Nearly four hours into my trek, I stopped for gas several miles before the small town of Comfort, TX. After melting the bugs off my windshield with too much washer fluid. While my gas was pumping, I looked on eBird to see if there were any birds I needed nearby My needs list was slim, but one eBird report caught my eye: Harris's Sparrow. Here?! Now?! It wasn't really all that unbelievable, since I was in the marginal boundary of the south and western edge of their wintering range. The report was several days old, and came from a park only a few miles away. I thought about it for several minutes. I hadn't seen Harris's sparrow in Missouri in January, and realized that soon they would be returning to their breeding grounds in Canada's boreal forest. The Harris's sparrow is the largest sparrow in its family, and is very distinctive- a pale pink bill accents a black face that in wintertime disappears as feathers are molted. If I wanted to see this bird in the lower 48, now would be a great time to try to make that happen. I couldn't pass up exploring this park and hoping that I saw a Harris's sparrow.
The country roads wound through rolling sheep pastures of Texas hill country, along a picturesque river bottom lined with tall, commanding trees that guarded the rippling water like sentries. Within 10 minutes I arrived at James Kiehl River Bend Park.
My Subaru was the only car at the parking lot. It was a warm afternoon. It was the kind of day that required my bag of tangerines to ride in the passenger seat beside me instead of the cooler. My first stop was the trash can, where I disposed of enough fruit peels to start my own compost bucket. Grabbing my scope and binoculars, I headed down toward the river, where an adjacent field looked like the appropriate habitat to locate my sparrow. A dozen species into my bird quest, I grew exhausted from the midday heat, and exerting so much energy after having sat for hours. I wearily stumbled down to the placid river, the clear green water begged to be disturbed. Having not bathed in 48 hours, I was tempted by the opportunity; Carpe diem! I stripped down, and jumped in. The cool refreshing water felt so good, and was a nice reprieve from the hot afternoon. Laying down on my back, I looked up at the branches of the giant trees sheltering my private swimming spot, bathing in the moment as sunlight splashed against my bare chest. "How could a place like this exist in Texas?" I wondered. I mentally painted green leaves in the canopy, and added a touch of birdsong that I pictured would erupt in several weeks here along with the spring foliage. The warm breeze dried off my shoulders and I gathered my clothes and put shorts back on, heading back up the hill to the trail. In this moment, I forgot about having the lack of money or a job. Forgetting about birds, I was at peace with myself and my journey thus far. Life is good.
Walking up the hill and back to my car, I tried to hold onto that lingering perfect riverside moment. It's the first truly content feeling I've felt in a while. As I reached my car, I noticed another man parked in the lot. His name was Elmore Dodge, the most fitting name I could think of for these parts. We talked for a while. He was a kind man, exchanging a few words about the natural beauty of the park. After a few minutes of conversation, I felt an urge to walk into a field with my binoculars. Until then I'd forgotten about the Harris's Sparrow.
Nearly a half hour later, a large sparrow with a black face and chin and pink bill was staring at me through a tangled bush. I'd walked hundreds of yards, which seemed like miles. My spotting scope brought every feather into tight detail, and by the time I had taken a mental photograph the bird moved into thick cover further away, joining his Cardinal comrade and another Harris's sparrow! 2 birds! Check.
I believe that when we listen and are willing to seek nature's gifts, things open up to our thought allowing learning and growth to happen. Today proved that a few beautiful moments can re-energize and reinvigorate my belief that I'm doing the right thing, taking a risk and living out my dream.