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┬á 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

February birds…

If January could be summed up by snow, February can be summed up by RAIN. All caps because it’s ridiculous. We can’t seem to catch a break. Luckily, birds still have stuff to do regardless of the weather. They’re out there and occasionally I joined them. Yesterday, Tomas and I went to Ridgefield NWR for some comfy drive-thru birding.

Would you like fries with that?

Swans have returned to the refuge, both Trumpeter and Tundra though the Tundra Swans stood out more to me with their yellow lores.

This one flew in for a nice photo-op.

Red-winged Blackbirds were singing in the rain.

And this American Coot couldn’t give a coot.

There were Bald Eagles, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, and of course Red-tailed Hawks along the route.

But we got the biggest surprise when approaching the park exit.

Not one, but two Rough-legged Hawks! I’ve seen this type of hawk a couple of times, but only as a passenger in a vehicle flying along the highway with no time to enjoy. This time we could observe from the heated car as long as we pleased.

They have a small bill, light head and dark belly. One had a paler eyes, a juvenile bird, while the other had dark eyes, an adult bird. Both appear to have the light morph color pattern.

And of course they have feathered tarsi, or those “rough legs.”

They perched for a long time, sometimes fanning their wings out to dry. Until finally one flew from the tree and this was when we learned how they hunt. They face into the wind and hover! Similar to American Kestrels. The hover and scan the ground looking for small mammals. I made an animated gif to show the hovering in action:

Pretty sweet. Glad we made it out in the rain!

Much more to come. February isn’t over yet.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Cabin Lake Bird Blinds

Not far from Fort Rock State Park there is yet another magical place.

Cabin Lake sign

I almost don’t want to blog about it (the secret’s out!). But someone told me and I’m grateful. Someone also told me to bring suet. Best advice ever.

Before the blinds though, the road from Fort Rock to Cabin Lake deserves mentioning. Cabin Lake Rd is nine miles of Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Brewer’s Sparrow, California Quail, Vesper Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow, and Loggerhead Shrikes. We saw THREE shrikes in a matter of minutes.

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

California Quail

California Quail

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

And a coyote.

Coyote

It was kind of nuts. I didn’t want it to end. But the road leads to something even better.

Bird blind

Don’t be fooled. There are no cabins and there is no lake at “Cabin Lake,” but nestled inconspicuously behind a decommissioned guard station, on the border of pine forests and high desert, there are two bird blinds renovated by East Cascades Audubon Society and run by volunteers. They even have their own “Friends of Cabin Lake” Facebook page.

Cozy accommodations

Cozy accommodations

Both sites are equipped with suet feeders and a water source, a true oasis for wildlife in such a dry climate. I sat inside and peered out the portals.

Portal

It didn’t take long before the first birds showed up. Pinyon Jays, a lifebird!

Pinyon Jay

Dang they are a noisy bunch.

Pinyon Jay

Another noisy Corvid visitor was Clark’s Nutcracker.

Clark's Nutcracker

A couple of Brewer’s Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows showed up.

Brewer's Sparrow

drying its wings

drying its wings

A few woodpeckers came about too.

White-headed Woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

The blinds are a great place to study Cassin’s Finch.

Cassin's Finch

It was easy to observe the crisp, dark streaks on the female’s chests and see the bright raspberry-red crown on the males.

Cassin's Finch

Actually, it was pretty easy to observe all the birds. They come so close. I’m not used to photographing at such a close range and could have let up on the zoom.

I’m also not used to sitting in one spot while birding or I would second-guess which blind the birds were at. It’s hard to pick one! A couple of times I got antsy and went walking around the forest. But the birds were either far away or all at one of the watering holes anyways so inevitably, I’d return, sit, and practice patience.

I was rewarded with Mountain Bluebirds.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

And a Green-tailed Towhee!

Green-tailed Towhee

Mourning Doves were the most skittish about coming close to the blinds.

Mourning Dove

While Yellow-rumped Warblers visited frequently.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Birds weren’t the only thirsty critters.

Yellow-pine Chipmunk (or Least?)

Yellow-pine Chipmunk (or Least?)

Golden-mantled ground squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

The blinds exceeded any expectations I had going in. And while I birded for hours on end, Tomas mountain biked for miles around the forest trails. Fun for everyone.

Tomas's bike

Camp

We camped nearby at the edge of the sagebrush sea. It was one of the most peaceful and fulfilling birdy trips we’ve taken. I would highly recommend checking it out and supporting East Cascades Audubon.

Bring suet.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey