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

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

Florida neighborhood birds

Florida was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time. My family lives there, umpteen birds winter in the tropical region, and it’s freezing in Portland.

I spent a week warming up, visiting family, and getting to know Florida birds. Growing up in the Tampa Bay area I would occasionally notice Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals, but it has taken a decade of dark, rainy, Pacific NW winters combined with a new love of birds to truly appreciate my hometown.

Sunshine, palm trees, and birds in November? Yes, please!

Sunshine, palm trees, and birds in November? Yes, please!

My mom and I went for a walk around the neighborhood, and spotted numerous birds, like the elegant White Ibis. 

White Ibis

This species has acclimated to suburban life pretty well. They nest and feed near humans, and they greeted us each morning on the lawn. In aquatic habitats, they eat fish and arthropods like crayfish, and on greenspaces they forage for large insects…and lizards! No kidding. I caught this juvenile with a brown anole gripped in its bill.

White Ibis

White Ibis

Good for the ibis, sad for the lizard. I miss living around those cutie-pie little reptiles. They liven up sidewalks, fences, shrubs, pretty much all surfaces in Florida. As a child, they provided hours of entertainment; I’d catch and play with the mini-dinosaurs by the handfuls.

Brown Anole

But I digress. Back to birds, like the Palm Warbler! They were everywhere. Sporting their winter plumage, they flittered around on driveways, lawns, shrubs, and even roofs, as they showed off their yellow undertail while making their signature tail wag.

Palm Warbler

And I saw grackles, phoebes, and mockingbirds – oh my!

So fun. On our walk we also saw three woodpecker species, a Downy Woodpecker, and two new woodpeckers! A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (juvenile) and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

Rain was in the forecast, but we continued along to the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens. Along the way, we spotted a Brown Thrasher!

Brown Thrasher

Lucky sighting. At the gardens we saw more Palm Warblers, a Bald Eagle mobbed by grackles, and a quick two-second glimpse of a Gray Catbird!

Gray Catbird

No way! I once drove a great distance to Eastern Washington in search of a Gray Catbird to no avail. It’s that easy, Florida? Okay, then.

Returning to the house, we got a big surprise.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Make that two surprises!

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks! These birds were on my I-hope-to-see-these-in-Florida list and here were two perched on the light post just outside the house. How cool. They flew to the top of a parking garage, then returned later to a nearby pine tree. What a gorgeous pair of birds.

Not bad for a quick walk around the neighborhood. But that’s not all! I couldn’t get enough, so I returned to the USF campus to wander around, thwart campus security, and chase flocks of birds. Because that’s what you do when you’re in Florida.

I followed this flock to get a better look of the Eastern Bluebird. (and Palm Warblers in background). Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Nice! I also noticed a small black and white bird that was totally a nuthatch but not a nuthatch.

Black-and-white Warbler

Once I read the description in Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID App, “creeps along branches like a nuthatch, searching for insects,” I knew this was a Black-and-white Warbler. (I’m curious why it’s not called a Black-and-white Nuthatch; something to do with genetics?) The genus Mniotilta (nee-o-TIL-ta) is Greek origin from mnion, moss, and tiltos, plucked. The Black-and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) uses moss to construct its nest.

I saw a female Summer Tanager (wish I’d seen a male too!). They use their large bills to catch wasps and bees on the fly. I wonder if that’s what she’s munching on.

Summer Tanager

I saw another insect-lover, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

And if that weren’t enough, I returned to the house to find a Carolina Wren in the yard (looks like the eastern version of the Bewick’s Wren). 

Carolina Wren

AND a Black-throated Green Warbler!

Black-throated Green Warbler

So pretty! It was icing at this point. I watched the attractive little warbler catch insects around the ferns before flying far away to the treetops.

I lived in Florida for eighteen years, but I’d never seen its beauty in this way. I was always too focused on the heat, traffic, bugs, tourists, and moving as far away as I could. The change in perspective was refreshing. Satisfied with my first day acclimating to New Florida, I looked forward to seeking out the beauty of the next day!

Sunny tweets and chirps,

Audrey