Birds blow by on a screen of snow: larks, robins, blackbirds, all moving north against us as Minnesota falls behind. A dark hawk slides behind trees in northern Iowa. A turkey tiptoes out of a woods.
We are going to Texas to look at birds, Mike Mulligan and me, one spring several years ago.
Still in Iowa, we drive east to Burlington on March 17, into the rising sun, a dead opossum on the road a southern signpost. We find Eurasian tree sparrows, two on a fence at the water treatment plant, pretty birds, new for me, a star in my book.
My guidebooks show Eurasian tree sparrows next to house sparrows. There is an apparent cousinly relationship. But not in Burlington. The house sparrows look unwashed, the tree sparrows bright and clean, crisply colored, obviously different at a distance.
Seriously on our way to Texas now, we follow the western shore of the Mississippi River, passing 20,000 canvasbacks on the water south of Fort Madison, ducks as far as you can see upstream or down.
We drive into the depths of Missouri, cross a state line, ricochet off suburban Memphis, cut diagonally into Arkansas.
We have driven, I am certain, for days through Missouri and now weeks across Arkansas. It seems endless. All of the mobile homes begin to look alike. There are no birds.
The road is lined with tiny barbecue joints. One is in the middle of a huge junkyard. Fronting an auto-repair business is a stained sign: “Mechanic on Duty. Spot Welding. Hot Lunches.” We drive on.
We find a huge flock of American avocets two days later, at Bolivar Flats, east of Houston, a point of beach and shallow water where birds loaf and feed on tidal debris.
Thousands of avocets are sleeping there, thousands of heads beneath thousands of wings. If we come too close, 10,000 hidden eyes see us and the nerves of the flock flicker.
At midafternoon the tide begins to come in. The avocets become a marching army of feeders, wide awake, rank and file sweeping parallel to the beach, heads swinging.
You can hear them cut the water. Occasionally a bird captures a large morsel and stops to manipulate a gulp, then skips back into step.
We go south to Beeville, scout up the county extension agent, and ask about ferruginous pygmy-owls.
“Ya wanna talk to Jimmy Jackson,” he says, one booted foot on the running board of his truck, his voice coming from beneath a very large hat. “Jimmy’s office is on Main Street.”
Mr. Jackson has a barnlike office, hollow with a desk and chairs at the far end. Along the route from door to desk are bird photos and bird paintings, a ceramic green jay on a table, a stained-glass green jay, more birds than we’ve seen all day. He gives me his business card. There is a green jay printed on it.
“I’m sort of stuck out here in the woods,” Jimmy tells me. “I’m the only one in the county cares about birds.”
There are no pygmy-owls around Beeville, he says.
Eventually turning toward home, we eat a lunch in Gainesville, Texas, at the Neu Ranch House, barbecue buffet, all you can eat for six bucks.
There are four kinds of barbecue, mashed potatoes with pepper gravy, pickled green tomatoes, vegetables, salads, breads, relishes, coffee, sweet tea. We sit in a double booth and hide the tabletop beneath our collection of plates and bowls. We eat and eat.
There are three kinds of cobbler for dessert, hot cobbler, sitting in front of a self-serve soft-ice cream machine. I try all three flavors.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.