Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Texas, Day Two - 5/1/08
After a fitful night's rest in hotel beds, we arose early and set off to scout other birding spots in the area. The South Padre Island Convention Center was a stone's throw away from the hotel, so of course we stopped there. Some of the first birds to greet us there were the ubiquitous Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. These odd birds have amazingly long, skinny necks, bubble-gum pink legs, and neon red bills. They call to each other in piping whistles, hence the name. A small group was perched on the boardwalk railing, allowing close approach.
Plenty of migrants still swarmed the little patch of brush, including a few species that we missed last night. The boardwalk produced plenty of interesting marsh birds for us. A few Soras with their plump sunflower-yellow bills scurried through the shallow water under the boardwalk. Somehow, someone spotted two Least Bitterns poised motionless the reeds at the edge of the small pond. While we were enjoying them, at least two more Least Bitterns flew across the pond and landed in the open. Talk about Least Bittern heaven!
A bull alligator was floating the the middle of the pond, providing great views. He even started bellowing (that's probably not the correct term...), much to our amazement.
After working the woodlot again, we drove the van out on the adjacent mudflats looking for water birds. Lots of shorebirds, including Sanderling, Piping Plover, Dunlin, and Marbled Godwit, were out and about. A tardy Red-breasted Merganser swam just offshore ("Definitely a bird we'll want to find on Saturday," said Jeff). A large assortment of terns was loafing on the edge of the flats, including these *ahem* Sandwich Terns.
We quickly vacated the island and headed inland. At Bunting Boy's begging, we stopped by Sabal Palms Sanctuary, which turned out to be a good idea. I spotted a Lesser Nighthawk sitting in the middle of the road on the way in. Unfortunately, it was injured. Number One managed to nab it before it got hit again. As we held it and stroked its soft plumage, we marveled at its amazingly complex plumage and its fascinating comb-like claws. Unfortunately, the Audubon Center rehab couldn't take it, so we had to leave it.
The feeding station had large numbers of tame birds foraging at close range in the open - Plain Chachalacas, White-tipped Doves, Green Jays, Bronzed Cowbirds, and even Olive Sparrows. I was glad I shot this mediocre shot of one of the Green Jays, because it was the only Green Jay that cooperated for photography during the entire trip.
The Plain Chachalacas fed brazenly just feet away from the observation deck. As their name implies, they don't have the looks of some of the other nearby tropical species, but they were still fascinating to watch. Their raucous shrieks were fun to listen to!
We tore ourselves away from the feeders to take a look at the resaca (oxbow lake, formerly a part of the Rio Grande but now cut off) to look for other birds. This paid off almost immediately - Least Grebes were everywhere! There were at least twenty of these dwarf grebes on the lake, several within a few feet of the blind! Their tiny size and bright yellow eyes make them very endearing.
As we headed farther inland, we paused by a flooded sod farm, the La Feria Sod Farm. The water pooled up between the furrows was a big draw to migrant shorebirds. Stilt Sandpipers (in full alternate plumage, with chestnut cheeks), Wilson's Phalaropes, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Long-billed Dowitchers foraged at close range. Careful scanning produced other species, including White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Pectoral Sandpiper. We all wished to linger over the beautiful shorebirds, but we had to scout other birding spots.
Our next spot was Estero Llano Grande World Birding Center. We hiked a short distance down some of the trails and found some great birds. A handful of Cave Swallows swooped over the ponds, along with Cliff and Bank Swallows. As I was enjoying looks at my life Green Kingfisher teed up on a snag over one of the lakes, everyone else disappeared. A couple minutes later, I found out why: a day-roosting Common Paraque. We enjoyed great looks at this nocturnal species as it rested on the ground near the trail. We hurried back to the car, but couldn't resist stopping to check out a couple of Groove-billed Anis hanging out next to the trail. We found this rather large and disagreeable-looking lizard basking next to the car in the parking lot. I think it's a Texas Spiny Lizard.
Our next spot was the famed Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. I first started reading about it when I was eight, when I read George Harrison's account of it in Dozen Birding Hotspots. It didn't disappoint! We hiked around the trails, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and tossing tufts of Spanish moss at each other. A few warblers dithered through the trees in the mid-day heat, including the only Bay-breasted Warbler of the trip. Near one of the ponds, a slow, mournful little whistled carol emanated from the Spanish-moss draped woods. Clay-colored Robin! We tip-toed down a small trail towards it.
Unfortunately, the bird proved impossible to spot. It always slipped away just as we came around a corner, or would fall silent and then start singing again farther back in the woods, luring us on. Suddenly, Number One's ears pricked up almost visibly. I had heard it too: a high, whistled peer peer peer peer. I recognized that song from Arizona - Northern Beardless Tyrannulet! We celebrated silently and gave up on the robin. The tyrannulet wouldn't show his face either.
We saw lots of other cool birds at Santa Ana, including Ring Kingfisher, Roseate Spoonbill, Solitary Sandpiper, White-faced Ibis, Least Bittern, and Painted Bunting (sorry again Chris!). This beautiful ribbon snake posed for photos right next to one of the blinds.
As light faded, we wandered around Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park until the Common Paraques and Eastern Screech-Owls started up for the night. A lone Chuck-wills-widow sounded off a few times after dusk. On the walk out of the park (the park is closed to vehicles) we encountered javelinas, tarantulas, and several gopher snakes.
Posted by Neil Gilbert at 10:00 PM