Monday, April 21, 2014

Book: Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith

I am a fan of Mr. Smith and this is the first of the 44 Scotland Street novels I've read. It's one more tale about a group of people / neighbors / acquaintances living in Edinburgh.

Bertie is a precocious young lad with a Tiger Mom mother which is why Bertie can play the saxophone….the blues… "In the background, drifting through from Bertie's room, they heard the sound of the saxophone. The blues, sad, haunting music - even when played by a small boy; but this was no average small boy, this was Bertie, who had had so much to worry about in his short life; who wanted only to have fun, to explore the world, to do the things he had seen other boys do; who wanted to wear jeans rather than pink dungarees; who wanted a a dog; who wanted to play rugby and cricket and have a bicycle with racing handlebars; who did not want to talk Italian and have psychotherapy; who waned to drink Irn-Bru and go fishing in he Pentlands; who wanted so much and had, it seemed to him, so little."

Angus and Domenica live in the same building and are having a dinner party. "Halfway through, Angus slipped out to check up on Cyril, who was waiting outside on the landing. Cyril's personal hygiene issues made it impossible for him to attend dinner parties in person, but he had been given a bone, and was happy with that, as most dogs are - and people, too, when the bone is metaphorical. Angus discovered that Bertie had heard Cyril barking and was sitting on the steps beside him, in his pajamas and dressing gown." To me, this is so sweet...

Mr. Smith must write as easily as he breathes. He is prolific and in addition to the 44 Scotland Street Series, he writes The Corduroy Mansion series; The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series (set in Botswana); The Isabel Dalhousie Novels; The Portuguese Irregular Verb Series plus a few other titles.

Just the thing when the mind is tired and in need of gentling…his writing is soothing, funny, smart and affirmative.

Book: The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble is such a good writer that whatever subject she writes about is interesting. Here, it is the story of Jess, a modern young British woman who gets pregnant by a married professor. She has the baby…the pure gold baby… and names her Anna. The professor had "wanted her to have an abortion, he'd set it all up, with a recuperative week in an expensive, discreet clinic in Hampshire thown in, but she had refused. And their sexual relationship had lingered on, had been picked up after Anna's birth had renewed itself, and then had worn itself out slowly. It had come to an end before Jess learnt of Anna's condition, the the early days when all with Anna was still golden."

The pure gold baby just doesn't grow up normally. She is sweet but slow and eventually Jess sends her to a special school. All through this novel, there are allusions to children who fail to achieve a normal independent adult life. They are not always definitively diagnosed, and they are often easy children with pleasant bland personalities, capable of small worries and easy pleasures.

Jess reads of Pearl Buck's only child, a daughter named Carol and how as Pearl "grew richer and more and more famous, she adopted other daughters in an effort to heal the material wound, and founded homes and institutions…to care for children marginalized by property or hereditary abnormality."

Wonderful sentences on every page:

"English people reading Proust often manifest a degree of self-consciousness, and Jess was no exception. She left a sense of sold and almost visible virtue as she lay in the staler royal-blue bathing suit on her yellow towel on the grass, making her way through the Jeunes Filles en flours….."

Jess lives on with her daughter. She marries and leaves one man but remains friends with him and even remains married to him. She has women friends and men friends and has adequate social connections. Somehow, Drabble makes dailiness and a rather ordinary life into an engaging tale. It is told by an unknown narrator who at the end says: "I haven't invented much. I've speculated, here and there, I've made up bits of dialogue, but you can tell when I've been dong that, because it shows. I've known Jess a long time, and I've know Anna all her life, but there will be things I have got wrong….."

Jess dreams of Africa her whole life and she finally makes a trip there with Anna near the end of the book: "Anna is here, and safe, and with her mother, and she is enjoining the ride. Anna learns to duck when branches hang low over the track, and sips her bottled tepid water and gazes around at this new but ancient world. She likes the sausage trees, and she even likes the circling vultures. As Jess has hoped, she seems to have forgotten about her illness. She does not have a brooding memory…It is all a success, so far, the expedition."

Why read this? For the beauty of the words and how they fit together...

Book: The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez

Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard died in Laramie, Wyoming in 2000, and after his death he became the symbol of the prejudice and anti-gay hatred in this country.  Which is how I remembered his murder. 

But Matt was more than an innocent gay college student and the author tells his story. There were a lot of drugs (especially methaphetamine) in Laramie…and in the west generally at that time. Stephen Jimenez carefully teases the threads of dozens of stories out of the social network of Matt's acquaintances and concludes that his death was more drug-related than an antigay killing, more of a robbery that went wrong, and that Matt was killed by a drug-fueled meth addict. So much of what the he uncovers was never brought out at the trials of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Not that were innocent but Russell's participation was passive; Aaron on the other hand was the perpetrator and executioner and deserved his punishment. Aaron led and Russell followed on the night Matt, but probably neither were homophobic. 

It was a sad, intriguing, provocative story of small town America in the age of meth and how pernicious the drug is and was and it affects those who use. Matt and his killer(s) used drugs; there were trips to Denver in a limo owned by a slippery character named Doc O'Connor, trips with partying in the limo and gay bars Denver, other trips to Denver for purchasing drugs for sale in Laramie. Matt was involved in this and almost assuredly died because of it, not because he was gay.  

The judge told the courtroom at the end of Russell's trial: 

"Many people have called this a hate crime. Quite frankly, the Court does not find this matter to be so simplistic, for it is quite clear that a number of motives and emotions were involved here. The end result, whatever the motivation, was the brutal murder of a young man who was beaten to death with a three-pound revolver, perhaps in part because of his lifestyle, and perhaps because of a $20 [sic] robbery." 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Birding: To Texas with DHC ~ Spring of 2014

Thursday ~ March 27

We left Indianapolis mid morning, made the obligatory Starbuck's stop and then travelled west to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois to catch the train. We had decided this would work better than starting in Chicago which was the option. The morning was damp and chill but we were excited. Throughout our whole trip we used our phones for navigation, for hotel reservations, for birding information and for weather updates (mostly me for the weather as I have a new App called Dark Skies).

We had each packed too much but still were able to walk with it all for a block or two, which we did a couple of times on the trip. There was free parking for Amtrak customers near the station. We unloaded the car, walked through a windy drizzle to the neat and clean and uncrowded station where we waited a couple of hours for the train, which (at this point and so close to its origin) was still on time. Ate from a Subway  in the station and generally chilled with devices and books.

For me, an expectant train and the act of boarding is highly pleasurable, offset only a bit on having to maneuver various pieces of luggage and carry-ons. Amtrak allows two large pieces of luggage and seems not to have a limit on smaller stuff. In each coach, there are two storage shelves on the lower level but they fill up and there is always the concern that any smaller bags may "walk off the train" as a conductor announced at one point, cautioning passengers to know where they stored their personal belongings. The other option is to schlepp everything up the narrow stairs which we did. I had two large bags, one with my spotting scope, and both were heavy. DHC had smaller but more items. Of course we managed and got settled. It soon became apparent that the train was not full, so I moved back one row and across the aisle; thus, we each had a wee "roomette" to ourselves - two seats instead of one.

Near dusk we passed through St. Louis, Missouri, and saw the arch at last light. We opted not to eat dinner in the dining car and instead got a microwaved pasta dish from the smaller snack bar. It was tolerable and cheap. The meals in the diner range from $20 to $30 per entree and vary considerably in taste. We did eat in the diner though for a couple of breakfasts and dinners on two occasions.

What continues to amaze me is how the nights pass so quietly - a relative quiet as trains are inherently noisy, but even a full coach (although ours was probably half full) is remarkably peaceful in terms of people. Most of the more social and wide-awake folks probably go to the observation car. The rest are either watching movies on computers or tablets, are reading or dozing / sleeping. The motion and ambience of the train is definitely conducive to relaxation, or it is for me. One is a prisoner in a good sense, and it is even better if one's arrival time at a destination is flexible, as was ours. Sleeping is not too bad, especially if one is lucky enough to have two seats in which to sprawl. I had told DHC to bring a pillow and a wrap / throw / light cover of some kind. It makes a huge difference in comfort. Sometimes the train temperatures are a bit cool, although mostly in my experience, it has been comfortable enough.

Friday ~ March 28

We were on the train all day and were about two hours behind schedule at one point, but made up time and arrived in San Antonio at 10 p.m.

Slowly watched the flora turn greener. The day was cloudy, and we went through a very dark sky stretch with thunder and lightning, but then in late afternoon, the sky totally cleared on one side (west ) of the train and was an ominous dark grey to the east. We were, however, travelling south and west into the clearing weather. We went to the dining car and had a long leisurely dinner as a brilliant sun lay over the land. It doesn't get much better than this…..

Sometimes passengers begin chatting, but more often, everyone is content to read, sleep, watch screens, or stare at the landscape. Occasionally, there is a child or baby who cries occasionally but most parents are conscientious about taking care of them, especially after the conductor announces early in the trip that kids may not be allowed to roam free, that the smaller ones may not go to the bathrooms on the lower level unattended and may not move through the train without adult supervision. The coach staff is pretty much on top of their passengers, take their measure and are brisk and efficient when needed. Not exactly warm and soothing, but they get it done.

An African-American guy was sitting in front of me. At one point it became apparent that most of the passengers were going to have to detrain and take a bus as tracks in Texas were under repair. It was our good fortune that we were not among those, and after they all got off in Taylor, Texas, DHC counted and said there were only 20 people left. Anyway, Wayne was the man in front of me and, when he heard about the forced bus detour, he was crabby, muttering and swearing and generally unhappy. But, after we started talking, his story was interesting. From Michigan, with 5 or 6 kids ("only one is my biologic child"), he was headed to Dallas and then to the Houston area for a job in the oil industry. His new job would be on-shore, fitting or dismantling pipes. He will be paid $37/hour and was planning to move his fiancee and their kids down to Texas after a few months. He said one of his sons was a graduate of University of Michigan and was working on an AIDs project in Africa. His woman was a nurse, as was a daughter. He showed me a photo on his phone of his sweet little 3-year-old granddaughter. When he took off his hat, he had a bald head and looked older than I first thought. He was worried about the delay as he was concerned about the oil people who were to meet him at the Dallas station. Except for his one angry outburst, he was fine. He told me a lot about the oil industry, or at least his experiences, as he had done this work before. They will "chase you down the streets in Texas" to try to get workers. According to Wayne, there is only one drug test at the beginning ("dropped my pants") but very little regulation once someone is hired. And it seemed, a person has leeway in his/her schedule. Wayne wanted to work right on through, but some do three weeks on and a week off, or two weeks on and two weeks off. He did not have a high regard for many of his fellow workers but he saw this as a chance to better his status and provide for his family. He kept insisting how the oil industry was begging for workers.

As his departure station approached, he got up and the train lurched and he fell into DHC's private space where he kind of landed on a suitcase, a bit chagrined and apologetic. We all laughed and off he went to HIS new adventure. DHC and I called it "a Wayne on the train" which happens often to some degree (the lurching and grabbing for support) as one is moving through the coaches.

There are sleepers but they are expensive at about three times the coach seats.

Ah, San Antonio on a balmy festive Friday night. We got all our stuff unloaded, readjusted as best we could and walked two blocks to the motel. The streets were full of happy people; the trees were wrapped with tiny white lights; the air was incredibly soothing. It was busy but not crazy frenetic busy. Bars and restaurants all around (or so it seemed) although later on our return, we had trouble finding an open place in this area, even on a Friday late afternoon. More on that later.

I had DHC's pillow and stopped at a bench to either tie a shoe or readjust my belongings as the duffel with my scope kept sliding off the roller suitcase. Just outside our motel, DHC asked where her pillow was, and I told her it must be on the bench back a block, where apparently I had left it. She retrieved it while I stayed with our stuff, and we checked into a Best Western with a room on the 3rd floor. So far, so good…in fact, great.

Saturday - March 29

Woke to a dove calling, but not a Mourning Dove. This one has a muffled vocalization that sounds like "whoo cooks for you? whooo cooks for you" much like Barred Owls. They were all over and it was DHC's first lifer! We had the complementary breakfast and walked a few blocks to Avis where she had reserved a car. There was a bit of a snafu as the independent owner did not want to release the car as it had been reserved under Jack's "Wizard number," but he finally relented and called his boss. We heard only his side of the conversation and at one point he said, "Yeah, she's a nice lady…" and we were on our way. The car was a little Kia Rio and got fantastic gas mileage. We saw another ubiquitous bird in the city: Great-tailed Grackles which are all over and very noisy. These are similar but larger than our Common Grackles in Michigan. Also saw a Blue Jay which are not that common in Texas and, in fact, it was the only one we saw. And we did NOT see one Robin. Different places; different habitat; different birds. Which is what this trip was all about.

We started south to Laredo, a name that has a romantic connotation from old western tales and books and movies. It was a morning to soothe our northern souls and bodies with baby blue sky, warm sunshine and new greenery. The art of birding from the car is to do it carefully. It's best done on secondary roads with generous shoulders and little traffic. This was not the road to Laredo but we managed. At one point, DHC whipped off the expressway onto a service road for our first looks at the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We were ecstatic and open-mouthed with awe which is often a birder's reaction to a particularly lovely, previously never-seen bird.
Except the truckers who also left the expressway weren't as enchanted and probably were cursing at us as we were stopped but not COMPLETELY off the road. We tried to be more considerate after that.

I had a tentative itinerary worked out and we generally followed it but also changed it often as we discussed options. There are about 100 possible good birding venues in this area which is known as the LRGV (Lower Rio Grande Valley) and obviously we had to choose and discard as we went along. It all worked out as we were very compatible in this.

There is a large lake on the NE border of Laredo called Lake Casa Blanca, and we headed in that direction but never did see the lake. Instead we found Ranchito Road Ponds which were sufficient and very near the bigger lake. It was pretty hot by now, but there was a little park with Hispanic families picnicking and cooking up the most wonderfully fragrant delicious food. We almost sidled up to the grills and thought about trying to pass as relatives, but we were white girls here. God, it was so tempting and they probably would have gladly shared. We found (without exception) the Hispanics kind and friendly and helpful and good-natured. And we were certainly a minority. Often there was a bit of a communication issue, but it all works. Just before the Ranchito Road, we were on another little dead end and saw a Pyrrhuloxia, which looks very much like a Cardinal but is more grey. A life bird for DHC!

So we poked around the ponds and saw pelicans, cormorants, herons, coots and a Black-necked Stilt which was my totem bird for a long while until Maria and I birded Bowdoin NWR in eastern Montana and she showed them to me. Not that one would have trouble identifying them. Here is a photo from another trip somewhere, sometime - they have bubblegum-pink, long long legs. We saw them several times on this trip.

On to a Priceline motel in Laredo and then dinner which was in a large noisy restaurant. It had a mostly seafood-Mexican menu which was common along the Rio Grande, so near the Gulf. Mine was good; DHC's not so. Also, of course, margaritas.

Then we decided to scout out a trail we planned to do early the next morning, the Las Palmas Trail, pretty much along the Rio Grande, although the dense tangled flora understory often obscured views of the river itself. As we got close, using our phones to navigate, we got to the river and watched people walking back and forth across an international bridge. Under the bridge were lots of Saturday night frolickers, cooking, playing ball, hanging out, cruising in cars…all Hispanic, AND the Border Patrol which had our backs as we said throughout this whole trip. They are always in white SUVs with green lettering. We found our trail area and there was a wide gravel road alongside so we headed away from the crowds into the "brush" and immediately were closely followed by the BP. I knew this from my previous Texas trip two years ago and knew they were just keeping watch, figuring out if we were drug smugglers or aiding humans escaping illegally from Mexico, or just sizing us up. At some point, we talked with one of them. There were several BP vehicles in the area. It was nearing dusk and no one else was in the brush or on the gravel road…just me, DHC and the guys in white trucks. One of them gently suggested we NOT get out of our cars anymore tonight, but tomorrow morning would be fine. "There will be more people out here in the morning." It was a beautiful early evening with no insects and that perfect temperature.

I wanted to find a bird called a White-collared Seedeater and this was their habitat. But they are tiny, sparrow-ish and secretive with a large grosbeak-like bill. They nest in the "canebrakes" which we figured must be the tall reeds which are all over. I kept peering into thickets but would have been very lucky to actually see one in this haphazard searching. They are hard to find, and we never did on this trip. It would take patience and possibly a local person to guide us or give us very specific directions. We did see several Great Kiskadees flying back and forth across the road, and which are handsome, robin-sized birds with brown backs, yellow bellies and wide black and white head stripes.

We turned around at the end of the road and saw a BP guy standing in the road outside of his vehicle. He looked tense and his eyes were darting about. He had a short blond crew-cut. I asked him about directions or something, but he quickly said, "Ma'am, I'm working traffic…" and motioned us on, all the while keeping sharp eyes on the brush. So on we went, but poked around a modest crowded neighborhood with unpaved streets on the high ground above the river before going back to the motel. Lots of cars and color which pretty much defined much of what we saw in this part of Texas in the residential areas. And then we spotted another life bird for DHC on Zaragosa Street where we stopped for a couple of minutes as there was little traffic. It was an Inca Dove which is smaller than the Mourning Dove and has a scaled or scalloped plumage. It was poking and pecking along the ground in this little poor neighborhood. Which is partly what is fun about birding. It isn't all about the birds. Tonight it was about the historic river, families hanging out, the Border Patrol, small neighborhoods with cars on lawns, the unfamiliar flora, houses painted colors other than white or grey or tan…beautiful dark-haired smiling kids….

Sunday ~ March 30

We were on the road early. I discovered I left my iPhone charger in the room in San Antonio. (I called and actually went back to the motel at the end of our week before getting back on Amtrak but never got it back, although a Hispanic security person was genuinely apologetic after he checked the Lost and Found and didn't find it).

So I bought a car charger at a convenience store / gas station while DHC got gas and we headed mostly east and south. It was overcast but  the sky was clearing as we drove. We stopped at a rest stop near Zapata which has the reputation for birds but it was cold, windy and trashy. Texans obviously need some education about littering. We were high above the Rio Grande, took a photo or two, didn't linger, mostly due to the chilly wind, and stopped next in the tiny town of San Ygnacio, by which time the sun was out.
 We parked and walked down a rutted road to the river where we happened upon a guided tour group. But imagine our amazement when we discovered they were from Michigan and the guide was Bill Sweetman, a former teacher at GRHS and Calvin (I think). Of course there was also the omnipresent Border Patrol. Bill told us about a couple of places they had already been and what they saw, which was helpful and is another aspect of the birding world, somewhat like Esther's geocaching acquaintances. But we at least often talk to them in person, real-time.
Bill Sweetman of Bsweet Birding Tours and Calvin College
San Ygnacio was modest and quiet and old. There was nobody out and about on this early Sunday morning. Guided birding groups are usually about 10-12 people, limited by necessity, as a huge group would not be manageable in this activity which sometimes requires furtive searching with only a few good vantage points. Generally, people are generous and take a quick peek and then offer their spot and/or scope to others. However, some of the major birding venues are over-the-top with HUGE long lenses and folks who WANT the bird and a photo with little regard for others. Like the guy in The Big Year… On this whole trip though, we only had pleasant, civil, helpful encounters with people, most of whom were eager to explain and point out and direct.

This typical of signage in the smaller places…
unpretentious comes to mind, but just right also.

the street by the access to the river in San Ygnacio
We realized that the best birding along the river is the early morning; in fact, getting there before dawn is advised. There are several birds found only in the LRGV and some are only found in  riparian habitat. They easily fly between countries which is kind of cool we thought. At one point, we saw a Green Kingfisher on the Mexican side, but it then flew to the US.

We both kept wondering and discussing how easy it seemed for humans to cross. The river isn't wide in most places and is shallow. There are miles and miles and miles of river between towns, sometimes with "stepping stones" like at Eunice's Lake Superior property. But then we also always saw the BP whenever WE accessed the river. DHC said that we were probably in their system after that first encounter in Laredo and I'm sure she was right. Since birding is so common along here, it seems it would or could be a good cover????

WhateVer, as I said, we felt they had our backs.   We did sort of watch for ticks and chiggers; we were aware of snakes but never saw one, although many places had signs warning one to "Watch for Snakes." One does look down more often and is careful not to get too far into the brush without snake-proof, chigger-proof foot gear.

Bill pointed us to Chapeno and off we went and DHC spotted another life bird for her in the trees along US 83, which is the main road between Laredo and Brownsville. This was a Hooded Oriole. At about this point, I realized I DID NOT HAVE MY FRICKING CAMERA CHARGER! So unless DHC sends me some of her photos, I only have a few more and missed at least 500 good photo ops. (I thoroughly searched all my luggage several times, and when I got home, I found the charger in a bag I had intended to take but then didn't.) We also saw Chihuahuan Ravens all over. These look very much like American Crows. DHC stopped for a dead bird, removing it from the traffic lane, placing it to rest in the grasses. It was a Long-billed Thrasher, which resembles our Brown Thrasher and temporarily confused us. Another life bird for her and she gathered a feather.

Then we left 83 and headed to Chapeno but DHC suddenly had some sort of epiphanic moment, got the car safely off the road onto a shoulder, announced she had to investigate something, purposefully marched across the road and spent 15 minutes observing a small undistinguished sparrow. I stayed in the car for a few minutes but then wondered what the hell she was doing. It was rather unlike her but her instincts were right-on. The cooperative bird was a life bird for both of us, a Cassin's Sparrow, singing loudly, showing itself easily. I got the scope set up and we had good looks. DHC is very aurally capable and can hear and remember bird vocalizations which helps with the ID. And I have a couple of apps on my phone that we would judiciously play for confirmation. I am careful not to use this as some birders do more frequently as I am elitist about trying not to unduly disturb the natural behavior of birds. This is a debatable and controversial topic in the birding world and playback is forbidden in most Texas state parks and NWRs. And DHC still was wearing flip flops, and there were always prickly plants and spiky sticky weeds. Still, she was called by a lovely sparrow song.

It was absolutely gorgeous perfect weather by this time in mid morning…soft blue sky and delicate fresh spring greenery.

On to Chapeno and the El Rio RV park with its old hippie/druggy feel or if not drugs, at least a few beers every hour or so. We paid $3 each and drove down a rutted steep road to a nice mowed grassy area which appeared to be a camping venue, although no one was there. We did see a few birders in the distance downriver. A large mud-covered turtle was sunning on river rocks. It was getting warmer. We meandered awhile and tried to ID swallows nesting in the cliffs and chased another oriole that I don't think we ever saw well enough to positively ID. Again, we knew we were too late in the day for good birding, but now we know Chapeno. I always wonder about the back stories in a place like this. The whole place was ramshackly with a meager feeding station…nothing like my all-time most wonderful spot along the river in 2012, which was Salineno with at least 20 well-stocked feeders and comfortable chairs in the shade and about as perfect a birding experience as I've ever had. We headed there next.

But first we stopped at the library pond in Zapata, another favorite place for Texas birding. We walked around the pond. I peered and peered into the 20 foot high rushes and "brakes" bordering the pond for White-collared Seedeaters as this is a good spot for them. No luck and no Vermilion Flycatcher which is the bird I saw here two years ago and which DHC wanted badly to see. There was an Osprey though working the pond. We stayed about 30 minutes and moved on. I think it was in Zapata that DHC took some photos of a good-sized cemetery where each grave was loaded with bright plastic flowers. Again, all was quiet here. Sunday morning quiet. An occasional benign dog wandered about, or an older person walking slowly. A bit zen-like. Birding is another way to be a tourist…. with benefits such as poking around old old small villages on the Rio Grande with adobe homes, palms, cacti, flowers, sunshine…

So on to Salineno which is no longer set up for birding, and which I knew but still hoped would have SOMETHING. It didn't, although it did have a field of poppies and a life bird for DHC which was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker on a telephone pole.

This is another venue right on the Rio Grande, and  there has been only a little information on the Internet about why it is no longer operating. The deal was that for many years a couple from Michigan lived in an RV on the property during the winter months and maintained the feeding stations. As they got older, others stepped including a woman named Cheryl Longton who was there when I stopped by two years ago. These volunteers apparently were immensely generous with their time and space and Salineno became a mecca for birders. Two years ago, I got four life birds here while I just sat and relaxed in a lawn chair in the shade for four hours. As good as it gets….

Now, ostensibly because of the "dangers" associated with being so close to the river, the place has been closed although there is some talk about it being renewed in some way by local conservation groups. And there is the Salineno NWR refuge right here with a trail leading east along the river, which we did not explore this time. Those who do, undoubtedly do find some of the birds that used to come to the feeders. It is all a bit mysterious and sad for anyone who visited Salineno in its prime. But c'est la vie….

One more quick stop before McAllen was Roma Bluffs which is also a World Birding Center site, one of nine along or near the RG from South Padre Island to Roma an old town, high on a bluff above the river with trails through riparian woodlands. Although we didn't linger here, we did walk a couple of blocks and watched the Sunday afternoon activity on the Mexican side in the town of Miguel Aleman, which included cars and trucks cruising a loop adjacent to the river and many families out picnicking and frolicking in a park-like open area. DHC talked to a female BP person who told her that their presence with their visible white vehicles dampens the enthusiasm of illegal river crossers. So that's a job: standing and sitting and watching and waiting in a white van / truck for hours like an almighty parental. There are old sun-baked buildings, some half in ruins, some restored, all made of stone and adobe. I sensed the historical significance of the town and found more information and photos by googling and Roma Bluffs, with an especially gorgeous picture of the sun setting on the river to the west.

Back on the road to Bentsen-Rio Grande SP, really a MAJOR stop for birders, as it is a huge park with trams and trails, gift shops, a Visitor Center, feeding stations, ponds, the river, a hawk platform…. Even though I had been here before, I couldn't exactly find the Visitor Center from the parking lot. And while we were fussing with directions, DHC spotted two Northern Bobwhite walking into the brush. Bobwhite are classified as quail and are plump, brownish birds one usually sees on the ground with a wee bit of a crest and white throats. Of course we found the VC which turned out to be pretty much across the street, but the only parking was for the maintenance crew. However it was late in the afternoon, those employees were soon to leave, and there were plenty of empty spots, although DHC later moved the car to avoid getting locked in or ticketed or whatever they might do to people who disobey signs.

There was a small pond alongside the Visitor Center, and we immediately saw a Black Phoebe and a Long-billed Thrasher. The phoebe was a new bird for Deborah. We hung around there an hour or so; it was peaceful since most visitors had left for the day. There are always a few local Hispanic families with mom, dad and a couple of kids enjoying the outside in these lovely parks, along with visitors from all over the world. We walked a short distance to where I remembered generous feeding stations. A man with an Australian accent was the only other person. He was photographing with a long lens covered in camouflage material. As it was the end of a long day, we appreciated a feature that had not been there two years ago, namely several sets of those outdoor double chair swings - a unit that stands alone and not something one would expect to be in a state park, out in the elements. So, we watched a lone Green Jay (one of the most beautiful birds hereabouts…blue head, green back, yellow belly, black throat) and another life bird for DHC, along with many Plain Chachalacas grubbing about and White-tipped Doves. The Chachalacas (a name that seems appropriate in this Hispanic-speaking area) are large brown birds with long tails…looking vaguely like a Wild Turkey but smaller and not as colorful and not as ugly. There are 22 inches, which is what I mean as large. The only other birds of that size were the hawks, vultures and waterfowl. But Chachalacas are found along with sparrows, jays, orioles, etc., at feeding stations all over the LRGV, which is the only place they are found in the US. Also near the Visitor Center pond, Deborah saw a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a lovely hummer (not that there are unlovely hummingbirds) with a distinctive ruby red bill.

(Earlier this morning I read a post from another blogger who stated that of the two weeks she was in the Rio Grande Valley recently, only "four days were not Stormy, Windy, Rainy and Cold," so we were very lucky to be sitting in a porch swing, outside in a lovely state park, with no insects, few people, warmed by the afternoon sun, not blowing away, watching birds very close to us.)

I had been reading birding posts from Texas for months and DHC had written a gentleman from New Jersey who had asked for help for HIS week of Texas birding on one of the lists. He sent her what she called "the motherlode" of information that he had received in response to his queries, all from local birders. There were also a few recommendations for places to stay and to eat, so that night we tried the recommended Motel 6 in McAllen and a nearby restaurant; the food was OK…but again not exceptional, and the motel was, well, bleak. Not dirty; but with zero aesthetic appeal. The first room smelled of cigarettes even before we actually stepped over the threshold, so we changed rooms. The stairs were concrete with chips missing. One bed was smack against the wall, and so on….Yes, a bit of an elitist attitude here but no apologies. We stayed in a few other places for the nearly the same price that were fine. Still, if one were birding on a strict budget, I can see why this would suffice. I think I would rather be in a tent than a dismal depressing motel room.

McAllen is a good-sized, busy city and what we saw of it was very pleasant. Esther, you told me that one of your employees lives here? It was a gorgeous evening and we scouted the roosting bird scene. Literally 1000s of birds come from wherever they have been flocking around during the day to roost on the wires in fairly specific areas, in this case, the highly-trafficked, commercial north 10th street. It's like 28th street. Why do birds (mostly very noisy Great-tailed Grackles) do this? We had no idea but were sure there is a birdy reason. We, however, were not looking for the grackles but rather the Green Parakeets. Only a few of these bright parakeets, parrots, parrotlets or macaws are accepted by the American Birding Association as birds "listable" birds, meaning that they are now considered wild enough or native enough or whatever their strict rules demand. There are other parrot-type birds to be found here and there which are escapees - pets that have escaped or been released. So in this part of Texas, there are only two: the Green Parakeet and the Red-crowned Parrot that are "legal" for birders. The GP is easier to find as it apparently roosts by the dozens to hundreds in quite specific places like the "Lowe's parking lot on 10th street." However, by the time we finished dinner, it was too dark to see what was happening on the wires, and we went to our Bleak House.

Oh, one other bird note: All along the Valley are two Kingbirds that look identical, and it is advised that one can only identify them by hearing their very different songs. As one knowledgeable local birder said, the Tropical KB trills; the Couch's KB is sitting on the couch crying "beeer, beeer." The Couch's are most common, and we saw them nearly every day, usually perched on telephone wires. They are handsome with a soft grey head and breast, white throats and yellow bellies. We made the assumption, due to habitat and the fact that they are so common, that we were seeing mostly Couch's.

Monday ~ March 31

The first best thing as we got up early to be at Santa Ana NWR when it opened was the proximity of a Starbucks to our motel. We both have a mild addiction to good coffee and Starbuck's seldom fails to deliver. I also bought a green drink that tasted like grass which I probably won't buy again. Sometimes the most nutritious foods are inversely proportional to the taste, as was this. The sun was rising….

A volunteer was filling the feeders and putting out cut oranges at the Visitor Center where there was one Green Jay, Chacahlacas, many noisy Red-winged Blackbirds, an occasional White-tipped Dove, Goleen-fronted Woodpeckers.…
Golden-fronted Woodpecker at Santa Ana
DHC and I walked the trails for a couple of hours, out into the Pintail Lakes area and then meandered back along the high ground bordering the Rio Grande. We were the only ones out birding for much of the time, such a difference from two years ago, when each morning a guided hike usually had 10-20 people, but that was, as I've said, early March, and we were a month later. It was overcast with a slight wind and very few annoying bugs. While much of the the refuge is covered with trees, brush, bush, tangled vines, weeds, reeds, marshes and long grasses, the lake areas are under open skies where kites and hawks and vultures are easily seen. We saw stilts, ibises, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Mottled Ducks, a White-tailed Kite…. A Green Kingfisher sitting on a dead tree limb in Mexico. As we moved along the trail, it flew to the US. To actually SEE the river in most places along the trail (as the foliage obscured easy viewing), one had to find little paths through the grass and brush. Ever mindful of snakes, we proceeded cautiously. A woman at the Visitor Center told us there was a "big ol' indigo snake that hangs around the photo blind…but we like him; he eats rattlesnakes."
DHC at Santa Ana NWR

A pair of kiskadees moved on the trail keeping just ahead of us. DHC was photographing one of them and never saw the other until she looked at her photos at the motel that evening.  We also climbed a steep spiral stairs to a tower with a swaying canopy bridge, but neither of our vestibular systems is all that competent, so we didn't hang out long, AND there were few birds at that time of day.

Back at the Visitor Center, we were walking around back for a look at the feeders there when DHC spotted our only Olive Sparrow of the trip, a small plain sparrow grubbing underneath a bush. She was constantly on the lookout for hummingbirds which were working the flowers back here also. There are only two relatively common species this time of year and we/she eventually saw them both. These Visitor Centers all have a kiosk with eTracker so one can easily look up what birds have been seen recently.

We talked with a couple who had just come from Estero Llano Grande SP, our next spot, and who told us very specifically where to find the Common Pauraque, so off we went, although this is not the easiest park to find We stopped at a little general store and laughed when Deborah asked and was told it was basically 1/4 mile away. Signage is not always a priority and a couple of times on US 83, we would look behind us at signs to see if we were where we wanted to be, like at San Ygnacio. Of course, we were doing this trip "backwards" as most people bird from east to west.

By now, it was hot and windy but off we went to Alligator Lake, where we met a Hispanic family with a young girl who was so excited about the huge alligator basking on the far side of the lake. Her eyes were alight with eagerness to pass this information on to DHC and me. There were, in fact, at least two of them and they really were big!

So, the pauraque….We found the spot on the trail where the nest was supposed to be. The woman at Santa Ana said it was "right on the ptah…like you almost could step on it and it's right near a bunch of twigs and branches which have been placed at that point….can't miss it…" But we found no pauraque and no nest. The deal is that this bird is absolutely perfectly camouflaged and what is does most of the day is sit on the forest floor not moving a muscle. It looks exactly like the leaves and dirt and small twigs and tree debris that is always in woods. It's only found (in the US) in southern Texas. It is about a foot long with a tiny bill and long tail, so it's not exactly a tiny bird. It is the nightjar family, is nocturnal and is sometimes found by birders at dawn or dusk using flashlights as the light reflects from the eyes. This method, along with playbacks, is a controversial way of birding.

We peered and hoped and were about to give up when a middle-aged couple came along, obviously birders, and we starting talking. They were just out for "the next bird" with no targets, so we asked them about the pauraque. Yes, they had seen them before in this park, and yes, we were in the right habitat. We explained how the Santa Ana lady had been so definitive about their whereabouts. At that point, we were walking around a small loop with this couple. Both DHC and I were getting de-energized with that mid-day slump feeling, along with the sun and wind, so were resigned to "no pauraque" when the woman says, "I've got it…" and she did! Amazing example of a good birder's abilities...knowing how to look and what to look for. There it was, about 12 feet off the trail and so camouflaged that her husband just could not see it for about five minutes even though all three of us women were each pointing out landmarks…"see that tree that forks near the ground…see that clump of leaves next to the little spot of greenery….see about 3 o'clock just after that tree with whitish bark….etc.," and he was getting a bit testy but then laughed at himself too. On a couple of occasions while birding with lots of people, someone has had a laser pointer which was extremely helpful as it can pinpoint a bird's whereabouts, although it needs to be used judiciously and never directly on the bird. At any rate, we were immensely grateful and thrilled. And impressed as this Canadian couple only counted birds they have photographed with a life list now at 300.

Yeah, I know….thrilled is a response most of you would find hard to apply to a mottled brown immobile bird on the ground in the brush in Texas, but of course, it's relative.

We then returned to the VC but somehow missed a turn and found ourselves on a levee above the Rio Grande and were almost blown INTO the river. There were elegant American Avocets in the river which we saw through the sun, wind and water shimmer with our binoculars. DHC took a shorter route, and I wandered a bit further, catching a glimpse of what was probably a Sedge Wren and getting within touching distance of coots. At the VC, there is a covered deck overlooking a watery, marshy habitat and one can sit in ease and watch the ponds and generally cool down while eating ice-cream or drinking a cold Coke. DHC saw a Cinnamon Teal; there were Purple Martins, a Common Gallinule, a cormorant which was either a Great-crested or Neotropic (several people with scopes trying to figure this one out) and several other waterfowl. This place yields 60-90 bird species a day in prime time.

Deborah went back to the car and I walked through the Tropical Area which was much like Michigan with tall trees and open understory. I did not get a "tropical" sense in this habitat. It was more like a lightly used and slightly overgrown suburban park. I didn't see many birds, but it was pleasant, and I passed the trailer where Benton Basham lives/lived. He is a legend in the birding world. Google if you are interested. It is said he has a large indigo snake living under his trailer and an ABA life list in the 800s. He was mentioned in The Big Year.

We drove back to a motel in north McAllen which was actually in the city of Edinburg since we were planning on going to the Edinburg Wetlands in the morning. There was a lot of rush hour traffic with detours, our little Kia Rio was low on gas and it was hot and noisy.

We had a good dinner at an Olive Garden. Our waiter was a handsome and young Hispanic guy who had grown up in Michigan, in Ferry near Camp Tall Turf. I ordered wine and he asked if I wanted the "6 ounce or the 9 ounce?" When he brought the bottle, he squatted down to eye level as he poured it very carefully up to some precise line in the glass. We took the leftovers and they were delicious, even cold, in the parking lot of Quinta Mazatlan at mid-morning the next day.

This was our Green Parakeet night. We figured out where we would have the best chance of spotting them and pulled into a mall parking lot, but near a lovely water fountain, about 6:30 pm and settled down to wait. It was a sunny warm evening with a cool breeze. Perfect weather for hanging out waiting for parakeets. We decided we would give them one hour. However, seriously, within one minute, four birds flew in from the west, and these were our first Green Parakeets, a life bird for both of us. We could not believe the timing, the serendipity or whatever you want to call it. I got the scope out and we watched them (and at least 100 more) for an hour. Their color matched Deborah's green jacket. The western sun highlighted that lovely lime-green tropical color brilliantly as they turned and moved through the sky.

A good day….
 Tuesday ~ April 1 

We changed our plans frequently as we did this trip…not the general itinerary but only the specifics, and today we went to Quinta Mazatlan instead of the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, partly because it seemed like an artistic urban birding place and partly because there was a guided hike early in the morning. We picked up coffee at Starbucks and got to QM just as the hike was beginning. In fact, we left the parking lot and immediately saw a group peering intently and taking turns with the guide who was pointing out…ta da! a Common Pauraque! And again, this bird was not moving, was completely still in the deep gloom of a small area with dense trees and brush. Once found, I could find it two hours later as we left QM, but would have been just lucky to spot it in the first place. That nice little vignette was the beginning of a pleasurable worthwhile amble through the trails surrounding Quinta Mazatlan, originally a country estate, now an urban park, and a truly lovely venue with sculptures and ponds and trails, abundant flora…very conducive to birds and people wanting a respite from the city. 

Our guide was another handsome young guy named John Brush. He had just graduated from college with a degree in Biology. His father was Dr. Timothy Brush, a well-known ornithologist in Texas. John had long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and informally led our group here and here for an hour or so. We soon saw a Curve-billed Trasher (life bird for both of us) and later saw Broad-winged Hawks kettling (kettles being large groups of migrating hawks that get together when they migrate), a Lesser Goldfinch, Tropical Kingbirds which John identified easily by their trilling as they flew over the adjacent golf course, a Lincoln's Sparrow…. If my camera had been charged, I would have taken a photo of a large tree limb which curved down and then up again near the ground and which was lined with orange halves, at least 20 or more, or of the sculpture of an ocelot or javelina.  John pointed out Palo Verde trees with their greenish bark and told us that the common tree we were seeing all over were mesquites. These hikes never cost anything and are an efficient productive way to find local birds in specific habitats. The dynamics are interesting in that there are usually participants (just one or two) who want to be more knowledgeable and better birders than anyone else. The leaders in our experience have been superior birders and deal with these type A people with gentleness and grace, all the while keeping the upper hand, as they should, and move the group along, listening with amazing ears for birds that they then almost always find and point out. 
And it is true that several pairs of eyes helps the final count.  As always there are modest folks and the show-offs. It is difficult not to constantly reply with one's own account of birding though in these casual conversations. Continually learning to listen, both to bird and to people. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book: The Bat by Jo Nesbo

OK, so I kept seeing books by this Norwegian author and finally read one, and it was the first in a series about Harry Hole, another roguish cop / detective. Somewhat inexplicably, he is in Australia hanging around with Australian law enforcement because a Norwegian woman was murdered in Sydney. This circumstance gives the author a chance to show off some Aboriginal culture / history / myths.

It's an OK zuzu book but nothing extraordinary. Does the murder get solved? Is Harry a stalwart, play-by-the rules guy? Is there a love interest? Is there a truly evil bad person?

I won't rush to the library and get more of Nesbo's books, but probably will read a few more eventually.

Stieg Larsson's books were better written and much more interesting.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book: Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding

The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Commandant of Auschwitz

I found this a captivating account of two men. Rudolf Hoss was indeed the commandant of Auschwitz. (Just to avoid confusion, there was also a man named Rudolf Hess who was Hitler's secretary. )

Hanns Alexander grew up in an affluent German Jewish family, a family who came to understand fairly early that they would not be safe if they stayed in Berlin. One by one, the sisters, father, brothers and then mother fled to England, leaving a city and home they loved. As early as 1933, Hanns' father was told his twin boys would be no longer allowed in the school they attended. "He was told that the recent passage of the Law Against the Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities imposed strict limits on the number of Jewish students at any given institution…"

Rudolf's childhood was not as idyllic. His family was not wealthy, and he did he have the educational opportunities that Hanns had.  His father was a "fanatic and a bigot, and whom he therefore feared and despised, and [he had] a distant mother, who was either taking care of his two small sisters or in bed recuperating from some sickness." His father died at age 40, and Rudolf joined the army when he was 14 years old. He fought, came home, worked on a farm, married and had children….and unfortunately met Heinrich Himmler. He writes, "I was planning to leave active service after the war, and work the farm. After long consideration and much doubt, weighing up the pros and cons, I decided to join the active SS." And from there, as he was a capable, steady, efficient worker, he was often promoted and eventually became the commandant at Auschwitz. There he, his wife and five children lived in a lovely home, furnished with "artwork and tapestries stolen from the Jewish prisoners."  He explained to his wife,  as Himmler had explained to him that "the Jews were a threat to civilization, that they must be exterminated, and if the Reichsfuhrer had ordered it, then it must be done."

The author alternates chapters paralleling the lives of Rudolf and Hanns. What made this such an intriguing book was the way rather ordinary men became extraordinary. I had the unsettling impression that Rudolf became entrenched in evil in spite of himself. He got caught up in the rhetoric, in his admiration for those who promised a better life for Germans, in the recognition he received for doing a good job, in wanting privileges for himself and his family….While most of us will not ever be able to understand the Holocaust, a book like this sheds some light on the process whereby men and women became seduced by Hitler and his ideals and ideas.

Rudolf's life ended when he was hanged "from a wooden gallows with a trapdoor a few steps from the old crematorium in Auschwitz, two hundred feet from the villa where Rudolf and his family used to live." He wrote a last letter to his children. To his oldest son, Klaus, he writes:

"Klaus, my dear boy! …Become a person who lets himself be guided primarily by warmth and humanity. Learn to think and to judge for yourself, responsibly. Don't accept everything without criticism and as absolutely tree. Learn from life."

He exhorts them over and over to take care of their Mummy….

As so many Nazis did, Rudolf also argued he was only following orders….

In Britain, Hanns joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps "which had been created…to make use of men who were refugees from Germany…who wanted to fight Hitler…If caught by the Reich, they would be viewed as traitors and shot. Yet, of the more than 70,000 German and Austrian refugees who landed in Britain between 1933 and 1939, approximately one in seven enlisted with the Pioneers."

On May 12, 1945 he was at Belsen: "Hanns carried hundreds of bodies to a mass grave. Back and forth he went all day…They then moved on to the next mass grave, until that too was full, and so they continued until the grounds had been cleared."

Hanns then became a member of the War Crimes Investigation Team and in that capacity, he hunts high-ranking Nazis who were directly responsible for the atrocities in the concentration camps. And he finds Rudolf Hoss.

The book describes the early years of these two men in fluid and easy prose, immersing the reader in their lives, common at first but increasingly complex as Hitler gains power. They become more than names from history; they become very real human beings who move in different trajectories. And that was the fascination…the events and influences brought to bear on a life like Rudolf's which resulted in his acquiescence to evil and then the questions about ourselves, our leaders, our responses to power, our responsibilities to others.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book: Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

Barbara Kingsolver calls this "An Astonishing Book" and I agree. It is one of the best books I've read this year.

It takes place in Alaska. Abe is the father of Jerry, Iris and Cutuk, and they all live in a sod and igloo home up the river 40 miles or so from the Inupiaq town of Takunak. Their mother left years ago; Cutuk cannot remember her and is jealous of his siblings who can, especially Jerry.

"Our low door was built from split spruce poles, insulated with thick fall-time bull caribou hides nailed skin-out on both sides. The hinges were ugruk [bearded seal] skin. 'Better chop the bottom loose,' Abe suggested. He reached in the wood box for the hatchet. Enuk pounded with his big fists until the condensation ice crumbled. He yanked inward. The wind and swirling snow roared, a hole into the howling world; the wind shuddered the lamp flame. A smooth waist-high white mirror of the door stood in his way. Chilled air rolled across the floor. Enuk leapt and vanished over the drift into the night gusts."

So this book begins. In beautiful and elegant prose, the book follows Cutuk until he becomes a young man. The story of his life weaves in and out of the story of what is happening to the Eskimo as they have more access to alcohol, drugs and the "shiny stuff" of the white man's world (TVs, snowmobiles, money, appliances). Cutuk wants to be Eskimo; he constantly tries to flatten his nose. He is teased for his white skin and blond hair on their infrequent trips to town.

The land is made vivid by the gift of Kantner's writing…the tundra, the snow, the ice, the foxes and wolves and caribou and lynx, the skies, the rivers and creeks and mountains, the geese and ptarmigan. The characters are memorable, not because they are noble or extraordinary but because they are caught in a world of change that is inexorable. Cutuk himself is caught too, in the intersection of white and Eskimo, in so many sad and beautiful places; at times the novel is heartbreaking.

"Outside the windows, trees and branches and dead fireweed gleamed in thick morning frost. In the distance came the sporadic roar of ice grinding down the current. This was the fourth morning of Freezeup…Fall, with its leaves and insects, robins and liquid water, was hibernating. The land was folding its tarps, emptying it buckets for winter."

Cutuk lives in Anchorage for awhile. Iris goes to college and returns to teach school in Takunak. Jerry leaves for good. Abe exists as he has always, wanting his kids to be happy, exhibiting a strong love that isn't predicated on their conforming to his philosophy or his lifestyle. He is an artist but often throws his paintings in the stove. Cutuk wonders about him; he wonders about his mother….

The author "was born and raised in the wilderness of northern Alaska…and lives with his wife and daughter in northwest Alaska."

Louise Erdrich says: "I've not read anything that so captures the contrast between the wild world and our ravaging consumer culture. Ordinary Wolves is painful and beautiful."