January 16-19, 2015 LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY TEXAS
Every trip has a flavor and a purpose and despite an urge to chase a probably not countable Striped Sparrow near Austin, TX, I decided to pass and keep to the plan. Let me say I had a good team, my wife, Silja and my 14 yo daughter, Lena. She has a keen eye but forgets to tell anyone what she sees and doesn’t recognize all the birds yet, but I wouldn’t trade them for anyone.
This trip had two purposes. A winter tune up for me. Probably my last south Texas scouting trip before the 2016 Biggie. I also wanted to see if my daughter really wanted to do a Jr Big Year. Could she tolerate big weekends? This would be her test as she would retrace largely this route next year with me if she wanted to.
Rare vagrant sparrow aside, we had 68 hours. We’d drive 1000 miles as well. Using Delta we flew into San Antonio and drove 250 miles to McAllen after landing at 9pm to get to the valley. I noticed that Delta now flies to Harligen, mistake number one…oh well. We crawled into the Alamo Inn after midnight, a birding Bed and Breakfast without breakfast and we never did meet the owners. It beat the bedbug hotel in Kingsville and the Great-tailed grackle motel in McAllen I had previously stayed at. I called as instructed when we arrived but alas no answer, luckily I had been given the door code.
My daughter locked the door to her room and despite pounding was generally unarousable at 0530. This was not a good start. Pounding and shouting, finally I played my ringtone under the door and after a moment of protest we got her teenage body moving. I think she forgot birding is a morning sport.
Oliveras Park Brownsville
The first stop was for Red-crowned Parrots. I hadn’t been here before and wanted to scope the place, I’d be back next year, God willing and we were not disappointed.
Maybe 50 were flying around. I’d say I was 15 minutes late but we had the first bird. I also saw a Yellow headed parrot, probably an escapee, and I know this is blurry but you can see it wasn’t a Red-crowned parrot, bigger and bolder in color.
there was a Tropical Kingbird on the tennis net so we got a two-fer.
Sabal Palm Refuge
This was my scouting place to start at and in the end it was a logistical mistake. One was that it was difficult to find this place as Hwy 510 is closed. The detour wasn’t obvious and using the navigation system didn’t help as they wanted me to turn around. “MAKE A LEGAL UTURN!” The blasted machine kept saying until Lena said, let me do it on my phone. We got our stuff out and went to the house. The lady there didn’t know birds. The tour that was advertised for Saturday at 8 didn’t happen…hum. I couldn’t find the dusky-capped flycatcher nor the Tropical Purula which could be anywhere but we did see a Rufus Hummingbird. In general, saw nothing else I didn’t end up seeing other places except for some Lesser Goldfinch out on the entrance road. I probably saw a Audubon’s Oriole but unsure I didn’t post it since I’d have to explain it and it was a yellow oriole, …?
It was a good place to get the my birding partners aware of the local birds and the Long-billed Thrasher at the feeder was a good start.
This place is a sleeper. A good place to scope out waders on the mud. I found 2 American Oystercatchers
a quick glimpse of a snowy plover and some other shorebirds but soon our attention was distracted by some yahoo who got buried in the mud at low tide….WTF was he thinking?
I wasn’t going over there to help. They tried the >Give it more power> theory and if you say it in a Scottish accent it even seems to help more but alas after seeing mud go up 10 feet in the air, they were stuck but good. We had three spots to go. I kept getting asked on Facebook if this was us, and was I naked when we buried the GMC. First, I wouldn’t drive a Chevy, second, I wouldn’t drive a Chevy there, …I may drive a Ford naked though……then they switched to asking if I was watching this naked? No, I was standing in the middle of a popular fishing spot on the river across the mud…sorry, the naked birder was fully clothed on this trip. After being shot at last time I was down this way and considering how many cops were about, that was a good thing
World Birding Center S Padre
This place is a bit of a scam. I don’t care for it. The boardwalk no longer connects with the boardwalk from the convention center, also a bit of a scam. Why does this place exist and how can it sustain itself? You can get a quick Clapper rail here and Roseate Spoonbills, usually, which we did
My daughter saw her first Alligator, so that was good. We tallied off some common birds and then left. We ate at Whataburger, which I ask again…What burger?…it sucked and headed to Laguna to look for Aplomato Falcons.
Laguna Atascosa NWR
Going to Laguna was like returning to the scene of the crime. First, I was shot at while birding here and spent a lot of time nude birding this refuge in a past year. That wasn’t the crime I was thinking of. The USFWS closed the loop road, one of the best loop roads in North America, I might add. A loop road that housed a Aplomato falcon, no less. All for someone driving over an ocelot. We now call driving slowly driving at “ocelot” speed, but how could you hit an ocelot? Alas one tram tour and that was it, that had long gone and came back…we were out of luck You could bird a grand total of three miles by car. You could bike the Loop road but needed your bicycle. Hence my theory of bringing a bike with for my big year.
We flushed a flock of Bobwhite quail, saw no falcons, and generally added nothing.
We went to the Osprey overlook and I got a nice picture of a Couch’s Kingbird
A bit of a consolation. We road birded south of the NWR and found many hawks, a nice white-tailed hawk, a huge dead sow (pig), but no falcon…no falcon anywhere….oh well. I’d need to come back when it was just me to dig out that bird. I’d spend more time at Shrimp Bridge, less at Sabal Palm and more sneaking around Hwy 100 looking for a falcon. You can’t get them all.
10th Street McAllen
The Green Parakeets had moved from 10th and Dove. There were none in Lowes just a cop, which would be the first of many we’d see. We drove up 10th and then at Logan’s Restaurant near Hobby Lobby we found them. They were extra noisy. 300 minimum. Lena had fun when they flew right over her head almost deafening her.
Not knowing where to eat, we just ate at Logan’s but I was almost too tired to enjoy it. The Green Parakeets gave a good recommendation though, I always need help in selecting a good restaurant. Only Great-tailed Grackles were near the second choice some sort of Indian restaurant and we were afraid of a Mexican place named Siberia. Nothing speaks Tex-Mex like Siberian Tex-Mex so we just drove quickly past that one.
Santa Ana NWR
Morning came early as we drove into Santa Ana before anyone else. The place was full of birds although I am not impressed in what they have done to Pintail Lakes. We snuck around for 3 hours seeing the usual suspects, plus three Gray Hawks, Lena flushed a Virginia rail and saw an Ash-throated flycatcher no one else saw.
and yet another Altamira Oriole
Andulusas Park and Borrowing Owl spot
We went first to my great Burrowing Owl spot and was not disappointed, 5 minutes later we had the owl and drove on….
My daughter loves owls and this was her best bird for the trip. Andulusas Park had more cops than visitors, 2 Border patrol cars at gate, six State troopers, four county squad cars. Happy Mexicans swimming and fishing across the small impoundment did NOT look to warrant such attention. WHY? Why is our tax dollars being wasted here?
I saw a sign.
I’m thinking that a different type of “rape” was going on here and wasn’t sure how you could “molest” the sewage pipe and really didn’t want to know. Then I thought about it …a sewage septic system on the bank of a major river….? What was that about?
Estero Llano Grande
There was unfortunately no signs of Green Kingfisher and screech owl in the afternoon at Estero. One of the trails was underwater. There were no pauraque at the Alligator Lake spot but with a little local intel help from a birder, we found the “New” parauque spot. I walked on some older birders proud of the fact they were looking at a “clay-colored thrush.” My wife whispered in my ear, “that is a mockingbird.” I shrugged, “so it was.” and I decided not to spoil their fun by being a know it all. I don’t know what is the correct thing to do?
Walking to the camping woods we saw the first Inca dove for the trip
Then we looked around and spotted a hummer on a branch and identified it. We only saw four hummingbirds on the trip but three different species.
There were three of them in a pretty exposed spot. Then just twenty feet away in a tree with yellow fruit were a scad of thrush feeding. Nothing like a code 3 bird in quantity!
My second lifetime sighting of this bird and we saw 9. My first was only a glimpse and to see them well and get a photo..a code 3 bird…..I told my daughter that was a good bird! I didn’t think she understood. “Dad it isn’t rare if there are 9 of them.”
I was getting grief, it was past game time and my wife the Seahawks fan wanted a ports bar, I am a Packers fan but had a bad feeling about this game and eventually we found one, hey the Packers were winning! GO PACK! Unfortunately they blew the lead and that was that. Boo….sigh…cry…. That ended a long birding day and we drove west up the valley, half the car happy, half sad to our new hotel in Rio Grande City missing it the first time by it. We ate out of the HEB. Odd place that sells religious statues with odd hornlike things on their heads…..IDK, odd place, but they had wine. After the Packers, I needed a drink.
Rio Grande City
The last morning didn’t start too well. It was overcast with expected showers in the morning and Montezuma was also giving me some revenge. I took a cipro and hoped. Visiting cactus patches with Montezuma’s Revenge is not my idea of fun. We drove off in a sea of police cruisers. You cannot believe the amount of cops on 83. Couple that with Border patrol and we got a police state. Soviet Russia had less cops driving around. I tucked in behind a state trooper going 30 and then had a Starr County cruiser on my right and then………..police lights in my rear view mirror….WTF?
“I” was speeding? The Rio Grande City policeman couldn’t explain why I was keeping up with traffic which was all police cars and that somehow that wasn’t okay? I UNDERSTAND Fergusson now. Even not speeding you get pulled over. Considering all the illegal u-turns sometimes in front of traffic. Illegal loitering, parking, sudden stops, hustle to get to the next spot….that is an amazing feat…I deserved tickets for some of these things but for this? He said I was doing 40, there was a better chance I was doing 25 than 40. He only gave me a written warning, now 6 tickets/ 59 stops, I go back under 10% after two more but more importantly that is my first police stop birding.
Okay. I stand corrected. I bad mouthed this place north of Roma Texas. I said it was barely a birding place, derelict, scary, and had the worst signs anywhere. They got new signage, and had campers…..really….? Yes, lonely caretaking campers who feed the birds. I am not sure how many people show up but considering it was overcast and we seemed to be it for the morning…we certainly got the red carpet.
We came just in time…..the were feeding the Audubon’s Oriole. Show up at 8 and DONT BE LATE! He hides most of the day.
We saw a female Hooded Oriole which was almost as shy.
Altimira Orioles, Kiskidees, Olive Sparrows, and all the doves dotted the feeding station. We looked for a screech owl but he was hiding and I saw a solitary sandpiper way off on the US side of the Rio Grande but no Red-billed Pigeons. We gave then an hour of our time, donated to the seed fund and headed up the road to the next stop.
The goal bird here was a green kingfisher but alas no kingfisher but we did spot a Vermillion Flycatcher.
We cruised into San Ygnatio, a sleepy little birder and border town, which has the most non-business business loop (Business 83) that neither goes by any active businesses nor is much of a loop. We parked and were soon greeted by 30 realy agitated Chachalacas. They flew south, then north, then south again squawking all the while. It was hard to think down there. The birding house or headquarters is largely abandoned but they had put seed out at a single spot, just nothing was there. We walked the tall grass and saw many many Nashville Warblers, too many to count, and then worked hard to find the goal bird here, the White-collared seedeater. I had largely written off a pair of birds but snapped a lone picture and then tried to get a look at them. Finally I got a good look at their beaks, three in all all female or immature plumage but we had our rarest bird of the trip
It is a code three, and I was sort of lucky I got almost a perfect shot despite only taking one.
We got back on 83 and drove, watching hawks along the way…gray hawks, Harris Hawks, Crested caracaras, it was a telephone pole bonanza.
Gosh I hate Laredo. The trucks on I-35 are a mess. The traffic..? I finally figured out the by-pass around Laredo, which is on a freeway that just ends in the middle of nowhere 2 miles from finishing the loop but I got on it and we drove right by a low flying Zone-tailed hawk, It turned right next to the car and gave us a perfect look at its tail feathers on a black bird. Cool. We may have seen or not seen any Bobtails but we didn’t know what bobtail parking was. Do you?
I asked a local Hispanic looking person. He was sitting by me in the plane what it meant, he had no clue. Then when I said it was from Laredo, he relied. “Laredo isn’t really part of Texas nor America. I hate going through Laredo.” Did I say I hate Laredo, too?
I got a great road going east of Encinal, it is a hot spot I “own” on ebird. Last spring I saw a cougar on it, too. It is the road that keeps on giving, mammals birds, just stuff. I looked for and found 5 roadrunners for my daughter’s lifelist. Once we found them they all sort of disappeared.
Then we found Pyrruloxias, which seemed extra colorful today
We had an armadillo cross the road, got a fly-by of a Ferruginous Hawk and added a few sparrows and other desert birds for the trip. I looked at the clock, time was ticking…..head for the airport in San Antonio and do it fast!
Returning the rental car (the directions on the Hertz map are wrong by the way) Checking in, security was relatively painless, nobody flies much through San Antonio, and we sat down for a meal for once and tallied up the birds on the checklist. We argued a little, but the ticks put the final tally up to 138, Two short of my goal. I was a bit disappointed but a low sandpiper and shorebird list, nothing really odd and no whistling ducks kept my number down.
My daughter didn’t answer the question if she wanted to do this again, but we’ll see when she organizes her pictures.
…sigh….Children are like sports teams……you never know what they might do