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From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

My wife will be the first to tell you that I am not good with dates, at least the kind of dates that most couples pay some semblance of attention to. In fact, she would argue — correctly, I must confess — that I don’t remember any of them. Birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day — you name it.

Unless otherwise prompted by a well-intentioned friend or an exasperated mother, I tend to remember them only after they are well in the rear-view mirror. It is a less than endearing trait. Thankfully, my wife’s tolerance for such transgressions is high. She is a saint. Let me shout that for the record.
And yet to be fair, she will not be the least bit surprised to read on this page that I am now calling your attention to a date, albeit one that has nothing to do with her.

March 7, 2012. The setting was rather uninspiring — my front yard. I heard them before I saw them. The telltale raucous cackling high above me in the canopy of the post oaks meant only one thing. One of our now-treasured ornithological rites of spring was on again. The yellow-crowned night-herons had come back again for their annual cycle of courtship, nest building, egg laying and chick rearing. And, we would have a front-row seat for it all.

When my wife and I purchased our home in a quiet little area just northeast of the University of Texas, we were smitten with the big post oaks that blanketed the neighborhood. We had no idea that the nesting herons would come with them, but come they did.

Our first spring in the house, we were treated with three different pairs of night-herons that staked out their claims in the real estate above us. We watched with great amusement as the males chased after the females with characteristic and unrelenting persistence. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, they seemed to be as curious about their new neighbors as we of them. They had a penchant for flying down and landing on the rails around our deck. Our border collie didn’t know what to make of them — they couldn’t exactly be herded or rounded up. Occasionally, one would come down into the yard and march right over to him, a rather hilarious encounter that would puzzle our dog to no end.

We cheered them on as they built their nests, a seemingly rickety and haphazardly arranged jumble of sticks, arranged precariously on the limbs of the post oaks. My wife fretted over them daily, meeting me each evening at the door with a barrage of questions about whether I thought they would pull off a successful hatch. I tried the usual biologist’s explanation that we would have to be patient and to let nature take its due course. She was rarely satisfied with such biological equivocations. She delighted in pointing out their nests to anyone who stopped by the house — friends, family, the mailman and FedEx and UPS guys, the four game wardens who happened to be in the neighborhood, and even the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stopped by one Saturday afternoon. She checked on them incessantly until she finally caught sight of what she was waiting for — the little chicks, six in all, sticking their little fuzzy heads out anxiously awaiting the next little frog or fish hauled over from a nearby creek by one of the parents.

We watched as the chicks grew and grew and ultimately fledged from the nest. It was great fun.

And so it goes with birding and bird watching in the Lone Star State, where we are blessed with more birds than any other state. Thanks to a diverse set of habitats across our state, we can see birds of all plumages — rare ones like the whooping crane and the golden-cheeked warbler, common ones like the scissor-tailed flycatcher and red-tailed hawk, resplendently colorful ones like the green jay and great kiskadee, and coastal specialties like the brown pelican and roseate spoonbill.

If you need a place to look for them, go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s website and learn about the state’s five wildlife trails or simply stop by one of your nearby state parks and wildlife management areas. I can assure you there will be something there for you to enjoy.

Thanks for caring about your wild things and wild places. They need you more than ever.

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