Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Tale of Two Chickens

Well, neither are really chickens, per se.  The Greater Prairie Chicken is classified under Turkeys and Grouse and the Scaled Quail is, well, a Quail.    Since arriving in Texas I had been searching for both. After leaving the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival I drove to the Attwater Greater Prairie Chicken NWR. You'd think that if you're going to put the name of a bird in your title, you'd at least have a decent shot at finding said bird.

I arrived after sunset on Saturday evening, so stayed in the small town of Sealy overnight and drove to the Prairie Chicken place first thing in the morning and drove the Auto Route for nearly two hours without even a hint of chicken, or grouse or turkey.   Plenty of doves and sparrows and Crested Caracaras. There were various flycatchers and a few stray warblers, but nothing I could serve for Thanksgiving Dinner.

What's red and white and never seen all over?

I spent the next day looking for my Texas Nemesis birds, the Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater. Obviously, I once again struck out.  I'm not going to give up.   I know these guys are out there somewhere.  And speaking of places with the names of absent birds, I would love to one day see a Seedeater in the WCSE Wildlife Refuge.  By the way, anyone know the difference between a "Refuge," a "Preserve," and a "Reserve?"

On Monday I had to return to Houston to return to Toronto before Sue forgot who I was and leased out my side of the bed to a homeless family of cats. I stopped by Falcon State Park and was determined not to leave until I found the resident Scaled Quail. I'm lucky I am still not there.  It took a while, but sometime early in the afternoon the first Scaled Quail appeared. They are also known as Cottontops, for the little white tufts of feathers that form a crest a the top of their heads.

Eventually there were three of them, feeding amongst the Green Jays, Pyrrhuloxia, Grackles, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Green Kingfishers, Kingsbirds and even Red-winged Blackbirds.   I also had a wonderful look at a Harris's Hawk, in the scrub behind the Recreation Center, which seems to be the best place to bird in Falcon State Park. I birded the area until 12:30, but had to get on the road if I was to make it to the Greater Prairie Chicken homestead by sunset, to see those darn turkeys.

I arrived in perfect time to have three passes around the nearly four mile Auto Loop. Again, more doves, more flycatchers and more Crested Caracaras. On my first trip to Texas I had been lucky to see just one pair along the highway on my way to the Rio Grande Valley. Now I was seeing them everywhere, on fences, in flight, on telephone poles.

But no Greater Prairie Chickens. At one point I thought I had them, way ahead in the gloom of twilight, on a dirt side road. But no, just more doves.

Don't get me wrong. Target binding aside, the last two days in Texas was some of the best solo birding I've done all year. Add that to my time in Florida and Louisiana, and I had a Big Two Weeks, while adding 10 new birds to my Big Year.

As for getting home, that is as much a story as the birding.  I originally had a flight home from Tampa Bay on Air Canada, but since I was in Texas, I'd have to fly back to Tampa, pay the change fee to fly a day later and pay for a flight to Tampa.  Didn't add up.  So, what do I do?  I turn to Expedia to get me home from Houston.  I arranged to drop the car off at George Bush International Airport, and was told, to my horror, that there would be a $500 drop off fee for not dropping it off in Louisiana where I rented it.  Heck, the car had a New Mexico Licence plate.  It was closer to home here than where I rented it.  I eventually negotiated a more realistic drop fee and proceeded to book my flight home.

I suppose, when you have flown as many miles as I have, doing this Big Year, problems and mistakes are bound to happen.  And in this case, boy did they happen.  In Spades, so to speak.  Firstly, when I booked the flight, it seemed like a straight forward, Houston-Charlotte-Toronto deal.  What I failed to notice before I clicked Enter, was that it was really a Houston-Charlotte-Orlando-Toronto deal.  What the heck?  How did Expedia mess that one up?  They were charging me less money to fly me on one extra plane, that was way out of the way.  I called to have it fixed.  No luck there.  The storm of the century, had ruined many travel plans for many people, so my issue was small potatoes.  The wait time was between 2 and 3 HOURS!

So, I made due with what I had.  Except I also didn't notice until too late that getting to Orlando was the easy part.  It was with US Airways.  However, American was taking up the final leg and partnering with WestJet to get me home.  See where this is going yet?  I don't blame you.  I didn't either.  Until I checked my suitcase and was handed a luggage claim check, with the fateful words, "Your bag is checked all the way through to Orlando."

I protested, but was too late.  The bag was gone and he didn't have any record of my AA-Westjet flight on his computer.  So, okay.  I had to pick up my suitcase in Orlando and go to WestJet and check my bag there.  I even checked in for the flight on line, so as to save time.  However, there was only a 1 hour and 15 minute layover.  By the time I got my bag and made my way to the WestJet counter, the flight had closed, since international flights stop taking luggage check ins 1 hour prior to boarding.

Now, to the nice lady at the WestJet counter's credit, she did book me on a flight at 7am on Wednesday morning, at no extra charge.  I asked for a hotel voucher.  Noooop!  Sorry, that wasn't their problem.  Well it was someone's problem.  She suggested I go over to American.  I looked over at their counter.  There were 500 storm displaced people in that line with worse problems than me.  My only hope was to go over to US Airways and see if maybe, since they they were the ones who didn't send my luggage to Toronto in the first place.

Now things started turning my way.  I met Paul B. at the US airlines counter and he was a first class gentleman and provided me with fantastic customer service.  He called American and got the flight "opened up," what ever that means, and proceeded to find me a flight that left this evening and though I would get in at midnight, I wouldn't have to pay for a hotel tonight.  Better still, because it was with US Airways, a member of the Star Alliance.  What does that mean?  It means I use my Aeroplan card and get air miles toward another free flight this year.  Does it get better?  Sure.  My flight to Toronto from Charlotte,(yes it's my second time here today), is in First Class.  How about that!


More Birds:

And Beasts:

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