Tag Archives: Texas

The Colima Warblers of Big Bend

I will confess that I didn’t come to Big Bend just for the scenery.

Toll Mountain

I also came to search for the Colima Warbler.  There are about 52 regularly occurring species of wood warblers in the US and Canada (depending on how you count), and I have already seen 48 of them since June of 2012.  The three hardest to get are the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (check), the south-of-the-border vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler (check), and the Colima.  Colima Warblers are not endangered like Kirtland’s, but almost all of their natural range lies south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps a few dozen trickle across the border to breed in the high altitude mountains of Big Bend.  In order to see a Colima, though, you need to hike up to where they live.

Up there.

To Pinnacles Trail

It’s not a trek for the faint of heart.  The traditional spot to find Colimas is Boot Spring, about 9 miles roundtrip from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin.  The hike starts at over a mile above sea level, and climbs another 1800 feet or so, mostly in the first 3 miles.  Not being as physically fit as some hikers, I started before dawn so I could reach the Colima’s habitat while they would still be active and singing in the cool mid-morning hours.

I started up the Pinnacles Trail.  The turnoff to Boot Spring is just past the junction with the Colima Trail.

Pinnacles Trail Sign

On the way up I listened to many calling Gnatcatchers, and admired the blooming cacti.

Cactus

The trail is well-maintained, although it is steep and rocky in places, and the switchbacks near the crest are tiring.

trail

As I climbed, I could see out over the entire Chisos Basin area.  The morning sun bathed everything in a golden glow.

Halfway up Pinnacles Trail

I stopped to rest and eat a little trail mix, and a chummy group of Mexican Jays came down to request that I share some peanuts with them.  They were not pleased when I refused.

Mexican Jay

Looking up, I could see the Pinnacles formation.  The end of the strenuous climbing portion of my hike was in sight.

Pinnacles

Near the top, I heard a warbler singing!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but then I saw it: a large brownish-gray warbler with orange undertail coverts.

Colima Warbler

That’s birder-speak for “it has an orange butt.”  Going a little higher, I got a slightly better view of the rest of him while he was busy singing.  Note the white eye-ring and the faint chestnut cap.

Colima Warbler

Yes, my point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the job here, but I got a few ‘record shots.’

I climbed the rest of the way to the top, and ate a congratulatory granola bar while I enjoyed the view.

View from top

I hadn’t made it to Boot Spring yet, so I decided to keep going.  The trail leveled out a bit here, so the hiking was much easier.  And I could start to see the other side of the Chisos Mountains.

Other side of Mtns

After another mile or so, I saw Boot Rock (in the foreground):

The Boot

Boot Rock, of course, looks like an upside down cowboy boot – and gives its name to Boot Canyon and Boot Spring.  Boot Rock is a hoodoo, a tall vertical rock formation left behind when the softer rock around it weathered and eroded away.

Near Boot Spring I found many of the expected high elevation birds: tanagers, flycatchers, and vireos – but no more Colima Warblers.  It was later in the day by this point, so it’s possible they just weren’t singing as much anymore.  I also found this guy lounging in my path.  I believe it’s a Texas Alligator Lizard.  It was quite large, and not very reluctant to get out of my way.

Texas Alligator Lizard

I didn’t make it all the way to the South Rim, but my various exploratory excursions and back-tracking amounted to at least 11 to 12 miles, by my rough estimation.  My feet were killing me by the time I got back down, and I had managed to consume all 2.5 liters of water I brought with me.  I took a short nap, and got up in time for a big dinner and one more classic Big Bend sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend

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Big Bend National Park

Toll Mountain

Despite leaving Seattle over a week ago, this is my first blog post of my trip (and I’m going home tomorrow!).  My lack of productivity on the blog front is due to two factors.  The first is that I spent the first four days on an odyssey to Big Bend National Park, a place of spectacular geology and surprising biodiversity – and extremely limited internet availability.  The second factor is that I’ve spent the last couple days battling some of kind of nasty bug, which I thought might be Hantavirus or deadly Valley Fever, but my wife thinks is the stomach flu.  She’s probably right.  Again.  Thank goodness.

Anyhow, back to Big Bend.  Some places are in the middle of nowhere.  Not Big Bend.  In order to reach it, you have to first drive to the middle of nowhere, and then keep going for another couple hundred miles.  It’s at the End of Nowhere.  I’ve been lots of places during my travels this year with no cell phone service.  But I think Big Bend is the only place I’ve been with no cell service anywhere within 75 miles.

Big Bend Desert

Big Bend National Park encompasses an area over 800,000 acres, making it slightly smaller than Olympic NP and slightly bigger than Yosemite.  Yet not many people make it all the way out to Big Bend.  Olympic NP has 10 visitors for each one person who travels to Big Bend.  Great Smokey Mountains NP has 33.  I had to traverse four time zones just to get here: leaving Seattle (PDT), arriving Tucson (MST), driving through New Mexico (MDT), and finally traveling south through the Trans-Pecos region of Texas (CDT).  I was confused and exhausted arriving in Van Horn, TX for the night, as it was an hour later than I thought it should be.  It turns out that Texas has 254 counties, 252 of which are on Central Time and 2 of which are not.  Really, Texas?!

But the trip was worth it, for the scenery alone.

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Knob

Unfortunately, these tiny pictures do not begin to do justice to the vastness of the landscape and the sheer magnitude of the mountains.

And then there was the wildlife.  I was constantly reminded that I was in Black Bear and Mountain Lion country.

Mountain Lion Warning Sign

Bear Country Sign

I love how we’re supposed to both “avoid carrying odorous food” and also “carry out trash and left-over food.”  I totally understand the reasoning for each, but don’t you think trash and leftovers might qualify as “odorous food”?

Returning from a hike, a ranger asked me if I’d seen any mountain lions.  I said no.  She said, “well, you can bet that one saw you!”  Then she pointed to the bear and lion tracker:

Bear and Mtn Lion Sightings

While unfortunately (or fortunately?) I didn’t run into any large carnivores, I did find plenty of wildlife.  Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) made an appearance every evening.

Javelina

A pair of Common Blackhawks were nesting near the Rio Grande.  My photo of the birds themselves didn’t come out (it was almost sunset), but here’s their personal sign:

Black Hawk Sign

A Greater Roadrunner sat high in a dead tree and sang his mournful territorial song:

Roadrunner in tree

This female Blue-throated Hummingbird was squeezing in one more snack before bed.

Blue-throated Hummer

And tarantulas scurried across the desert, out for their evening meal:

Tarantula

Hot on their tail, tarantula hawks roamed the desert.  The tarantula hawk is a type of parasitic wasp that uses tarantulas as its nursery.

Tarantula Hawk

The female tarantula hawk stings a tarantula, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it.  The wasp then drags the tarantula back to its burrow and lays an egg inside.  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva eats the tarantula alive.  Yikes!  Tarantula hawks usually don’t bother humans, but their sting has been rated the #2 worst insect sting in the world by the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  I stayed away from the tarantula hawks.  Far away.

While I’m always a sucker for interesting fauna, I spent a little time checking out the flora as well.  Agaves are common in Big Bend.

Agave

These succulents flower only once, at the end of their lives, sending up a huge stalks to pollinate their flowers and disperse their fruit.

Agave Stalk

Although they are sometimes known as “century plants,” most species of agave only live a couple decades or so.

My first full day in Big Bend was a feast for the senses, and I had to drag myself back to my room after enjoying an amazing sunset.

Big Bend Desert at Sunset

Big Bend Sunset

I needed all of my energy for tomorrow’s epic hike, to see one of the smallest birds in one of the most distant corners of one of the most remote national parks in the country.

 

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Spring Texas Wrap-Up and Yankee Bobbytraps

Texas flowers

My second visit to Texas during my Big Year is in the books.  I will return to the Lone Star State in May for a brief excursion to Big Bend National Park.  But until then, here is my trip wrap-up.

Miles by car: 2206 (3rd-most behind Minnesota/Wisconsin/Michigan and Summer California/Arizona)

Miles by foot: 40 (approx)

Total species seen: 230 (a new record for my Big Year trips!)

New Big Year Birds added: 34 (I’m currently at 579 total since I started on June 12, 2012 – it may be possible for me to break 600 in the next 2 weeks)

Total number of individual birds seen during my April Texas trip (according to my eBird summary): 5380 (approx)

Highlights: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, Black and Yellow Rails, Elf Owl, finally seeing Aplomado Falcon, and birding in Louisiana for the very first time

Favorite Duck: Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Coolest Thing to Just Sit and Watch: The heron rookery at High Island’s Smith Oaks, where hundreds of Great and Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Neotropic Cormorants are showing off their spectacular nuptial plumage, courting, mating, bellowing, building nests, incubating eggs, and generally carrying on and creating quite a show.

Rookery

Bird that would be outrageously cool if it were rare instead of incredibly abundant, or if it were less annoying (perhaps if it didn’t get together with 750 of its friends and white-wash your car with poop while you go in to the grocery store for ten minutes): Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Best Yankee Booby-trap: The Container of Not Sweet Tea at a Houston area restaurant

Yankee Boobytrap

This one might require a little explanation if you haven’t spent a lot of time in the South.  In order to understand what’s going on here, you need to know three important details: 1) No self-respecting Southern drinks unsweetened tea.  It just isn’t done.  2) Most Southerners don’t hate Yankees, but they don’t really like ’em that much either.  3)  To Yankees, Sweet Tea may sound like an two word phrase with an adjective and a noun, like ‘green shirt’ – but it isn’t.  Sweet Tea may have two words, but it describes one single, specific thing – like cotton candy or Kansas City.

Looking at the picture above, a Yankee might take this to mean that the container on the right dispenses sweetened tea, and the one on the left unsweetened tea.  A Southerner knows better.  The one on the right dispenses Sweet Tea, and who the heck knows what’s in the other one – but it sure ain’t Sweet Tea.  It might be radiator fluid.  It would be like labeling one container ‘water’ and the other one ‘not water.’

I concluded that the ‘Not Sweet Tea’ container must be a booby-trap for unsuspecting Yankees.  I watched this beverage station for a good 30 minutes while I ate lunch.  Seventeen people came to get Sweet Tea, but no one tried the ‘Not Sweet Tea.’  I had a Diet Coke.

Provided the FAA doesn’t furlough my air traffic controllers, I’ll be on the red-eye to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday for 12 days in South Florida.

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More Migration Miracles

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of migrant oases dotted along the Gulf Coast which can be good for seeing neotropical migrants winging their way past.  I visited a several of them, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to Lafitte’s Cove near Galveston all the way to Peveto Woods in southwestern Louisiana.

Welcome to Louisiana

Peveto Woods

But some of the oldest and most famous coastal migrant traps are the Houston Audubon Society’s nature preserves in the tiny town of High Island.  Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks have been attracting birds and bird watchers to this section of the Texas coast for decades.

Boy Scout Woods

When the north wind blows, Boy Scout Woods can blow your mind with an incredible diversity and sheer numbers of birds.  While I was there, a moderate southeast wind was predominant; good weather for migrating, and many birds overflew the coast riding the favorable tailwind, stopping miles inland at larger tracts of favorable habitat.  Even under these conditions, the sanctuaries at High Island produced a slow but steady influx of warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles.  And while small songbirds (known more formally as passerines) are the usual highlight at High Island, the sanctuaries also play host to other kinds of migrating birds, like this nighthawk, who is trying to catch a quick nap before continuing on its migration once night falls again.

Lesser Nighthawk

High Island also serves another function, a more social one for us humans.  It is one of the great Meccas of the birding world.  All serious birders eventually make the pilgrimage to High Island, and it’s a great place to meet and talk to other birders.  Some of them are from up the street, and some of them are from Europe, South America, or Australia.  Some are first timer newbie birders who marvel at the local Cardinals, and some are grizzled veterans who can ID a flying Prothonotary Warbler from 200 yards away, just by its ‘chip’ call note.

The grandstand area is the grand central station of the High Island birding community.  Audubon memberships and t-shirts are bought and sold.  Wooden bleachers have been set up near a small pond, a water drop, and a fruiting mulberry tree.  Birds and birders circulate there throughout the day to see and be seen.

High Island

There is a network of trails and boardwalks that go throughout the property, which travel through a couple of different habitats from weedy fields to mature stands of oak.

BSW Trail

The sanctuaries use to host several dozen hundred-year old oak trees, but many of them were damaged or killed by a series of hurricanes that included Ike and Rita.  While they are different places now with many of the big trees gone, the High Island sanctuaries are still good for birds, and a new generation of trees is growing up.

Of course, there are many species of birds who are on tremendous journeys of their own for whom trees and bushes offer no respite at all.  Shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and curlews need open fields, mudflats, and beaches to feed and rest.  Houston Audubon is doing its part to help these birds as well, and I spent an afternoon at their Bolivar Flats tidelands preserve a dozen miles or so south of High Island on the coast.

Bolivar Flats Sign

There I got to see thousands of shorebirds taking a break from their epic trips.  Some of these birds “winter” in Patagonia (during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer!) at the southern tip of South America and breed at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.

This Red Knot is just transitioning into his rusty summer plumage.

Red Knot

I saw many, many Willets, including this one who was doing a dance (I think it was the Willet Hokey Pokey):

Willet dance

Each shorebird was hanging out in its own preferred habitat.  This Long-billed Curlew stalked the waterline:

LB Curlew

A Hudsonian Godwit fed in the grass:

Hudsonian Godwit

And Wilson’s Plovers loafed in the dry sand up the beach:

Wilson's Plover

Protecting this habitat is vitally important for migrating shorebirds.  Yes, they can travel 10,000 miles in matter of weeks.  But they can’t do it if they don’t have rest and refueling stations along the way.  If the entire Gulf Coast succumbs to beach condos and oil refineries, these shorebirds will be squeezed out of existence.

Oil refinery

Fortunately, groups like Houston Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Ornithological Society are fighting to preserve important sections of coastline, and the birds who call this area home.  One way to learn more about shorebirds and their amazing migrations is to band them.  Researchers place tiny plastic and metal bands on the birds’ legs, and use them to track the birds along their migration route.  I was fortunate enough to spot a banded Piping Plover, and used the internet to report my sighting to the ornithologists who banded it.  If you look closely, you can see the red and white bands on its legs in the picture below:

Banded Piping Plover

My trip to Texas is winding up, and it is time to go home and spend some time with my family.  Soon, it will also be time to finish planning my next adventure:  Florida and the Dry Tortugas.

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Migration Miracle

People in Seattle often ask me why I go to Texas to go bird watching.  And they often do so with a skeptical tone in their voice and a perplexed expression on their face.  There are many reasons why Texas is arguably the very best place in the United States to go birding.  One is the large number of specialties that occur here and nowhere else in this county or in the world (Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken to name only three).  A second reason is the proximity to the Mexican border, where many Mexican species reach their northern-most limits and a few rarities from further south occasionally just venture into the US (like Least Grebe and Crimson-collared Grosbeak).  These reasons alone would make Texas a must-visit.  But there is a third reason to come down to the Lone Star State, and it has to do with migration.  In order to fully understand why Texas is such an amazing place to see migrating birds, it’s helpful to back up a minute and consider why birds migrate in the first place.

Migration is an expansive and complex phenomenon.  Birds migrate for many different reasons.  But here is a brief introduction to why many of our birds “fly south” in the winter and “fly north” in the summer.  A big clue can be found in our global geography.

world map

Even a casual glance at a world map shows that there is more land mass north of the equator than south of it.  In addition, the two largest continents of the Southern Hemisphere taper to a point as they approach the South Pole, leaving a relatively small land mass at high southern latitudes near Antarctica.  In contrast, continents in the Northern Hemisphere tend to flare outwards as they go north towards the pole, creating a huge expanse of territory in the north temperate and arctic regions.  These lands in the northern US and Canada, northern Europe, and Siberia can be bitterly cold in winter, often locked below layers of ice and snow.  In the summer however, these vast areas warm considerably.  There is abundant nesting habitat, swarms of insects, and an explosion of seeds and fruits there during the brief boreal summer.  In short, it is a paradise for birds, but only for a few short months from early May to the end of the September.

While many birds are content to live their lives in the tropics year round where temperatures are mild and food is consistently available, some species have discovered that it is worthwhile to travel north during our summer, feast on the incredible abundance present, raise their young, and then high-tail it out of there before the weather turns again.  It is a risky strategy, but one that can pay huge dividends.  We call these birds who have taken on this high risk/high reward lifestyle in the Americas “neotropical migrants.”  They include our summer breeding songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers.  We often think of them as “our birds,” but really, we are just borrowing them for a few months.  They spend most of the year in Central and South America, often leaving as early as August and not returning until May.

Now you can begin to appreciate why Texas can be an amazing place to see birds in the spring and the fall.  Almost all of the neotropical migrants who breed anywhere in North America must pass through (or at least over) Texas twice a year.  Anytime in April or September, you can be almost any place in Texas and see migrants passing through.  But there are some locations which are truly special places to see migrating songbirds, especially the true dare-devils of this risk-loving group.

Suppose you are a Yellow Warbler, and you are trying beat all of your peers to the prime nesting habitat in an Ohio wetland.  Arrive too early, and there are no insects to eat and you may freeze to death.  Arrive too late, and all the of best territories and mates are already taken.  So you need to race there as fast as you can right during the “Goldilocks” window – not too early, and not too late.  Traveling up from Central America, you could play it relatively safe, and travel all the way around the Gulf of Mexico.  Some birds do this; we call them “Circum-Gulf migrants.”

Traveling north, they eventually hit the Gulf of Mexico somewhere near the Yucatan Peninsula (perhaps at point A, below).  There they scream “oh crap!” (or whatever birds scream when they find out that 600 miles of open water stand between them and that sexy female warbler they hope to find in Ohio), and turn to follow the Gulf all the way around the eastern coast of Mexico and up into Texas, arriving at Point B several days later:

Gulf Map

Of course, there are also the dare-devils that I mentioned earlier.  They eye the Gulf and say to themselves, “Hey, 600 miles is no biggie.  If I leave here at sunset, I could fly all night and all morning and be there by lunchtime – especially if the weather is good and I have a SE tailwind to push me along.”  These extreme risk takers, called Trans-Gulf migrants, are making a pretty good bet.  They can save a couple days of precious travel time by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico.  Of course they cannot eat or drink en route, and they can’t rest until they make landfall, some 18 hours later.  For healthy birds, everything is usually fine unless they meet bad weather in transit, like a northerly headwind, rain, or (worst-case scenario) thunderstorms.

When the wind blows from the north or storms brew over the Texas shoreline, birders head to the coast, to places like High Island (point B on the map above).  High Island is a tiny town just a couple dozen miles from the Louisiana border, and just half a mile from the beach.  It sits on a salt dome, so it is a dozen feet above the surrounding salt marsh flats.  The added elevation means that it’s the only place for miles and miles around that has trees (the little bit of added elevation means that their roots are not drowned by saltwater).  The Houston Audubon Society has several small nature sanctuaries in High Island filled with trees and native vegetation.

Boy Scout Woods

Trans-Gulf migrants that hit unfavorable weather are in trouble.  Some exhaust themselves and drown in the Gulf.  The ones that make it to land are in desperate need of a place to rest and food to eat.  They look for any suitable place to set down, even if it’s just a couple acres of trees like the nature preserves at High Island.  Birders on the ground can watch birds literally falling out of the sky.  You can see dozens and dozens of species – sometimes thousands of individual birds – hopping around at your feet and in the bushes, trying to find food and water and just rest for a minute.  My wife and I once witnessed a dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers come in off the Gulf just over the waves and crash-land on the sand dunes, where they sat, exhausted.  One April morning in Key West, I watched a thunderstorm precipitate a massive fallout of birds in a tiny park near the island’s tip.  I saw 100 Yellow-billed Cuckoos and 300 Indigo Buntings flopping around the bushes and small trees, along with about 60 other species of birds.  While fallouts are exciting for bird watchers, they are bad for bids.  The daredevils are paying a heavy price for their high risk strategy, many forfeiting their lives.

I didn’t witness any spectacular fallouts this time in Texas, but I was near the coast on several occasions when a light mist was falling or when the wind shifted slightly from the north.  At the South Padre Island Convention Center, there is a small planting of trees – really no bigger than a modest-sized suburban backyard.  But it is one of the only natural shelters for miles around for tired migrants.  The blue and yellow building in the picture below is the Convention Center; you can see the trees poking up slightly above the surrounding salt marsh:

Convention Center

One afternoon I watched that tiny area fill up with warblers, buntings, vireos, and orioles.  Even normally shy species were too hungry and tired to play coy.  This Black-throated Green Warbler flitted close around me for ten minutes, almost landing on my head:

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green2

As the Convention Center has become well known as a stopover place for migrant songbirds, volunteers have planted more trees and bushes, and even added a water feature for the birds.  Drips and water features are very attractive for neotropical migrants, who are thirsty from their flight and often want to bath and clean their feathers.  I saw a steady parade of birds come through the little pool, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler (left) and Nashville Warbler (right):

Warblers in the water

And then some Indigo Buntings came by:

Indigo Buntings Join

And even a Painted Bunting, whose brilliant blue, red, and neon yellow-green plumage is not adequately captured by this bad photo:

Painted Bunting

On that particular day, Nashville Warblers were particularly abundant, and I watched a steady stream of them come by to bathe:

Nashville Warbler bathing

A group called the Valley Land Fund decided to add a little more migrant stop-over habitat about a mile south of the Convention Center.  They bought up a number of adjacent vacant lots in a residential area, and planted them with trees and shrubs.  They fenced them off, but also created many spaces for birders to see into the new natural gardens they made.  In this way, the birds got a refuge, and birders got another place to watch the birds:

SPI woodlots

Valley Land Fund

Of course some migrant birds like sandpipers and plovers don’t find sanctuary in trees on their journey.  I’ll write about them in my next post.

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Dancing Chickens and Skulking Rails

Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

I woke up extra early on Saturday, and drove for 50 miles along a nearly abandoned two-lane road through the dark Texas night to the only national wildlife refuge named for a chicken.  I know, right?  A chicken?!  It’s a pretty special chicken, though.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a genetically unique subspecies (or race) of the Greater Prairie Chicken.  While most Greater PC’s live up in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, a small population of them has evolved to live here on the Texas coastal plain.  Hunting and cattle grazing have caused their numbers here to plummet, and there are currently only about 50 Attwater’s Prairie Chickens left in the wild (plus a few more in a small captive breeding program).  And every wild Attwater’s PC lives here on this modest refuge.

Normally, it’s almost impossible to see a Prairie Chicken here (I tried back in February and didn’t see one).  While part of the refuge is open to the public, the Prairie Chickens live in the northern sector which is normally closed to everyone except for researchers and refuge staff.  But for two mornings a year, for 1-2 hours each morning, the park rangers at Attwater allow limited access to view some incredibly endangered dancing chickens.

Prairie Chickens and some of their grouse relatives engage in a behavior known as lekking or lek mating.  In the spring, male Prairie Chickens gather in a communal area (known as a lek) and perform a complex display which involves inflating large air sacs on their neck, raising feathers (known as pinnae) on their head, and dancing and jumping into the air.  Females gather at the lek as well, and use the performances to select a worthy mate.

If I got up early enough, I might get a chance to see Attwater’s Prairie Chickens dancing on their lek.  I arrived to the refuge at 6:25 am.  The tours were supposed to start at 7:00 am.  There were already 30 people in line ahead of me to catch a van.  I got in line, and watched the eastern sky brighten.

Pre Dawn at Attwater

I made it into the third van for the 10 minute trip to the northern part of the refuge.  Once there, I joined a group of eager birders and nature enthusiasts on a small raised platform, about 200 yards from the lek area.  The lek was a small flat area where the chickens had trampled the vegetation a bit.  You can almost see it just the to the right of the base of the windmill in the picture below.  We waited.

Lek Site

Soon, a male Attwater’s Praire Chicken appeared, and began to strut, “boom”, and dance.  A little while later, two rivals joined him.  While it was too far away for me to get photos, I got great looks through my telescope.  So did everyone else.

Chicken watchers

I did take a few pictures of some photos hanging in the refuge office to give you an idea of what I saw:

Chicken photo

Chicken photo2

My favorite picture is an amazing color drawing by local 4th grader, Diamond Flores.

Festival Poster Winner

You can also find some amazing lekking behavior on YouTube – here’s a very cool video showing Lesser Prairie Chickens at a lek (it’s only 47 seconds).

No one knows what’s in store for the future of Attwater’s PC.  The wildlife biologists and other staff at the refuge are working hard to sustain and grow the tiny population here, but there are many challenges.  The adult birds have a mortality rate of about 50% per year, mostly due to hawks and other predators. The chicks are also vulnerable to predators, and may be competing (not very successfully) with introduced fire ants for ground insects in the weeks and months after hatching.  New releases from the captive breeding flock bolster the wild population, but right even with these additions the numbers of PC’s at Attwater are barely holding stable.  Hopefully the dedication and hard work of the refuge staff will eventually pay off with a healthy and expanding population in the years to come.

After a successful morning at Attwater NWR, I decided to try my luck at another almost-impossible-to-see species: Yellow Rail.  While Attwater’s Prairie Chickens are critically endangered and found only in a restricted area, they practically scream for your addition during the lekking season.  Rails are exactly the opposite.  They are relatively common, and are widespread in many marshes along the Texas coast.  But Yellow and Black Rails in particular are extremely secretive.  They are small wetland birds who always stay hidden in dense marsh grass, and never willingly allow themselves to be seen.  Yellow and Black Rails are the hardest common, dirual (active during the day) birds to actually see in North America.  But there’s one way to see them.  And it’s at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 minutes drive from Attwater.

Anahuac NWR

Anahuac has a very healthy population of Yellow Rails that spend the winter here in Texas, and summer up in Minnesota (where I heard one last June).  A couple of times each spring, the refuge holds “Yellow Rail Walks.”  Basically you get a couple of dozen people to walk around in the rails’ habitat and wait for a rail to pop up out of the grass and fly a short distance before it disappears back into the grass.  The only problem is that the rail’s habitat is thigh-high marsh grass growing in deep sucking mud covered in up to a foot of brackish water.  Yep, rail seekers get seriously messy.

The rail walk organizer had also brought some milk jugs filled with rocks that he tied together with a rope.  The milk jugs help to “beat the bushes” and encourage the rails to flush instead of just running through the legs of the participants.  Rails have incredibly skinny bodies, and can squeeze through very narrow openings in the rushes – hence the expression, “thin as a rail.”

We headed out into the marsh.  It was wet.  And muddy.  And a real workout walking through that mud.

Rail Walk

We saw our first Yellow Rail within 10 minutes.  They have very distinctive white wing patches that can be seen as they flutter away to safety.  We continued to slog through the mud and grass for another half an hour or so.  Final tally: seven Yellow Rails and one Black Rail.  And I was only wet and muddy from the chest down!

Before leaving Anahuac, I toured another part of the refuge.  Here I saw a third rail species, King Rail.  King Rails are often pretty shy, but compared to Yellow and Black Rails this fellow was practically an exhibitionist.  I even managed a photo:

King Rail

I also came across some baby alligators in a small pool, probably just out of the nest.  Too cute!

Baby Alligators

I rewarded myself with dinner at the local BBQ joint, which was very satisfying.

BBQ dinner

And as the sun set, I drove back to my hotel for a hot shower and 90 minutes of trying to use the hair dryer to get my only pair of shoes back to a wearable state.

Anahuac Sunset

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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).

Terns

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.

fish

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.

Osprey

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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