By Lisa Boice
Animal Encounter Gold Winner in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards
“The life list of a birdwatcher is of a different order. It’s not what you cross off that counts, but what you add.” —Terry Tempest Williams
The black sky was like a drop cloth over the prairie grass and the only thing we could see were the bugs darting in and out of the light from our car’s headlights. We were only 60 miles west from Houston in Eagle Lake, Texas, but the big city felt a lifetime away. I turned my neck to see behind us and the brightness of the headlight beams from another car made me wince. My husband, Steve, yawned, which made me yawn. It was early and we hoped we weren’t too late.
We were in a hurry to get in line at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge to witness the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken’s courting ritual. During March and April, the males go out to a lek, an area where animals—or in this case, birds—assemble to engage in courtship behavior. In the human world our leks have evolved from parties and bars to smartphone apps where singles attempt to impress and be impressed. But at this lek all the hope that male Prairie-Chickens can muster is on display in the middle of an expansive field as they perform an elaborate dance just after sunrise, which is why we were up early in the black of night.
Steve drove carefully in the dark with one hand on the wheel and the other at his side. I took his hand and held it, grateful that I no longer needed to visit the human equivalent of leks.
Seeing this bird would be a “lifer” for me—birding lingo for a new species I had never seen. Twelve years earlier, Steve pulled me into his hobby of birding by gifting me bird feeders for our first Christmas together. I was hoping for jewelry and feeders seemed to signal to me that the relationship was going nowhere. But his gift introduced me to the birds in my own back yard. I had the gold of Goldfinches, the sapphire of the Western Scrub Jays, and the fiery jewel-toned red and yellow Western Tanager—my own backyard gems.
Not long after Steve set up the feeders in my backyard, he began keeping a list of my lifers in a bird field guide by marking which ones I would see, where I saw them and when. If I were a real birder, I would be tracking this myself, but Steve, who already had a life list of over 1,500 species before we met, would re-live the joy of seeing birds for the first time vicariously through me as I encountered new species. Each new bird I saw thrilled me with excitement, and I would often gasp, hold my breath and feel as though the bird came into view just for me. The birds and I greeted each other through the glass of my binoculars and sometimes the bird would pose by turning around and give me good looks and other times they acted coy, flitting around in the branches, hiding and popping out briefly to tease me. It doesn’t have to be a brightly colored bird or particularly special to get me excited. Seeing a bird species for the first time has helped me believe in possibilities—to know that there is a bigger world than the one I live in day to day.
“You’ll want to get here early,” the refuge ranger instructed us when we stopped by the refuge the previous day to get details on how to see the Prairie-Chicken. It was the second weekend in April, and the refuge was conducting tours to the normally-restricted lek as it does every year.
“The vans leave for the lek at 7 o’clock in the morning,” the ranger continued, “but you’ll see people lining up at 6:30 or even earlier, so don’t be late.”
It’s not just the act of courtship that draws people to these leks to observe. Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens are slipping away as they continue to decline in numbers. The Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—a sub-species of the Greater Prairie-Chicken—is one of the most endangered birds in North America and its future is hanging by a thread. It can only be found here in this part of Texas on the 10,541 acres of the refuge with only roughly 200 of them remaining.
We arrived at the reserve headquarters at 6:40 a.m. and we realized we were late. There was already a long line of people silhouetted against the sky, which was now indigo with orange and yellow painted brush strokes near the horizon signaling that the sun was about to rise.
We took our place at the end of the line, and others followed behind us. First two then four more, then in just five minutes 10 more people took their places at the end of the line. We all quietly stood and there were a few quiet conversations. “Have you been here before?” someone would ask. “No,” another would say. We all seemed to be new to this, or at least those of us who were at the end of the line and not wise enough to get up earlier.
It was surprisingly chilly for Texas and I zipped up my polar fleece jacket closer to my neck and I was happy I brought my gloves. Others were not bothered by the brisk air, and showed up in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. There were wide-brimmed safari-type hats, baseball caps and those without hats. Most everyone had binoculars hanging from their necks, and there were cameras of all sizes—long lenses, short lenses, some with their cameras and tripods propped on their shoulders, and those with pocket-sized point-and-shoots.
Right at 7:00 the first van filled with birders and left for the lek. We were in the sixth van and we squeezed in as many people as we could and the smell of coffee on everyone’s breath filled the van. We rode on a dirt road for about 15 minutes to the restricted area while the driver—a refuge worker—told us of the invasive red fire ants that are aggressively feeding on everything in these prairies, most of which are food sources for young Prairie-Chickens. He explained how development has been encroaching on Texas prairies where the habitat is growing smaller and everyone in our shuttle nodded their head in agreement or disgust or both. “And the weather,” he said. “It’s been the cruelest. With flooding in 2015 and 2016 we had no surviving nests those years. That was hard.”
We arrived at the lek and before he let us out, he explained where we should stand and reminded us to be very quiet.
I unfolded my body as I came out of the shuttle and the darkness had disappeared as though someone had flipped a switch. The sun painted a stroke of glowing orange across the prairie grass and it was beautiful. This is not how I or even others often envision Texas. Cinema has long-portrayed Texas as dusty, flat, brown and barren of any life, save some cattle and a few tumbleweeds that roll by as if on cue. That’s the West Texas version of Texas most people have come to know through movies such as Giant, Bonnie and Clyde and No Country for Old Men. What I was looking at was not dry and dusty, but a pastoral scene of grasses that were lush, feathery and green—grasses that waved to the sky gently as if to say thank you for the moisture from the humid air. “They used to refer to the Coastal Prairie as the Texas Serengeti,” our driver had told us during our short drive. “It once covered 6 million acres over Texas and Louisiana, but now only 1% of that remains, and this particular Prairie-Chicken relies on it.” This is it, I thought. This is the last of the Coastal Prairie.
Birders who had been on earlier shuttles were already standing on the back of a flatbed truck that was parked in front of the lek for viewing. Little patches of dirt, like pitchers mounds, were scattered in several spots on the green prairie grass. It was on top of these mounds where the males were to display and dance.
“Can you see any?” I whispered to Steve.
“No, not yet. But give it some time,” he said confidently. Steve had never been here, but he came to our marriage with a life-time of birding experience, and he had seen the Greater Prairie-Chicken—a cousin of the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—in South Dakota.
A young girl with a green and orange knitted dinosaur cap looked through her mom’s scope atop the tripod set at just the right height for the girl. Every person had binoculars up to their eyes, scanning the field. There were 30 of us on the edge of the field looking, which meant we were bound to see something. I searched knowing this may be my only chance I would get to see this bird.
“There’s one!” the man next to us said in a loudish whisper. He brought his binoculars down to point to the field so we all could see. “By the fence, just to the right of that tree.” The crowd bustled with excitement as hushed tones of “he saw one!” and “where?” made its way down the crowd.
With my eyes I followed the man’s finger out to the field and pulled my binoculars up to my eyes. It was way out in the field and it was still small in my binoculars. I was looking at my very first Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—a lifer.
The dance began as the Prairie-Chicken stomped in a circle. It stood atop its little mound of dirt, drumming its feet as though he was stamping out a fire. He filled up the bright yellow air sac on his neck and made his famous booming call, which sounded like the low bass note you get when you blow into a large empty 2-liter Coke plastic bottle. A couple of Prairie-Chickens hens looked on and one looked like it was going to get close, but she changed her mind. It was not a triumph for him, but it was a triumph for me.
I wondered if I would ever see this bird again. All it would take is a few more storms to wipe them out. I put my binoculars back up to my eyes to see more of the bird that comes out every spring to dance for a mate, with the hope of survival.
“Hey, there’s an Upland Sandpiper,” Steve said.
“What? Where?” I asked, lowering my binoculars to get a broad view of the field.
“On the other side of those twiggy bushes.”
“Steve, there are twiggy bushes everywhere.” I shot back.
“Follow my finger,” he said. “See the big dark green tree way in the background on the horizon? Go down from there in the field and between the mound and the twiggy bush you’ll see it.”
“Got it!” I exclaimed in my hybrid whisper and excitement tone. I pulled the binoculars back up to my eyes and I was looking at a small bird, a little bit bigger than a pigeon, but with a long neck. It had a white chin and white underbelly that I could barely make out under its dappled brown and tan body.
“Aren’t sandpipers shorebirds?” I asked. “Shouldn’t it be on the beach?” I was beaming as I shared this bird fact, feeling a bit less like a birder imposter and like someone who could actually carry on an intelligent conversation about birds.
“Yes, he’s a shorebird, but it’s why they call it the Upland Sandpiper. He hangs out in fields, feeding on grasshoppers,” he told me.
“Have I seen him before?” That’s the question I often ask Steve, since he’s the curator of my bird lists—still, over these past 12 years. If I were a serious student of birding I suppose I would be maintaining my list more thoughtfully and committing my experiences to memory, but I long ago tossed that chore over to Steve.
“This is another lifer for you,” he said proudly, as though he had made the bird magically appear for me.
More shuttles arrived with people pouring out of their doors. It was time to make room for others to see the earnestness of the male Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, so we took one of the shuttles back to the reserve headquarters and headed back to our car.
We drove out of the refuge just as slowly as we did in the dark earlier that morning, hoping to see what else we could find in the prairie. Any clouds there were in the morning had dissolved into the sky, leaving a canvass of blue above the green prairie. A Crested Caracara stood unconcerned that we were driving by. I was familiar with Caracaras when I had seen them in the tropics, but Texas is the northern-most area of its range, so we were both excited to see it here. Caracaras look like large hawks and are opportunistic hunters, stealing from other birds and feeding on carrion like vultures. We stopped, I stuck the camera lens out the car window and snapped a few pictures, using our car as a bird blind. It was a colorful bird, with an orange face, and long white neck atop the brown body. Its yellow legs gleaned against the green prairie grass. I got this lifer years ago, but it’s always nice to see this one and felt like running into an old friend.
We hadn’t been driving more than 10 yards when Steve slowed the car to a crawl. “That would make a nice picture,” he said, pointing at the direction of my window. A Western Willet was standing on a fence post right next to the road, unafraid as our car came to a stop but not too close so to keep a safe distance as I snapped a few photos. It was another shorebird, here to enjoy the bounty the Texas prairie offers. The Willet was about 15 inches in length, with a grayish-brown head, back and wings. His belly was white and had a long-straight black bill. I knew this bird and usually could identify it when we visited the beach.
A bird called in the distance. “Northern Bobwhite,” Steve said, always calling the bird by its official name. Steve had a good ear for birding and could name birds based on their calls. Surprisingly, even I knew that call, as its name was mnemonic, resembling the sweeping pitch of its whistle, “bob-white!” But I had never seen one—I’d only heard it.
“Over there!” Steve exclaimed, pointing way out in the field, “On top of the post!”
And there it was, a lone male quail—the Northern Bobwhite—singing away, caught up in his own courtship song to find a mate and also another lifer I could add to my list.
Adding birds to my life list often carries with it urgency. Bird populations in North America have declined 29 percent since 1970, which is a drop of nearly three billion birds. And birds that rely on grasslands and prairies have suffered the steepest drop.
The notion of seeing a lifer, to me, is not a competition or race to see who has the bigger list, which often birders get chastised for doing. To have a fleeting encounter with a bird sparks optimism and hope. They are full of stories of the country, state, province or city I am exploring, with tales of survival and endurance. To get a full picture and sense of a place, start with the birds.
The prairie is still alive, I thought as we drove away. The 1% of remaining Coastal Prairie is still a vibrant habitat. I wish we could have preserved more but was thankful we at least have this.
I kept the window down while Steve drove on and I stretched out my arm to feel the air against my hand. The spring sun already felt hot in April and I didn’t mind the dust from the road that was stirred up by our car. Suddenly Steve slammed on the breaks and we skidded a few feet on the gravel. “Prairie-Chicken!” Steve yelled. I saw it at the same time he said it.
A male Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken was running on the opposite side of the road toward us and then he slipped into the tall grass and disappeared. It happened too fast to grab the camera. In an instant it was there and then gone.
We looked at each other, eyes big with disbelief, then smiled with excitement and caught our breath as though we had just witnessed a ghost. “Hey, where’s the field guide?” I asked Steve. It was on the dashboard in front of him and he passed it to me.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
I took it and found the page I had dogeared the day before when I was doing my homework to prepare for the day. Next to “Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken” I put a check mark and wrote my name, our location, date and “Lifer.”
Lisa Boice writes about her journeys as she and her husband search for birds around the world. She blogs at TheAccidentalBirder.com.