Mom Erica and son Jacob were my first guidees since the COVID lockdowns, and they came all the way from Chicago to escape the cold and get Jacob some special birds! (Ironically, they had to postpone their trip a week, not because of COVID restrictions but because of how badly Texas got clobbered by Winter Storm Uri! L) But thankfully now the weather here in the Valley was light years apart from what it had been just a week earlier (with record freezes and power outages), so we ended up having a wonderful day!
We started at Estero Llano Grande State Park, where a singing Long-billed Thrasher greeted us along the entrance walkway! Chachalacas practically sat in our lap on the way to the deck (they probably thought we were the ones with the food J), and the usual contingent of ducks graced Ibis Pond. Right away Jacob spotted a flyover Caracara, and two Little Blue Herons next to a Tricolored made for a nice comparison. A dark ibis that flew in looked suspiciously like a Glossy rather than the expected White-faced, with its dark eye, gray face, and a tiny white border along the top of the facial skin (we’ll let the reviewers decide J). In the distance we were able to pick out some Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, and a single Spotted as our shorebird reps, while a string of White Pelicans sailed by over the horizon. A Harris’ Hawk flew in and perched on one of the shepherd’s hooks, and Erica noticed he was banded – Bill Clark would want to know about that one! Mexican Duck had also been reported, so when a “Mottled” Duck with wide white borders to the speculum wheeled in with other Mottleds, I figured we had our bird! Only closer inspection of the photos and video is making me wonder if it was actually a Mottled/Mallard mix, as there were some curly feathers on the top of the tail, and it did have the apparently diagnostic dark gape mark of the Mottled. Oh, well!
We went out on the boardwalk a little to hopefully scare up some rails; no luck there, but we did manage to pin down a Cinnamon Teal in Avocet Pond along with the other teal! Continuing on towards Alligator Lake, a male Yellowthroat finally came out for Jacob, and a Swamp Sparrow peeped but never showed… We added a nice pair of Gadwall at Dowitcher Pond amongst the other ducks, and a female Ruddy Duck gave a passable view. Jacob spotted his life Sora at our feet, and Erica got a brief view, but I never did spot it (not surprisingly)! A handful of Caspian Terns flew over on the way to Grebe Marsh, which was rather quiet, but the night heron show at Alligator Lake made up for it, along with a cooperative Anhinga! A Verdin miraculously came out of hiding and gave great views, but we tried in vain to spot a tittering Tropical Kingbird on the other side of the canal. The Pauraque and Screech Owls were no shows, but a flyover Roseate Spoonbill made Jacob’s day!
I had heard some avocets calling from the actual Estero Llano Grande, so we headed up to the levee where we found at least two large groups of them! We also added a pair of Pintail, but the real prize was a pair of White-tailed Kites floating by and landing in a tree! After that we headed back to the VC by way of Curlew Pond, where we had good looks at both Least and Pied-billed Grebes.
After taking care of necessities we headed back to the Tropical Zone, where we slowly crept through the Green Jay Trail in hopes of finding the female Elegant Trogon that was wintering there. We didn’t kick up anything (except a Rosebelly Lizard that Jacob found), but Erica commented on how pretty the gurgling Purple Martins sounded!
We then headed over to the park hosts’ feeders, where all the action was! The Audubon’s Oriole apparently hadn’t been seen in a while, but the female Hooded Oriole showed up right away, even before we got the chairs out! [Update: after scrutinizing the pictures I'm beginning to wonder if the bird was actually a female Orchard - I'm waiting for feedback from the experts!] Jacob’s most-wanted bird there was the Altamira Oriole, and they didn’t disappoint: first two green-backed youngsters came in, and before long the black-backed adult worked his way down to the oranges, whistling all the way! There were also some feeders behind us, and Erica got us on a brilliant Yellow-throated Warbler that was raiding the jelly jar just feet away from us! Titmice and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers came in frequently, along with Orange-crowned Warblers (including a really dull one). A Green Jay made a very brief appearance, after which we decided to try another feeder where we could hopefully get better looks!
As usual, it took a few minutes for the birds to get used to us after we sat, but eventually we had more Altamira Orioles, Cardinals, and a Green Jay all within the same binocular view! A Long-billed Thrasher kept darting in and out, and while Kiskadees were yelling, they never really showed themselves. Just before we left an Olive Sparrow zipped in and gave shy views! On the way out we checked the “white shack” for another Screech Owl, but he wasn’t there, either… I had been hearing Inca Doves but we couldn’t pin one down before heading to the car for lunch at the corner Stripes!
A Painted Bunting had shown up at Dan Jones’ yard, so he beckoned up to swing on by! Erica and Jacob had already seen their Black-bellied Whistling Duck Mob in Harlingen, so I didn’t think I could impress them with the mob at Dan’s, but as they wheeled around and around (the ducks, not the Joneses J), it turned out to be quite the show! Thankfully we were able to find the one Fulvous Whistling Duck in there that Jacob needed! A few Neotropic Cormorants flopped around, but nothing else came in while we waited (the wind was really starting to pick up then).
After Erica and Dan chatted about the effect of the freeze on our crops et al, we headed on over to the Silos, where they were also duly wowed by the blackbird/cowbird carpet, and we were able to find two female Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the mix! A quick swing around the new housing development that was the old Progresso Sod Farms bagged our Long-billed Curlews along with a couple of Cattle Egrets and a Loggerhead Shrike, but the Mountain Bluebirds and Say’s Phoebe had apparently found other hunting grounds… We were able to find the Burrowing Owl in “his” standpipe on the way to Anzalduas, so that was fun!
Anzalduas County Park had been closed for months, so I was thrilled to find out it had re-opened! We did the Pipit March first, but it was so windy we just couldn’t kick any up, although we did see a few Western Meadowlarks, and lots of Turkey Vultures with their token Black Vulture! A quick look at the river added lots of Coots, a Great Egret, and an Osprey.
From there we slowly cruised, and at the intersection by the “government area”, three birds swooped up to a small tree that turned out to be Eastern Bluebirds! I was very happy to see them as I had missed them here for several years in a row, it seemed! I quickly got over to the shoulder, however, as I joked about how inevitably something good would show up at this corner, I’d stop dead in the middle of the road to film it (with no one in sight, it seemed), and out of nowhere the Constable would show up and “slap my hand”! J And sure enough, he did show up out of nowhere, but I was safely off the road and we just waved at each other! J
As we turned the corner a beautiful Osprey was perched in a tree, so we swung around to where the light was better for pictures (and got a Kestrel at the same time). As we approached the dam I talked a little about the flooding from Hurricane Alex in 2010 and how the spillway (where we were hunting pipits) was designed to divert the flood waters away from the populated areas, and also expressed my doubts as to whether the returning Rock Wren would want to play ball with this wind, but we gave it a shot, anyway. While strolling along the rip rap I spotted some Cave Swallows overhead, but after a while I heard the diagnostic pt-CHEE call! Erica and Jacob were behind me (as was the wren), and they immediately spotted the bird, playing on the rocks, and just putting on a great show! It was as though God were saying, “Don’t tell Me what’s impossible!” J
After that we just cruised the rest of the roads, picking up an Eastern Phoebe on a wire, but no Black. We decided to call it a day after that, but the day wasn’t over, as on the way out along the spillway we spotted Jacob’s life Redhead! All in all, we ended up with 96 species, despite the horrific wind, and Jacob wound up with over 30 lifers! Bird list:
Mexican Duck (maybe…)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Glossy Ibis (or possibly a hybrid)