Keith wanted me to meet and get to know our new staff guide, Aidan Griffiths, so I was only too happy to oblige! J We made a game out of it: I would be the visiting birder with a list of targets, and he would take me around in an attempt to find them! I was immediately impressed with Aidan: young, energetic, and upbeat, and easy to connect with – just what we needed for a new guide!
The first bird on my list – Whippoorwill – would have been a long shot anyway, but he decided to start at Bentsen as another couple of targets – Hook-billed Kite and Short-tailed Hawk – were also reported there (and the kite would have been a life bird for him, so there was that added incentive J)! We enjoyed a couple of Couch’s Kingbirds in the parking lot, and heard Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and an Altamira Oriole in the headquarters area. The office was just opening up, and the rangers were working hard to empty the visitor’s center of all the bikes they had stored overnight! We got our “bands” and headed into the main part of the park.
The volunteer was just in the process of putting to food out at the Nature Center feeders, and there were plenty of Chachalacas waiting for breakfast, including some youngsters! The usual Green Jays were also around, and as we made our way down the main road, we heard a Song Sparrow-like bark coming from the tangles near the maintenance area. A Winter Wren had been reported that morning along the main road, and Aidan (who is from New Jersey) concurred that we were indeed hearing said Winter Wren! (He mused about the fact that he had worked hard to get one before he left home, figuring he’d never see one again after moving here, and he’s seen or heard at least three since the move!)
Continuing on, we caught up with Mr. Feeder at the Ebony Grove primitive campground, and after looking around briefly, I thought I was hearing a Summer Tanager! Aiden heard it, too, and after some maneuvering we finally spotted it – it turned out to be a female Western Tanager, which not only got flagged, but that was a surprise year bird for the both of us!
I think we were yapping more than we were birding J as we arrived at the Hawk Tower much more quickly than I anticipated, and as we reached the top, Aidan spotted a dark raptor flying away and announced that he thought he had the Hook-billed Kite! Others on the tower confirmed it, but all I saw was a black blob, so I was hoping for a second look! Standing watch were John Kaye (who had been heading up the watch all fall, Ryan Rodriguez, John Rosford, and Reuben and Victor Stoll, a couple of guys I didn’t know but whom Aidan had actually run into in Tennessee while they were doing a big year (they still were)! There was an additional spotter helping John K. out, and all of them were both very good spotters!
We hung around until about 11:00, and in the course of that time we actually saw quite a few raptors: Peregrine, Merlin, Kestrel, and Caracara were the falcon reps, both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks appeared several times, and in the Buteo (or thereabouts) department we had a couple of Harris’ Hawks, both adult and immature Gray Hawks, a couple of Broad-winged Hawks, a distant White-tailed, a calling Red-shouldered that the guys eventually spotted, and a nice Red-tailed Hawk. The guys managed to spot a Swainson’s or two, but they were just too far away for me to see any detail. A flock of Western Meadowlarks played the area, and Reuben let me look at a perched one through his scope where I could actually see the yellow malar! A House Wren was fussing, and John K. found it, and then Aidan helped me get on it – boy, did he blend in! We heard several Common Yellowthroats “chacking”, and the guys heard/saw several things that I just never did, including Long-billed Curlew, American Pipit, and Indigo Bunting. I did hear the Lesser Goldfinch that someone finally spotted, and several ballets of White Pelicans soared overhead, along with the occasional Anhinga! Someone spotted an emperor sunning below us (the skies were literally full of Snouts that became distracting after a while when you’re trying to count raptors through a scope) that I couldn’t ID as an Empress Leila until shooting it and then blowing up the photo!
Finally someone spotted a suspicious raptor over the treetops, and it did indeed turn out to be our gray male Hook-billed Kite! I still couldn’t see any detail through my bins, so I just started shooting pictures and eventually taking video, and that way I could see the detail once magnified a bit (I told Aidan that this Powershot is better than a scope sometimes, as the camera’s power is greater than the bins, and then on top of that you can blow it up even further)!
We had to leave at eleven if we wanted to catch the tram back, so having seen our kite, we moseyed back down, only by the time we reached the road we heard yelling and whooping, and we looked at each other and said, “Uh oh! What are we missing?!” That’s exactly what I asked Ryan via text, but I don’t think it got delivered till later as the signal was next to non-existent, but by the time we reached Old Hidalgo Pumphouse he had replied saying they had a female kite at “point blank”! J for them, L for us…
The tram came shortly after that, and it happened to be carrying the three guys Aidan had guided the day before! When they heard the kites had just been seen, they gave us their seats in a hurry J and headed on up! On the way back the driver pointed out a Texas Tortoise, and also found a bleached out snake skin at one of the tram stops. Aidan managed to see one of the Blue Spiny Lizards that always hang out along the brick wall at the gate!
We were getting hungry by then, so we stopped at Stripes so I could introduce Aidan to a Stripes taco (you can’t come to South Texas without getting a Stripes taco, said I); he was impressed with the barbacoa, and I broke with tradition and got a fajita taco (at least the filling looked like fajitas J)! Then we headed to Old Hidalgo Pumphouse for the Monk Parakeets (I needed them for the year only because I hadn’t gotten myself over there yet) and didn’t even get to the park before we had a couple flying next to the car! Their nests are now pretty much all over, too, not just at 5th and Gardenia which was the traditional spot to see them.
We poked around the Pumphouse anyway because it was a new spot for Aidan (he wasn’t sure about the place when he saw the body hanging from the sign over the road, but I reminded him it was Halloween… J); right away he spotted a Black Phoebe on a stump, and plenty of Inca Doves on the driveway. (We got a kick out of a neighborhood dog that was placidly watching a mob of House Sparrows just inches from him instead of going after them…) I pointed out the canal and the trail around it to him (they had built a new platform since I was there last) and got fooled by a Mockingbird doing both an Olive Sparrow and a Green Kingfisher! We didn’t see anything from the main overlook except a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the wire, so we headed back, where Aidan spotted a beat-up Clay-colored Thrush sipping water from a tree that had just been sprayed by the sprinkler! A bright chirp revealed a female American Redstart, and we caught sight of a few more Monks before heading up to US 281 and over to Weslaco.
Aidan leads the way...
Somehow I totally missed FM88 but I remembered the standpipe that a Burrowing Owl would always hang out at every winter, and sure enough, there he was! I pointed out the old Progresso Sod Farms which was now a housing community where we would sometimes get Say’s Phoebes in the winter, and the Progresso Silos that were famous for Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the winter. When we made the turn on FM 1015 Aidan was aghast at the mass of Bronzed Cowbirds on the Stripes lawn at the corner!
Our destination was the Valley Nature Center as that was the last place a MacGillivray’s Warbler had been spotted (I had also gotten my second wind by then so I was up to the walk, as opposed to just hanging out at Estero’s Green Jay Drip for the rest of the day hoping for that Mac to show up…). Right away we were taken by their lush butterfly bushes outside the building when this guy came right up to us with a camera and said, “I’m here for the crane!” We looked in the bushes and saw what I thought was a fake Great Egret at first, but it was a real one, indeed hanging out in the bushes and oblivious to the people!
Getting our passes and heading in, Aidan got a kick out of the turtles (both Red-eared Sliders and Softshells) that made a beeline for us the minute we stepped onto the bridge, along with a normal-colored Muscovy! J An Eastern Amberwing floated around and eventually stopped where we could get photos, and a pair of damsels in tandem landed on the path in front of us; I thought maybe we had something really cool as I didn’t recognize them, but upon further research they turned out to be plain ol’ Blue-fronted Dancers after all: the male was a “dull male”, but the female still looked a little different.
Aidan enjoying the turtles
Bird-wise it was getting pretty quiet except for a softly singing White-eyed Vireo; no Mac of course, and we had a couple of skulky things, but it was the butterflies that really stole the show: the mistflower was in bloom all over, and the butters were just nuts! Besides the very common expected stuff, some of the less common things we saw included Red-bordered Pixie, Red-bordered Metalmark, and White-patched Skipper. There’s been “Liris Madness” of late and I indeed saw a skipper with a hindwing spot band that made me think “Liris”, but the more I looked at it the more ochre it started looking, so I settled on Common Mellana after scrutinizing the pictures. A baby lizard showed up that I just automatically assumed was a Texas Spotted Whiptail (I guess they’re officially called “Common Spotted Whiptails” now), but unless babies don’t develop the tell-tale spots between the stripes until later, I’m wondering now if we actually had a Six-lined Racerunner! If any herp experts are reading this, feel free to comment!
I was pooping out about then, so we called it a day with a total of 60 species (of birds, anyway J)! Bird List:
American White Pelican