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

Florida: Weedon Preserve, Sawgrass Park, and Seminole Lake

One of the highlights of my trip to Florida was birding with my dad.

My dad

He lives in Largo and his birding enthusiasm is a close match to mine. In the past year since I started birding, we’ve have a blast quizzing each other by emailing pictures of birds we can’t see in our respective areas.

He sends me pictures of Limpkins (baby Limpkins!), Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, and Brown Thrashers harassing snakes. If there were any reason to visit Florida, these would be it. A handful of his pics:

Limpkin Limpkin Red-bellied WoodpeckerYellow-crowned Night Heron Brown Thrasher Brown Thrasher

He had a few spots picked out for us to see during my trip, including Weedon Island Preserve, a 3,700 acre preserve complete with a cultural and natural history center, trails, boardwalks (AKA Raccoon Highway), mangroves, wetlands, uplands, crabs (!) (Mangrove Tree Crab).

Crab

Weedon Island Preserve Paul Getting Memorial Trail Weedon Sunrise

And birds! A whole lot of them.

Wading birds

Wading birds

Of course it wasn’t that easy. They made us work for it. We showed up promptly at sunrise for low tide and there were no birds in sight. It wasn’t until the day warmed up that they came out to feed. Once they did, we saw Great Egrets, White Ibis, Snowy Egrets, and many more wading birds in the distance. And a Wood Stork flew overhead. It was a good time.

Wood Stork

The best part of Weedon Island though, was a moment that’ll go down in my book of birding history. After striking out on birds first thing in the morning, my dad and I rounded the corner to another overlook and found an unbelievable sight. A Roseate Spoonbill closely followed by a Tricolored Heron buddy. The wait was worth it.

Spoonbill and Tricolor

My dad describes Tricolored Herons as Little Blue Herons that’ve had too much coffee. Little blues stand still and intensely stalk prey (much like the Great Blue Heron), while Tricolors dart quickly back and forth in the water gathering up fish and bits of food. It’s a useful behavioral clue to identify them. We watched this one pick up bits the spoonbill stirred up. They made quite the pair.

Spoonbill and Tricolor

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron Tricolored Heron Tricolored Heron

Shortly after, the spoonbill posed nicely for us and my day was made.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Gorgeous wrinkly spoon face!

We went to Sawgrass Lake Park next. Surrounded by “the most densely populated county in Florida” (Pinellas County), the 400 acre park is a haven for wildlife. Especially alligators. We saw three of them. Florida wildlife sighting Level-Up.

Alligator

Alligator Alligator Alligator

And the obligatory “no molesting” the gators sign. So many feels. So many jokes. It’s too easy.

No Molest!

This park had a few gems besides gators and funny gator signs. Including adorable Little Blue Herons. So intense. So cute.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron Little Blue Heron Little Blue Heron

And the most fun bird to say, Anhinga (an-HIN-ga)! With many nicknames: it’s called the Water-Turkey thanks to its tail and swimming habits, and also Snake-Bird because it often swims with just its head sticking out of the water. We saw several of them, usually sunning themselves since this species lacks oils that make feathers waterproof. Anhinga anhinga is named from Tupi Indian (Brazil) language. AnHINga!

Anhinga

Anhinga Anhinga Anhinga

We also saw Common Gallinule (gal-li-NOO-l) and heard it’s cackling and yelping calls. The species was split from Common Moorhen (Old World) in 2011 by the AOU.

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule   Common Gallinule  Common Gallinule

Upon leaving this park, we saw a neat grouping of three species together, Tricolored Heron in the far back, a Little Blue Heron front left, and three White Ibises!

All the water birds

And a softshell turtle.

Softshell turtle

Our final destination was Seminole Lake Park. The best trails in this park wind through pine flatwoods where we saw several species of birds. Some familiar, some new.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Osprey

Osprey

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker (see the red belly!)

Gray Catbird

More Gray Catbird! Can’t get enough of this one. 

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal (female)

And a whole bunch more.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Pileated Woodpecker Osprey Northern Cardinal Mourning Dove Little Blue HeronGray Catbird Great Egret Boat-tailed Grackle

Funny thing about this park, we actually visited several mornings in search of what turned out to be my “nemesis bird” of the trip, the Limpkin! My dad sees them here frequently, but I missed out this time. Good to have a reason to return. Next time!

We ended the search on a high note with a good look at this remarkable creature, the Wood Stork.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork Wood Stork Wood Stork

If I keep writing about Florida will that make it sunny in Portland?!

Too bad this post pretty much sums up my awesome trip. Thanks for following along!

Happy Turtles

Happy turtles,

Audrey

Shell Island, Florida

While on vacation visiting my family in Florida, my mom and I took a boat ride to Shell Key Island. This wouldn’t be like the last time I was on a boat when I got horribly seasick. This was a 10-minute quick trip from St. Pete Beach to Shell Key Island, part recreation destination, part wildlife preserve, part bird haven.

Shell Key Island

I’d never been before, but I heard a rumor that hundreds of White Pelicans nest there in the winter. My grandfather grumbled something about damn White Pelicans stealing his fish in Montana, but I was super stoked.

While waiting to board the boat, I spent the few spare moments appreciating the local Brown Pelicans hanging out by the docks.

Brown Pelican

Brown PelicanBrown PelicanBrown Pelican

I can’t help it. Every time I see Brown Pelicans with their long stretched out bills, it reminds me of Alec Baldwin (Adam) in Beetlejuice. Ooh, scary.

Beetlecan

See the resemblance? No?

Anyways, we eventually boarded the boat and set off. The island has no facilities and it is pretty rugged. It’s what I imagine Florida probably looked like before all the urban development and huge condo strips. Though practically swimming distance from civilization we felt like we had arrived at our own deserted island. Complete with oranges on the shore. It was awesome.

Shell Key Island

Shell Key Island Orange IslandShell Key Island

We crossed the sandy dunes toward where the captain said the pelicans should be. Along the way, I decided that the island should be called “Spur Island” after those vicious sandspurs. In reality they’re probably a good deterrent keeping people from trekking all over the place. Except me. (To be clear, I followed all island regulations and did not trespass in the bird nesting area).

We got to the pelicans just in time for a boat to speed by in the wake zone and scare them. I managed a couple of quick shots. White Pelicans!

White Pelican

White Pelican

White Pelican

Since they were long gone, we went back to the beach to eat lunch, look for shells, and watch the Foster’s Terns dive-bomb fish. It was a grand time, but after a bit we thought it might be worthwhile to check back in on the pelicans.

I’m glad we did. They were back! Hundreds of them! As were many shorebirds that I couldn’t identify from a distance. (Dunlins, Sanderlings, sandpipers?)

White Pelican

White Pelican

Shorebirds and a pelicanShorebirdsShorebirds, so far away

I did manage to find an American Oystercatcher! (in between the pelicans) I was pretty excited to find one since I had seen signs posted that they nest on the island.

American Oystercatcher

Shell Key Island

And a Little Blue Heron!

Little Blue Heron

I got a closer look at a few (I’m pretty sure) Dunlins. 

Dunlin

Dunlin

My mom and I happily watched the pelicans and shorebirds for a while, then went back to relax on the beach. Tough life. While relaxing I couldn’t help but notice a few birds in the water, like the Horned Grebe.

Horned Grebe

And another exciting sighting was a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds (!!) that flew overhead at one point. I didn’t get the best look at them, and in fact, in the moment I knew they were something unique, but I thought maybe they were a kite of some sort. Until I looked it up. Nope, Mag Frig!! How awesome. Here’s my one quick frantic shot of one of them. Those long wings! I kept one eye on the sky after this, but didn’t see another.

Magnificent Frigatebird

I also saw an American Kestrel on the island and a Red-breasted Merganser that flew by over the water.

American KestrelRed-breasted MerganserRed-breasted Merganser

And, yes! We even found shells during our time on Shell Island. Though we did not take them. Instead, we filled our (provided) shell bag with garbage we picked up on the island. Leaving it better than we found it.

ShellsSand DollarRelaxing

Back at the dock we were greeted by a Snowy Egret (black legs and yellow feet!).

Snowy EgretSnowy EgretSnowy Egret

And a Great Egret! (larger, black legs and feet).

Snowy and Great EgretIMG_5545 (2)IMG_5544

And because this is Florida, and the birding never ends, here’s a Green Heron we found wading in the pool when we returned back at our condo.

Green Heron

Green HeronGreen HeronGreen Heron

Green Heron

Thanks, Florida!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey