I love heading down to South Texas. There’s something uniquely un-American about this part of the world. Even the acacia-like mesquite trees seem out of place here, like some throwback from a distant continent. And there is dust. Not quite the same red dust found in Africa, but dust nonetheless. On my first visit I soon found out that asking for directions in English is a serious travel impediment. Nonetheless, an alien like me is strangely at home here. There’s a feeling that anything can happen in South Texas. And I don’t just mean in the world of birds (this year alone the Rio Grande has been host to the very first ABA area records of Bare-throated Tiger-heron and Amazon Kingfisher). To illustrate my “Anything can happen here” theory I refer to our efforts to film Aplomado Falcons in September 2009. Be sure to watch the clip at the end of this post.
Unbeknownst to me, a non-birder had set up this portion of our filming schedule. Big mistake. But I was sufficiently impressed when advised that some local rancher folk had the birds staked out. It would be a breeze to find them. They had been preparing for our visit for days and had “attracted” the birds to the area. So we headed out with an already dubious Jon Dunn, WINGS leader and one of North America’s celebrated birders. On arrival we were greeted by a nice salt-of-the-earth rancher family. The patriarch was dressed to the nines in chaps, a stetson hat and he was packing a pair of six-gun shooters and a whip that could have taken an eye out from 20 yards away. And he had horses. Second big mistake.
The plan was for Jon and I to head out on horse-back and find some of the raptors of the area. Thereafter we would all head out to the Aplomado Falcon stake-out. If Jon was nervous he didn’t show it, as the patriarch cowboy gave us instructions on how to ride a horse. Horsemanship 101. It went something like this, “Howdy y’all. This ain’t my first rodeo. But it sure looks like it might be yurs! You two look like one-legged men at a butt-kicking contest. The first thing you gotta know about ridin is gittin comfortable in the saddle. Then you hold em reins like this. But you beesware. These steeds are as crooked as a barrel of snakes (nervous look from me to Jon). To make these suckers go you kick them in the reebs like this.” And then he promptly fell asleep standing up. By some cruel twist of fate, this cowboy had narcolepsy and Jon and I were saddled up and ready to go birding…from horseback.
Within seconds Jon’s horse had taken off with him into the mesquite trees and he disappeared from view. A muffled cry lingered in the dry south Texas air. When I found him, he was bloodied and had some pretty nasty gashes on his forehead and arms, courtesy of the mesquites. “He told me how to make it go but I didn’t hear the bit about how to make the bloomin thing stop”, Jon blurted to me.
“Neither did I Jon…neither did I.”
So the day had started off well. But it was about to get even better as five of us climbed aboard a 40-seater zoo tram that had been kindly provided to take us to the Aplomado stake-out. Yes, I said 40-seater. Surreal but true. We bounced around the bush for about 15 minutes until we stopped at a particularly thick patch of overgrown brush. “This is it” said the cowboy’s sidekick. Strangely, there were no Aplomado Falcons around – or anything else for that matter. Just this thicket in the middle of nowhere. After waiting for a few minutes, the cowboy and his sidekick got off the tram and entered the thicket. We stared in disbelief as they emerged with a large bucket containing a severed wild pig’s head. Aplomado bait. At least the chewing tobacco was good.
In the end after a few emergency phone calls we got the Aplomados…