There are many great places to bird in the ABA Area but for the sheer number of birds and certainly for specialty birds it is hard to beat South Florida, Southeast Arizona and South Texas. When I first started serious birding in the 1970’s, I was fortunate to be able to visit each of those locations and had great luck in finding many of the specialty species (and many others) that make each place so inviting. For the most part, I had not been back to any of those places in the subsequent 35 to 40 years. I did not keep detailed lists back then and I definitely did not take any photographs. With the advent of digital photography, taking pictures of birds I have seen has become particularly enjoyable and important to me. I have tried to add new species of course, but special attention has been given to getting photos of species seen those many years ago. How I wish I had done so back then.
Last spring was a great trip to one of those places – South Florida. As reported in numerous posts on this blog last year (See ) Frank Caruso and I spent 9 days there birding mostly with Paul Bithorn and taking a trip to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas with the Tropical Audubon Society. On that trip I had 173 species of which maybe 30 would be considered Florida specialties. Since many exotics had been added to the ABA list since I last visited in the 1970’s, many were new ABA Life birds (16) and almost all of them plus some others were new ABA Photos (40 altogether).
Swallow Tailed Kite – Favorite Bird of that 2017 Florida Trip
In August last year and then again in February this year (See ), I birded in Southeastern Arizona – the first visits in almost 40 years. As with Florida, I had seen many of the Arizona specialties in earlier visits, but there were new birds as well, and as with Florida, almost all provided new photo opportunities. All told on the two Arizona trips, I had seen just shy of 200 species of which maybe 50 could be considered specialties although some are seen elsewhere in the ABA area but many winter for example in Arizona. Only 9 were new ABA Life birds but again over 40 were new ABA photos.
Whiskered Screech Owls – A Favorite Sighting in Arizona in 2017
So that gets us to Texas. I had been there twice in the 1970’s and then again on a week long trip in 2013. The 2013 trip produced 150 species including 5 lifers and maybe 25 new photos, so the opportunities for the visit which will be the subject of the remainder of this blog post and probably at least two more were much more limited than the Florida and Arizona visits. But Texas is an amazing place and as you will see, there were lots of birds – including many really good ones.
[Note: It would not be for several more months before I conceived of my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure. Its objective was to see 50 or more species on single days in each of the 50 states – in the company of local birders or local experts. More than 50 species were seen on single days in Texas at least twice on this trip – April 4th and April 5th – both are described in this blog. Looking back on this trip was a major factor in my undertaking the project.]
My trip started negatively with a missed flight from Dallas to Corpus Christi where I was to meet a tour with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) the next day. There really was not a good way to get to a hotel and return for the next early morning flight so I spent an essentially sleepless night in the Dallas Airport. It was fascinating , however, to watch an airport get ready for the next day. A large crew (also getting no sleep at least at night) attended to each detail of cleaning, restocking, maintenance, etc. There were dozens of busy (and noisy) people at work. We take so much for granted – but we should all step back every once and a while and take stock of the details necessary to make our world workable.
Although there were not many good chances for new ABA Life birds on this trip, I had especially high hopes for a very special one – the Whooping Crane. I had just missed this legendary conservation success story both in the 1970’s and again in 2013. It was the primary reason to make the trip. A potential problem though was that South Texas is also legendary for great migration birding and this would not really hit until two weeks after our tour. This had been the reason I had missed the cranes earlier – they leave just as the migration is getting into full swing. You can’t have it all. I was looking forward to the tour and especially to seeing the Cranes. There also were a dozen or so photo possibilities and when I met our tour leader, Barry Zimmer, and saw him in action, I was confident that if the birds were around, we would see them. Barry was extraordinary!!
A special treat was that for the first few days, a second “guide” for our group would be Victor Emanuel himself. Although his focus and primary responsibility had been the business side of the large VENT operation, Victor had been everywhere and seen almost everything. An incredible resource. Barry and Victor took us on our first birding trip before dinner on Easter Sunday – a visit to Tule Lake in Corpus Christi. Nothing extraordinary but we saw 34 species in less than an hour including several Scissor Tailed Flycatchers – real beauties that would be with us almost every day.
Scissor Tailed Flycatcher
The next morning we were off to Blucher Park, It was very windy and not real birdy. Nothing noteworthy although we had killer looks at a beautiful Long Billed Thrasher. I did not process it at the time, but upon my return I learned from my friend Melissa Hafting that this is a go to spot for roosting Chuck Will’s Widows and Eastern Whippoorwills, crepuscular or nocturnal insect eaters that are very hard to photograph except at their day roosts. Both were on my “want” list but we never went looking.
For the remainder of the morning we drove various beaches and waterways and picked up quite a few shorebirds including Piping and Wilson’s Plover plus many waders and terns and some American Pipits. After lunch we looked hard for Snowy Plovers without success but I got my first new ABA Life Picture bird when we found a pair of Gull Billed Terns. We also had a very large flock of American Avocets and many Long Billed Dowitchers among the many shorebirds.
Gull Billed Terns (ABA Life Photo)
It was a very good day for terns as at various times in addition to the Gull Billed Terns, we also had Black, Least, Royal, Caspian, Sandwich, Common and Forster’s Terns – basically all of the ones of South Texas.
We ended the afternoon at Rockport Beach. There and along the way we continued to find many waders, shorebirds and terns. There were large numbers of Snowy, Cattle and Great Egrets. More impressive were the numbers of Tricolored Herons and Reddish Egrets including ones of both the white and dark Morphs.
Reddish Egret – White Morph
Although I was very happy to get the Gull Billed Tern photos, it had seemed just like a “regular” day with nothing extraordinary, yet by the end of the day we had seen 105 species for the trip – and barely any passerines and not very many ducks. Texas is a very birdy place! The next day was supposed to be our boat trip to see the Whooping Cranes, but the trip was canceled because of high winds. Each passed day decreased the odds of seeing the Cranes as some had already left for their breeding grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. I had been down this “late” road before. No panic but a bit of concern.
Plan B the next morning took us first back to Rockport and then to Goose Island and Aransas National Wildlife Reserve. After lunch we returned to Goose Island and then to Cavassos Creek in Aransas County. It indeed was very windy and it was clear that a boat trip would have been miserable if even possible. Many of the birds were a repeat of the day before but we picked up several passerines, lots of Franklin’s Gulls and due to Barry’s keen eyes a Wilson’s Phalarope among many shore birds in a grassy field. It was particularly cool to see the pink tinge on the bellies of the Franklin’s Gulls – something I had never noted before.
Pink Bellied Franklin’s Gulls
There was some bad news and some good news. The bad news was that perhaps due to high water levels and heavy winds we could not find any Seaside Sparrows at a “go to spot”. This was a much wanted ABA Photo species. The good news was that although the views were at quite a distance, we found two groups of three Whooping Cranes at Aransas. It would qualify as a new ABA Life bird and I had a poor “record photo”. But at least we knew there were cranes around and the weather looked very good for the rescheduled boat ride the next day. It took several tries and again the birds were far off, but Barry finally found a Boat Tailed Grackle to end the day. We probably saw many thousand Great Tailed Grackles during the tour, but this was the only Boat Tailed seen. Our tour list was now at 126 species.
The weather was indeed good the following morning and we were first in line to board the MV Skimmer at the Rockport Harbor for our trip to see Whooping Cranes. Aransas Bay is amazingly shallow – very different from the Pelagic Boat trips to very deep water out of Westport that I am accustomed to. We had great views of nesting Purple Martins before we arrived at the dock and of course the omnipresent Great Tailed Grackles and Laughing Gulls surrounded us before the departure.
The Sunrise Greeting Us at the Dock
The MV Skimmer
The boat trip was a great success. Most importantly we saw 22 Whooping Cranes often relatively quite close for decent photos. Added to the 6 we had seen the day before, our total of 28 represented about 7% of the world’s wild population. Mostly they were feeding in small groups looking for their favorite meal – Blue Crabs. The prized photos are of a Crane with crab in bill. I settled – happily – for them hunting in the shallow water. Now I had finally seen and photographed the two iconic conservation success stories in American Birding adding the Whooping Cranes to the California Condors I watched at Big Sur last year.
There were other great birds as well especially the waders as we saw many Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, White and White Faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, Little Blue, Great Blue, Tricolored and Black Crowned Night Herons and my favorite – displaying Reddish Egrets. Hard to choose photos to include. Here is a sampler.
Reddish Egret Display
White Faced Ibis (Juvenile)
There were 14 shorebird species (including our only American Oystercatcher of the trip), 5 duck species (including our only Redhead), both Neotropic and Double Crested Cormorants and a few others. Fifty-two species in all. After this trip our tour had 132 species. I was very pleased to have seen all of the birds but of course especially the majestic Whooping Cranes.
There was a major disappointment though. The keen eyes (and sixth sense?) of our leader Barry Zimmer found a single Seaside Sparrow in some grass next to the water. Despite yeoman efforts by him and Jeff Poulin, one of the tour members who was a great spotter with very sharp eyes, I just could not get on the bird. I was very down about this – not just missing a bird I much wanted to see and of which I “needed” a photograph – but moreso the recognition yet again at just how poor I am at finding birds in challenging backgrounds. My eyesight even after surgery is not sharp. When I bird on my own, it may take a long time, but I generally can dig out the birds – eventually – but it is hard. Often especially in a group with directions that are unclear or not workable with my eyesight, it just doesn’t work out. And Barry was as good as there is at helping me and everyone get on birds – a great quality in a leader – and one that all do not have. The Seaside Sparrow may not have been an easy spot, but I felt bad missing it…a feeling that was overcome with the overall wonderful quality of this boat trip.
After another great and too large seafood lunch at a very fun spot named Snoopy’s, we visited several spots in the area including another try for a Seaside Sparrow. No luck yet again, but there was a great consolation prize – a Nelson’s Sparrow – very rare at this time and place. My photo was good enough to support the ID and Ebird report but embarrassing to include here so I am substituting a photo of one seen at the Tijuana Estuary in California in December – a great find there as well. I have a trip to North Carolina in June – maybe I will finally photograph the Seaside Sparrow then. Certainly going to give it my best.
Snoopy’s – This Is a Good Area for Seafood
Nelson’s Sparrow (from California – not the one seen in Texas)
We moved on to our next birding area – more inland – and fit in some pre-dinner birding in Sarita, Texas. Along the way we had two treats – a vacant lot filled with spectacular wildflowers and my first photo opportunity for a photo of a White Tailed Hawk – not a great photo and there would be many more sightings later, but it was an ABA First and I was very pleased to get it. I will include the better photo in a later blog post.
On County Road 12 we came across a field with more than two dozen Upland Sandpipers. These birds really appeal to me. I saw my first one at the Dallas Airport in April 2013 and then a super lucky view of a flyover one at Ocean Shores in Washington in September later that year – an extreme rarity there – one of only a few state records. In 2016 I got my first photo of one in Maine. I was able to get a decent photo of one this time as well.
A much “rarer” bird was found on La Parra Avenue. Eagle eyed Barry spied what appeared to be a Common Grackle which flew into a tree. I got a great photo and then we found a second one in a ditch a few hundred yards away. This is one of those disjointed experiences in birding. One would think that a bird named “Common” Grackle would be just that – common. And it is – elsewhere. In fact in many places, it could be called the “Abundant Grackle”. But this was only the second record of Common Grackle in Kenedy County. Guess who had the first – Barry Zimmer on the King Ranch last year. In this same area, we also had the tour’s first Clay Colored Thrush a bird that was quite rare until fairly recently. It now is showing up regularly in a number of locations.
Clay Colored Thrush
Common Grackle – Second Kenedy County Record
A day birding can be judged in many ways – the beauty of the place, the quality of the people we are with or run into, the number of birds seen and/or their quality. This had been an excellent day on all accounts. Victor Emmanuel had returned to other responsibilities and we had been joined by Carlos Sanchez as our “other” guide. Carlos was a great spotter and despite his young age has an immense knowledge of birds from all over the world – and many stories to go with them. He was a terrific addition to the tour. I personally do not count the scenery of South Texas as being very appealing, but being on the water is always special and the birds sure love it. It was the birds that made this day so good. Just under 100 species were seen this day, bringing the tour count so far to 140 so yes mostly repetition – but oh the quality – great looks at many seen previously – but the earlier looks at the Whooping Cranes became completely irrelevant with our wonderful experience from the boat and then the new ones including White Tailed Hawk, Clay Colored Thrush, Nelson’s Sparrow, Common Grackle, Hooded Oriole and Harris’s Hawk.
A wonderful day in South Texas and the next day we would be visiting the famous King Ranch with a chance at some very special birds. But that is another story – one that will start my next blog post.