By Roger Wolfe Soquel, CA
When my birding buddies Greig Crenna and Mike Sylvia proposed this trip to me my first thought was that June might be a little late to be visiting Texas. Some of the birds would be nesting others would be post nesting and no longer singing. The heat might be raging at the onset of summer. As it turned out this was a wonderful time to bird Texas. Interestingly we encountered very few other birders and when we did they were folks whose path we had already crossed. This was my third trip to Texas. Last year I had stayed in the eastern part of the state to witness the spring migration through the upper coast. I had visited the Rio Grande Valley back in 1991 in early April. This trip was to be more ambitious in that we would be covering a lot more ground driving across almost half of this big state. In ten days we logged 181 species.
I arrived in Harlingen via Southwest Airlines (love those frequent flier rewards). After checking in to my motel and getting my bearings I headed out in search of two target species I wanted to get out of the way before my friend arrives in two days. Following the directions in the ABA Guide to the Birds of the Rio Grande Valley I headed for McKelvey Park in Harlingen. As it turned out 5:30 pm was a little early to be looking for the Red-crowned Parrots I had hoped to see. So I headed for the nearby town of San Benito. Behind the Walmart on Business 77 is a grove of palms frequented by GREEN PARAKEETS. I parked and introduced myself to another birder waiting there with a camera and long lens. Was pleased to meet Bill Clark author of the Peterson Guide: Hawks and A Field Guide to the Raptors of Europe, The Middle East and North Africa. Within minutes the parakeets were obliging, flying about in small groups and beginning to gather for the evening roost in the palms.
We spent some time viewing the birds and Bill shot some photos and then offered to show me a good place near his home that is good for the parrots. Turned out to be McKelvey Park, the time was now 7 pm and within a few minutes we had a pair of RED-CROWNED PARROTS fly overhead. Enjoyed dinner with Bill at nearby Pecos Pete's Mexican Food. It's one of my favorite things about birding trips, meeting other birders and enjoying instant rapport in many cases. The birder's world is a small one it seems sometimes. Turns out Bill will be along for the pelagic trip I've signed on for in two days.
I rise early in the morning and make the one hour drive north on 77 to visit the stakeout FERRUGINOUS PYGMY OWL at El Canelo Ranch just north of Raymondville. I shell out $35 bucks to bird the ranch and make the owl tick in the ABA area. I walk into the backyard behind the B&B and the owl appears immediately, poking its head out of the nest hole. The mate comes in soon after clutching a House Sparrow that isn't much smaller than the owl and is harassed by a pair of HOODED ORIOLES. Here as well are several CAVE SWALLOWS nesting in the patio area. Other birds at El Canelo are EASTERN BLUEBIRDS, GULL-BILLED TERN, WILD TURKEY, VERMILION FLYCATCHER, COUCH'S KINGBIRD and CATTLE EGRET.
Back in the car the driving begins and two hours later I'm driving into Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.The visitors center is closed as of May 31 and the place is devoid of people. At the trickle beside the visitor center I pick up a couple of GREEN JAYS, PYRRHULOXIA, GREAT KISKADEE and NORTHERN CARDINALS. It's been a dry year in Texas and all the ponds and flats are dust bowls without any birds to be seen. Driving along the 15 mile Bayside Drive loop I scrutinize all the power poles hoping for Aplomado Falcons, I know they're not countable as they are being reintroduced, would like to see one in tha ABA area all the same but will have no luck with this species today. Along the Laguna Madre shoreline there are birds - REDDISH and GREAT EGRETS, LITTLE BLUE and TRI-COLORED HERONS, WHITE IBIS, ROSEATE SPOONBILL and the best looks ever at an OSPREY with very sizable fish in its talons. Overhead I spy a soaring WHITE-TAILED HAWK. Other raptors seen along the loop are HARRIS' HAWK and several CRESTED CARACARA. VERDIN, LARK SPARROW and LONG-BILLED THRASHER are also seen.
Back on the road I make my way over the causeway to South Padre Island. Reminds me a little of North Carolina's Outer Banks but more developed like a spring break strip mall. At the Convention Center there is a Warbler Rest Stop. A grouping of shrubs with a water trickle has become a birding hotspot of late with a Flame-colored Tanager seen there recently. But Texas birders are excited on this day with the incongruous presence of a Common Redpoll on the island. At the convention center wetland I see BLUE-WINGED TEAL, COMMON MOORHEN, BLACK-NECKED STILT and a RUDDY TURNSTONE. In the shrubs at the rest stop there is a lot of activity with LEAST FLYCATCHER, EASTERN PEWEE, and EASTERN KINGBIRD present. Early to bed for I'm early to rise for tomorrow's pelagic out into the Gulf.
I meet the group on the dock at 5:15 am. This pelagic was put together by the World Bird Center. I'm surprised to meet a number of birders I know from previous birding trips, once again the birder's world seems a small one. On the water before the sunrise aboard the Osprey I quickly discover just how spoiled I am coming from the Monterey Bay area where we can get into deep waters rapidly thanks to a near shore submarine canyon making the pelagic bird life abundant. Once we leave the ROYAL and CASPIAN TERNS behind we see no other birds for the next three hours. Finally Jim Booker calls out BIRD! and we all get on a tern sitting on a piece of floating lumber-its a BRIDLED TERN. Soon after this we start seeing our first of many BAND-RUMPED PETRELS. Then nothing for a couple of hours and then another flurry of activity with three BLACK TERNS, gulls on the water turn out to be a trio of FRANKLIN'S GULLS. We finally see some marine mammals-three ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS leap out of the water in synchrony and a pair of PELAGIC BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS. A MASKED BOOBY approaches the boat and flies right over us chattering. Six hours out we're surprised by a flock of CATTLE EGRETS this far offshore. Heading back to port we come upon another tern and this one is a SOOTY TERN. After twelve hours at sea our last bird of the day appears as we arrive back at South Padre Island a MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD soars above the jetty. I make the drive back to McAllen and meet my friend Greig Crenna from Cambridge, Mass. at the Motel 6.
It's nice to have a birding buddy along and Greig is psyched. We are on our way to the Brownsville NEXRAD radar near the airport at first light. We have only to wait a few minutes to have a nesting pair of TAMAULIPAS CROWS in our bins. Croaking like frogs they fly overhead and land and we watch them engage in a bit of allopreening. Delightful couple. Our next stop is on the way to Boca Chica beach which Greig has heard is good for BOTTERI'S SPARROW. We work the roadside and hear a couple but it take a little more effort to get looks but eventually our effort pays off. Then we're off to Sabal Palm Grove where a MASKED DUCK has been reported. At the visitor center we read that the bird was last seen the day before so we head to that spot and set up our scopes. We spend about a half hour here scoping the resaca. Greig decides to look around a bit. After a while he notifies me via FRS radio that he has the duck in his scope. I grab all my stuff and run for the photo blind. I take the long way as it turns out but when I get there the bird is preening and still in the scope! Bonus bird for our trip. Here at Sabal we also see GROOVE-BILLED ANI, BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD, OLIVE SPARROW, PLAIN CHACHALACA with young, RINGED KINGFISHER, LEAST GREBE, WHITE-TIPPED DOVE and WHITE-EYED VIREO.
Its been a great morning but there's more in store for us at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Lots of exciting stuff has been reported as of late at Willow Lake so without delay we head there. Immediately upon arriving at Willow we hear a TROPICAL PARULA, we find the female first but it takes a while to find the singing male up in the canopy. Hanging from a tree we find a large hanging nest which we focus on and after a fifteen minute wait in flies a female ROSE-THROATED BECARD! Another bonus. A melodious singer around the corner turns out to be a CLAY-COLORED ROBIN. I should point out that it seems YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO are everywhere we go.
Back at the Motel 6 its time for a siesta before heading to Bentsen State Park for a bit of night birding. From the boat ramp on the resaca we see an unseasonal WOOD STORK in the shallows. Overhead we see several pairs of MUSCOVY DUCKS flying (whose origin may be questionable)and a single FULVOUS WHISTLING DUCK, which is a treat after seeing so many BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS over the past few days at various locales. Finally its dark enough and we drive around the loop until we see the eyeshine of a PAURAQUE which flies up next to the car and lands affording nice looks. A very memorable day of birding comes to a close.
This morning we meet Jim Booker at the entrance to Bentsen. I know Jim from his days at the Big Sur Ornithology Lab. These days he's doing point counts for the World Birding Center going in at Bentsen. We start off helping with the point counts by ear, and then we bird the trailer loop where a Yellow-green Vireo was reported two days ago but we have no luck this time. Greig and I head for the Rio Grande trail where another vireo was reported. Suddenly Greig yells for me to look up and right overhead we have a HOOK-BILLED KITE fly over. All right! These guys are nesting at this time and have been pretty secretive. Booker hasn't seen one in several weeks so we are feeling lucky. Along the trail we also see ALTAMIRA ORIOLE, BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHERS and once again run into birders Michael Tarachon and Merce Dostalet from Rockport, TX whose paths we've crossed twice now- on the pelagic and at Santa Ana yesterday. At one point we hear a nearby GREY HAWK, it sounds quite close but we never do get a look at it.
Greig and I have a bit of driving ahead of us so we bid our friends good-bye and start heading upriver. Our next stop is Santa Margarita Ranch where we scope the trees hoping for Red-billed Pigeons but only see several HARRIS' HAWKS and have a SWAINSON'S HAWK fly over. Our next stop at Salineno produces a GREEN KINGFISHER and three immigrants swimming across the river with plastic bags held overhead. Zapata was a wasted stop as they have bulldozed the area behind the library that White-collared Seedeaters used to frequent.
At San Ygnacio someone has a funky little "nature reserve" set up with handwritten signs, makeshift feeders and baths. We pay the obligatory $3 to bird here along the river and find a WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER singing right way and are able to locate it. We bird the area still trying for Red-billed Pigeon but looks like we're going to dip on this one. We continue on up route 83 two and a half more hours to Uvalde and check into the Best Western.
Just a note here regarding the weather. It was hot, usually right around 90 and the humidity high but the daily wind was been a blessing. The time we spent in the Rio Grande Valley was never ghastly or unbearable. I'd was worried about the heat but it wasn't all that bad.
We're up before dawn and on our way from Uvalde to Lost Maples State Park. We're surprised to see hills looming in the distance as most of Texas is level land. Soon we are on the Edwards Plateau and its a relief to be in the woods. Oaks and maples abound, we cross a number of crystal clear rivers, it is quite lovely. We arrive at Lost Maples around 7:30 am and head out on the East trail from the parking lot. I've been worried that finding Golden-cheeked Warblers would be difficult at this late date as they would be post breeding and no longer singing. The first bird we encounter this morning is an INDIGO BUNTING followed by CAROLINA CHICKADEE, BLACK AND WHITE WARBLER and EASTERN PHOEBE. BELL'S VIREO are abundant. We've been walking about 45 minutes when at last I spot our first GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER, the first of many family groups we will see. We keep a watchful eye on the vultures and our vigilance pays off when we see a ZONE-TAILED HAWK. Further up the trail this same bird soars only 20 feet overhead allowing spectacular views, those yellow legs really stand out. At the top of the trail before we begin our descent we encounter several FIELD SPARROWS singing on territory. I don't know it at the time but this bird will turn out to be my 600th ABA area bird. At the bottom of the East trail where it intersects the West trail in the area of the ponds we spend a good amount of time trying to ferret out a Black-capped Vireo but we never do hear or see one.
We dine for lunch at Neal's Lodge near Concan and then get permission to bird on their property. Here we see YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT, SUMMER TANAGER, BLACK-THROATED SPARROW but still no vireo. Back at our hotel we formulate a plan to visit Kerr Wildlife Management Area. We would have liked to visit Kickapoo Cavern State Park but it is currently closed. The chinese food in Uvalde is good. Around sunset I step outside to see that it is raining and see a pair of LESSER NIGHTHAWKS plying the skies in the company of some CHIMNEY SWIFTS.
Up and at it before first light. Kerr is a bit out of our way but not too far. Driving along we see a number of african antelopes and other strange wildlife in the pastures alongside the highway. We turn into the Bobcat Pasture and wait at the gate until 8 am when fortunately someone comes along and tells us this is not where we want to be. Its a few miles further. At the entry is a sign in sheet and kiosk with a map of the best places to look for the vireo. We follow these directions and as soon as we exit the car we hear it singing. It take a bit of time to zero in on it but soon we have it in our bins - BLACK-CAPPED VIREO. We spend a bit of time with the bird and soon are treated to viewing an adult feeding a fledgling. Also here we have a brilliant male PAINTED BUNTING.
Time to hit the highway across a fair chunk of this huge state on I 10. It takes around four and a half hours to get from Kerr to the Davis Mountains. Put the car on cruise control and load a few CDs into the player, there's not a lot ot see crossing the Pecos. Once we reach the town of Ft. Davis we spend an hour trying to find the location in the ABA guide for a pair of nesting Common Black Hawks. NOTE: THE DIRECTIONS IN THE LATEST EDITION OF A BIRDER'S GUIDE TO THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY ARE WRONG. Do not go .8 mi. northeast on 17 but do go .8 mi. west on 118 (towards Davis Mountains State Park)and park at the litter barrel sign and look in the tall cottonwood trees. We had truly great views of the COMMON BLACK HAWKS on the nest, soaring overhead and perched on the boulders across the road. At one point a WESTERN KINGBIRD attacked one of the hawks and actually landed on its back while both are in flight and proceeded to hammer away on the poor raptor. We spent a couple of hours in the evening around dusk searching for Montezuma Quail at the state park but they haven't been seen here since April, the recent rains have dispersed the birds away from water drips and feeding stations thus we are out of luck on this one it seems.
In the evening around 9pm there is a knock on the door. Mike Sylvia and his son Matt have arrived via El Paso. I met both Mike and Greig a couple of years back while on a visit to the Pribilof Islands. Since then they have visited me on the Monterey Bay in California and I have visited them in Massachussets. This time we've met in the middle. At one point in the trip I said something a bit off the wall to Matt and he asked his dad, "Where did you meet this guy?" Mike responded, "On a little tiny island in the middle of the Bering Sea." Just the truth.
We drive the roads in Davis State park before sunrise and then up 118 to the McDonald Observatory but we never do see any Montezuma Quail. We add CASSIN'S KINGBIRD to our trip list as well as CANYON TOWHEE, SCOTT'S ORIOLE, WESTERN SCRUB JAY, SAY'S PHOEBE, HEPATIC TANAGER, WESTERN BLUEBIRD and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK. We have our first real breakfast of the trip at the Indian Lodge in the park which looks very nice and afterward load the cars for the trip to Big Bend National Park.
Somehow we manage to lose track of each other traveling as we are in two separate cars. We finally manage to hook up in the parking lot at the at the store in the Chisos Basin. If you visit Big Bend I strongly recommend staying here. Aside from the fact it is visually quite lovely it is also quite a bit cooler than other parts of the park also you are in proximity to the best birding trails. We rented a stone cabin at Chisos Lodge and it was quite nice. They say it sleeps six but there are three double beds. Greig made reservations about six months in advance.
Once we're all checked into our cabin we hike the Window trail in the early evening before sunset. Our first VARIED BUNTING appears a short ways down the trail from the campground. CANYON and ROCK WRENS are plentiful along this trail. Our real quarry on this hike is further down the trail almost to the end. Here we stake out some blooming agaves and sure enough a female LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD appears. The view out the window at the end of the trail is worth the hike in itself. Back at our cabin we are haunted throughout the night by two ELF OWLS. At one point in the early morning around first light we hear one right outside the cabin. Greig rushes out to get a look but it turns out to be some guy playing a tape!
Today is the day of the big hike to go after Colima Warbler. We opt to go up the Laguna Meadows trail which I would recommend as it is in shaded by a peak for much of the morning. We left the cabin around 6 am and we were in the shade until just befor reaching the summit of the climb. On the way up we see MEXICAN JAYS and decide this might just be the SPOTTED TOWHEE capital of the world as they are ubiquitous along the trail. About 45 minutes out we hear a singing BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW and are able to locate it above the trail and I am happy to finally tick this nemesis of mine. Five minutes later another singer in the top of a pine is our first COLIMA WARBLER perched right out in the open! Two lifers in five minutes doesn't happen very often anymore.
At the top of the climb up we have even better looks at the sparrow and then nice comparative looks at a BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD harassing a BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD. In the vicinity of Laguna Meadows we hear and see a single CRISSAL THRASHER. At Boot Springs we have lunch is the company of some very tame Mexican Jays. We spend some time birding this area and come upon quite a few more Colima Warblers as well as a BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD, the mexican race of HUTTON'S VIREO and CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHER. On the hike down I have a near miss involving a rattlesnake. I hear and see it just before my foot lands on it as it crosses the trial in front of me. I manage an awkward leap over it, fortunately it wasn't coiled up or it would have had me! Our day is a lucky one, a cloud shades our way back to the basin. We had been concerned about the heat on this long day of hiking but ended up being quite comfortable.
This will be my last birding day before heading back home to the Monterey Bay. Mike, Matt and Greig will be driving on to spend a few days in Arizona before ending their trip out west. Mike and Greig are still in need of Gray Vireo. They even hiked the Window trail again last evening after our long 10 mile hike up to Laguna Meadows. Fortunately I saw this bird only last year in the Grand Canyon so I am content to sit on the verandah, sip a cold one and let the birds come to me. So today we hit the window trail once again. Mike has been told by some birders familiar with the area that the birds are there and responsive to taped calls so this time we carry a portable CD and speakers. This is a nice trail especially in the cool morning hours. We see again many of the same birds, we hike beyond the Window itself stopping occasionally to play the song of the Gray Vireo but get no response. On the way back we stop at the same flowering agaves where we had seen the female LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD earlier in hopes of seeing a male. We have a seat on the rocks along the dry stream bed and see the female once again when we hear a singing GRAY VIREO. Mike and I look at each other, "That's it!" Mike sees the bird in some scrub a ways off and then he plays the song and the bird comes right in and lands in a dead tree overhead bursting into song. Mike is one happy guy seeing his nemesis bird so clear and close.
We drive around the park to explore and do a bit of birding but it is a lot hotter out of the basin. The external thermometer on the car reaches a peak of 112 degrees fahrenheit near Rio Grande Village. Without any target birds here I prefer the air conditioned car. We were supposed to check out of our stone cabin and into the motor lodge but when we inquire about another night at the cabin we are told another cabin is available due to a last minute cancellation. First though, we have to check out of the one we're in. Well this seems like a bit of a hassle and we complain a bit. We are told that this particular cabin we will be checking into has the best view of any room in all of Texas. Cabin #103 looks right down the canyon through the Window with the desert on the horizon. And get this, tonight there will be a partial solar eclipse at sunset and the sun will go downs right in the Window! As we sit out on our verandah taking it all in folks come by and congratulate us on getting cabin 103. Turns out you have to reserve this place a year in advance and here we've lucked into it on the night of an eclipse! Incredible.
In the morning we bid good-byes until the next time. I drive to Midland which takes about 3 1/2 hours for my Southwest flight home. In the first two hours of driving at 75 mph I see only three other cars.