Texas Birding Trip December 2016 – Review Report
Here’s a review report on a winter birding trip to South Texas from December 18 to December 28, 2016 by two birders (husband and wife) from Montreal. We are a hybrid mix of “amateur” and “lister” who refer to ourselves as “listateurs” when describing our experience (or inexperience) as birders. We started a new “couple life list” three years ago with the stipulation that only the birds we see at the same time well enough to ID are allowed to be added to the list. We went to South Texas with our life list at 439 species seen and with a target list of 62 hopefuls to be seen along the Coastal Bend. Our trip started and ended in San Antonio with a loop that took us to Port Aransas and a few points north and south, Corpus Christi and points west, Kingsville, Riviera, Harlingen, McAllen, South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa and Brownsville. We rented a low-cost sub-compact and throughout our trip we “hot-wired” most of our motel rooms (average $40.00 a night – off-season rates are a real advantage in winter birding and we could always book 24 hours or less in advance because of the high rate of vacancy!) to save our money for the important expenditures – the birding guides!
December 18 – Travel day – Flew from Montreal to Charlotte NC to San Antonio. Rented a Yaris and drove three hours to Port Aransas through Corpus Christi.
December 19 – The Christmas Bird Count for Port Aransas area. Here we met the most wonderful, warm and well-informed bird guides, Nan Dietert and Lyndon Holcomb at 5:30 AM to start the CBC day. Nan and Lyndon are like two ambassadors of what’s good about birding; they are excellent educators, thoughtful and encouraging to all and model a palpable passion for birding. We felt like old friends within minutes of meeting them and they gave us confidence to pursue the day ahead. The best “hotspot’ of the day was the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. The word, “hotspot,” is used here with caution as the temperature that day was 35 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill that brought the real-feel down to 21 – so be prepared. We wore everything in our suitcases! However, Nan and Lyndon were undaunted and determined and took the time to help us add eight “lifers” to our list while compiling a CBC day list of 85 species – just amazing, especially considering the adverse conditions! Bravo and thanks to Nan and Lyndon. Lifers on our list included the Neotropic Cormorant, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Reddish Egret (both red and white morphs), Long-billed Curlew, Mottled Duck, Great Kiskadee, and Least Grebe.
December 20 – In the morning we went north expressly to find the Whooping Crane. The easiest and apparently most reliable place that we found was the pond across from the “Big Tree” unit of Goose Island Park in Lamar – it was well worth the trip. Not only did we have a great encounter with Whooping Cranes around the pond opposite the Big Tree parking lot, but we also picked up the Black-crested Titmouse at the visitor center feeder. In the afternoon we went out again with Nan Dietert and in addition to many of the birds we saw the previous day Nan took us on an exciting 4-wheel drive along the water’s edge of Mustang Island Beach to see a small group of Snowy Plovers to add three more lifers to our list that day. Following a fond farewell to Nan we then drove to Calallen – west of Corpus Christi to spend the night.
December 21 – In the morning we did some self-guided birding at the delightful and well-contained Hazel Bazemore County Park. At the top parking lot we added the Golden-fronted Woodpecker to our life list, and below at the bank of the Nueces River we found the Couch’s Kingbird. These birds were in addition to the many other now familiar to us birds on the park’s pond and river’s edge. In the afternoon we trudged through the Polliwog Ponds Water Treatment area. Honestly, a lot of walking with not a whole lot of sightings but we did have an amazing encounter with a Long-billed Thrasher – bringing our life list total to three on the day. We then drove down to Kingsville to spend the night. And just to be reassuring about the weather, as the week proceeded and we continued to head south, the weather warmed up to a very comfortable high 70’s to low 80’s and remained like that all the way back to San Antonio – which, as I said before, was a balmy 35 degrees on the first day of our trip
December 22 – The King Ranch bird tour with Tom Langschied was highly recommended to us and we pass this praise on to you. In a word – superb! Tom took us around on a 35-mile tour of the gi-normous King Ranch in a half-day trip that added nine more lifers to our list: Northern Bobwhite, Ringed Kingfisher, Western Meadowlark, Green Kingfisher, Barn Owl, Cave Swallow, Olive Sparrow, White-tipped Dove, and Audubon’s Oriole. He took us directly to them – and we also saw wild hogs, javelinas, mule deer and a bobcat to boot! We also saw a beautiful Green Malachite Butterfly which is unusual for the area – did I mention that Tom was also keen on butterflies and dragonflies, which abound in South Texas? In the afternoon Tom gave us clear directions to get off and back on to Route 77 east of Kingsville to Riviera on our way south so that we could put the Greater White-fronted Goose and the Ross’s Goose on our list – and we did so with no trouble at all. We drove on south to Alamo (near McAllen) and stayed two nights at the Alamo Inn – hospitality provided by Keith Hackland specifically catering to birding in South Texas – what a great place!
December 23 – We went out for the day with the Alamo Inn birding guide, Mary Beth Stowe, a lifelong birder with a remarkable gift for birding by ear. At Santa Ana NWR we found a Fulvous Whistling Duck right off the bat at the entrance pond; then, we spent time with the rare Glossy Ibis, expertly picked out from among the White-faced Ibises it was in among. We were also able to scope a pair of Grasshopper Sparrows that posed for a good long look. At Estero Llano Grande State Park we almost tripped over two Common Pauraques on the ground amongst leaf litter and dried branches. Really, you had to look at least two times to see them right under your feet! We also saw a McCall’s Screech Owl that may one day soon be split off from being a variation of the Eastern Screech Owl into its own species. And we saw three different turtle species on one rock (Soft-shelled, Red-eared Slider and Yellow Mud). Getting a look at a Buff-bellied Hummingbird is an exercise in patience; we gave it 15 minutes at three different feeders. We could hear it, but the bird’s habit is to come to the feeder for one drink every 15 minutes or so. Finally, just as we were walking away, it arrived before our eyes in a glorious multicolor flash, took a drink and was gone. We would have gone on into three more parks, but as it was the Friday before Christmas Sunday these parks were already closed by the time we had arrived at each – so be prepared for that as well. We did however have a sight and sound encounter with a Tropical Kingbird just outside of the closed Quinto Mazatlán Park, giving us seven lifers for the day. Considering the unexpected closures and a gathering afternoon wind, we were amazed to come away with a day count of 85 species. Thank you and well done, Mary Beth.
December 24 and 25 – As it was Christmas (and Hanukkah) weekend we were fairly obliged to continue birding on our own. While we enjoyed the many familiar waders, shorebirds and raptors, we were quite frustrated in finding target birds on our own. Clapper Rail, Sedge Wren and especially Aplomado Falcon were what we were trying for – but to no avail over many “back-and-forths” on Route 100, Route 510 to Laguna Atascosa Visitor Center and Padre Boulevard to the Birding and Convention Centers on South Padre Island. We did, however, find a “sure bet” at the Oliveira Park in Brownsville by travelling south on Route 48. Between 5:00 and 6:00 PM hundreds of parrots return from their day to roost in the park’s Eucalyptus trees, but first they line up on the power lines over the street’s sidewalk on El Paso Road in a raucous squawking argument before settling into the trees. There was just enough light as the sun was setting to get great looks at Red-lored, Red-crowned, White-fronted and Yellow-headed Parrots by the score within a span of 35 minutes.
December 26 – Our “day of days” birding with Captain Jon McIntyre, a bird guide legend in the Corpus Christi area; he was our “clean-up hitter” for some of the tough ones on our target list. With his years of experience and a fully loaded GPS he navigated us to the lesser explored places of backroads Texas. In Jim Wells county he helped us find Field and Vesper Sparrows and followed that with great looks at Sprague’s Pipits and Mountain Plovers on either field off the same spot on the road where we stopped – anyone who has looked in vain for hours just to find either one of these species knows how amazing this double-header find was to us! This feat was followed by intimate encounters with a Barn Owl and shortly after with a half dozen Burrowing Owls. And so it went, one magic moment on top of another – we returned to the pond at Hazel Bazemore Park and Jon expertly drew out several heretofore invisible Sedge Wrens just ten feet away from where we stood, and at the Leonabelle Turnbull Center he did the same thing to conjure up before our eyes a Least Bittern. And, as a final act of ornithological wizardry, he brought us to Route 361 south of Port Aransas to provide us with an exquisite encounter with the bull’s eye bird on our South Texas target life list, the Aplomado Falcon, in all its glory posing in the full sunlight like a poster model for a “world of birding” recruitment campaign. By the end of this amazing day we had added seven lifers to our life list and had seen an incredible 118 species in all – you really can’t get better than to bird safari with Jon McIntyre. BTW he is a real deep sea fishing charter boat captain, and in addition to birds he knows more than a thing or two about fish, reptiles, butterflies and dragonflies – let’s just say he’s very interesting to talk with while travelling between birds.
December 27 – On Jon’s advice we started out on our return trip to San Antonio by first stopping at the Indian Point Section of Sunset Lake Park just north over the Corpus Christi Bay causeway in Portland. He said we’d probably have a good chance at finding Stilt Sandpipers and Clapper Rails there – and so we did. We could only add the Stilt Sandpiper to our life list; although we heard several Clapper Rails in the area around the boardwalk, I alone had a glance at one Clapper stealthily weaving through the marsh scrub and I couldn’t get my wife to focus on it in time . . . alas. Our life list contract is binding (and bonding) - either we both see it together or it doesn’t count on the list. Next we travelled to Choke Canyon-Calliham Unit and had two great encounters with Scissor-tailed Flycatchers – breathtaking! Then on to San Antonio for the night.
December 28 – Our last day in Texas – for now. We drove around the “Alamo” in downtown San Antonio – and, h-m-m-m – so many wax museums, tour crowds and souvenir shops; I don’t know – it’s just like what happened to Niagara Falls in Ontario. But we had a walk-through tour of the Natural Bridges Cavern just a little northeast of San Antonio followed by some picnic bench birding which provided a pleasant wrap-up to our last morning in Texas. And then, we flew away home into the teeth of a full-blown Montreal winter snow storm.
Concluding Notes – In sum, our ten-day birding safari in South Texas was, to us, a stupendous success on many levels. In numbers, we saw 185 different species overall and 44 of them were “lifers” that we added to our list (14 of which we found on our own) - and our life list count now stands at 483 since we started it three years ago at Christmas time. In economy, we pulled off a remarkably inexpensive trip that yielded “big-bang-for-the-buck” enjoyment and satisfaction going to the “birdiest place” in the US in the off-season. It seems that there is no real “off-season” for birds in South Texas – some are coming in as others are leaving, but a whole lot of them just stay put year round.
But it was the guides that made the biggest impression on us – such wonderful, engaging and interesting people. All were excellent birders and consummate educators and of course they could take us right to the birds we wanted to see – a seemingly easy task that we found ever so frustrating on our own. And, all of our guides had such intriguing alternate vocations in addition to birding: Nan is a sculptor and lives on a sailboat, Tom is a researcher and program designer, Mary Beth a composer and musician, Jon is a deep sea boat captain and broad-based naturalist and all are just so generous with their time, information and friendship. If you’ve never thought about birding with guides, consider that we thought the difference between going out on our and own going out with these guides was the difference between night and day – especially in a space as big as South Texas.
One kind word of advice for other “listateurs” such as us – a good preparation in target listing, networking and information gathering provides great satisfaction during the actual trip. We used our Sibley guide and e-bird sites to identify the most likely birds that we’d want to see (in addition to more familiar bird friends already seen by us); we sent our target list on to these guides in advance – and they prepared itineraries tailored to the list! We also scouted out some hotspot sites on line so that we had a pretty good idea of a general loop that we wanted to go on. Good preparation, good guide friends and good luck – it’s a winning combination.
Here’s a list of the names, numbers & links of the people mentioned above, plus Mary Gustafson in Mission, TX, another wonderful birder guide who was very helpful in looking over our target list - travel plans precluded that we go out with Mary, but we want to add her here.
Nan Dietert and Lyndon Holcomb: firstname.lastname@example.org (361-563-5621)www.portasouthjetty.com/news/2007-09-06/island_life/071.html www.myportagetaway.com/birding-tours
Mary Beth Stowe: email@example.com Blog: www.alamoinn1.blogspot.com
Keith Hackland, Alamo Inn B&B Gear & Tours, 801 Main St.Alamo, TX 78516: firstname.lastname@example.org www.alamoinnbnb.com 956-782-9912 (local); 866-782-9912 (toll-free)