They had been out there calling me for several weeks – rarities in South Texas: the Social Flycatcher at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, the Golden Crowned Warbler at the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, the Hook Billed Kite at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission and especially the Bat Falcon at Santa Ana NWR in Alamo. All would be ABA lifers and there was also a chance of getting an ABA life photo of a Groove Billed Ani at the San Benito Wetlands (or maybe another location). I had held off going almost entirely due to the surge of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 Virus. Cindy and I also had plans/thoughts of trips to Tanzania (canceled by the tour), to Charleston SC and Savannah GA (canceled by us) and to Chile and Argentina (canceled by the tour). These were all again victims of Omicron. When that last trip was canceled I had had it.
Cindy and I talked through risks and rewards and agreed that being double vaccinated and boosted and with N95 masks in hand, I should go. When I was able to find reasonable trips to McAllen TX cashing in not all that many miles on American Airlines, it was decided. A go. I had checked with others who might go as well, but they were not ready to take the leap. I was on my own. It would be a 5 day trip – two days of travel and three days of birding. I reserved a hotel room (using Hotel.com credits) and a car in McAllen. Cindy dropped me off at SeaTac airport in plenty of time to make the 11:55 am flight to Dallas which would then connect to McAllen where I would arrive at 8:30 pm, get my car and drive to my hotel. I had checked E-bird reports and all of the target birds had been seen the previous day. It seemed the stars were perfectly aligned. And then they weren’t…
There was a “mechanical problem” with the American Airlines plane leading to a 4 hour delay making it impossible to make the connection in Dallas for McAllen. The snowball kept rolling. I was put onto a later flight out of Dallas arriving in McAllen at midnight – but that put me in too late to get my car as the counter closed at 10 pm. And that meant I would not be able to drive to my hotel. And the shuttle to the hotel was not available after 10 pm. And the car rental counter would not open until 8:00 am the next morning – making it impossible to drive to Santa Ana to try for the Bat Falcon at dawn – one of the best times to see it on its favorite perch. And the weather forecast had changed and the 80 degrees and sun of the day I was travelling would turn into temperatures in the 30’s, some rain or possibly even some snow or sleet. Had I known all of this in advance, I would not have made the trip. So not a great start.
As I have said in other blog posts, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. By pure coincidence and luck, the hotel I had chosen was across the street from the McAllen Airport. I could walk less than 300 yards and cross one street and be there. I still would not have a car for an early morning start, but I could walk back across the single street and be at the counter before it opened. I would have to change plans for an early start, but a major disaster was avoided by that hotel choice. OK – on to Plan B.
Day 1 – Thursday morning – Plan B. I did not get to bed as early as I would have liked, but since I had to wait for the car rental to open, I actually got 5+ hours of sleep and was at the counter at 7:50 a.m. They were getting ready to open so actually got me a car by 8:00 – paperwork complete. I had to circle back to the hotel to pick up gear etc. so I was able to be on the road by 8:10 – about 2 hours behind the original plan. So instead of heading Southeast to Santa Ana I headed further south and further east to the “land bridge” at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Brownsville. Unfortunately the coordinates for the “land bridge” on Ebird as translated to the GPS on my phone and on my Garmin took me to the wrong place where I intersected not with other birders but instead with dozens of Border Control officers and soldiers with combat gear and scary guns. On my best behavior and using my friendliest personality I actually had decent conversations with several and even got them to look at a photo of a Social Flycatcher and got some smiles. I eventually blundered to the UTRGV Bookstore, parked and then walked to the “land bridge” – essentially a passageway between a small pond and a large Resaca on the campus.
It was really cold and really windy and I was really not dressed for this weather and apparently the birds were affected by the weather as well. It was NOT real birdy. A couple of other birders were there looking for the Social Flycatcher and had not seen it during the 30 minutes they had already been there. We birded together and also split up and covered the land bridge and the adjoining area. About 15 minutes in I was pretty sure I heard the target but got no visual. Thirty minutes later we thought we had it but it turned out to be a very similar looking Great Kiskadee. There was a Least Grebe and a Green Kingfisher at the small pond. We saw Golden Fronted and Ladder Backed Woodpeckers and a couple of warblers and Northern Cardinals. We had another flycatcher – an Eastern Phoebe. The Social Flycatcher was being very antisocial.
It got even colder and windier. I could barely feel my fingers or toes – what happened to South Texas sunshine? I am sure I would have felt warmer if the chase was successful. About 45 minutes into the search, the Social Flycatcher finally made an appearance – only briefly and absolutely buried behind several branches making a photo impossible. We were sure of the ID with the black and white pattern, small size and small bill compared to the Great Kiskadee and an absence of the rusty wings. But it sure would have been nice to get a photo. No one did and then it was gone.
Even without a photo this was a great start but it was now almost noon and the plan was to try for two more of the targets today leaving the Hook Billed Kite for tomorrow. Feeling the cold and also seeing that the next day could be worse, the pressure was on to leave and try for the Golden Crowned Warbler. I bid adieu to the other two birders who remained and headed back to the parking lot with the parting words – “I am sure it will show now.” One of the birders remaining was Barbara DeWitt whose non-birding husband Al was in the parking lot. We had exchanged words before I left before. As soon as I arrived, he announced that Barbara had just gotten a photo. I ran back but it was gone again. Grrr! The picture included is not mine. It was included in the Ebird report of Karen Carpenter taken 2 days earlier in good weather. Note the blue sky – not ever seen during my visit.
On the way to my next target I stopped at a Walmart to get another layer of clothes and to grab a wrap for lunch. Amazingly I found a “puffer jacket” on clearance for $9.00. The sandwich wrap was $2.50 – the total of less than $12.00 was among the best expenditures I have ever made. Should have gotten boots and gloves as well.
At the Valley Nature Center, the Naturalist said the Golden Crowned Warbler was very active and had been seen a few minutes ago. Another birder and I went to the spot he suggested and heard it immediately – almost constantly chipping. We played hide and seek chasing the Warbler from one thicket to another all within maybe 40 yards of each other. We would get a brief glance buried behind several branches then a split second in the clear, then gone then back behind branches and gone again. This continued for an hour. My best photo was pretty poor – a certain ID but not much better. The cold continued and while happy for the jacket, I really wanted some gloves and a stocking cap. So success but not perfect. I wanted to go for the Bat Falcon and figured I could return and try for a better photo again. I left as more birders came in. There had been only a few other species seen with the best being an unphotographed Northern Beardless Flycatcher. Easier to photograph were the many Plain Chachalacas and Inca Doves.
It was already 3:30 when I got to Santa Ana. The Bat Falcon had most often been seen at a telephone pole right at the entry road to the park – usually early in the morning or at dusk. I had already missed the first option so was hoping for option 2 in about 2 hours. I saw a couple of Harris’s Hawks at “The Pole” and a falcon – a Kestrel not the Bat Falcon. I entered the Park parked the car and decided to just bird generally before returning to “The Pole”. There was an elevated path next to a ditch and as I walked down it I noticed a small bird in the ditch – a Spotted Sandpiper. In the field we are often drawn to other birders when we see their cameras, binoculars or scopes trained on “something” hoping it might be of interest to us as well. Four other birders saw me and approached. One was a woman who I think was local and was dressed in a long “down” coat – perfect for the day. Two of the others were Lisa and Steve Murray – volunteers at the Park who were excellent birders, knew every part of the Park and had seen the Bat Falcon many times and knew its patterns. They were a lucky find for me much better than the Spotted Sandpiper. The third was a photographer/birder who was attending a program that night and was hoping for a Bat Falcon photo before that. As the five of us carried on I learned that he was more into wildlife than birds and had travelled widely and great stories.
Lisa said there was a chance we might spot the Bat Falcon on one of the many snags visible from the tower about 1/2 mile into the park. We birded our way to it not seeing much except for a couple of Chachalacas and a Roadrunner on the ground. From the tower we saw a Gray Hawk, some Turkey Vultures, a Red Tailed Hawk and – another falcon – “only” a Merlin. You know there is something special afoot when there is disappointment in seeing a Merlin. Lisa pointed out a number of snags where she had seen the Bat Falcon before and gave us a geography lesson pointing out Mexico not that far to the south. An interesting aside was about some wind turbines visible in Mexico. Lisa said that they get 90% of their electricity from Mexico and during the blackout in Texas last year, they were unaffected because of that sourcing.
Far out and visible only barely through binoculars Lisa saw a “bump” on a snag. Steve took a picture and it looked like it “might” be the Bat Falcon. There was one scope in the group and with Lisa’s help, it was trained on the bump and sure enough it was the Bat Falcon. Everyone got a look and had a “tick” for a lifer. We all took turns trying to get Digi scoped photos – with varying degrees of success – but proof of our good fortune. Granted it was a lousy photo but this was my third ABA lifer for the day – almost making up for the cold – almost.
Lisa thought we would be early but should head back to the Park entry and see if the Bat Falcon would show at The Pole. As we reached the entrance road about 20 minutes later, about 200 yards away, we saw someone with a camera trained on The Pole. The Bat Falcon was at the top. I broke into a run and then stopped for a quick photo and then started running again. The bird flew off. Would this be a near miss? No – I got to the road and for the next 20 minutes watched the Bat Falcon put on an amazing aerial show as it flew overhead and along highway 281 stopping to perch on a topless palm tree and then flying off again and again. It is small – a bit smaller than an American Kestrel – and looks like a Barn Swallow in flight but much faster. It was awesome and the photo ops when perched were as much as anyone could hope for even if there was little light. It was the first time in the day when I did not feel the cold!!
This small charismatic falcon was first seen around December 18, 2021. It was the first time it has appeared in the United States and hundreds of birders have made the pilgrimage to Santa Ana to add it to their life lists. To the best of my knowledge I have seen only one other species that was the first U.S. records – in my home state of Washington – the Eurasian Hobby at Neah Bay on October 30, 2014. A Swallow Tailed Gull found by Ryan Merrill at Carkeek Park on August 31, 2017 had been seen only in the Bay Area in California previously. There were at least a dozen other birders at the entrance watching the Bat Falcon show. Everyone left happy. Thus ended day 1 of Chasing in Texas.
Day 2 – Friday January 21 – The weather predictions had called for low temperatures and rain overnight on Thursday with the possibility of freezing rain and icy roads on Friday morning. Fortunately the temperature never got below 36. There was rain, not as much wind and no ice. The plan was to look for Groove Billed Anis at the San Benito Wetlands, then to return to UTRGV to try for a photo of the Social Flycatcher, then to return to Valley Nature Center hoping for a better photo of the Golden Crowned Warbler and depending on the success of the Ani chase to try for it at another location where they had been reported.
The San Benito Wetlands would have been great fun if it had not been raining, had not been muddy, had been warmer and had been birdier OR had any Anis. They were still interesting despite none of those being the case. I was the only person there and in fact was the only person I had seen within a half mile of them. Black Necked Stilts and Killdeer brought my shorebird trip total to 3. The only other new bird was a Ruby Crowned Kinglet perched on some reeds – an odd location it seemed. I know Anis can be secretive, but I think I would have seen them if they had been there. I didn’t. A muskrat dove into one of the ponds just in front of me. The only other mammals I saw on the trip were a rabbit and a couple of squirrels.
Back to Brownsville and maybe a Social Flycatcher photo. There were several birders there. They had not seen it. It was birdier than the previous day, drizzly and less windy but still cold and my feet were wet from the rain and the San Benito Wetlands. I thought the boots I brought were waterproof – they were not. Pretty miserable which became more miserable when an hour and 45 minutes of searching failed to produce a Social Flycatcher. Especially when chasing rarities the odds of meeting other birders are good – and often they are birders of some repute in addition to talent. Such was the case this morning as I met Jeremy Dominquez who had set a lower 48 Big Year record in 2020 and who I had read about in various places. We birded together for much of the time I was there. With his expertise, not finding the Social Flycatcher felt less like a failure. I learned later that a couple of hours after I left, he did see it and got a photo. Woulda shoulda coulda – didn’t.
Among the birds seen while I was there were a Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Kiskadees, Golden Fronted Woodpeckers, Red Crowned Parrots, Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, 6 warbler species, Black Crested Titmouse and a Blue Headed Vireo. There was still one more day, perhaps the third time would be the charm for the again Anti-Social Flycatcher.
If I had done it earlier maybe I would have stayed longer on the second Social Flycatcher try but my feet were very wet and cold, so it was another stop at Walmart’s – for a cheap pair of waterproof boots and some new socks. I think the only time I have ever been in a Walmart has been to get something needed on a birding trip. Can’t say much for the atmosphere and don’t like the Walton family politics, but the prices are good and in the South, it is an easy option with one in every town. Got the boots and socks and realizing it was relatively close, I headed to the second possible Grooved Billed Ani spot – the Laguna Vista Nature Trail. Again an interesting spot. Again almost birdless and again no Anis. At least my feet were dry.
I headed back to the Valley Nature Center with a roadside stop in Port Isabel where I photographed a White Tailed Hawk – a Texas specialty. I was surprised at how few raptors I saw on the trip – maybe 20 or so with the largest number being Harris’s Hawks and American Kestrels. Home in Washington I would expect to see multiples of that on a single trip to Skagit County. At the Nature Center the Golden Crowned Warbler would again be noisy, active, skulky, and difficult to photograph. The pictures I got were at best only marginally better than the previous day. At least the golden crown was showing,
As I was leaving the Nature Center I saw a small group of Turkey Vultures flying over all headed in a straight line in the same direction. What started as a group of 4 or 5 kept growing – probably more than 40 by the time I left and there were probably more coming. So nothing new for day 2 but that was because day 1 had been so productive. Now with boots and a warmer jacket I felt ready for day 3 which was projected to have rain but not starting until late morning. I would head off to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park hoping for a lifer Hook Billed Kite. That night I had a rare for me steak dinner at a Texas Roadhouse. Rare described the meat as well. I ordered medium rare but I swear the steak mooed when I cut into it.
Day 3 – Saturday January 22 Would this be the day – to finally see a Hook Billed Kite? Please. One of the people I follow on Facebook is Yve Morrell – an excellent and hard core bird who now lives in Georgia. She was part of the group that was in Oaxaca just after me and had many, many – did I say many – more birds than we had on our trip. She has also successfully chased just about every ABA Rarity this past month and had finally gotten her first Hook Billed Kite at Bentsen a few days before I left for my trip – maybe the last person to see one (she had two) at the Hawk Tower. It was that sighting that was the final factor in my deciding to make the trip because she acknowledged that she had missed it 4 times before. I, too, have missed it multiple times. Maybe today.
The Park did not open until 8:00 pm and the van would not be running until 9:00. I was there a bit earlier but waited until 8:00 to get my ID bracelet at the Visitor Center and then decided to walk the mile or so to the Hawk Tower. It was still cold, not too windy and not raining – at least not yet. On the way to the Hawk Tower, there were many typical South Texas species: Green Jays (many), Northern Cardinals (many), Plain Chachalacas (many), Golden Fronted Woodpeckers (almost as many), White Tipped, White Winged and Mourning Doves, Great Kiskadees (several), Altamira Orioles (several) and Blue Headed Vireo and Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. A distant perched raptor got some adrenaline going – slowed when I made it out as a Gray Hawk – only to be increased again as another raptor flew over and then slowed again as I made it out as a Harris’s Hawk. So no Hook Billed Kite on the way in. Guess it would have to be the Tower.
I climbed up the tower and found one birder already there gazing out through his scope. Could it be? Nope – a distant Harris’s Hawk. The birder was Michael McCloy – a Ph.D. candidate in ornithology at Texas A & M, a world traveler, world birder and world mountain climber. If there was a chance of seeing a Hook Billed Kite this morning, he was about as good as I could hope for as another set of eyes. We heard Soras and a Virginia Rail in the pond/Resaca below and saw Blue Winged Teal, Common Gallinules, American Coots, Pied Billed and Least Grebes. A juvenile Gray Hawk was perched off in the distance and later more Harris’s Hawks flew by. Although it was not projected to start to rain until later, the first sprinkles started maybe 30 minutes after I arrived. Not bad – but not great. About an hour later a group of birders showed up with John Kaye – a long time volunteer at the Park and the birder with the longest Ebird list for Bentsen. He has seen Hook Billed Kites from the Tower dozens of times and had been with Yve Morrell when she had her lifer observation. If a Kite was to show this day, the team was in place to see it. Unfortunately just as the talent increased so, too, did the rain. It was getting miserable.
The Kite watching was a zero, but the company was great as John and Michael shared stories from their vast experiences. Finally after 3 hours, it seemed to be time to leave. There had been no more raptors and the rain was getting heavy. The van was scheduled to be by soon and while in good weather I would have preferred to walk, with the rain, I was willing to be a wimp and ride. Just wasn’t meant to be this day. I don’t know when I will have a chance to return but maybe like for Yve, the 5th time will be the one.
Back at the Visitor Center I played hide and seek with a Buff Bellied Hummingbird missing a photo several times. Fortunately I had a photo from a previous visit in 2013. On that visit I also had my ABA lifer Clay Colored Thrush – not super rare but definitely uncommon in those days. As I got to my car I saw a group of five birds on the ground in front of me. They looked too big for sparrows but what else would be there in that number. It was a small flock of Clay Colored Thrushes. They are reported daily from many locations in South Texas now, but this was still surprising.
Now what? I had the Bat Falcon and good photos. I had seen the Golden Crowned Warbler with OK photos. I had seen the Social Flycatcher but no photos and I had not seen and thus not photographed the Groove Billed Ani. It was already past noon on my last day. There would be time for one more try for photos of the Flycatcher and the Ani. Back to Brownsville first. Just as I walked out on the Land Bridge, people were pointing long lenses at something in the trees next to the small pond, where I had had my brief glimpse of the Social Flycatcher before. I ran down the path and joined the group just in time to get a split second look and it was gone. No photo but it was there and maybe it would be in the open again. Three minutes later, one of the birders said “I got it”. The Flycatcher was buried but its yellow breast was visible. Then it was right above me – almost upside down on a branch only partially obstructed. As too often happens, by the time the camera focused, it was gone. That would be the closest I would come. I stayed for another hour – no sightings by anyone. There were fun photos of a Neotropic Cormorant and an Anhinga but that was it. I had given it my best – good visuals, heard it call and could check off a mega rarity for my ABA List – but time to admit defeat. On the way back to the car, I took some pictures of the many Black Bellied Whistling Ducks and Muscovy Ducks (domestic) that had been numerous on each previous visit as well.
There was still time for one more Ani try at the San Benito Wetlands. There was an Ebird report for Anis there the previous day. No photos and maybe a questionable description but worth another try – this time with good boots and barely any rain. As I rounded one of the paths between the ponds I saw two large black birds perched on the reeds. I really thought I might have some Anis but as I got close enough for a binocular view, they were Great Tailed Grackles…sigh. There would be no Anis this trip. There were many more birds at the Wetlands than on my earlier trip including the only Crested Caracara I saw and a number of waders – Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, White Ibis (juveniles), and both Great and Snowy Egrets. A Peregrine Falcon sped by and there were several Loggerhead Shrikes in the area.
My return flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at an ungodly 6:00 am. I got back to my hotel after the rental car desk closed so after a fast food dinner, I parked it and left the keys in a drop box and walked back to the hotel. I set my alarm for 4:15 a.m. and as I usually do woke up 10 minutes before it went off. No breakfast except for a banana and then I walked again to the airport with my luggage in tow. The flight was full and as had been the case in Seattle, there was an announced delay due to “minor mechanical” matters. Fortunately they were truthfully minor and we left only 15 minutes late – of no consequence for me since the layover in Dallas to make my connection was over 2 hours. The Dallas airport is huge so I had to take the tram to get to a different terminal to make my connection – but no problem and I was ready to go in plenty of time.
We boarded easily and somehow I had an open seat next to me – one of only 3 on the entire flight. Finally an easy trip – except – about an hour out of Seattle the pilot announced that there was low clearance at SeaTac Airport and due to interference with new 5G cell transmissions, this plane was not allowed to land unless the fog lifted. We delayed circling for 20 minutes and then got the news that we would detour to Boise, refuel and wait. There was more to it but the bottom line was that we finally got the clearance and landed in Seattle more than 2 and a half hours after scheduled arrival time. So I am not thrilled with the experience with American Airlines. If an updated altimeter was in the plane, we could have landed on schedule. Yes it is a real issue I guess and yes it should have been worked out months ago, and yes the Alaska Airline flights landed just fine that afternoon. But I was home. I had seen three of the four target lifers and had many fun intersections. My Continental ABA list was now at 746 species. I am not driven to get to 800 but 750 sounds good. I do not expect a chance to add 4 lifers on a single trip again – unless just maybe things align just right in Florida or the continuing surprises probably related to climate change bring more rarities north – or south – or west. And everything will be moot again if Covid- 20 or 21 or whatever shuts us down again.