Today actually started yesterday. Not possible, you think? Well, it did. Following our early bedtime of 3:00 p.m., our alarm clocks rudely interrupted our sleep at 8:00 p.m. We hurriedly prepared ourselves for the big day, checked out of the hotel, and headed to to closest IHOP for "brinner". Over pancakes, eggs, and bacon, we put the finishing touches on our route.
By midnight, we were driving down a dike at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, meditating every time a rock struck the tailpipe of the van with a musical ting. Number One stopped, and we leaped out of the van and into the muggy night (I did, of course, take the precaution of checking for rattlesnakes, skunks, and dead pigs before jumping out). Common Paraques wheezed from the dark woods - our first bird of the day. A Northern Mockingbird burst out into song unexpectedly. A Chuck-will's-widow perched on a roadside post was a pleasant surprise.
A muffled chuckle coming from a dense stand of trees caught our attention. The bird responsible for this was an Elf Owl. We were excited; this owl, smaller than a coke can, is a tough one to dig out. A second owl whistled nearby - an Eastern Screech-Owl. A Common Nighthawk croaked out its beer call in the distance. Not even an hour had passed, and we were finding some great night birds.
We cruised around some nearby back roads to look for Barn Owls. We stopped several times, trying to squeak one in. At one such stop, I walked to the other end of the van while the others watched for Barn Owls. Suddenly, a ghostly pale bird swooped across the road in front of me. "BARN OWL!! BARN OWL!!" I yelled, but the silent wraith had disappeared into the murk with moth-like wingbeats. No one else saw it. According to the rules, at least two people on the team must see every bird. Barn Owl remained a hole on our checklist. We spent quite a while walking around Bentsen by moonlight, swatting mosquitoes and straining our ears for other night birds.
By three a.m., we headed upriver. We struggled to remain awake as the miles dragged. At least two people had to stay awake in case a Barn Owl flew across the road, while the other two slept (or, as they insisted, "rested their eyes"). By four-thirty we were bumping our way into Santa Margarita Ranch, occasionally slipping by rather ferocious-looking cows. We frequently stopped, listening for Barn Owls and Common Poorwills. We were rewarded with only paraques and mockingbirds. Finally, a Common Poorwill began calling w-a-a-a-y in the distance. You could hear it if you cupped your ears and used your imagination...
We anxiously waited for dawn at Salineno. Slowly, ever so slowly, the blackness began to blend into gray as the night faded into dawn. Suddenly, a raspy screech pierced the darkness. Barn Owl! Everyone heard it, so the little white circle beside Barn Owl on our checklist was filled in with satisfyingly black ink.
As it got lighter and lighter, we picked up more and more species for our list. Our eyes were ever on the river, hoping for certain rare Mexican species. Slowly, this paid off. Red-billed Pigeons showed up, and were quickly followed by both Green and Ringed Kingfishers. A stunning Gray Hawk immigrated from the United States to Mexico. It must be nice, I thought, to be a bird. Borders don't matter. The Rio Grande is just another river, and the south side is much the same as the north side. Mexico was almost a stone's throw away; so close, in fact, that we could hear the Mexican roosters announcing daybreak with gusto. The American roosters crowed back at them. The roosters weren't the only birds calling in Mexico; a Yellow-billed Cuckoo taunted us by calling from somewhere across the river. We never did find one in the United States, so it didn't find its way on to our checklist (only birds found on the US side of the border count for the Great Texas Birding Classic).
We headed to Starr County park next. We had excellent luck here. A couple Clay-colored Sparrows, a great species to find on a big day, were quickly followed by a lone Chipping Sparrow. In short order we found many of the expected brush land species such as Verdin, Cassin's Sparrow, Cactus Wren, Pyrrhuloxia, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. A male Vermilion Flycatcher, very likely the same one we saw yesterday, was still hanging around.
We lucked into a pair of House Finches (don't laugh - they are tough to find in the Lower Rio Grande Valley!), and eagle-eyed Bunting Boy picked out a pair of Bobwhites right alongside the road. We contemplated changing his code name to Bobwhite Boy, but popular vote rejected this.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, our total for the day climbed. We headed down river towards Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, only stopping at Roma Bluffs to find our only Audubon's Oriole and Cave Swallows of the day. After a seemingly endless drive filled with games of word association, lame jokes, and random videos, we arrived at Santa Ana late in the morning. Suddenly, we were in full-alert birding mode. Within five minutes of arriving I spotted a Clay-colored Robin lurking in the brush near the visitor center. We stalked down the trails, hungrily seeking new species. We came through with difficult bird after difficult bird: a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet here, a House Wren there, a Solitary Sandpiper...
Buoyed up with enthusiasm, we rode out of Santa Ana. The next spot was the La Feria Sod Farm. We came, we saw, we conquered. Shorebirds swarmed over the flooded sod. I feasted my eyes on the bonanza; Baird's Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers... all in perfect breeding plumage, scampering about madly. All of these are rare in California. Nearby, on the dry grass, the landlubbers of the shorebird family foraged: Upland Sandpipers (code name: Bug-eyed Grasspiper or Periscope-necked Meadow-Strider).
Suddenly, Number One let slip a gasp reminiscent of a choking elephant. A large shorebird, dwarfing the dowitchers and phalaropes, had dropped out of the sky to a flooded furrow. It couldn't be anything other than a Hudsonian Godwit, with that long, bicolored bill, deep red underparts, and spangled upperparts. A tough bird to find, and definitely a bonus bird for our big day.
We finally tore ourselves away, and doggedly battled traffic through the valley cities. We picked up Long-billed Curlew, Tropical Kingbird, Green Parakeet, and Eastern Wood-Pewee in San Benito without even having to leave the car. Our hopes were pinned on South Padre Island and Route 48.
Route 48 traverses extensive coastal grasslands and wetlands. We easily added many coastal species to our list. We patched up our shorebird list, finding coastal species such as American Oystercatcher, Wilson's Plover, and Sanderling (a major cause for celebration!). I spotted a soaring White-tailed Hawk at sixty miles per hour, and everyone got on it without even having to slow down. As we rolled over the causeway to South Padre Island, we raked the sky and water for birds. This paid off, with our only Brown Pelicans of the day. We stopped and searched the scattered clumps of exotic vegetation right by the entrance to the island. Here, neotropical migrants played hide-and-seek with us while simultaneously trying to keep out of the wind. We added Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, a few warblers here. We raced up to Sheepshead, where we garnered a few more warblers.
Convention Center, Convention Center. The biggest, meanest migrant trap on South Padre Island. Would all those migrants still be there? Would the Least Bitterns show their faces? Would any rarities show up? Would...?
We sprang from the car, scrambling past seat belts, back packs, fellow team members, and other obstacles. We worked the bushes, finding lots of birds: a Cape May Warbler, an Ovenbird, an entire flock of orioles with one blue oriole - whoops, a Blue Grosbeak! I scoped out the flats while everyone else searched out more migrants. A couple Philadelphia Vireos popped out of nowhere, followed by a Blackburnian Warbler. We sprinted down the boardwalk, and Hop quickly pulled a Least Bittern out of nowhere. Ray called us over to look at our first Veery of the day. Then...
"SOOTY TERNS!!! SOOOOOOTTTY TERNS!!!!" Number One bellowed above the howling wind. Sure enough, a pair of raucously-calling Sooty Terns were flying up the beach. A rare bird for Texas, and completely unexpected. Naturally, a life species for me. After they had disappeared and we had recovered from the shock, we continued birding. I wasted about two seconds photographing this cute fledgling Northern Mockingbird.
Light faded. Twenty-four hours isn't very long. We had just about run out of birds to find. No Black-crowned Night-Heron - we looked in vain. We headed back down Route 48 in hopes of finding a Peregrine Falcon, White-tailed Kite, or anything that would be new for our list. Nope. Suddenly, we all realized how tired we were. As darkness crept over the land, we headed back to San Benito where we were staying overnight at Marci and Terry Fuller's house. I collapsed on my cot at some late hour and fell into not sleep but hibernation.
Oh yeah, I forgot to say how many species we got. One hundred and ninety-five. Not bad!