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Birds, Bats, Etc.

So let me get the really huge awesome amazing stuff out of the way first—my buddy Mur Lafferty won the Campbell Award!

YAAAAAAAY! *muppetflail*

Seriously, I was terrified. This was her last year eligible and I really wanted her to win it, and not just because she has driven me to the airport at 6 AM before. More on that and LoneStarCon to follow.

So I went out to Texas Hill Country with my buddy Tina to go birding, a few days in advance of LoneStarCon (this year’s WorldCon location) and we had an awesome time. Texas Hill Country is legendary among birders for the sheer variety that show up there. Sadly, it was August, which means that there were far fewer birds than most other times of the year, and also that it was MISERABLY HOT.

Nevertheless, we saw 77 different species (and bear in mind that this was an incredibly low number for the area!) 20 of which were new life birds for me.

Now, because somebody always asks, I keep what’s called a “life-list.” It notes the different bird species I’ve seen in my life. It stands at 412 at the moment. This is respectable, if not terribly impressive. 378 of those are what are known as “ABA birds”—birds I have seen in North America and thus eligible for the American Birding Association’s check-lists. Tina’s ABA list is over 600, which is well beyond respectable and puts her into a rarified class of birder. She’s a shameless twitcher, will drive twelve hours to find a rare bird blown in from Asia, and is generally hardcore.

We go birding with each other regularly because I have “freakish eyes” (in her words)  and can spot birds, even if I usually have no idea what I’m looking at, and then she can tell me what they are. After I managed to spot a perching common nighthawk, I am forced to admit that she may have a point. (Google them. They are bark-colored lumps of weird.)

We spent quite awhile in pursuit of the endangered black-capped vireo, which sadly eluded us. (Well, August…) At one point, chasing this bird, we went to Lost Maples Park and headed for a trail that supposedly was heavy with vireos. The ranger looked at us dubiously, looked at our footwear, and said “It’s…steep.”

Now, the night before, to digress a bit, we had gone to the Frio Bat Cave, where a charming ranger took us up to the bat emergence. This is the second largest concentration of mammals in the world, over 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats, but because of the drought, it was a slow year. Many bats had already migrated. We didn’t expect much…

…but good lord, did we get it.

More northerly bats, migrating south, had apparently stopped at the Frio Cave, replenishing their numbers. (The ranger was very pleased.) We were the only two tourists there, and we sat in profound astonishment while waves of bats poured out of the cave and passed a few feet over our heads. I have never experienced anything like it. The band of bats snaked through the sky, going on and on, looking sort of like the Milky Way in reverse—a thick strip of black specks on deep gray sky, all the way to the horizon.

It was a bit like the Grand Canyon. You had a sense of such extraordinary immensity that you knew your mind wasn’t able to hold it all. I cannot parse 10 million. Hundreds streamed over my head every second and hundreds more and hundreds more and eventually the first bats were lost in the dusk and they were still coming out from the cave without slowing. To say it’s a wonder of the natural world sounds trite, but it’s the only thing I can say that makes sense. I can’t wrap words around it hard enough to make anyone else comprehend it. I stood right there at the cave mouth and I couldn’t comprehend it. It was one of the biggest things I’ve ever seen.

And also they didn’t have restrooms, and I got a lifer black-throated sparrow while I was communing with a friendly bush over the hill. So there’s that.

Anyway, getting back to the original point about vireos and this slope, our ranger—who was a volunteer firefighter and did cave rescue and had about 4% body fat—told us how miserable this trail up to the vireos was.

He may have understated the case.

It was brutally steep, which we could have handled; brutally hot, which was harder; and the surface was made of loose, ankle-breaking scree. We got up three switchbacks and Tina had to call it. I was grateful. Coming back down was wretched, trying not to turn ankles, fall, and slide all the way to the bottom. No vireos.

We birded from the car a lot after that. And also saw The Most Terrifying Insect In The Whole World, but that deserves a separate post of its own.

At one point, sitting in the car studying several large bushes, I saw a vireo. So did Tina.

“It’s got white eyes!” she said.

“No, dark eyes!”

“It’s got yellow lores!”

“No, it doesn’t–those are white lores!”

And then we realized we were on two separate birds.

And then I flipped through the bird book and discovered that I was looking at something that was either a blue-headed vireo…or the endangered black-capped vireo we’d been hunting. And I had seen it and Tina hadn’t.

And I am already on thin ice after that bit with the Laysen albatross.


The reason that I am not a dead body in a ditch in Texas is because, fortunately for me, it was a blue-headed vireo. (Nah, she would have been happy for me. Mostly. Probably. Kinda.) Still a pretty awesome bird, I have to say, and I was pleased to spot it.

There was also the Incident With The River.

We were out, fairly late, in the dark, driving down a county road. It had houses and farms on it, but no lights. There were thick black shadows over the road. (We were, incidentally, looking for Chuck-widow’s-wills, but didn’t find one.)

At some point, as we drove forward, I looked up, saw one of those thick black shadows didn’t look…right…and yelled “SHIT! Water!”

Tina slammed on the brakes and we sat and stared at a river. Which was not on the map. Which was across the road. Which had no signs saying “Warning: Surprise River!”

Seriously, I know Texas is all about individual responsibility and all, but who lets a river go over a road without putting up a sign that says “Hey! River here! Might want to rethink your speed!” !?!


On Sunday morning at the con, we snagged Jeff from Sofawolf (also a birder. Actually, there were a lot of birders at the con, to our surprise—who knew it was so common in fandom?) and went out to a water retention area at a nearby park. It was hot. (Sensing a trend, here?) There were baby grebes, though, and a baby grebe is a heckuva thing. (Google it. Seriously. If you took a baby tapir and turned it into a duck, you’d have a baby grebe.)

We were in pursuit of the elusive olive sparrow for Tina. This bird makes a sound like a ping-pong ball being dropped on a table. It is a very drab sparrow, devoid of anything particularly interesting, and it likes to skulk around in the bushes and be skulky. Tina did not have this particular bird, and when you’re hitting the 600s, new life birds are hard.

We hiked to hell and back looking, got nowhere, got sunburned, and returned sadly to the car…and as Tina opened the door, there was a call like someone dropping a ping-pong ball on a table.

Jeff, of Sofawolf, is a forty-something guy from Minnesota, works in IT and furry publishing. I’m a thirty-something, tattooed woman from North Carolina, write children’s books. Tina’s fifty-something, Canadian, former dental hygienist. We three very different people froze and snapped our heads around in a synchronized movement as precise as any drill team.

The call came again, from a shrub partway down the road. (The call is coming from inside the bush!) We slunk toward it. And after several minutes of frantic whispering, we got on the bird. (Someone saw it. This is “getting on the bird.” You then try to get others on it. I should really do a post about birder lingo…)

It was…well, a drab bird. Not very olive, not very rufous, just enough of both to let us know what we were looking at. It made the call, it flitted away. We did the lifer dance. (Jeff captured this with his phone. Now Tina and I can never run for public office.)

So that was our birding trip, and it was awesome. Next time, though, I’m going in spring.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

I sincerely hope that cave has a pole you can slide down to access it, just so you can yell "TO THE BAT CAVE!"

The olive sparrow reminds me of a bird from a humorous fake birding book that came out of a few years ago. I recall it had an olive-colored bird ("Military Sparrow"?), with chevrons, that could be lured with C-rations. Lots of birder inside jokes in that book, I've been told.

EDIT: this book! http://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Little-Known-Seldom-Seen-America/dp/0934601585

Edited at 2013-09-03 05:01 pm (UTC)

<--- transplanted Minnesotan now living in Texas

Ah, yes. Hot. Texas DOES that, sadly!

The bat emergence sounds *spectacular*!! That "reverse Milky Way" image is exactly what came to me when watching the bat colony emerge from under the bridge in Austin (if you're ever in Austin, I highly recommend it -- the bat-watching boats have the best view!), and just watching a long ribbon of twilight sky blotted out by black, with constant chittering and beating wings.

I would LOVE to see the cave emergence someday!! So happy that you got to be there for it, and that you spotted some lifer birds during your visit!

(Er, sorry about the river. *grin* That one I have no explanation for, since we haven't been getting a lot of rain lately... hmm!)


If you took a baby tapir and turned it into a duck


Hahahaha you go guys! =D

Collision of paradigms: a friend of mine was also at LoneStarCon, doing some moderatin' and stuff. Small world! And are you talking about the John W. Campbell Memorial Award?

John W. Campbell is so awesome he has two entirely different major awards named after him. The one Mur just won is the John W. Campbell Award For Best New Writer, which isn't technically a Hugo but is awarded at the same ceremony. The other one is the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel, which was awarded to Adam Roberts back in June for Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer.

Having lived in San Antonio for 30 years, I can say that the drainage there and in the Hill Country tends to shift abruptly and, sadly, you do get instances of 'Sudden River!', which takes even long time residents by surprise. Which is why there are now ordinances fining people who attempt to cross them (or low water crossings).

I used to sit and look through my dad's European field guide when I was a kid, and now my "birding eyes" are such that I can recognise most (Swedish) birds at the briefest of glances. And even if I don't recognise it I usually remember enough detail to do a positive id when I get back home (unless it's one of those drab little things that hang out in shrubberies or reeds. Or gulls. I'm not really sure how many gull species we actually have here).

I've been to an emergence at Bracken Cave, and felt the same way.

And also they didn’t have restrooms, and I got a lifer black-throated sparrow while I was communing with a friendly bush over the hill. LOL

I'm glad you had a great time despite the heat.


Just so's you know, my daughter isn't going to stop grinning over her little wombat 'yaaaying' or the pic she got with you anytime soon. :) (I wish it to be known that when she showed me the pic I recognized your tattoo first.)

O lordy, the stories I could tell about those "low water crossings"! (spent a bit less than 3 years in San Antonio) Yeah, "surprise river" is about right.

I went to LoneStarCon/WorldCon back in 1997. (How can it be that long ago?) Great con - do they still do the chili cook-off? The movie "Starship Troopers" was fairly new that year and one of the huge (6-ft or more high) shot-up prop "bugs" was ensconced in the dealer hall with a nice little keep-off chain around it. Someone hung a sign on the chain: "Common Texas House Roach - Actual Size." Awesome.

Congrats on the bird sightings! I'm no birder but it sounds like hilarious fun going on an expedition with you.

Edited at 2013-09-03 09:07 pm (UTC)

I really, really want to experience the bat cave now! That sounds unbelievably amazing! I wonder how I can talk my husband into a trip...

Spring comes early in Texas. El Paso hits 100 sometime in May (about time it is generally safe to plant stuff in the garden here in Northern England).

The description of the bats kind of...drowns out everything else in this post for me. I so BADLY want to experience that. I have got to make it out to one of these colonies at some point.

synchronized comment

When Reece and I saw a Hawai'ian owl, we both looked at each other and together said: Man, I wish Ursula was here!

Re: synchronized comment

Oooooooh...so do I!