A Pipit by Bus
We’re all pretty comfortable birding by car, right? We all know that there are places that, because of their vastness or accessibility, simply are best covered by motor vehicle. And we’re all familiar with the drill. The slow bird-finding cruise, the eyes anywhere but on the road ahead, the learned reaction to pull over the second that something interesting is noted. It’s all part of the drill.
And those of us whose birding formative years were spent in the middle of the county’s vast imposing horizons know this drill well. Often the only way you can find grassland birds is with time spent behind the wheel and eyes keenly focused on powerlines and barbed wire fences. Growing up in Missouri, car birding is such an ingrained part of my nascent birding experiences that I can probably give you the rundown of the pros and cons of each spot in a standard five-passenger automobile. I like birding on foot better, but birding by car is a passable alternative.
Birding by bus, however, particularly a massive 50 passenger Greyhound with tinted windows, is another thing entirely. I understand the need to get as many people out into the field as possible, but it’s hard to get a busload of people on every single bird. Particularly when you’re sitting in the very back in the middle, as was your intrepid reporter. In fairness, this way my own fault. My friend Christopher Ciccone of Picus Blog was on this field trip, along with his lovely wife, and the only triple seater was in the way back. It was my relative naivete of bus-birding protocol that put me in this situation. Rest assured, I won’t make the same mistake next time.
The problem with sitting in the back of the bus is that you don’t see anything. The leaders, excellent birders with great eyes, congregate at the front, so by the time the bird in question is spotted and its location is relayed down the 40 foot length, the bird is gone. Also, on those rare occasions when everyone removes themselves from the vehicle, you’re the very last one to get off. The effect on spotting birds is probably obvious. But despite all this, I managed to persevere. I mean, I don’t know that I’d volunteer to go birding on a bus that doesn’t have a significant off-bus component, but it just so happened that the birding at King Ranch that day was pretty exceptional, and I missed very little stuck, as I was, so far back, though I it occasionally took a little time to get on them. But for a place the size of King Ranch, there’s really no alternative.
And about that famous King Ranch, it’s the largest private land holding in the United States, and it’s roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island nestled snugly into the southern coast of Texas. King Ranch has a reputation as being great for a few specific species of birds – namely Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl – but it’s important to realize that when you’re talking about a place this big, you can’t really use hew too closely to your preconceived notions. The Owl is found generally on the more southerly Norias Division. We had just spent the morning at the northernmost San Gertrudis Division, and we were now heading to the working agricultural section of the ranchlands, the lush and verdant Laureles Division.
I’m sorry. Did I say lush? I meant desolate.
There are few habitats less less apparently birdy than fallow farmland. The remnants of what appeared to be cotton and corn stretched for literal miles in this part of the ranch and the birds seemed to be few and far between. We flushed a few Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows from the margins, but little more. We were assured, though, that hidden away in the troughs and crests of rich Texas farmland there were fabulous birds awaiting us.
Three species, in particular. Mountain Plovers, the ultimate needle in a haystack. Burrowing Owl, which showed itself briefly on and around the only mound of un-plowed dirt in what looked to be acres. And the pale, washed out version of the wide-ranging American Pipit, a true plains wanderer and the closest thing to a south Texas special I could expect to add to my life list on this particular trip, the enigmatic Sprague’s Pipit.
The pipit prefers to creep along in the line of bare turf between the road and the fields, acting like nothing so much as a rodent as it evades capture. The plan, then, was to drive the bus with one wheel off the road in this literally marginal habitat in the hopes that an individual will pop out and walk for a while out in the bare soil so that the entire bus can have a look. Sprague’s Pipit was a life bird for me, one of the few I was likely to get on this trip, so at that point I decided to throw procedure to the wind and plop myself down at the front of the bus with the leaders. There was no way I was going to miss this bird.
The bus made a mockery of the hasty hound painted on its side and crept along at a walking pace, one wheel on the road and the other in the gravel. On a couple occasions a wayward Grasshopper or Vesper Sparrow cause excitement to ripple down the aisle, but it wasn’t until the sandy tan streaker flushed out into the dirt that pandemonium reigned. All over a little streaky pipit with a plain face and pink legs instead of dark.
It’s a birder’s bird, the Sprague’s Pipit, a moniker usually attached to those species low on charisma or color but high on limited range or difficulty of detection. No doubt there were a few on the bus that wondered why we had spent so much time trying to get this little bugger to come out, but it wasn’t this birder. All life birds look the same to me. Beautiful.
Even if they turn their backs to you the moment you have a clear shot away from the tinted glass.
I’ll let it go this time, pipit.