I Was a Teenage Bird-Watcher
There comes a time in all of our lives when, looking around, we are forced to re-evaluate the choices that led us to our present circumstances. That is to say, we wonder what the heck we’re doing.
That point came for me at 4 a.m. in a small town in New Mexico. You see, for multiple reasons, this semester I thought it would be a good idea to sign up for a class that involved a mandatory trip to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival.
… I’ll pause for a moment while you soak that in.
That same class, not surprisingly, involves a fair amount of bird watching. And so it was that this weekend I hopped into a van with my classmates and headed to what has to be the smallest town I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of small towns.
When we first pulled up, I questioned whether or not we were actually there. Surely this couldn’t be the whole town? Looking around, I saw a general store/post office (just like the pioneers!), a community center, and one house. There were also several mobile homes, some them the property of permanent residents and some just there for the festival.
We set up our tents in what may or may not have been someone’s backyard, and traipsed over to the community center in order to check in. A delicious scent of cooking soup came wafting toward me, but unfortunately it wasn’t dinner time. It was, however, gift bag time! Among the standard coterie of magazines and guidebooks, our gift bags contained (for some reason) bags of peanuts in-shell and posters made especially for the festival. They were surprisingly awesome; I’ve got mine hanging in my dorm right now, which I assume confuses my roommate greatly. (We’re not the best at communicating.)
After being informed that dinner would be at six, we were set loose to… well, to bird watch. I think our professor was tired of us.
I have tried to like bird watching. I really have. But it’s just not my thing. However, we all needed to record a certain number of bird species for class. Thankfully, the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival attracts a fair number of people other than baffled college students, these being adults who actually enjoy and are good at bird watching. So we wound up spending a fair amount of time as hangers-on to groups of the real birdwatchers, copying down the names of birds they found, and learning from their wisdom.
Just as we thought we were nearing dinner, I discovered to my dismay that we had forgotten to calculate passing from the Central Time zone to the Mountain Time zone. What we thought was thirty minutes until dinner was actually an hour and a half, and Sparklers, I can only bird watch for so long. We wound up spending most of the last hour sitting on the edge of the road, waving at the few cars that passed by and throwing rocks at a nearby metal fence. High entertainment, I tell you.
Eventually the time came for dinner, which tasted as delicious as it had smelled earlier. After that, we were treated to a briefing on the biology of the lesser prairie chicken, courtesy of an employee of the Department of Fish and Game (or somesuch) who looked slightly lost. For the record, the chickens are similar in size and shape to regular chickens, only they live on the prairie and are being considered for listing as endangered.
After that, it was time for bed. At least, that’s what they told us, but as it was about 8:30 at night, that wasn’t happening no matter how early we had to get up the next day. Thankfully, a generous soul who worked at the festival volunteered to take my classmates and me stargazing.
It was actually more like extreme stargazing, because instead of lying in a field like normal people, we lay in the middle of the road. Just one more great life decision. Thankfully, we were so far in the middle of nowhere that no cars actually drove down the road that we were on, although that didn’t prevent us jumping up and scattering at light speed when someone thought they heard a car coming. Being in the middle of the countryside allowed us to see exactly 1.5 gajillion stars, and the person who was taking us stargazing was kind enough to point out the various constellations, which is good because the only ones I can ever find are the Big Dipper and Orion. I’m not good at stars. (Although I did see a few shooting stars, which was awesome.)
We had tents to sleep in, but because my foolishness knows no bounds, I decided to sleep outside, under the stars. The stars were of course much better to stare at than the ceiling as I tried to fall asleep (hours before I usually go to bed, I might add), and my sleeping bag kept me warm despite the chilliness of the night (although my nose did get a bit cold), so after a fair amount of tossing and turning, I finally drifted off.
And then, what felt like an instant later, I awoke to my professor telling us all to get up. AT 4 A.M. Is that even a time?! Pardon me while I die a little.
So, at 4:45 on a Saturday morning, I wound up in a van with a bunch of birdwatchers, heading out to a lek (fancy word for a patch of flat, rocky ground). We had to arrive there in the dark, because apparently lesser prairie chickens aren’t the brightest of creatures and won’t notice anything amiss if vans are sitting at their breeding ground when they arrive in the morning, but will scatter should the vans drive up in broad daylight. Since the whole point of this expedition was to observe prairie chickens, scaring them off would have been rather counterintuitive. But observe them I did, taking down copious notes in order to ensure that I got an “A” (why I totally did, by the way). It was actually kind of interesting watching the males fight for territory (they played chicken! Get it—chicken? …No?), and the enthusiastic commentary of my fellow denizens of the van was rather entertaining, so I managed to behave like a proper naturalist for a time. That is, until about 7 in the morning, at which point I realized I had been sitting in a van for 2 hours staring at birds. At that point I may have dozed off a couple of times.
They had given us some doughnuts and fruit earlier that morning, but when we headed back to the community center around 8 am (still an ungodly hour, if you ask me) we got—wait for it—second breakfast! Just like hobbits! Sadly, when I tried to explain this to my peers they didn’t seem to get the joke, but I knew. I knew.
That morning (actual morning, not pre-dawn) was spent marking barbed wire fences with bits of white vinyl siding so that the prairie chickens could see them better. The unfortunate creatures have a large number of predators, and can reportedly fly up to 60 mph trying to escape birds of prey. However, they tend to stick low to the ground when flying, which has disastrous consequences when they collide with barbed wire. By marking the fences, we were allowing the chickens the chance to see them and fly over them, thus saving their lives. I hope the marking works, or else I wasted a couple of hours and a slight sunburn.
Once we were finished saving aviary lives, we headed back for lunch and, strangely, a dog show. Well, I say “dog show,” but really it was a rancher showing off how a couple of his dogs could herd some sheep. Pretty cool, actually, although I felt bad for the sheep. They looked harrowed.
And then we packed up the tents and came back to campus, roundly nonplussed by the whole experience, although much more appreciative of the lesser prairie chicken. I arrived at my dorm covered in the dust of New Mexico, and bearing a story with which to amaze my friends and baffle my enemies, which is of course always my goal.
Would you be into an excursion like this? Remember, it involves second breakfast!
Related post: The Birds: An Illustrated Avian Murder Mystery