LOS ANGELES 2 TEXAS
On April 14 we flew back to California to deliver two more lectures. The
first presentation was to the Pasadena Audubon Society. As before, previous
clients who had become friends joined us there.
The day after the Pasadena lecture, a friend and her husband drove us to San
Diego. I'd met Anne through Victor Yue and the Singapore Taoism chatline.
We were in for a real treat. Anne had made a special bag of goodies for us
nibbles, a Barack Obama commemorative package, and a beautiful gold pendant,
of a bird and binoculars. She said she couldn¹t resist it! Binh and Anne
also took us to a Vietnamese restaurant where we learned something of
Chinese etiquette, such as tapping three times on the table to thank someone
who serves one food. We were treated to a huge banquet, with enough food
left over to last us another day. Binh regaled us with some tales of the
trials and tribulations of being a firefighter, such as rappelling down a
hillside into a giant cactus not fun at all!
We ended our trip together at a national park overlooking San Diego where I
had my first sighting of Brown Pelican. Then they drove us to the home of
Bob Sanger where we were to spend the night.
When I guided Bob and Kathy in 2008, I told them how to look for
button-quail. These birds often sit on the road at night, and I always try
to move them to safety on the verge. Bob later emailed me saying that while
spotlighting with a group on Cape York, he and Kathy had asked the guide
about button-quail sitting on the road. Neither he nor the other tour
members had ³heard of such a thing² so he told them what I had said. So
they began to look, and soon found a button-quail, sitting right in the
middle of the tarmac!
In our brief stay at Bob and Kathy's home, we spotted several birds,
including Cassin's and Western Kingbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock's
Oriole and an elusive Wrentit.
Not long after arriving we had to leave for a restaurant where we were to
meet members of the San Diego Field Ornithologists. I¹d been told that
unlike other birding groups I'd addressed, that they would not be interested
in the Indigenous information and so I had removed most of it. However, over
dinner, many members said they were interested in hearing about other fauna,
and learning something of my Aboriginal family as well.
Two other birders I¹d previously guided were present, Ed Hall and Jim
Zimmer, and they greeted me enthusiastically. Ed asked me to mention my
warning to them, about crocodiles. I'd said that if they were attacked, I
couldn¹t help because Crocodile was my dreaming animal (This is a warning I
give all birders some of whom have proved to be rather gung ho about
One birder, Guy, said he¹d been in Darwin in 1983 when a Black-tailed Gull
had been spotted and had seen the bird with John McKean, a local, birder.
I mentioned that I¹d also seen the bird, with John¹s friend Hilary Thompson
whom I later married. John had been Hilary's best man!
The next morning Bob and I went birding leaving Michael asleep. We drove to
a nearby dam where Bob showed me several warblers - Black-throated Grey,
Orange-crowned, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped , California Thrasher,
Pacific-slope Flycatcher, House Wren, Tree Swallow,and Bell's Vireo.
I would have liked to have spent at least another day in the area taking up
Jim¹s offer to show me around as well. However, Texas called, and soon we
were on our travels again.
Meredith McGuire collected us at the San Antonio airport and drove us out of
town to the home she shares with husband Jim Spickard, near Belverde. I
had taken Meredith and Jim to Baby Dreaming, Arnhem Land some years before,
and we¹d stayed in touch. Now I was to lecture at Trinity University where
Meredith was Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
Meredith and Jim's home is set in woodland north of San Antonio. Their
garden consists almost solely of native herbs and grasses, and its
establishment has been rather a battle given the nature of the soil, what
soil there is (the area is underlain by limestone). Between their home and
San Antonio is the Edwards Aquifer that supplies the area. Jim and Meredith
pointed out the extensive building occurring there. High density development
is being constructed around cave openings, an area, the Sierra Club argues,
should not have been developed at all.
The aquifer is also being over-pumped, legally. This issue first arose when
a catfish farm opened in 1991, and residents were concerned to learn that
the owner was entitled to use as much as he liked, which proved to be 1?4 as
much as the city of San Antonio.
Most of the windows of Meredith and Jim's house looked out upon woodland,
and soon we began to see new birds Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern
Phoebe, as well as many that we'd seen before. A Cooper's Hawk hung around
the garden at times and one day a Black-bellied Whistling-duck perched above
our heads in a tree. Black Vulture, a new bird for us soared overhead and
Common Grackles were obvious in nearby gardens. A new lizard, Green Anole
Anolis carolinensis, came out to sun itself we saw quite a few of them in
Texas. They belong to a family not found in Australia - Polychrotidae.
There appeared to be relatively few butterflies. Those I saw well included
the stunning Pipe-vine Butterfly Battus philenor and Giant Swallowtail
On the Sunday we joined members of the Audubon Society at Mitchell Park,
once the old sewage ponds but now a sanctuary. Mitchell Lake, south of San
Antonio, a natural wetlands, is the haunt of migrating birds. An early
Spanish name for the lake was Laguna de los Patos, the Lake of Ducks. Asa
Mitchell purchased the lake and surrounding area in 1839.
>From the early 1900s to 1987 the lake was used as a sewage pond until
urbanisation of the surrounding area led to complaints about smells. The
San Antonio Audubon Society suggested that the lake become a sanctuary, and
the City Council agreed.
Georgina and Marianne were our guides on a morning full of birds. One
highlight for me was to see Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs together. It is
hard to differentiate the two from photos and illustrations, but their
behavior is quite different. There were also good views of Least Sandpiper
and Spotted, both in winter and breeding plumage, and Long-billed Dowitcher.
Several species of waterfowl were on the water, including Ring-necked Ducks,
Northern Shoveller, Blue-winged Teal, and Black-bellied Whistling-ducks.
On the edges of the ponds stood Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron,
Little Blue Heron, and Black-crowned Night-heron, White-faced Ibis, Wilson's
Phalarope, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Black-necked Stilt,. American White
Pelican, and Eared and Horned grebes sailed past with the ducks.
Flying overhead were Crested Caracara, Barn Swallow, and Chimney Swift.
Also present were Common Ground Dove, Loggerhead Shrike, Bewick's Wren,
Scissortail Flycatcher (one of my favourite birds), Baltimore Oriole,
Chipping, White-crowned, Savanna and Black-throated Sparrow,. Red-winged
Blackbird were very common. Many of the songbirds were perched in the Palo
Verde, a beautiful little tree I had got to know well in Tucson, Arizona.
I spent some time photographing a beautiful little very thin green snake,
Rough Green Snake Opheodrys aestivus), a colubrid, and thus missed out on
seeing an alligator. It will have to wait till next trip.
There was no time for birding over the next few days the lectures at
Trinity University took precedence. I addressed one class in Linguistic
Anthropology on the terms ³singing² and ³dreaming², and a group of
graduating female students on scarification and violence. Yet another class
was on the ecology of the Top End, with an Indigenous perspective. The
professor, David Kibble, was an authority on elephant shrews, and I would
have liked time to sit down with him to discuss these fascinating animals.
Perhaps next time.
On April 22, I addressed members of the San Antonio Sierra Club, a very
politically active club. Several members spoke about the candidates for a
coming council election weighing up their environmental credentials, and I
was impressed with their balanced and yet pragmatic approach. One candidate
addressed the group as well.
The morning of the 23rd April, Michael and I set off in Jim¹s Subaru
Forester for McAllen, where I was to give a presentation. He had never
driven on the other side of the road before, and central San Antonio was a
maze of highways. However, we made it out of town without problems.
McAllen is a large, sprawling town like so many we encountered in Texas,
with strip development running for several kilometers either side of the
We drove straight to Quinta Mazatlan, a grand hacienda set in beautiful
gardens consisting mainly of native plants. Part of the World Birding Center
it is linked to the Texas Birding Trail. . The house hosts weddings to
raise funds. However its major use is to hold lectures and disseminate
information about the birds of the area.
The first birds we saw on arriving at manager Colleen Hook's house where we
to stay were Chachalaca, Inca Dove, and Buff-bellied and Broad-billed
We were given a bedroom with ensuite bathroom that hadn¹t been used for
some years. This was obvious. Otherwise a previous occupant would have
reported the blocked toilet. It overflowed at 3 am when Michael flushed it.
There was no drain in the floor and I could envisage the water seeping
through the floor into the ceiling below. Our luxurious white bath towels
were the only resource available to mop up the water. In my rush to do
so, I slipped and hit the wall with a resounding thud. Result one broken
The next morning we visited the renowned Bentsen Park. This was on land
donated many years ago by real estate developers who realized the natural
potential of the area. Because of my injured foot I couldn't ride the
bicycles provided, and so took the ³train², a trolley hauled by a truck.
On the way I met two very pleasant birders, David and Peter Assman, and we
travelled around together for a while.
The first bird I spotted was Northern Mockingbird no great surprise there.
However, the second was a little rarer Great Kiskadee. At a hide
overlooking a little pool I saw Chachalaca again, also Golden-fronted
Woodpecker, cardinals and Green Jay. Limping up the path to a viewing
platform I saw Yellow-billed Cuckoo half-hidden in a tree. Flying around
us at the top were Bank Swallows, and in the distance on a low branch,
perched a Couch's Kingbird. In the water below were Anhinga, Neotropic
Cormorant, Least Grebe, Common Moorhen, American Coot and Purple Gallinule,
Flying in the distance was a Caracara.
Most of those who attended my presentation at QM were ³snowbirds² having
travelled from the northern USA both to escape the bitter winter and to see
the birds migrating from central America. Like the majority of my audiences
around the country, most were senior couples and the singles mainly women. I
was surprised to find that most had visited Australia, although few had been
to the NT.
Afterwards Colleen took us on a tour of the QM gardens. Most of the birds
there I¹d already seen before. Still, Olive Sparrow and Eastern Screech Owl
Colleen has an extensive program for getting locals involved. However it¹s
an uphill battle. Most nearby land is too expensive to acquire, and anyway,
the focus of the town appears to be on shopping tourism Mexicans cross
the border to do so. It¹s risky for any such destination to just rely on
one industry, particularly mass tourism. I should imagine that with the
downturn in the economy and now swine flu, that that market is in freefall.
As with every other US city we¹ve visited, with the exception of Oaklands,
getting around without a vehicle is nigh impossible. Many elderly birders
visiting McAllen might not drive and yet having both money and time they¹d
be ideal and regular visitors.
The next morning Michael and I planned to visit Santa Ana to do some more
birding. I¹d have liked to go to Brownsville but we needed to return our
borrowed car. However, finding our way out of McAllen proved to be a bit of
a nightmare, and no signs for Santa Ana were obvious. So, in the end,
Michael drove decided to head straight for San Antonio. That didn¹t prove
easy either as he took the wrong highway. Still, signs advertising the
Texas Birding Highway started appearing, and we hoped to find some great
spots to stop. There might have been, but they weren¹t obvious. So, in the
end we drove straight back to San Antonio.
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 3460 NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 04 386 50 835
Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
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