Ara and Don were two birders from California who were just excited about whatever they could see, and had already explored Santa Ana and Estero Llano Grande on their own the day before I took them out, but they had mentioned that they were curious about Bentsen SP, so I thought heading over there the back way might be prudent (to avoid rush hour traffic) and we could hit some birding hotspots on the way!
Monk Parakeet was new for them, so our first stop was the little community of Hidalgo. We were on our way to the traditional nest site on 5th and Gardenia when we didn’t get very far after turning off Bridge: there was one right on the wire! So we all piled out and enjoyed him, and then parked in a city building’s parking lot to go chase a tittering Tropical Kingbird! During that foray we saw more parakeets, a Kiskadee, some Collared and Mourning Doves, and a cooperative Orange-crowned Warbler (which begged the obvious question, “Where’s the orange crown??” J)! After viewing the (apparently) unoccupied nests on 5th, we headed towards Anzalduas County Park, but not before picking up a nice Bronzed Cowbird on a wire!
Sleepy Collared Doves
Ara checks out one of the Monk Parakeet nests in Hidalgo
Rolling down the entrance road to Anzalduas we encountered a friendly (!) American Kestrel and enjoyed looking north into Mexico from the levee! This time of year, the first thing usually on most everyone’s agenda is getting the Sprague’s Pipit, so after playing the flight call so they’d know what to listen for, we dutifully trudged across the field, and sure enough, we shortly flushed a dumpy, buffy little bird that said Pike!, and although he didn’t land where we could get scope views, he did circle around several times and gave all of us great looks, including of his white outer tail feathers! A buffy bird on the ground gave us an adrenalin rush until we realized it was a Savannah Sparrow J, but even he was uncharacteristically cooperative for scope views! Western Meadowlarks also flocked around, giving their wheep calls.
But the excitement wasn’t over yet: as we made the circle (backwards from how I usually do it), we added Black Phoebe at the restroom, and I heard a Beardless Tyrannulet that we never were able to pin down. Cave Swallows jabbered overhead, several brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers showed off, but the real prize was a pair of Ringed Kingfishers having a spat and giving great views! We were rolling towards the 4-way stop when I thought I heard warblers in the grove, so we pulled over and headed in, when a pale raptor blasted in: a Gray Hawk! (We were kind of expecting him as the Constable told us he was hanging out in this area…) But one of the guys noticed a second dark raptor in the same tree, and as we zoomed in on him (the light wasn’t the greatest), I strongly suspected Zone-tailed Hawk! We circled around to try to get a better view, and at that point he took off with his prey, showing his Turkey Vulture-like wing pattern and banded tail very nicely! Unfortunately after he landed he lost his footing on his lunch, which turned out to be a pigeon (and we all commented that he had plenty of food around if that was the case)! We retreated so he could retrieve his prize, as he was looking longingly down at it … During all this Don spotted a distant White-tailed Kite, but Ara was too intent on the Zonie… J On the way out I did hear a House Finch singing, but forgot to enter it into EBird as it doesn’t come up on their “expected” list (although it’s very expected there at Anzalduas J)!
Ara after shooting the flycatcher (white circle)
Checking out the trees
Zone-tailed Hawk with lunch
After he dropped it...
"Thanks a heap, guys!"
From there we cruised down the levee towards Bentsen, which turned out to be rather quiet except for a small flock of “cormorants” that morphed into Greater White-fronted Geese! Close to Chimney Park some glistening spots turned out to be a ballet of circling White Pelicans! An Osprey flew at us over the canal, then suddenly dove into the water and came up with a big fish, right next to the car! Where you cross the canal and turn off the levee to head towards Bentsen, Don (I think it was) spotted a “bright orange bird” on top of the telephone pole, and sure enough, there was the coveted Altamira Oriole! (Weird place for one… J)
At Bentsen we had nice looks at the Green Jays and Chachalacas coming in to the feeders, but no Clay-colored Thrush showed up, which was really what we were hoping for (a Long-billed Thrasher was a nice consolation prize). While we were watching, the volunteer on duty said, “I hope you’re not bothered by snakes over your head!” Turns out a little Rat Snake had just had lunch and was contentedly snuggled in a crack in the wall over the light!
Rat Snake hiding behind the light (check out that eyeball!)
The rest of him...
They were up for hiking down to the Resaca, during which we saw a couple of Javelina cross the road! When the tram came by we bummed a ride down to Kiskadee Blind, which was disappointingly dead: after 15 minutes of patient waiting a single Green Jay decided to come in right as my timer went off! The guys were up to checking out the Resaca, so we poked over there, picking up a nice flock of White Pelicans floating to the west (probably the same flock we saw circling over the levee on the way there)!
Checking out the Acacia Loop
It was heating up and we were starting to drag, so we agreed on a road-birding excursion for the rest of the afternoon. “Sparrow Road” was the closest, but thanks to several unmarked intersections and a map that wasn’t clear (my opinion, of course J), we ended up on a dead end dirt road, but the good news was that we bagged a female Pyrrhuloxia in the process! We backtracked and found FM 2221 and headed west and then north on dirt Jara Chinas, what local birders dub “Sparrow Road” as, in the winter, the open scrubby habitat and ag fields can be a hotbed for sparrows! But the best sighting along the south leg wasn’t even a bird: Ara spotted a Gray Fox curled up on a thick horizontal trunk! We were all thrilled – although somewhat commonly seen in our native California, it was the first Gray Fox I had ever seen in Texas! He was super cooperative for pictures, and from that point on the road was renamed “Fox Sparrow Road”! J
Things were rather anticlimactic after that; we did have a nice White-tailed Hawk fly low overhead, and another little mammal, a Mexican Ground Squirrel, crawled up the bank and sat up cute-like! Several Loggerhead Shrikes posed, and one had proudly impaled a Bird Grasshopper on a barbed wire fence (he eventually grabbed it and went elsewhere)! Another non-avian phenomena was the “snowstorm” of Snouts along the road (along with other butterflies)! Along 14 Mile Road we got great looks at a Cassin’s Sparrow, and not-so-great looks (due to the angle of the light) at a couple of Black-throated Sparrows and a Bewick’s Wren. A nice family of Bobwhite revealed themselves on a utility road, and we dutifully scanned for Mountain Plovers, but only found Killdeer and Lark Sparrows instead. When it was time to head back to Alamo we blasted up the rest of Jara China, and the guys got to see why I called this stretch of barren land Horned Lark Heaven as flock after flock crossed the road in front of us! The presence of multiple wind turbines prompted much environmental dialogue during the slow times! J A young Caracara in the field just south of FM 490 was a fitting end to the day.
A few of the numerous Snouts along the road
Mexican Ground Squirrel
One of many Loggerhead Shrikes
This one perches proudly next to his lunch!
Apparently not liking the way we're eyeing his prize, he shimmies over to it...
...and decides to take it elsewhere!
Young Crested Caracara
Greater White-fronted Goose
American White Pelican