One aspect of “listing” I’ve come to like is that it forces you to consider what is actually possible versus only what is practical. Need to be at work in 14 hours? That’s enough time to drive to Ohio, see a Brambling and get back. Black-tailed Gull in southern Illinois? If you leave at 1 a.m. you can be back in time for dinner. Often times, while eating lunch at my computer, I’ll look for cheap airfares to no place in particular with the daydream that I could jump on a red-eye flight, explore for a day, and get back the following night. While Aly can handle any type of trip I can dish out, the “bird until you can’t open your eyes” style of travel is not really her thing. So when her architecture firm decided she needed to fly to India for a new hospital she’s designing, a $150 round-trip flight to Houston was the enabler to my weekend birding bender. “After all,” I tried to justify to her, “if you’re in the land of bee-eaters and bulbuls, shouldn’t I at least get to be around caracaras and chachalacas?” Clearly, the alliterative argument had an effect on her because, she agreed to let me go.
The plan was set. I’d land in Houston late on Thursday, drive through the night to the Corpus Christi area, then head to the lower Rio Grande Valley for a day, then book it back for an early morning return flight. My goal was to see 125 bird species.
Sunrise at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
I landed around midnight on Thursday, grabbed my rental car, and hit the road. I wanted to be at Aransas before sunrise so getting a hotel room didn’t make much sense. Instead, I’d spend a few hours with my eyes closed siting in the parking lot of the Victoria County Rest Area on Route 59. Finding the rental car’s folded down rear seats and trunk to be too short for any comfort, I woke up after a couple hours of restless sleep and hit the road at 4:00 a.m. Ninety minutes later, I was driving along the San Antonio Bay, near the entrance to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Walking through the Rail Trail, the marsh was starting to wake up. Coots and Sora rails were starting to clack and scream. As the sun started to paint the sky, dozens of Sandhill Cranes took off with their signature rattle. Crane excitement at Aransas is not limited to Sandhills; the real prize at Aransas is the other North American crane, the highly endangered Whooping Crane. Returning annually from their breeding grounds in Alberta, this patch of land on the Gulf of Mexico is the wintering home to the last of the migratory Whooping Crane population. Beginning on the auto tour loop, I started to tick off the standard Texas wintering birds. Over the shallow waters of the Gulf, both kinds of pelicans glided over the top of the water to their daytime roosts. Ponds along the route were filled with teals and grebes. A quick walk along a path yielded very little besides a feral hog and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Approaching the top of an observation tower gave panoramic views of the entire refuge as well as the oil derricks out on the water. Seeing those symbols of greedy exploitation so close to the natural landscape of the refuge made me nervous for the long-term health of the pristine wetland. The destruction a Deepwater Horizon sized spill at one of those structures could knock entire species right off the planet. On my way back to the auto path, I observed several dozen vultures hopping along the ground, clearly jockeying for some kind of carrion.
Female Ring-necked Duck
Continuing on the auto tour, I’d occasionally see a passerine fly across the road. When I’d stop and train my binoculars, I’d usually find a few mockingbirds with some Eastern Phoebe’s mixed in. Reaching a long north-south segment of road, I started to lengthen the time taken between stops. Most of the birds seen were repeats and their density started to thin out. A few minutes later, I decided to get out and get some closer looks at a bright male kestrel when three large white birds appeared in the distance. Stretching almost five feet, bill to feet, the massive white Whooping Cranes flew across my field of view. Panicking, I grabbed my camera and managed to snap a few quick photos of the. A couple of years earlier I had seen the Wisconsin Direct Autumn Release Whooping Cranes. Essentially, caged birds that were human-raised to join nearby Sandhills and, hopefully, migrate south. Of the 13 Wisconsin birds I saw on that day, only one bird, named Latka, survived to the second year. However, in those three wild birds flying over me continued the knowledge of how to migrate thousands of miles and reproduce as they have done for thousands of years.
After that thrill, I eager completed the auto tour loop. I only stopped one more time to look at dark, soaring bird that didn’t quite look like a vulture. As it banked in the late morning light, I saw two white flashing on its wings; a telltale sign for a Crested Caracara.
I’m not much of a rarity chaser but, the rarities in this part of Texas are fairly sought after. The state’s closeness to Mexico means that Neotropical vagrants show up regularly. Throughout the week, a Golden-crowned Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, and Greater Pewee all were observed in a little park in the hamlet of Refugio. Studying the stickers on the cars as I pulled in (“I brake for crakes”), I knew I was not the only birder here. Grabbing my camera and binoculars, I started walking along the quarter-mile long loop through the riverside woodland. Joining a few other folks at the previously reported warbler location, we all scanned the underbrush for any sign of movement. A half hour yielded nothing until I saw a flycatcher, with its large head and bicolored bill perched 30 feet away. Calling out my pewee sighting, another birder joined me and started reciting field marks for Greater Pewee. Sure enough, this bird checked out. Filling ourselves with vagrant-delight for a couple of minutes, we continued our look for the warbler. Having a packed schedule in front of me, I regrettably threw in the towel and head to the car. The Golden-crowned Warbler would be spotted a few hours after I left. All was not lost, though, on my way out a kind birder pointed out a Barred Owl nestled in between the branches, 15 feet above my head.
The only rarity of the trip: Greater Pewee
I am a sucker for shorebirds. I don’t know if it’s their superlative migration distances or the fact that they’re so easily observable, if there is a shorebird hotspot nearby, I’m visiting. The Texas gulf coast at this time of year is loaded with wintering shorebirds. My destination was a narrow string of land that follows the coast almost the full length of Texas, Padre Island. On the way, I’d stop at a few county parks to pick up a few of the area’s unique species. Gregarious Green Jays pecked at some seed spread over a picnic table, Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds swooped over water grabbing insects, and Least Grebes darted underwater and fled the moment I was noticed.
Couch’s Kingbird (probably)
Corpus Christi is separated from Padre Island by a shallow channel. Often less than 5 feet deep in many locations, this creates excellent habitat for waders and shorebirds. Immediately after passing over the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, I turned into Packery Channel Park and beheld shorebird nirvana. While fishermen did a good job of scaring away most of the birds off of the near shoreline, there was a narrow strip of land about 60 feet out, that was loaded. Every square foot held terns, yellowlegs, Laughing Gulls, herons, spoonbills, Willets, and Godwits. Walking along the saturated, squishy shoreline I moved away from the many fishing area to where I could crouch along the edge of the water and allow the birds to come to me. Black-bellied Plover and Sanderlings, with their frenetic run and peck feeding style, passed not more than 15 feet away. My favorite, though, was the Long-billed Curlew that stood like a statue while it snapped photo after photo.
I’ll stop being a birder when I’m no longer thrilled at seeing this bird: Long-billed Curlew
While I was in bird bliss, there was the unfortunate disturbance of a fishing boat screaming by, leaving harried birds in its wake. These were scarcely better than the off-road trucks that would go bounding over the rutted-out beach. Despite my indignation, I spent a few more hours observing the wildlife here and then returned to my car. This would be the last stop for the day before heading to the Rio Grande Valley. To add symmetry to my day, as the sun was getting ready to duck below the horizon, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes flew over my car, on their way to their nighttime roost. Making McAllen, Texas by 7:00 p.m., I ate some forgettable Mexican food, tallied up my day’s count, and collapsed in bed.
Sunset, end of day one
I had gotten a taste of what Rio Grande Valley birding could be like the previous year when Aly and I backpacked Big Bend National Park, so it was with high anticipation I pulled myself out of my hotel room and hit the road. I would have the daylight hours to bird along the Rio Grande River and then turn back north for the 5 hour evening drive to Houston. I would hit a series of state parks and preserves starting at the west end of McAllen, working my way east. Nearby there were reports of rarities such as Northern Jacana, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and Tropical Parula. My route was planned so that, if I got lucky, I could see all of them. I began walking through the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP and, more by virtue of us getting there at the same time, paired up with a kind couple from the Houston area. More birders equals greater likelihood of not missing a rarity so we were happy to grow our group. For a birder from far away, the feeding stations here were remarkable. Green Jays and kiskadees were trash birds. A group of at least 50 Plain Chachalacas pecked at the group as a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk scream by. We watched the chaos instigated while we discussed exactly what would happen if the offending hawk, scarcely larger than the chachalacas, would actually try to catch one. Moving on, we ticked off other lower valley standards like Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Prryhuloxia, Clay-colored Thrush, and White-tipped Dove. When we reached the river, we glanced at the international shoreline for either of the two specialty kingfishers; Green and Ringed. Neither making an appearance, I decided to end my time as a third-wheel birder, thanked the couple, and head to the car.
Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk
I swung by the Santa Ana NWR where I missed the Northern Jacana that had been spotted there over the past few days but, I got some outstanding views of a couple of Olive Sparrows. After a couple hour visit, I headed to what would be my last major stop of this trip, the Estero Llano Grande State Park.
At this point in the trip, I was beginning to run out of gas. I was about 38 hours into my 48 hour birding blitz with a 5 hours drive in front of me. Coincidentally, Estero Llano provided the capstone on the trip. Walking around the bird-packed state park, I couldn’t help reflect on how a state, whose politicians seem to relish in destroying the natural world, could have such an extraordinary state park system. Upon entry, you walk onto a deck near the park office where the bird life is in your face. Five feet from the deck edge, Wilson’s Snipe probed the mud. Teals of all flavors floated a bit further away. Ibis, Spoonbill, and Herons commanded the standing water and flycatchers swooped back and forth. This is the only moment of the trip I came to regret chasing lifers as I could have sat and watched that pond for hours. I did take a few minutes to rest and photograph a few birds, including a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at a feeder, then I started walking the boardwalks and paths to look for a few remaining Rio Grande Valley specialties. Coming to a pond, I noticed a few night-herons in the trees. As I identified both Yellow and Black-crowned a kingfisher flew across me and landed on some low branches. Smaller and more blue-green than royal blue, I watched the Green Kingfisher move back and forth between two select perches. Nearby is a “can’t miss” patch for the Common Pauraque, a true valley specialty. After scouring the ground in the small loop for 30 minutes, I could not find the damn bird. Sitting down to watch the night-herons and regroup, I noticed a family of 7 crowding around a downed log. Of course, they found the bird I walked past at least a half-dozen times. After snapping a few cracking photos of the cute, little nightjar, I took a long, slow walk back to the car. If I visit the lower valley again, I thought to myself, I will allow for a full day of exploring this park.
I realized at that point, it was 3 p.m. and I had only ate a granola bar; such is the single-track mindset of a birder, I suppose. So I made my way to the main commercial drag in Harlingen. Along the way, I gave a half-hearted effort at the Frontera Audubon Center to find the Crimson-collard Grosbeak and Tropical Parula, missing both. Instead, I proceeded the nearest Wendy’s and sat at a nearby reservoir to eat my Junior Cheeseburgers. A few cormorants swooped past, an Osprey soared overhead, and I sat in the car, filling out my checklists. One glaring omission jumped out at me; right at the top. I had not seen a Black-bellied Whistling Duck! According to eBird stats, almost 20% of a checklists submitted for this area contain this bird and, despite visiting at least 10 places, I had not seen one. Finishing my drive-thru meal, I started to pull a little closer to a Neotropic Cormorant for a picture when I noticed a pier full of ducks, about 150 yards away. On it rested about 30 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, tucked together to stay out of the cool (by Texas standards) wind. A rarity they are not but, a lifer they were. Having picked up one last tick, I jumped in the car and turned my back to Mexico, heading to Houston.
The drive back was pretty uneventful. Near the valley there were drainage ponds packed with waterfowl. I stopped at a few, trying to get my binoculars on as many birds as possible but, more often than not, the birds flushed, so I just kept driving. Sitting in the hotel bar outside the Houston airport, I reviewed my final tally for the trip. I counted 123 birds and almost 20 lifers. If anything, this trip was just an appetizer. I knew then that I will be coming back to this place. Instead of simply running around, trying to get a taste of the incredible Texas bird scene, I’ll pick a few locations and really get to immerse myself in the Neotropical wonderland of the Rio Grande Valley.
My eBird Checklists:
Lions/Shelly Park (Refugio)
Hazel Bazemore Park
Packery Channel Park
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP
Santa Ana NWR
Estero Llano Grande SP
Frontera Audubon Center
Driving out of the valley