19 December 2018

We were surprised to wake up to fog.  Not sure why we were surprised since we are on the coast of Texas.  We broke camp and headed to Port Aransas to bird one of my favorite spots:  Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center.  I had forgotten the name of this place, but knew the general area.  Texas some years ago produced a series of Texas Bird Trail Maps – really great maps for different Texas regions.  So I looked on the birding map I had for this region, read several descriptions, and selected Site #57. Well it turns out this is Paradise Ponds Nature Center (a site, not a facility) and a new birding spot for us.  Not that there were many birds at this location – it had been hit hard by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Oil platforms getting ready to go out???

Waiting for the “free” ferry to take us to Port Aransas

Paradise Ponds boardwalk

Boardwalk at Paradise Ponds – nothing too “paradise” about the ponds however

Paradise Ponds

We finally found the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center (site #59 on the birding map), parked our car, and walked the paved path only to find a barrier fence.  I guess last year’s hurricane did a number to this birding location and demolished its boardwalks and viewing platforms.  We could still bird the area from the parking lot and from behind the barrier fence with a view of the wetland complex, but we couldn’t get up close and personal with the birds (well as close and personal as birds allow one to get).  We did have 27 species at this location, including 32 Black-crowned Night Herons.   And those were the ones we could see and count.  There was also a large flock of dowitchers, most likely Long-billed Dowitcher.  The birds were too far away for me to try and identify to species.

Construction work going on to replace the boardwalk and viewing platforms lost to Hurricane Harvey

A lot of vegetation was lost too – but most cattails

This site was actually just down the road (across the water treatment plant). There were a lot of shorebirds feeding and roosting here.

While we were there an older gentleman walking with a cane and displaying a press pass approached us.  He introduced himself and flashed his press card.  He told us he works as a photographer for the local newspaper.  He was pretty persuasive, and to get a better photograph, he tore down the barrier to get closer to the contractors doing the restoration work.  He said he was sent out to get a photo and he had to have it.  I surmise the paper is a weekly.  He wanted to take our picture with me looking through our scope and Jack looking through his binoculars at the birds.  We obliged.  We then gave him our name and where we were from (at his request).  We should have asked to have him send us a copy of the paper or give us the date of when the photo might be published.  Guess we can always go online and see if we can find it there.  He was a rather talkative gentleman. He saw my Leica binoculars and Swarovski spotting scope and said, “you must be rich.”  I told him these two things bring me happiness  – the ability to see birds up close and personal.

The Port Aransas area does look much different from when we were last there in early 2017.  We had thought about spending the night at Mustang Island State Park, but decided to move on.  Good thing because when we drove by the park, the campground was empty – thus closed.  The park was undergoing restoration work at the campground.

We slowly made our way to South Padre Island, our destination for the night.  We camped out on the beach.  The cost -$10.00.  The county has a sign that says day-use is $10.00, plus they give you a trash bag and charge you $2.00.  If you bring back the bag full of garbage on the same day you enter the beach they give you back the $2.00.  Since we are staying overnight they didn’t give us a bag.  I glad the tide is going out (although there is much of a tidal difference here), and won’t be coming in again until tomorrow morning about the time we leave.   I get nervous camping on the beach.  I think we could very easily get stuck in the sand.  A friend said to walk on the area we want to camp/park to make sure the sand is firm before parking.  Great idea.  Of course he told this to us after we camped here.

Before arriving at South Padre Island we did make one birding stop: Zapata Memorial Bridge/San Martin Lake, located on Highway 48E.  The lake is a popular fishing/boating site, but has a great tidal area (think mud flats).  This is one of my favorite birding spots for shorebirds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  We had 28 species here, including 11 species of shorebirds: Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, American Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Dowitcher sp (most likely Short-billed dowitcher), Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, and Greater Yellowlegs.  We also had at least 28 Black Skimmers.  Before we left I picked up a lot of discarded fishing line, and I did not see a monofilament line receptacle.  Dang.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

Black-necked Stilt

Beach area near parking lot.  There is fence to keep people from driving on this area.

Ruddy Turnstone

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher trying to find food

Great-tailed Grackles are a nuisance at the parking area. Of course it doesn’t help that people toss food to them. They then become aggressive.

This one was wanting us to give him food

We saw this Harris’s Hawk nearby

Tomorrow we are going to try for the Aplomado Falcon, our nemesis bird for this area.  The bird recently has been spotted at the Aplomado Falcon viewing station so that is where we are going to go and hang out – timing is everything.  However, tomorrow is supposed to be very windy (windy in excess of 20 mph), so if we don’t see the bird we will have to come back and try for it again.  Starting tomorrow we will be staying in a rented small cottage-style trailer/modular home for the next six nights.  We are looking forward to some stability during the Christmas holidays, although I do have a list of birding hotspots to check out for each of the next five days – except Christmas.  That day we will stay at the rental and take it easy.  Will seem odd to be out of our ‘tin tent’ for awhile.

Our camp spot on the beach. Just pull over anywhere above the high tide line.  You can even find large RVs on the beach.

20 December 2018

We woke up to a van still in the dry sand – yay!  The wind and waves hadn’t picked up much yet.  However, it was windy enough that we decided to go out to breakfast – any excuse.  We had planned to bird at the South Padre Island Birding Center so we decided breakfast before birding.  However, there weren’t a lot of breakfast diner choices – if you didn’t want fast food that is. We stopped at “Ted’s Restaurant.  My advice, pick another restaurant for breakfast.

We spent two hours birding the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.  This is a non-profit organization created by South Padre Island’s (the town) Economic Development Corporation to provide residents and visitors with interpretive programs and tours, and environmental education pertaining to birds of the area.  It is one of “nine” World Birding Centers located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  The other eight birding centers are:

The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center provides over 3,300 feet of boardwalk (you experience a fresh and salt marsh with alligators no less), 5 birding blinds, and a five story observation tower.  Oh and I can’t forget – a gift store.  A very well-managed facility.

Despite the windy day (winds over 15 mph here), there were a number of people visiting the center.  We got there around 8:30 a.m., (they open at 7:00 a.m), paid our entrance fee, and began birding.  We met a man who with his wife spend their life traveling in a RV.  They said they were heading west and learned we are from Alaska.  They had several Alaska stories – they love Hyder and Homer, Alaska.

Our goal here today was to see Sora Rails.  The last time we were here we had at least 5 of them just off the boardwalk.  Today none.  We did get to see a Clapper Rail as it walked in the water right below the boardwalk.  Got great views, but the lighting wasn’t so great for photos.  We also had an Anhinga that must have stabbed at something and came away with a piece of plastic wrapped tight around its bill so it was unable to eat or drink.  I guess it has been that way for at least two days.  When we saw it the poor bird was trying to rid itself of the plastic.  When it shook it beak, I noticed the plastic loosened, but it didn’t do this enough to dislodge the plastic.  And if it tries rubbing it off by moving its beak against the side of an object (like a sign), that merely pushes the plastic further up its bill.  Center staff were notified of the bird’s problem and have been trying to capture the bird, but that is proving to be difficult.  The bird needs immediate attention so hopefully they will capture it and take it to a bird rehab facility.

South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center

Headquarters building

Like their mail box

Texas Hummingbird Feeder

Some of that 3,000 feet of boardwalk

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Looking down on a Clapper Rail

Roseate Spoonbill and Black-necked Stilt

Reddish Egret

Feral Pigeon (Rock Pigeon)

Mottled Duck

Tricolored Heron

Spotted Sandpiper

Blue-winged Teal – male

So I’ve told you my views regarding plastic waste – when we walk the beach we are disgusted by the waste and people’s lack of stewardship.  Please, please, please dispose of plastic in the trash or better yet – recycle or avoid plastic altogether.  If you can’t stop using it altogether (difficult in this day and age), then just stop using plastic bags, straws,  and products with excess packaging.

On the sightings board (list of birds seen at the center) was a Black-headed Grosbeak.  This is a rarity for this area.  One of the photographers on the boardwalk mentioned where it was seen earlier that morning (at the center pond in the parking lot), so when we had completed our visit on the boardwalk, we went to the parking lot to look for the bird.  Another photographer (the guy who loves Hyder and Homer), told us where he had photographed it earlier that morning.  So we walked slowly around the parking area looking for the bird.  Jack and Ty (the photographer) were talking about Hyder when I saw the bird fly past us towards the center pond.  So off I went.  The bird – a beautiful male – landed in a yucca plant and proceeded to eat the bright purple fruits of a vine.  We stayed and watched the bird for about 10 minutes.  Its beak became quite reddish-purple at times from the juice of the fruits.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

With a berry in its bill

Which caused some staining

We then left the center and made our way to the Aplomado viewing area, a parking lot just off Highway 100 and part of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge-Bahai Unit.  Access to the refuge is restricted so “viewing” is from the parking lot to a distant view of a platform.  It was on this platform (see photo) that we finally (after several attempts over the years) got to see the Aplomado Falcon (a life bird for us).  We didn’t have great views, but we did see enough of the bird through our spotting scope to be able to identify the bird as a Aplomado Falcon, despite the strong winds (~20 miles per hour).  We are in the area for another 5-6 days so we may come back this way again when it isn’t so windy.  Other people have had closer views of the bird so always worth a try to see if the bird is around.

Pretty bleak – where is a falcon to perch?

Jack looking at the falcon

The falcon was on the platform

We made a quick stop at a H.E.B. grocery store in Mercedes, TX on our way to our rental for the next six nights.  This store is in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and we now know what it is like to be a minority.  A few people looked at us strange, but everyone else was friendly.

We are staying six nights at a small, gated RV resort park in a small one-bedroom manufactured home.  The park – Victoria Palms RV Resort (in Donna Texas) – has almost everything you could want for entertainment:

  • Crafts Center,
  • Pentanque (lawn game),
  • Boccca Ball,
  • Tennis, Pickleball and Basketball Courts
  • Post Office
  • Dog Run
  • Horseshoes
  • Heated Pool and Spa
  • Ballroom
  • Activities Lounge (TV, Piano, Fireplace)
  • Recycle Dumpsters
  • Hotel and Suite
  • Restaurant
  • Fitness Center
  • Recycling

This RV Resort is restricted to seniors (55+ and older) so I am sure it gets mostly snowbirds and is probably not so busy in the summer.  But who knows?  We saw a lot of license plates from Ontario.  If you want to buy a lot for your manufactured home or your RV, they conduct a background check.  They don’t want just anyone in their park.  The only “park related” activity we participated in was the Friday Night Fish Fry – all you can eat.  I think I was the youngest person there and I qualify as a senior here.

Our rental

Our place is quite nice.  We rented it through Airbnb, and the price was reasonable: $40 per night (before the add-ons: Service Charge, Cleaning Fee, and Taxes – but still reasonable).  Although I noticed that the price has gone up to $60.00 per night.  I think that is because January starts the “high season” for Texas.  We were glad it was available at this time of year.  It is centrally located to the various birding areas we want to visit.

21 December 2018

We spent the day birding Estero Llano Grande State Park, my all-time favorite birding spot in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  We got there around 8:50 a.m., and stayed until 3:30 p.m.  This is a fee park (all Texas State Parks have per person day-use fees) so we went to the visitor center to show them our Texas state park pass and get our wrist bands.  The lake in front of the visitor center had an estimated (my estimation) 500+ Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  And we saw at least another 1,500 on the Llano Grande River (or is it more like a slough?).  Amazing to see so many whistling ducks this year.  Ironically the lake is called Ibis Lake, but alas no Ibis.

We were told that several weeks’ prior the entire lake was covered with Black-bellied Whistling Ducks – an estimated 5,000+ of them.  Unfortunately, even with the fewer number of BBWD in the park, they tend to keep many other ducks away.  We did see a few Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and Green-winged Teal.  But not in the numbers normally seen here at this time of year.  We also saw a single Fulvous Whistling Duck at another pond.  This is a FOY (First of Year) bird and one we haven’t seen since we were at this park in 2014, and we have visited at least once since then.  I wish we could have seen more than just the one.  And it was too far away to get a decent photo.

World Birding Center building

Squirrel in a tree wondering if it can come to the feeders for food

A few Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

And a few more crowded on the boardwalk

With a few here sharing a log with turtles

Altamira Oriole

Harris’s Hawk

Kingbird – ah but which one? The Tropical and Couch’s are hard to tell apart unless you hear their call.

Spotted Sandpiper

Great Kiskadee

Least Grebe – this one was the only bird in the “Grebe Pond”

Anhinga hanging out (or should I say drying out) at Alligator Lake

Not much water in this pond, but there were actually quite a few ducks at the far end

Nice wide trails

And shrubby vegetation

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Alligator Lake

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

At this park there are Common Pauraque (hate the term ‘Common’ applied to a birds’ name).  We’ve seen them each time we’ve visited the park.  We now know where to look for them (Alligator Lake), so off we went.  Sure enough Jack spotted one of the birds – there is usually a pair present.  These birds feed at night, so they roost during the day.  They camouflage well, but Jack’s eagle eyes were able to spot several of the birds.  We had a gentleman from Ontario come by.  He asked if we saw the two birds.  At that point we had only seen one so we told him we had seen just the one.  He then tried valiantly to get us on other bird, only to realize that was the bird we had been looking at already.  So he then showed us the second bird, which was located quite close.  We moved along the trail and soon spotted a third Pauraque.

Common Pauraque

In total, for the great day, we saw 69 different species – certainly one of our best birding days this trip.  Like I said, I love this place.  We had 15 FOYs (First of Years):

  • Tropical Kingbird
  • Plain Chachalaca
  • White-tipped Dove
  • Green Jay
  • Fulvous Whistling Duck
  • Long-billed Thrasher
  • Common Pauraque
  • Least Grebe
  • Altamira Oriole
  • Olive Sparrow
  • Black-chinned Hummingbird
  • Gray Hawk
  • Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Summer Tanager

None of these birds are life birds.  We’ve seen all of them before.  But every bird is a great bird.

The park recently constructed a new bird blind in the “tropical area” of the park.  At this blind we observed four different hummingbird species:  Black-chinned Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  We also saw other great birds in the tropical area of the park – even during the afternoon.  Cool and shady here.

New Bird Blind

Slats your can pull down to look out

Rufous Hummingbird (female)

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Olive Sparrow

Black-crested Titmouse

Plain Chachalaca

Female Summer Tanager

White-tipped Dove

Green Jay – my favorite Jay

Yes, totem poles in the tropical area

It truly was a hummer of a day

22 December 2018

Another cool morning, but that just makes birding a little more enjoyable than hot days.  We went to an old favorite (okay we’ve been here only twice before) – Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center.  Since the restrooms were closed (plumbing problem) we got into the nature preserve for free (generally $3.00 per person).  We did however, visit the gift store and bought a few items so they did make some money off of us.

This is a great place if you want to see all three kingfishers:  Green, Belted, and Ringed.  And our timing was right, we got to see all three of the kingfishers.  Of course it helped that a Peregrine Falcon was swooping back and forth over the lake/pond.  This caused the kingfishers, more than any other birds, to flush.  There is no mistaking the Ringed Kingfisher.  It is so much bigger and bolder looking than the other two, with its hard to miss red breast and large bill.  And we actually observed two Green Kingfishers.  Sweet!!!

In addition, we also saw a number of songbirds, including a Clay-colored Thrush.  We’ve only seen this bird at the Bentsen State Park (Texas).  Nice to see this bird elsewhere.  We also saw several Inca Doves, which are FOYs (First of Years).  In all, we spent almost three hours here and saw a total of 43 species.  In 2017, we saw a Tropical Parula here.  A rare bird for the area.  So you never know what you might find at this birding hotspot.

Bird blind

Narrow paths through thick vegetation. Not easy birding.

Plain Chachalacas

Green Jay at the feeder

Viewing Platform

One of the ponds

Jack checking out the birds

American White Pelican and Great Blue Heron

American White Pelican

Black-necked Stilt

Green Kingfisher

Adult Black-crowned Night Heron

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

We made a quick stop at a nearby Dollar Tree store so I could buy a cheese grater.  I want to make my scones and I grate the butter for easy mixing.  Since it cost only a $1.00 I will probably leave the grater at our rental.  The dollar type stores certainly have a very interesting mix and style of merchandise and are found everywhere.

Our final birding stop for the day was the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center. This hotspot is located along the U.S. and Mexico border.  There is a wall at this section of the border and there were border patrol staff patrolling the area, despite the partial government shutdown.

We walked around a lake/pond – approximately 1.0 mile in length.  Despite the heat, we did see a total of 21 species, including several dozen Green Monk Parakeet (non-native species, but still fun to see) and Couch’s Kingbird.  Both birds are First of Year species.  Generally, the Tropical and Couch’s Kingbird are hard to distinguish, except for their call.  I played the call for both birds so I would be able to tell the difference (if there was any) between the kingbirds we saw.  Surprisingly, what I thought were Tropical Kingbird turned out to be Couch’s Kingbird – they returned my call so I got a positive ID and learned two new bird calls.

Hidalgo Pumphouse – World Birding Center

Viewing Platform

The “Wall” – spikes and all

The viewpoints are not well maintained

Lots of tall grass and shrubby vegetation. Great places for birds to hide. And since this isn’t the breeding season, you rarely hear them, let alone see them.

Couch’s Kingbird – based on call

(Green) Monk Parakeet

Love the colorful bus. Not sure its purpose.

The community of Hidalgo, essentially 99% Hispanic, really knows how to do up Christmas.  There were elaborate light displays everywhere , many in the shapes of all different kinds of animals (including an armadillo) and objects (space crafts).  The lights are up from November 30 until December 31st.  And they create and display objects like the world’s largest killer bee, placing them around different commercial enterprises, public spaces, and government buildings.  They were also setting up a small carnival with a sound stage (loud).  Many of the area homes were also highly decorated.  I bet it all is a beautiful sight at night.

23 December 2018

Today we went to Bentsen State Park, another World Birding Center.  The morning started out warm and just got hotter.  I made three mistakes on this birding expedition: (1) no water, (2) no water, and (3) no water.  I know better, or maybe I don’t, since I’m not used to hot weather, and I’ve never been good at keeping my body hydrated.  Hopefully I won’t make that mistake tomorrow.  Our intent is to go to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

When we got to the parking lot, we stopped to check out some small songbirds on the ground.  Turns out they were House Finches, which are rare for this area.  And we had at least 25 of them, plus three Lark Sparrows.  Also in the parking lot where four Plain Chachalacas, of which two were being harassed by a Northern Mockingbird.  I’m not sure why the mockingbird kept going after the Chachalacas.  The poor Chachalacas were just trying to eat.  And speaking of Chachalacas, we had 34 for the day and of those 17 were at one bird blind – they tend to overwhelm a feeding station (the park has several bird feeder stations).

We stopped at the Visitor Center – this is a fee park – and got our wrist straps/badges.  Since we have a Texas Annual Park pass we save $10.00 (the entrance fee of $5 per person).  We then began our walk through the park.  The park used to have camping so there are established roads through the park versus just trails.  As we were walking down the road a guy on a bike came by blaring his 70s music.  Now I like 70s music, but not while I’m out birding.  He passed by us about 5-6 different times.  Annoying and oblivious to our birding.

Just before we got to one of the bird blinds, a juvenile Gray Hawk swooped down and tried to pick off a bird.  We were blocked by the blind so we missed seeing what interested the hawk.  We did, however, hear a terrible racket.  I was surprised when the hawk flew up into a nearby tree empty taloned.  When we got to the blind we saw three Javelins’ (Peccaries).  That may have been what made the terrible noise, or it could have been scared Chachalacas, Green Jays, White-tipped Pigeon, or something else entirely that fled/escaped.  We stayed and watched the birds and Javalinas feeding for 15-20 minutes.  The Javalinas would occasionally bare their teeth at each other – in defense of food.   We also went to the hawk viewing platform, but nary a bird to be seen.

Part of the World Class Birding Center at Bentsen State Park

I like this light shade

Inca Doves at one of the many feeder stations in the park

Plain Chachalacas

Green Jay

Black Phoebe

This park used to allow driving so most of the “trails” are the old roads

The day use area – along a river so one can fish if one so desires

Trail to the Hawk Observation Tower

Hawk Observation Tower ramp

Gray Hawk (Immature)

White-tipped Dove

Javelina – Collared Peccary (not a pig)

Not sure why this Plain Chachalaca was fanning its tail

We got three new First of Years at the park:  Black Phoebe, Lark Sparrow, and Verdin.  In total we saw 40 different species.  Not too bad, but not as good as I hoped.  Definitely not on par with Estero Llano Grande State Park where we had 69 different species.  We may go back to Estero Llano Grande State Park again on Christmas Day.  Nothing like the blessings of birding to start a Christmas Day.

24 December 2018

Today we went birding at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  I think this is at least our fourth visit to this refuge.  The refuge was open, but not staffed (no restrooms, visitor center) because of the partial government shutdown.  We did see one USFWS staff person (law enforcement).  We also saw several Border Patrol officers – three on bikes, and one vigilantly watching from a vehicle.  This refuge is the one that has been in the news regarding the border wall and the fact that people down here don’t want the wall, especially through the refuge.  There is a dike and I suspect this would be where they put the wall.  The dike would essentially cut off the main portion of the refuge from the parking lot and visitor center.  Like Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary (Texas), there would probably be an access gate.  A wall would be a serious detriment to wildlife, especially mammals.

Santa Ana refuge sign

I must say that in the Pintail Ponds there were a lot less ducks and waders than we’ve seen in previous visits.  Luckily the Willow Lakes had sufficient ducks and shorebirds to satisfy us.  The trails seemed very hard packed, as though it hadn’t rained in a long while.  We wonder what the summer will be like.   We were told that by May the heat index is commonly 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite today being Christmas Eve and the partial government shutdown, there were a number of visitors to the refuge.  Probably didn’t hurt that since it was closed there was no fee charged, as this is one of a number of refuges that charge a user fee.  Being as Jack has a senior pass, we get into the refuge for free regardless.  I sure love the pass.

Okay, onto the birds.  To me it seemed as though the birding was slow, although surprisingly we saw a total of 73 different species – our best day yet for the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Of course it helps that we had at least eight duck species.  Somehow we missed the Wood Ducks that two other birders mentioned seeing.

Jack checking out the birds

In the grasslands we had meadowlarks, flycatchers, sparrows, and pipits.

This pond was a little dry – although there was at least one shorebird there (Least Sandpiper)

Mexico across the river (Rio Grande River)

Now this is a low growing tree – vertically challenged. Notice how dry the trail is.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Trail maintenance needed

At Willow Lakes  we had a variety of shorebirds – the largest group being Long-billed Dowitchers – about 80 in my estimation.  There were also lots of Black-necked Stilt, one American Avocet, two Wilson’s Snipe, one Solitary Sandpiper, at least two Stilt Sandpiper, and lots of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.  Nice to see all the shorebirds.   Earlier near Pintail Lake we had about 30 Least Sandpiper.   The Stilt Sandpiper was a First of Year (FOY).  Looking through the scope (as the birds were some distance off) I noticed two birds were different from the yellowlegs and the dowitcher.  The birds had a longish bill and yellowlegs, gray upper body, white lower body, so that ruled out Dunlin, which is what I suspected at first.  Dunlin have black legs. I dismissed the birds as I wasn’t sure what they were.  Stilt Sandpiper never came to mind since we rarely see them.  As I was talking to another birder about 15 minutes later, he asked if I had seen the Stilt Sandpipers.  When I checked out my field guide, sure enough that is what I had seen.

Observation platform

Willow Lake

Northern Pintail (male)

Great Kiskadee

Checking out the birds on the pond/lake through a viewing blind

Blue-winged Teal (male and female)

Supposedly the Hook-billed Kite likes the snails, like the ones on this tree branch

We stayed at the refuge for about four hours and then came back to our rental to just relax and enjoy the afternoon.

I told Jack some year we should rent a place – maybe the one we are in now – and stay here a month and just bird all these same places again and again.   I don’t think I would ever get enough.  Texas does a great job promoting birding hot spots and birding events.  I do know I want to come visit early-April to early-May to catch some of the spring migrants.


25 December 2018

Merry Christmas to All

We decided to begin Christmas Day by birding at my favorite birding area in the Lower Rio Grande Valley – Estero Llano Grande State Park.  We got there around 9:30 a.m.  It was cool, overcast, and windy.  Despite the conditions, we did see 57 different species for the morning.  Of course with another two hours of birding we might have seen 12 additional species to bring us up to par with the number of species we observed last time we visited the park – four days ago.

Same boardwalk that several days ago had probably a hundred Black-bellied Whistling Ducks hanging out

Today, just a single Black-bellied Whistling Duck

White-tailed Kite – we saw three


Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Bench at Alligator Lake

Well used bench – at least by birds

The only new species we saw today, and a First of Year (FOY), was an Eastern Screech Owl.  Woohoo!!!  I had hoped to see this species at Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, but didn’t.  So finding one today – with the help of a park volunteer – was great.  We also saw the Common Pauraque again.  This time we had a more difficult time finding them.  They always seem to be in this small island of vegetation (trails on all sides), near Alligator Lake.  We went around the circle once not seeing them, but on the second time around two were spotted.  Jack said to look for the yellow lines on their bodies.  Later, the park volunteer showed us another Common Pauraque roosting in the “Tropical Area”.  Sure enough, there was the bird.  I found it easily, but Jack (my Common Pauraque finder) could not for the life of him see the bird as it blended so well with the ground.  After about 3-4 minutes, he found the bird – an “ah ha” moment.  Once you see them they really ‘pop out’ and you wonder how you missed it.

Building with roosting Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

This is the habitat at Alligator Lake you check out for the Common Pauraque – good luck

Can you see the Common Pauraque?

Not easy is it

We spent about an hour at the new bird blind where we saw a lot more activity today than we did four days ago, although today we only saw two hummingbird species, not four like the previous time.  The bonus was a female Summer Tanager that spent a lot of time at the feeders.  I also think, I saw a female Hooded Oriole, but the bird flew away too fast for me to identify with certainty, and it never returned.  Dang.  It is nice to have a place you can sit and watch the birds without them being scared off by your presence – so long as you don’t talk or make sudden movements.

New Bird Blind in the Tropical Area

Anna’s Hummingbird (female)

Long-billed Thrasher …

… now feeding at an elevated feeding station …

…and even hopping into the caged area

I love how on this male Golden-fronted Woodpecker the area just above the bill is “golden”, the crown is “red” and the nape is “orange”.  Such a colorful head.

Female Northern Cardinal

Male Northern Cardinal

Inca Dove

White-tipped Pigeon

Yellow-rumped Warbler taking a bath

Female Summer Tanager

Today we did see the alligator that inhabits Alligator Lake.  This alligator is good sized – okay humongous.  A guy we spoke to  claims it was at least 24 feet long last year when he was here, and he suspects it has grown another two feet.  Now that would be one for the record books – a 26-foot alligator.   The current record is 15 feet, nine inches.  But, it is Texas.

We returned to our rental and just enjoyed the rest of Christmas Day reading and eating.  I did buy a small turkey breast for Christmas.   And, Jack was happy to get pum, pum, pumpkin pie.

26 December 2018

We packed up our belongings and left the Victoria Palm’s rental around 9:00 a.m., and headed back to the levee near Bentsen State Park to look for the Hook-billed Kite.  I was hoping someone else would be there so we would know where to look, where to go.  We got our wish.  There was a fellow birder than had been there since around 8:00 a.m. – so two full hours before us.  He hadn’t seen the Kite yet.  We decided to give ourselves one-hour before heading onward.  The hour came and went without a sighting of the Kite.  We did, however, see four Groove-billed Ani.  This was a good find, and a First of Year for us.  Thank-you birder from Michigan who first spotted the Ani.

Groove-billed Ani

If you look close enough you might be able to make out the actual “grooves” on its bill

In the middle of the photo is a tree. This is the tree favored by the Hook-billed Kite – except while we were there.

Savannah Sparrow

We drove to Salineno Wildlife Preserve to visit the USFWS bird feeding station maintained by volunteers.  Mr and Mrs. DeWild, from Iowa, are in their 9th year of volunteering at the feeding station.  We first met Mr. DeWild in 2014, and visited again in 2017. The DeWild’s spend about 5 ½ months here as volunteers.  Nice to have the continuity and dedication.

The feeders (crushed corn, sunflower seed, and cornmeal/peanut butter spread around the area) attract Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Orioles (Altamira, Audubon’s, and Hooded), Red-winged Blackbird, Northern Cardinal, Orange-crowned Warbler, House Sparrow, White-tipped Dove, Long-billed Thrasher to name a few.  We always enjoy our visit here.   Since we got here in the afternoon, and it was windy, there wasn’t much activity – mostly Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, and Red-winged Blackbird.  We heard we had missed a Zone-tailed Hawk. Double Dang.  Would love to have seen that bird.

Great Kiskadee – they have very loud calls

Altamira Oriole

I love the use of a hubcap as a birding feeder – here being used by a male Northern Cardinal.  Good way to “reuse” an item so it doesn’t go into a landfill or become trash alongside the road.

Red-winged Blackbirds. There were plenty of these birds around.

Green Jay

There is also a rough road along the Rio Grande River you can walk in search of birds.  We did this as well, looking for the Morelet’s Seedeater.  We did not see the seedeater, but we did have a Vermillion Flycatcher (always nice), five Kingbirds (most likely Couch’s as Tropical usually don’t get this far north ), Lincoln’s Sparrow (my favorite sparrow), woodpeckers, gnatcatchers, and an Osprey.

Rio Grande River just a short distance from the Salineno Preserve

This is the road we took in search of the seedeater

Couch’s Kingbird is the predominant kingbird in this area.

We come back again tomorrow to check out the feeders and look for the seedeater.  I am  hoping to see the seedeater, an Audubon’s Oriole, and a Zone-tailed Hawk.  A nice trifecta of birds.

Our campground for the night is Falcon State Park, which is located along Falcon Dam/Reservoir.  We will spend two nights here.  We lucked out and got our favorite site #131 (although Site #112 wouldn’t be too bad either).  Of course we are as far away from the restrooms as your can possibly get.  That might be why there isn’t anyone next to us yet.  I’m surprised the campground isn’t full as one whole loop is closed for repairs to the utility system.   While setting up camp, we had an adult and young Javalina casually walk through our campsite.  Pretty cool.

Our campsite at Falcon State Park

27 December 2018

Today we returned to the Salineno Wildlife Preserve or what is known as DeWild’s Yard (they stay in their RV – 5th wheel trailer) in Salineno.   The feeding area is part of land purchased by a land trust and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The feeding station is operated seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The DeWild’s also manage an adjacent butterfly garden.  They said a recent frost wiped out the flowers and most of the butterflies moved on.   The area doesn’t attract many hummingbirds when the flowers are gone so no hummingbird feeders were out. To offer the DeWild’s a break, there is another host that helps out – Michael from Colorado.

We arrived at the feeding station around 8:30 a.m. hoping (and failing) to see the Audubon’s Oriole.  I understand the Oriole was seen a couple times before we arrived.  We stayed for 1.5 hours, and then went in search of the Morelet’s Seedeater, a Mexican bird, that has been seen in the area.  We searched yesterday and did not find it.  Nor did we find it today.  What we did find or I should say what we “attracted” was a Border Patrol agent.  They seem to know when there are warm bodies in the area.  I think they are used to people going to the feeding station, but beyond that, not so much, especially when we walk along the Rio Grande River and wave across the river to Mexico – sure hope this area is not spoiled by a wall.  Yesterday we had two Boarder Patrol boats with gun-toting agents come roaring down the river checking us out.

Our morning excursion to the feeding station and river garnered a total of 20 species.

This is where the birds are fed.

Michael was scaring off the blackbirds and putting more food out for the other birds

We had a lot of White-winged Doves

Altamira Oriole

They love the peanut butter/cornmeal mix

Golden-fronted Woodpecker – female

Red-winged Blackbird – male

Even the butterflies like the fruit

Here a Green Jay is on the hubcap feeder

After we birded the river area and not finding any new birds, we went back to the feeding station and stayed until noon.  Again, no show on the Audubon’s Oriole while we were gone or after we returned.  Earlier in the morning we did get a Zone-tailed Hawk and Gray Hawk that flew over.  We also had a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was interested in the birds at the feeder and came swooping through.  He didn’t catch anything while we were there.

What is interesting to note is the Green Jay (my favorite Jay species – so colorful) is the first to come back to the feeder after the birds have all scattered, and many times they scatter when a Green Jay squawks.  The preferred food by the majority of birds is peanut butter mixed with corn meal – a good high-energy winter food.  This mixture is put out throughout the day.  So there are always some birds around snacking.

After birding Salineno we returned to Falcon State Park, had lunch, and then walked around on the roads and various trails in search of the Greater Roadrunner and Cactus Wren.  Both birds were no-shows.  We did see the Pyrrhuloxia (we call it the pyrex bird), a bird that looks similar to the female Northern Cardinal.  In all we had 35 species at the park.  Not a bad day of birding considering we didn’t have a single duck species.

Falcon State Park has a butterfly garden

Yes, this is a trail – rocky

This trail is much smoother

Fruit on the cactus

More thick, dense vegetation. Makes birding harder for sure.

Falcon reservoir

We actually had some birds through this area

Tomorrow we continue our journey and head to the Amistad National Recreation Area to camp and bird.

28 December 2018

Today was a travel day.  We left Falcon State Park around 8:00 a.m.  As we were leaving our campground loop we saw a bobcat cross the road in the distance.  This is our first bobcat sighting of the trip.  Gotta love those cats.

The trip was pretty uneventful – sort of desolate, desert landscape.  To keep occupied (and awake) as the scenery was pretty monotonous, I counted raptors seen from our van as we traveled along the way:  32 Crested Caracara, 34 Red-tailed Hawks, 14 Harris’s Hawk, 15 American Kestrel (although I think there may have been more, but these birds are much smaller and when you’re going by at 65+ miles per hour, its not always easy to detect the bird), and one Northern Harrier.

About 30 miles or so before arriving in Carrizo Springs, we started seeing a whole lot of fracking going on, which we didn’t see when we were by this way almost two years ago.  They’ve done a lot in that short period of time.  We didn’t see any raptors in this area.

We did go through one border patrol checkpoint.  Instead of seeing 6-8 border patrol agents as is common, we only saw two, including one with a K-9 dog.  He, the dog, sniffed our van.  If commercial truckers are caught with illegal drugs or illegal immigrants, they can lose their CDL – commercial driver’s license.  To date (not sure when it started), 662 drivers have lost their licenses.  I wonder if that is really a true number?  If could just be a ploy to keep drivers on the straight and narrow – keep them honest.  Who knows?

We arrived at our destination for the night – Governor’s Landing campground at Amistad National Recreation Area.  Amistad National Recreation Area is managed by the National Park Service (NPS), which is affected by the partial government shutdown.  However, the NPS is essentially leaving all their parks open, they just aren’t providing any services.  Here we get to continue to use the vault toilets, but better bring your own toilet paper.  They are not replenishing toilet paper.  Also the water is turned off as they are not maintaining the water system.  These sites don’t have electricity anyway, so that isn’t an issue.  We prepared for the lack of water so are in good shape, and we have plenty of toilet paper.

I wonder how many people here are actually paying to stay.  No enforcement.  We paid our $4.00 for the night.  Since this is a federal facility we get our 50% discount.  We got here around 2:30 p.m., so we birded the campground and day-use area.  It wasn’t too birdy, although we did get 18 species.  I did see two Chihuahuan Ravens today – a First of Year (FOY), plus several new birds for Texas (at least on my eBird list, although not FOYs).  For Texas we’ve seen 190 different bird species in 21 days.

Our campsite at Governor’s Landing – Amistad National Recreation Area

Amistad Reservoir

Rock Wren

29 December 2018

We always seem to be moving forward on the edge of a storm trying to stay ahead of the nasty weather.  Here at the campground we woke to overcast skies, winds, and temperatures in the low 40s.  We read for a couple of hours and then decided to brave the wind and venture out and see if any birds were moving about.  We drove to Spur Road 406 and checked out the campground there.  Not much of a campground, think pull-offs from the road.  We did see two campers, but one left before we came back through the camping area (we went to the closed boat launch area).  We did see a total of 19 species, none of which were First of Years, but several that were first for Texas on this trip: Say’s Phoebe, Canvasback, and Vesper Sparrow.

We came back to the campground and just hung out reading until it was time to drive into Del Rio (about 15 miles away) to catch a movie (warmth & popcorn).  We decided on a chick flick.  Jack just wanted the popcorn.  The movie was mindless entertainment and we were warm.  Afterwards we went to a Vietnamese restaurant that I would not recommend.

I think there used to be boat launching from this area

Jack scoping out the birds on the reservoir – looking for the Canvasbacks


Loggerhead Shrike. These guys are such possers.

Vermillion Flycatcher. How can you NOT love this bird?

Vesper Sparrow

30 December 2018

Hard to believe the year is almost over.  We woke to a cold (low 40s), windy, overcast day.  Today is travel day – a long travel day (400+ miles).  We want to make it to Arizona by tomorrow night to avoid another cold spell that is suppose to hit parts of southern New Mexico.  I had hoped to go to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico), but will need to save that for another day.

The reason for avoiding snow is I don’t know how our vehicle will handle the snow, and I don’t trust other drivers who think they can handle the snow and don’t slow down.  When the speed limit is 75 miles per hour even on non-interstate highways, that’s just a little to fast for me even under normal conditions.  Now if I had a sporty little car with winter snow tires…

We traveled a good portion of the day on Highway 90 North to west Texas.  Not a lot of traffic, which I like.  We did see some ‘highway birds’ –mostly raptors (Hawks, Harrier, Kestrels) and a few Loggerhead Shrikes.  Probably too cold for the other birds to be out and about.   I did get a First of Year bird with several sightings of Ferruginous Hawks.  A nice bird to add to my list.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginious Hawk

The dirt road on the side of the highway is used by Border Patrol

Starting to see a little snow

Frost here

Highway 54 north of Van Horn, Texas

Guadalupe Mountains

The coldest temperature along the highway was 34 degrees, while the warmest was a whooping 41 degrees.  Near Alpine (town) the sun highlighted frost on the ground and vegetation giving it a beautiful crystal shine, and adding to the scene was frost hanging off the trees, utility lines, and street signs.  The winter scene attracted lots of people who stopped along the road to take photos of the frost on the trees with a background of mountains.

We stopped for the night at Hueco Tanks State Park.  This is truly a unique experience.  The state park is a beautiful area of massive granite rock formations rising out of the desert.  The park protects over 2,000 petroglyphs.  However, it is a very “regulated” state park.  We drove up the park entrance and a park ranger stopped us.  He asked if we had a reservation.  We were thinking he was referring to the campground, but nope they limit the number of people who can be in the park at one time – to roam the rocks – and if you have reservations you get to proceed.  If you don’t have reservations, then you have to park in a line and wait until someone comes out.  The park is a popular rock climbing destination and people start lining up a 7:30 a.m. to get a permit.  We told Mr. Ranger we only wanted to camp.  He called ahead to be sure there was a campsite available – there was – and then let us proceed with the admonishment that we did not have a permit to walk among the rocks.

We got to the park office and registered.  We were told to proceed to a house just up the road to watch a mandatory 15-minute orientation video.  We watched the orientation video, and afterwards we were given a card, which we must produce if we want to walk any of the self-guided trails.  However, the card only shows we saw the orientation video.  The guided and self-guided trails still require a reservation or permit.  We were told to be at the park office  by 7:30 a.m.  to get on the list for the self-guide trails.

There are three mountains (nothing too tall – huge boulder formations), and our campground is next to one that is off-limits to hiking, unless on a guided tour.  And we cannot climb onto the rocks either.  We can only walk around our campground road, which isn’t too big.  We also have to be back at our campsite by 6:00 p.m.

Heuro Tank Mountains

The campground is nice.  We are in campsite #8, which I would choose again if we ever come back.  The site has electricity so we can run our little heater – happy campers.  We aren’t sure whether we will hike any of the self-guided trails tomorrow or not.  Will wait until morning to see how “cold” it is.  Temperatures are supposed to get into the 30s, so will probably be cold in the morning.  Also, we have another long day ahead in order to get to Catalina State Park near Tucson Arizona tomorrow.

Our campsite at Hueco Tanks State Park

View of the mountain from our campsite

Oh, and speaking of the campground, it was so quiet bird-wise when we got here, but as I was walking around the campground loop I did come across another First of Year bird – the Canyon Towhee.  Of course I didn’t have my camera and the bird was out in the open about ten feet from me.  Dang.

Tomorrow we head west leaving the state of Texas behind.  Our goal is to make it to Arizona as there is another winter storm coming through the area.  A storm we would like to miss.

Until Arizona …