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Posts tagged: ecotravel

Travel: Birding in McAllen, Texas

    The stereotype of the avid birdwatcher is classic: a well-equipped enthusiast wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest lens, peering into the trees through the most expensive binoculars, traveling to all the most exotic corners of the globe to be able to check another bird off the official life list.


    But there are just as many of us who simply want to be where the birds are. We carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and our mid-priced binoculars and we take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.
    

    That’s what drew me to McAllen, Texas. As one of the premier birding locations in the country, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is home to 9 World Bird Centers. Thanks to the region’s temperate sub-tropical climate there are more than 400 species of birds which live in or pass through the area and, for the most part, you don’t need anything more than a good pair of eyes to see them.


    Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, just 5 miles from McAllen, is a birder’s delight. The 760-acre park adjoins another 1,700 acres of federal wildlife refuge. Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.


    But the thing Bentsen offers that makes all the difference for the casual birder is a bird blind strategically placed near a feeding station. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities. Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. This makes it possible to get a pretty good photo with a point-and-shoot camera or even, if conditions are right, with a cellphone. All you have to do is sit and watch the show.


    January and February are prime months for birdwatching and we were there on an unseasonably cold (for Texas) November day, during a weather event that had most of the country in the deep freeze. Temperatures hovered in the high 40s and the sky was overcast. But the birds kept coming to feed. I sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter again and again without disturbing the birds. Great Kiskadees swooped down in front of me and drank from the small pool of water. Green jays postured and fluttered at the feeders. A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. It was great fun.


    When the trolly came around I surrendered my seat in the bird blind knowing I’d managed to get one or two good photos with what I had on hand. I don’t have a formal list, but I could have checked off a few that day:

    Green jay. Check
    Great Kiskadee. Check.
    Golden-fronted woodpecker. Check
    All for the price of the park’s $5 admission.
    

    Birding can be an expensive hobby. But, in the right place, it can simply be great fun at little expense. I can see now how the whole enthusiast thing gets started, though. The one bird I’d heard so much about but didn’t get to see was the beautiful Altimira Oriole. I saw a nest that had been blown down in a storm but no bird, so I feel like I didn’t quite finish what I started. I guess I’ll have to go back to McAllen. With an official list.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Travel: Truffle Hunting in Croatia


    Our small group, an assortment of travelers from the US, Canada and Germany,  gathered as Ivan Karlic, our guide, leashed up Blackie, the sweet, specially trained dog who would sniff out truffles buried at the base of oak trees growing in a small grove on a hillside near the village of Buzet. Most of us were visiting the Istrian peninsula of Croatia for the first time and none of us had ever been on a truffle hunt.


    Blackie knew what to do. Nose to the ground, she set out snuffling at the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor. Tail wagging, she moved quickly from one spot to another while Ivan whispered soft words of encouragement. We followed them both, stepping over roots and stones.


    Pigs were once the traditional truffle hunting animals, but as Ivan pointed out, it’s much easier to stop a dog from destroying or eating the truffle than a determined pig. So, these days, most truffle hunters have made the switch.


    Truffles are true buried treasure. Black truffles, the ones we were watching Blackie search for, average 30 to 50 Euros. When they’re in season, white truffles can go for many times that amount. That’s no small thing when you consider most are the size of a walnut or a small apple.


    As we walked behind Blackie, Ivan chatted with us about his family’s business harvesting the truffles from the small wood.  But suddenly he called out to the dog and rushed over to pull her away from where she was pawing at the ground. Using the tool he carried, a flat blade attached to a stick, he sliced into the dirt until the truffle was exposed. Gently, he scraped the dark soil away with his finger until he could gingerly pry the truffle free of the root to which it had been attached. He held up the prize and we cheered. Blackie got a treat for a job well done.


    While we were still admiring the find, Blackie went back to work. Once again we followed her zigzag path, talking quietly as we watched her stop, sniff, sniff again and then move on. When she started pawing at the ground, Ivan ran over to her and again, pulled a hard black truffle from the ground. Blackie moved deeper into the small forest and a few minutes later she hit paydirt again. While Ivan worked to free that truffle the dog started scratching at the base of another tree nearby. He called out for someone to help so I took his place and slipped my fingers into the hole he’d created with his spade. The dirt was cool and moist as I worked it away from the truffle. Like an archaeologist, I worked slowly, gently, scraping away the soil that concealed the truffle until Ivan came back and helped me pull it away from the root. I handed my phone to the woman beside me and asked her to take a photo. In the image, I am a blur. The only thing in focus are my hands, muddy, with dirt-caked fingernails cradling the truffle. It was exactly right.


    We carried the four truffles we’d gathered back to the farmhouse and Ivan’s mother, Radmila, met us at the covered patio. She exclaimed when she saw what we’d found. Apparently, it was a very good truffle hunt. Blackie, after being petted again by everyone in the group, was taken back to the kennel with the family’s other truffle-hunting dogs.


    Radmila broke eggs into a bowl, added thin slices of one of the truffles we’d found and made an omelet of our work.


    She sliced a baguette and topped the slices with butter and another sliver of truffle on top. With savory sausages and bottles of house-made wine, we had a meal so fragrant and delicious I will remember it forever.


    I’d expected the tourist treatment: a field “salted” with truffles that had been planted so we could have the (artificial) pleasure of watching a dog sniff them out. But my experience was just the opposite. I kept the photo and I’m going to frame it for my kitchen. The next time I make an omelet, I’ll think of that day; the feel of the dirt on my fingers and the unmistakable earthy fragrance of delicious buried treasure.
    



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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