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The Road not Normally Taken

Abilene Texas might not be the first location a birder would think to take a birding trip. It might not even rank in the top 50 for most Texas birders. But, why do we bird in the first place? Ask ten birders that question, and you will get ten different sets of answers. For most of us, it boils down to the following reasons: 1) birds are just fun to watch 2) finding a rarity is thrilling 3) birding takes you places you might not otherwise go 4) you meet a lot of interesting people, and 5) you begin to appreciate the word “habitat” and what that word means on a large scale; it leads to, and sustains a desire to preserve and conserve.  Abilene checked all those boxes for me.

But there’s one more box that I want to mention - the Texas Century Club. For those that haven’t heard, it’s a fairly simple game that goes like this;  find 100 bird species in 100 Texas counties. Post your bird lists to eBird, and eBird keeps track of your county count.  I have been aware of eBird and the Century Club for many years, but I am a photographer, and don’t have time for such nonsense. Or, so I have thought for the last 17 years. Going into the Abilene trip, I was beginning to at least consider sticking my toe in the Century water. After all, these counties are not exactly on the beaten path, which makes them hard to complete.

Day one of the trip produced a rarity. The Mitchell County field trip found a Red-throated Loon, proving once again that if you plop down 100 birders in a concentrated area, someone is likely to find something special. The evening was capped off with an excellent presentation on birding in the Abilene area by Jay Packer. Jay and his wife Amy are the local experts, and have ticked over 300 species in Taylor County. Jay demonstrated that the surrounding counties of Abilene are a crossroads of North and South, and East and West species. In other words, rarities from any direction might show up. He proved it with some of his excellent photos. Hmmm, I thought. This guy is an excellent photographer, AND an excellent lister. Maybe I should start listing.

Throughout the trip, most birders were treated to Mountain bluebirds, Western bluebirds, Horned Larks, and Townsend’s Solitaires, just to name a few of the highlights. Many, including myself, discovered that Abilene is not just a flat treeless agricultural and ranching area. There are some nice mesas, stands of large oaks and several reservoirs in the area.  

The speaker on day two, professor Joel Brant, talked about the natural history of the area. The key take-away from the meeting was this: We know that mammals evolved from lobed “fishes” that came out of the sea. But what was the path from lobed fish to mammal?  The fossil record is still incomplete, but the counties surrounding Abilene provide the best fossil record - in the world - to unravel that path. Who knew?

Finally on night three, Amy Packer did a presentation on…  “Why everyone should join the Texas Century Club”.  I knew it would be dangerous for me to attend the talk, but I did it anyway. Amy highlighted many of the reasons to join, which happen to align with why most of us bird in the first place. Finding birds is fun, it takes you places, you meet interesting people and it’s exciting to watch your eBird Texas county map go from white to all the different shades that indicate where you have been, but more importantly - where you need to go.

So…, the Abilene trip finally pushed me over the edge; sucked me into the vortex; stretched me until I snapped. I have started down the Century Club road. After the Sunday field trip concluded, I headed south with Jim Hoverson to pick up a few species in Runnels and Concho Counties. When it was time to head home to Austin, I decided to avoid the main highways - take the road less traveled - and I was glad I did.

Thanks to all the Abilene planners, speakers and bird guides that made this a special trip. I’ve still got my “bird buzz”.

James Giroux

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James Giroux

Texas Ornithological Society

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Texas Ornithological Society

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