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Thanksgiving in Texas

 

Thanksgiving in Texas

by H. Bradford


This Thanksgiving, I visited my brother in San Antonio, Texas.  I love visiting my brother since I feel that we can sometimes have interesting discussions.  I also like that my brother likes to be active, so he usually is up for going for a hike.  The trip to Texas was an opportunity to spend time with my brother and my nephews Layton and Orrin.  My mother also went to Texas for Thanksgiving, so it was an opportunity to be together as a family.  I have never been a huge fan of the holidays, but I always like to travel.  This makes the holidays less constricting for me, as it offers the opportunity to explore and try out new traditions.

The Commissary:

My brother lives on a base, which makes visiting there unusual.  The base is a little like a college campus in that it is an enclosed community with housing, recreational centers, shopping, food, a service station, a museum, etc. all located in one area.  A person could probably live quite well without a vehicle, as most needs can be met within walking distance of base housing.  The housing is somewhat similar, with some variation in the style of homes used for various ranks of officers.  A base is a planned economy, so as a socialist, I can appreciate the logic, planning, and uniformity.  Of course, it is planned within the context of capitalism and in the interest of capitalism.  As such, the market shapes what appears on the base.  For instance, there is a Subway and Chic Filet (I believe).  Which fast food places appear on the base are less about the needs of the soldiers and the military than about contracts and prices.  Still, since many Americans have experience living in college dormitories or bases, these living situations make socialist living seem less far fetched.  In any event, the base is a planned community of America’s working class, poor, and people of color.


On my first day in San Antonio, my brother brought me to the commissary to buy some food for our Thanksgiving meal the following day.  The store appeared like a grocery store like any other.  In my imagination, I thought it would be like a Sam’s Club or a giant warehouse of supplies.  I enjoyed observing what foods the people were buying.  For instance, corn bread and collard greens were among the Thanksgiving foods on sale.  I noticed several carts with these items in them.  These are not typical Thanksgiving foods in Minnesota.  I also noticed that people purchased small sized marshmallows to put on their sweet potatoes.  In Minnesota, I have observed that large sized or medium sized marshmallows are more common.  Finally, I purchased a turnip.  The clerk had to look it up in his produce book, even though I told him it was a turnip.  The clerk insisted it was a rutabaga and it was actually listed as such in his produce book.  This is not correct, as turnips and rutabagas are two different vegetables.  A turnip is an ancient vegetable named Brassica Rapa.  A rutabaga is a new vegetable that is a cross between a turnip and a Brassica Oleracea (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) which is usually larger, yellowish inside, and less bitter.  In any event, it was fun to go to the grocery store to explore the differences in Texan Thanksgiving v. Minnesotan.


Government Canyon:

On Thanksgiving day itself, I visited Government Canyon.  Earlier this spring, I visited Government Canyon recreation area.  At the time, the park was flooded in areas.  This made seeing the park’s dinosaur tracks difficult.  I wanted to return to the park, since I felt that a hike on Thanksgiving Day would be a constructive start to the holiday.  Visiting the dinosaur foot prints was a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the ancestors of the modern turkey.  After all, turkeys and chickens are believed to be more closely related to dinosaurs than other modern birds!  In fact, one of the earliest galliform fossils  (from 85 million years ago) was discovered in the Austin Chalk near Austin, Texas.   Government Canyon contains the footprints of Acrocanthosaurus and Sauroposeidon, which are believed to be from 110 million years ago.  At the time, Government Canyon was a beach along an ocean.  The tracks themselves were only discovered in 2014 when a drought uncovered them and scientists excavated them from the muddy riverbed.

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We thought that we would find the park deserted on Thanksgiving Day, but we saw several groups of hikers during our four hour hike.  The terrain can be rocky and inclined, so both times I have hiked there I found it challenging enough to feel worn out by the end of the endeavor.  I kept my eye out for birds, as another homage to the turkey was an appreciation of other birds.  However, the bird life was absent.  I did see hundreds of butterflies though!  It made me wish that I had brought a butterfly guide.  It also inspired me to try to take up the hobby of butterflying.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many butterflies as I had in Texas.

 

Thanksgiving Dinner:

After the hike, I got to work making Thanksgiving dinner.  I prepared sweet potatoes (sans marshmallows), buns, and wild rice, mushroom, and cranberry stuffing.  I also wanted to introduce some new traditions to Thanksgiving, so I made quinoa and the “mash of nine sorts.”  The mash of nine sorts is a Cornish recipe which uses nine ingredients, including turnip, potato, leek, parsnip, rutabaga, cream, salt, pepper, and carrot.  I have made it before, but this time, it did not turn out that great since it had a much stronger turnip flavor than usual.  In the past, I used a turnip from my garden, which was smaller and resulted in less dominant turnip flavor.  I like the recipe since it is associated with fall and Samhain.  My brother purchased a small turkey breast probably because of the symbolic attachment to meat at Thanksgiving.  Tiffany made mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.  As a whole, the meal was not dominated by meat, as 90% of the offerings were vegetarian.  I wanted to follow my theme of bird appreciation through a vegetarian thanksgiving, but oh well!


Before we began eating, we each put on a turkey hat (which my nephew Layton made in pre-school).  Whomever wore the hat had to say something they were thankful for.  We did two rounds of this, which made for a silly time (as a group of adults donned a paper turkey hat and gave thanks).  I also discussed a book I was reading about the history of Thanksgiving (including the social construction of the First Thanksgiving, Native American critique of the holiday, and the historical imagination regarding pilgrims).

The Journey to South Padre Island:

On Black Friday, our family set out for South Padre Island.  I was excited to see more of Texas, but I quickly learned that the route between San Antonio and South Padre Island was pretty empty.   San Antonio does not extend into endless suburbs.  It simply ends.  Once it ends, the landscape becomes expansive with farms.  There were few towns along the way.  There wasn’t much for trees or wildlife to look at.  Just cattle and farms.


Things became a little more interesting a few hours into the drive with the appearance of thicker patches of palm trees and the growing use of Spanish language.  It struck me that southern Texas reminded me a lot of southern Africa.  This is because there were various thorny acacia trees (though nowhere near the amount in southern Africa where it was the dominant type of tree).  This is also because there was a lot of impoverished people of color with speckles of nicer homes and farms owned by white people.  As we went further south, I also saw more birds.  I jotted them down in my notebook.


Cracker Barrel

My great grandparents spent their winters in Harlingen, Texas.  We aren’t sure where they lived, but we stopped there to get a late lunch.  My mom wanted to go to the Cracker Barrel, despite some protests.  I tried to be open minded about it as I don’t have much experience with the chain.  I thought it might be a fun southern experience.


I found that the menu wasn’t very vegetarian friendly, but that a person could patch together sides into a “Vegetable Combo Platter”.  Vegetable is used loosely, since most of the sides were not vegetables.  I settled on some southern sounding sides like grits, corn bread, and fried okra, with some actual vegetables to balance it off (steamed broccoli and another item that I forget).  I felt pleased with my patchwork of sides.  My mom seemed to like the place, but it was sensory overload for most of us.  The place was loud with music and a crowd of diners.  The entrance was a maze of Christmas trees, toys, and decorations.  To reach the reservation desk, a person has to thread their way through narrow passages, accosted by Christmas music and overpowering holiday scents.  Yep, that is Cracker Barrel.

Schlitterbahn:

We arrived on South Padre Island about an hour later.  By then, the air was muggy and the landscape appeared fully tropical (though it is subtropical).  South Padre had a ghost town feel.  It felt like a mall at closing time or a concert after clean up.  It was the off season after all.  There were no college students.  No flocks of families.  Just a few lonely souls shivering in the breezy 70-80 degree weather.  We stayed at Schlitterbahn, a German themed water park.  We had a massive room with three beds and two pull out couches, a kitchenette, and a view of the Gulf.  The park itself featured a water slide, some kiddie pools, a bar inside of a pool, and a tubing course.  I am not a water park person.  In fact, I have never been to a water park before.  But the room was nice!  While the rest of the family went to check out the waterpark, I went for a walk along the beach.  I ended up drenched by a sudden rain and then attacked by swarms of mosquitoes.  Throughout the weekend, I avoided the waterpark.  However, on the last day I did go down the water slide twice and spent some time on the tubing course.  That was an adequate amount of time for me.  A highlight of my stay at the waterpark was the long walks that I took along the beach at night.  On one of the nights, we found dozens of moon jellyfish and man-of-wars washed up on the beach.  That was interesting.

 

South Padre Birding and Nature Center: 

My favorite part of the weekend was visiting the birding center.  Of course, this was not quite as interesting to the three year old and five year old in tow.  The rest of my family returned to the waterpark, but I stayed behind at the birding center.  I circled the wooden walkway a few times, recording all of the birds that I saw.  I wrote about this experience in my year of birding blog post, so I won’t add too much detail.  Only, it was great!  It was also neat because many of the people there were from other countries.  It seems that they were there specifically for the opportunity to see the migratory birds!

Dolphin Watch and Shrimp Haus:

In the evening, we went on a dolphin watching tour.  There were dozens of dolphins, but it does not take many dolphins to become desensitized to their existence.  I suppose it is the law of diminishing returns.  The last bites of a cake are less wonderful than the first.  The first dolphin is more exciting than the last.  The first fifteen minutes of a boat tour is more fun than two hours in…   Oh well, we did see a lot of dolphins and it seems that it relaxed my nephews, who both took naps during the boat ride.


This was followed by a culinary adventure at Shrimp Haus, a German themed shrimp restaurant.  The entire menu was seafood!  Seafood is my very least favorite food.  Looking and thinking about it disgusts me.   I ordered the salad bar.  But, my salad tasted suspiciously like shrimp.  I thought that perhaps it was just my imagination.  I had a few more bites.  I poked around.  There was no sign of sea food.  Maybe the smell in the air was tricking my taste buds?  NO.  To my horror, there was shrimp in the salad dressing.  The humanity of it.  I was disgusted by this.  I felt angry.  I entirely lost my appetite.  This sounds over dramatic, but for some reason I just really really really hate seafood.  It isn’t a vegetarian thing, as I am not ideologically committed enough to vegetarianism to have such a visceral reaction.


Zoo Lights and the San Antonio Botanical Garden:

Our drive back towards San Antonio took us on a more interesting alternative route.  I was surprised to find a border crossing 100 miles from the Mexican border.  For a moment, I thought that we had accidentally crossed into Mexico.  Nope.  I guess that the U.S. has secondary border posts to snag undocumented people who might have gotten through the first border post.  That is pretty terrible!  It creates a corral for undocumented people living between border posts.


On Monday, we went to the Botanical Garden and Zoo Lights.  The San Antonio Botanical Garden is wonderful.   It is expansive and diverse.  There is a pond with ducks that is lined with Texan trees.  There are various areas that represent different ecological zones.  Near an area filled with cacti, acacias, and aloes, there is a birding station, where we watched various birds.  There is also a vegetable garden, Japanese garden, orangerie, buildings for ferns and palms, etc.  A person could spend an entire day wandering around the botanical garden.  We spent several hours.  Orrin, the 3 year old, seemed to enjoy it well enough, even if it is a pretty sedate place with not a whole lot to offer children.

In the evening, we all went to Zoo Lights, which is an event wherein the San Antonio Zoo is decorated with x-mas lights.  Layton and Orrin love the zoo, but it was past their bedtime, so both were a little cranky.  Zoo Lights was interesting, since it sought to create the illusion of winter.  There was a snow machine which produced a thin cloud of snowflakes.  There were “warming stations” with fires and s’mores, even though the temperature was in the 70s.  Workers dressed in fake velvet with fake fur trim, wearing mittens and hats.  Granted, it probably felt cooler to people who were not used to the “real” cold of winter.  There were looming inflatable Christmas characters, a boisterous light and sound show, and all sorts of things which probably tormented the animals to some degree.  The parents looked equally tortured, as they pushed and carried their tired children through the gauntlet of lights and “holiday fun.”  Still, the zoo created a fun atmosphere, even if unlike Bentleyville, the cocoa, cookies, and s’mores weren’t free.

 

One Last Day…

My last day involved returning to Cracker Barrel with my mother (since Tiffany had to return a defective Christmas decoration that she had purchased).   My mother had an earlier flight, so she headed off after our final farewell to the Cracker Barrel Colossus.


The departure of my mother left Tiffany, Orrin, and I to spend some time together.  We went to the Japanese Tea Garden.  Then, we went on the kiddie train near the zoo.  Orrin loves the kiddie train.  I am not sure if I have ever been on one.  It was fun to see Orrin enjoy himself so much, even though he admitted that the kiddie train made him feel sleepy.


My brother finished work in the early afternoon, so we went on a final hike together.  On the ride to the airport, we briefly debated workplace democracy, which he quickly dismissed as a stupid idea.  Then, it was time to leave!  So, my time was cut short from defending the idea that workers might be able to control their own work places.  There is never enough time…


In the end, the trip had a good mixture of many things.  I enjoyed some hikes, plants, and birds.  I tried out a water slide and the Cracker Barrel.  There were debates over Donald Trump and work place democracy.  There was a landscape of dead jelly fish.  There was a lot of culinary compromise (I’m looking at you Shrimp Haus…my haus of pain).   There was a surprise border crossing, palm trees, x-mas lights, a turkey hat, and a family Thanksgiving dinner.  I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see my family and that we had so much fun during my time off for Thanksgiving.

 

 

A Year of Birding

A Year of Birding

H. Bradford

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One of my many New Year’s resolutions last year was to try a few new hobbies.  One of the hobbies that I tested out this year was birding.  Birding, or the act of observing or listening for birds, is pretty interesting.  The average age of a birder is 53 years old.  According to a report from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (2013), 30% of birders are over the age of 55.  23% are between ages 45 and 54.  Thus, this is a hobby where I am actually on the young side!  About 50% of birders make over $50,000 a year, so it seems to be a hobby for people with more money than the average American, myself included.  About 56% of birders are women, though perhaps this is because there are more older women than men.  88% of birders are backyard observers of birds, whereas 38% are birders who travel at least a mile to view birds (there is overlap between these groups).  As a whole, the average birder is probably an older, white female, with above average income and education, who lives in the urban south.  This is a hobby that is not known for its appeal to people of color, youth, working class people, the LGBTQ community, etc.  Despite the lack of diversity, there are several reasons why I was attracted to birding.  1.) It is an easy going, outdoor hobby.  2.) I like to make lists.  3.) It is an example of citizen science, since birders can play a role in collecting scientific data about birds. 4.) Birds are basically feathered dinosaurs…so, birding is modern day dinosaur tracking.  Finally, despite the fact that it is a hobby for those with more income, I was able to do birding just my eyes and a guidebook.  I did most of my birding on trips that I was already taking (so I did not take the trips with the purpose of birding, but chose to look out for birds while travelling), with some birding done locally.  Next year, I would like to take advantage of more local birding opportunities.


My year of birding began with a birding hike at Jay Cooke State Park.  The hike did not yield many birds, though we did see many chickadees, crows, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.  The next boon for birding was when an ivory billed gull appeared in Duluth.  The bird was usually found in the Arctic, but found itself outside of its range.  When I heard that it had been spotted in Canal Park, I awoke early one morning to see if I could catch it.  Sure enough, I spotted it on the Lakewalk near Grandma’s Restaurant.  I visited it several more times over the next few days.  Getting up early to see the wayward gull made me feel like a “real” birder, since I was joined by people with binoculars and fancy cameras.  After seeking out the gull, my birding mostly consisted of trying to record the birds that I saw in my backyard.  I think that this is one of the most appealing things about birding.  For most of my life, I have been pretty indifferent to birds.  But, once I started paying attention, I noticed that the world was abundant with bird life.  There is a secret world of birds all around us.

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Bird watching enhanced my trip to Africa.  I kept my eyes peeled for birds, which I recorded in a journal throughout the trip.  I would sketch them out or photograph them so that I could compare them to the birds in my guide.  There were so many wonderful birds!  I remember seeing my first flocks of flamingos as well as the large flocks at Walvis Bay, Namibia.  It is strange to see wild birds that you would normally only get to see in zoos.  Other highlights included spotting African spoonbills and Marabou Storks.  Maribou Storks are bald headed storks which scavenge dead flesh.  There were colorful Malachite kingfishers and bright Lilac breasted roller birds.  I saw several species of hornbills, which was very iconically African.   There were herons, ibises, egrets, and a variety of other waterbirds.  In all, I spotted 63 species of birds in Africa.

While Africa was probably the best birding experience I will ever have, I had another fun experience while visiting my brother in Texas.  I went to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.  My family spent about two hours here, but it was not enough time for me, so I stayed for several hours longer while they enjoyed lunch and a waterpark.  During my trek along the boardwalk, I spotted Great Blue herons, Roseate spoonbills,  Brown Pelicans, osprey, Tricolor herons, Snowy egrets, etc.  It was amazing how similar the birdlife was to the birds that I spotted in Africa.  While the species were different, many of the birds in Texas either filled similar ecological niches or were local species of the same birds.  For instance, South Padre Island had Roseate spoonbills rather than African spoonbills.  I spotted Anhinga in Texas and African Darters in Namibia and Botswana.  Both are similar looking darters with long, snake like necks and jagged dark feathers that they dry in the sun.  Although unrelated, the caracara that I saw alongside the road reminded me of a Secretary bird in its coloration and eating habits.  Of course, I saw a variety of egrets in Texas as well.  The cattle egrets that I saw in Africa are the very same species that I saw in Texas.  The bird spread with the spread of humans and domesticated animals.  Though, the cattle egret is a relative newcomer to Texas, having only arrived in the 1960s.  The Great egret spotted at the park is almost identical to the Great egret spotted in Africa, though they are different subspecies.  The Caspian tern is also found in both Africa and Texas.

I am still at the very beginning stages of learning about birds.  However, perhaps by the time I am 53, the average age of a birder, I will be well-versed in the world of birds.  One appeal of birding is that it is basically an endless scavenger hunt.  Some birders compete to see how many birds they can identify in the world or in a country in a single year (this is called a Big Year).  I think that this year may be my own “Big Year” as I doubt I will see as many species in a year as I saw this year!  This year also helped to give me a start on my Life List, or the list of birds that a birder has seen in their lifetime.  In all, I probably saw over 130 species of birds this year.  To me this seems like a lot, but it is small compared to the 10,000 species of birds in the world!

With that said, here is the list of birds that I have seen this year.   I will eventually go back and organize the list using scientific names.  Otherwise, the count may go up, as I plan on participating in the Christmas bird count:

 

Texan Birds:

  1. Willet
  2. White Winged dove
  3. Mockingbird
  4. Forester’s tern
  5. Redhead duck
  6. Crested caracra
  7. Great tailed grackle
  8. Common grackle
  9. House sparrow
  10. Harris’ Hawk
  11. Sanderling
  12. Black-bellied Plover
  13. Brown Pelican
  14. American coot
  15. Great Blue heron
  16. Roseate spoonbill
  17. Little blue heron
  18. Northern pintail
  19. White ibis
  20. Great egret
  21. Laughing gull
  22. Common gallinule
  23. Blue wing teal
  24. Osprey
  25. Least tern
  26. Long billed curlew
  27. Black necked stilt
  28. Snowy egret
  29. Tricolor heron
  30. American wigeon
  31. Mottled duck
  32. Spotted sandpiper
  33. Clapper rail
  34. Turkey vulture
  35. Belted kingfisher
  36. Anhinga
  37. American white pelican
  38. Carolina Wren

African birds

  1. Blue waxbill
  2. Southern ground hornbill
  3. Black collared barbet
  4. Hammerkop
  5. Gray lorie (Goaway bird)
  6. Egyptian goose
  7. Secretary bird
  8. Red billed hornbill
  9. Black Winged lapwing
  10. Crimson breasted shrike
  11. Cardinal woodpecker
  12. Pied kingfisher
  13. Bank cormorant
  14. Spur winged goose
  15. Little bee eater
  16. Fish eagle
  17. African jacana
  18. Malachite kingfisher
  19. Red Collared widowbird
  20. Ostrich
  21. Greater flamingo
  22. Cape gannet
  23. Reed cormorant
  24. African darter
  25. Sacred ibis
  26. Helmeted guineafowl
  27. Cape sparrow
  28. Sociable weaver
  29. Cape white eye
  30. Karoo korhaan
  31. Great white pelican
  32. Great white egret
  33. Yellow billed hornbill
  34. African pied wagtail
  35. Red eyed bulbul
  36. Dark canting goshawk
  37. Cape glossy starling
  38. Pied crow
  39. Kori Bustard
  40. Green wood hoopoe
  41. Dark capped bulbul
  42. African Spoonbill
  43. Lilac Breasted roller
  44. Marabou stork
  45. Red billed oxpecker
  46. Squacco heron
  47. Gray heron
  48. Cattle egret
  49. Purple heron
  50. White faced duck
  51. Gray headed gull
  52. African Skimmer
  53. Yellow billed stork
  54. Caspian tern
  55. Laughing dove
  56. Magpie shrike
  57. African crowned eagle
  58. Trumpeter hornbill
  59. Black kite
  60. Hooded vulture
  61. Fork tailed drongo
  62. Black crake
  63. Red winged starling

Local Birds:

1.Black capped chickadee

2.White breasted Nuthatch

  1. American Crow
  2. Northern Flicker
  3. Blue Jay
  4. Dark eyed junco
  5. Downy Woodpecker
  6. Hairy Woodpecker
  7. Ivory Gull
  8. Common loon
  9. Canadian goose
  10. Snow goose
  11. Mallard Duck
  12. Killdeer
  13. Cedar Waxwing
  14. Pileated woodpecker
  15. Ruffed grouse
  16. Ruby throated hummingbird
  17. Red winged blackbird
  18. Ring billed gull
  19. Barred owl

22.American goldfinch

  1. Double crested cormorant

24.Mourning dove

  1. American robin
  2. Northern Cardinal

27.Scarlet Tanager

  1. Common redpoll

29.Tundra swan

  1. Wild turkey
  2. Common merganser

 

 

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