Texas: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP

Our first visit to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park was so much fun in the dark with Elf Owls we knew it would be great in the daylight too. We were right. This park has a lot going on with 760-acres of riparian woodlands in the floodplains of the Rio Grande.  Accessible by bike, walking, or by catching a tram shuttle. The park is awesome. But we showed up a little early and it wasn’t officially open yet.

Common Pauraque calls lured us closer (and we caught a brief glance of the Elf Owls again too before they disappeared). So we went in. Then found and figured out the Honor Box system so we could continue further into the park without fear of the Border Patrol.

First ones in the park get to see the Bobcat!

Woah! Jen spotted this one prowling near the boatramp at Kingfisher Overlook. First time I’ve gotten such a good look at one. It seemed pretty spooked by us and quickly disappeared into the forest. So amazing.

If a bobcat could be around this corner what could be around the next? We continued walking as a flock of 30+ Anhinga flew over our heads.

Then Max heard an intriguing “tee-tee-tee-tee-tee” that turned out to be one of the coolest named birds ever, the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (Ty-rann-u-let). Sounds like a dinosaur, right? It’s actually a small flycactcher lacking bristles at the base of its bill. Not that my photo makes it very clear.

We also saw a lovely Green Jay.

A Great Kiskadee.

And a Couch’s Kingbird saving us from stingy-bitey things.

Then we turned around another corner and heard the saddest dove ever. Eric said, “That dove is beyond mourning.” Then Sarah looked up and said, “That is an odd-shaped hawk.” We were all wrong because it was a Greater Roadrunner!

Way up in the tree it bent over and called the saddest call ever. Here is a short clip. I hope his sad song helped him find a mate to cheer him up.

I was tickled by this sighting. On my wish-list of bird sightings was a roadrunner and this experience blew anything I could have imagined away. Amazing stuff.

Eventually we made our way to the Hawk Observation Tower.

It was slow at first, we saw sunlit hawk-specs in the distance. But eventually a few flew in closer. A helpful volunteer park staff explained how to distinguish Broad-winged Hawk from Gray Hawk.

Broad-winged are slightly darker underneath with a dark edge along the end of the primaries. Finally one Broad-winged Hawk came close enough to demonstrate.

Unfortunately, no Gray Hawks came by for comparison (at least that I saw). There was a kettle of hawks in the distance but most were Broad-winged. Still a pretty cool sight.

After hawk-watching we made our way back to the main feeders. Passing The Great Wall of Chubby Lizards along the way.

So chubby.

At this point, in the heat of the day, we plopped down on swinging chairs to rest and watch birds at the bird-feeders (short video). It was mainly a Plain Chachalaca parade.

Is it just me or do chachalacas always look displeased?

Why so angry? Giving the stink-eye.

Actually they remind me more of Beaker from The Muppet Show.

Amiright? Totally related.

Haha. Too far? I’m sorry chachalacas, I apologize. You’re so regal.

We had one more surprise at the feeders. A bright orange surprise.

Winner for best orange cheeks goes to the Altamira Oriole!

What a beauty! Bentsen State Park did not disappoint. Great surprises around every corner.

After this it was time for post-birding tacos before more birding!

Birders gone wild,

Audrey

Texas: Sabal Palm to Popsicles

On this morning we got up early to head southeast of Brownsville to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 557 ac. nature preserve located in a bend of the Rio Grande. With more than 5 miles of nature trails surely we’d see some good stuff.

Off to a sweaty start, we traveled through the park listening to a chorus of birds including this Long-billed Thrasher.

Along the boardwalks we heard White-eyed Vireo and warblers including Wilson’s and Black-throated Green. Unfortunately, I have no photographic proof. Finding warblers and vireos in Texas is similar to another fun game: Find That Texas Creature.

Here’s an example. Do you see what I see?

How about this one? Difficulty level 9/10. Not just Spanish moss.

See? Fun. Especially with creatures that won’t kill you. There are lots of spiders in Texas. Most made their presence known. Like the (harmless) Garden Spider that makes a great web with a knit sweater patterned center (stabilimentum).

Good stuff indeed. But we were also still looking for new birds.

Ladder-backs live here

We found Ladder-backed Woodpecker in the forests and White-tipped Dove, Plain Chachalacas, and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds near the feeders.

Buff-bellied or beer-bellied?

Perched in one a tree was a Broad-winged Hawk while soaring above us in the skies were Turkey and Black Vultures. A little lower was a White-tailed Kite.

Texas birds were becoming more familiar. Of course it wasn’t until we returned to the parking lot when we finally found one of our main target birds. Way up in a palm tree next to the 1892 historic Rabb Plantation House.

Was a 2017 Hooded Oriole!

Orange bird, white on shoulder, curved bill, black bib. Studying on the plane paid off. It was a nice send-off before we left for our next destination, the South Padre Island jetty. We made a good attempt but found more spring-breakers on the scene then birds.

Birders gone wild

This meant it was taco time before next making a return trip to the free boardwalks at the SPI Convention Center Nature Trail.

Back on the boardwalks we went to work birding with the intensity of a Tricolored Heron.

Or Green Heron.

Well, some of us wandered.

Hey, where ya going?

But it’s a good thing because that’s how Sarah found the best least surprise a Least Bittern!

And a Clapper Rail! Out in the open. Basically. Find that Texas bird!

Afterwards we all wandered back to the airbnb where we found a sweet surprise. A Buff-bellied Hummingbird had found the feeder we put out. Success!

Followed by an almost equally sweet post-birding treat, beer and popsicles!

Because we’re adults. Birders gone wild!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Texas: Old Port Isabel Rd to Mexico

Heavy fog rolled in the next morning but it didn’t take long for the blazing sun to burn it off. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is hot. Each day I dug deep to my Floridian roots, sucked it up, and birded through the thick wall of humidity and heat. While applying regular applications of sunscreen and bug spray. It’s easy to forget that trying daily routine from the (mostly) comfy Pacific NW.

But of course the same reasons I’m repelled from the southeastern US are what attracts such a great diversity of birds. Heat and bugs. We had plenty of both at our next Texas hotspot, Old Port Isabel Road, seven miles of gravel road through lowland open grassland habitat.

One of the first bird’s to greet us was the Eastern Meadowlark.

I recognize that shape. This meadowlark is best distinguished from the Western variety by song. Western: a rich, low, descending warble “sleep loo lidi lidijuvi.” Eastern: simple, clear, slurred whistles “seeeooaaa seeeeadoo” higher, clearer, with no gurgles (Sibley 2016).

Brightens up that rusty post

Shortly after we heard another tell-tale “Bob-white” call of the Northern Bobwhite! This was one of my most eagerly anticipated sightings. So cool. Even if they just ran away from us.

Then someone spotted a White-tailed Hawk far in the distance. Worst views ever so here’s a slightly less worse view from a later sighting. Clearly white-tailed.

I should mention another hawk of Texas that should have been familiar but wasn’t.

Red-tailed Hawks. Like the one below. Where are the patagial marks? It doesn’t match Eastern or Southwestern varieties in guidebooks. Leave it to red-tails to break the mold. Jerks.

At least Harris’s Hawks follow the rules. And there were plenty of these along the road.

Not just raptors, there was also a fun new sparrow to ID, the Olive Sparrow. It has one of the greatest sparrow songs I’ve heard with a catchy bouncy-trill ending.

Near the end of this road we all got a great surprise on a telephone pole.

Mythical falcons seen only in guidebooks come to life. Aplomado Falcons! (Aplomado  Spanish for “lead-colored”). Then they did what no birds ever do. They both flew directly towards us.

They passed us by at eye level flying incredibly fast and low over the prairie.

It was absolutely stunning. There’s some controversy about “counting” this species for checklists; they currently meet the ABA checklist requirements but “Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC) currently considers the reintroduced population of Aplomado Falcon to be not established, nor self-sustaining and thus deems this species not countable.”

The last wild breeding pair was seen in New Mexico in 1952. These that we saw are a result of a falcon-reintroduction program by the Peregrine Fund. Thanks to predator-resistant nesting platforms and the release of 1,500 chicks (since the 80s) there is now a small breeding population in this part of Texas.

I’m grateful because either way you count it, the falcons are amazing. And since it’s my 400th bird species they count extra for me.

What happens after an Aplomado sighting? We could have ridden the high the rest of the day but it was still early. So we did the only thing we could do. We headed to South Padre Island for 0.99 beer bongs.

Jk. We birded on. The afterparty started at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center where a white-morph Reddish Egret drunkenly danced in the tides.

An Osprey danced with a Northern Mockingbird.

Black Skimmers danced in the sky.

And gators sat stoned grinning in the corner.

We also saw Scissor-tailed Flycatchers aka wallflowers.

And Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron doing The Robot.

It was good times. We took a break from partying and birded near a random boat ramp.

Among other shorebirds, we found a Wilson’s Plover under the only bit of shade around.

Then there was time for one last stop. Mexico. Or at least up to the border. This took some confident driving skills by Jen.
 

 
At least the tide was going out. Right? Then, before picking out birds in Mexico, finding a dead dolphin on the beach, laughing at cartoon crabs and watching Max catch a fish with his bare hands, we had the second most exciting bird encounter of the day. AJ yelled for us to look at the dark bird over the water!

We all turned to see a Parasitic Jaeger chasing after a Sandwich Tern!

But you can’t see jaegers from the shore?! These are pelagic birds! You have to be seasick on a boat miles off shore to see them!

Except when you’re in Texas. Aplomado to Jaeger in a day? The tropics are growing on me.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey