Monthly Archives: April 2013

One Good Tern Deserves Another

Yesterday was my last day in the South Padre Island area.  A morning walk on the beach produced hundreds of terns of at least six species.  We are relatively tern-poor in Western Washington, where seeing more than a couple species in a day is unusual.  My favorite tern is the Black Skimmer, with his mammoth orange-and-black bill (seen here with a number of smaller Sandwich Terns, which have thin black bills tipped in white).


In addition to a great many types of terns, the Texas Gulf Coast is also blessed with an abundant number and variety of herons and egrets.  All of these birds thrive in the extensive coastal marshes and wetlands that run the length of Texas’s shoreline for hundreds of miles.

Usually, when I get into a staring contest with a bird, I win handily.  But this Green Heron stared me down with its stern and unwavering gaze.

Green Heron

A Tricolored Heron was skulking nearby, trying to catch a little shade under a tiny mangrove.

Tricolored Heron

Along the boardwalk I looked down to see a great many fish.  Those are going to make the local Ospreys very happy, I thought.


Suddenly a black and white blur streaked past, skimming low over the way, and snagged a fish on the fly-by.  Then the Osprey took his catch to a nearby perch, and calmly breakfasted on very fresh fish.


In the afternoon I began the long drive north.  I had an important date the next day.  A date with chickens.  And I didn’t want to be late.

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Deep in the Big Toe of Texas

If the Hill Country is the Heart of Texas, then the area around Brownsville and South Padre Island (in the extreme southeastern part of the state) is its Big Toe.  You know the one I’m talking about – that toe that always peeks out from the sandal, loves getting a good tan, and enjoys digging in the wet sand?  I’ve spent the last couple days exploring the Texas Toe, and seeing what it has to offer.

One of my first stops was the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, south of Brownsville.  There is not a lot of land in Texas south of Brownsville, but there is a thin little strip, and Sabal Palm is located there.  In order to get there, I’d have to take the most appropriately named Southmost Blvd.


It was here that I came face-to-face with the famous (or infamous) Border Fence that the US Government has been building along our shared border with Mexico.  The fence is a scary monstrosity.  It is very tall, made of rusty-looking iron, and topped with spikes.  Trees, habitat, and farmland on either side have been cleared.  South of Brownsville the fence is actually built quite a distance from the Rio Grande, essentially sealing off a sliver of US land south of the border wall.  Sabal Palm Sanctuary is south of the fence, and you have to pass through a kind of checkpoint to reach it.

Border fence

border fence

I tried to put this unsettling experience behind me for now, and enjoy my time at the Sanctuary.  Sabal Palm is one of the few remaining tracks of wild habitat left in the eastern end of the Rio Grande Valley, and it is home to a forest of rare native sabal palm trees.  It is also a magnet for rare and beautiful birds.

I saw the rarest one first, a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak.  Common in parts of Mexico, this bird only very occasionally ventures as far north as the Brownsville area.  This particular individual liked to skulk deep in the brush while I was there, so all I managed was this less than serviceable photo:

CC Grosbeak

As you can see, her collar is green.  Only the male’s is crimson.  Her shy attitude and my persistent efforts to snap a photo made me feel a bit like one of those annoying photographers who is always trying to take a picture of some poor celebrity while she tries to get an ice cream with her kids.

The more common birds were more cooperative, like Green Jay and Hooded Oriole.  Bird snacks, provided by the refuge staff, helped them feel at home near the human visitors.

Green jay2

Hooded Oriole

That apple that the oriole was munching was popular, and as soon as he left a rare Clay-colored Thrush came in to have a bite.

Clay-colored Thrush

After spending a couple of hours at Sabal Palm, I negotiated my way back through the border fence and headed east to the coast.  Along the way, I scanned for Aplomado Falcons.

Aplomado Falcons used to be fairly common from south Texas to Arizona in the 19th Century, but perhaps because of cattle grazing, land clearing, and/or hunting, the birds were essentially extirpated (i.e. eliminated) from the United States.  In the 1980s, a re-introduction effort was launched, with captive-raised birds being released in southeast Texas.  The re-introduction seems to be working, and there are now a couple dozen Aplomado Falcons roaming wild in the area.  I have searched for Aplomados on every trip to Texas over the last ten years, including back in February when I was here.  This is my seventh trip overall, and I’ve missed seeing them on the previous six.  Birders call species that they miss repeatedly “nemesis birds” – and Aplomados were probably my #1 nemesis.  Needless to say, I wasn’t too hopeful.  There just aren’t that many of these falcons around, and they range over a wide area.  They are also relatively small, and they are fast flyers – easy to miss.  So when I saw a dark raptor zipping by me on Highway 100, I tried not to get excited as I pulled off the highway into the grassy shoulder (I had previously stopped for a distant Caracara and a couple of Chihuahuan Ravens, thinking they might be falcons).  Focusing my binoculars, I caught a quick glimpse of a sharp-winged falcon blasting by at perhaps 60 mph – in hot pursuit of some Horned Larks, one of which was about to become lunch on the wing.  It was an Aplomado Falcon.

Crappy Aplomado Pic

It was too fast and too far away to get a good photo, but here is a super blurry picture of this magnificent creature.  I watched it devour a Horned Lark, and then fly up to an electrical tower where there was a nest made of sticks.  And poking up from inside that nest was the tail of a second Aplomado Falcon, presumably sitting on eggs (or chicks!).  I had found an Aplomado nest!

Aplomado Nest and Tail

Aplomados have extremely long tails, mostly dark with thin white stripes – as you can see in the photo above!  I was thrilled.  I also decided I shouldn’t linger.  Even though I was still almost 200 yards away, birds of prey can get antsy when people get too close to their nests – and Aplomado Falcons are an endangered species.  So I did a little fist pump, put the car in gear, and headed for South Padre Island.

There’s more to tell about this leg of the trip, but it’s late and tomorrow is another early morning.  I doubt it can possibly top today, though.

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Deep in the Heart of Texas

I’m on the road again, this time for my final spring blitz.  My Big Year is officially over in two months and two days, so I’m getting ready for the grand finale.  Spring migration is in full swing, and I am going to follow the birds north from the US/Mexico border all the way  to the Arctic Circle over the next couple of months.  I will also range as far east as Florida, and as far west as Gambell, AK (within sight of Siberia).  It should be crazy, and I hope also great.

Right now I’m deep in the Heart of Texas.  I’ve spent the past few days traveling through the Hill Country on the Edwards Plateau, north and west of San Antonio.

Hill Country

It is a beautiful area, full of spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife.  I travelled out to this remote area to see two endangered species that only breed within a hundred miles or so of this spot: Golden-Cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

Hill Country2

My first stop was the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, about an hour west of Kerrville.  I arrived at dawn, only to find that the main road through the refuge was closed because they were holding a spring turkey hunt – for the next three days!  My very carefully laid plans were foiled by a turkey shoot!  There are other places to see these vireos, but this was the best and closest one, and I didn’t have a lot of extra time.  I did discover that one of the side roads on the west edge of the refuge was going to be open, so I decided to give that area a go.  Forty five minutes later, I was watching a male Black-capped Vireo singing away from the top of a small cedar tree.  Success!

Driving on, I discovered another wrinkle in my plan.  The narrow two-lane highway that I intended to take to my next destination was under construction. Seriously under construction.  Like, “follow a pilot car for 15 miles along a dirt road at 10 mph” under construction.

Follow Me

I’m pretty sure my rental contract says I’m not supposed to drive off the pavement, so let’s keep this between you and me, ok?  After a slight delay, I was back on track, and arrived at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

Lost Maples2

This park is absolutely gorgeous – one of my favorite places to visit in Texas.  And it also hosts dozens of endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers, several of which obligingly popped into view during my hike along the East Trail.

Lost Maples

Lost Maples is a stop of the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail, another example of the birding/nature trails I wrote about during my last visit to Texas.

Heart of Texas

I don’t have any pictures of the warbler or the vireo because they are hard to photograph, and I didn’t want to bother or harass them (they are endangered species, after all!).  But I did manage to snap a quick picture of this cool Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but his tail is longer than his body (it’s right in front of the barbed wire).

Scissor-tail Flycatcher

My last stop in the Hill Country was at Neal’s Lodges in Concan, TX.  The owners have done a terrific job making their property bird and wildlife-friendly.  I was there in the heat of the day, so I didn’t see a ton of different species, but I did find a (previously reported) Tropical Parula, an very rare bird north of Mexico.


Tonight I went owling at Bentsen State Park.  I got a tip from the rangers about the location of an Elf Owl roost.  The owl sleeps inside an old woodpecker hole – the top hole in the middle (broken off) trunk in the picture below.

Elf Owl Tree

Elf Owls are the smallest owls in North America – a mere 5.5 inches long and an ounce and a half in weight.  Three Elf Owls combined weigh less than a single iPhone.  I watched the roost hole from about sunset to dusk (half an hour or so), and finally saw him peeking out to check things out.  He stuck his head out several times, only to disappear again into the hole.  Finally when it was almost dark, he launched himself out into the night.  What a treat.

In my Texas travels, I have found many amazing sights.  But I haven’t found Utopia yet.  I think it might be just up the road, though.



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