I first visited the King Ranch in October 1977. I have no specific memories and my bird list is incomplete but Ebird tells me that is where I first saw an Audubon’s Oriole, a White Tailed Hawk and a Buff Bellied Hummingbird. The King Ranch is an enormous holding of 825,000 acres founded in 1853. Just for perspective, the King Ranch is bigger than the entire State of Rhode Island. In 1977, I visited the Santa Gertrudis Unit and this time we were visiting the Norias Unit with local guide Jim Sinclair. There were three special birds we hoped for: Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Audubon’s Oriole and Tropical Parula. I had seen the first two but had no photos and the latter would be a Life Bird. This was an important visit.
Barely onto the ranch we saw our first Wild Turkeys of the trip – including several displaying Toms – quite a show.
And at the buildings, our leader Barry Zimmer pointed out the Tropical Kingbirds that he had predicted we would see there. These birds are almost indistinguishable from Couch’s Kingbirds which we had already seen and were common throughout our travels. These birds could be identified as Tropical only by their song – very different from Couch’s.
Normally a visit to the Ranch first concentrates on the specialty birds before for example driving the fields looking for a Sprague’s Pipit or Northern Bobwhites or other still excellent birds. This is what Barry expected, but Big Jim (he had to be 6 foot 6 inches) took us out into those fields. Some of us got looks at the Bobwhites as they ran on the ground in the tire tracks just ahead of us. I had seen and photographed some in Florida last year with Frank Caruso and Paul Bithorn, but those were the only ones I have seen. Unfortunately we could not find the Sprague’s Pipits which had been there the past week and would have been a life photo op for me. Second miss this year as earlier I had missed them in the San Rafael Grasslands in Arizona with Richard Fray.
It was now off into the trees to special spots known to Jim (and to Barry) where we were likely to find our targets. I may have this out of order because it really seemed like a one-two-three whirlwind, but we were successful on all counts. The Audubon’s Oriole was the hardest to photograph but was a very striking bird. It is very similar to Scott’s Oriole which I hoped to see and photograph later. Both have black heads and yellow bodies, but the Audubon’s Oriole has a yellow green back whereas the Scott’s has a black back.
Next up was the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. The King Ranch is the go to spot for this extremely rare species. We got to the right spot, gave a few toots and there it was posing for photos. A treasured life photo.
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Two down and one to go and it did not take long. Again at the go to spot, we quickly had a Tropical Parula. This was a Life Bird, number 2 for the trip. It was not an easy photo but with Barry’s help I got one that was passable and acceptable. It is very similar to the very common Northern Parula, a species I had even seen as a super rarity in my home state of Washington. The Tropical Parula has a black mask and has only a faint rusty band and no black breast band of the Northern Parula.
Tropical Parula and Parula Comparison
Had the day ended then, it would have been a fantastic day but the Ranch gave us two more really good birds – a Green Jay and a very photogenic Vermilion Flycatcher. Pretty hard to beat a male Vermilion especially when it is doing its flutter display flight. Wish I had gotten that on video.
After lunch and a little more birding on the Ranch we were off again. We found an amazing collection of birds at one field that was a bit wetter than the others. Included were 37 Black Necked Stilts, 3 American Golden Plovers, a Stilt Sandpiper, 48 Pectoral Sandpipers, a dozen Long Billed Dowitchers and an awesome 238 Lesser Yellowlegs (Barry counted each one). We continued on to McAllen where we would spend the next few nights. At a roost in town we found numerous Green Parakeets. I had seen them in Florida but somehow had failed to get a photo – so that oversight was corrected. We also had both Black Crowned and Yellow Crowned Night Herons and then at a second roost spot had Red Crowned Parrots – a species I had seen in Pasadena California in December last year at a roost site with hundreds of birds.
Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Red Crowned Parrot
It had been a great day and again we had both quantity and quality. The species count for the day was 85 but there were 29 new birds for the trip and we were now up to 169 species seen by the group.