This post continues my birding on the Texas gulf. Once home (and with an Internet connection not overstressed by spring break users), I added the photos to Bird Watching and an Alligator.
Everywhere, Laughing gulls like clowns with red bills and black hats chortled as if they were mocking us.
It was Monday afternoon, the first day of spring break for Texas schools and we had driven from San Antonio to the Gulf of Mexico. In Port Aransas, when Chuck and I picked up the keys to the condo we’d reserved for four days, the rental agent said we could have driven through town the week before and not see another car but that now, during spring break, a hundred thousand (or maybe she said thirty thousand) visitors would come to Port Aransas. The line of cars waiting for the ferry had stretched over half a mile but there were three ferries running and the wait was only fifteen minutes.
Port Aransas is a small town with a normal population of thirty-five hundred. It has one grocery store (an IGA—same as we encountered in Skagway, Alaska a few summers ago), two banks, and a stoplight in the center of town with a gas station on one corner and giant beach-wear/tee-shirt shops on the other three corners.
To reach the condo where we were staying, we waited in traffic, creeping forward each time the light turned green, a mini-reminder of New York City (at the same moment —Staten Island ferry) where we had been the week before.
From the condo, we walked to the beach where, at the edge of the dunes, a road had been packed in the sand. We crossed between a steady procession of cars, oversize pickup trucks, and golf carts with big knobby tires that are street-legal in Port “A”. We walked in the surf, carrying our shoes, the Gulf of Mexico constantly flowing across our feet, then receding. The water was colder than I expected and the air cooled by breezes from a dissipating cold front. The spring break beach revelers were hopeful, or in denial that the temperature was still in the sixties.
On the soft beach sand, stretching for miles, it looked like a great fair with encampments marked by large umbrellas, folding chairs, coolers and beach towels, and some with perfectly engineered sand castles.
Strolling along the pulsating line of surf, we crossed paths with people walking between their beach outposts and the Gulf. A toddler rolled a toy dump truck into the shallow remnants of a wave. We ducked under tight upward-angled kite strings and heard the whoosh of a kite swooping like a tethered bird wing. A floppy-eared hound released from a leash dashed into the waves to grab a stick. Two men and a boy paddled a kayak toward the beach but got turned in a wave which swamped the small vessel and dumped the passengers. The men stood up in the waist-deep surf and lifted the boy back into the kayak.
Brown pelicans soared in a line precisely following the crest of a wave, one after the other skimming into the curling froth, the flock tracing its own sine wave, and mysteriously (to us) the Brown pelicans knew to inflate air pods beneath their belly skin, cushioning their impact on the water.
Our main interest was to look for birds and away from the beach, in Port Aransas and farther south on Mustang Island, we found birding sites, some with viewing platforms and boardwalks, places where people with binoculars and cameras congregated and compared sightings, and waited for the next birds to arrive.
The consensus at the Joan & Scott Holt Paradise Pond (in Port Aransas, behind a Mexican restaurant) was that the yellow-rumped warbler, winter resident, had become passé and that flocks of migrating warblers would show up any day. But coming from eastern Oregon where, except for water fowl on the Deschutes River, the winter birds are mostly jays, finches, sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches, to us all the birds in Port Aransas were different and exotic. Four days later, when we departed, the new warblers—maybe yellow warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, magnolia, black-throated, and black-and-white warblers, worm-eating warblers, hooded warblers, or Wilson’s warblers—still hadn’t come.
Birds are a poet’s metaphor, fragile yet strong, with flight and mysterious ways. For the artist, birds are movement and light—green head feathers shimmer iridescently but with a quick shift, the gleaming feathers change to matte black.
Once, at a refuge in Arizona, we met a truck driver who knew all the birds and said he’d started birding because he could do it anywhere, wherever he was, crisscrossing the country.
Birders witness. At the Leonbelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, standing on the boardwalk behind the wastewater treatment plant we watched an alligator followed by a Great blue heron and a coot. Sometimes, the heron spread his enormous wings and rose straight up, taking flight as if a ballet dancer levitating rather than leaping but then, like a helicopter, the heron shifted sideways, settling back down into the shallow green water, and never taking his eye off the alligator. Also watching the alligator were the cormorants and Brown pelicans that perched on a scaffold of pipes and planks, but across the pond, the ducks slept, seemingly oblivious, heads tucked back into their feathers.
Everywhere we went, birds were searching for food. At the Port Aransas Nature Preserve, a pair of horned larks pecked at sparse weeds in an expanse of salt flat; and south of town, a curlew and sanderlings punched holes in the sand at the edge of the ship canal.
Watching birds can satisfy a yearning for exoticness and a craving for surprise. Having first seen ibises in flight, I assumed they would be graceful birds so it was a revelation, how silly they looked with the scarlet of their long bills extending up over their eyes, and stalking on long red legs, jabbing their gaudy beaks into the shallow pond water—so different from the entire flock sailing grandly across the blue sky.
~ katie eberhart