Friday, June 15, 2007
Michael Chertoff Tries to Ruin My Day
When I look back over my life, which has been pretty good overall, I sometimes think of days that stand out above the rest. Every great once in a while, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a day that was spectacularly good, from start to finish. One of those days took place at a tiny patch of thorn forest on the Rio Grande River, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in extreme southern Texas.
Before I was a biologist, I began watching birds, and I read about the spectacular birding in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In March of 1991, Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I loaded our binoculars and field guides in our Jeep and headed for Brownsville. Along the way, we saw whooping cranes at Aransas Refuge, and shorebirds at Laguna Atascosa. We visited the Brownsville City Dump to see Mexican (now Tamaulipas) crows, and stopped at a chicken farm to look for crested caracaras at the place where the farmer tossed his dead chickens (we refer to this spot as the “dead chicken ranch”). In Brownsville, we saw buff-bellied hummingbirds at the Sabal Palm Grove sanctuary. But the highlight of the trip was Santa Ana.
We arrived at the refuge early in the morning. Before we got out of the parking lot, we were racking up “life birds” (birdwatchers tend to keep score—any bird you’ve never seen before is a life bird), and as we walked around the pathways of the refuge it became difficult to keep up with all the new birds. We were seeing birds that we didn’t even know existed. Ever heard of a fulvous whistling-duck? We saw some. Least grebe? They were common. Olive sparrows, green kingfishers, tropical kingbirds, and black-bellied whistling ducks all hid in the underbrush or around the impoundments.
We had planned on spending a couple of hours at the refuge, but ended up spending the entire day. At one point, after we had decided to skip lunch to keep birding, I tried to take a picture of a great kiskadee (a type of large, colorful flycatcher, pictured above) who kept teasing me by flitting to the exact opposite side of the bush where he was perched. While I leaned out over the side of the impoundment where the bush was located, my wife pointed out the swarm of ants crawling on my shoe. “Weren’t there signs warning about fire ants?” she asked. The ants were biting me, but it didn’t seem to hurt much. “If these are fire ants,” I said, “they’re overrated.” I’d find out later that night, in our hotel room, that it sometimes takes a while for the “fire” part of the name to be appropriate.
At one impoundment, we watched while a more experienced birder attempted to lure a king rail out of the cattails by making a loud clicking sound. As we waited, other folks came up the trail and excitedly told us about a young jacana who was walking across the lily pads at a nearby pond. Jacanas are gangly-looking shorebirds that are common in Central America, but rare farther north, and we were very lucky to see it.
As we hiked around the refuge trails, we got caught in a sudden downpour, and we raced ahead to a photo blind to take shelter. On the other side of the blind was a feeding station, set up to attract birds out into the open for tourists to see, and we saw exotic-looking green jays and funny little inca doves gobbling up the seeds and cracked corn. After the rain passed, we were determined to finish hiking every trail in the refuge. Unfortunately, the rain turned the trails to mud, and every step we took recoated our sneakers with six or eight inches of sticky, black goo. It grew extremely hot and humid, but we pressed on. Around us, plain chachalacas, odd birds that looked like a cross between a turkey and a hawk, laughed their raucous call at us; we had seen a couple skulking through the underbrush before, but now there seemed to be thousands of them, incessantly mocking us and our slow, muddy progress. Finally we made it back to our car, exhausted, soaked, muddy, hungry, ant- and mosquito-bitten, and maybe as exhilarated as either of us had ever been. We've been back to the refuge several times, and we've always had a great day, but never one as spectacular as our first trip.
What made me think about this fantastic day was a news item I heard today on NPR. As part of its solution to the immigration "crisis" (the ongoing distraction from more important things), the federal government has decided to build a 20-foot tall wall at intermittent points along the Rio Grande in south Texas, apparently including a section through the middle of the Santa Ana refuge. Despite the fact that no one in south Texas wants the wall, that no one believes that the wall will keep illegal aliens out, and that no one knows what the wall will do to the Texas economy or environment, the Department of Homeland Security is going ahead with the building. Biologists at the refuge are worried about the effects the wall will have on the last remaining population of endangered ocelots in the United States. Unfortunately for the ocelots, Michael Chertoff apparently thinks that this wall is important to keep the nation safe from landscapers and nannies (meanwhile, as Letterman likes to say, no word yet on Osama bin Laden).