People go crazy with a glimpse of George Clooney or Julia Roberts. They stop in their tracks, pull out cameras, stare. Frankly, it’s a little over the top.
For me, a flock of Red Knots, a foraging Marbled Godwit, or even a single Piping Plover running to escape the waves turns me into the avian paparazzi. Such was the case in the afternoon of our first day on North Padre Island.
Piping Plover. © Steve Byland.
We arrived in Corpus Christi late morning after a 5:45 a.m. flight from Washington, D.C. After a bit of 3 stooges’ shenanigans with the rental car company we were packed up in our blue minivan and on the road. We met up at local Mexican cantina with David Newstead, our local shorebird expert, along with his assistant, Owen, a volunteer named Barbara, and two students from Monterey, Mexico here to learn about birds—Isaac and David.
We spent lunch going over the details of the itinerary, organizing equipment and discussing safety. Safety you say? Today we were going to practice using explosives. Not a typical word used on a daily basis in the ornithological world, unless you work on shorebirds. Shorebirds require the use of cannon nets. As David put it—we don’t want anyone to get decapitated. That makes good sense to me.
A front had moved through the day before with lots of rain and the 85-90 degree days on North Padre looked to be done for 2014. Today was windy and a bit brisk. The tide was very high. Our caravan of 3 vehicles, two pretty tough looking Texas style trucks and my blue, soccer dad-style minivan, inched along the beach searching for birds.
We slowed occasionally to get glimpses of American Oystercatchers, Sanderlings, Royal, Caspian and Sandwich Terns or to avoid the surf casters hoping for a redfish. Not long after our tires hit the sand we were on to a group of 5 red knots. We stopped to discuss the plan and soak in glimpses of these rapidly disappearing species.
As I watched the 5 birds I couldn’t help but think about the fact that they will spend the next several months in a fairly specialized world. Running back and forth along the beach, escaping the rolling surf, skittering through the Sargassum seaweed rack, all in an effort to probe their bills into the wet sand or seaweed for a crustacean meal.
It’s all about two things for these birds now—getting food to maintain their energy stores and making sure they don’t end up as the meal themselves. I had already seen two Peregrine Falcons cruise by and I’m sure there were several more as well as a handful of Merlins. The knots and the falcons have all just returned to Padre from points north for breeding—where we don’t know. The knots were somewhere in the Arctic but the Arctic is a big place. We needed to catch these guys, attach these new transmitters and figure that out.
David and Owen packed the ends of two heavy projectiles with black powder and shoved them into two ends of a two-foot long container containing the cannon net. We placed the cannon net 15 feet from the surf, rolled about 50 feet of wire connected to an ignition switch back to a hiding point behind the dunes and waited for the birds to enter the net zone. Maybe 20 minutes after set up along with a little coaxing—BOOM we had them. More details on this process in the next few days. For now we had our birds and it was time to get them banded, attach a transmitter to one lucky knot, and hope for more success in the coming days.