John and Andrea from Massachusetts were visiting their daughter and son-in-law Sarah and Jon in Fort Worth, and the whole group made plans to drive to the Valley (by way of the Whooping Cranes) and see some special birds! They had already done quite a bit of Valley birding before coming to the Inn (Resaca de la Palma, Oliveira Park, and Estero Llano Grande for starters), so the guiding plan right from the get-go was to see what they still needed at the time and go from there. So when I met them this morning John’s major targets were the two kingfishers, Beardless Tyrannulet, Olive Sparrow, and Clay-colored Thrush, so I figured going right down the road to Santa Ana would be a good bet! Jon and Sarah also owned a Subaru Forrester (a stick-shift! Didn’t even know they still made those… J), so we all piled in and Jon drove us around for the day! It was quite nippy starting off (in the 40s), but the sun was shining and the air was calm, so it turned out to be just a gorgeous day! A Cattle Egret flying over Business 83 was new for Sarah!
We were the first ones at the refuge, so we headed straight to the trailheads; because it was so cold, it also happened to be pretty quiet, but we did spot a couple of White-tipped Doves in the trees! Most of the action didn’t happen until we got to Willow Lake: the Harris’ Hawk was in his tree across the way, and lots of Gadwall were in the lake along with a handful of Shovelers and Green-winged Teal. Several Least Grebes floated around, along with a single female Ruddy Duck. Yellowthroats were all over, and I kept hearing Olive Sparrows lisping along the trails, but as is their habit, they just didn’t wanna show, and we stopped several times to try to lure those little puppies out! The common wintering stuff (Orange-crowned Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers) were only too obliging! At one intersection a family of Carolina Wrens were singing and scolding!
Getting ready to hit the trails! (L-R: Jon, Sarah, John, and Andrea in hiding...)
Things started picking up once we were out in the open at Pintail Lakes: two Altamira Orioles posed in a tree at the woodland edge, shortly to be joined by a Kiskadee and a Green Jay – quite a colorful combination! A Harris’ Hawk broke up the party, and a bunch of White-faced Ibis fed close by in the grass, along with lots of Black-necked Stilts and Greater Yellowlegs. An Eastern Phoebe and Loggerhead Shrike claimed another solitary tree, and Marsh Wrens called from the short-grass wetland; a surprise Verdin bounced around in there, too! About that time Sarah had to make a run back to the visitor's center, so Jon went with her, but unfortunately that meant they missed the Ringed Kingfisher that flew directly overhead! L Continuing on a brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher showed off, along with a Black Phoebe. More Snipe than I had ever seen in my life flushed one after the other (and sometimes in small flocks), and a few Pied-billed Grebes joined the Leasts and Coots out in the big Pintail Lake. About that time it was warming up, so while Andrea was helping stuff one of John’s jackets into his birding vest pocket, a lovely Osprey wheeled overhead and checked us out!
Trying to spot an Olive Sparrow along the Pintail Lakes Cutoff Trail
Shy Altamira Oriole
Jon and Sarah return from the VC
Shortly I heard a ticking, and thankfully found the perp, a little Green Kingfisher, sitting in the foliage on the south side of the trail! Unfortunately he was gone by the time Sarah and Jon caught up with us, so we parked ourselves by the end pond, hoping he’d come out again. In the meantime we enjoyed some Neotropical Cormorants, a pair of Lesser Scaup, a Great Egret fishing, and a Nutria up on a log! I decided to go along the trail to the river that runs along the back side of the foliage the kingfisher had gone into (in hopes of spooking it out), but they reported that the only new thing they saw was a Tricolored Heron. But in the meantime Jon and Sarah said they thought they heard the ticking further down, so we headed that way a little, where we did hear a Belted Kingfisher that eventually gave a brief view. We were getting ready to head back when I heard the characteristic splat, and there came the Green Kingfisher, flying out over the water, then into the trees, then over the water again and back into the original foliage! Miraculously I saw where she landed and was able to get the scope on her, but she was hiding pretty good – you had to wait for her to move before you could tell she wasn’t part of the woodwork! About that time another couple who happened to be staying at the Inn, Glenda and Robert, walked up along with another couple, so we got to show them the cryptic kingfisher!
Cutie-pie Black Phoebe
The gang waits for their kingfisher...
...and finally gets it!
We headed back, enjoying pretty Blue-winged Teal in the wonderful light, and great looks at the stilts and yellowlegs! We tried to nail down a Ladder-backed Woodpecker for John but got a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker instead, and at one point a brilliant male Black-throated Green Warbler showed up! After hiking the Pintail Lakes Cutoff Trail quite a ways, John and Andrea and I noticed we had lost Sarah and Jon back at the beginning of the trail, and come to find out they had stumbled upon a pair of Olive Sparrows!! (J for them, L for John…) We tried in vain to pull them out and finally had to move on.
Lounging Black-necked Stilts
Here you can see the "stilt" part!
Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (Lesser is on the right)
We were dragging by then, but dutifully made our way back along the Tower Trail; we had just turned the corner when Sarah called us back: they had a lovely male Green Kingfisher sitting in plain view! What a stunner! We continued through the Spanish Moss-laden Chachalaca Trail to hopefully hear the tyrannulet; we heard a Sora instead, but then John noticed a little body jump from the side of the trail and into the underbrush! We snuck up on him, and there was the Olive Sparrow (finally)! We were so glad to finally get that little stinker! J A little further on a White-eyed Vireo gave Sarah “the best look I had ever had!”
Green Kingfisher against the sun
We made it back to the Visitor’s Center with no tyrannulet L, so we got our lunches and sat inside to watch the feeders, where Green Jays, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Chachalacas, and Inca Doves put on a show. John also mentioned that Sprague’s Pipit was a target, but after some careful questioning he determined that the Clay-colored Thrush was a higher priority, so after buying some souvenirs we headed over to Quinta Mazatlan!
What we didn’t count on was the big Christmas event they were getting ready for that evening (including testing the music system)! Because of the time of day, things were pretty quiet there as well, and we sadly couldn’t kick up any thrushes, although I heard a Buff-bellied Hummingbird that we never saw. Interestingly about the only birds we did see were a few Chachalacas in the woods, and some Green Jays and titmice came in to the feeder area. I heard some distant Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and as we circled around to the main road the girls plus Jon decided they wanted to make another trip to the gift shop, so John and I rested on a bench and chatted about bird-learning apps. Shortly he was called to the gift shop himself, so I waited for them and enjoyed a Chachalaca and Long-billed Thrasher that came in close!
Some of the statuary at Quinta Mazatlán decked out for the holidays!
Chachalaca peeking through the sign posts...
Long-billed Thrasher doing the same...
With shopping accomplished (the girls had found a Green Jay ballcap that John had been looking all over for J) I suddenly remembered that Clay-colored Thrushes sometimes came in to the water feature at the National Butterfly Center, and we wouldn’t have to walk! J (We were all pretty shot by then…) And even better, because Jon and Sarah belonged to a botanical organization that granted free admission to several places around the country, including the NBC, they got in for free! So John and Andrea only had to spring for themselves and not the whole family this time!
We headed over and checked in, and about that time Luciano came out and told us that the Rose-throated Becard had shown well that morning; that got John’s attention mighty quick, so plans were changed and we first drove down into the “back 40” where a Savannah Sparrow popped up in the grassland. The Rio Grande was beautiful in the afternoon sun (definite Kodak Moment J)! There was another couple there also searching for the becard, but while we found the Chinaberry Tree (I think that’s what it was) that the becard, Kiskadees, and thrushes liked, we only found the Kiskadees indulging this time. A squadron of White Pelicans sailed over, and walking the trail a little, we spooked a Least Flycatcher, but that was the extent of the songbird life. I heard a Ringed Kingfisher fly over, and this time Jon and Sarah were able to see it through the trees, but it wasn’t the best of looks. We went back to the fishing pier and found a Black Phoebe, but no becard, so we decided to head back to the feeders and spend the rest of our time there. On the way out, however (because the gate was closed they were diverting NBC traffic along the canal), what we thought was a hawk sitting in the bushes turned out to be a lovely female Ringed Kingfisher! Sarah and Jon finally got their look! J
The road through the Back 40
The gang at the Rio Grande
Back at the feeders, what a time we had! Again, the afternoon light was just perfect, and Cardinals, Green Jays, and Chachalacas were showing off in all their glory! And we didn’t have to wait too terribly long before the Clay-colored Thrush came in to the drip! What looks! Luciano joined us after awhile and pointed out an Altamira Oriole that came in right over our heads! From then on we just enjoyed the show: another White-tipped Dove showed up for Sarah, another Long-billed Thrasher skulked in, and right behind us, what should come out in the open but the silly Olive Sparrow! He was practically performing for us!
Male Cardinal with eyebrows...
Heading in for the kill...
"The Mad Thrush"
The gang enjoys an Altamira Oriole behind us!
Before long it was time to head back, with a good solid 77 species for the day. Bird list:
Black-bellied Whistling DuckBlue-winged Teal
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Black-throated Green Warbler