Here to return to
LUCK ON THE PRAIRIE
A WELL-GROOMED hobby will carry its rider comfortably over many a slough.
I was on my way westward to El Paso, and knowing that the train was due there before daylight, I left my berth early, and had gone out upon the porch of the observation car to catch a bite of fresh air and enjoy the first faint flushes of the dawn, when a train-hand, passing in the semidarkness, informed me that the wreck of a freight train was on the track in front of us, and that we should probably not be able to move for eight or nine hours. I had noticed that we were standing still upon a “siding,” but such halts are not infrequent on a single-track road, and having my mind upon pleasanter themes, I had passed the circumstance by without further thought.
The news of our trouble spread, as one passenger after another made his unhandsome, half-civilized appearance from behind the curtains, and though we proved to be a pretty philosophical company, as transcontinental travelers have need to be, the general run of comment was not hilarious.
A turn outside, as it grew lighter, showed that we were at a station called San Elizario (a pleasing name, surely), some three thousand two hundred feet above sea-level. The westerly breeze was a refreshment, and three or four ranges of jagged mountains glorified the horizon. If we must be delayed, the Fates had chosen a favorable place for us.
I, for one, soon began to feel reconciled to the turn affairs had taken, and went back to the car for an opera-glass. It must be a dull day in Texas when a tender-footed bird-gazer cannot find at least one novelty, and till the “first call for breakfast” I would be out trying my luck.
An adobe building, windowless and unoccupied, stood not far off, and near it was a cottonwood tree, still holding, in spite of all those Texas winds, part of its last season’s crop of dry leaves. I walked in that direction, and at the moment three birds, with musical, goldfinch-like twitters, flew into the tree. A glance showed them to be not goldfinches, but small birds of the purple finch group, very bright and rosy (the two males), and thickly streaked underneath. “The house finch!” I exclaimed.
This is a Western beauty, greatly beloved for its color, its music, and its engaging familiarity, by all to whom it is a neighbor. I had read of its charms, and had freshly in mind an enthusiastic eulogy of it by an old friend, now a resident of Colorado, whom I had chanced to fall in with a fortnight before in a railway car. With those three lovely creatures talking to me, I felt that the day was saved.
A Say’s phoebe was near by, in a pear orchard (for the piece of prairie land on which we so unexpectedly found ourselves was under irrigation), and as I had met it first only forty-eight hours before — at Del Rio — I was glad to see more of its very demure and pretty habits, especially of its clever trick of hovering at considerable length just over the grass. The rather bright buff of its under-parts is one of its striking characteristics, and now, when I caught sight of it in the distance, I had for a moment thoughts of some unfamiliar kind of oriole.
There was barely time to pay my respects to the phoebe before a flash of blue wings made me aware of something more interesting still, a bevy of bluebirds. It would be good fortune, surely, if they should turn out to be of one of the several Western forms that I had never seen. I drew near, therefore, with all carefulness, and needed but one look to assure myself that such was indeed the case. Their backs were not blue, but of a chestnut shade. The blue of the wings, moreover, was not quite the same as that of our common Eastern Sialia.
Whatever they were, the color of the backs would probably be enough to name them, and I returned to the car for breakfast and, first of all, to make sure of my new birds’ identity. A consultation of the handbook showed it to be reasonably certain that they were of the subspecies Sialia mexicana bairdi, the chestnut-backed bluebird; but I had failed to observe one important mark: the throat should have been “purplish blue.” I wished very much to see them again, but they had disappeared. Doubtless they were migrants or stragglers, and by this time were far away. A pity I had not been more painstaking while I had the opportunity. The one safe rule is to note everything, though it is a rule more easily laid down than lived up to, to be sure, especially in a new place, with many distractions. Anyhow, the birds must be of the chestnut-backed sub-species, I reassured myself, for the sufficient reason that it was impossible, here in western Texas, that they should be anything else.
Allaying my scruples thus, I started across a field toward a farmhouse, and on the way noticed a crow flying over. It was the first one I had seen since reaching San Antonio, — the chaparral country not favoring birds of the crow-jay tribe,1 — and I remarked it with pleasure. And then, remembering something I had lately read of Arizona, I thought, “But is it a crow, after all? Isn’t it one of the white-necked ravens that are set down as so common and familiar in this part of the world?” And, in fact, it was; for the next moment it began calling in a voice that put the possibility of its being a common American crow, the only one that could possibly be met with in all this region, quite out of the account. Another new bird! The third within half an hour! Surely this was better than getting into El Paso on schedule time. Let El Paso wait. It would probably last the day out.
But the story was not yet done, for after a little the meadow larks, of which there were many in the fields (with large flocks of horned larks, also), began singing. I was disappointed in the song, of the beauty of which I had formed the most exalted expectations, but consoled myself with believing that the birds were not Western meadow larks proper, but the Texan sub-species; otherwise I must conclude that their voices were still somewhat winter-bound, or at least, not yet keyed up to concert pitch.
A sparrow hawk beside the farmhouse before mentioned allowed me to stand almost under his low tree before he took wing, and when at last he did so I had a feeling that he was rather surprisingly long. I thought nothing more of the matter at the moment, but later, discovering by a reference to the handbook that a variety of Falco sparverius, somewhat larger and with a longer tail, had been described from this region, I concluded it probable, not to say certain, that my impression had been correct, and that the bird was not my old acquaintance of the East, but Falco sparverius deserticola. That would make the new birds of the morning four instead of three.
All this while, it must be understood, there was always the possibility that the train might start at any moment, no positive information upon that point being obtainable, so that I could move about only within a narrowly limited area. For a man thus tethered I was doing pretty well, whatever my unornithological fellow-travelers might think of my peculiar movements and attitudes. And to increase my enthusiasm, as I turned to go back to the train for dinner, in crossing an irrigation ditch (now dry), bordered with a dense thicket of low shrubs, I caught the tinkle of junco voices and presently a glimpse of white tail feathers. Now, then, since luck was the order of the day, it was as likely as not that these were not simple Junco hyemalis, such as I had found at San Antonio, but one of several Western kinds that might, for aught I was aware, be looked for hereabout.
And so it proved. The birds were amazingly shy and secretive, but with patience I had three or four of them under my glass one after another; and they were noticeably different from our Eastern junco, and belonged, as the book’s description made clear, to the variety Junco hyemalis connectens, the intermediate junco, so (not very poetically) called.
I went to dinner with an excellent appetite, and afterward, the delay of the train still continuing, though with rumors that its end was near, I took one more turn in the field, and this time happened upon still another stranger, the handsomest of the day, so wonderfully handsome, though “handsome” is too cheap a word, that a man would have to go far to beat it — an Arizona Pyrrhuloxia; a bird — related to the cardinal grosbeak group — having no representative in the East. It would be a shame to attempt a description of it here at the end of a hurried sketch, but it made a glorious sixth in my list of the day’s findings. I shall see more of it, I trust, when I reach the territory to which it more distinctively belongs.
One other piece of good fortune I must not fail to chronicle, though I have omitted to do so in its proper place. Late in the forenoon, after I had given the bluebirds up for lost, I discovered them sitting, the six together, a lovely company, among the leaves of a cottonwood tree, as if they had taken shelter from the wind; and the book’s description was borne out: their throats were “purplish blue.”
The nine hours—for so long the embargo lasted — passed all too soon. If I could have had two or three hours of free wandering, who knows what other bright names I might have brought back? I went so far, indeed, as to inquire of the postmaster and variety storekeeper — a genial, smiling German — whether there was any place in the neighborhood where a stranger could be put up for the night; but he thought not, and advised me, not at all inhospitably, to stick to the train. And possibly, after all, I had found more rather than less for being compelled to beat a small space over again and again, instead of ranging farther afield. At all events, I had discovered a new use for ornithological enthusiasm, and I might almost add for railway accidents. I do not expect to find many birdier places, no matter where my wanderings take me, than that piece of dry, winter-bleached prairie about San Elizario.__________________
1 I could hardly believe it anything but an accidental omission when I noticed the total absence of jays, crows, and ravens from Mr. Attwater’s list of the birds of San Antonio and vicinity. See The Auk, vol. ix, p. 229.