All birding trips are not the same and as I’ve said before they have their own flavor. Much however, is the same, the hustle, the planning, the hurried intel, the urgency to get to the next place. Maybe it is how well I can plan, I am a logistician by design. I don’t go to places for a week. Rarely do I have more than a day or two, so I need to be efficient, on point and have things scripted. Get in, get bird get to next place and get that bird. This trip to south Texas was no exception. I gave myself 38 hours to land some really hard to get birds….but 38 hours …..was I mad?
I’d land in San Antonio, late and drive to McAllen, get up a few hours later, and had to be back at the Alamo, 38 hours after I landed.
My twelve birds: Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Green Parakeet, Buff-bellied hummingbird, Clay-colored thrush, Audubon’s Oriole, White-collared seedeater, Painted Bunting, Scott’s Oriole, Groove-billed Ani, Scaled Quail, Green Kingfisher, Olive Sparrow and for good measure, throw in a Golden-cheeked warbler. I challenge the great Neil Hayward and Sandy Komito to do that in 38 hours from plane to plane but with 800 miles driven, some walking and even some sleeping, I was done, I had seen them all. I even gave a college try for a rumored Tropical Parula. Which if I hadn’t heard about I could have stopped at Santa Ana and explored Estero Llano Grande for their usual oddities but not needing them, I didn’t. I also planned on looking for the red-billed pigeon at the only place it has been seen this month but to be frank, I sort of forgot about it and was thinking about stopping at Zapata TX for the McDonald’s and free wi-fi to plan my evening.
I landed at 9PM in San Antonio, adding on a flight from Minneapolis since at 7pm on Wednesday night I had to be in Wichita. San Antonio is near to Wichita KS correct? I got my rental and zoomed down I-37 towards Corpus and then I turned on 83 for McAllen, arriving at 1am and went to bed for the first of three short nights. I got a conformation of green parakeet info from Mary Gustafson that in evening they had been staging at 10th and Dove, but I didn’t have an evening and instead went for the morning.
Well before 6am I was heading to 10th and Dove, windows open listening for the telltale sounds of cackle from parakeets. I stopped to make a left at Walgreens, I heard them and swung into the Lowes to look for them. They were all over in a tree, no three trees, unfortunately they spooked and went into the powerlines. It was dark, but flash photography and parakeets works pretty well. 136 Green parakeets and 1 mitred parakeet, apparently little Bobby’s “Polly” escaped to get its own cracker. I didn’t even notice that bird while I was there but as you can see it is plainly identified on this one in photograph on the side with red on face.
Bird 647: Green Parakeet
It was 0615 and one of the goal birds off my list, and as I rate sites for potential nude and naked birding, if I had been there last year, one, I surmised, could get this parakeet here but it would have to be early in the morning using a plan of action like the way those that photograph themselves naked in front of famous landmarks. This would be a lot easier than The Obelisk at the Vatican at midday and I had seen that done. Scout, get out, get naked, see bird, jump in car, and get out without anyone paying attention and drive away.
My next move was predicated on I having to get to a woman named Letty’s ranch by 9 so I went to Anzalduas Park for a morning of looking for a Tropical Parula, but unfortunately when I arrived at just after 7, the gate was large and closed. It would be a half mile walk to get to the trees and I couldn’t afford the time and since the park didn’t open to 8 and I had nearly 70 miles to this ranch north of Raymondsville, I left.
I stopped in to Estero for a quick check of feeders for my missing hummer, but only having 5 minutes, only a black-chinned hummingbird showed up, I’d be back. I told people I had to see a woman nicknamed Buny about an owl, some how to more than a few, it seemed I was off to a bordello or something but no, it was just a very nice woman on a ranch hidden in the trees of south Texas.
Letty met me at the gate to her 540 acre ranch tucked behind another ranch in the southern part of Kennedy County, with like 130 registered voters and drove me through two shut cattle gates to her homestead. Sarita the county seat wasn’t much, I’d been there before. She took me back to her house where she had her own version of gold, her pair of nesting Ferruginous Pygmy Owls. I figured they were on her ranch somewhere, but no…they were in her back yard.
Well we walked around her house and there one was watching the nest box. It was so easy. She left me to walk around the property. I photographed the owls, then again, and again, they were just so damn cute.
Bird #648 Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
I got distracted by a Brown crested flycatcher
Then a Cactus wren on a barrel
and another view of the owl as he is so cute!
It was nice relaxed birding, bobwhite quail called everywhere, and her feeders were busy with green jays, titmice, and golden-fronted woodpeckers and after an hour Letty took me out. We chatted about my nude big year and my book and she laughed and even told her daughter on the phone. I assured her I hadn’t birded naked at her place and if I needed that owl naked and it was last year, I wasn’t sure how that conversation would have gone. Luckily that was last year and now it was all in comical fun. We saw a groove-billed ani on the way out perched by the road and a Greater Roadrunner. Now when I wasn’t looking for them they seemed everywhere. I saw six of them on the trip.
I hustled back to Estero. I paid the $4 fee with the usual assortment of ancient amateur birders who just walking to alligator pond seemed like a task. It isn’t very far and flat walking. I hope to not be that immobile at age 70. The naturalist (not a naturist!) said they put some water in the pond and the Godwits and sandpipers left just that weekend, oh well, they weren’t my goal. I sat and waited and five minutes later at the feeder a pair of Buff bellied Hummingbirds showed up and one sat and let me get its picture. Not perfect but a picture.
They are nice hummingbirds. I had heard a rumor of the dreaded, elusive, purple Gallinule here a week earlier but nobody had looked back at Grebe Pond. I decided to give it a shot. Nothing was at grebe pond except Grackles and they were carrying on, I walked over to Alligator Pond but didn’t see anything of note (especially the Green Kingfisher that has taunted me in the past) and being mid-day it wasn’t prime birding time. I came back and swatted bugs at Grebe Pond for a minute and then I heard something, I don’t know but it wasn’t a grackle and it was subtle. I walked to the side where you cant really see anything and a Green Kingfisher came in and I almost got a decent photo but alas the tall grass was in the way..again…
Then I got the feeling something was there so violating ALL decorum I got out my call and played the gallinule call for a minute then again….nothing. I walked back to the main trail and did it again. A very purplish head came up, looked my way then part of the back and then woosh, gone back in the grass. It was a Gallinule but was it a purple one. Initially I swore it so, but it was awkward light, nobody had seen it for a week, besides that one, reporting one at Estero would cause a ruckous more severe than reporting a rose-breasted becard or a jacana….and much like Anhinga Trail in Florida I seriously wondered if that bird was ‘real.’ All Gallinule seem purple to me. I don’t know I called it and then I backtracked. As of now I’m not. I’m not 100%. I vowed to not use my calls at a state park or NWR for the rest of May, well I’d try to be good.
I zipped out and the next stop was back at Anzalduas Park just past McAllen. It was hot and uncrowded and a typical park. At least they waived the entrance fee for me. Besides the intermittent storming of the area by crazed border agents on ATVs, it was peaceful. Mexico was a short swim area to their park maybe 200 feet from our swimming area. It seemed sort of silly. I watched a Mexican family swim under the suspicious eye of a deputy sheriff.
Lots of skittish Bronzed cowbirds worked the grass with a lone clay-colored thrush that refused a non-blurry photograph. I think this is a better and easier place to get them than Bentsen nearby. I looked and looked for a Parula they had seen four days before but all I heard was swallows. Hot and tired I drove on after a good look for the Tropical Parula, I felt good about it.
I went and looked for Saleneno. It had bad signage and I got lost. I found it, as I have that sense, hard to get me lost or confused. Despite assurances from the local master birder that this place is well used, it appeared somewhere between neglected and abandoned. There was an old worn cardboard sign in black marker that said closed for the season across a gate that had locks that had not been opened in some time. The informational sign and postings had not changed for at least the last decade as the colors were faded and this despite facing north. I jumped the fence and explored the area on top of the hill. The road had brush across it and led to a clearing with what looked like a near collapsed shed. A cement pad marked where there was probably an old caretaker’s hut. I jumped a lesser nighthawk or more aptly almost tripped over it sleeping on a low branch. I found a trail and followed it down the hill and then noticed there was no gate so at least I didn’t have to jump it again. I looked a bit for the red-billed pigeon but saw nothing that looked like it. The long grass in snake country and my beloved snake boots in South Dakota I turned around. I saw nothing else of note except a border agent and decided it was best to leave. I hoped for a McDonald’s in Zapata to do research as I didn’t even have enough of a cell phone signal to do it on my iphone. In my haste I forgot to check the park they had seen the pigeon down the road near Falcon Lake.
I refueled and regrouped at McDonald’s and their free wi-fi. My next stop was St Ygnatio, again neglected but they at least had a sign and the Texas Rare Bird Alert had good directions. Go to end of Washington and park and walk down the hill. The caretakers hut had not seen action in decades but the grounds and trails were at least mowed and someone was filling the feeders. A veranda or a viewing platform over the Rio Grande, I couldn’t tell which was collapsing over the lone picnic table, so all was not well here either. On the south side, near either an irrigation pipe or a sewage pipe into the river, couldn’t tell, I found another border guard watching this peaceful and quite gorgeous stretch of river.
I don’t like to brag, but I am very good finding stuff and just going to a new place, I just seem to walk in, stopping right next to the location to find the resident key bird. I’m not sure it is just luck or what. I have a sense for these things. I’ve parked my car under, next to too many birds just like in this case. It may be all my training of being in the woods as a child. It is like I can feel the birds and notice when things are looking for me like the Gallinule. I walked down the trail, stopped, and looked up and there was a white-collared seedeater and then it sang. It was an easy photograph. I hadn’t even figured out my way around yet.
Bird #650, White Collared seedeater
I later saw a second one fly over me, really really good birds. The park had long-billed thrashers carrying on, and I later got a good view of a Yellow-breasted chat from same spot I photoed the seedeater. I have only seen one before in Wyoming, but heard frequently ….a loud noisy bird heard but not always seen, and a listed rarity for this location or so ebird says.
The long grass featured a Bewick’s wren, numerous cowbirds, then a very hot looking Olive Sparrow stopped for a quality photograph
It was a really good spot, but no pigeon and no orioles. I was hot, out of liquid, and sweating in the 98 degree humidity and walked up to my car to the tune of some Mexican music on a hidden stereo in the village and headed to Laredo.
Okay, Laredo really sucks. The drive up 88 is not too exciting and with the factories in Neuvo Laredo across the river putting up smog the evening light did not improve it. The problem, except for a lone Red Roof Inn there were no Motels anywhere coming into down town. I came into downtown thinking of a really nasty letter to write to the Mayor about the really stupid unfriendly city. 236,000 people and no hotels?
I got on I-35 and spotted a Large Holiday inn and a Courtyard next down it was some after 8. I walked in, no rooms just 3-500 dollar suites. I asked if a woman came with that, she said no but she could call someone. I then stated I’d just drive to San Antonio as I was getting surly. I’m not sure she spoke English well enough to understand. I gazed up at the 14 story Holiday Inn next door and googled the number. I got Travelocity, I didn’t want Travelocity. They had lots of room but I could not figure out how to get into the front door and her address was not on any street of any of the four around the hotel. Finally I cooled down enough to just give her a credit card, laughing when they called it the convention center, yea like anyone goes to a convention in Laredo. Then I parked in handicapped parking to check in as the whole front was ringed in do not block fire lane paint. I ended up circling the building four times. I got my room in an almost empty hotel. Why would the woman at Courtyard not refer people to here or to the Hampton also owned by Marriot not but a mile down the street?
Laredo sucks, did I say that already?
I drank a beer, relaxed and researched the next location for my morning attack plan. I did have a really good day, four lifers and one almost or maybe.
I got up at five and was driving up I-35 to Encinal and turned off the freeway onto a road called Martinena which is one of the best roadside birding drives anywhere, it is just flush with birds. Painted Buntings everywhere, flycatchers, kingsbirds, three Least Bitterns flew overhead, Cave swallows were under the overpass and a scad of mostly them on a powerline about a mile off. If one drove this road for 30 miles they may get stuck but they’d be so happy with birds they wouldn’t care. Luckily I didn’t get stuck.
About three miles up I spotted a pair of Audubon’s Orioles in a tree bird #651 on my life list
It is a gorgeous bird, yellow on the back and one of the prettiest songs, wow
There were gobs of Bullock’s Orioles, too
I spotted a pair of scaled quail just before I decided I’d seen everything and turned back.
I passed a ranch owner and then saw a northern bobwhite jump on a gate.
I slammed on the brake to take a picture, unknown to me, the rancher was following me and his dog got excited in the truck distracting him and he noticed the cougar come out of the brush in front of my car and in the distraction almost hit me and had to go around me on the right almost clipping my lens sticking out of the window, yelling sorry as he narrowly missed the fence. The bobwhite was not going anywhere, cougar afoot so I got great bobwhite photos, a cougar sighting and we almost ended up in an accident. The only two cars for miles and we almost collide. I talked to the guy and he invited me into his 540 acre ranch to look around more but unfortunately I had to make tracks to San Antonio and the airport.
Last stop was in the Hill country NW of San Antonio, and yes, there are hills up here, and so up I went, found an edge of the wilderness and called in two Golden Cheeked warblers, #652 which stayed in the trees and were unphotographed and I saw a Scott’s Oriole which for a moment I hesitated to photo thinking it was a Audubon’s as I realized what it was, it was gone.
So many birds, fairly good pictures, six lifers, some really tough birds, life count 652, and except for snail kite, all seen in less than two years…and man one efficient outing, rarities, point to point, if I’d only looked for the pigeon, oh well can’t get them all.
My Texas missing count took a serious beating, though, now just a couple of non-rare birds–Red-billed Pigeon, Black-chinned sparrow (besides AZ, NM), tropical parula, and purple gallinule, I guess (FL). I finished up the trip being delayed in Houston, eventually got to Wichita, completed an oil deal at the Scotch and Sirloin, complete with supposedly scantily clad waitresses according to Texans I chatted with in Houston (hey this is an oil deal, but heck, I’ve been served by naked waitresses before, because everyone was naked…so big deal) but she wasn’t, and I was back home the next day after a crazy security line…in Wichita…..?
I even came up with a good novel plot both with a bird chaser as the main character but one in which an odd thing happened to him in Texas…go figure, will start writing shortly, “A Big year gone bad”? or “The Birder that birded over one too many hills”? IDK will wait to write as a title always hits me
Great trip, next time maybe I’ll take an extra day, maybe I’d have come up with a title…well, maybe not