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to the Rockies - Spring 2006
by Sylvia R. Gallagher
Ygnacio RV Park,Sun., March 26, 2006
San Ygnacio, TX
p.m., Mon., March 27, 2006
Falcon State Park, TX
Yesterday we drove
230 miles from Del Rio to San Ygnacio, stopping for lunch in Laredo
at Lin's Chinese Buffet. It was a huge place, beautifully decorated
and full of people. Delicious. Don't know whether it's a chain or
not, but we've never seen one before. None of the patrons seemed to
be Asian, and most were Latinos.
Our destination was San Ygnacio, where White-collared Seedeaters were
supposed to be locatable. We knew there was a scroungy RV park in
the town because Terry and John Hill had stayed there just a month
or so ago. It really wasn't as bad as they had led us to believe.
It's true that some of the electrical boxes had their wires hanging
out and that there were no restrooms or showers, but the place was
tidy and there were very few permanent residents there. Two or three
rigs with birders were the main clientele.
Terry and John had seen a Yucatan Jay in this town when they were
there, but we hadn't kept up on the rare bird alerts (we rarely do)
and didn't really expect it to be still around, but Joe, the substitute
manager of the RV Park, told us all about it and how to find it. He
said "turn before the convenience store and go to the end of
Treviño St." There we would find a steeply descending
closed street with a bulletin board at the top showing recent bird
sightings. Walking down the road would lead to the sanctuary.
When we got to the convenience store, the street was not called Treviño,
so we kept going and never did find that street. So we finally turned
somewhere and zigzagged back and forth through town and never found
that street. Not every corner had a street sign on it, so it was a
challenge. However, the ABA\Lane guide had said to go to the end of
Treviño, Washington, or Grant streets. So we decided to settle
for Washington. When we got to the end of that street, lo and behold,
there was Treviño perpendicular to Washington. Anyway for anyone
trying to find the spot, the correct directions from the main highway
are to turn westward (toward the Rio Grande) at the first street south
of the Exxon gas station and Pepe's Convenience Store, then drive
to the end.
We were very glad we had done our exploring last night, because Joe
at the RV Park had told us the jay usually only comes out once before
it is fully daylight to the birdseed thrown on the trail, feeds briefly,
then disappears. We got there at 6:30 and found four other people
plus Joe, who had arrived before daylight to broadcast birdseed all
over the place. He told us which pile of birdseed it used and that
the Chachalacas would come out first, then the Green Jays, and then
the special one. That's almost exactly what happened, except it came
in with the Green Jays, not afterwards. I had my scope set up at the
top of the hill and could see the identification marks. (I had forgotten
to bring a Mexican field guide, but someone else there had one.)
No one seemed to know whether the Texas rare bird committee had accepted
or was likely to accept the bird as a legitimate vagrant, or dismiss
it as an escapee. Someone said it occurs regularly only 100 miles
south of the border, but I really don't know anything about it. Anyway,
I saw it and if it's accepted, it'll be a first North American record
and, of course, a life bird for me. It was much too far away and too
dark for Jim to photograph, so he won't count it. According to Terry
Hill, when she was here there was some argument as to whether it was
a Yucatan or a San Blas Jay. There are a number of differences between
the two—leg color, eye color, whether it's crested, etc., none
of which I was able to see under the conditions we had. Observers
who saw it well when it first appeared noted that there was no sign
of cage wear, which favors it being a legitimate vagrant. Note added
two weeks later: Terry checked the internet and folks seem to agree
it's a Yucatan Jay, but the bird records committee has not acted yet.
Those things always take a long time.
After the jay had come and gone, I wandered down into the tangle of
trees and shrubs along the Rio Grande. The local folks have created
a very nice bird sanctuary with lots (far too many!!) of feeding stations.
Many of them are up against shrubs, which they've draped with wide
mesh wire so the local cats can't sneak up on the birds. All in all,
a very nice area. They ask a $5.00 per person donation for the upkeep
of the place, which we were glad to pay. This is a very impoverished
I heard Bell's and White-eyed vireos, saw a Nashville Warbler and
several other regular south Texas birds. Others saw a Hooded Warbler.
Whether these were wintering here or are the first spring migrants
I don't know.
I spent a lot of time hanging around the likely spots for seedeaters,
but to no avail. Around 10:30 we went back to the trailer and hooked
up and drove the 44 miles south to Falcon State Park, where we are
now situated. I debated stopping in Zapata to look for the seedeaters
where we had searched last time. But I knew the habitat had been destroyed
(we watched them do it when we were here, and the ABA\Lane guide mentions
the destruction), so we figured it would be hopeless.
Then just a few minutes ago a couple who had been birding with us
in San Ygnacio, Brian and Dorothy --?-- from British Columbia, stopped
by and told us they had checked the area in Zapata and seen at least
one, and probably three, of the birds. Drat it. Now we'll have to
drive back to Zapata and look for them.
The conditions yesterday and today have been rather windy, less so
today, muggy, and overcast. Temperature in upper 70's or low 80's.
After all the frigid weather we've been having, it's hard to get used
to the change. (I really think I prefer the cold.) The humidity affected
Jim's cameras this morning. Two of them wouldn't shoot, but are working
now that the day has warmed up so the humidity isn't quite so high.
As soon as we pulled into our campsite here at Falcon State Park,
we were greeted by the resident roadrunner. A bit later, he was "coo-coo-coo..."ing
in a nearby mesquite. I went out and recorded him. Unfortunately there
was some loud equipment running in the distance, but it still was
probably better than any other recording I have of that bird, which
seems to have me jinxed.
March 28, 2006
Falcon SP, TX
p.m., Wed., March 29, 2006
Falcon SP, TX
The noise that
interfered with recording the roadrunner has turned out to be constant
24 hours a day. It's from some sort of small refinery or gas compression
plant visible a mile or so away. There's also some other sort of noisy
plant at the opposite end of the park, so I can't even aim my mic
away from noise. In addition, it's been windy all the time, day and
night, since we've gotten here. Early mornings aren't too bad, though.
Temperatures have risen steadily, with yesterday topping out in the
upper 80's and today heading for a bit higher. The wind is from the
southeast, right off the Gulf of Mexico, and carries a heavy load
Yesterday morning we drove to the nearby community of Salineño.
A road there goes down to the Rio Grande, but we saw very little there.
A short distance--maybe 100 ft--back up the road on the right some
people from Michigan (the De Winds) have their motor home on a piece
of natural riverside habitat, which they apparently own. They seem
to have an electrical and a sewer hookup, but have to haul their water--lots
of bottles standing outside. They've established a major bird-feeding
operation and welcome all comers. Their place is in all the bird-finding
literature. It's such a big operation that instead of a single guest
book, they have half a dozen, with sections for each state. When I
signed for us, I found Roy Poucher's name back in November, when he
was there with his tour group.
We sat for quite a while in the yard chairs they've placed outside
their motor home for their guests, watching the birds coming and going.
Most of the action was a bit out of range for photos ats were both
the Altamira and Audubon's orioles, a probable Brown-crested Flycatcher
(had all the field marks, but Kaufman's "Lives of North American
Birds" says they don't arrive til May--but I think I saw it in
April last time I was here, and I know I've seen it in Lukeville,
Arizona, in April). A Bewick's Wren was popping in and out of a nest
cavity right in front of us and singing a variety of songs--one for
a long time, then another in typical Bewick's fashion. One was quite
different from those we hear in the west, but the others were typical.
I got my tape recorder and recorded the unusual song, but with wind
and people talking in the background. Quite a few Chipping and Lincoln's
Sparrows were present, and people were identifying one Clay-colored.
It was probably correct, but a little too far away to suit me.
We got back to the trailer in time for lunch. Most of the rest of
the day I spent indoors, going out to sit in my chair only after it
was cooling off in the late afternoon. Around 6:00 I took Toby for
a long walk on the park roads, which have very little traffic. (I'd
done that the day before, too.) Staying in the middle of the road
keeps him out of mischief, of which he can find plenty. He has to
pick up everything he catches sight of and carry it along until he
finds something else!
One of the campers, who stays all winter here, has established and
maintains a couple of birdwatching blinds, with the aid of park staff.
One is right by the restrooms in the full hookup section not far from
our site. There you look through small holes in a solid wood fence.
The birds are pretty far away and no different from the ones coming
right out in the open at our site. They've placed a tent-blind inside
the wall for photographers, but it, too, is too far away from the
attracting features for anything very good. Another observation blind
is near the perennially closed "recreation building." It's
newer and very nice. It's covered and draped with netting with camouflage
strips attached. Holes to peek through are placed at eye level, and
this time they're close enough to the action to really see the birds.
Water, seed, and orange halves are placed here and there. Jim has
spent several hours there today. Altamira Orioles, Northern Bobwhites,
and "dark-lored" White-crowned Sparrows (probably leucophrys
here, not oriantha) are present. Because all the peepholes are at
adult eye-level, photos of the ground-dwellers are not at a very pleasing
angle, but those of the orioles are nice.
While Jim was in his blind this morning, I drove around and explored
some of the other features of the park, especially one area where
there was a view of the shoreline. I added a few gulls and one probable
Black-bellied Plover (basic plumage) to my area list.
I decided not to drive back to Zapata for the White-collared Seed-eater.
I can't see wasting 60 miles (round trip) of gasoline on that sort
of a quest. It won't be the end of the world if I never see that bird.
Jim has spent all three afternoons we've been here outside in the
heat (in the shade of the ramada over the picnic table) waiting patiently
for an interesting subject--and chasing away the hordes of Red-winged
Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Great-tailed Grackles that
descend from time to time. We asked the De Winds why they weren't
at their feeding station, and they told us with hand gestures they'd
used their slingshot so many times that the birds had learned to stay
away. Jim's patience is incredible, and he's had precious little reward
for his time. He was pleased with a Green Jay that posed nicely for
him, and keeps hoping he can get the Inca Doves doing their wing-up
threat display, showing their chestnut wing-linings.
We've been having problems with huge wood bees getting inside the
truck when we've left the windows open in the late afternoon and have
now figured out why. Jim carries a log with him that he uses as a
photo prop and places birdseed and Magic Meal (cornmeal & fat)
in a groove in it. The bees are all around it all the time, and Jim
says they liked it at home, too, so it may have pheromones (or something)
from that activity.
Most interesting of all, the roadrunner stakes out the log and catches
the wood bees. Unfortunately it runs off into the bushes to eat them,
so we can't watch that behavior. The roadrunner nearly always has
something dangling from its beak; a piece of dried-up black electrical
tape is one example. The trash doesn't seem to hinder its bee-catching
skills, though. I've decided Toby should be renamed "Roadrunner."
He, too, usually has something in his mouth that he's picked up--until
he comes to something better. And he'd certainly like to be permitted
to run pell mell down the road.
Two places we visited in this area last time we've not done this time.
Chapeño is a tiny community with an extremely scroungy RV park,
where the owner feeds Brown Jays. We've heard from others that the
Brown Jays haven't been seen there recently, so we saw no reason to
go over there. He charges a hefty fee to visit his place. The other
birds are no different from Salineño. The other place is the
overlook of the spillway for Falcon Dam. That we learned has been
closed for security reasons. The people who told us about it had a
canoe and said they had paddled clear up to that area from where they
launched it and encountered no signs telling them to keep out. Our
wonderful Department of Homeland Security at work!
We'll probably leave here tomorrow, but Jim wants a little more time
in the blind over by the rec center. Maybe the Audubon's Oriole will
come in. Light is best there in the morning. Then we'll head for Brownsville--130
& Fri., March 30 & 31, 2006
Breezy Lake RV Park, Brownsville, TX
p.m., Sat., April 1, 2006
Breezy Lake RV Park, Brownsville, TX
The previous two
days have been uneventful. On Thursday Jim spent a couple of hours
in the blind by the rec room. A Green-tailed Towhee that all sorts
of people have been looking for showed up, but he didn't care about
it. The Audubon's Oriole didn't. So he finally gave up, and we left.
The drive was pretty slow. The first part went through several towns
with lots of traffic signals and local traffic. When we came to the
freeway, there were innumerable construction zones with narrow lanes
and concrete barriers on the sides of them. To top it off we were
driving into a 20-30 mph headwind off at about a 45’ angle,
which made driving difficult. We were really glad to get to our destination.
I had picked out three possible RV parks not far from the Sabal Palm
Audubon Sanctuary, which I wanted to visit. Two (Rio and Paul's) were
under the same ownership, based on having a combined ad in Trailer
Life Guide. We drove into one of them, Rio RV Park. Despite the "OPEN"
sign on the office window, the door was locked. So we took the liberty
of driving around the place. The lots were sort of crowded and there
was little shade, but it was not impossible. Since we couldn't rouse
a proprietor, we decided to look at the third one, Breezy Lake. It
turned out to be very nice. As soon as we drove in, we could see a
large lake on the right with that southeast wind blowing right across
it. The sites were much more spacious and we requested and were given
a shady site. The lake turned out to be part of a resaca (oxbow lake
where Rio Grande used to flow), of which Brownsville has many.
The trees we're parked under looked like large pines with limber,
drooping needles up to a foot long. I remembered seeing something
like that in my tree book. When I looked it up, I discovered that
they were Australian-Pines, not a true pine, but a Casuarina. The
"needles" are actually twigs and have segments about one-half
inch in length. On the tips of many of them are tiny brush-like, brown
bundles of what are probably tiny flowers. Apparently this introduced
species has expanded into the wild in some area, hence its appearance
in the book. It's really a pretty tree and gives good shade.
Yesterday was devoted to necessities. Our campsite turned out to be
right across the park road from the laundry room. Since it's open
all the time, I got in there at 5:00 a.m. and filled all four washing
machines before other people would want to use them. Best of all,
there was a nice clothes line outside, so I could dry some of my things
there, especially the sheets and my T-shirts. I love the nice outdoorsy
smell of fresh laundry. It's been interesting to observe that the
clothesline is very popular. There's nearly always someone's laundry
on it. I used about one-fourth of the line space, and by the end of
the morning it was nearly all full. Too bad other RV parks don't provide
this service. It saves people money and why use all that fuel to dry
clothes in a machine?
After the laundry was taken care of, there was shopping (Super Wal-Mart
just a mile away), refrigerator defrosting, dog-washing, and finally
bed-making. By then it was early afternoon, and it was hot and I was
tired, so that was it for the day!
This morning we arrived at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary at 7:00. I had
read that the office opened at 9:00, but that you could walk around
during daylight hours. It turned out that that means 7:00 a.m. to
5:00 p.m. now. We put our $4.00 apiece ($5.00 for nonmembers of National
Audubon Soc.) in the place indicated, and set out down the trail.
Sabal Palms are nearly extirpated in the U.S., and this is their last
significant natural stand. The first part of the trail went through
the heart of the grove. Very pretty, but not many birds. Later it
came to a resaca, where there were quite a few ducks, but nothing
special. The best were Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Also Neotropic
Cormorants. There is a very nice observation and photo blind on a
small pier out into the resaca, where the birds could be observed
at close range. Masked Ducks sometimes occur there, but not today.
Continuing on, I met some people who had the scoop on where to look
for the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, which is resident here and not
dependable anywhere else. They had seen a Common Yellowthroat in one
of the two places they had been told to look, but not a Gray-crowned.
I continued on and also saw the Common--and heard its call, too. (According
to National Geographic Guide (NG), the Gray-crowned's call and song
are completely different.) I continued on to the other spot, where
the habitat looked more like that described in NG for the bird--tall
grassland with scattered shrubs. I sat there on a bench in the shade
for at least an hour hoping one would sound off or appear. After getting
lost a couple of times, Jim finally arrived with his scenic camera,
which I used to take a few habitat shots of the area.
When I got back to the center around 10:30, I learned that the bird
had been seen in both areas in the last couple of days. I really wondered
about the first place (by the resaca at the end of the boardwalk).
Could people have been applying a heavy dose of wishful thinking and
mistaken the Common Yellowthroat for the Gray-crowned? Anyway, now
that I know where I'm supposed to look, I intend to go back tomorrow
morning and head right for the two spots, which aren't far from one
another. Daylight saving time starts tomorrow, so I can get there
even earlier than today.
While in the Visitors Center I picked up a free "Bird and Butterfly
Map of the Rio Grande Valley," published in 2004. From then on
it was the main map I used. It's a nice large scale and is more up-to-date
than the Coastal Birding Trail maps, which still have Governor George
W. Bush's face on them. The only complaint I had was that there were
no mileages between intersections indicated. I solved the problem
fairly well by noting a few mileages on road signs and then writing
the figures on my map. Then I could compare other segments with those
We made a fruitless search for an advertised fish place for lunch--apparently
no longer where it was when the RV park brochure was printed. So we
came back to the trailer, getting here around noon. Lunch and naps
followed. That hot, humid wind really takes the starch out of me.
I could never live here! Many of the snowbirds (winter Texans from
Michigan, Ontario, Minnesota, Manitoba, etc.) have left, but a lot
are still around, and some of the park models and mobile homes look
like they're lived in all year. I talked to one man who had been here
a couple of months and planned to come back next year. He'd never
heard of Sabal Palm Sanctuary, but probably wouldn't be interested,
since he's not a birder.
Sabal Palm Sanctuary is very nice, with well-kept trails--maybe two
or three miles of them total. I may explore some of the botanical
ones tomorrow--after I find or give up on the bird. I wish this awful
wind would calm down, though. Recording is impossible, and migrants
don't make landfall in any concerted fashion when it's like this.
However, we keep hearing about fronts (and also tornados) in Kansas
and Indiana, so maybe we should be thankful we're south of that belt.
[That weather continued up north for the duration of this diary installment
and shows no signs of letting up. Apparently the storms that are bringing
all that rain to southern California are continuing east and clashing
with the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, with disastrous
High temperatures have been in the mid-80's here. I'm sure the wind
crossing the lake has a cooling effect, for it's been several degrees
higher officially in Brownsville. Also, we're on the southeast side
of town--closer to the Gulf.
p.m., Sun., April 2, 2006
Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park, Arroyo City, Cameron
Yes, the name
of the park is spelled correctly.
Daylight savings time started last night, so 7:00 a.m., when Sabal
Palms Sanctuary opens, came an hour earlier. With sunrise at 7:20,
we were able to get there about that time, and I made a beeline for
the place where the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat is usually seen. Jim
decided the bird was probably a lost cause for photography; he hates
to stalk warblers. So he headed for the duck blind.
I had no sooner reached the end of the boardwalk where the bird was
supposed to be than I saw a small form dart from one shrub to one
right in front of me. A few seconds of binocular-peering, and I had
my quarry! Then, to top it off, he hopped atop a bare, dead shrub
and started to sing, not 15 feet from me. As luck would have it, the
wind of the day hadn't started yet, so I was able to get excellent
recordings. Despite NG's description of it as being a warble, which
led me to believe it would be very different from the Common Yellowthroat's
song, I could definitely hear a similarity between the two songs.
The Gray-crowned's song just seemed to have a few extra syllables
in each "witchity." Some Commons are a bit like this, others
simpler. Anyway, I had confirmed it visually--very well. [A few days
later, when we were with Bill Clark, he remarked that Gray-crowned
Yellowthroats farther down in Mexico do sound quite different from
Commons. He thought this bird might be a hybrid, even though its shape
and plumage features are perfect for Gray-crowned, not Common. I told
him that warblers are noted for mimicking one another without necessarily
hybridizing, a fact he did not know. Luis Baptista had told me this,
and I've since seen it in print.]
I called Jim on the radio, and told him I really thought this bird
could be photographed, so he came. I was proven to be right. That
bird flew back and forth, sang, and perched for long periods of time
right out in the open only 10-15 ft from where Jim stood. He even
finished a roll and changed film right in front of the singing bird,
then took some more shots. He could even move left and right to get
a better angle on the bird, and it still didn't flush. I wonder if
it's because so many people have looked at it. Anyway, we were ecstatic
about the experience. It was a lifer for both of us.
Three kingfisher species were present and high profile there today:
Green, Ringed, and Belted. I got quick recordings of both of the special
ones, but I suspect only those of the Green will be much good. The
Ringed flew by very fast, and the wind was up by then.
After photographing the warbler, Jim returned to the blind, where
he resumed shooting the ducks, etc. He felt good about the images
he got of male and female Mottled Ducks. Others we have are pretty
distant. It was amazing how many northern-breeding ducks were still
present. Blue-winged Teal were the most numerous, but there were also
Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Ruddy
Duck, Ring-necked Duck, and Redhead, but no Mallard.
There were both Pied-billed and Least Grebes. I hoped the Least would
come close enough for Jim to get good pictures, but they always stayed
far away. It was instructive to compare them from a distance. In addition
to their smaller size, I found that the Least Grebes usually had their
rear ends fluffed up like Eared Grebes, while the Pied-billeds did
not. The smaller bills and orange eyes were impossible to see with
binoculars. I could sort of make out the differences in dark-light
pattern on the faces.
We were very impressed by the way National Audubon has laid out its
trail and blind system for both the birds and their human observers.
One section of the resaca has the trail concealed behind trees with
only one place to view it, the blind, which is about 25 ft out in
the water. The approach to the blind and the blind itself are walled
and roofed, so the people inside are hard for the birds to see. The
blind itself has nice big windows and is roughly a 15-ft-diameter
circle. Sometimes Jim stood back from the opening in order to shoot
close-up birds. All around the blind at a perfect distance for photography,
they've placed logs and brush, which many of the birds like to perch
About 100 yds. beyond the portion of the resaca with the blind, is
a berm across the resaca to a trail on the other side. Cutting off
from the berm is a boardwalk over the water along the next section
of resaca. This eventually becomes a trail right next to the water.
This portion is devoid of ducks. In fact, when we went there first
thing in the morning, we flushed some Blue-winged Teal out of there
toward the portion next to the blind.
This was my first real visit to Sabal Palm Preserve. The other time,
I'd driven there from miles away, arrived in the middle of the day
with little time to explore. Furthermore the trails were extremely
muddy and the day was muggy and the place was teeming with mosquitos.
So we really only looked around the visitors center and left.
We finally tore ourselves away around 10:30 and went back to the trailer
and had lunch. Then we drove the 35 miles or so north to Adolph Thomae
County Park, which is actually a narrow enclave at the north end of
Laguna Atascosa NWR, but not connected with the rest of the refuge
by road. Linda Allen and Carole Sunlight had recommended the park
highly as a place to attract birds to our site. We tried to get the
site they had, #25 on the end of the row, but it was occupied. We're
in #23, which really is fine, too. [When #25 vacated the next day,
Jim elected to stay where we are.] Most of the sites are along the
Arroyo Colorado, which looks like a sluggish river or tidal inlet
from the nearby Laguna Madre. (Laguna Madre separates South Padre
Island from the mainland.) The loop we're in is a little bit away
from the water and backs up to the thornscrub of Laguna Atascosa.
Our site is somewhat shaded by large mesquite trees, but still gets
plenty of midday sun. When we got here at 2:00, the temperature was
92’, with a steamy, 20-30 mph wind. Jim really got hot unhooking
and setting up his bird attractions. I went indoors and turned on
the A/C right away. Still it took an hour or so to cool off the bedroom
of the trailer. It's now 9:00 and around 75’ outside--not supposed
to cool below 70’ before morning. We're just not used to this
type of steaminess. Last night we slept with the A/C on, but the noise
and the air blowing on us, plus the stuffiness, kept us from sleeping
very well. Tonight I have all the bedroom windows open and a fan on.
Maybe that'll work better. Jim has gone to bed and says it's fine.
The sites in this park have full hookups. They also have restrooms
and showers, but Jim took one look at the latter and came back and
took a shower in the trailer. He said they were filthy dirty and covered
with obscene graffiti. This place is popular, especially on weekends,
with local folks fishing. Boat launching is possible. We timed our
arrival for Sunday to avoid the worst of it, but Linda had told us
that it was always pretty quiet in the row of sites away from the
water, where we are. They stayed a long time here and liked it a lot.
[We ended up staying a week here, and found Saturday night not to
be bad at all. Even though all the waterfront sites were occupied,
the people were quiet and well-behaved. No loud music.]
So far only a few birds have come to our setup: Northern Cardinal,
Lincoln's Sparrow, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and, best of all, Great
Kiskadee. Jim probably got his best photos yet of that bird. It liked
the water drip and came in for a drink a couple of times. The birds
were used to drinking in the area because the site next to ours was
dripping. Jim tightened the faucet and put up his own water drip.
He'll have to remember to start it dripping again when we leave.
This place has no pay phone, and the cell phone signal is too weak
to do Pocketmail on. The guy in the entry booth said we'd have to
drive back down the road to "the restaurant" to find a pay
phone. Jim didn't ask how far. Strange not to have a pay phone, but
I suppose the type of people who use this place would vandalize one
if it was there.
Arroyo City is really not a city in the usual sense. It's actually
several miles of vacation homes along the Arroyo Colorado, most of
which seemed unoccupied as we drove past. We saw one small grocery/hardware
store, but that was all. We didn't notice the restaurant. If I had
realized how poorly equipped the place was, I'd have made a last trip
to Wal-Mart for bread, lettuce, and a few other perishables, but we'll
have to see what the local store has--or else drive farther afield
if we stay more than a couple of days.
on. Better quit before everyone gets bored.
p.m., Mon., April 3, 2006
Adolph Thomae Jr. Park, TX
We pretty much
stayed in the park today. It turned out the post office that Jim wanted
is at least a dozen miles away, so he decided his mail didn't have
to go right away. The park office was gracious about letting us call
Pocketmail's 800 number to check our e-mail, so we only had to make
a foray to the grocery store. The bread turned out to be white or
wheat, and the wheat, although Sara Lee, was just about as soft and
white as "white." The lettuce was almost rotten, so they
gave me a head, and I threw away half of it. They expected more in
the afternoon, but I'm all right for a while.
This morning I had Jim take me to the end of the park road and I walked
back (1.2 miles). Part of the time I walked along the shoreline of
the Arroyo Colorado, where there was an interesting assortment of
herons, shorebirds, etc. Tricolored and Little Blue Herons were in
high breeding and really pretty. They were quite tame and let me get
very close before flying off. Jim will want to try for them another
morning. [He never got them, because people were fishing in the area
when he tried.] The light was perfect. The sandpipers were just ones
that are common at home: Spotted, Willet, Long-billed Curlew. Royal
and Caspian Terns, Laughing (lots and very noisy) and Herring Gulls,
also one or two immature Brown Pelicans were also present.
Part of the time the road went through rather open thornscrub, where
Mockingbirds ruled. It was fun to listen to them mimic the local birds,
especially the Great Kiskadee.
A little farther along it became more wooded, with lots of mesquites.
I heard a couple of Bewick's Wrens singing the same types of unusual
(by my western standards) songs I'd heard at Salineño. I'll
have to go back and try to record them.
The walk, although only a little over a mile, really pooped me out.
It was very hot and humid, and I was glad to hole up in the air-conditioned
trailer for the rest of the day.
Jim was really a dedicated photographer. Except for a short nap right
after lunch, he spent the entire day in his blind, which was in the
sun during the hottest (ca. 90’) part of the day. I was able
to see all the action from right inside the comfortable trailer. He
was especially pleased finally to get excellent shots of the Great
Kiskadee. On all previous trips, his photos had been angled up at
one perched somewhere a bit far away silhouetted against the sky.
This time the bird was on pleasant perches against greenery or at
his water drip. Occasionally an Olive Sparrow came in and showed its
greenish iridescence off perfectly. In addition to the birds listed
yesterday, a Black-crested Titmouse discovered the scene late in the
day. Even though he already has nice photos of that bird from other
grips, I noticed his flash going off pretty often at that little cutie.
The Lincoln's Sparrows were his shills, though, for there were nearly
always three of them around. Once I saw four, but one of the threesome
quickly sent it on its way. It would be interesting to know the sex
of the various birds, but of course there's no visual difference.
Tomorrow morning we're going hawk-watching with Bill Clark. He's promised
us Aplomado Falcon and White-tailed Hawk, but said the mice he tried
to use to trap some hawks for a recent local festival died in the
heat, so he can't do that for us. Thus photos may or may not be possible.
Apr. 4, 2006
Adolph Thomae Co. Park, TX
p.m., Wed., April 5, 2006
Adolph Thomae Co. Park, TX
We were so busy
yesterday that I didn't have time to write up our activities.
Monday evening right at dusk I started hearing an ascending, then
descending call, "wheeoor" over and over about every two
or three seconds. I had no idea what it was, but suspected it might
be a Pauraque. The wind was pretty strong, but I recorded it as best
I could. At dawn the next morning it was singing again and the wind
had died down, but people were driving by with their fishing boats,
and there were also boats passing in the Arroyo Colorado not far beyond,
so that detracted from the recording. Tonight just at dusk I again
heard the sound very close and tried to record it out the window of
the trailer. Again the wind marred it as it whipped through the mesquite
trees right outside. Maybe I'll get it really well before we leave.
I looked up a description of the Pauraque's sound, and it's a pretty
good match, although I can't hear the two soft intro notes that the
book mentions. Maybe if there was no wind I could. I haven't listened
to a commercial recording of the bird yet, but am pretty sure that's
what I'm hearing. This evening Jim put on his hearing aid and went
outside and was able to hear it. It's a rather clear sound with only
a slightly buzzy or reedy quality, so seems higher than it really
Yesterday we drove to the Laguna Atascosa NWR headquarters parking
area to meet Bill Clark. He felt that would be a good safe place to
leave his car. We had him drive our truck. It seemed easier than having
him give Jim directions all the time. Jim rode in the back seat with
all his cameras. Toby stayed home, cooped up in his kennel.
Although there are Aplomado Falcons and White-tailed Hawks breeding
in the NWR, Bill took us to some better places he knew outside the
refuge--between there and Brownsville in the coastal prairie. I took
very detailed notes about where those places were, but decided it
might not be prudent to put them in the diary on the internet. If
any of my birding friends want the information, I'll be glad to share
it with them personally. [Ask for file: clarkday.404]
In the course of the morning we were able to see three pairs of Aplomado
Falcons (two near manmade nesting platforms) and one single. The latter
was found by Jim from the back seat. Bill and I had been too busy
yakking in the front to be paying attention, a fact Jim won't let
me forget. It was on a fencepost less than 15 ft from the right edge
of a dirt road we were driving. We were past it by the time Jim got
Bill to stop the truck. He carefully got out the left side of the
truck and was able to get a lot of shots peeking around the rear of
the truck. The range was perfect, although he commented later that
he wished he had taken his doubler off in order to get an even crisper
shot. It still would have been a good sized image. He'd had his doubler
on for the very distant ones we'd been seeing before that. I never
got a good look at the bird, for I stayed in the truck so as not to
spook it. That was good, for when Jim was through photographing it
and I did get out, it immediately took flight. It did give me a nice
look at the long-tailed silhouette of this unusual falcon. Another
pair was courting and I was able to record their sounds, although
there was also fairly loud traffic in the recording.
Bill spotted a pair of White-tailed Hawks on a low bush 100-200 yards
out from a road against the sun. I put my scope on them, but the heat
shimmer was so bad, I really couldn't have identified them myself.
Bill knew they were there, and showed us the nest they used last year
and will probably use again. It's in an old Chihuahuan Raven's nest
in a very insignificant mesquite. In that area the mesquites are very
widely spaced and not very big.
Aplomado Falcons used to nest regularly in south Texas, but habitat
destruction for agriculture caused their extirpation. They were reintroduced
in the late 1980s and are now fully reestablished (and countable by
the ABA). They normally nest in old Chihuahuan Raven nests on yuccas,
but when biologists visit the nests, they show predators, especially
raccoons, where they are. Manmade nest platforms are popular with
the birds and yield better success. The "old" model, which
we saw first, is a platform with low walls on a couple of sides. The
latest model is platform with some dowels protruding upward and supporting
a second flat platform, which serves as a roof. Bill said the dowels
are there to keep raccoons, etc., from having access to the nest.
I asked him about the roof, for the other nest we'd seen didn't have
one. He said the birds sometimes nest in old raven nests, but also
can nest in palm trees farther south. There the nest might have a
roof of palm fronds.
As a break from hawkwatching, Bill decided to try to locate some Tamaulipas
Crows in Brownsville. He said they're no longer seen at the dump,
where I saw them years ago in a driving rain. They're also no longer
nesting at the NOAA weather office on the north side of the airport.
We did look for them there and found only a single Chihuahuan Raven.
(Bill thinks people who report them there are confusing them with
The newest place is on a short residential street, called Utah Street,
but the street sign is no longer there. To get to the street, drive
south on FM-511 about half a mile past the junction with Boca Chica
Rd. (SR-4) to a flashing yellow light. Turn right. We found a flock
of six perched on a wire near the end of the block. Bill had also
seen them from the NOAA station flying around over some Australian-Pines
behind a house at the end of the block.
The Tamaulipas Crow is considerably smaller than either a Chihuahuan
Raven or an American Crow, the latter not being there at all. In fact,
it looks more like a short-tailed Great-tailed Grackle than anything
else, and is about that size. (There were lots of Grackles!) Bill
said we were lucky to see them, for they hadn't been seen for some
time. He reported them to TexBird's website that very afternoon.
We drove back up to Boca Chica Rd. and out it a short distance. There
I got the only definitive look of the morning at a White-tailed Hawk.
It was quite dark, but the wing shape was quite distinctive. Bill
thought it might be a sub-adult, but it was only a short look at the
bird in flight. I'd love to have seen an adult or have had a better
look at any age perched. Jim got no photos.
The Aplomado Falcon was a lifer for both Jim and me. I had seen White-tailed
Hawks and Tamaulipas Crows before, but not very well. Jim photographed
the six crows from a distance, so I suppose he can count them, even
though they'll only be silhouettes on a utility wire.
Other interesting birds of the morning were quite a few Harris's Hawks
and several Gull-billed Terns--always foraging over dry, grassy fields,
In the evening we drove into Harlingen and went out to dinner with
Bill. Afterwards we went back to his house, where he showed us his
latest powerpoint presentation. He's convinced that the Harlan's Hawk
is not just a subspecies of Red-tail and should be split off from
it. He's trying to make a case for it. His program presented his reasoning.
I found it quite interesting and learned a lot about the two birds
and how variable they are, especially the Harlan's. More data, including
DNA work is needed to complete the evidence, so I'll certainly be
watching what happens in the next few years.
I also learned that any Red-tails in southern California with white
throats have some Fuertes blood. Regular Western Red-tails have dark
throats. That had always bothered me, for I'd read that their throats
were dark, yet had seen lots with pale throats.
We were interested in Bill's backyard. He's only had the house a couple
of years, having moved there from Virginia. He had all the lawn torn
up and replaced it with mulch, a brush pile, a water drip, and an
old palm trunk with woodpecker holes. I asked him what his landscaper
thought of his ideas, and he said the man was from Jamaica and just
did what he wanted without saying anything much. Various plants, some
wanted and some weeds, are growing up through the mulch. Shading it
all is a large oak tree. He also has birdseed and syrup feeders and
is attracting a nice assortment of local birds. Included is trap for
House Sparrows, which he uses to bait his hawk traps. It must be fun
for him, since he lived in a condo in Virginia. The backyard requires
no watering, but the front has another big tree and a nice lawn. That
has to be watered, but has an automatic system--out of order right
now. He does a lot of travel, but when he gets that fixed, the yard
will take care of itself while he's away, with only regular mowing
by a yard man. The house itself is nice and airy, with plenty of space
for one person. Jim and I agreed it was the perfect place for him.
We got back to the trailer around 9:00.
This morning we decided to try to find the White-tailed Hawks and
Aplomado Falcons again. Unfortunately the wind was blowing a gale
again. (We were really lucky that yesterday was merely breezy.) I
did hear a sound I couldn't identify. I got one lousy recording of
it, I think, and will try to figure it out sometime. I wondered if
it was possibly a Grasshopper Sparrow or even a Horned Lark sound.
It was very hard to hear the details in the wind.
After our unsuccessful hawk search, we drove out to South Padre Island
and looked over the birding spots there. Right at the end of the causeway
on the right there is space for a couple of cars. Jim didn't feel
we should stop there, but Bill AND and bird-finding literature had
indicated it was OK and a good place for Reddish Egret. I found a
white-morph one, but it flew off behind some mangroves before I could
persuade Jim to get out and go look for it. He didn't want to even
try because his longest lens has quit working, probably due to the
humidity. At least, we hope that's all that's wrong with it, although
I don't know what we can do about the humidity. He finally did get
out with a shorter lens, but by then the bird had disappeared.
After that we drove north four miles on the main road on South Padre
Island to the Convention Center, a garish yellow building more or
less out by itself on the Laguna Madre side of the road. Near the
building is a small patch of native plants, which is a noted migrant
trap, but not today. There's also a nice boardwalk out through the
fresh, then salt, marsh to the shore of the Laguna Madre. It passed
through a variety of habitats in a very short distance. Lots of people
were on it, only some of them birders, and the wind was blowing a
gale by then (20-30 mph with gusts to 40, according to TV in the evening),
so few marsh birds were out, and besides, it was almost noon and we
were hungry. There were quite a few birds out on the shore--herons,
skimmers, terns, gulls, shorebirds, etc. We're going back there first
thing in the morning and spend some time there.
We took Toby with us today, so one of us had to stay in or near the
truck all the time. We'll leave him in the trailer tomorrow.
p.m., Thurs., April 6, 2006
Adolph Thomae Jr. Park, TX
Today was even
windier and hotter than yesterday. According to the TV news, it was
93’ in Harlingen (somewhat cooler at South Padre Island, where
we went) with winds of 20-30 mph, gusting to 40 mph. But for what
we did, I don't think it was a handicap. The wind and heat were their
worst in the afternoon.
This morning we got an early start and drove 50 minutes to South Padre
Island and spent the morning at the Convention Center. I discovered
that the ugly building isn't just yellow. From the water side, it
also has lots of bright blue--plus one low wall that is bright fuchsia.
Really garish and ugly, but in keeping with the surrounding beach
The wind had blown all night and was even getting stronger right after
sunrise, when we arrived. It had changed from southeasterly to southerly.
I checked the bushes near the buildings for any migrants, but didn't
find anything. So we spent the morning on the boardwalk, especially
out near the end of the longer leg. There was all sorts of action,
and we could escape the worst of the wind by standing next to some
low mangroves. Probably the best bird of the morning was the Gulf
Coast form of the Clapper Rail. We heard them often and finally one
came right out in the open and preened right in front of Jim's lens.
Incidentally, his big lens suddenly decided to work again, so he was
back in business. He should have had a shorter lens for this bird;
he said his photos may have too much bird in them.
A large flock of Black Skimmers hung out on the nearby beach, and
when they decided to skim, the only moderately calm water was right
in front of where we were standing, with perfect light from behind.
Even though Jim has far too many Black Skimmer pictures, I know he
took more. Also present and probably photographed were Tricolored
Heron, Reddish Egret (dark morph close, white morph very far away),
Sandwich and Royal Terns, Pied-billed Grebe, Sora. Jim also told me
he took a photo of a sparrow, but didn't know what it was. That'll
have to await the end of our trip when we look at the slides. (I won't
let Jim shoot digital, for I can't face dealing with those images
in planning workshops.)
Too far away for photos were three Roseate Spoonbills and a variety
of shorebirds, which I identified with my scope: American Oystercatcher
(one), lots of Long-billed Dowitchers still mainly in basic plumage,
Sanderling (several), Piping Plover (several), Wilson's Plover (one),
Black-bellied Plover (2 or 3 mainly in basic), Willet (a few--mostly
flying over and calling loudly) and some anonymous peeps.
We wandered back and forth on the boardwalk from 7:30 to 11:00, watching
the bird life change as the tide came in. I hadn't taken my tape recorder
because of the wind. There's a noisy plant nearby, too. It looks like
an electrical substation, but the sign says the water for the freshwater
marsh is treated sewage, so maybe that's what it is. We didn't look
at it very closely.
After we quit birding, we ate a forgettable lunch at a nearby coffee
shop, then I did some extensive grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. By then
the wind was so strong, especially whipping around the building, that
I literally staggered as I walked across the parking lot to and from
Again in the late afternoon, Jim spent several hours in his blind,
hoping for more Couch's Kingbird photo opportunities, but the birds
didn't make an appearance today. Maybe the wind? I stayed inside the
cool trailer working on my embroidery and watching the birds through
the window. It's been too unpleasant almost the entire trip so far
to sit outside in my chair--first too cold, then too hot, and almost
always too windy.
It's supposed to be even hotter (97’) tomorrow, but not quite
so windy. Guess we'll try again to relocate those hawks.
p.m., Fri., April 7, 2006
Adolph Thomae Jr. Park, TX
We drove the dirt
road where Bill had showed us the Aplomado Falcons on Tuesday. Again
we saw no sign of them. I guess Bill has a secret method of making
them appear. There was almost no wind at first, and it never became
very strong. I was able to hear the mystery sound of Wednesday's visit
and record it. I'm fairly sure it's the rattle of an Eastern Meadowlark,
but still the short, tonal note on the end is a bit of a surprise.
The sound seemed to be coming from a spot from which more familiar
Eastern Meadowlark songs and calls were also coming. I got a few more
recordings of it and will check it out when I get home. It didn't
do it very often. [The next day at Laguna Atascosa I again heard the
same sound from an area where the only other sounds were from E. Meadowlarks.]
Cassin's Sparrows were very common. Although I have nice recordings
from elsewhere of their songs, Jim has very few photos. When I saw
one perched on a bush not far from the car and Jim photographing it,
I tried luring it closer with a recording of its own voice. It worked
exceedingly well, and he came within 8 feet of me. Jim had to back
up to get photos. He took quite a few, for he had trouble getting
anything but a front view or a side view backlit. Finally, though,
I think he got some excellent poses that showed the essential features
of back, wings, and tail that distinguish it from Botteri's. Unfortunately
I heard no Botteri's, although this is their range. We've only seen,
photographed, and recorded this species in Arizona, and the Texas
race is supposed to be slightly different.
We met a couple of birders peering through their scope at a sparrow
and agonizing over whether it was a Botteri's. It was singing like
crazy, so I quickly told them it was a Cassin's. They were just as
happy with that, for it was a lifer.
It was 10:30 by the time we quit fooling around with the sparrows
and trying to find the Aplomado Falcon. We had thought we'd make a
quick run of the Laguna Atascosa tour road. But it was getting really
hot and 16 miles of dirt road [turned out to be paved when we drove
it the next day, but speed limit was 20 mph] didn't look very promising.
So we headed back to the trailer, getting there around 11:15.
I spent the rest of the day inside, but Jim braved the 95’ (or
more) heat and sat in his blind most of the afternoon, hoping the
Couch's Kingbird would come again, but the only time we saw it was
while we were eating lunch. There was much less wind, merely a nice
breeze, this afternoon. A "cold" front is supposed to come
through tonight, bringing much drier air and temperatures about ten
degrees cooler tomorrow. It was 72’ for a low last night and
is supposed to get down to 66’ tonight. That will be welcome.
Tomorrow we'll drive that tour road at Laguna Atascosa.
p.m., Sat., April 8, 2006
Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park, TX
Despite the icky
johns, we've really been happy the past week in this park. The waterfront
sites were all full last night, and there was a unit in site 25, two
down from us where Carole and Linda stayed. Even though the waterfront
sites weren't too far from us, there was no objectionable noise. It
just seemed to be family groups here for the fishing from the shore
and the two piers. There's also a boat-launch area, but it's a mile
from the camping area. It's really the only place now in the Lower
Rio Grande Valley where you can camp in a natural setting. It has
full hookups. Bentsen State Park used to be great, but it no longer
allows camping, except for hike-ins.
I just got back from taking Toby for a long walk trying to see if
any interesting migrants came in overnight. The only new species I
found was several Black-and-white Warblers, but they could have been
here all along. They winter in the southern US. Jim is sitting in
his blind for an hour or so before we take off for a 200+ mile drive
north to Goose Island SP near Rockport. This means we'll be leaving
the Lower Rio Grande Valley and its special birds and seems like a
good place to cut off this installment of my diary. So far Jim has
photographed that nice chat again and is working on a thrush of some
sort that's lurking in the bushes.
9:15 a.m. The thrush finally came in. It's an Olive-backed Swainson's,
and he "bagged it."
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telling about Sylvia's Trip Diary.
April 17, 2006