Looking for the way things were

2005 December 17
by David J. Ringer

GREGG CO., TEXAS — After a successful English Nerds Reunion and an abbreviated visit to graduation, Lynn and I headed west on I-20. I’d charted a course back toward the Metroplex that, I hoped, would let us experience remnants of the Texas that used to be. We started our journey among the tall pines of East Texas, but we would not spend time with them today.

Turkey Vultures wheeled over the highway; another flapped awkwardly against the cool air. A Great Blue Heron, neck outstretched and pale shoulders gleaming in the sun, startled us. What if that’s a … a … that’s a Great Blue Heron.

WOOD CO., TEXAS — The pines had thinned by the time we passed reached Lake Holbrook. They had thinned, but they weren’t gone entirely. Oaks clung stubbornly to their curled brown leaves.

For several years, I’d seen the East Central Texas forests on ecoregion maps. Drier, dominated by hardwoods, they stretch between the lush pineywoods of the east and the prairies of the west. Or, stretched.

We were having trouble finding them.

We saw cow pastures. Hedgerows. Houses with trees in the yard. The forests have been cleared.

My atlas showed a park on Lake Holbrook, but we couldn’t find it. A little sign pointing to a recreation area led us through a neighborhood where hunters lounged by their trucks and a Red-headed Woodpecker drank from a puddle in the road. The “recreation area” was a tiny parking lot overlooking an empty section of lake.

We went back south on 1799 and pulled off at the bridge. We tried to avoid the bright red mud as we walked down toward the shore.

Diving ducks peppered the water, and there was a grebe. I did not see any scoters in the raft of Ruddy Ducks. A tern flew over the lake in the distance. I think Forster’s Terns are the only ones that stick through the winter. This one certainly looked light, but it was very far away. Yellow-rumps chipped in the brush.

VAN ZANDT CO., TEXAS — Dozens of vultures roosted below the dam, some blacks standing with wings outstretched and others wading in the shallow trickle of water. The Turkey Vultures seemed to stay higher up, and some were airborne. A few sparrows moved around in the brush, and I heard a goldfinch.

We were on the edge. This was the county line, but more important, this was where the forests, what little was left, ended and the Blackland Prairies began. We couldn’t tell that by looking, of course. Nature’s transitions often defy our best attempts at classification, and besides, the enormous dam in front of us had changed this land inestimably.

Behind the parking lot, a large bird flew just above the trees, flashing white patches … a long white neck. “Caracara!” we exclaimed together. It flew across the road and over the dam, finally dropping down out of sight. Wow, we said. We didn’t expect to see one of those today. Have to check Sibley’s map….

But first we walked toward the oaks, and these were alive with chickadees. I heard a nuthatch, and then we saw him, inching jerkily along dead limbs in the nuthatch way. He disappeared into a hole. A moment later, his lady appeared, and he started to call. Didn’t expect you either.

Back at the car, we checked Lynn’s Sibley. Caracara was expected, and so were nuthatches. Nothing notable about either sighting. What was notable, as Lynn realized first, was that we had seen them together. Nowhere else in this country do their ranges overlap, or so it appears from the maps.

We were on the edge, and so were they.

LAKE TAWAKONI — We stopped twice to scan the lake, noting Mallards and shovelers near the shore and scores of Bonaparte’s Gulls over deep water, too far out for a really good look. There was a snipe on a concrete edge, and one Spotted Sandpiper flew along a muddy water line. Two flocks of peeps let us glimpse them only from a distance, but I was reasonably certain that only leasts would still be here.

Silently, I kept hoping for pipits, and once I thought I heard one. Finally, I spotted a distant little bird on the mud at the water’s edge. After some confusion, Lynn found it too, and then the little bird began working its way toward us, closer and closer, bobbing, feeding, and preening. It passed us and continued on, finally leaping into the air with a loud cry.

As we crossed the long bridge on 276, bonies swooped by just outside the windows, but there was nowhere to stop and watch.

HUNT CO., TEXAS — Northwest of Greenville, we turned down smaller and smaller roads as the daylight began its retreat. The land was flat and plowed, rich black soil exposed to the sky. Finally reaching the intersection of 1116 and 1119, we pulled off the road to park.

Another black field stretched away to the right, but on the left, a dense tangle of brown grasses and forbs rolled toward the horizon. It was this we had come to see, this never-plowed remnant, the Paul Mathews Prairie.

We plunged in, scaring up a flock of meadowlarks as we went. The vibrant herbaceous life had retreated underground, but the skeletons of rattlesnake master, asters, goldenrods and other composites remained among the grasses. I had fantasized about Smith’s Longspurs and Short-eared Owls, but the meadowlarks were the only things we saw.

Of course, flushing short-ears is no fun anyway, and as we watched harriers gliding over the prairie, I hoped desperately that the owls would join the dance that night.

Meanwhile, flocks of blackbirds flew overhead, and I knew by their calls they weren’t red-wings. I didn’t think they were rusties either, especially in this prairie and farm country. Finally, a lone bird landed on a power line, calling. We worked toward it, stopping every few paces to see what we could see. The bird appeared to be all dark — no streaks, no wing patches, no yellow eye.

I looked behind us and saw a whole flock of the birds settling down on the wires, and three more birds joined our first. We noted a contrast between one much blacker bird and the others, and then they all took off, flying to join the larger group. We worked slowly toward them and after agonizingly slow progress could finally distinguish the yellow-eyed, glossy males and the duller, browner, and dark-eyed females. Brewer’s Blackbirds.

The birds kept calling as they shuffled about, and I tried my best to let the sound sink into my brain. They were joined in a tree by female red-wings and a handful of cowbirds. A harsh scolding in the fencerow belonged to a Bewick’s Wren, who hopped up long enough to let us get a glimpse.

As darkness came, harriers flew across the prairie in greater and greater numbers. We had first seen three or four, but now there were 15, maybe 20. Did they circle, or did they keep on coming? Who could say? Maybe there were dozens.

I scanned and scanned, seeing only long tails and dihedrals … until — “Yes!” I exclaimed. There was the flight, the unmistakable flight and the bulky head. But the bird quickly disappeared, and Lynn hadn’t seen it. Then I picked it up again, even farther away. It dropped low and disappeared again.

We walked south as I worried that the owl would not come back, never giving Lynn a chance to see it. I’d tried to explain that we might not find them at all, but this would just be cruel.

Ah, but there! Two owls, harassed by the larger harriers, in front of the distant tower. There they were. And they put on a show for us then, as one bird flew toward us, closer and closer, looking straight at us from haunting yellow eyes, head remaining still for an instant as the rest of its body veered away. They moved away; they came back again, sometimes diving into the grasses without warning. I felt too thrilled to stay silent but too moved to speak.

Short-eared Owls hunted the prairie.

ydhttmwfi: On the Edge

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2 Responses
  1. Lynn permalink
    December 21, 2005

    You know you can always tell me when you don’t think we’ll ever see owls again, right? ; )

    I never saw or heard about the grebe. Fifty-three!

  2. Pamela Martin permalink
    December 22, 2005

    You paint a beautiful picture of the owls . But so casual about 15 or 20 harriers!! I’ve never seen more than two, and even that is an event.

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