We started the morning of April 7th with more Parrots in Weslaco and then visited Estero Llano Grande State Park. We had 48 species at the latter with several great birds. We had seen MANY Black Bellied Whistling Ducks in each of the previous days – very nice looking birds. At the State Park we had our only Fulvous Whistling Ducks for the trip.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck
Fulvous Whistling Duck
There were a number of other ducks and most of the waders we saw earlier then we also found another of the South Texas specialties – a Least Grebe. We had seen several earlier and would see more later, but this was also a good place for another specialty – the Plain Chachalaca.
This was also the place where we had our highest count – 5 – of Soras and we saw several in the open. During the course of our trip we saw more than a dozen of these often skulky and reclusive birds and heard more. Probably more Soras on this trip than I have had in the rest of my birding life.
Barry knew of a possible special treat – a roosting Common Pauraque. Another of the goatsuckers/nightjars, Common Pauraques are active insect eaters at dawn and dusk and throughout the night. They roost in the daytime on the ground in leaf litter – usually in thickets. We searched the target area for quite a while and then Jeff Poulin spied it in thick cover. This was a hoped for new photo for me and I felt the odds were low to get one. But get one I did – one of my favorite birds of the trip. It is well camouflaged so look hard.
Another great find and highlight was an Eastern Screech Owl in a nest cavity, With the help of Barry’s scope, I was able to get a fairly good digiscoped photo – actually better than expected given a very narrow viewing window. This was also the first place where we found White Tipped Doves – another South Texas specialty – and also Curve Billed Thrashers after seeing several Long Billed Thrashers earlier.
Eastern Screech Owl
Curve Billed Thrasher Compared to Long Billed Thrasher (Seen Earlier)
Before lunch we headed over to the Frontera Audubon Center where we added three great new birds: Gray Hawk, Broad Winged Hawk and Green Kingfisher. I know I took a picture of the briefly seen Gray Hawk but I cannot find it so I include just the other two.
Broad Winged Hawk
After a late lunch we drove around searching for Chihuahan Raven and more importantly hoping for an Aplomado Falcon. We checked every power pole without success. We did find a Raven and then went to a nesting platform that had been placed for the falcons. No luck on the first one but at another one we found first one and then a second Aplomado Falcon. Quite distant but unmistakable. I got some photos (ABA firsts) but the best ones were digiscoped through Barry’s scope. These falcons almost disappeared from Texas due primarily to habitat loss, but an active breeding and restoration program have brought them back to the area. They are a treasured bird for birders.
The really cool part of this observation was that it came at exactly 4:00 pm and was my 400th ABA species for the year. I certainly like this kind of congruity/synchronicity!! It was getting harder of course to add new birds because we had seen so many, but we added 14 and now were at 183 for the tour. The Falcon was the only new ABA Photo for me – but what a great way to end the day. As you will soon see, the next day was even better.
The weather on the 7th had fairly heavy winds coming from the North. Barry said this could be great for a “fallout” of migrating birds the next morning and we would head to South Padre Island to find out. When winds are from the north, the birds are fighting that in their flights and often take refuge in the first land area they find after crossing the Gulf. Indeed many don’t make and fall to their deaths in the sea. On the way to South Padre we drove one of the Aplomado Falcon roads again and got an even better look as we saw one in flight and then land on a power pole closer than the afternoon before. Another photo. What a way to start the day. It was a good omen.
As we approached the Valley Fund Lands Site, (Also known as “Sheepshead”) we saw a field with a couple dozen Scissor Tailed Flycatchers sitting on the ground – this was exciting and foretold the spectacular day that would follow. We were not the only birders who had figured it out and many were already there with cameras and binoculars on birds in the small copse of trees. There is no way I can detail the visit chronologically as there was fluid movement from spot to spot as new birds were found – many in the open affording great views. We spent an hour there and then went to the adjoining Convention Center Property and then returned in the afternoon after lunch. Birding was great on each visit. I am not going to try to separate the species seen chronologically or by place. We had an an amazing combined list of 88 species.
The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
Here is what we saw in alphabetical order. I got photos of most of them and my favorites are included after the list.
Black and White Warbler
Black Throated Green Warbler
Blue Gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-Winged Warbler (New ABA Photo)
Eastern Wood Pewee
Glossy Ibis (Rare at this time and place)
Golden Fronted Woodpecker
Great Crested Flycatcher
White Eyed Vireo
Worm Eating Warbler
Yellow Rumped Warbler
Yellow Throated Warbler
Spending almost all of my time birding in the west, I don’t see major migrations and especially do not see the myriad warblers that are so much a part of birding in the East. This show in a relatively small and very concentrated area where the trees were relatively low was very exciting to me. I didn’t count but believe there were maybe 100 birders enjoying the show at the two locations. Maybe more. All were very engaged and helpful to others sharing this wonderful experience. The pictures mostly speak for themselves, but I will comment on a few.
The Blue Winged Warbler was an especially appreciated species. Not only was it on my target list because I had no previous photo, it is really beautiful as a simple splash of yellow with those blue (bluish?) wings. It popped out against the green of the foliage as it fed to regain its strength to continue its migration. I was particularly happy to find it “on my own” among the many other birds. The Acadian Flycatcher was another very pleasing find. I heard another birder, not from our group, call out “Acadian Flycatcher” and raced over to the area to see it in the open. It had not been present (or at least noticed) in the morning but was one of the first birds seen after lunch. It too had been on my target list for new ABA photos – one that I felt had a relatively low probability to be seen let alone be photographed so easily.
Perhaps my favorite bird here was the Worm Eating Warbler. Also high on my new ABA Photo target list. It is a very striking bird but it was its behavior that was of such appeal. It foraged endlessly on the ground in the leaf litter without any regard to the birders. Granted we were separated by a railing fence, but at times it was so close I could not get my camera to focus. I had expected at most a distant bird buried in dense cover.
One of the birds was great to see but was a disappointment for what it was not. Barry called out “Swainson’s Thrush” and had it centered in his scope. Nancy and Ed Lawler, a delightful couple from Staunton, VA were among our group participants. They had birded together across the U.S. and in many foreign countries. For Nancy, her primary “Life List” was birds of the world. For this trip she really, really hoped for a Swainson’s Warbler. It had been a nemesis bird for her. It was unlikely on this trip but possible – especially with our wonderful group of birds this day. I, too, hoped for a Swainson’s Warbler, a bird I had seen only once over 40 years ago in Maryland. When I heard Barry’s call out, all I heard was “Swainson’s” and got immediately excited – more for Nancy than for me. She was nearby and I rushed her to the scope and followed with a look myself and then a quick photo. Uh oh – it was a thrush and not a warbler. It was my first Swainson’s Thrush for the year and the only one we saw on the trip – a great bird – but how much greater had it been a Swainson’s Warbler. Sometimes our minds are so preset, we hear and maybe even see only what we want.
Some very quick comments on some of the others seen. Any photo of a Nighthawk roosting in the open in the day time is special. I had previous photos of juvenile or female Orchard Orioles, but this brick red male was super. Louisiana Waterthrush had been on my original hoped for photos list for the trip, but I got one earlier in Arizona so not “as” special. It was nice to get the Northern Parula so soon after the Tropical Parula from the King Ranch enabling the comparison. Not a great photo of the Glossy Ibis. It was discovered by a young birder who was not sure if it was really the very rare Glossy Ibis or the common White Faced Ibis. Barry got it in his scope and excitedly confirmed it was the former, the only one we would see on the trip and quite uncommon in South Texas. Finally I really liked the photo of the Golden Fronted Woodpecker. We probably saw or heard many dozens on the trip, but this was the best look at the name giving “golden front” below the red cap.
All told, we spent almost six hours at South Padre. It ranked right up there with the best six hours of birding I had ever had. But it was time to move on. We found some Baird’s Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers far off in a field at the Superior Turf Farm and then headed to an early dinner as this was the night we were going owling. Part of the group passed and the rest of us headed to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP. I had been there almost exactly 40 years ago in April 1978 and then again 5 years ago in April 2013. On that first visit I had my Lifer Groove Billed Ani – a bird I have not seen since and in 2013, it was the last stop on a day of guided birding with the hopes of finding an Elf Owl. It was this, the smallest of the North American Owls that was our primary target for the evening.
Groove Billed Ani – Hoping for a Photo Someday – This One is from Cornell
We parked and headed into the park at dusk. A group of birders was already in wait at the “owl pole” not far from the parking lot – a known nesting spot. We hiked right past them and went to an area that Barry knew was good for our owl. I think it was the keen ears of Carlos Sanchez that first heard the owl’s call. Then I heard that call and a second one from a different spot. Barry figured out the probable location and used playback to bring the owl in to us. Now the call of one was really close. It had to be in a tree in front of us but where. Barry and Carlos searched with their spotlights. Then Ed Lawler said he was on it. I don’t know how, but he had located the owl mostly in the dark. Barry and Carlos got spotlights on the tiny owl and I had a great view and then a fine photo. An adult Elf Owl is barely 6 inches tall. By comparison the familiar American Robin is about 8.5 inches, and a Great Gray Owl, the largest (by length) of the owls seen in North America is approximately 24 inches.
During our visit we heard at least two more Elf Owls and a Great Horned Owl. We also had wonderful views of a Common Pauraque flying around us and there were Lesser Nighthawks. It was a superb night bird experience.
Only in Texas could a day start with an Aplomado Falcon and end with an Elf Owl. Any birder would consider that a fantastic day. But in between we had that incredible visit to South Padre Island and for me that topped both the Falcon and the Owl. We had added a remarkable 27 species for the tour list and now stood at 210. Only in Texas!!