Texas 04-16-04 to 04-23-04

This trip was practice of sorts for a future group trip to Texas. Cricket and I traveled with her parents, Kaz and Aiko, who enjoyed the trip greatly. Overall the weather was beautiful, quite humid and warm, with scattered episodes of drizzle. Mosquitos were a problem however, especially at Bentsen and other locations along the Rio Grande. During the course of our grueling 1200 mile expedition we managed to find more than 200 species and I exceeded 600 ABA birds both of which were my goals for the trip. Having never been to Texas, most of the birds that cannot be found in California or SE Arizona were new for Cricket. Her parents had made one previous trip, but came away with lifers nevertheless. Our itinerary was as follows with the trip list below:

Day 1: Having taken the redeye out of San Francisco, landing first in Houston, then catching a shuttle to McAllen, we hit the ground on Friday, ready to bird. The activity began even in Houston where we saw a few Common Grackles from the terminal windows. After locating the Hotel in McAllen and receiving the generous ABA discount, we rushed to Santa Ana NWR where we located several target species such as Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay (Cricket's favorite), Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow and Altamira Oriole. Santa Ana is a lush place. Completely surrounded by cultivated fields it is one of the few remaining areas of native vegetation, primarily tropical. It is characterized by a low canopy of delicate trees with bright green foliage, yellow feathery flowers and vicious thorns. Some trees still bear the long flat woody seed pods from the fall. Tall cypress trees are draped with long sage green strands of Spanish moss giving it a rather creepy atmosphere in places. It borders the river, along which there are other such "islands" of native habitat. Efforts are being made to connect them by purchasing and restoring the areas between, making it possible for historic species to return and recover their numbers. In the refuge there are also resacas, horseshoe shaped lakes that were once connected to the river, but lost their association over the years. They remain stagnant relatives of the river and provide habitat for many species. Very little water was present in the large ponds despite the recent rains, so no Least Grebes were observed. Reluctantly, we departed the refuge and made a late afternoon stop at Bentsen State Park. The park is in many ways it is similar to Santa Ana but has more varied habitat with a greater proportion of tall trees. It was literally buzzing with mosquitos. Upon stepping out of our rented van we were mercilessly attacked by swarms of biting insects. Bugs or no bugs, we were determined to add birds to our list and we were successful in adding Elf Owl, Black-crested Titmouse, at least two singing Clay-colored Robins, and Bronzed Cowbird. As dusk faded into evening, we listened for Pauraques along the road. We heard them at a distance but could not get a look. Recommended locations for Ferruginous Pygmy Owl were unproductive, but we did happen across two Eastern Screech Owl in the picnic area. We were able to shine my new MagLight (very masculine) on the birds for a few minutes as we chased it from perch to perch overhead. We lodged in McAllen.

Day 2: After such a great evening at Bentsen State Park we had to return to discover what happens there in the morning. We toured the trailer loop, which is now closed to traffic and only has two feeders, and relocated many of the same birds from last night. New however was a spectacular Raptor show with Swainson's Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Mississippi, Swallow-tailed and White-tailed Kites. Too bad we couldn't add the Hook-billed Kite, but apparently the terrestrial snail population is down because of recent rains. We also toured the Rio Grande Trail where we added Cactus Wren and Curve-billed Thrasher, but little else. Next we stopped at the new Chihuahua Woods Preserve. The habitat there was a bit drier than the two areas we had already visited and included a large strand of flowering yucca and prickly pear cactus. Our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird and another Curve-billed Thrasher were found. We came across an enormous snake along the trail which made me yell. It was only two feet from my feet and while it may have been about six feet long and very thick around... Very scary. From there we visited the recreationalAnzalduas County Park where we had to contend with dozens of picnickers and their loud mariachi music among the wooded areas and by the water, but we managed to add Ringed Kingfisher along the banks of the river, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and another Eastern Screech Owl. This time we observed it in full light and even got some photographs. Before turning in we revisited Santa Ana NWR and got marvelous looks at Black-bellied Whistling Duck and found a small flock of Indigo Buntings near the entrance. Mosquitos had drained much of my blood by this time and I was feeling weak. I opted to remain in the car while Cricket and her parents went into the store to pick up some supplies. Overhead I was lucky to spot a large group of Green Parakeets flying to their evening roost. My first lifer and a nice way to finish the day. We were totally exhausted and ate in grocery store roasted chicken in our hotel in McAllen.

Day 3: We woke up extra early, leaving the hotel in the dark, to get in position for the next lifer of the trip. The Red-billed Pigeon breeds along the Rio Grande, but is difficult to see. They tend to fly up and down the river at dawn and several spots are famous for producing good looks at this rare bird. Salineño is perhaps the best spot to start. It's a dusty town with a long road leading off of Hwy 83 to the water. We passed first through an area of low scrub with very few trees but plenty of power poles on which we saw a perched Harris' Hawk. Then into and through the town square, past the church and eventually found the lush riverside woods about 200 yards before the beach. We looked for more than an hour with no luck, and were discouraged to hear that the group before us had on land in a nearby tree. They had arrived about 15 minutes earlier. While we waited for the unlikely second appearance of the bird we found numerous Altamira Orioles as well as a single Bullock's Oriole. Both the iridescent Green Kingfisher and it's colossal cousin the Ringed Kingfisher were seen here as was Spotted our first Laughing Gulls, a Sandpiper, and an Osprey. I had given up on the Red-billed Pigeon and we took a short stroll up to the Salineño Birders Community only to find a sign saying "See you in the Fall". Now I was thoroughly discouraged and began to sulk. The mutterings of the group hanging out along the river and their stories of Muscovy Duck didn't help either... Suddenly I yelled, "Red-billed Pigeon!" We all directed our attention to the right and followed it in our glasses as the large maroon Pigeon came up river. What a beautiful bird and my second lifer for the trip. The deep maroon on the head and shoulders reminded me somewhat of a Glossy Ibis in breeding plumage, but the books don't do the bird justice. After that excitement I cheered up and we continued to another river front haunt, the Del Rio RV Park, which is similar habitat to Salineño. Along the way we heard an interesting song from the car window. An impromptu effort produced several Cassin's Sparrows, a third lifer, singing and performing their display flight in the low scrub 50 yards from the road. The man who manages the park is a fairly recent Mexican Immigrant who smelled heavily of beer at 11:00 am. He is however, a sociable guy and clearly eager to have birders visit his feeders. He showed us his photo album of birds and gave us several copies of his business card. Down at river's edge, we waited at the north feeders for the action. After a wait of almost 45 minutes, two Brown Jays scattered the smaller birds and gorged themselves on seeds, oranges and some tropical seed pods. We had one fly right over us at one point, the immature, and were impressed with its enormous size, more in line with a long-tailed Crow than a Jay. Next we visited Falcon State Park where the conditions were dry and very hot, similar to some desert areas in California. New birds located included our first Pyrrhuloxia, a singing male, and glorious looks at Black-throated Sparrow. Little else was seen here, but no fault of the park. It was simply too hot to explore much more. Kaz was very interested in finding White-colored Seedeater, so we made the trek up to the little town of Zapata to look behind the library as I had before. One bird, a singing male made a brief and unsatisfying show. A blue piece of paper in a ziplock back stapled to a phone pole gave us our next clue, "For WCSE go to San Ygnacio at end of Wash Rd" We followed the suggestion and visited an informal wildlife preserve that is famous for hosting the rare Seedeater. It's a lush place with a flower garden and a loose trail leading through buzzing tall grasses bordering the river. We were not there more than a minute before the mosquitos found us, but the Seedeaters were also there in relative abundance so we had to press on. We located no less than four individuals and learned their song rather well in that short time. Also detected were a singing Yellow-breasted Chat and numerous "Black-backed" Lesser Goldfinches. As the day drew to a close, we made an exhausting trek to Falcon Dam where we found the gate to the edge closed. The ABA Bird Finding Guide says you are permitted to walk the road to the edge, but evidently, the guard that stopped us on our way out felt otherwise. I only wish he had informed us before we made the entire walk to the car... Maybe he would have given us a lift back to the top. The road leading to the overlook is long and straight and passes though wide grassy areas which produced Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Eastern Meadowlarks. The bridge was to our right and low trees to our left. The overlook gave us great view of the dam's drainage plain as well as both banks of the river and all its lush woodlands below. Many small offshoots with Shorebirds and Waders were found here. Anyway, species of note were a Black Phoebe (never fails), a large group of Mississippi Kites, Gull-billed Terns, our first and only Western Kingbird and several Cave Swallows. Crested Caracaras, which was seen on numerous occasions was seen especially well here as one perched on a phone pole watching two nearby Black Vultures. We lodged again in McAllen.

Day 4: We left the western portion of the river and made our way toward Brownsville where we birded the famous Sabal Palms Audubon Grove. This preserve contains, as the name suggests, wonderful Sabal Palms , some of them quite large. The smaller flowering trees are present as are areas of open grasslands. Resacas are in several spots as well as a beautiful boardwalk. Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays and Altamira Orioles were everywhere as were the now-familiar calls of Couche's Kingbird and White-eyed Vireo. The target species for this location were the nesting Short-tailed Hawk, a fourth lifer, which has paired with a confusingly similar Swainson's Hawk. We found a group of birders looking at a distant grove of trees. Within minutes, the birds popped up out of the nest trees and we were able to view both individuals! From copulation we observed in the upper branches, it seems the smaller Short-tailed Hawk is the definitely the male. I don't know what any resulting offspring will be called... Perhaps Shortson's Hawk, or Swain-tailed. I also don't know how often such hybridization occurs between these two species. I had missed the Short-tailed Hawk in Florida, where it is more expected, so this was an unexpected bonus I only learned about a matter of days before we arrived in McAllen. The internet is truly a wonderful tool. We were unsuccessful at locating the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, but we gave it a good effort. The bird had been singing about an hour earlier, but apparently moved elsewhere in the grove. After doing a reasonable job with this area, and locating most of what we expected to find, we visited the shop where I picked up a copy of the Hawks of North America (2nd Ed) that was autographed by the author Bill Clark, as well as some other books specifically on Texas including a one I wish I'd had before the trip, Birding Texas a Falcon Guide. I managed to drop my telescope full on the concrete driveway while fussing with camera straps, binocular straps, shoulder bag straps and tripod legs. Luckily no serious damage was done, but my zoom is now a bit stiff... Leaving the palm grove we continued along the lonely Hwy 4 east of Hwy 1419 to Botteri's Sparrow habitat for a fifth lifer. Sure enough, in exactly the area indicated by the ABA Bird Finding Guide we found several of the birds singing atop small bushes. Nearby, the Eastern Meadowlarks sung as well and we noticed the reduced yellow on the face, slightly different than our familiar Westerns. From there we traveled to Laguna Atoscosa NWR where we hoped for some new discoveries. The area is a strange combination of low-lying desert scrub which includes yucca and sage as well as prickly pear cactus. Then there are areas of narrow hard-packed sandy beaches with views of a massive lagoon. We were told at the visitors center that the report of Yellow-green Vireo was 11 years old and finding the bird in the park was unrealistic but we had high hopes of another bird, the endangered Aplomado Falcon. Shortly after entering the auto loop we began to see numerous Raptors including White-tailed Hawk and Harris Hawk. We also managed to locate a distant Aplomado Falcon, a sixth lifer, perched on a yucca tree. There was no telling if it was an adult or an immature at that distance because looks were brief, but identifiable if not a bit academic. In areas where there was water or sandy flats we observed Wilson's Plover and several species of Tern, Caspian, Royal, Common, Forster's, and Least. No Black Terns were seen the entire trip. We left the area at end of day and lodged in Harlingen.

Day 5: This was a drive day. Our plan was to get as close as possible to the area and lodge somewhere nearby. We drove north on Hwy 77, stopping at a rest stop with accommodations, finding our first Orchard Oriole of the trip and a few Brewer's Blackbirds. Then to Sarita to see what we could find. This small town features a small stand of palm trees near the court house and various shrubs on residential streets that sometimes provide shelter for migrant birds. Sarita has been made famous by occasional spectacular rarities such as Rufous-backed Robin. We had no such luck, but we did find numerous Hooded, Bullock's and Altamira Oriole. A new trip bird was the Eurasian Collared Dove. From there we made the drive up to Kingsville to visit the Dick Kleberg Park a recreational park with large playing fields a row boat pond and a levy that leads to a small wooded sanctuary.Little was accomplished at this late morning stop, but we have very close looks at a pair of Least Terns on the levy. We slipped around the south side of Corpus Christi and stopped at Packery Channel County Park. There we had lunch among the windswept cord grass dunes and views of Corpus Christi Bay. All the while were were accompanied by hoards of Laughing Gulls and a nearby sandbar held several birds of interest, notably all prior Terns plus the Sandwich Tern and Black Skimmers. Reddish Egrets were seen dancing in the waves in their characteristic manner and our first and only American Oystercatcher of the trip. We left the area, making a brief stop at Mustang Island State Park to see what additional birds would present themselves. Ruddy Turnstone was the only new bird, but the scenery was spectacular. Soft white sand beaches and long views down the gulf coast. We then crossed from Port Aransas to Aransas Pass through a series of long bridges and a ferry. We pulled into Aransas NWR late in the day and had very little time to explore before sundown. We were told the gate closed and locked automatically after the sun went down and if we didn't make it back, we might get locked in... We decided to to first to the observation tower along the two-way portion of the road and work our way back. From there we could see Mustang Lake and San Antonio Bay, beautiful long views of marsh and distant trees. Windy conditions made for poor visibility, but in the distance Roseate Spoonbill, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron and Reddish Egret could all be seen. White Ibis were quite numerous in this park as well. A stop at Jones Lake, where they have American Alligators reaching 16' in length, afforded us our first good looks at Least Grebe, although we had them at Sabal Palms as well. An investigation of the many Grackles produced no Boat-tailed yet, but we would solve that problem later. A final stop for the day at the Rail Trail produced no new birdspecies, but we did see the largest American Alligator of the trip. We could not see the whole length of the animal as it was partially submerged, but the back and head were so much wider than any we had seen before we assumed it was a massive individual. Occasionally we heard the disturbing growl of other Alligators in the bushes along the trailside. It was definitely time to go! We also saw plenty of White-tailed Deer as well as a living Nine-banded Armadillo. Very rare indeed since most of these strange animals are seen flattened by the side of the road! We lodged in Fulton, close enough to Aransas to get an early start in the morning.

Day 6: We actually spent much less time in Aransas NWR on Day 6 than I had budget for. We visited the park, stopping again at the Rail Trail, locating an enormous Alligator (Cricket thinks I approached it too closely), and then took a long hike at Heron Flats. There we observed several distant Seaside Sparrow, numerous singing Sedge Wrens and Aiko's target bird for the trip, a Painted Bunting. The tower was not very productive for the second day in a row so we proceeded on the one-way auto loop. Habitat opened up a bit more, with less water, but no additional species were found. Having secured the area we continued north out of the preserve and up toward San Bernard NWR where activity was high. In many ways, the area resembles San Luis NWR in California with long channels of water with dense reed brakes and vast grassy areas. Occasional medium sized trees punctuate the otherwise flat surroundings. We entered the refuge in late afternoon and were greeted at the door by a tree-full of White Ibis and an Eastern Kingbird as well as an Orchard Oriole. Upon beginning the auto loop we heard Dickcissel from the care and got out to observe the singing male 50 yards away in the grass. Nearly all of the Grackles we found showed the dark irises and rounded heads of Boat-tailed Grackles and we noted their different song as well. Along the road we heard the low soft cooing of Least Bittern in at least two locations, but we were to get great looks at four others further down. A bright Purple Gallinule came out of into the open to provoke gasps of astonishment from all of us. Cricket especially was amazed with the find. Why a secretive bird that hides in the reeds and prefers to be overlooked would evolve such brilliant colors is beyond me... We had just rounded the bend at the far east side of the auto loop when it appeared. From the car I spotted what I thought I would never find, a Masked Duck. The bird looks a bit like a female Ruddy Duck, to which it is closely related, but has more stripes on the head and has a more overall cinnamon color. It prefers the edges of shallow ponds that are heavily covered and when it is nervous it ducks into the grass and often evades notice. We waited anxiously for the bird to reappear. Having noticed our excitement it had practiced its usual defense and hidden. I ran for the scope, the book, another book, a checklist and a camera. Could we really be seeing something so wonderful as this? The recent rains had created many shallow ponds from northern Mexico up into the Rio Grande Valley and north along the coast for a great distance, which in turn had opened up a corridor for this bird to enter areas usually unfavorable for its species. There it was again! I managed to get a few digital shots, although blurry. It appeared to raise its head in a strange manner, like piston, and then again. Just barely visible to its left we saw another head making the same movement, a head with stripes! Another Masked Duck!! As luck would have it we were seeing two Masked Ducks, a female and a male in eclipse. Unbelievable. What a day, my seventh and last lifer of the trip was the best! We lodged in Clute.

Day 7: We decide we could not possibly top the day before so we opted to continue northward and visit another famous spot, Brazos Bend State Park. There the scenery changed somewhat. Long levy trails lead out among the freshwater marsh, bordered by tall broadleaf trees and eventually leading to a three story high observation tower giving us long views of the surrounding area. Roseate Spoonbill, Little Blue Heron, American Bittern and Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Purple Gallinule were all located easily. A single Anhinga perched in a tree over the pond and Carolina Wrens were in abundance, as they were at every location after Aransas. We observed several singing Northern Parula as well as Prothonotary Warblers. Wow, that's yellow! Blue Jays made their first really strong appearance, although we had heard them earlier in the trip and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew across the trail. In the distance we heard several daytime calls of the resident Barred Owls, but they eluded our binoculars and stopped calling as we approached the area. Elsewhere in the park in the drier areas behind the large lake we located Eastern Bluebird and Red-bellied Woodpecker. I'd have to recommend this spot to anyone going to Texas for birding. It's quite close to Houston and has a wonderful checklist with lots of variety. After leaving Brazos Bend we drove the belt way counter clockwise around metropolitan Houston and out the top to Jesse Jones State Park. There we hoped to find the rare and secretive Swainson's Warbler. The ranger gave us a map of the park and highlighted the areas the bird had been seen on previous occasions. Despite our best efforts we were unsuccessful although one small, drab brownish bird, which remains unidentified, may very well have been a Swainson's, fatigue and blood loss prevented us from nailing it down. We completed the loop across the board walk, winding over a water filled basin with huge cypress trees and their strange roots poking through the tiny green floating vegetation.It was truly a magical place, like what I imagine a real swamp might look like. Other birds found along the trail were singing Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Blue Jay, Summer Tanager and Red-eyed Vireo. Again, a good spot for a short birding stop if you happen to be in Houston. We checked into our hotel in Humble a bit early, had a celebration dinner at Saltgrass Steak House which was delicious (read Day 8) and made plans for the following morning before our flight.

Day 8: Our eight day itinerary was somewhat shortened by a bout of violent food poisoning in Humble, so we were unable to bird the WG Jones forest north of Houston in search of Red-cockaded and Red-headed Woodpeckers or the Brown-headed Nuthatch. Oh, well.

Least Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Neotropic Cormorant
American Bittern
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
White Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
Fulvous Whistling Duck
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Canada Goose
Green-winged Teal
Mottled Duck
Northern Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Greater Scaup
Ruddy Duck
Masked Duck
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Swallow-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kite
Mississippi Kite
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Harris Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Swainson's Hawk
White-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Aplomado Falcon
Plain Chachalaca
Wild Turkey (heard only)
Northern Bobwhite
Scaled Quail (heard only)
Purple Gallinule
Common Moorhen
American Coot
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson's Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Wilson's Phalarope
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Gull-billed Tern
Caspian Tern
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Black Skimmer
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Inca Dove
Common Ground Dove
White-tipped Dove
Green Parakeet
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Greater Roadrunner
Groove-billed Ani (heard only)
Eastern Screech Owl
Barred Owl (heard only)
Elf Owl
Lesser Nighthawk
Common Nighthawk
Pauraque (heard only)
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ringed Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker (heard only)
Black Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Great-crested Flycatcher
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Horned Lark
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow
Barn Swallow
Blue Jay
Green Jay
Brown Jay
American Crow
Chihuahuan Raven
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse (also "Black-crested" Titmouse)
Cactus Wren
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (heard only)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Clay-colored Robin
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Long-billed Thrasher
Curve-billed Thrasher
Loggerhead Shrike
European Starling
White-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo (heard only)
Orange-crowned Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler
Common Yellow-throat
Yellow-breasted Chat (heard only, several locations)
Summer Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Painted Bunting
Olive Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
White-collared Seedeater
Botteri's Sparrow
Cassin's Sparrow

Lark Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Brewer's Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Common Grackle
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Altimira Oriole
Bullock's Oriole
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
House Sparrow