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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Getting Down in Dixie

Massively swollen lower limbs, 4 tick bites, with its possibility of Lyme Disease be damned; I have birded the South. That is, the Southern American Bermuda Triangle: Arkansas, Tennessee and north Louisiana. It all started on Cinco Del Mayo when my birding buddy Don and I were finally settled into our rooms at a little motel in West Memphis Arkansas. Don was so champing at the bit to start birding he insisted we hit the parking lot to try calling in a few birds. Unfortunately, at the time we were birding the West Memphis parking lot, the birdies of our interest were somewhere on the shores of Cuba, listening to Salsa music and dining on El Fiesta Del Worma cocktails.

Next morning we were off to the semi-wilds of Tennessee, we met up with Jeff Wilson –a self proclaimed ‘Old Coot’, i.e., birding expert. Jeff is a hell of a birder who has slung binoculars with the likes of David Sibley and his ilk. For you non-birding types, if you play tennis, that’s like saying Jeff has hit a few balls with the Williams sisters. That doesn’t sound quite right, but you get my gist.

I interrupt my own narrative here to point out that Don is a great trip planner. For weeks and weeks before our trip, he checked out maps of the TN, AK, LA area, contacted southern birders and plotted areas for birding. I contributed by…. well, mostly I just stayed out of Don’s way. Don always politely asks for my input, I pretend to give a damn, and then we go do whatever it is he wants. I can do that because he wants exactly the same thing I do on vacations – new birdies to gawk at. I love not having to think before a trip. The only thing more relaxed than vacationing with Don is signing up for a group tour, where paid strangers do my thinking for me. Don needn’t be paid in anything but courtesy & the occasional granola bar, and he takes into consideration my insane demand for getting ink stamps in my 2 holy books: my National Parks Passbook, and my Blue Goose National Wildlife Refuge Passbook. We should all have such patient friends.

Where was I? Right, Jeff! We met up with Jeff at T.O. Fuller State Park, and took us straight away to sort of place that is dear to birders everywhere – a water sewage treatment plant. Never fails to amaze me how adorable little shorebirds are never happier than when they’re wading knee deep in shite (Little known birding fact #275).

“Ah, there’s a Baird’s Sandpiper”, Jeff said, adjusting his spotting scope. “See how it’s back looks like it’s been ironed? See how the Pectorals (Sandpipers) look comparatively round backed? And look how the Baird’s moves its head – deliberately…”

That little tidbit is the sort of stuff you can’t even find in a Sibley’s guide. Jeff was chock full of that sort of birding tip.

Black Bellied Whistling Ducks winging over
the sewage Treatment Plant; - a lifer species for Don

“The Semipalmated Sandpipers,” Jeff pulled out a paper pad and inked a sketch, “they have a short, straight bill, but compare that to the Least Sandpipers. They’ve a longer bill; droops a bit and ends in a knob. Now your Western Sandpiper, they have…”

The bird on the left a Semipalmated Sandpiper (lifer!), middle peep
a Lesser Sandpiper and on the right, uh...Pectoral Sandpiper...

That’s how my first day in Tennessee went. Useful insight after useful insight, including how to tell a Fish from a American Crow on sight (Fish Crows have shiny backs), how to tell a Eastern from a Western Meadowlark on the wing (Easterns fly like they’ve drunk coffee, double espresso shot, Westerns fly like they’ve a snoot full of Jack Daniels). Jeff knows his birdies.

As the day progressed I got one lifer after another, starting with the ever-present, ever serenading Dickcissels, The Semipalmated Sandpipers which have eluded me in California, the Carolina Chickadee.

Dickcissels: common song birds for Arkansas
but non-existent on the West Coast

Most of the new birds I saw were common, but are only rarely present on the West Coast. In the afternoon we stopped at a little country home by a tributary of the Mississippi River. There were dozens of decorative birdhouses (many in use) surrounding the house, and in the front yard a host of bird feeders kept up a birdie smorgasbord of peanut butter & seeds for the local feathered pigs. The owners were friendly and while Don chatted sociably with them, I wandered around the grounds happily taking hundreds of photos - most out of focus - including my first ever Prothonotory Warblers.

One of my trip lifers; the golden Prothonotary Warbler

A glossy beaut of an Indigo Bunting enjoys a bit of peanut butter
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds decorating a front porch
Hummer enjoying a free sweet snack

Under the hummer feeders, a Carolina Wren nested in a pot
A few of our ‘quarry’ eluded us. Our last stop of the day was the Wapponoca National Wildlife Refuge. We toured the site and settled down at a wooden boardwalk, where the locals, who threw in their lines, trolling for… catfish? Gar? Muskrat Love? We could hear ‘Cococococococo’ coming from the swamp – as Least Bitterns, a small heron that has eluded my sight for decades, sang “stay the eff out my territory” calls. Jeff told us if we were lucky we could see one ‘helicoptering’, that is, flying with its legs & bodies hanging dead weight like they flunked out of the Jenny Craig program.

Don and 'Old Coot' Jeff Wilson,
talking birds at Waponocca boardwalk

We didn’t see any Least Bitterns, but we heard, in full daylight, the call of randy Barred Owls, who carried on hooting their, ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you alllll?’ calls. We also saw a couple of snakes swimming, more exciting when I recalled that unlike in California, in the south the snakes do not rattle to warn you they are dangerous – they just sink their teeth into you, and they swim. Take it from a Californian, it’s a comfort knowing the snakes attended safety classes so know to ‘don’t battle, rattle’ classes at their local Y.S.C.A. (Young Snake’s Coldblooded Academy).

Watery Serpent

Jeff and Don chatted on and on and I got flat out weary. I resolved myself to the annoying fact that Least Bitterns of Arkansas were just as pain-in-the-arse stand-offish as California’s Least Bitterns. I went back to the car, done in for the day.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to let you know that you have his name as Jerry Wilson. It's actually Jeff Wilson and he was my birding mentor and one of my best friends.