Friday, October 28, 2022

A Day with the New Guide!


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.

Our new guide, Aidan Griffiths, is ready to go! 

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!)

Young Chachalaca 

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!

Aidan at the Ebony Grove feeding area

Female Western Tanager 

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!

Victor waiting for the Hook-billed Kite to reappear...

Ryan (left) and two other spotters scan the skies

Aidan does his part! 

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!

Adult Gray Hawk on his favorite perch

Adult (below) and immature Harris' Hawks

Young Red-tailed Hawk

Three views of the immature Gray Hawk (bottom photo ©2022 Aidan Griffiths)

Empress Leilia 

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)!

Hook-billed Kite (photo ©2022 Aidan Griffiths)

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…

What we missed by five minutes (female Hook-billed Kite)
©2022 Ryan Rodriguez 

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!

Texas Tortoise 

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...

Great Kiskadee

Black Phoebe

Couch's Kingbird

House Sparrow mob and disinterested dog...

Female American Redstart

Beat-up Clay-colored Thrush 

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!

Burrowing Owl 

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!

Great Egret pretending to be a fake decoration... 

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

Red-eared Slider

Making a fashion statement...

Spiny Softshell Turtle

Eastern Amberwing

Blue-fronted Dancers in tandem 

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!

Pale Red Bug (yes, that's its real name...)

Beat-up Red-bordered Pixie

Funereal Duskywing

Female Red-bordered Metalmark

Female Sachem

Common Mellana

White-patched Skipper

Gray Hairstreak

Baby lizard - either a Six-lined Racerunner or a Texas Spotted Whiptail that hasn't developed his spots yet... 

I was pooping out about then, so we called it a day with a total of 60 species (of birds, anyway J)!  Bird List: 

Muscovy Duck

Plain Chachalaca

Inca Dove

White-winged Dove

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Long-billed Curlew


American White Pelican

Great Egret

Cattle Egret

White Ibis

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Hook-billed Kite

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Harris's Hawk

White-tailed Hawk

Gray Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Burrowing Owl

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Crested Caracara

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Monk Parakeet

Black Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Great Kiskadee

Couch's Kingbird

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

White-eyed Vireo

Green Jay

Black-crested Titmouse


Barn Swallow

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

House Wren

Winter Wren

Gray Catbird

Long-billed Thrasher

Northern Mockingbird

Clay-colored Thrush

House Sparrow

American Pipit

Lesser Goldfinch

Western Meadowlark

Altamira Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Orange-crowned Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Western Tanager

Northern Cardinal

Indigo Bunting


Monday, September 26, 2022

Birthday Bumming on the Island


Kay from San Antonio (who was practically family by now J) wanted to come down to the Valley to see a friend and celebrate her birthday, so she wanted to go to the Island to see if any migrants were coming through.  On the way out there via SR 100, a suspicious light in the sky had us pull over into the Aplomado Viewing Area parking lot, but the light was simply a very bright star that was nevertheless showing a lot of refractive color through the scope!  Obviously it was still quite dark, but the glowing eastern sky dotted with black clouds was just gorgeous!

Sunrise on SR 100 

We broke with tradition and went to Sheepshead first, which was sadly pretty dead except for an Inca Dove out of the car and an Eastern Wood Pewee trying out his dawn song!  We were getting ready to move on when suddenly things started seeping and chirping, but not letting us get much of a look; Kay got a glimpse of a Yellow-breasted Chat, and I was trying to follow something that looked rather plain below and on the face, but had very strong wingbars and was chirping up a storm!  Just for kicks and grins I decided to tape the thing with Merlin, and when it immediately ID’d it as a Northern Parula, that made perfect sense (as first-year birds can be rather dull)!  Kay had what sounded like a Yellow Warbler from her description (and the chirp sounded good), and a Least Flycatcher called from the north side water feature area, but the only other bird to show up was a juvenile Mockingbird that had some kind of deformity on its bill and feet – poor thing didn’t look very well, at any rate…

Kay at the north side of the Sheepshead Lots

Juvenile Mockingbird with health issues... 

Heading over to the Convention Centre, we skipped the Circular Area and went straight to the water feature, which was also pretty quiet except for an immature Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a pair of Wilson’s Warblers that came in to bathe (I heard an Orchard Oriole, but that was the extent of that bird).  Kay was introduced to the “jungle sound” of the Common Gallinule, and we added quite a few “heard only” birds to the list including Least Bittern, Green and Great Blue Heron, Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, and Belted Kingfisher.  We strolled out to the back viewing area where the white morph Reddish Egret was still hanging, along with a subadult Brown Pelican, and the Neotropic Cormorant that always seems to be there, along with the requisite Laughing Gulls (the pelican seemed to be intently watching the egret as he preened J).  We tried to get a posing Tricolored Heron to look at the camera J, but he was too focused on the two kayakers floating by behind him!  We skipped the boardwalk as it was getting hot, but the most exciting bird flew over us back at the car – a Merlin!  (Guess he was a little early as he got flagged…)

A tiny (and colorful) Long-legged Fly

The Water Feature

Young male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Wilson's Warbler pair

White morph Reddish Egret and young Brown Pelican

Tricolored Heron paying more attention to the kayakers than us...

Kay in front of the "Whaling Wall" 

Despite the fact that I’ve been chastised several times by my Subaru service advisor L, I decided to drive out on The Flats anyway so Kay could get a closer look at the shorebirds out there!  Black Tern would have been a lifer for Kay, but unfortunately they had moved on; we did have nice comparisons of a few Red Knots next to the Short-billed Dowitchers!  (Kay only gets Long-billed, and she could really see the difference, even though there is overlap…)  Also in the crowd were Marbled Godwits, Sanderlings, Piping (CUUUTE!!!) and Black-bellied Plovers, Black Skimmers, and the normal terns, including a Common. 

Two Red Knots in front, flanked by Short-billed Dowitchers and Marbled Godwits in the back.

Black Skimmers, Forster's Terns, and godwits 

Kay suggested driving up the beach, so we got on via Atwood Park (as Beach Access 6 has been dicey of late), and didn’t get far as the sand was pretty soft (like driving through snow).  We had a good time joking about the truck that was piled high with water toys (“Sure you don’t wanna take a shark home?!” J), and on the way out we did see a Ruddy Turnstone, but the poor thing had no feet! L  After I got home I bemoaned the fact that we couldn’t get any farther, because a Great Shearwater was spotted in the surf about a quarter mile north of road’s end (which would have required getting on at the aforementioned Beach Access 6)! L  Oh, well…

The Water Toy Truck provides a diversion.. 

Since it was too hot to walk, Kay suggested we just cruise around the Birding & Nature Center’s parking lot to see if we could spot anything from the car (last time she came down in the spring that proved very productive), but the most exciting bird there was a White Ibis, plus another pair of Wilson’s Warblers.  But we did foist off some birthday cake on Park Naturalist Javi J (we had been indulging all morning) and also enjoyed watching the kids from the Harlingen Military Academy helping to plant some natives on the grounds!  

By then it was lunch time (despite stuffing ourselves with cake J), so after running Heppy through the car wash we headed over to Pier 19, only to discover the place had burned down!!  L  So since we were headed to Isla Blanca Park we ended up at Dirty Al’s, which was wonderful (we both had the fish and shrimp basket)!  The only new birds we picked up there were a little group of lady Red-winged Blackbirds, so we ended up with 50 species for the morning, which is kinda meager for migration time on the Island.  But we had a great time of fellowship, which is what counts! 

Dirty Al's - highly recommended! 

Bird List:

 Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Inca Dove

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Common Gallinule

Black-bellied Plover

Piping Plover

Marbled Godwit

Ruddy Turnstone

Red Knot


Short-billed Dowitcher


Laughing Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Common Tern

Forster's Tern

Royal Tern

Sandwich Tern

Black Skimmer

Neotropic Cormorant

Brown Pelican

Least Bittern

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Tricolored Heron

Reddish Egret

Green Heron

White Ibis


Belted Kingfisher

Golden-fronted Woodpecker


Eastern Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Tropical Kingbird

European Starling

Northern Mockingbird

House Sparrow

Eastern Meadowlark

Orchard Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Yellow-breasted Chat (Kay only)

Northern Parula

Yellow Warbler

Wilson's Warbler