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

Oahu Part 6 – Kaʻena Point

We got a tip from a guide on the James Campbell NWR trip to get to Ka‘ena Point early and arrive from the south side. There is a 2.7 mile trail that follows an old road bed along the rocky coast to Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a rare protected area of natural coastal sand dunes and home to nesting seabirds, especially Laysan Albatross. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I sure hoped to see an albatross.

We followed Kurt’s advice and got to the trailhead parking lot before sunrise. But not early enough to avoid a truck commercial shoot. Luckily, the crew let us park close to the trail. Tomas was too sore from marathoning to go on the hike so he stayed behind to rest and enjoy the view.

I hiked along, sort of not believing this place was real.

Until eventually I reached a long fence.

Oh, I thought, this must be as far as visitors can go. I also thought I spotted a bird flying in the distance so I walked closer.

Wait, what? “Slide Gate”? I can go in there? No way. Turns out the fence is intended for rodent control not to keep people out.

I walked in and could not believe my eyes.

Albatross, albatross, albatross! I’d died and gone to albatross heaven.

Oh look, a Grey Francolin!

No, don’t look at the francolins. Albatross, albatross, albatross!

Holy shit. They were everywhere. And they were 5 ft from my face. I almost walked right into this one along the trail.

So close! I can’t believe they let people in here. And the reason Kurt said to arrive early is because the birds are more active in the morning. Indeed they are. And since it was December, the birds were also doing their mating dance!

They squeak, nuzzle, and clack beaks together, shake their heads, look under their wings, waddle back and forth a bit, then raise their heads and call, “hoooooongk.” My videos didn’t turn out, but here’s a great one of the Dancing Layson Albatross.

Meanwhile, other albatrosses flew right over my head.

Their wingspan is incredible.

I was already near tears of joy when, what’s that breaching out in the ocean?

Of course, Humpback Whales. Surreal!

This was one of those moments I think that birders dream about. I was alone on this corner of the island, just me and the whales and the albatross. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I snapped out of it long enough to register a couple of other birds present.

A Red-crested Cardinal and a Northern Mockingbird – what are you doing here?

There were also Common Myna and Zebra Doves, but mostly I couldn’t take my eyes off the sultry albatross.

This species, the Laysan Albatross, is the same as the famous albatross named Wisdom – the oldest banded bird in the wild, at least 65, and she’s still laying eggs! She’s considered a symbol of hope for ocean birds.

And this is the site where in December of 2015 a group of teenagers killed a dozen albatross and destroyed many nests. It’s deplorable. And complicated because two of the boys were minors, and a third who was 18 at the time and has plead not guilty. The case is ongoing. I can only hope there are serious consequences. It’s news like this that makes me wonder if the general public should even have access to this vulnerable area.

It’s heartbreaking but I want to believe most people are good. And that things are getting better. For the most part at this site, they are.

Plagued by feather and egg collectors early on, the birds were then accosted by 4×4 vehicles, dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose until the breeding population was all but decimated. Once Ka‘ena Point was designated as a reserve and off-road vehicles were banned, restorations efforts were rewarded with a glimmer of hope when the first chick fledged in 1992. Since then the breeding population has increased 27% annually. Susan Scott wrote a lovely article about their comeback.

So that’s the good news.

At this point the birds settled down to sleep as the sun warmed up the skies. Ka‘ena means ‘the heat’ after all. I started the return hike back to the trailhead forgetting to check for nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters that are also there but less obvious than albatross.

As I hiked back, I finally saw people coming in from the opposite direction, the commercial crew must have finished filming. It was perfect timing. And perfect timing for more occasional Humpback Whale sightings as well as my first Brown Booby!

Another unbelievable day in paradise.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Eastward to Walla Walla

Last year, every bird was a life bird. By mid-February 2015 I had seen 77 new-to-me bird species. 77 lifers! I didn’t even know what a “lifer” was then. Over my first year birding, I saw 253 life birds. Not that I’m counting. But, yeah, I’m counting. So far this year I’ve seen 98 species (year birds), but only two lifers (more about one of those below). I now understand the significance. Perhaps I should have paced myself?

SeeAllTheBirds!

Nah. I’m okay with the bar set high. It’s made me a busy birder. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t chasing red dots on Birdseye like a cat chasing laser lights since the first of the year. Last weekend, I drove four hours to southeastern Washington to catch some red dots along the Snake River.

Snake River

I caught a few at Hollebeke Habitat Management Unit. Like what I would call my first “obvious” Sharp-shinned Hawk (small head, skinny legs, square tail).

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

And (less obvious) Cooper’s Hawk below. I think.

Cooper's Hawk

Maybe that’s the same bird? There were at least a couple of each. I swear.

I also saw Dark-eyed Junco, Cedar Waxwing, Bald Eagles, American Coot, Northern Harrier, White-Crowned Sparrows, American Robin, Varied Thrush, and many Northern Flicker.

Northern Flicker

An American Kestrel with a snack.

American Kestrel

And Black-billed Magpie, both living and loud and tattered in pieces.

Black-billed Magpie

Wonder who the culprit was? At one point along the trail, I practically tripped over piles of pellets.

Pellets

Pellet

Yum

And whitewash? There was a little.

Whitewash

Then I looked up. Great Horned Owl!

Great Horned Owl

Hello handsome.

Great Horned Owl

I slunk away quietly to disturb as little as possible.

Continuing on I found a Northern Shrike!

Northern Shrike

And I saw one notable bird I recognized from my Florida trip, a Northern Mockingbird!
Apparently, a pretty good sighting for this location. Birder score.

Northern Mockingbird Northern Mockingbird

It was great birding all the birds on Hollebeke, but I still had found no life birds. I was kind of surprised. So, armed with knowledge from Scott Carpenter’s Nature Night series on owling, and hoping for new owls, I moved on to stare at willow thickets.

Willow thicket

I drove back and forth super slowly about 8-10 times for over an hour. I saw nothing. Eventually, nature called, and there are no restrooms in the middle of nowhere. I got out, went behind the thickets, and spooked four owls. Dang it! While falling over, I tried to take pictures of the blurry owl rockets.

Long-eared Owl Long-eared Owl

Judging by the barred tail in the first awful photo, these are indeed Long-eared Owls. Technically, a life bird! My first of 2016. But so bummed to spook them, I almost don’t want to count it. Almost. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to stare at willow thickets. Or next time I’ll wait until after sunset.

I wanted to check out Bennington Lake the next day, so I proceeded to nearby Walla Walla to stay for the night. If you have not heard comedian, Mike Birbiglia’s story of sleep walking while staying at La Quinta Inn (La Keen-TA Inn in Wahya Wahya Washginton), do yourself a favor and spend the next 7 minutes laughing at his story. I stayed in the room!!

Sleepwalk with me

Living the birder rock-n-roll lifestyle.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey