The secret to a big list for Cameron County is a good migration day, and with strong southerly winds for the last month (and continuing into May), that didn’t bode well (for birders, anyway – strong south winds are great for the migrants, as it just blows them over and gets them to their breeding grounds all the sooner)! But I got out to Resaca de la Palma State Park at about 5:30 AM to catch the night birds and anything else that might be tuning up. Interestingly, even an hour and a half before sunrise, a Couch’s Kingbird was the first songster of the morning! More expectedly, the Pauraques (2) chimed in, followed by one, and then several, White-winged Doves (3). The bouncing ball song of an Olive Sparrow (4) came through in the distance, and before long the “dawn song” of the Brown-crested Flycatcher (5) was close at hand. The eerie Coke-bottle coo of the White-tipped Dove (6) was in the background, and a beenting Common Nighthawk (7) sounded like it was out over the fields. Purple Martins (8) gurgled in the darkness, and as it got lighter, the happy whistle of an Altamira Oriole (9) came through, followed by Cardinal (10), Mourning Dove (11 – almost tuned that one out amongst all the other doves, which was a cacophony by now), and Great Kiskadees (12). A couple of Yellow-billed Cuckoos (13) song battled (one right next to me and the other across the parking lot; he eventually came over to my side), and the Green Jays (14) started mobbing something deeper in the park (whether an owl or a snake is anyone’s guess). In quick succession Carolina Wren (15), Black-crested Titmouse (16), and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (17) got added to the list, while Great-tailed Grackles (18) and Red-winged Blackbirds (19) both called and flew overhead. A Groove-billed Ani (20) called across the lot, and just as I was packing up to leave a Hooded Oriole (21) wheeped and hopped around in a tree. I was really surprised that I didn’t pick up any owls, as I usually do here; guess they just weren’t into vocalizing this spring! As an aside, the only wild animals (besides the two-legged kind) that I’ve ever been concerned about are feral hogs, as they can be very aggressive, and I admit that I was startled a couple of times by a loudish noise in the woodlands right next to me! As it got lighter, though, I caught sight of a black-and-white cat sneaking out of said woods and behind the car, undoubtedly the source of the noise…
Headed up New Carmen Avenue to FM 1732 and the freeway, adding a Crested Caracara (22) powering overhead, a singing Eastern Meadowlark (23) in the grasslands, and a Turkey Vulture (24) on a power pole. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (25) was on FM 1732, and passing through Olmito added Eurasian Collared Dove (26). As usual, taking the back road to Sabal Palm Sanctuary with the window down bagged the ubiquitous House Sparrows (27), and added Rock Pigeons (28) and Mockingbird (29) in the urban areas. In the more vegetated sections near the Border Wall, added a chirping Verdin (30) and a laughing Ladder-backed Woodpecker (31). Driving the entrance road to Sabal Palm added a singing Brown-headed Cowbird (32), and getting out of the car in the parking lot added his cousin the Bronzed Cowbird (33).
The restored historic Rabb House (now the Visitor Center) is really something to see, and since being taken over by the Gorgas Foundation (apparently National Audubon still owns it), the trails and sanctuary itself have seen a major facelift, and I like to point out that this is one sanctuary “behind the Wall” that has actually become better and safer! The guy behind the desk gave me the bad news after I paid my fee: “I think migration is over!” L Not allowing myself to get downcast, I headed out on the Resaca Loop, picking up a singing White-eyed Vireo (34) right away, while Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (35) flew overhead. The soulful song of a Clay-colored Thrush (36) drifted from the woods, while running into another couple who reported “no birds”… L They were, of course, referring to migrants, as the local stuff was filling the airways: the sprightly song of the Common Yellowthroat (37) came from the wetlands, and somewhere a Buff-bellied Hummingbird (38) gave its chase note, shortly followed by the chase note of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (39). Some Chachalacas (40) talked nervously back in the woodlands, and a thrasher was singing that I was finally able to locate and ID as a Long-billed (41). Once up on the Vireo Trail a Lesser Goldfinch (42) seed, and a Laughing Gull (43) gave a single call from somewhere overhead. At the resting bench the “jungle call” of a Common Gallinule (44) came from the resaca, but as reported, there was no hide nor feather of any migrants, and the mesquite/tepeguaje forest is usually a good place for them.
Signature Sabal Palm forest along the Resaca Trail
Continuing on the loop, I decided to spend five minutes in the new blind overlooking the resaca, and right away got a glimpse of a Red-crowned Parrot (45) which then thankfully called! The Common Gallinule was visible in the resaca, along with a Great Blue Heron (46), but what would become the Bird of the Day glided low over the treetops and then circled around a couple of times: a Swallow-tailed Kite (47)!! One of my favorites from my childhood days, it used to be that Florida was about the only place you could see these elegant raptors, but lately they’ve begun nesting in Texas and therefore migrate through the Valley in small numbers, such that you have to be in the right place at the right time to even glimpse one! Plus, they should have been through in March – this guy was very late! There’s another blind that overlooks the same resaca from a different angle, and from here I could add Least Grebes (48), a pair of Blue-winged Teal (49), and just before I left, a rattling Ringed Kingfisher (50)!
The next destination was Old Port Isabel Road (OPIR), but due to construction on FM 511, I got turned around in a residential area, which wasn’t so bad as I bagged the day’s only Curve-billed Thrasher (51) singing in a tree! Logged the requisite Starlings (52) once I got back on track, plus a Loggerhead Shrike (53) on a wire near the new RV park next to OPIR. Up until now it had been overcast (even foggy in spots), so I was happy to hopefully look into Loma Alta Lake without the early morning glare, but alas, the sun came out right as I got parallel to the lake; however, a couple of “scope pictures” (taking a shot and then zooming in to see what you have) revealed some Fulvous Whistling Ducks (54) in with the Blackbellies! Willets (55) were proclaiming their territories, and at the canal both a Tricolored Heron (56) and Snowy Egret (57) spooked. Unfortunately the nesting platform that the Aplomado Falcons used to utilize had been taken down, so I wasn’t sure of the prospects of getting that target on this road (and if the road is impassable, that lowers your prospects even more). There were a few lingering wetlands where I added Killdeer (58), and in the desert-like thornscrub habitat added Bewick’s Wren (59) and Cactus Wren (60). I thought I had heard a Bobwhite at one stop, but thankfully flushed one at the next stop (61)! Also, thankfully, I was able to bag the two target look-alike grassland sparrows near the firing range: Botteri’s (62) and Cassin’s (63)!
The big pond past the “Creepy Chicken Coop” was full of water, but only had a few birds: a Pied-billed Grebe (64) floated by itself, while several Neotropic Cormorants (65) hung out on the far side. A Forster’s Tern (66) came sailing in, and down the road a pair of Mottled Ducks (67) flew by. I was very pleased with the fact that they had improved the road with what almost looked like tar-colored caliche (and was hoping they did that to the entire road), but the improvement disintegrated past the old pipeline turnoff, and the rest of the road was worse than I’ve ever seen it! (Usually, if it’s dry, a high-clearance vehicle can negotiate the canyons they call “ruts”, but I wasn’t even gonna attempt it this time…) I scanned the power poles down the road for the falcon, as that’s usually where we would find them, but no falcons today (or the other two raptors, Harris’ and White-tailed Hawk, that I usually get on this road), so I turned around and headed back, almost zipping right by a Lark Sparrow (69) on the fence! Just past the skeet range a Blue Grosbeak (70) was singing, and while stopped to close out the eBird list a Greater Yellowlegs (71) called overhead (and while reviewing said eBird list, I discovered I had forgotten to add a flyover Dickcissel – 71 – to my written bird-by-bird list)!
So I had to take SR 48 to South Padre Island, picking up an Osprey (72) eating lunch on a light post. What I didn’t count on was the mob on the Island when I got there!! Normally the huge parking lots at the Convention Centre are virtually empty, and my plan was to swing into the back lot (where the loading dock is) and scan The Flats from back there – not this time! Those lots were stuffed to the gills with cars, as was the back lot – there were even cars parked out on The Flats, so there was no getting out there today! Thankfully, “my” spot along the curb at the top of the “circular area” (a large round area of tall “hedges” with grassy “trails” between them, with a one-way drive that loops around it) was empty, so I zipped over and parked there, and discovered why it probably was still “available” – the general public apparently doesn’t know that you can legally park there, as two cart-loads of families stopped in the middle of the drive with their jaws on the cement when they saw me park, then promptly pulled in behind me! J
I had also passed my friend Brad McKinney, who undoubtedly was chasing the Gray Kingbird (a vagrant from Florida) that had showed up there that morning; he reported that he had been looking for it for three hours with no success, so I didn’t expect to add that jewel to the day’s list… L (He also unwittingly reminded me that I don’t connect the dots very well as he said the mob was probably due to the fact that it was Mother’s Day Weekend…) But I proceeded to work the circular area, which is normally hopping with migrants during a good fallout day, but today there wasn’t a feather to be seen (except for the ubiquitous grackles). A five-minute vigil at the famous water feature didn’t yield anything, either, so I headed to the “back yard”, where Least Terns (73) called overhead, and the White Ibis (74) that always seems to be there was feeding in the grass. Brad said that a pair of “very territorial” Tropical Kingbirds were back where the Gray was reported, and they probably bullied him all the way to Aransas J, so I at least added them to the list (75)! Another birding buddy, Kristie Baker, said she had seen a couple of Frigatebirds earlier, so I should keep an eye out for them, and on the heels of that another birding buddy, Sue Griffin, called to say they had seen two Swallow-tailed Kites headed our way! (I told her I had gotten one that morning so I wasn’t too terribly jealous… J) Needless to say I didn’t see either…
At the back of the Centre is an overlook to The Flats, where a Brown Pelican (76) was sitting on the pylons along with more Neotropic Cormorants, while Royal Terns (77) gave their guttural calls. In the little wetland back there I was able to pick out a couple of Stilt Sandpipers (78) and a single Dunlin (79), plus a Black-necked Stilt (80) closer to the boardwalk. Since I was back there I decided to just walk back to the access trail that I would have used had I been able to park back there (now that the family ahead of me had clamored into the bay), and while the birds were understandably waaay out there, I was able to add the white morph Reddish Egret (81) doing his dancing thing, a Great Egret (82) on an island closer to where the family was now headed, several Black-bellied Plovers (83 – easy to pick out as they were now in their striking breeding plumage), and the much-reduced Black Skimmer (84) flock. Again using the “camera scope” technique, was able to pin down a distant Ruddy Turnstone (85) and Short-billed Dowitcher (86) for the list. A fly-by Sandwich Tern (87) was thankfully close enough to get a good look at his diagnostic bill pattern.
Walking back to the Centre, a perched kingbird got my juices going, but it turned out to be an Eastern (88), a bona fide migrant!! Woo hoo! A couple of Barn Swallows (89) swooped past, and decided to spend a five-minute vigil at the “corner bench” where another gentleman had seen a Chestnut-sided Warbler (and something else that I forgot). A Green Heron (90) gave its characteristic scalp call while I waited; nothing came in, so I headed to the boardwalk. From here I could get a closer look at that little wetland, where I couldn’t believe it: a normally secretive Clapper Rail (91) was out in the open, but he was too fast for the camera before he made it into the mangroves… L But out on the pier (where I normally look for reported frigatebirds), the song of one of our resident specialties, the “Mangrove” Warbler (92 – a tropical race of the Yellow) wafted from the mangroves, so he was fun to get! Not countable as a species but interesting nonetheless was a Mottled Duck that obviously had some Mallard blood in him, sporting a black rear end and a whitish tail! On the way back a Willet and non-breeding Black-bellied Plover were close enough for pictures, and while trying to nail down some more swooping swallows was able to discern the “cigar with wings” shape of a Chimney Swift (93)! A peek into the “East Pond” on the other fork of the boardwalk added a couple of young Roseate Spoonbills (94) that were being admired by a family on the Birding & Nature Center’s boardwalk across the way, while a Coot (95) made creaking noises from the reeds. A Lesser Yellowlegs (96) flew over, and while I was resting under the shelter at the end of the boardwalk, a Least Bittern (97) decided to cackle! On the way back one of the swallows gave me a good enough look to ID as a Cave (98), and at the water feature a couple of guys said they had a Tennessee Warbler and a Catbird (I think), so I decided to give it another five minutes. Nothing, so I headed back to the car, when something popped up in the Turk’s Cap next to the sidewalk – a young male Baltimore Oriole (99)!
Since I was wilting from the heat, I decided to forego the mile-long boardwalk at the Birding & Nature Center (the reported Purple Gallinule was tempting, but the crowds I could see over there helped with the final decision) and headed over to the other good migrant trap on the Island: the Valley Land Fund lots on Sheepshead! But with the migrant show being so dismal I was wondering if it would even be worthwhile to stop! I consoled myself with a chocolate-dipped DQ cone on the way over J, and when I pulled up, birding buddy Dan Jones saw me (and the cone), walked over and said, “Well, it looks like you’re accomplishing more than I am!” J He actually had seen a few migrants, so I first sat on the “sunny” north side for five, where at the last minute a nice male Orchard Oriole got the honor of being Bird #100! I wandered over to the “dark” south side where Dan was still keeping watch, and had a Swainson’s Thrush (that he was trying to get to come back out by whistling its song J)! By golly, it did, so got to log another migrant (101)!
On past Birdathons I had not included the Laguna Vista Nature Trail, which can also be a haven for migrants with three blinds with water features, but I was so desperate that I was willing to try it, even though I was melting in the 90+ degree heat! It was worth it: a Nashville Warbler (102) came in to bathe at the first blind, and a Common Ground Dove (103) came in at Blind #3 (Blind #2 had nothing but grackles). The nearby Port Isabel Reservoir had reports of Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, so since the shorebird show at The Flats wasn’t all that great, I headed up there and was able to add several good birds to the list: dipped on the Snowy, but several Wilson’s Plovers (104) were there among the Dunlin as reported, as well as a Least Sandpiper (105) or two, a couple of Semipalmated Plovers (106), and a gaudy female Wilson’s Phalarope (107) that was picking at flies along the water’s edge! A Gull-billed Tern (108) sailed in, and another shorebird bathing with the Dunlin that had me stumped until I could get some diagnostic photos turned out to be a Sanderling (109).
Common Ground Dove
Port Isabel Reservoir (what's left of it)
I had a chance to pick up more shorebirds and raptors along the so-called Cannon Road Loop, a route that includes woodland, open ag fields, and (most importantly this time of year) sod farms! Took the back road through Bayview to San Benito and north, then over to FM 800 (you have to kind of zig and zag to get to the area), hoping to bag at least a Harris’ Hawk on the way, but no banana. The first destination was Hanka Sod (it’s changed hands so many times that most birders simply refer to it as the “Weaver Road Sod Farms”), where the target Horned Larks (110) came through with a pair that was chasing each other! “Hanka” happened to be irrigating the sod, and as a result, the fields were absolutely stuffed with Buff-breasted Sandpipers (111)! That was the only “grasspiper” I could pull out, however, so I continued working the route, enjoying many Dickcissels singing from the wires (was surprised I didn’t pick up Painted Bunting in that stuff). A Swainson’s Hawk (112) sailed by, but nothing else popped up until I got to the little bridge over the canal, hoping to scare up a Cliff Swallow, and instead getting a White-tailed Kite (113) making its grating call overhead! A quick stop at the Ebony Unit of Longoria WMA added a surprise Lesser Scaup (114) to the list (as they should be gone by now), and a more-expected pair of Ruddy Ducks (115). Already logged but still interesting was at least 30 Least Grebes scattered about the lake, and yet another White-tailed Kite across the way!
On the way to the last stop of the day (Tiocano Lake), you go right by the La Feria Sod Farms, so even though you take your life in your hands pulling over on FM 3067 (as there’s no shoulder), it was worth checking this day as more “grasspipers” were hunkered down in the sod: in addition to a few more Buffies, there were several Pectoral Sandpipers (116) that I could pick out, and further down were several Cattle Egrets (117). Towards the end of the property was a little wetland where (as best as I could make out) a Little Blue Heron (118) fed stoically (it would have been great to be able to drive in there, but you don’t dare go exploring on private farm roads without risking the ire of the property owners)!
So I was sweating by this time: as it stood we were one species behind Hidalgo County, and that was totally unacceptable!! Sometimes Tiocano Lake can be filled with birds, and other times it can be empty, and as I arrived my heart sank as there was lots of water, but no birds except a family group of cormorants! L So I cruised the entirety of Kansas City Road on the off chance of bagging a new raptor (nada), so coming back to the lake, I scanned the northwestern wetland (which was a trip looking into the sun), and did manage to spot an Avocet (119) in with the stilts and whistling ducks! Hot dog – we were at least tied now! J But it was still about an hour and a half to sunset, and knowing that things often come in to roost, I decided to park along the side of the road and hang in there till sunset and see if we were gonna beat out Hidalgo County! Enjoyed Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons coming in, plus more Fulvous Whistling Ducks, but after a while, the main target bird of this spot sounded off in the reeds across the lake: a “clapping” King Rail (120)! (This is about the only reliable place in the whole Valley to get them…) I was chatting via text with my friend Jane Gutierrez (who had also made a per-bird pledge along with her hubby Manny) when a flock of Bank Swallows (21) whizzed by, giving their rapid-fire chattering, to which she asked, “Did they make a deposit?” (Boo hiss J) The sunlight was rapidly fading when three Black-crowned Night Herons (122) flew across the road, while a Yellow-crowned Night Heron (123) called and then followed suit! At that I felt I could call it a wrap with a clear conscience!