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.
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.