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

Texas: Estero to Bentsen

The next morning Jen and I left the cabins at 3am because that’s normal. Actually it’s the opposite of normal, but it’s an excellent way to make good time driving when you aren’t distracted by birds along the way. We had to drive 6 hours south to pick up the rest of the spring-break birding crew from the Brownsville airport.

So efficient. Until daylight broke and we immediately pulled over by the first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! This one’s named Rudolph.

We arrived in Brownsville with enough time to make a quick stop near the airport at Dean Porter Park. Here we saw Neotropic Cormorants (that look similar to Double-crested Cormorants), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, lifer after lifer after lifer.

We also saw some familiar faces.

Black-necked Stilt

White Ibis

“You can’t see me” -Muscovy Duck

And I had way to much fun entertained by Great-tailed Grackles.

And Laughing Gulls. I’m especially fond of gulls that are easy to ID.

No question you are hilarious.

We made it to the airport in time to pick up Sarah, Max and Eric. They’d flown in on a red-eye and we’d been up since 3am. We were all ready to bird. A quick stop at the Airbnb to drop off luggage and we arrived at Estero Llano Grande State Park to meet up with Jen’s Texas buddy, Nate and his friend from Austin, AJ.

Compared to PacNW parks, the “World Birding Centers” of Texas are a bit different. They are more maintained, usually have feeders, operation hours, and moderate entry fees. It’s all worth it. Upon entry we were immediately overwhelmed at the feeders when Eric got his lifer Northern Cardinal.

Then I got my lifer Curve-billed Thrasher.

Then we all (minus the Texans) got lifer Chachalacas!

These dinosaur-like birds are Plain Chachalacas (Cha-cha-la-cas). Fun to say and fun to watch. They are “the only member of the family of guans, currasows, and chachalacas to reach the United States.” They are big and loud.

Then before you know it, they melt into the forest and disappear.

Bye-bye Cha-chas. Hello Buff-bellied Hummingbird!

We then scanned the pond area and found Little Blue Heron, White-faced Ibis, Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Blue-winged, Cinnamon, and Green Teal (teal trifecta).

Watch where you’re pointing that thing

At another pond we met the Least Grebe.

That eye.

Then Nate led us to another part of the park to see a Common Pauraque.

Or not see it. Where bird?

Best camo ever.

This place was ridiculous.

AYFKM?

Just as we left Estero, my lifer Long-billed Thrasher bid us farewell. Lifers around every corner.

We filled up on tacos at Nana’s Taqueria before heading to our final destination of the day, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Rumor was there was a possible Elf Owl nesting site there. We arrived just before sundown.

Just in time to squeeze in a Ringed Kingfisher sighting.

Before gathering with 18 other hopeful birders to stare at a hole in a telephone pole.

Cheap seats

Just after dark to everyone’s glee a tiny owl popped out from the forest and perched on a nearby wire. Not long after a second owl appeared and then they both disappeared in darkness. Some imagination needed to see this one:

Maybe not the most glamorous sighting, but nevertheless it was a suberb way to end the day. Walking back to the car we watched bats and fireflies and listened to Common Paraque zip around in the sky catching bugs calling “purr-WEEE-eer.”

Only in Texas.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey

Texas: Lost Maples

Spring break is all about drinking, partying, and birding, right?

For months a group of friends and I planned a trip to Texas this spring to accomplish at least one of those things. Jen and I flew in a couple of days early to explore the Hill Country area of Texas two hours west of San Antonio that is home to the rare and endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler that only nests in juniper-oak woodlands of Central Texas.

The warbler has good taste. This is the prettiest part of Texas I’ve ever seen.

We stayed at Foxfire Cabins less than a mile from Lost Maples State Natural Area. What the cabins lacked in swankiness the property made up for with birds.

feeder titmouse

Inca Dove

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Carolina Chickadee

Boom. Just like that, four lifers. There was also a Yellow-throated Vireo sighting and a drive-by Ringed Kingfisher. Make that six lifers. Birding is so easy. Once the sun dipped below the hills we star-gazed enjoying the clear dark skies, then got up early in the morning to hike Lost Maples Park.

The chalkboard doesn’t lie.

We parked the car, started up the trail, and almost immediately heard the buzzy “ter-wih-zeee-e-e-e, chy” song I’d studied long before the trip. Incredible. It took much longer to get a visual on the warblers, but when we did it was even sweeter.

Yay! The extra time and effort was all worth it. Relaxed and happy, we soaked up other sights along the trail including Yellow-throated Warblers and White-eyed Vireos.

And a Black-chinned Hummingbird that stopped to take a drink from the stream.

Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soared higher in the sky as the wind picked up and we hiked up the hillside.

Black Vulture

Here we’d hoped for an early Black-capped Vireo, but came up with Black-crested Titmouse.

And Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Along the trail we were easily distracted by damselflies, butterflies and lizards.

And a Carolina Wren singing like crazy.

The wind picked up further as we hiked back to check the feeders near the trail entrance.

This turned up many birds including:

White-tipped Dove

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Three more lifebirds. Bam! What a gorgeous birdy place. I’m already dreaming of a return backpacking trip.

In the heat of the day we took a quick lunch break before heading north to Kerr Wildlife Management Area to try again for Black-capped Vireo. On the drive there we passed a Vesper Sparrow.

A Lark Sparrow.

A mystery snake that slivered quickly across the road.

And we passed a pile of vultures on the side of the road with a Crested Caracara in the mix!

New bird! I was surprised to learn they’re actually quite common in southern Texas. Here’s a picture from a later sighting:

Eventually we made it to Kerr WMA, and dipped again on vireos, but we found plenty more lifebirds for me including Vermilion Flycatchers.

A Field Sparrow.

And a wonderful surprise bird Jen spotted just as we were leaving the park, a Louisiana Waterthrush! Good spot.

We made it back to the cabins without running out of gas and prepared ourselves for an early departure the next morning. 18 new birds in less than two full days? Not a bad start!

Thanks Texas.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey