Every season has its notable bird species. In southeast Texas, the blue-headed vireos, bald eagles, pine warblers, hermit thrushes, and ruby-crowned kinglets of winter are diminishing in number as individuals migrate north, while the spring migration of neotropical songbirds has already begun. I’m seeing black-and-white warblers regularly, hearing northern parulas and white-eyed vireos singing in the woods, and have heard yellow-throated, hooded, and possibly worm-eating warblers. (Worm-eating warblers sing like chipping sparrows but sound less “musical.” One must be careful, though, for rogue Carolina wrens mimicking these species, as I discovered during a hike.)
Visual birding is a cognitively difficult activity that’s well-suited to outdoor physical workouts (running, cycling, hiking). Throw in the aural aspect of birding, which few experienced birders attempt to master, and the cognitive challenge (and interest) goes up significantly. That said, birding by ear is critical to identifying species, especially in challenging habitats like leafed-out spring- and summertime forests.
Since so many neotropical migrants pass through southeast Texas, I decided to learn their songs. My daily drive to work and back was largely empty time (except for seeing interesting birds, like crested caracaras or bald eagles, on occasion), so I filled it with the songs of warblers, vireos, buntings, grosbeaks, sparrows, thrushes, thrashers, orioles, tanagers, and other birds. I didn’t use any special techniques–no spaced repetition algorithms or anything like that–but I still managed to learn their main songs and calls over a few weeks of spending about thirty minutes in the car each day.*
It’s really paid off. Since learning these songs, I’ve been able to identify hidden birds that would have puzzled me in the past. Unexpectedly, for harder identifications, I’ve been able to narrow down the species that could have produced the songs in the field, later figuring them out easily at home upon comparing the few candidates’ songs. This is not only because different families of birds generally produce different types of songs (e.g., orioles don’t sound like warblers, which don’t sound like grosbeaks or finches, which don’t really sound like sparrows), but also because one can mentally group similar-sounding species together, regardless of which family they’re in.
For example, during my run this morning, amongst a cacophony of Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, blue jays, and northern cardinals singing, I also heard a short, clear, rising melody emanating from a particular patch of woods. The song was repeated at regular intervals and didn’t include a trill, so I narrowed the possibilities down to hooded warbler, magnolia warbler, and warbling vireo (all sing rising melodies). At home, I looked up the candidates’ songs and immediately recognized the mystery bird as a hooded warbler.
I often carry a small binocular around my waist while running, which helps me solve visual puzzles as birds fly past. Now that I’m more comfortable with aural birding, a new dimension to outdoor activities has opened up. Every time I hear an unfamiliar birdcall or song, I’m presented with an aural puzzle that I may be able to solve. Since so many birds migrate at night and are quite vocal in flight, aural birding also works during nighttime runs in the spring or fall.
A final, unexpected benefit to familiarizing myself with some of the topography of bird sounds: a new appreciation for particularly lovely songs, such as those of the house and purple finches, the eastern and western meadowlarks, the wood and hermit thrushes, the winter wren, and the painted and indigo buntings.
“I saw one day a little pigmy [hummingbird]…I thought, as I watched it, that there was no need for poets to invent elves and gnomes, whilst Nature furnishes us with such marvellous little sprites ready to hand.” – Henry Walter Bates, The Naturalist on the River Amazon (1873)
There exists a tiny, singular region within the United States where, in the span of one or two hours, one can drive through vastly different life zones from the entire continent–from Lower Sonoran to Canadian, even to Hudsonian–and see an amazing assortment of species. That region is southeastern Arizona, a land of deserts and sky islands. We were fortunate to be able to explore this area for a few days a couple months ago.
In southeast Arizona, one can see greater roadrunners, Chihuahuan ravens, phainopepla, and verdin amongst saguaro cacti, ocotillo, palo verde, and other desert plants, and soon after observe an assortment of birds nearly impossible to see elsewhere north of the border: bridled titmice, painted redstarts, elegant trogons, yellow-eyed juncos, Arizona woodpeckers, Mexican jays, and many other species amongst sycamore, cypress, Mexican alder, spruce, pine, fir, and juniper trees of Sierra Madrean montane forest.
Between the Rocky Mountains to the north and Mexico’s Sierra Madre to the south, forty-two mountain ranges effectively form an archipelago of sky islands within the vast Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. To become a sky island, a mountain must possess sufficient mass and height and must be isolated–in this case, by harsh desert. There are sky islands elsewhere in North America, but the location of this particular archipelago supports a unique overlap of flora and fauna from temperate North America, Mexico, and Central America that is unmatched elsewhere on the continent.1
Even the elusive, near-mythical northern goshawk is found on these sky islands, though with numbers greatly diminished by hunters and farmers who shot them in the past, as well as by loss of habitat related to human development.1
We didn’t see any goshawks, trogons, or quetzals–the US range of the latter two is only in southeast Arizona–but we did see many other interesting species during our time there.
Initially based in Tucson, we took a short road trip in the Santa Catalina Mountains toward their highest peak, Mt. Lemmon. The base of this range north of Tucson is mountainous desert dotted with saguaro cacti and palo verde desertscrub. We stopped at multiple lookouts and hiking trails along the way, including Babad Do’ag Vista, above which we no longer saw saguaros. (According to the excellent Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, which was conceived of and cowritten by a physician, “Babad Do’ag” means “Frog Mountain” in the Tohono O’odham language.)
We passed through multiple life zones, sometimes with dramatic changes of scenery. Saguaros gave way to chaparral, which suddenly gave way to a landscape of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest dotted with hoodoos. One hoodoo resembled mo’ai figures, while another resembled a sphinx.
Hoodoo resembling a mo’ai head.
Hoodoo resembling a sphinx.
At Bear Canyon, among a stand of tall pine trees, we spotted our first set of life birds. A clamor of bird calls in the background approached, soon revealing a mixed flock of clownish acorn woodpeckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, white-breasted nuthatches, a beautiful spotted towhee, and Sierra Madrean Mexican jays, which took over the trees and picnic tables around us. After they left, with the late afternoon sun almost behind the mountains, my eyes happened upon a yellow-eyed junco quietly foraging on the ground in front of me, mere feet away. This montane species–found at 4000 feet and above–isn’t observed in the wild anywhere else in the US outside the sky islands of the desert southwest.
I realized a year or two ago that I bird because birding is the most accessible way to be a naturalist; it allows the most universal connection to nature. One doesn’t even need binoculars. By birding, one can observe, explore, and appreciate nature in practically all seasons and places, including otherwise ordinary or undesirable places that are infused with wonder and significance when certain species are present. Birds are larger than insects, are easier to see with human eyes, add joy to our lives with their songs and their freedom, and are even found in places devoid of plant life.
Back at the hotel, in deepening twilight, we observed tiny, slow-flying bats foraging for insects low overhead. I’m pretty sure they were the smallest bat species in the country, the Western pipistrelle, with bodies the size of walnuts. At night, the mountains and desert were tinted blue by the near-full moon, which appeared to float upon a sea of stars.
After spending more time exploring the area in and around Tucson, including Sabino Canyon and Saguaro National Park, we headed south to the Santa Rita Mountains and the most spectacular birding experience I’ve had in the US outside of spring migration at High Island.
Upon arriving at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, the first thing that impressed me was the great number and variety of birds at the feeders there, a diversity I have never before experienced. I first noticed the Gould’s wild turkeys (M.g. mexicana), huge and with white-tipped tails, out in the open. An older couple–who also said that the lodge is probably the best place to bird in Arizona–told me that the wild turkeys used to be skittish/retiring many years ago. After years of feeding, they are now accustomed to human presence.
There were Rivoli’s, rufous, and Anna’s hummingbirds; chipping, Lincoln’s, rufous-winged (only found in the Sonoran desert), and white-crowned sparrows; raucous Mexican jays, white-breasted nuthatches, acorn woodpeckers, and a charming little house wren that hopped around my feet, into the underbrush, and back out again multiple times. There were dark-eyed and yellow-eyed juncos. The following day, we saw pine siskins and lesser goldfinches all over the feeders, bridled titmice, red-naped sapsuckers, Arizona woodpeckers, a greater pewee (rare for November), and more!
Acorn woodpeckers have idiosyncratic, dramatic flight patterns: they often fly straight up like a whale spyhopping a peek out of the ocean, then dive sharply along a parabolic arc to a tree trunk or branch.
We went on a short hike along the lovely trail behind the lodge, almost immediately spotting a male hepatic tanager, a male Townsend’s warbler (resident year-round), and a painted redstart.
Madera Canyon is the quietest place at night I’ve ever visited. The total darkness–one is surrounded by mountains–is well-matched by the total silence. (We did hear some scuffling near our cabin the second night.)
The following day, we spent hours hiking the trails, hoping to see an elegant trogon, knowing that most had migrated south for the season. We didn’t see the trogon or the red-faced warbler, both gorgeous Madrean species that overwinter in Mexico and Central America, but we greatly enjoyed our hikes through what looked like a magical forest.
We saw Arizona sycamores, Mexican blue oak, alligator juniper, and Arizona white oak, among many other plant species, as we hiked along Madera Creek. As we ascended the Super Trail, we encountered a mountain spiny lizard sunning itself atop a rock. Later, during a descent along the Carrie Nation trail, we encountered an Aphonopelma madera tarantula crossing to the other side, each leg moving with the delicate elegance of a human finger playing a piano sonata. This tarantula just received a species name in 2016!
A couple staying at an inn down the road from us photographed a ringtail drinking hummingbird feeder fluid at night. There are black bears, mountain lions, coatis, even jaguars (extremely rare) in the area, none of which we encountered, although a black bear was seen at our lodge the night before we arrived. We did see white-tailed deer, Arizona gray squirrels, and fox squirrels. The mammalian fauna of Madera Canyon was once much richer and included grizzly bear, jaguarundi, ocelot, and wolf, but these have been extirpated by encroaching human civilization.1
Birding in southeast Arizona feels like neotropical birding “lite,” in a sense: colorful species abound, there are multiple hummingbird species, and one can even see trogons. (If one is very lucky, one may even see an eared quetzal.) For me, it feels a world apart from birding in the eastern half of the US because western flyway species and eastern flyway species don’t mix much. It feels like birding on another planet, at times, to one accustomed to birding the upper Texas coast.
Our final morning in Madera Canyon, we went for a short hike along the beautiful trail behind our casita. Much to our surprise, we encountered a male Montezuma quail sitting, statuelike, atop a small boulder. Initially unsure if it was real, we stopped walking and observed it. I took photos. It then slowly turned around and skulked away into the tall grass. It reminded me of a bizarre Studio Ghibli character. Reading about these birds later, it surprised me to learn that they can leap several feet straight up if startled. I wasn’t surprised, however, to learn that the mechanism by which they locate the roots they dig up to eat is unknown, because so much of natural history is still unknown, even in well-explored places around the world.
Our hike that morning was also special in a different way. I proposed that morning. She said yes!
Does Lafitte’s Cove, in Galveston Island, TX, host the highest number of bird species per acre per year of any birding hotspot in the US? After birding there for the first time last weekend, I think the Cove not only holds that record, but that it’s also the best place in the nation, by a huge margin, in which to see migrating songbirds in the fall. At a mere twenty acres of wilderness–marsh, tree-studded prairie, and woods–engulfed within a high-end residential neighborhood, it stunned my imagination to learn that 313 species have been recorded there on eBird. 313 is an impressive number of species for any location north of Mexico. (Update: a Townsend’s warbler was photographed there in mid-September, increasing the total to 314.)
I don’t have hard evidence, but, based on my own experiences in the past month, speaking to other local birders, and checking eBird to see what species others are listing along the upper Texas coast these days, it seems the difference in yield–especially for songbirds like warblers, vireos, and tanagers, and for rare vagrants–between Lafitte’s and any other hotspot along the upper Texas coast is vast during fall migration. Unlike spring migration, birds are more spread out when they migrate south in the fall. However, many stop to rest, refuel, and quench their thirst at coastal green spaces like Lafitte’s before resuming their long journeys to Mexico or Central/South America. Since Lafitte’s is so compact yet welcoming–with water drips, multiple habitats, and adequate cover–one’s odds of seeing migrant species there are disproportionately large relative to other places.
The day before I visited Lafitte’s, I spent four hours hiking the trails of a local noncoastal wilderness that’s 125 times bigger and still saw seven fewer species than I saw at Lafitte’s in an hour. More importantly, I saw three new life species that hour at Lafitte’s but only one new species the day before!
We saw this tarantula at Lost Maples last year. (Did you know that the females can live longer than 30 years?) I took blurry reference photos of the creature during our hike there, figured out a composition that I drew freehand onto 140-lb cold press Fluid Watercolor Paper with a pencil, then painted it entirely in Winsor & Newton transparent watercolor (no mixed media this time). It took me about seven months off and on, spending anywhere from a few minutes to an hour 1-2 days a week most weeks until the “endgame,” during which I spent 1-2 hours a day for a few days (three hours today) to finish it. Can you imagine spending so much time wetting, drying, and rewetting a single piece of paper?! There’s no way I could have painted it all in a day or even a week, but I could have finished it much earlier if I’d worked eight hours daily as many professional painters do when they’re working on a project.
I’ve realized that with classical guitar, it’s not possible to have a large repertoire if I practice for only thirty minutes a day. As I gain skill and learn more pieces, I also need to practice longer if I want to maintain a decent repertoire (which I do not have at this time, since I don’t practice enough). Similarly, it’s not possible to create precise, detailed paintings quickly if one spends only a small amount of time painting each day. (I work full-time; guitar and watercolor are hobbies.)
During the course of a significant watercolor project, one invents one’s own techniques–important techniques not described in any book one has read–such as how to graduate a wet-in-wet over two or more existing washes. (This reminds me of computer programming projects in college: it was often necessary to create one’s own code “libraries.”) Any significantly detailed painting, especially in watercolor, is difficult because one must plan ahead, remain intensely focused whenever touching brush to paper, figure out the color scheme that will be used, patiently layer paint atop paint, figure out how to fix minor mistakes (major watercolor mistakes cannot be corrected), keep thinking about how to express one’s ideas using a fickle medium, and keep improvising and persisting despite doubts that inevitably arise. Painting is truly “manual” labor.
It’s surreal now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey–though the record-breaking inundation is not yet over–to think that Friday, August 25 was a regular workday for the city of Houston. Days before, I asked my patients if they were ready, if they were staying or evacuating. All were staying upon official advice from the mayor*, weren’t particularly concerned, and seemed ready to ride out the storm.
As you’ve read and heard about on the news, and as you’ve seen in photos of the area, millions of people have been adversely affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey, including many friends and colleagues whose homes and vehicles flooded. A few people we know lost everything, were evacuated by the Coast Guard. I worry about my patients. I hope they’re safe. I’m thankful that my parents, my brother, and my parents’ house survived the storm without difficulty.
Late last week, my girlfriend and I scrambled to stock up on food and water. I’m glad that we were sufficiently neurotic to buy enough for a cataclysm, which is precisely what came to pass. At the grocery store last Friday, a young man picking up the only remaining water bottles–Evian brand–in an otherwise empty aisle (the rest of the store was well-stocked, including the soda aisle), said that he’s “going to feel like an idiot buying this expensive water if the storm misses us.”
I stopped at a gas station near home to fill up my car, because that’s what one does during hurricane season here (to be able to evacuate, if needed). Several pumps were closed. “Super” was the only quality available. The pump I chose sputtered erratically for at least five minutes before running out of gas, something I’ve never experienced before.
That night, in an ominous turn, we lost power for several hours even though it was placid outside. Power returned, miraculously not going out again despite more than forty inches of rainfall in our area, recurrent tornado watches, and bursts of high wind since then. We’re grateful to have had running water, too. We don’t have a boat, so we inflated three airbeds in case we need to float out on them. It rained heavily last night, is raining intermittently today. We could lose power or running water at any time. The only reason our location hasn’t flooded, I think, is that rainwater continues to drain down the riparian forest next to us and into a large brackish bayou that empties into the Gulf, an “infinite” reservoir, via large/near connections.** We’ve been extremely lucky. Rain might not have affected us directly this time, but if a hurricane hit us at the right spot, and it well could in the future, the storm surge could seriously damage or destroy our home.
When I went for a run two days ago, I saw that the major streets surrounding our neighborhood were partly submerged, with water gurgling up from manhole covers in other areas. A Ford Mustang parked streetside seemed to have caught fire at some point because it was scorched on the outside and completely burned on the inside.
We haven’t attempted to drive anywhere since Friday. We, like most other residents of the county–which has become a large lake–are physically isolated for now, unable to drive out to see or help others. Many important details, such as the numbers of missing/trapped/dead people, are not yet known. There have been calls for medical personnel both locally and downtown. Our clinics are trying hard to reopen. My girlfriend and I–both of us physicians–look forward to helping with relief efforts as soon as the floodwaters recede and we can go to where we’re needed. We’re heartened by the great efforts of ordinary citizens and rescue teams in badly flooded areas.
*Our mayor’s rationale for not evacuating the city is that many people died while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic when the city was evacuated before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005. (I had just started medical school at that time. I helped my parents board up their house. We drove for many hours just to get from one side of Houston to the other.) However, since Harvey arrived as a tropical storm, not as a hurricane, we feel that evacuating people in the most flood-prone areas could have saved lives and reduced the need for rescues.
**We don’t have as much developed land near us as many of those who flooded. I later learned that the wooded swamps and tallgrass prairies nearby hold much more water than hard (concrete) surfaces hold, especially before laminar flow begins.
As federal land, it’s also one of the starting points this November for Trump’s ill-advised expansion of the US-Mexico border wall, which will be built on the levee between the parking lot/visitor center and the refuge itself, cutting the refuge off and threatening to destroy it.
The first place I ever wanted to visit, when I got into birding a decade ago, was Santa Ana. I read that South Texas is the best place to bird (and to see butterflies) in the US and Canada, especially during spring and fall migrations. Then the 2009 swine flu outbreak dissuaded me from making the trip. I graduated from medical school, moved to California for residency, and didn’t bird in Texas again for years.
Last weekend, I finally visited for the first time. We drove from Houston to Alamo, one of the most southerly Texas towns, to experience Santa Ana for ourselves, and, along with ~681 like-minded pilgrims from near and far, marched against the planned border wall and for Santa Ana’s continued protection and preservation.
Abstract superlatives about Santa Ana that anyone can read online are relatively meaningless until one actually visits the place. This is an account of our brief experience.
As hot as it is right now where we live, it’s even hotter in three of the four cardinal directions away from Houston. This is definitely not the best time to visit the refuge. Nevertheless, within a few minutes, I encountered multiple “life species”–species I’d never seen before.* What’s more, I wouldn’t be able to see several of them anywhere else in the US or Canada.
Unlike most other natural places I’ve visited, Santa Ana is tucked away, with little signage, in an area dominated by development: a paved jungle of gaudy chain stores and congested gas stations yields to old neighborhoods and finally to plowed land, with little trace of the original habitat. Visiting the refuge is like taking a time machine to a lost natural world destroyed by development over many decades.
We visited an hour before dusk on Saturday with two friends who drove separately. (Our friends had arrived earlier, were on a different trail. We discovered the following morning that they became engaged during that hike!) The refuge was bereft of employees or other visitors–it was all ours to explore. >100-degree Fahrenheit daytime temperatures had dipped into the high 90s by this time. It was noticeably more pleasant along the tree-shaded trails.
I began picking up life birds immediately. The first was a plain chachalaca near the levee past the visitor center, just inside the refuge. I saw gray-headed chachalacas near Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica in 2013 and speckled chachalacas in the Ecuadorian Amazon earlier this year, but, ironically, the plain chachalaca of my own state was a life bird for me last weekend.
At a branching point for trails, we took the Chachalaca Trail, a lucky choice since it was closed off Sunday during the protest hike. The air was infused lightly with the scent of sage–blue sage? It reminded me of my hikes in Southern California. Mesquite trees and scrub seemed dabbed onto the landscape with a natural watercolor sponge dipped into a dull, light green paint. We walked among live oaks with cascades of hoary Spanish moss billowing in the wind. Sabal mexicana palms peeked out here and there. I heard great kiskadees calling nearby. (We heard their intermittent calls both days in Santa Ana.)
While admiring the Spanish moss, my eye meandered over a statue-like Harris’s hawk staring at me.
Flocks of white-winged doves dominated the trees and sky throughout the entire hike. On our way back to the parking lot, several raucous green jays greeted us. (I last–and first, in the wild–saw one of these beauties along a trail near Hacienda Chichen, in the Yucatán, in 2015.) Groups of three or four groove-billed anis–another life bird–clucked melodiously (like a pleasant ringtone) as they hopped from branch to branch at eye level near the trail.* Back at the trailhead, a golden-fronted woodpecker flew onto a nearby tree, staying only long-enough for us to identify it before flying off along the Pintail Lakes Trail–we saw several others of this species Sunday.
Our experience the following morning was very different. Unlike Saturday’s spiritual experience of the refuge in the absence of other people, the refuge was crawling with them Sunday. Friendly refuge employees guided us to parking spots as we arrived. The parking lot filled up well before the scheduled protest.
A white-eyed vireo sang and a white-tipped dove flew overhead as we walked past a naturalist–one of many naturalists, birders, and conservationists there that day–being filmed as he expounded on the importance of the refuge and about the birds he’d already seen that morning.
We met up with our friends, hiked to a large grassy depression that’s a lake in other seasons (there are multiple such seasonal lakes there, with three species of kingfishers and other water-associated birds). They pointed out olive sparrows to us along the way. Great egrets and barn swallows occasionally flew overhead. At one point, I saw at least seven northern rough-winged swallows sitting on a power line. (We saw southern rough-winged swallows in the cloud forests of Ecuador in June.) Along this same power line, I later saw a rare olive-sided flycatcher and then a Couch’s kingbird. Four of these species were life birds for me.
Turkey vultures soared overhead, mourning doves sang unseen, and mockingbirds flew by as we walked to the hawk tower in preparation for the march. On the way, I saw an Altamira oriole nest–the longest nest of any North American bird, by the largest North American oriole, another South Texas specialty. It reminded me of the many oropendola nests I saw hanging from trees in Costa Rica and the Amazon.
Nearly an hour later, many more people had accumulated at the hawk tower. We started our march toward the levee. Along the way, a naturalist tried to help a large butterfly on the ground grasp his finger and flip right side up while another person watched. A few large and innumerable small butterflies flew about the refuge–so many, in fact, that we later almost stepped on a couple of them while hiking one of the trails.
As we stood on the levee in peaceful protest of a wall that could devastate this uniquely beautiful refuge, one of our friends spotted an Altamira oriole looking at us from the forest below. I quickly snapped a photo of this life bird before it flew off.* Large flocks of red-winged blackbirds rose and fell in the fields opposite the refuge while golden-fronted woodpeckers threaded between the Washingtonia robusta palms. Beyond them, a stampede of deer escaped an unclear threat.
I appreciate the Santa Ana employees and the organizers of this protest. I am disappointed by the callousness, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness of our national leaders for threatening to destroy this vulnerable wildlife sanctuary. I feel that I need to return to Santa Ana many more times, in different seasons, to explore the depths of its complexity; I’ve barely scratched the surface with last weekend’s visit. However, future visits may not be possible if the border wall goes up at Santa Ana this fall.
*While reviewing my Yucatán journal, I saw that I had not only observed green jay, but also groove-billed ani and Altamira oriole, near Hacienda Chichen in 2015. Later, I reviewed my Costa Rica journal and saw that I had observed groove-billed ani on the grounds of Green Lagoon Lodge, near Arenal Volcano.
It’s been a while since I last posted updates on my performance of “Spanish Romance,” one of the many pieces I’ve learned over my years of casual guitar practice. Although I stopped taking lessons almost a year ago–I really want to start lessons again–I’ve continued to practice several days a week on my own. The following is my performance of “Spanish Romance” today:
I’ve improved quite a bit since my last update. Compare this to my performance of the same piece on March 18 of this year: