Along the Rio Grande with the Birder Patrol


‘Keeping an eye out for migrants from Mexico’

I was on the phone with my Mom the other day and she mentioned that she almost bought a set of camouflage sheets at her church rummage sale. She said she decided not to because she was afraid she “wouldn’t be able to find her bed.”

That’s my Mom (!) Not only did she get me laughing, she got me thinking about camouflage.

We saw a lot of camouflage when we were in Texas recently for one of our Birding Excursions. We saw camouflage-bedecked guys zooming in boats along the border waters, cruising in vehicles along the border roads, and even sipping lattes in the border Starbucks.

Border Guys in camouflage along the Rio Grande, just upriver from us Birder Guys. (Photo by Lynsey Addario for the NY Times)

Note how the Border Guys are doing exactly the same thing as Birder Guy Dude in the photo at the top of this post. Scanning the shoreline with binoculars, looking for Mexican migrants. Except ours were Summer Tanagers, not “bad hombres”.

Also note how their camouflage is actually working pretty well in this setting, even though it was designed, I’m thinking, back during Operation Desert Storm. (There seems to be a time delay on camouflage design. Years after we threw in the Vietnam Towel, National Guard Guys were parading around in dark green swamp-themed fatigues.)

We live about a block away from the National Guard Armory in New York. We often see the Guardsmen milling around looking rather sheepish in their dressed-for-blending-in-the-desert duds. I’m tempted to suggest a special camouflage pattern for The City. Something that would really work here. Maybe a brick background, festooned with graffiti. Or at least something black.

But back to Texas, the Border, and the Patrolling Guys.

Not once did the patrols give we Birders a second glance. Not the boat patrols when we were arrayed along the river bank. Not the vehicle patrols when we were crammed into our big white van. Not even the guys in the Starbucks. (Though I did get a tip of a hat and a “Howdy, Ma’am.”) Was it because we blended in to our background so well?

Is that a bottle of water in your pocket, or are you glad to see the Border? A Border Boat had just zoomed by. That’s Mexico right behind us!

Hmm. If you check out the photo above, I think you’ll agree that it could quite possibly be that we were so geeky that we didn’t warrant close scrutiny. We sent out a veritable force field of protective geekiness. In fact, I have a theory that we could have smuggled in any number of illegals just by dressing them in birder outfits and slipping them into our group.

But again, I digress. Back to our Trip.

I don’t know about you, but I never thought of birdwatching as a particularly dangerous sport, though I have had my share of Birding Adventures. But not even Africa or Brazil and the Amazon and the pirahna prepared me for Texas.

No guns in the bird sanctuary. Kind of like ‘no fighting in the war room’?

We spotted this Blair-Witchy Whatnot on a trail near the Rio Grande. I have absolutely no idea what this means. And I have absolutely no desire to find out.

I honestly have no explanation for this, except to say that it is definitely not a migrating bird

And we were on a nice little nature trail behind the Zapata Public Library when we spotted this sign:

It’s the ‘etc’ that really had us worried

Oh, we did spend a whole fairly non-dangerous day at the King Ranch, which is as big as the State of Rhode Island. Our Jimmy Stewart Clone Guide (also named Jim) told us the King heirs never go there anymore because they just don’t get along. (Maybe they’re really afraid they’ll run into some ‘etc’) We saw the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl there; it’s the only place in Texas where you can see it.

That’s Jim the Jimmy-Stewart Guide in the background. The owl might be up there in those trees. Or not. There were plenty of chiggers and ticks, though

We also spent a day in the driving rain chasing down shorebirds on South Padre Island. Some Of Us forgot our rain gear, but remained undaunted.

Even our rain gear was geeky. Wayne improvises and ends up flapping in the wind, sounding just like a building under construction

But the highlight of the trip has to have been the several hours we spent at the Brownsville dump looking for another Mexican migrant, the Chihuahuan Crow.

Actual welcome sign at the actual dump. No, we did not see any other ‘tourists’ there. Not even the crow

Nope, we didn’t see him. Turns out he showed up there the next day, but we unilaterally agreed not to return and give the dump another go, tempting though it sounded.

That’s me, standing on the only mountain in the Brownsville area. A mountain made of garbage. You know, like zillions of disposable diapers

Speaking of ‘go’, I think it’s time to wrap this up. Tune in next week for more Adventures from Alice. I promise they won’t be about Birders. Or even Borders.

New York City. April 2018



Like oil and river water


‘We’re one crazy mixed-up couple’

They say that opposites attract. Well, The Dude and I have been married more years than most of you Dear Readers have been alive. Which is pretty amazing in and of itself. But it’s even more amazing given how, well, opposite the two of us are.

In fact, I’d call us bi-polar opposites, given that our differences often drive us crazy.

Okay, there’s the easy stuff. I’m coffee; he’s tea. I’m radio-on-in-the-car; he’s I-want-to-appreciate-the-silence. I like parties; he’s I’ve-worked-hard-all-day-and-want-to-crash-at-home. I like novels; he only reads non-fiction. (‘Why would I want to read something that someone made up?‘) I love art; he only likes art that looks like what it’s supposed to be and/or looks like it was very hard to do.

Pointe Hilton by Jack Mendenhall. Meets both The Dude’s criteria: looks like what it is, and indeed looks like it was very hard to do

And what is it with hot and cold? Has there ever been a married couple who agrees on the thermostat? There he is, in the dead of winter, wearing a tee-shirt and turning up the heat; I say put on a sweater — preferably one of the many I’ve knit for you. Continue reading

Put a bird on it


Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: a totally tired, totally cheating travelogue’

I picked the picture at the top of this post for two reasons. One, because it has a bird (actually, many birds) on it. (Hail, Portlandia!) And two, because it shows a bed.

We flew home very late last night from our latest birding adventure, and boy are my arms tired. (Sorry, fatigue has made me giddy and prone to awful puns.) Meanwhile, don’t you hate trendy gerunds like ‘birding’? Like ‘parenting’ and ‘mothering’. What’s next, ‘kidding’? Oh. There already is a ‘kidding’.

Anyway. Since I have a mountain of sweaty stinky birding duds to burn (er, wash) I’ve decided to take the easy way out and just show you all some pictures from our trip. (I know, I know. Shades of the Olden Days when vacationers would bore their friends with their slides. (Which were like photos, but were these things they’d put in a ‘projector’ and show on a ‘screen’.) But really. If you’d been on a post-holiday night flight full of screaming kids accompanied by adults sorely lacking in Basic Parenting Skills, you’d choose this option too.)

So on with the (not-slides-but-close) show! Continue reading

The Curse of the Potoo


‘We spot a most unusual specimen — and suffer the cosmic consequences’

Nope. That’s not the ‘unusual specimen’ in the photo at the top of this story. That’s Chuck. Or, as he came to be known on this trip (by me anyway) ‘UpChuck’. For reasons which will soon become apparent.

The ‘unusual specimen’ in this story is a bird called, I kid you not, the Potoo. I first heard about the Potoo when The Dude and I were birdwatching in Panama last year. Dude Man kept asking ‘Hey, can you find us a Potoo?’ And Guide Man would just smile and shake his head, as if to say ‘That’ll be the day’. And I’d be like ‘Potoo? Potoo? That’s not a real bird, is it?’

See, I thought The Dude and The Guide were having me on. That looking for a Potoo was kind of like going on a ‘Snipe Hunt’. Which, if you grew up in the Midwest like me, you remember was an elaborate practical joke that Big Boys would play on Smaller Boys, like at Scout Camp. Or sometimes the joke would be played on Naive High-School Girls by Naughty High-School Boys. ‘Hey, wanna go in the woods tonight? On a Snipe Hunt? (Snicker Snicker)’

Potoo? Oh, wacky little Potoo? You in there?

Continue reading

Eat. Or be eaten.


‘Up close and personal with paranha, army ants, and other Amazon locals’ 

“Don’t look now, but there’s a half-naked man with a machete up ahead on the path,” fluted Paul in his Upperclass Brit Voice. And yes, there certainly was.

This was on, oh, Day Two or so of our Amazonian Adventure. The one where we spent two weeks on a boat traveling to the upper reaches of the Rio Aripuana, dubbed The River of Doubt by none other than Teddy Roosevelt.

Me, channeling my Inner Teddy on the Rio Aripuana. That’s our Base Boat, the Tumbira, in the background, a tad far away for comfort. For me, anyway

As the days went by we became more familiar with ‘men with machetes’, and actually quite happy to have them around. (In the Amazon, carrying a machete is kind of like carrying a Swiss Army Knife.)

“You call that a knife? THIS is a knife!”

There was a guy we met on another path on another day who even gave our Fearless Leader Bret a bit of a pause. I was transfixed by his Chicago Cubs hat and did not notice that he had been carrying a rather large firearm. Turns out he was out scouting for a jaguar that had been terrorizing his village. Continue reading

Panamaman Memories


‘Don’t sit under the Tourist Tree with anyone else but me’

Apologies for my tardiness in getting this post out, O Faithful Fans. But The Dude and I just flew in from Panama, and boy are our arms tired. (Not to mention our bottoms, after six hours of getting to the airport while bouncing in a van on quaintly winding Panamanian roads.)

Speaking of flying, we saw gazillions of new bird species. (Well, around 250, give or take a specie.) Plus lots of other animals like monkeys, and sloths (the non-human kind), and adorable just-hatched baby turtles. Here is The Dude bonding with one of the babies (turtles, not sloths — though we did see some baby sloths too):

Don’t worry Little Guy; Wayne likes turtles. And I don’t mean in soup

And here they are, hightailing it down to the water. The Child saw one bobbing next to her surfboard soon after its release. Maybe it wanted a ride. Continue reading

Walking on air


‘Spending New Year’s Eve in a jungle. (No, not the one in Times Square.)’

When I was a kid I used to watch the Ball drop in Times Square on TV, and dream of being there on New Year’s Eve to see it in person. But now that I actually live in New York, somehow the idea of standing cheek by jowl with a bunch of inebriated strangers in the freezing cold doesn’t sound nearly so enticing.

I think that’s the case with a lot of things that you dream about being old enough to do: driving, wearing pajamas all day, eating dessert first. I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

But even if I’m not out there partying in Times Square (or partying anywhere, for that matter) I still insist on staying up till midnight to See The New Year In. Even if no one stays up with me, which happens more and more frequently with each passing Eve. Continue reading

Gender identity is for the birds


‘How to tell the ornithological girls from the boys’

Take a moment (before reading on in amusement) to check out the flock of bird-watchers pictured at the top of this post. Just how hard is it, on a scale of one to ten, to tell the males from the females?

Well. As someone who has actually been on more than one ‘birding’ trip and traipsed around many a field a-flutter with fellow ‘birders’, I’m here to tell you that it can be a tad difficult to distinguish the sexes. No, I’m not talking about the sexes of the birds. I’m talking about the sexes of the people watching the birds.

That's Mr. Scarlet Tanager on the left. With Mrs. on the right. Interesting how she gets to keep the name 'Scarlet', tho there's not a trace on her

That’s Mr. Scarlet Tanager on the left. With Mrs. T on the right. Some pretty marked sexual differentiation going on here, wouldn’t you say?

By the way, I’m not crazy about the terms ‘birding’ and ‘birder’. Almost as much as I’m not crazy about other nouns-turned-into-verbs-and/or-adjectives: ‘parenting’, ‘crafting’, ‘kidding’. (I’m kidding about ‘kidding’.) Continue reading

Channeling Sully Sullenberger


‘My lifesaving skills are for the birds’

Remember Sully Sullenberger? He is the pilot I always want piloting whatever plane I happen to be on. (I always check for a sort of older guy with a mustache when I get on an aircraft). Because Sully is the pilot who safely landed that plane smack-dab in the middle of the Hudson River and didn’t lose a single soul.

In case you don’t happen to live in New York where this happened right under our noses in the middle of a work day (meaning we will never ever forget about it), that was the plane that had an unfortunate encounter with a flock of birds shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia. The Control Tower Guys told him to head for this little airport in New Jersey called Teterboro. But Sully knew in his Experienced-Pilot’s Heart that if he did, scores of New Jerseyites on the ground would be toast as well as everyone on his plane, so he ‘landed’ on the Hudson instead. Fasten your seat belts and check this out. Wow. Continue reading