The Birding Trip Begins in Texas

Saturday May 3, Day 8. Big Spring. Comanche Trail Park

We left Amarillo about noon, driving south in our RV rig. Sharon drives the rig for an hour in the morning or afternoon, or both during long days, to give me a break or so I can take a nap. And because it gets boring riding shotgun all day long. I was just waking up from such a nap when Sharon said she was starting to see birds with long tails. Dang, she had seen it first while I was sleeping. We were expecting this particular bird to be showing up at any time. Within a minute or so, we saw one on a wire and I yelled, "Stop, pull over."

We got out of the pickup and watched our first SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER (2/340) flit between an electrical wire and a plowed field. Then we saw that it was a pair, and noticed that the male's tail was longer than the female's, as reported in the NGS. We remarked on the salmon-colored bellies and the way they used their tails as they darted through the sky for insects. It's hard to describe the feeling I get when I see a new bird for the very first time - sort of like the first time you kissed your first girlfriend. I love looking at paintings or photos of a bird, and I think, "Is there really a bird that looks like this?" And the great thing is that Sharon and I get to do it together.

We continued following US 97 south through Lubbock, to Big Spring, Texas where we camped for the evening (Texas RV Park of Big Spring). We got there early enough that we were able to get in several hours of birding at Comanche Trail Park, going around a lake.

From the Kutac birder's guide, we knew that there were four birds here that we didn't have yet, so we were eager to start. We saw several flycatchers (they're hard for us to separate), a beautiful singing Northern Cardinal and a couple of warblers we didn't see long enough to ID, although we had a great time chasing them.

We saw this incredibly streaked bird around an isolated pond, and could not figure out what it was. My best guess was a Louisiana Waterthrush, but it didn't quite match. There were too many streaks on the underparts of our bird, and we finally lost it. We saw some Cliff Swallows flying around a bank, and for a moment, Sharon thought they might be Bank Swallows. After a time, we left the lake and walked up a trail, where we spotted our first MISSISSIPPI KITE (3/341) perched high in a tree. We got great looks with our binoculars, but when I took the spotting scope off my shoulder and almost had it set up, he flew, not to be seen again, although we heard him calling a number of times.

Sunday May 4, Day 9. Comanche Trail Park. Kerville-Schreiner.

We got up early the next morning and tried Comanche Trail Park again. This time, we found that the heavily streaked bird had a nest right by the water. And then we finally figured out that it was a female Red-winged Blackbird. How embarassing.

Went back to camp, rigged for driving, and took off for Kerrville. A review of the Woodall's RV Camping Guide prompted us to stay at the Guadalupe River RV Park, on the Guadalupe River. This park won the MOST ELEGANT award for our trip. It had huge cypress trees by the river, acres of green grass sloping down to the river, a deer feeder, lots of recreational activities, and everything was spotless.

We had enough time to go to Kerrville-Schreiner State Park before dark. It was very quiet there, but we saw a shorebird calling and bobbing its tail up and down. A look through the scope and its spotted belly and chest told us that it was a SPOTTED SANDPIPER (4/342)

Monday May 5, Day 10. Dewberry Hollow. Lost Maples (First Time)

The plan was to do a day trip to Lost Maples State Natural Area, hitting Dewberry Hollow and Johnson Canyon on the way. Then if it looked inviting, we would move there the next morning.

As we were slowly driving the Dewberry Hollow loop looking for Black-capped Vireo, we saw a female GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER (5/343). She lacked the red crown of the male. During the rest of our trip, we saw many of these woodpeckers. Their tan faces were quite interesting to us because the woodpeckers of the San Francisco Bay Area all have black-and-white faces. We also began to see some very shiny black birds, reminding us of Brewer's Blackbirds, but the red eye and shiny black feathers were features of a BRONZED COWBIRD (6/344). The final Dewberry Hollow bird we saw was the EASTERN PHOEBE (7/345). We had chased the call of one near our south San Jose home earlier in the spring, but never saw it.

Johnson Canyon turned out to be not much more than a couple of S-curves in the highway. Nothing going on there.

At the Entrance Station to Lost Maples, there were multiple bird feeders. We saw Northern Cardinals, Bronzed Cowbirds, Black-chinned Hummers and other birds, including a BLACK-CRESTED TUFTED TITMOUSE (8/346).

We were really excited to get a chance at seeing the Green Kingfisher, one of our most desired target birds of the trip, who was supposed to be nesting at some ponds, about 1.1 miles up the East Trail, from the parking area. During our walk up the trail, we saw a pair of WHITE-EYED VIREOS (9/347), with their yellow spectacles. Just as we were nearing the creek crossing for the start of the West Trail, about a third of a mile up, we saw a flash of yellow in a pine tree on our right. There, eight feet away, perching in brilliant sunlight a few moments, and then foraging for two minutes, was a GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER (10/348), one of our highest desired target birds of the trip. The blacks were blacker, the whites whiter and the yellows yellower than I could imagine. And he sang away while he browsed, occasionally "posing for us," as Sharon likes to say. Pretty spectacular.

We paralleled the Can Creek for a while, crossing it twice on our way up to the ponds. We began to hear a song, and identified a RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW (11/349), and shortly thereafter an ACADIAN FLYCATCHER (12/350). We both have mild-to-moderate handicaps which prevent us from walking long distances, or walking up long steep trails. We figured we could do about a mile one way, making a two-mile round trip, with moderate elevation rise. And since this was the beginning of the trip, we decided to take it easy. So the bottom line is that we came within fifty yards of the Green Kingfisher ponds (we didn't realize we were that close), and turned back. Just before we got back to the parking lot, we heard the sharp song of a little wren, and quickly spotted him. He was like the familiar Bewick's Wren of California with his strong white eyebrow, but had buffy underparts, and no white on his tail. So he was a CAROLINA WREN (13/351).

On our way out the Entrance Station, one of the rangers told us about a Scott's Oriole nesting in the day use parking area. We got details and drove up there. It was very windy, but we soon saw a dark female SCOTT'S ORIOLE (14/352) fly into a small maple tree, and sit down on her nest. We didn't get a very good look at her, but during the rest of the trip, we saw perhaps four or five males. We enjoyed their yellow and black color vs. the orange and black of our backyard Hooded and Bullock's Orioles.

Tuesday May 6, Day 11. Kerr Wildlife Area. Lost Maples (Second Time)

We drove up the North Fork of the Guadalupe River to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area. A helpful ranger directed us to a the 150-acre sector called East Buck, which was known to have the Black-capped Vireo, our target bird here. They had perhaps ten rangers who were about to fan out all over the area to count the vireos, to see if they were increasing or decreasing in number, from the year before. We didn't hear the results, but the problem is that their numbers are slowly dwindling because of the Cowbird Phenomenon. This is activity where an adult female cowbird gets in another bird's (theVireo in this case) nest, kicks out all the eggs, then lays her own eggs. The Vireo adults then raise the hatchling cowbirds as their own. Tough for the generations to continue with that going on. We've seen a Brownheaded Cowbird do that to a Brown Towhee nest in our back yard. But the Towhee just abandoned it, even before the Cowbird eggs hatched. Maybe the Towhees know something the Vireos don't.

We bumped into four different people who had seen a few vireos, but we never saw them. While we were looking, though, we heard a couple of Northern Bobwhites, and saw our first PAINTED BUNTING (15/353) - truly a work of art. We also saw quite a few FIELD SPARROWS (16/354), and heard a few wild turkey gobbles. But no Black-capped Vireos. We birded East Buck, then moved toWest Buck, West Bobcat #1 and #2, but no Vireos.

We reluctantly returned to our RV park, configured our rig for travel, and moved to Lost Maples Natural Area, for a two-night stay, although we wound up staying only one night. We purchased a Gold Texas Conservation Passport. One year for fifty bucks. This gets everybody in the vehicle into all Texas state parks and wildlife areas for free, although you have to pay extra to camp.

After we set up our trailer, we put up our little hummingbird feeder, and set out again for the Green Kingfisher area of The Ponds. This time, though, because we weren't stopping every hundred feet to try and identify a new bird, we made it all the way in reasonable time. The problem today, however, was that we never saw our kingfisher. We returned to the RV, and watched several Black-chinned Hummers eating at our feeder. We planned to try again for the kingfisher the next morning.

Wednesday May 7, Day 12. Garner State Park. Neal's Lodge. Bat Cave

That night it rained a lot, to everybody's great surprise, and we decided to move instead of bird in the rain the next morning. As we were packing up our trailer, Sharon took down the hummingbird feeder, and within one minute, the Black-chinned Hummer was buzzing all over the place, as if to say, "Where is it? I know it was here? Where'd it go?"

We decided to head for the Corpus Christi area, stopping to bird at a couple of places. The first was Garner State Park, where we had heard reports of Black-capped Vireos. We scouted the area and talked to some people, then concluded that the vireo reports were from un-knowledgeable people who must have seen Black-crested Titmice and confused their names with the vireos. But we enjoyed a nice pair of Summer Tanagers and another pair of Cardinals. They were all perched at various places and at various times on the small pickup of a guy who had camped there. He had one arm in a sling, so we figured the colorful birds were there to cheer him up. We continued on to Neal's Lodge.

Here, we bought some groceries, and listened to reports of a tiny black-and-white warbler with some yellow on the throat. Further talking with experienced birders revealed that they had that very morning seen two Yellow-throated Warblers. We looked all over, but never saw one. We did go across the river, though, and saw a singing LONG-BILLED THRASHER (17/355), with his red-orange eyes, and some Lesser Goldfinches of the Black-backed variety taking a bath at the edge of the river. We wanted to get as far down the highway as we could, so we drove on down the road, winding our way to a locked gate, from which you could see the air above the Concan Bat Cave.

This was private territory, but with the scope, you could see CAVE SWALLOWS (18/356) flying above the cave. Well actually, we could see that they were swallows, but we couldn't REALLY see what kind they were. We had to INFER what they were, based on the guide book's description, and how that was the only kind that would be there. Weak, huh?

We continued on down the road, and in the middle of the afternoon, I suddenly saw a Common Nighthawk, flying around above the highway. It had to be, because they are the ones that will fly in the daytime. Sharon didn't get a look before he was gone, so we continued, and finally spent the night at the Lake Corpus Christi KOA near Mathis.

We were still about an hour from Corpus Christi itself, and then Padre Island was beyond that. That evening, as I was finishing the trailer setup, Sharon yelled, " There's a bird flying around the street light, and he has that white band. I think it's a Nighthawk. Hurry, come here!" I brought our owl flashlight, and we caught him in the bright flashlight beam a couple of times. We knew that we were watching a COMMON NIGHTHAWK (19/357), occasionally calling. We enjoyed his knife-like wings, with the white wing markings at the bend in the wing. The next morning, we listened to the call of the camp Peacocks, and took some beautiful pictures, but of course, these are not wild birds.

Thursday May 8, Day 13. Padre Island. Kingsville

As we drove out of the KOA, we were greeted by a sunlit vulture-like bird, soaring directly in front and above us. But he had a white neck, a black head and cap, and long flat wings. It was a wonderful look at a CRESTED CARACARA (20/358). We watched him till he was out of sight, feeling great because we had already scored so early in the day.

We continued on through Corpus Christi, and onto Padre Island. Our first stop was at the Visitors Center. Right there in the parking lot we saw several hundred gulls and terns, standing on the tarmac. A look through the binoculars and scope turned up several SANDWICH TERNS (21/359), with their yellow-tipped black bills, and ROYAL TERNS (22/360), with their cowlicks at the rear of the caps. We went through the center, and on out to the beach, where we saw the counterpart to our western Black Turnstone, the beautiful RUDDY TURNSTONE (23/361). His black head and neck patches on white, and his ruddy body feathers stood out strongly in the morning sun.

We left the Visitor Center, heading back towards Corpus Christi. I saw a couple of large wading birds on the left, in small ponds and stopped our rig in a temporary island between the two lanes, since there wasn't any traffic. We saw two versions of the LITTLE BLUE HERON (24/362) - a non-breeding plumage bird and another molting juvenile. The non-breeding bird was dark blue, but with no plumes on his head or neck. The juvenile was white, but with a few feathers the same dark steel blue color as the non-breeding heron. Later in the trip we saw the Little Blue Heron in its plumed pink head and neck feathers - quite remarkable. We followed the signs to Bird Island Basin, on the inland side of Padre, but the basin itself was totally dry. As we were driving out, we saw a REDDISH EGRET (25/363), in its breeding plumage. It was the same dark blue of the Little Blue Heron, except for the rusty plumes of its head and neck. The pink bill had a black tip.

We made it back through Corpus Christi and headed south on Highway 77, past the King Ranch and Kingsville. The King Ranch is supposed to be the largest ranch in the world. Or is it the US? The Parker Ranch on the big island of Hawaii is Number 2, I think. I was nearly bitten to death once by a couple of flies on the Parker Ranch, trying to take a picture of a small herd of horses with the Pacific in the background. They were stingers!

We stopped at a couple of famous roadside rest areas, but didn't see anything unusual. In the next few days, however, we talked to a couple of people who had seen a Tropical Parula near one of them. Anyway, we continued on towards Brownsville, the day's destination.

The bird we were looking for during our drive was the White-tailed Hawk. This was supposed to be the number one location in Texas to see this mostly Mexican bird. We were driving along scanning the skies, when I saw a hawk high in the sky, on our left. He was soaring when suddenly, he tucked in his wings, and began a dive straight towards the earth. I watched him disappear behind a hill, thinking about the brakes he had to put on before he landed. He then came up, carrying whatever it was he had snagged. We reviewed the coloring, behavior, location, and eliminated everything but the White-tailed Hawk, then began to discuss whether we were possibly fooling ourselves. Usually we are pretty conservative, before we add a new bird (I know, I know, what about the Cave Swallow?). While we were talking, I noticed a bird on Sharon's side (right side) of the road, sitting next to the fence, with a smaller black bird. "White-tailed Hawk!" I thought. Is it? "We have to turn around!" I yelled. "Why?" asked Sharon. "You'll see, I hope," I said. I did a U-turn at one of the designated crossovers, backtracked, and did another one, then slowly approached the hawk, in our rig. He was partially hidden by a bush as we approached, so he wasn't frightened. Traffic was zooming past on our left. Then we rolled into his view, where we could plainly see him. It was a gorgeous closeup of a WHITE-TAILED HAWK (26/364), together with a Great-tailed Grackle, which, by the way, we considered our over-abundant bird of the trip. We watched him for perhaps a minute, at which time he took off. Fantastic! We headed towards Brownsville again, feeling like we had just scored a big one.

That night we made it to Brownsville, and on through, near the airport, where we set up camp at Paul's RV Park. It was pretty basic, but adequate. The owner's wife was managing the office when we got there, and we checked in. When she heard we were birders, she unloaded all her birding information on us.

Friday May 9, Day 14. Laguna Atoscosa NWR

We got up to a rather gloomy day. It was overcast, rainy and windy. We decided to go northeast to Laguna Atascosa, stopping on the way at Loma Alta Lake, where our new bird information suggested we might find one of the higher target birds of our trip. When we finally got there, on the muddy gravel road, the lake was so far off the road, that you could see hardly any details at all to identify birds there. But there definitely weren't any of our desired birds. While we were there, we saw two white birds with red markings on them. We got very excited. What were these? They looked like the white-faced ibis of Nevada, but were almost completely white. A check of our NGS showed that they were two beautiful WHITE IBISES (27/365). We watched them fly, with their red faces, beaks and legs and white feathers with black wingtips.

We continued on our drive to Laguna Atascosa, and as we were crossing a resaca (small pond or lake - usually long and thin, and often bent, speaking geometrically), we saw a black duck with a strangely shaped bill. We stopped and identified him as a MUSCOVY DUCK (28/366). Other birders would later say that this was not a truly wild duck, but tame, similar to the peacocks we saw at Lake Corpus Christi. And we weren't sure whether to count him, but we decided to, since we didn't KNOW that he was tame. Probably a mistake. It became moot later in the trip when we saw two truly wild Muscovy Ducks on the Rio Grande, at Chapeno. We saw them land together, swim a little and take off. So in the end, it didn't matter whether this one was tame or not.

We finally pulled into the Laguna Atascosa Visitor's Center. It was raining lightly and there was only one other car there. We stepped out and immediately saw the first of several GREEN JAYS (29/367). We were amazed at the combinations of black, blue, yellow and green colors of this jay. It was what a small boy might design in the first grade, if he were invited to create a bird. We had our eye out for about a dozen target birds here, so we were following every flash. We walked down to the nearby photo blind, and saw a WHITE-TIPPED DOVE (30/368), with the White-Winged Doves, Bronzed Cowbirds and Great-tailed Grackles. And rabbits. We noticed that the hummingbird feeder was empty, and were disappointed, since we were hoping to see the Buff-bellied Hummer here. We walked back up to the Visitor's Center and began to follow a little chip call from the bushes. We saw a little sparrow with an olive-green back flitting in and out, and identified him as the OLIVE SPARROW (31/369). We went for a walk hoping to see a Kiskadee, but had no luck.

Next, we decided to do the Lakeside Drive. During this drive, we saw a tern flying back and forth over a small body of water. We stopped and identified him as a GULL-BILLED TERN (33/371). We decided to have lunch at the very windy Osprey Overlook, where I almost lost my Giants cap. The water was remarkably turquoise, but seemed very shallow.

At one point, Sharon had read about Alligator Pond, and of course, we had to go check that out. We might see an alligator! After about a quarter-mile walk, we came upon the pond. And sunning himself on the right side was a HUGE black gator. His eyes were closed, but we saw him open them several times. I'd say he was ten or twelve feet long. Soon he slid into the pond, and all you could see were his eyes, so we backed away, but saw a COUCH'S KINGBIRD (32/370) sitting on a sign. We had to stop and identify him, while we made sure the gator didn't make a move on us.

We arrived back at the Visitor's Center and met a science teacher from Idaho, who had in the last half-hour seen a Groove-billed Ani and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird. He had seen the hummer at the photo blind, in spite of the fact that the feeder was empty. We went down there a few minutes, and returned, at which point he told us he had just seen it again at the feeder near the Visitor's Center Kiosk. As Homer Simpson would say, "Dohp!" As we waited to see if the hummer would return, the Idaho teacher came running back and told us there was an Ani across the road. We followed him as fast as we could, and there beside the road, looking for all the world like a Great-tailed Grackle with a bashed-in face was a GROOVE-BILLED ANI (34/372). With the scope, we could see the grooves in his bill. Our teacher-friend also said he had seen a Kiskadee on one of the trails, so we walked around in that area, but didn't see one. We heard at least one though.

We decided to do the 15-mile Laguna Madre loop, because there was a possibility of many new birds. The weather was working against us, however, and after the first fourteen miles, we hadn't seen diddly. Or we had seen diddly. But as we crossed a small creek or river, we both spotted six tall wading birds, with their bills in the water, moving their heads back and forth. Incredible! Six ROSEATE SPOONBILLS (35/373)! We could see their wonderful pink color with red highlights and their light green faces and bills. After we got as much as we could from our binoculars, I started to set up the scope, but banged it against the truck. Then we got to see what six Roseate Spoonbills look like, flying in the "away" direction. We were so high it was incredible! It amazes me how relaxed I feel after seeing one of our highest target birds. Sharon had really wanted this one.

That was it for the day, except for two more areas in Brownsville. We drove over to St. Joseph's Academy and to Honeydale & Los Ebanos, looking for Red-crowned and Yellow-headed Parrots. Not even a squawk. We went to the Honeydale/Los Ebanos intersection twice more while we were there, but no parrots. Anyway, we drove back to the RV, stopping for groceries on the way. I had great fun, updating the trip list on paper that night.

Saturday May 10, Day 15. Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary

The day was again gray, windy and rainy. We decided to drive to the Brownsville Dump and then to the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary. The Mexican Crow would be a slam-dunk at the dump. Except that two solid days of rains created a hazard, and they wouldn't let us in. On we went to the Palm Grove. We decided we'd just check it out, maybe look around a little, but come back tomorrow, hoping for a clear sunny day.

We arrived there and it was dark and damp, with rain showers. We went in to the Visitor's Center, and said that we were just checking out the location, and that we were coming back tomorrow. This was our subtle way of saying, "Don't charge us today. We're just stopping in." But as people came back in from the trails, we began to hear the names of birds that were in our dreams: warblers, redstarts and others. We were too naive to realize it at the time, but the lousy weather had put the brakes on the migrating warblers, and they were stuck in the sanctuary till the weather broke. WE WERE SO LUCKY! OUR BEST TWO DAYS OF THE TRIP WERE ABOUT TO START! BECAUSE OF THE LOUSY WEATHER! We didn't know it yet though, of course. We only knew we had to jump in and see what was in there.

While we were standing around, we got a great look through the window at the BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD (36/374), eating at the feeder. We paid our fee, bought Sharon another tee-shirt so she wouldn't freeze, collected our gear, and headed out on the trail.

We immediately bumped into a young woman making swishing sounds, looking through her binoculars, and carrying an NGS birdbook stuffed halfway down the back of her jeans. "What are you seeing?" we asked. "I'm trying to coax out a Magnolia Warbl -- there he is!" she whispered loudly. We snapped up our binoculars and saw the most gorgeous MAGNOLIA WARBLER (37/375) imaginable. The blacks and whites and yellows reminded me of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, but the pattern was completely different. We learned that she was the manager of the sanctuary, but we didn't ask her name. I owe her a great deal, because I learned a new way to call warblers. Whisper as loud as you can, "Wishwishwishwishwishwish," almost not sounding the 'i' at all.

She told us the other birds she'd seen, and we continued, picturing these birds in our minds. We soon saw an EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE (38/376), and then quickly a beautiful female AMERICAN REDSTART (39/377). She would fan her tail, much like the Painted Redstarts we had seen the year before, in Arizona. We continued, and saw one of the most wonderful birds of our trip - the beautiful BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER (40/378). He had the same black and white and yellow colors of the Magnolia and Golden-cheeked Warblers, but his face and neck were fiery orange. He was magnificent. And we were swishing him down. He was as curious about us as we were about him. And if it had been a beautiful clear day, he never would have been there!

We heard Chachalacas, but never could quite see them. We continued on and saw an immature or female MOURNING WARBLER (41/379). And we were finally able to get a look at the bird making the distinctive and familiar call - the GREAT KISKADEE (42/380). He looked to me like an oversized kingbird, with an even more oversized black-and-white striped head. What a bird.

Unbelievable! We were only halfway through the trip (only one week in, if you ignore the Colorado, north Texas pre-trip), and we had already reached the reasonable estimate of the number of new lifer birds I expected us to see on the entire trip. Forty-two birds! Life was great! We returned to our RV, had dinner and I added the day's birds to our list.

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