Today, let's go birding. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
It was a quiet week in South Texas -- nothing much happened
beyond the Vice President's unfortunate hunting accident. We too were hunting, not
far from the Armstrong Ranch, and it went without incident. I had my 150-gauge digital
camera with its conical spread of 7-1/2 degrees. I bagged any number of lovely birds.
The inland coastal landscape is dead flat and immense. Migratory birds wheel across
the vast sky. Look out across the plowed fields that extend to infinity, and you see
a horizon formed by a watery mirage shimmering over the dry dirt.
The Aransas Wildlife refuge is a large coastal marsh where whooping cranes spend their
winters. These five-foot tall birds go by twos -- an adult male and female, joined for
life. With luck, they'll have one offspring with them. Fewer than four-hundred of these
birds exist, and most spend their winters here.
There're lots of egrets, cormorants, and rosy spoonbills. They and whooping cranes are
best seen from a shallow-draft boat carefully nosing through the sometimes-five-foot-deep
waters of the Aransas and Carlos Bays. Gulls are everywhere. They like boats. A barge
loaded with 12-inch diameter steel pipe ploughs the Intercoastal Waterway. The pipes form
an aircraft-carrier deck, and it's carpeted with gulls. The barge propellers churn up a
steady diet of chopped fish and other nutrients for them.
Like gulls, elegant black and white pelicans haunt shores as well as marshes. They line the piers studying our boat as
it comes and goes. Oysters are a major crop here. Oyster boats are everywhere. So are oyster shells.
Early settlers mixed their hard nacre in with cement to make formidable concrete. You see it in
ruins of James Powers' early nineteenth-century settlement on Copano Bay. You see it in the
extravagant mansion built by wealthy ranchers Harriet and George Fulton, forty years later.
Houses had to be sturdy. Behind the mansion we find a complete ten-foot-diameter, century-old
windmill fan, lodged in a tree by an old hurricane.
The inland bird population is different. One inland birder told us that there're
only two kinds of flying creature: raptors and birdfeed. Most of the raptors are hawks.
They wheel in the sky, looking. Or they perch on telephone poles, waiting.
There's plenty of birdfeed: songbirds, pipers and plovers, green jays, cardinals -- birds that
we city-folk don't see without assistance because we've taken them for granted too long.
three days in these immensities we're back in Houston taking much less for granted. Then,
in today's dark early morning, we look out the back window and see a creature on a tree limb --
one we've never seen here before. I sieze my camera and begin shooting wildly. I hit all sorts
of things, a tree branch, a window frame. Finally I bag him. He's a large Coopers Hawk quietly
sizing us up. He correctly concludes, at last, that we're not birdfeed, but more dangerous raptors
still. And he flies away.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on Texas whooping cranes, see: http://www.ccbirding.com/twc/ .
This birding adventure was an Elderhostel trip on Feb. 13-16, 2006, centered on Fulton, TX. The boat
tours were conducted by Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures, Fulton, TX.
For more on the Fulton mansion, see it's website at:
For more on the story of the windmill fan in the tree, see:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.