Sunday, March 1, 2015

Even the Lists are Bigger in Texas

As with pretty much any other birder that has never been, Texas has always been one of my bucket list destinations, but I have always managed to put it off in favour of either closer or more exotic locales.  That was until John Puschock, owner of Zugunruhe Birding Tours, came out with a February trip with a price tag that could not be ignored.  I did the math a few times, and I`m pretty sure I could not have done Texas on my own for that price!

After begging for vacation days during the busiest time of the year for me, fast forward to February 1, which found the Victoria Birder waiting for a flight to Seattle, and then on to San Antonio.  A few days before the trip I had done some counting, and was looking at 4 potential milestones for this trip - 700 birds in total on my life list (689 prior to the trip), 500 birds in the ABA (467 prior), 400 birds in the United States (360 prior), and the possibility that my US list would surpass my Canadian list, which stands at 384.  A bit of a stretch maybe, but Texas was new ground.

I`m going to skip over the part about watching the Super Bowl with Seattle fans, and get right to the action.  The plan for the first full day was to make our way down to Rockport for the 1pm Whooping Crane tour, with a few birding stops along the way.  Between San Antonio and Corpus Christi I only managed to add Crested Caracara as an ABA bird, but things started picking up in a big way when we hit the coast and Mustang Island.  John`s sharp eyes spotted the first lifer of the trip, White-tailed Hawk, soaring high above the road, and pulled over so all could get good looks.  Next up was the Port Aransas Jetty, where a Little Gull  had been reported in previous days.  The gulls and terns were well out, which meant navigating a slick jetty with wind and waves coming over the top, but the birds were plentiful on the walk out.

Brown Pelican off the Port Aransas Jetty

Laughing Gulls were constantly passing close overhead
As were Royal Terns

This Snowy Egret was oblivious of fishermen while it did some hunting of its own
After 15 minutes of scanning, we finally picked up the Little Gull, my second lifer of the trip, and not a bird I thought would end up on my Texas list!  On the way back in I noticed a small head poking out of the water, but didn`t manage any good shots of my lifer Green Sea Turtle.

On our way to Rockport we picked up my lifer Mottled Duck in Fulton, then it was time for a little Crane action.  Lunch was consumed on the boat ride out to Aransas NWR, and there is no better place to get a shrimp po`boy than the gulf coast of Texas!

Small groups of shorebirds were the first highlight inside Aransas, with Dunlin, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocets, Western Sandpipers, and my lifer Piping Plover all being well-represented.  It wasn`t long before the boat stopped for distant looks at our first Whooping Cranes of the trip, and a spectacular lifer for many on the boat.

We found more and more cranes, eventually getting amazingly close looks at the prize, and pictures for all!

It doesn't get any better than this!
After sufficiently admiring up to 10% of the world's Whooping Crane population, the hits kept coming!  Reddish Egret (lifer), Tricolored Heron (ABA), Roseate Spoonbill (ABA), White Ibis (ABA), and many more species followed!

Juvie White Ibis

Roseate Spoonbills are always a treat!

The remainder of day one was fairly uneventful, with a horrible life look at Harris's Hawk along the highway in the near darkness, followed by another, and another..... finally ending with a late check in at the Alamo Inn, the birder friendly B&B in Alama, TX, where we were welcomed heartily by Keith, the owner.

The plan for day to was an early arrival to Estero Llano Grande SP, where a Grey-crowned Yellowthroat had been seen, With any rarity, one expects to wait, and many birders have had to camp out for hours in hopes of spotting this one.  As fate would have it, we happened upon its favored spot just as it was singing from the top of a small bush, too easy!!!

The picture ain't pretty, but the bird still counts!!!
Other great birds at Estero included Couch's Kingbird (lifer), Buff-bellied Hummingbird (lifer), Black-crested Titmouse (lifer), Altamira Oriole (ABA), Clay-colored Thrush (ABA), Great Kiskadee (ABA), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (ABA), Common Pauraque (ABA), and Green Kingfisher (ABA),  In addition to being a great bird, the Yellowthroat also took down my first milestone, being US bird number 385, to surpass my Canadian list!

You could look right at this Common Pauraque and still miss it!

The Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were most cooperative
After four and a half hours birding Estero, it was time for Frontera Audubon, a gem tucked in the middle of Weslaco.

Despite the stench of being a vulture roost, many good birds were to be had, including Long-billed Thrasher (lifer), Blue-headed Vireo (lifer), White-eyed Vireo (ABA), Black-throated Green Warbler (ABA), and a surprise female Summer Tanager!

The plan for the evening was to look for parakeets in McAllen, but the weather must have kept the birds down for the evening, and we came away empty handed.  The following day was an early riser for the trip upriver to Salineno and San Ygnacio in hopes of a few specialties.

On this side, Texas.  On the other side, Mexico.

Salineno is the go-to spot on the Rio Grande for Muscovy Duck and Red-billed Pigeon, and we got there at 7:30am to begin the watch­.  While neither target was forthcoming, it didn't take too long to start getting birds, and milestones 2 and 3 both fell with the Audubon's Oriole (ABA #500, World #700) that was feeding in a bush near us.  While the rest of the group headed up to the feeders, I kept vigil at the river in hopes of a flyby pigeon, adding 28 species to my Mexican list in the meantime.  While we did strike out on both, I did add Plain Chachalaca (lifer) and, on the way back to the vehicle, Olive Sparrow for US 400!  Early on day three, and all four milestones had been taken down!

The drive up to San Ygnacio was uneventful, and we spent four hours roaming "The Seedeater Spot" in hopes of White-collared Seedeater, another specialty.  There were a lot of great birds along the river here, but the Seedeater chose not to show.... until I wandered off to check a couple of promising areas.... and became the only member of the group to miss it.  Guess I have to head back down to Texas again... darn!

Zapata Pond is another area that has had seedeaters in the past, but it was not to be, and on the way back to Alamo we only managed to add our first and only Greater Roadrunner of the trip, and my US Hooded Oriole (funny that I had 2 on Vancouver Island first!).

As this post is getting a little on the long side, I am going to leave off here, and wrap it up in a few days with part 2.... Stay Tuned!