7 November 2010

Texas - April 2010

16/04/2010

After months of planning and logistics, today I depart on a two part journey to Texas, USA and Costa Rica. Or not as nature has conspired against me in the most lurid way. Everything started to unravel on Wednesday morning with the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano. Cancellation of flights started yesterday followed by the inevitable air space closures. Continental’s website finally listed the flight as cancelled late evening yesterday. Apparently you get re-booked onto the next available flight, with or without your knowledge and consent. Realizing that little was likely to change by Monday, I called to reschedule for next week Friday. The whole debacle puts me off securing accommodation or anything else in advance - everything is non-refundable to move.


So, I could simply go to work today and continue as normal until next Friday. We’re in theatre today and my mind is simply not up for it. Grab the golf clubs and head for the nearest course with the aim of venting my frustrations with all and sundry on the little white ball. Ever since arriving, there has been this nagging feeling of ‘something is missing’, but being so preoccupied with whacking the golf ball it take a full 9 holes for me to realize what. Richmond Park sits directly under the Heathrow flight path and there is a consistent but dull scream of engines overhead throughout the day. Only today there isn’t, and having just started to enjoy my golf - I am reminded why I am standing on Richmond Park Golf Course when I should be 3 hours over the Atlantic already. The next shot strikes the ball noticeably harder. Ends up being a good day on the golf course, must remember to play ‘angry’ more often.
It takes the rest of Friday afternoon to amend my Virgin rental car booking. Most of it on the phone to some chap in an Indian call centre. To rebook dates is going to cost another £20. ‘Would I like to pay over the phone now?’, what choice do I have before reading out my details. Part of me is resigned to the fact that a clone of my card has already been made before the payment is even processed.Spend the rest of the week at work with a distinct air of ‘I shouldn’t be here right now, so stop asking me questions.’ Nor am I certain that this damn volcano is going to alter much over the next week either. Fortunately the Germans and Swedes put a few scientists on their carriers and prove that you do not in fact fall out of the sky after a little ash exposure. Develop a greater degree of respect for Willie Walsh after he puts himself on a BA flight just to ram the point home. Eventually the Health and Safety brigade are satisfied with their 15 mins of fame and are quietly told to eff off so that we can ‘Carry on Flying’. It really was that bad, I had visions of Sid James in a pilots outfit...

23/04/2010


This time it is for real, I have monitored my actual plane’s journey via the handy app. on Continental’s website. Somewhere in the Website design office there sits an anorak like me. Quite some journey my plane has been on actually, Houston, LAX, Narita, somewhere else, Tel Aviv and then Heathrow before completing it’s circumvention of the world back to Houston.
Flight is as quiet as it can be for a Friday morning. Quite uneventful until landing that is. The Captains remit was surely to test the landing gear on this leg. Eventful landing were to become the hallmark or Continental’s Pilots, from heavy and hard to loose and fast. For the first time since I started flying I bothered to pay attention to the location of the emergency exits.

On terra firma, and rather excited to have made it to Texas. Of all the States in America, this was the one I had longed to visit. I couldn’t think of a good reason why this was so, it just was.
Cleared security very quickly by American standards and off to pick up my rental. A fancy black Toyota Prius. Driving in the US has always been easy for some reason, wrong side of the car, wrong side of the road, no gears and yet it all seems to make sense. Struggle for weeks on my return to the UK to drive on the correct side of the road.Being the afternoon, I figured it best to travel to my hotel for the night in the Texas/ Louisiana border town of Beaumont. It’s rough, but cheap and it had vacancies. This being the high season for bird watching in the area, the nearest town of Winnie was completely full. Probably had been for years. Large electrical storm had recently cleared off giving the area a clean, fresh smell. Accommodation was typical a rather typical motel, rooms are clean and more than adequate for it’s purpose. The neighbours were a little redneck but pleasant enough. They even took an interest in where I was from - which has been a noticeable disinclination of most Americans in other states I have visitedAfter settling in, I ventured outdoors for some form of dinner. So far I had made do with 2 bags of Doritos. As it happens, sit down restaurants are very thin on the ground and they are certainly closed by 21:00. Another bag of crisps.

24/04/2010


Up at 04:00 for the 40 mile drive to High Island. I reach the town as dawn is thinking about clearing up. First stop today will be at Boy Scout Woods. There are so few trees and water for migrating birds to aim for that this location is hardwired into thousands of birds brains as a stop over after flying the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, it is so predictable that a wooden grandstand has been built. You can sit on you’re arse all day long and simply wait for the birds to come to you. A small walk around the reserve to locate some of the many Warblers before moving on. Midday there is a walk around the mud flats of the Bolivar peninsula. The drive is scenic, the Gulf of Mexico is but a few metres from the road in places. Hundred of double and triple story wooden home are built in the sand between the beach and road. You start to wonder what part of wooden home, Gulf of Mexico, lack of elevation and hurricanes these ejits have yet to appreciate.

Either way, the midday sun does nothing to the many hundreds of waders on offer. Cleanup the major species I am after. 
Late afternoon is spent roaming Smith Oaks. The quantity of birders means nothing is missed, not even a major national rarity (Fork-tailed Flycatcher). As darkness descends it is time for the return trip to Beaumont. Still haven’t had any proper food and my prospects are not good. It is starting to dawn on me that thoughts of giant Texan steaks are nothing but a mirage. I order a pizza online direct to my room. Another early morning to look forward to.

25/04/2010


Arise at sparrows fart again. Today is a 50 mile drive to Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. I have arranged to join an official walk through the barely dry grasslands in search of the Yellow Rail. Approximately 40 people end up on the walk. We drag a line of plastic milk bottles filled with stones through the grass lands hoping to flush a rail into flight. We succeed on two occasions. Great views of this rare skulking bird. Our guide David Sarkozi has been here for years and his experience and knowledge were very impressive. See Contact Details below.
Having succeeded with the rail, it was time for a little birding on the Gulf of Mexico itself.

Although there was little to see and I called it quite. The heat was getting oppressive and I had the small part of a 360 mile drive to get through yet.
Drove along very scenic country roads. Farm and big Texan hats for mail boxes. This was more like it. Houston must be one of the best city views I have yet had from a car. Certainly entering Houston via Interstate 10 gives you a panoramic entrance. On leaving Houston, the roads became straighter and less populated. Traffic picked up again towards San Antonio but soon died off. In fact as I traveled north west of San Antonio everything seemed to get drier and more desolate as I made my way onto the Edwards Plateau.

The vegetation noticeable changed to a dry brown colour interspersed with snakes of vivid green trailing various rivers. With darkness due in a few hours, I popped into the nearest Super Store (even in small towns these things are huge!). I intended on camping two nights in the Lost Maples State Park so needed a few basic commodities. After much consideration, it looked like Doritos on white bread rolls for dinner and breakfast again. 
Got terribly lost, bloody TomTom can’t find a thing it seems. Resorted to standard map reading (at least the maps I had saved on the Mac). Eventually arrived with perhaps an hour of light left, but after the main office had closed. The US operates this wonderful honesty system whereby you fill in an arrivals form, put in the appropriate amount of cash and post the envelope into the main office. Although I did struggle with the various fees and ended up overpaying - I only knew this as I was given change the next day! Lost Maples is a stunning mountainous area with various dappled shades of colour.

With the sun descending, the deep blue and purples further enhanced the areas remote feel. Indeed for the first time that I could remember, there was no mobile signal - anywhere. This was as isolated as things got. My one man tent went up and I settled in for an evening of crisps on bread, a cup of stale coffee and some preparation for tomorrows targets - Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.
It is a rare thing for me not to exhaustively plan any part of my trip, but to neglect the aspect of height, clear skies and and the resulting near zero temperatures was a big oversight. Froze my proverbial balls off and waking intermittently in an attempt to find some more things to cover myself with.

26/04/2010


There is no way I am going through another night of that, so I need to connect with my target species today or not at all. Even my flask has suffered, the stale instant from yesterday is now tepid. Am now rudely awake, my body still shivering from cold and my mouth retching at the residual ‘coffee’ taste. I haven’t smoked for 3 months, but something told me I best have a box nearby for days like these. The head rush from the first drag in months further disorientates me. Pack my gear away and head up the trails in a foul mood.  After a few hours, the wind picks up, my target birds have both escaped me. By now, I am cursing myself for such a monumental oversight and my mental state of mind is hardly conducive to finding these birds in the worsening conditions. Having now departed from my original plans, I need to find a place to aim for this evening. I settle Zapata, near to Falcon Dam. Another 270 miles to cover, but the drive will hopefully cheer me up a little. 
Drive due south on Interstate 83.

As I get nearer to Mexico, the temperatures start to rocket upwards. By the time I enter Nuevo Laredo, the mercury or however digital thermometers work are hitting 100F. There is nothing ‘New’ about Laredo, it is a shithole in every sense of the word. I daren’t stop here, every second Latino is a gold chain wearing skinhead driving a fancy SUV with silver revolving rims. Given the neighbourhood, I’ll forgive myself for generalizing about the nature of their wealth - sure as the shit in this town, it isn’t legal!
Find a local hotel in Zapata for the night. Take a walk on the banks of the Falcon Dam and come across the carcass of a huge Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. What a shame, I don’t want to leave Texas without seeing a live one.Dinner for the first time this trip is taken in a sit down restaurant. I excuse the plastic table and chairs, at least they are serving. Something approaching a steak is found, but it is not very ‘Texan’, at least not how it was supposed to be in my mind anyway.

27/04/2010


Early morning around Falcon State Park after erroneously ending up in a secure US military area. Plead ignorance and wonder if asking heavily armed officer to lend me his weapon so that I can execute my TomTom would be interpreted as a hostile action. The park is quiet and I spend more time looking at the ground for snakes than I see birds. Hazy early morning mist clears off and the bird life picks up too. Heat is becoming oppressive though, the air feels charged and about to spontaneously combust. Now birds from under one tree to the next. Morning ends with the emergence of a Roadrunner, cue much reminiscing over child hood cartoons. This certainly is a bird with character though and I spent the best part of 10 minutes watching him watching me watching him.
Midday I am back on I83 heading east towards MacAllen and Edinburg. I stop periodically along the way for views of the Rio Grande. At times, the river is barely 20 metres wide and I can see why the American worry about illegal immigrants, it is a relatively easy hop skip and jump. I stop at Roma, turns out to be a town of major historical importance. To me it provide a scenic out look across Mexico proper, the Rio Grande many metres below. A well worn path below suggests it may be possible to get good views of the river, which I need in order to find the various Kingfishers I am after. 

I trundle down to the river bank and barely get my binoculars up when all hell breaks loose. US border patrol officials descend the hillside at speed yelling and screaming. I find myself flat on my face, hand on my head with Glocks drawn before it dawns on America’s finest that even in my most tanned state - I am struggling to look Mexican. Never mind that that sought after illegal had to swim the river and hence get wet? Anyhow, thankfully this lot weren’t as trigger happy as they had and have been since then. I dust off and get asked to vacate the area while they look for the suspect proper. Various Mexicans on the opposing river bank start to throw rocks at the officers on this side. It all starts getting David and Goliath. Head down the Interstate again in search of the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. Spend the afternoon prattling about picking up a number of raptors. Still no snakes though and I getting concerned that I may miss the Rattlers. Hotel is located in the dodgiest part of town, most shops have been closed. At least there is decent broadband, should have gotten that Domino’s loyalty card as it is pizza again tonight.


28/04/2010


Early morning start at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. TomTom fails me yet again, cannot believe that National Parks are not considered Points of Interest. Useless bloody thing. The morning in Santa Ana is well spent with more of the targeted species being ticked off. In fact, the point of another night here is becoming increasingly nullified as almost all my target species have been seen. Drive into MacAllen in an attempt to find the towns Botanical Gardens. After a few attempts it turns out my information is either old or duff, nothing doing. My trip information does make mention of the MacAllen water treatment facilities and as they are near I head off to see what gives. Mention is made of a large concentration of Rattlers here, so tread with caution. The area has been done up by a local conservation unit, turning the surrounds into educational gardens and the like. Withe temperature hovering around 100F, it is a case of moving from one shaded area to the next. Since I am looking mostly for Kingfishers, I take leave of my feet and wait for action. According to the available literature, the Western Diamondbacks are more commonly seen in the water here. Almost on cue, a large Rattler slithers into the water from the bank in front of me. What an amazing creature! I do have a thing for the Viperids, having kept Puff Adders in South Africa and wishing to have kept some Rattlers as well as a few South American Bothrops. As evening started to fall, I found only my second sit down restaurant and feasted on steak Tacos and Fajitas.


29/04/2010


My last day proper in Texas. That feeling of an imminent end to the holiday crept in, even though I was heading for Costa Rica rather than London. I visited a number of local areas including a return to the sewage works. Once things got hot again, it was time to leave southern Texas behind me and head back to Houston, another 350 miles up US77. The drive was pleasant enough, although the ‘border post’ situated 100 miles north of Brownsville was a little odd. No stamp in the passport, but looked a permanent road block to check documentation etc. Arrived in Houston late in the afternoon and checked into yet another hotel room. John F Kennedy Boulevard sounds rather more impressive that it turns out to be. Dinner at the local diner, still no steak...
With an early morning flight to look forward to, I had enough time to do some laundry and start booking accommodation in Costa Rica. Rather late planning by my standards, but given the debacle of volcano induced adjustment, I was glad not to have to adjust another weeks worth of accommodation.

Unfortunately Texas did not stand up to what I had expected. While I didn’t expect anything particularly, there wasn’t the arrogant swagger to things as I had hoped for. And no steaks, those huge Texan Steaks we used to eat in South Africa - marketing bull. Many parts of Texas are decrepit dusty affairs, it’s hard to see why the Americans went to war with Mexico over southern Texas. Never mind that most of Texas is now mostly Mexican in any case. Problem now is that I don’t have an alternative state to get excited about. Florida is old and peeling, New York - hated it, Washington DC was fantastic though. Alaska, I think that is my new Texas.


Contact Details :


Texas Wildlife Trails, my main source of planning
Website :    Great Texas Wildlife Trails


Yellow Rail Walk
Website :    Friends of Anhuac

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