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Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!




Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Life (and Lifers) Beyond the Yard

Though my favorite place to bird is our yard, I do go to other places.  I'd be crazy not to take advantage of the dozens of great birding sites that are within a short distance of our house.  Thousands of people spend lots of money to travel to the Rio Grande Valley to view the wildlife, and here we are, right in the middle of it. (I say lots of money because ecotourism is one of our area's biggest industries. But a single trip doesn't have to be expensive.  Here's a link to a post on "10,000 Birds," one of my favorite blogs, about how inexpensive a birding trip to the RG Valley can actually be.)  

(Be sure to click on the RGV Bird Fest button in the sidebar--or here-- to find out all about our Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival held every Novermber.  Shameless plug, I know, but it really is a super time to come see birds of the valley.)
A couple of weeks ago I went with Norma Friedrich, president of our local Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society, to scout out the "Harlingen Loop" route of the club's upcoming field trip. The loop would take in several local birding sites, not the ones that are on maps as state or county parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and World Birding Center sites (there are plenty of those in the area), but several hotspots known to the local birders. Norma, who always puts together great field trips for ACAS,  wanted to fine-tune this one before the Saturday trip, and I was more than happy to tag along.

The 80-mile drive started  at our regular meet-up place on the arroyo,  Harlingen's Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, a World Birding Center Site that the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society has worked hard to develop (along with the City of Harlingen and the local Master Naturalists organization).   Ramsey itself is a great park, but we didn't do any birding there  that day; we were too eager to get started on Norma's "Harlingen West Loop" that would take us to rural spots in a loop to the north, south, and west of Harlingen. It turned out to be a very good trip as we traveled on mostly country backroads and ended up with 62 birds on our list, including one that was a lifer for me and one that was a lifer for Norma. Who says there aren't new things to see close to home!


One of our first notables was perched on a water tower at the intersection of Farm Road 1018 and 375, a Peregrine Falcon.  We spotted the shadow first and then found the majestic bird surveying the countryside.

We found this midsize flycatcher swooping from branch to ground, chasing insects beside a small pond.  Even at a distance the tawny color announced that it was not a "regular" Eastern Phobe--and I realized I was seeing a life bird:  a Say's Phobe that like other western birds this winter may have been forced further east because of drought.  It's rare here but not unheard of--I was glad to be in the right place at the right time.




Norma's "lifer" was running over furrows in a field where we had hoped to find Mountain Plovers.  Disappointment at not finding the plovers faded as a lone  Sprague's Pipit appeared and posed for photos. We snapped pictures from the car like lazy papparazzi.

Car birding proved to be rewarding on the windy day of our scouting trip.  Temperatures were in the 60's and a brisk wind made it seem even cooler, but that didn't matter since we saw most of our birds from the car.  This Belted Kingfisher, a winter visitor that joins two other kingfisher species (Ringed and Green) in the RGV for the cooler months, perched on a wire across the road, above a canal and  just across an intersection from the Red-shouldered Hawk that perched on another wire. On the other side of the canal, surprising-for-January Yellow Warblers chased unseen insects in the reeds.

We found a farmer plowing a post-harvest sugar cane field near Santa Rosa and counted over two dozen White-tailed Hawks soaring overhead.  These beautiful birds are among my favorites. A burning sugar cane field or a farmer plowing makes me look upward in hopes of seeing at least one soaring there.   I have never taken a photo that does them justice, but I will keep trying. The WTHA soaring in the photo to the left was fairly high (and therefore the photo is not ideal) but still you can see the beautiful whites, grays, and black of this magnificent bird of prey.

Black-necked Stilts

Despite the lovely hawks,  falcons, life birds, and good company, as I look over the photos I realize the birds I liked best are the Black-necked Stilts that were busily feeding in a shallow pond somewhere on the loop (the places now run together in my mind, but it was at a small pond by a country roadside).

 The reason I love these birds (besides the fact that they look so dapper dressed in  crisp black and white accessorized with  bright red-pink legs ) is that they are favorites of my granddaughters Katie and Lily who saw their first stilt as it inspected a rubble of seaweed and flotsam by the jetties on South Padre Island last month. Despite crowds of fishermen and beachgoers, and after all other shorebirds had flown, that one stilt searched the debris tirelessly. Two little girls from Missouri splashed past it-- back and forth just as tirelessly--distracting it momentarily, but it never abandoned what must have been a treasure of whatever food is prized by stilts.   ( I had left my camera in the car but my daughter-in-law took the photo below of "Mr. Stilts" who entertained us that day.)
Katie and Lily's "Mr. Stilts"
Katie and Lily with their mom and dad on the SPI Jetty

The jetty at SPI is where I first (I think) saw a Purple Sandpiper a couple of years ago.  I didn't count the bird on my life list then because I was there with no other birders (my husband was fishing and I was lazily watching pelicans and dolphins) and I had no idea what I was seeing. (An "I think that was it" while looking at a field guide a few hours later doesn't count on a life list of course,  even if two days later Texbirds reports a Purple Sandpiper on the rocks of the jetty. If retrospective conclusions counted, we'd all have championship life lists!) 

 Most shorebirds are mysteries to me. But last Saturday, on another birding trip--this one with "The Birder Patrol" from Valley Nature Center, a fun group that hosts Monthly Birding  Excursions--I was in the company of experts.  Instead of a planned stop at our yard, we drove to Port Mansfield  where, according to Texbirds, a Purple Sandpiper had been luring twitchers for several days.  When we saw a photographer focused on three birds in a tidal puddle on a seaweed-littered shore, we suspected we were at the right place! There it was, a dark shorebird with a purplish sheen (if you have a good imagination) and a beak with an orange-ish base. All the right field marks to excite birders who had hoped to see this bird that is a rarity for the Texas coast.

Purple Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone at Port Mansfield TX

The bird and its fellows foraged for quite a while, probably at least half an hour, as the photographer knelt down with his camera.  The rest of us stayed back getting long-shot photos and good views through scopes.  Finally a Willet, perhaps spooked by visitors but probably just being a willet, flew seaward and southward making an alarm call and sandpiper and turnstones followed. I read on Texbirds that one man who was not there but saw the bird later in the day reported that birders had "rushed the bird" which wasn't true.  It seemed to me everyone was being respectful of the bird and each other. By that time a cool front was changing the wind to  the north, everyone who was there had enjoyed the bird, and our two cars of birders moved on.

Next stop was a short distance away at a ship channel in Port Mansfield.  A raft of scaups (many of them the less common Greater Scaup) floated on the water led by a Surf Scoter, a rare bird for these parts and another lifer for some of us.



Let's hope other photographers with better equipment got better shots than I did. I'm perfectly happy with my smudgy photos.  Not a great photo--but I will be reminded of another good day of good birding with good company whenever I see it ...and when I see that checkmark beside  Purple Sandpiper and Surf Scoter on my life list. 

8 comments:

Ruth's Photo Blog said...

Sounds like this is the place to be for a birder. I would love to visit an area like that sometime. Great shots.

Carole DeAngeli said...

Great birding experiences. I, too, love the black-necked stilt.

Jenny Schouten Short said...

Beautiful photos, Lots of patience. xo Jennykiessele

Suz said...

awesome

Kay Baughman said...

Ruth, Carole, Jenny, and Suz-- So nice to see your words this morning! I opened my blog to do a little editing and you had already read and commented. Thanks!
Kay

john said...

Two of your birds are wannasee birds for me, White-tailed Hawk and Purple Sandpiper. I just need to get myself to the right places like the RGV.

eileeninmd said...

Congrats on your lifers. Texas has been on my list of places to bird. Looks like there are lots of great birds to see. Your photos are great. Have a wonderful weekend!

Kay Baughman said...

Thanks, Eileen! Thanks, John! You should both plan trips to Texas.