It was a finely organized scheme. But already, at the planning lunch, there were forebodings. Five days earlier a front had come through from the north which, Jim Tucker explained, had forced thousands of migrating land birds heading from Central America to Canada onto the Texas coast. That was fine except that since then there had been warm weather and a gentle breeze from the south, giving the exhausted migrants time to recover and head north again. "The big wave may have gone through," Jim said.
Joe Taylor ordered another tequila to see him through the bad news, then added some of his own. The fragile ecology of the Arizona canyons, green oases in a desert of sand, had been hit hard by the phenomenally cold winter. "A lot of the oak trees are dead," he said. "I don't think we'll see any quail." But the Lear might compensate for all that. California alone would make up the deficiencies. The doubts were shaken off. This, after all, was one of the most ambitious birding expeditions ever planned. No time to sit over lunch harboring gloomy thoughts.
In all probability, none of the late crowd at the Rice Lands Motel 24-hour restaurant at Winnie, Texas was aware that history brushed them on the shoulder on the eve of the big count. Indeed, they seemed more interested in listening to country music on the jukebox than in Uncle Joe's team, which had just risen from a two-hour rest, the last it would get until it returned to Texas early on Thursday morning. Unacknowledged, the team furtively moved out into the humid night.
Long before 2 a.m., the official start time, the team was in position and had seen its first bird, which did not, of course, count—a black-crowned night heron that flapped slowly over the car. "Can't we put it in escrow?" pleaded Oresman. He couldn't, he learned. Like the rest of the team, he had to wait until it was legal time to set off in the Rolligon, the terror of the marshes.
Laymen might well imagine that birding involves, well, a lot of creeping through the woods. Not so. Creeping is too slow. You have to go get 'em, and in a salt marsh a $30,000 Rolligon is about the only way. Rails, tiny, plump, desperately shy little birds, the team's main objective at Anahuac, have to be hunted down, exposed. There are six North American species. In less than an hour, Uncle Joe's boys had checked off five. The mechanical dragon flushed other species too. The total was up to 10 by the time they headed back to the car. Not a high rate of scoring, but these were bonus birds collected in the dark. The big rush would come at dawn. "We have 99% of what we wanted," declared Tucker. "We missed the black rail, but that Le Cont�'s sparrow was an extra!"
Now it was a mad scramble for the car and the big rush back to Houston. The woods were silhouetted against the sky, but the yellow light was not the dawn, only the glow of the city. The objective at this stage was to gather in a few owls, maybe a chuck-will's-widow that sings before dawn. The team drove along with windows down, listening for calls. When the road went through heavy timber, Tucker, the Texas expert, called for a stop and whistled plaintively at the trees, but no chuck-will's-widow responded, and when the headlamps picked out the golden eyes of an owl on a stump, it flapped slowly away before it could be identified. No need to sweat about that. There'd be owls aplenty when they got to Mount Palomar.
Now, slowly, an undramatic dawn, misty with the promise of sun, began to cast a true light on the woods. And suddenly every bird in Texas seemed to be singing. It was still too early to check species visually, but under the ABA rules a properly identified song is enough. "We should get a Swainson's warbler around here," Tucker said. Magically, as if the bird had been listening, the five clear notes of the little warbler rang out. "Everybody recognize it?" Tucker asked. (The ABA rule is somewhat difficult to interpret on this matter, but most birders take it to mean that 95% of the species recorded must be identified by every member of the group. This was the way Uncle Joe's crew understood it.) Everybody recognized the warbler's song.
At first light birds came thick and fast: the group was scoring at a rate of 1.6 species a minute, and an overall rate of one every three minutes during actual birding time in daylight was all that was needed to crack the world record. The Houston woodlands yielded 45 in all. Time to head for Galveston, picking up whatever chance species the drive yielded.
At the planning meeting Tucker had said, "There'll be, uh, some creative driving this trip." He was entirely right about that. To the imminent peril of other cars on Route 146, and later on Interstate 10, he slammed the car to a halt whenever something of interest turned up along the road. Once it was a hawk on a telephone pole, difficult to identify, even through binoculars, because it was hunched with its head down. If you are a birder you know what to do about this.
Like a grenade man detached from his squad to take out a sniper, Jon Dunn rolled out of the car, sidled across the road and moved up on the hawk, using available cover. Stooping, he picked up a piece of pipe and hurled it at the hawk. The bird flapped away, showing all its markings. Swainson's hawk.