Monday, November 16, 2015

A Film Crew from Germany gets a Taste of Birding and Storm-Chasing!

23-24 OCT 2015

            My first “official” assignment as a guide for Alamo Inn B&B was to accompany a naturalist/TV journalist from Germany named Ina and her videographer Andreas on a quest to find “flocks of birds” for a documentary TV show, spotlighting the Lower Rio Grande Valley as a tourist destination, particularly for birding.  They were here at the invitation of South Texas Nature, an organization that is working to promote nature tourism here in the LRGV to places not only in North America but in Europe as well.  So we were hoping that this German team would be impressed with what the Valley had to offer in the way of nature tourism!

            However, nobody counted on Hurricane Patricia arriving on the scene at the same time! L  They flew in Thursday night, and thankfully the rain that was predicted for Friday stayed away for the most part, so I picked them up around 7:30 Friday morning and headed for Sabal Palm Sanctuary to shoot feeder birds and waterbirds from the blind.

            The lady on duty said the mosquitoes were very “friendly”, so we sprayed up, packed a couple of Off Wipes, and headed to the feeders after doing a couple of takes of Ina and myself coming out of the Rabb House!  I explained that this was one of the last strongholds of the Sabal Palm, which used to occur all along the Rio Grande here in the Valley.  After a few takes of us walking up on the platform, another volunteer arrived with the morning vittles, and before long the Green Jays were attacking the feeders!  A lone White-tipped Dove poked around down below, and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird buzzed around unseen, but chattering up a storm. 
Shooting Green Jays at the feeders


After that we headed to the blind (with several more takes walking in and out of the structure; no wonder “extras” say that acting for TV shows and movies is so tiring!) where several Black-bellied Whistling Duck families swam around (and also came flying in), and Kiskadees flopped around the dead trees.  I was impressed when Ina (a biologist but not a birder) said, “There’s a kingfisher!”  Sure enough, a Green Kingfisher was perching on the same tree as the Kiskadee!  (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, as their Common Kingfisher is about the same size and shape…)  Both Least and Pied-billed Grebes poked around, and both Ina and Andreas were able to get nice views through the scope.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

View from the blind
            What they were really hoping for, however, were huge flocks of birds, which (granted) can be hit or miss, especially this time of year (come back in about a month, and maybe we can find some cranes and geese)!  But we’d do our best, so I thought maybe the famous Highway 48 Boat Ramp would come through (and since it was overcast, the glare of the sun wouldn’t be a problem).  The area’s signature bird (American Oystercatcher) didn’t show, but right away three Black Skimmers went sailing by, yelping as they went!  There was a sizeable flock of Laughing Gulls with a few skimmers on an island to the south, but it was a ways out there.  Ina got a kick out of the fact that the white egret looking for breakfast was actually called a Reddish Egret; I explained that they came in two color morphs!  She also asked if the water was poisonous or polluted, and I shrugged and said I didn’t think so.  “Then why are there so many dead fish?” she asked!  I hadn’t even noticed all the little perished bodies along the shoreline (guess it hadn’t started to stink yet), but I explained that it was due to the “Red Tide”, a type of algae that springs up occasionally and does a number on the fish population.  To my knowledge, though, it doesn’t affect the bird (or the human) population if they eat the fish.
Andreas shoots a distant flock of birds surrounded by victims of the Red Tide...

White morph Reddish Egret
            Nydia (the South Texas Nature rep) wanted to meet up with us at some point, so since it was getting close to lunch time, Ina suggested we call her before heading to South Padre to give her time to meet us somewhere.  Keith wanted me to take them to an “authentic” Tex-Mex place, and Nydia knew just the spot: Manuel’s in Port Isabel!  But first, we had to “do” The Island in hopes of those big flocks, which we would often get on the bayside access beach just north of the Convention Centre.  Well.  We pulled in, and instead of being able to drive out onto a large expanse of hard-packed beach and right up to lots of good birds, the water was practically up to the little entrance shack!  Not a bird to be seen, except for an occasional Laughing Gull getting out of the way of the many wind-surfers!  So since I didn’t want to keep Nydia waiting (she said it would take her awhile to get there, anyway), we headed to the Birding Center, and that was fun; while we didn’t encounter any “flocks”, we did have some nice birds, including calling Clapper Rails, my FOS American Wigeon, and close-up Great Egrets and Little Blue and Tricolored Herons.  But the highlight was this big mama Alligator just lounging on the spit, quietly watching this young Great Blue Heron snoozing nearby, until it decided to take a walk over to where the Alligator was, suddenly noticed it, and jumped and squawked!  After an awkward standoff the heron finally went back to its own spot. 
Snoozing Great Blue Heron...

...and Alligator that was keeping an eye on him!
After a hike on the boardwalk we went up to the top of the tower (which was my first time up there, actually) and got a grand view of the whole area!  I got a kick out of the Rock Pigeon that was following everyone around like a lost puppy, and finally hopped up on the table we were near; I even coaxed the thing to sit on my hand!  Made me wonder if it was someone’s homing pigeon at one time…  I was disappointed that we didn’t at least get them a Roseate Spoonbill or two – that would have been a hit for sure!
Filming the Alligator from the boardwalk

View from the top of the tower

Andreas and the Friendly Pigeon...
            After showing them the water feature that Arroyo Colorado Audubon had just made (and explained the importance of these water features for migrating birds), we headed over to Port Isabel and lunch with Nydia, which was a real treat: Manuel’s was a little hole-in-the-wall northwest of the lighthouse, and the tradition was that you were supposed to write something on the wall if it was your first time there (only problem was that the wall was full J)!  Discovered that one of Ina’s true passions is tree houses (she had just come from Austin where some fabulous ones were on display), so she was very interested in seeing the construction of the tree tower at Santa Ana (which we were planning on visiting Saturday)!

            She was also interested in shooting some cattle on a ranch, so we made a last minute decision to go up to Rio Beef (the only place I know of to see cattle, guaranteed), and Nydia wanted to join us, so Ina rode with her and Andreas came with me.  We made a quick stop at the “Highway 100 Resacas” in hopes of a bunch of shorebirds (nada), so then hopped on the 77 and headed north.  We somehow got separated, but around Sebastian I noticed a bunch of cows and Cattle Egrets right by the frontage road, so I went flying off the freeway and back to where the cows were, and while Andreas dutifully filmed them I called Nydia to tell her where we were, and that we didn’t have to go all the way to Rio Beef – we found some cattle!  When they finally caught up with us, Ina confessed that what she had in mind was a scene with the gate and the buildings and the cattle (someone suggested later that she could have been thinking Texas Longhorns), but sadly that kind of scene involves special arrangements with the ranch; there’s noplace where you can just drive up and shoot a typical “Texas Cattle Ranch” scene. 

            I think Nydia could feel Ina’s disappointment, and since it was getting late, she suggested stopping at Estero Llano Grande State Park (since the sun had actually come out, and “Estero never disappoints” as Nydia said), and that was a great idea, seeing it was right on the way to Alamo!  When we got there the staff was in the process of taking down the decorations for the planned “Spooky Fest”, as Patricia had effectively canceled the event!  But as I pointed out some of the birds to Andreas (just a few coots and grebes at that point; I was hoping the vagrant Purple Gallinule and/or the Jacana would show up for them), Nydia and Ina headed out on the boardwalk and shortly ran into park host Huck Hutchins and his bird walk!  Next thing I knew, Nydia was calling me to report that Huck had seen some Roseate Spoonbills up on the levee!  So we blasted out there, where the spoonbills were nowhere to be found, but there was a huge flock of White Pelicans down the way, and when a red pickup on the other side of the Estero Llano spooked a big portion of them, they lifted off in a glorious pelican ballet!  Thankfully several stayed put, and about that time the blackbirds were flocking as well, so we were all rejoicing that Ina and Andreas finally got their “big flocks” of birds (and you can’t beat White Pelicans for a display of beauty)!  A pair of White-tailed Kites added some excitement, but what should show up on the way back but the spoonbills!  That was the last thing Andreas shot before heading back to the car (it was starting to drip), but while we were blasting over the boardwalk to beat the rain, this dark “chicken” with a white butt popped up out of the marsh – it was the immature Purple Gallinule!  Nydia was thrilled, and when we got back to the deck, this young birding couple from Harlingen had been waiting for an hour for the thing to show, and we flushed it for them! J  In return, they showed us the continuing Jacana, which Ina got to see through their scope!  As we hurried back to the car, I explained that this is exactly one of the big draws of South Texas: birders come not only for the specialty birds we have (of which we saw many), but the vagrants that can show up at any time!
Nydia and Ina hit the boardwalk at Estero Llano Grande

A small part of the White Pelican Ballet!
            The next day was an adventure of a different type: the bulk of the Big Storm was supposed to hit, but by the time I got to Ina’s suite it really wasn’t bad (just dripping), so we decided to try Santa Ana after all so that she could see the tree tower and the canopy walk.  By the time we got there it had actually quit spitting, and we were so engaged in sharing Costa Rica stories that I completely forgot to bring my umbrella!  While it went from nothing to spitting to a light rain by the time we got to the tower, before long the heavens opened and we were drenched!  (Didn’t stop Ina from climbing to the top, though… J)  While huddled under the stairwell they asked if I thought it would let up at all (the rain patterns around here often consist of big dumps with breaks in between), but looking at the radar on my IPhone (yes, I finally entered the 21st century…), we were in the Green Blob (that was covering all of the Valley and parts of Mexico to boot) and a Big Yellow Blob was coming our way, so we made a run for the parking lot!  (I told them at least I didn’t have to take a shower now… J)  We made it home fine, and after they dried their clothes and packed I drove them to the airport in Harlingen, where we went through torrential zero-visibility downpours and saw flooding along the frontage roads in Weslaco of Biblical proportions (we all jumped when the Weather Alert went off on all three of our phones simultaneously)!  Thankfully everyone on the freeway was driving sanely (at least where we were; Keith told me about a jackknifed truck when he was taking another guest to the airport) and we made it there in one piece, and I made it back in one piece!  What a story they’ll have to tell, complete with the largest hurricane on record!

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