Sunday, February 26, 2012

Texas 2012 Day 3 - The Curse of the Aplomado

Before we get to our feature, The Curse of the Aplomado, let's see a few other sightings of note on our Day 2 (Feb 14) of birding in the Rio Grande Valley.

We stopped on Hwy 100 en route to the island and saw some great birds:

Chihuahuan Ravens! I wasn't sure but Gretchen remembered the telltale sign: the white bases of the feathers, which are sorta visible in the first crappy photo! Lifer! Sorry for the crappy photo; it was super cloudy and late in the day.

While were checking out the ravens, we kept hearing a beautiful little warbley/whistley call that was definitely that of a sparrow. I remembered what Last-Year-Guy had told us about Cassin's Sparrows being everywhere out here -- we were quite close to Old Port Isabel Road or, as I now call it, Aplomado Highway. Why not use the BirdJam? Sure enough, after a few calls from the iPad, this little guy popped up out of the brush:
Cassin's Sparrow! Another lifer, like five minutes after the ravens!

A little further down the road we saw a White-tailed Kite, a lifer for Gretchen but not for me -- but I'd never had looks at one like these:

That was really exciting! What a beautiful bird and talented flyer this individual was. The hovering in the air -- the kiting -- was awesome. I don't know why they're not called just plain old White Kites, because much more than the tail is white on this bird. ?

We didn't stop for the Aplomado then, even though we were near Old Port Isabel Road, as it was late in the day, but you can be sure we felt pretty darned confident about seeing that falcon.

We spent Tuesday night on the island, pausing for some good seafood and margaritas. We were prepared for the hunt for the Aplomado Falcon; I was foiled last year, but this year I would get that bird!

We woke up Wednesday morning, Day 3, with a mission: APFA or die!

The Curse of the Aplomado
Some of you may remember the tale of woe surrounding last year's search for the Aplomado Falcon that was "can't miss!" on Old Port Isabel Road. My sister Mary and I ended up searching, arguing, and gnashing our teeth, all for naught: no Aplomado. We went on two separate days, we looked at other sites where they'd been seen -- nothing.

Well, with all our success already -- I mean, we'd gotten Whooping Cranes just by driving near Aransas NWR AND a Ferruginous Hawk, baby! We'd gotten Chihuahuan Ravens and Cassin's Sparrows right near THE road! -- and this year, Gretchen was armed with her Vortex bad-ass scope, by golly! -- we were going to see that falcon or else.

While we were out on Hwy 100, we saw a raptor fly across the road, carrying a long piece of what looked like grass. Nest-building? The bird simply disappeared, though -- but it seemed it was flying toward a big cellphone tower right on the road. But could this be our APFA? We'd only seen it for a second or two when we were distracted by another raptor (danged red-tail!), and the first bird was gone.

Still--perhaps it was a sign? We were going to see the bird!

We arrived at the turn for Old Port Isabel Road and encountered our first obstacle:
I'm sure everyone knows about the five-year drought that's been taking place in Texas. Well, it seems they've had a little rain lately, and this "road" was now a mudpit.

Still, I was confident; I figured if I stayed over on the edge and kept two tires on the brushy grass, I'd be okay. I figured if I just went really fast, I'd be okay. Gretchen started to say, "Um, BFF, I don't know about this...." or something to that effect.

I just hit the gas.

For a little stretch, I was okay; I was keeping to the edge of the big ruts and my tires were biting. Then, suddenly, we were stuck. That first picture is the view from the driver's seat.

We got out, got covered in mud, and tried pushing (well, Gretchen pushed; I drove!) Let's just say that if two nice guys hadn't showed up and pushed us out, we might still be there today, scanning the skies for Aplomado Falcons and cursing our crappy rental.

Here's a picture we took later of the rental:
Hey, it's a rental! There's a blob of mud on the passenger-side bumper that stuck there until we washed the car on our last day. I had to remove the giant blob on the windshield.

So we decided to try walking on the road, in search of the infamous "hack tower" on which the APFAs have been nest-building. The only tower we saw was a big cellphone tower, so we set up the scope and starting checking it out. We DID see a raptor about halfway up the tower, but his body was hidden by the struts; his head looked promising, but once again it was just too far and there was too much heat shimmer to be certain that this was our bird. We spent a while there, hoping it would take flight, looking all around, but all we saw was Turkey Vultures, Loggerhead Shrikes, a Northern Mockingbird, a bunch of Eastern Meadowlarks, and a Lincoln's Sparrow.

There was no way to get closer to this tower, and there was no way to get anything close to a decent photo. We finally gave up. We plodded back to the car, which was, thankfully, on solid ground and waiting for us to start on our next adventure.

We checked that cell tower by the road again but found nothing. Once again, the curse had struck. By the time we'd driven to Estero Llano Grande SP in Weslaco, I had pretty much convinced myself that APFAs don't actually exist. They are like unicorns.

UNICORNS, I TELL YOU! I will not waste any more time looking for this bird! I called Mary and recounted our tale of woe version 2.0; she encouraged me to put the bird out of my mind and move on.


Well, we got to Estero and noticed the mud was still drying up and falling off the car (as it would for the rest of the trip):
I can only hope that the rental car agency doesn't find this blog.

My next post will detail the wonders of Estero Llano Grande State Park and points beyond.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Texas 2012 Day 2 - South Padre Island and more

Tuesday saw us getting up early, leaving my brother's house, and heading for the Valley and South Padre Island. We saw a few interesting birds along the way, but nowhere near the number of Harris's Hawks that Mary and I saw on "Raptor Highway" (the stretch of Hwy 77 between Kingsville and Raymondville, TX) a couple of years ago. Still, we saw some cool stuff.

We stopped at a Charolais (cattle) ranch just north of Raymondville when we saw a whole field of Snow Geese, blackbirds and grackles, and Sandhill Cranes:

I could've sworn I got pics with Sandhills in them, but I might've been too busy counting SNGE to pay attention to what I was snapping. My count on Snows was 1,100. I did it twice, and I felt it was accurate within about 20 birds. There were at least 100 blue morphs in the bunch as well, along with 15 Sandhill Cranes. Other birds:
American Wigeon 6
Mallard 24 (a count which required me to CONFIRM on eBird, but we counted through the scope and felt confident about it)
Turkey Vulture 6
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Crested Caracara 3
Merlin 1
Killdeer 2
Red-winged Blackbird 500
Great-tailed Grackle 1000
Brown-headed Cowbird 25

As you can see, we saw several raptors in the area as well, including one that was perched at least a half-mile away on a tree -- we both tried to make it into an Aplomado Falcon, but it was just too far away.

We drove through Raymondville so I could look at the house I grew up in until the summer after 7th grade, when we moved to Harlingen. I knew the Valley had suffered some financial setbacks thanks to the downturn in tourist and shopping traffic caused by the drug wars down there, but WOW. My old neighborhood -- which I (of course) recall as shiny, clean, and solidly middle class - was more like a barrio now, with tiny houses, cars on blocks, dogs running around everywhere, and no one outside playing or doing anything. It was really sad; I have such fond memories of that house, though the citrus trees have long been chopped down by a past owner (can you believe?). It looked small, but (and maybe I was prejudiced, though I bet I can be excused for it) it seemed to be the cleanest one on the block. We moved on.

South Padre Island's Birding and Nature Center delivered for us in several ways; Gretchen was getting lifers left and right (like I was the first year I went; remember?), and I was hoping to get good looks and photos:
Clapper Rail! This was the best pic I got; the one time he (she?) raised his (her?) head, I was looking instead of snapping. Still, it's definitely a Clapper! I'd gotten a glance and a confirmation on my ID last year, so it wasn't a lifer, but this time we really got great looks at the bird.
And a Sora! We waited and watched these birds for about a half hour, skulking through the reeds and offering only teasing little glimpses of them. It was a real thrill; I hadn't seen a Sora since my days at the Marsh House.

We also saw the American Alligator again:
He looked very happy to see us. Look at that silly grin.

This Great Blue was kinda doing the emo thing, gazing pensively at his own reflection, pondering the meaninglessness of life, and thinking of how big the universe is and how he's so small.

Or he was fishing.

These beautiful Northern Pintails were really showing off their plumage. Ducks are probably my favorite species to ID, because the IDs are usually not as challenging as, say, warblers in fall plumage!

See? American Wigeon, complete with that little squeak-toy noise they make that sounds like "I'm a wigeon! Wigeon!"

Red. Head. Redhead. Duh.

The sneaky Sora strikes again!

Tomorrow (or when I can get back to the computer), we suffer the Curse of the Aplomado Falcon, I then refuse to acknowledge even the existence of Aplomado Falcons, and we move inland up the Rio Grande River.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Texas 2012 Day 1 - action-packed birdorama! UPDATED!

Gretchen and I arrived in Texas on Sunday and spent the afternoon and evening with my parents. I introduced Gretchen to some real Mexican food, including salsa -- of which she's a big fan.

On Monday morning, we headed south for a day of driving and birding on our way to Kingsville, where we were going to stay with my brother. We had decided right from the beginning that we were going to do the things we never do when AB or LT (our honeys) are in the car: if we see a bird on the side of the road, STOP NOW! Hit the brakes and yank that car onto the shoulder and check it out!

First stop: a cow feed lot where we saw a lot of ducks coming in for a landing:OMG like 500 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks! There they were, hanging out with the cattle and the Brown-headed Cowbirds! There were Green-winged Teals, Northern Pintails, and Gadwalls. It was pretty mind-blowing, seeing that many whistling ducks in the middle of a pasture/feedlot just south of San Antonio.

There was also this beautiful flower:
I left my Texas wildflowers book at home, dangit! More on this flower (and others) later.

On another back road, we saw the Gray Ghost!
We got great looks at him, even if my photo sucks. Northern Harrier male!

Look at this beautiful pink flower:ID to come on this one too. It does kinda look like an escapee to me, though, especially as it was the only plant of its kind in the area.

On the way to Port Aransas via Beeville, we saw more Sandhills:
And on another backroad, we saw this:While I was getting closer and closer, I was walking in some grass on the side of the road and I met the Texas resident I least miss: the fire ant! OUCH! I only got one bite before I ran out of there, but not before I really got close to my red-shouldered friend:

We had a moment. And then another fire ant bit me and I ran away.
One of my favorite birds, the Crested Caracara. That's some flashy tail, buddy.

We pulled off the road near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and look what we saw!

WHOOP! Two Whooping Cranes for a nice lifer for both me and Gretchen!

Gretchen took a step into an ant mound:
No bites for her though.

We saw about a million Red-tailed Hawks (UPDATE) but this is a FERRUGINOUS HAWK:
Gretchen and I knew it looked too light to be a red-tail, but we figured it was an immature. However, birding pal Alex Lamoreaux said it's a Ferruginous! That's a lifer! Thank goodness I was able to get such good pics!

Here's a red-tail for you:We saw bunches of them!

And several Long-billed Curlews, including this one who enjoyed the sun's shine on his bill:


Below Aransas Pass, we took a ferry and saw some nice pelicans including this shy Brown Pelican:
It was only like a five-minute ride, but it was still unexpected and cool. More pelicans, this time of the white variety:
So we made it down to Kingsville and spent the night at my brother's house. He was good enough to grill us some chicken and some steaks - YUM. Exhausted and sleepy.