By John Bloomfield
In the latest installment of our blog on local birders and what inspires them, we follow Austin birders Lauren Stokes and Colby Watkins on their first pelagic journey in the gulf waters off Port Aransas this September. The trip was led by Garett Hodne, veteran of 25 years of birding in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Dawn was slow in coming on September 18. Or maybe it just seemed that way since we were on the water at 5 a.m. Just when it seemed like the darkness would never lift, bursts of yellow-orange light, like heat lightning in the morning, pierced the ink-black sky. It was shortly after 7 a.m. Soon the sky turned pink and light blue, and you could finally see the waters of the Gulf of Mexico below.
When the sun broke through, we soon we saw our first birds: Royal, Sandwich and Black Terns plus Magnificent Frigatebirds milling around a shrimp boat, our first of several Masked Boobies, even a migrating Dickcissel speeding on a long-distance run over the gulf.
Pelagics. Birders love them or hate them, and either way they are the subject of lore. On this day, aboard a boat called the Kingfisher, thirty birders including some of the best in Texas, joined Garett Hodne and a group of expert guides for the second of three pelagic trips run this year by Garett’s Texas Pelagics.
Garett has been birding off the coast of Texas since 1994 but was really bit by the pelagic bug four years later when he joined the legendary Debbie Shearwater for tree trips off the California coast. On one he saw an estimated half-million Sooty Shearwaters “in a huge swirling cloud” that their boat cruised below. A Yellow-nosed Albatross off South Padre Island in 2003 sealed the deal for him.
He started the Texas Pelagics website in 2007 to help advertise the trips, and in 2014 succeeded Eric Carpenter in organizing them.
“We get a lot of first-time pelagic birders, and we really enjoy helping people find seabirds and get good looks at them, especially if they’re lifers,” Garret said. Of course, we hope some will get hooked on pelagic birding and want to come more often.”
Among the first timers were Lauren Stokes and Colby Watkins, a young couple from Austin who have been birding since 2019. Among their spark birds was a California Condor spotted above a high rock formation at Zion National Park.
“The condor represents two things for us,” said Colby. “First, we have an ever-present awareness that the earth is undergoing major changes, and there’s a sense of urgency for us to see as much of nature and wildlife as we can before it goes away or is altered forever. The second is a notion of what is possible when people care about something and try to correct course, as the California Condor was nurtured back from the brink of extinction by people that decided it was worth saving.”
Soon after their visit to Zion, Colby and Lauren began to connect with other birders in Austin, going on a Travis Audubon beginner’s walk at Hornsby Bend and participating in monthly surveys there. From the start, they felt the strong sense of community among local birders. Said Lauren: “We love how when you see someone else birding you know for a fact that you share at least one thing in common with that person, so everyone feels like a potential friend.”
There’s plenty of time to meet and talk with new friends on a pelagic, but when everyone starts scurrying around like paparazzi, you stop talking and get ready for action. That happened midway through our trip, when everyone rushed to the front of the boat as jets of water began spewing at 45-degree angles from an otherwise calm sea.
For a good ten minutes, a small pod tantalized us with a slow dance near the surface, nearly breaching the water many times, offering glimpses of their enormous backs and tails flipping in a gentle but powerful rhythm.
Sperm whales are resident in the Gulf of Mexico, but their presence is threatened by busy shipping channels, noise pollution and climate change, among other factors. Said Garret, “We only see them on about ten to 20 percent of our trips, but when we do, they are always the main attraction.”
Lauren agreed, stating it was incredible to see the whales in their element. It was the topper to a day where they saw six lifers: Brown and Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Audubon’s and Cory’s Shearwater and Band-rumped Storm Petrel.
“The best part of the experience was the shared sense of excitement whenever the opportunity occurred,” Colby said. “It was nice to be in the company of other people who understand why seabirds and birds in general are worth getting excited about.”
He added: “There were so many skilled birders on the boat calling things out that there wasn’t really a moment that we were looking at something unidentified. The biggest challenge is that you are never really stationary. There is a constant rock of the waves, so it’s a challenge to keep your binoculars still and take good pictures for ID. We were fortunate, though, to get many close views of the birds we were seeing.”
For Garret and his team, the satisfaction of turning on new birders and getting repeat participants year after year is worth the long hours spent chartering boats, determining locations, breaking in new captains, keeping the website up-to-date and communicating with participants.
“I probably do a lot more work than is necessary, because I always want to try to expand the number of trips I run and make sure they run smoothly and successfully,” Garret said.
His approach seems to be paying off. Lauren and Colby will be out with him for another pelagic in October, and they’re also thinking about trips to North Carolina and California with other companies next year.
“It was a unique and awesome experience,” Lauren said. “We’re hooked.”