mean visitors weren’t welcome? Hmm, a car was coming … oh, a park ranger. I didn’t want to incur his wrath, but surely there was more to this place than one little observation deck. Well indecisiveness would get me nowhere. I walked down the hill and onto the road.
After a few steps, I heard a Marsh Wren singing behind me. I turned and saw him flitting at the base of the cattail stalks, just beside the road. He never quite stayed still, peeking out of the cattails to eye this Brobdingnagian and see whether it meant any harm.
Farther up the road, some sparrows flushed as I approached. They stopped in the cattails, and I raised my binocs as they continued shuffling positions. Hey, a Lincoln’s … isn’t it? Yes, oh wow, just inches above a Song Sparrow. Very nice. Wait … unbelievable! A Swamp Sparrow approaches from the right.
And for a moment they formed a once-in-a-lifetime constellation: the Melospiza Triangle. The Song Sparrow sat lowest, large and coarse. Above and to the left was the Lincoln’s, delicate, subtly colorful. And to the right, the Swamp Sparrow showed off a dark gray head and rufous topside.
Then one by one they went their ways.
Two Inca Doves popped up, one dropping quickly to the water’s edge and the other fluttering as if trying to land on the long blades of grass that overhung the water. It abandoned its futile endeavor and came to rest on a cement structure.
A young yellowthroat, with smudges of black along his eye, moved quickly through the cattails. There were several yellowthroats, in fact, including one adult male. Another Sora whinnied across the pond, but it remained hidden in the cattails.
Behind me, a woodpecker was busy in a tree. I wondered whether Waco’s woodpeckers were red-bellies or golden-fronteds, and the bird kept me guessing for awhile, hiding behind branches and hopping quickly from limb to limb. Finally I saw the black-and-white central rectrices, then the crown. Red-belly.
Two Field Sparrow hopped through dense brush.
By then, I was walking parallel to the highway, separated from it by a hedgerow. Ducks kept flying overhead, and I heard quacking from across the road. I wondered if there was a pond over there, but I couldn’t see anything through the shrubs and trees.
As I continued walking, I was completely alone. No cars, no pedestrians, no one. I kept wondering whether I was actually supposed to be there, and I rehearsed a few lines in the event of a park ranger’s approach. But there had been no instructions in the visitor center, and I hadn’t seen any signs.
The rest of my walk didn’t yield many birds. I saw a couple of snipe fly over, and a phoebe or two hung around the edge of the cattails. There were always a handful of vultures overhead, and a red-tail flew over.
The sun broke through the clouds once, lighting up the landscape. Just as I lowered my camera, a dark, heavily built raptor flew low over the cattails. If I knew what it was, I would tell you. But here is the landscape, anyway:
I didn’t have all day, so I turned around and walked back the way I’d come. A family of three was fishing in the pond. Ah good, I thought. People are allowed to be down here.
Scores of blackbirds flew over, but I didn’t see a single yellow head (or yellow eye, for that matter) among them.
Birds were active on the wooded hillside behind the visitor center, so I worked my way back slowly, tallying White-throated Sparrows, an Orange-crowned Warbler, House and Carolina wrens, cardinals, kinglets, chickadees, goldfinches, house finches and a Downy Woodpecker.
When I got back to the parking lot, I saw a bright blue sign in front of the road up which I’d just come: “Authorized Personnel Only.”
But I felt more confusion that guilt, for I didn’t see where else visitors could go. Was the observation deck really the only permissible spot? And why was the family down there fishing?
A small knot scope-bearers stood around in front of the visitor center. They didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, so I got in my car and drove on, deciding to look for the pond whose existence I’d come to suspect.
Sure enough, a short while down the road I saw a large pond on the left. It spilled out into the surrounding pasture, and it was covered with ducks. I pulled as far off the two-lane road as I could and got out.
Wigeons, pintails, gadwall, ring-necks, mallards … killdeer … coots, shovelers, Green-winged Teal, Redhead? …
Then I heard cars, and I turned to see a caravan of vehicles pulling up behind mine. The scope-bearers had come.
Someone approached. “Are you looking for the Cinnamon Teal? Or just looking?”
“Oh, there’s a teal?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. I thought that odd, but I didn’t press the issue.
Then his flock gathered around him, and he started naming off the species I’d already identified. “But no Cinnamon Teal.”
I was gratified, not because the teal was gone but because I would have felt like a dufus if I’d missed something so exciting.
By then it was nearly eleven, and I really needed to be going. The flock and their capable leader had drifted away — still without another word to me — and I headed back toward my car.
Just then, someone hurried from farther down the road. “It’s here. The teal’s down here.”
Well, maybe I didn’t need to be going just yet. I walked part way down the road, trying not to join the flock that crowded excitedly round a scope.
I scanned the far reaches of the marshy area — and there he was. Deep chestnut, swimming with a few blue-wings. Beautiful!
Then I really did go. It wasn’t the most sociable thing I’ve ever done. If any of you Waco birders are reading, thanks for the teal. Maybe someday we can introduce ourselves.
I made it into Waco just in time to meet my dad, who was in town for a conference.
When we split up again, I wandered around Waco a bit. Two beautiful White-winged Doves banked across the road in front of me and disappeared into a live oak.
Now, ordinarily I would heap abuse on the head of anyone foolish enough to read maps while driving. But I found Waco a confusing place. I tried to confine my map-reading to traffic lights and stop signs, I really did. But these are a luxury not always available.
Suffice it to say, I ended up west of town without bodily harm. Still wearing my blazer and khakis from the conference, I tried twice to access Lake Waco, managing only to glimpse water in the distance. I did see Savannah Sparrows, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and chickadees in the process. Meanwhile, I reflected that I was quite possibly the most overdressed birder in the whole state that day, and I was tempted to set up the tripod for a self-portrait.
I finally found the water. Before I got out of the car that time, I took off the blazer. It’s nice to say you’ve been birding in a sport coat, but it is neither comfortable nor practical, especially on an 80-degree day in November.
Not even a coot presented itself among the boats and docks, but I finally saw an Osprey at a great distance. It was coming my way, and as it approached, I could see a green sunfish clutched in its talons. The bird and its fish made a striking picture as they passed beneath the moon, which was already high in the afternoon sky.
I wandered around a bit more and finally returned to my car, ready to begin the drive home. I saw a dark spot in a distant snag. It was the Osprey, eating its supper.
Waco’s last gift to me was gasoline — for $2.11. I think it’s the cheapest I’ve paid since I returned from the South Pacific.