West of the Pecos, Part I

A little bit of time east of it, too, actually, but for a week, Dad, Ian and I spent most of our time in the territory once controlled by Judge Roy Bean.  On March 13th, the three of us flew to Houston, met at the airport, and took a flight to Midland, TX, which sits in the Permian Basin.  The Basin is east of the Pecos, close to the southeast corner of New Mexico, and it contains... well, if you consider the underground area, it contains oil. Lots of it. This is good, certainly if you happen to own the land above it, because other than oil, there's just not much else around:

100_2948.JPGIt took me only a few bewildered moments of driving around to realize that aboveground, the towns of Midland and Odessa, which have a human population of 200,000 people, have essentially nothing that wasn't either built or planted by a human being. This is the view out the back of our hotel:

100_2589.JPGYou got your sagebrush, and you got your prickly pear, and you got your occasional scrubby plant (a cane cholla or a mesquite bush, maybe), but otherwise, you're talking several hundred square miles of nuthin'. Since humanity arrived to suck the oil out of the basin, the scenery has altered a bit, so that now you got your sagebrush, your prickly pear, your occasional scrubby plant, and lots and lots and lots of oil pumps, power lines, and windmills:

100_2595.JPGLuckily, we weren't there for the Permian Basin scenery, but for its convenient location: close enough to New Mexico for me to pop in and log a life bird there, a goal I'd failed to reach on my last trip to the state in 2008, but also (relatively) close to our main goal for the trip, Big Bend National Park.

Our first stop after crossing the Pecos was Roswell, legendary in cryptoscientific literature for the events of 1947, when reports of a flying saucer crash were issued from the nearby Air Force base. The reports were quickly altered into reports of a downed weather balloon, but the area has never been able to shake off the ensuing rumors about coverups, conspiracies, alien wreckage, and even extraterrestrial corpses. The town of Roswell, recognizing that there's not much else to draw tourists to southeast New Mexico, especially now that the base has closed, eventually come to celebrate its peculiar notoriety, sometimes in subtle ways (such as in the name of one strip mall: The Landings at Roswell) and sometimes in more blatant ways:

100_2608.JPGWhile I was in town, I snagged Kelly a UFO-bedecked t-shirt with "BELIEVE" printed on it in a not-quite-similar-enough-to-Fox-Mulder's-poster-to-get-sued way, but the main draw of the area for me was the presence of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge just outside of town. Located in the Pecos Valley (on the western side, if you're wondering), the refuge attracts birds of all sorts, including waterfowl galore, hawks, blackbirds, and even Sandhill Cranes. Sadly, we were there just a few days too late for the hordes of cranes and Snow Geese that had wintered there, and though Dad and I had made a cursory scan of the lakes just before sunset the night before, we'd seen only a handful of cranes, a huge mob of blackbirds being harassed by a pair of Marsh Hawks, and a lot of pleasantly damp scenery--no life birds for me.

We returned the next morning, when the weather was cold, rainy, windy, and generally uninviting, and the volunteers in the visitors center were not optimistic about birding for the day. I did, however, spot a couple of odd-looking sparrows under the seed feeder outside the center, one of which had a freakish brick-red undercarriage--its undertail coverts looked like they'd been dragged through the red clay of North Carolina. I couldn't find any such sparrow in my National Geographic or Peterson field guides, and I cursed myself for not picking up a Sibley guide to western birds before the trip. (I own only the eastern Sibley, and I have gradually found myself relying on it as my primary field guide.)

I tugged myself away from the feeder (which was easy to do thanks to the 40-degree temperature and howling wind) and jumped back in our rented Buick Enclave for a slow traverse around the lakes. We saw plenty of ducks, blackbirds, and harriers, as well as a trio of Red-shafted Flickers, but nothing new to me. I was getting pretty frustrated after an hour or so, and after a particularly chilly stop at a "blind" that offered us neither protection from the elements nor invisibility to the ducks, I was ready to call it quits: if Dad and Ian wouldn't mind stopping at the center's feeder one more time so I could try to nail down that weird sparrow, I'd be ready to call off the birding for the day.

We rumbled back to the center and I jumped back into the breeze, while Dad and Ian hunkered down in the car. My binoculars revealed the feeder's most common seed-eater (and the Southwest's, as best I could tell), the White-crowned Sparrow, but nothing odd. I sighed, resigned to having been defeated by New Mexico yet again.

It was at that moment when something caught wind of me--or perhaps sight of me--and panicked. I saw rapid motion, not through my binoculars, but in my peripheral vision, and whipped my head right in time to see four birds rushing across the ground at a frantic pace, their chickenish, head-bobbing motion helping to defeat their ultimate purpose of seeking cover in the brush. They split quickly into two pairs for ease of concealment, but by now I could see their crests, cottony white and wagging in the breeze, as well as their blue-grey plumage. These were life birds: my first Scaled Quails.

Amused and not a little relieved, I returned to the car, plunked myself down, and announced that Goal One had been met: I had my New Mexico lifer. In fact, I had two: as Dad drove back to town, I flipped through my Peterson and realized that the strangely colored "sparrow" under the feeder had actually been a Canyon Towhee; its rusty undertail coverts are not mentioned in its entry, but they are mentioned in the one about the formerly conspecific California Towhee. Basking in the warmth of the Enclave and the glow of accomplishment, I found the damp scenery amusing and interesting, and as we reached downtown Roswell and the grassy lawns of the New Mexico Military Institute, I was perfectly happy watching the various birds of the region's built-up areas: White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackles, and the ubiquitous Rock Pigeons. In fact, there was a largish white one on the grass of the football field beside the car, crouching protectively over its prey.


The white plumage was accompanied by two rusty thighs, and the dead animal held in its talons gave me the final clue I needed to recognize the bird as a Ferruginous Hawk--lifer number three for the morning.

As best I can tell, then, New Mexico may play hard to get, but once she succumbs to your blandishments, she is the most generous of lovers.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 27, 2010 9:22 AM.

Just Deserts was the previous entry in this blog.

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