Red-necked Grebe and western specialties
DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — The slowest gas pump in Texas — and possibly all of the South — is located at a Conoco station near Jacksboro. The sunshine was bright, and the car had been warm enough. But as I stood in the wind, listening to the gas pump squeak and thump, I was very cold.
Happily, the morning did improve. By 10:30, I’d found the bird I was after: a Red-necked Grebe at Lake Kickapoo.
Apparently only the 20th of its species ever recorded in Texas, the little bird has become a celebrity following its discovery Jan. 28. It’s been seen most often from Lake Kickapoo Camp on the lake’s south shore, which is where I saw the bird Saturday.
Sherry, the daughter of the campground’s proprietors, showed me the cove where the bird was hanging out. Sherry wore brown coveralls and had a country song somewhere in her smile. She was curious about the grebe and excited by the sudden influx of visitors and publicity its discovery had brought.
I watched the grebe fishing actively in the cove; once, I saw it come up with a small fish. Its long, heavy bill gave the bird a distinctive silhouette, even before I had got the scope set up to study other details. I was impressed by the vigor with which the bird dove — no gentle slides into the water for this grebe, no sir. The bird thrust itself forward into each dive, arcing through the air before it pierced the water and disappeared.
After watching the grebe for a few minutes, I wandered over to another vantage point where three other birders were scanning the lake. Shortly after I’d arrived, someone announced, “Western Grebe!” In short order, we all found two Aechmophorus grebes with our scopes. Almost immediately, the other birders concluded that one of the birds was a Clark’s Grebe. My scope was the least capable in the lineup, and while they confidently discussed bill colors and face patterns, I just sort of squinted at two black-and-white shapes far, far away. Oh, I thought I could barely make out a difference in the amount of black on the birds’ faces, but I certainly wasn’t going to make any calls myself, and I was glad no life birds were depending on it.
After that, I spent some more time scoping the Red-necked Grebe and talking with a couple of fisherman, one of whom wanted to see the bird through my scope. “So it’s really that big a deal?” one asked, with amazement but not a hint of scorn.
The campground wasn’t charging birders for our visits, and I wanted to buy something at the snack bar to express appreciation. Unfortunately, I had no cash and they don’t take credit cards, so Sherry just gave me a Sprite. I’d wanted to do a good deed but ended up on the receiving end instead!
Shortly before leaving, I watched the Aechmophorus grebes swim into a cove where they were hidden from view. It appeared that they’d be quite close to shore if I could find a vantage point, so I drove through a nearby residential area, trying to glimpse the water.
Glimpse it I did, and I found the grebes! Just a few feet from shore, two Western and one Clark’s floated as a threesome. Here, conditions were superb for viewing the dingy, greenish bills of the Western Grebes and the bright orange-yellow bill of the Clark’s. I could also see that the Clark’s black cap was entirely above its red eye while the dark color extended down around the eyes of the Westerns. All of these are classic field marks of course, and I was really pleased to see them so well.
This was the unlikely looking spot the grebes had chosen to hang out. They were floating in the shadow of that dock-like structure when I first saw them. Unfortunately, the grassy space between them and me was private property, and I didn’t feel comfortable running down to the shore to try for a few pictures.
So with an excellent start to the day, I set off to explore back roads through Archer, Young, and Throckmorton counties. I hadn’t gotten too far before I saw a large, brown falcon flush a flock of meadowlarks. It was too big and pale to be anything but … Prairie Falcon! I accelerated down the gravel road, attempting to catch up with the bird. When I did, I jumped out of the car to watch the falcon soar in broad circles directly overhead, offering perhaps the best looks I’ve ever had at the species in flight. Wow!
After the Prairie Falcon had disappeared into the blue expanse, these abandoned structures caught my eye.
The next major excitement occurred on highway 79 in Throckmorton County when I spotted a flock of Sandhill Cranes off to the right. In a stunt reminiscent of (but not as bad as) the infamous Whooping Crane Incident of 2002, I drove off the road onto the grassy shoulder, attempting to stop the car while simultaneously avoiding getting hit from behind.
I estimated that there were around 100 cranes strung out across the field. I watched them digging through the dirt with their bills as they foraged; they were not just idly picking at the surface. I wondered what they were after. For some reason, five of the birds took off as I watched, so I got to hear their wonderful calls.
When I reached the town of Throckmorton, I spent some time birding the cemetery and a small park. It was slow going for the most part, but I did hear a few White-crowned Sparrows singing near the cemetery. That’s also where I watched a roadrunner slowly working the brush line, passing just a few yards in front of me. The bird pumped its crest and tail when it paused, and I watched in complete amazement as the afternoon revealed iridescent greens and blues in the bird’s brown body feathers and tail. I had always thought of roadrunners in shades of brown, never realizing that they possessed these subtle, gem-like colors!
I saw three Eurasian Collared-Doves and heard a couple more, and I heard a Blue Jay. I went west out of town on US-380 and turned north on 222. Raptors like Rough-legged Hawks and Prairie Falcons had been reported from this area in the past, but it was a bust on Saturday.
A flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds shared the field with these cows. Out here on the plains, the blackbirds seem like totally different birds from the cocky parking lot residents in California. Here they are skittish like the breezes, glossy, free.
I encountered a couple of White-crowned Sparrow flocks that held dozens of birds. I’m used to seeing them in smaller groups.
This sparrow was sitting pretty on a tumbleweed (yes, a genuine tumbleweed) that had got hung up on a fence. I saw a couple of tumbleweeds blowing down the roadsides, but most were stuck like this one.
I was pleased to find a male Golden-fronted Woodpecker and a female Ladder-backed Woodpecker in extreme northwest Throckmorton County. It had been over a year since I’d seen either species. Several Greater Yellowlegs fed in standing water along the road, and toward sunset (down a road Buicks weren’t really designed to drive) I came upon many hundreds of geese and dabbling ducks at the edge of Millers Creek Reservoir.
The birds were very distant, but I could make out the bright white Snow-type geese and the chinstraps on Canada-type geese. I also just barely detected the orange legs and white-banded tails of Greater White-fronted Geese in flight. I wondered whether the flock contained all five species of geese, but there was no way to tell.
Western and Eastern meadowlarks sang as the sun began its final descent. Ahead of me was a long drive home.