September 11, 2020
THE BEST TOUR BEGINNING EVER
By Barry Zimmer
In the late 1990s, Victor and I co-led our Summer Big Bend tour on several occasions. Every trip was successful, but none more so than our July 1996 tour. Victor had arrived in El Paso in the late morning, and our tour wasn’t starting until that evening, when we would meet the group for our introductory dinner. Sitting at my house after lunch, we discussed our possible birding options for the next morning. We would have a couple of hours to bird near El Paso before we would head southeast towards Big Bend National Park. There were several possible options, but most years we would bird the irrigation impoundments southeast of El Paso that were more or less along our route towards the park. Near my house, however, was an excellent set of sewage ponds that were definitely outside of our normal route. I knew that water levels had been dropping there recently, providing excellent shorebird habitat. I suggested that in the time we had before meeting the group, we make a quick run out to these ponds to see what birds were present. This would give us more information to determine our best plan for the morning. Victor agreed.
We grabbed our birding gear and made the short drive to the Fort Bliss Sewage Ponds. We arrived at the middle ponding area and found the extensive mud flats covered with shorebirds. I started scanning the flocks with my binoculars, while Victor was getting the scope out of the trunk. The first cluster of birds I saw were Baird’s Sandpipers. I was excited to see them, as this species is an uncommon migrant, and one that participants often have a high interest in seeing. I panned further right, and the next bird that I saw made my heart skip a beat. It was far out on the flats, and there were heat waves that made viewing less than optimal, but I could see a small peep with a distinctly reddish-orange head. I did a double take. Following a brief moment of disbelief, I turned to Victor and said, “Give me the scope.” He could tell by my tone that I thought I had something very rare. “What is it?” he asked. “Just give me the scope, I don’t want to say.” My heart was racing as I extended the tripod legs and aimed the scope in the direction of the bird. “Oh my god Victor, it’s a Red-necked Stint!” This Asiatic species had never been seen in Texas and, in fact, there were very few records anywhere in the Lower 48. Even in Alaska, it is a rare, prized sighting. After watching this beautiful Siberian stray for a few minutes and exchanging high fives, I left Victor to keep an eye on the bird while I headed home for a camera. I returned a short while later and was able to get very distant but documenting photos of the bird.
Time was now running out before we had to meet the group across town at the hotel. All that was on the schedule for the evening was an introductory meeting followed by dinner. Now all plans were changed. We rushed into the hotel lobby just on time and found the group waiting for us. All were dressed for dinner. I quickly explained what had just transpired. “Our dinner reservation is set for 15 minutes from now, but we are recommending that we cancel that and head immediately to the sewage ponds. This is a once in a lifetime shot.” Everyone agreed to this plan. No one cared about dinner anymore. We gave them five minutes to grab their binoculars and return to the lobby. We were going birding!
We raced back across town (also fighting a setting sun) to the sewage ponds. Would we be able to re-find the bird? Luck was on our side, as we pulled up to the spot and quickly relocated the stint. Everyone enjoyed lengthy scope studies. In addition, we had twelve other species of shorebirds to enjoy in the late afternoon light—stunning Wilson’s Phalaropes swirling about like tops, numbers of Baird’s Sandpipers, American Avocets noisily defending young. It was magical. Everyone was excited. It was an unbelievable rush. We hadn’t even had our opening dinner. I couldn’t stop smiling and looked over at Victor and said, “Wow, this is amazing!” He smiled and said, “This is the best tour beginning ever!”
We would go on to have an amazing trip with 14 Colima Warblers, an incredible pair of Montezuma Quail, Gray Vireo, Lucifer Hummingbird, Crissal Thrasher, nesting Common Black Hawks, and so much more. It was the Red-necked Stint, however, that no one would ever forget!
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours | 2525 Wallingwood Drive, Suite 1003 | Austin, TX 78746
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