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Saturday, November 12, 2011

El Grande Rio by water and Quinta Mazatlan

Courtyard by the River

Hurrah! No hiking today, just a nice float on the pontoon Riverside Dreamer, for a float down El Rio Grande. This was wonderful because birds, and other wildlife for that matter, ignore boats and just go about their business unmolested. So, it was nice floating along the heavily wooded shores, having a look see at whatever was flying along.

Enjoying a little, casual, off-shore birding

The first thing that got my v. slow blood moving was a ratty looking dock from which a little emerald, Green Kingfisher bird sat. You can see it below on a post, busily ignoring all the people watching it.

Tiny Green Kingfisher on a ramshackle dock

Below is close up of the girlie Green Kingfisher, who looks as if her bill was a bit tweaked (& by the by, it's a perfectly normal bill).

This bird looked a bit anxious

I was amused there were really very few ducks about. A couple of Redheads flapped downriver and one little Least Grebe poked about in the water by the shoreline. There were a couple of Anhingas, one adult, wings spread out catching rays, and below, this little juvenile.

I was a teenaged Anhinga

So much for water birds, but if one was out for perching birds, there were plenty to be seen; a tree full of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (too badly back lit to bother posting a photo thereof). Kiskadees and Altamira Orioles perched in snags like brightly colored Christmas baubles.

'Ornamental' yellow & rust Kiskadees and orange Orioles galore

Aside from a several Green Kingfishers, the other two north American Kingfishers zipped up and down the river too; Belted and Ringed Kingfishers. This female Ringed Kingfisher below gave us a piece of her mind as we passed by.

or perhaps, "QUE PASA?!"

Up river, the captain turned the boat around and headed slowing back down the river, but along the Mexican shore. Very different from the American side.

Mexico, passing itself off as a bit of Greece

There was a bit of Mexican shore that reminded me of a Grecian Colosseum. We were told the place was a municipal park. Very interesting! I think the columns were sheltered picnic tables.

But there were other ways the Mexican side of the River was interesting. For one thing... there was a very large bird of Jurassic proportions strolling along the bank. Was a pontoon full of birders undergoing mass hypnosis?

Mexican shore, or coastline of Jurassic Park?

And just when we rubbed our eyes and agreed we had seen something out of the ordinary, a huge monkey, at least 4 feet hight, walked along, then plopped itself down by a boat. Pet or Mexican yeti? Hum... probably a v. exotic pet. Mexico seems as loose on wildlife ownership as Texas. I'm only surprised we didn't see any giraffes or hippos.

If only a human were close enough
to show how HUGE El Mexicano Ape was!

Our captain told us in 2010 there was a massive flood that did quite a bit of destruction along the Rio Grande. Below you can see ruins on the American shore. I think it used to be a restaurant before the river overshot its shore.

River Ruins from 2010

Oh well, enough of the weird. I was tickled to see a Vermillion Flycatcher - a brilliant ruby of a flycatcher. It was hunting insects and fluttering about.

Vermillion in flight

Below is a highly magnified shot of the bird. The bird was a lifer for many people on the tour.

Vermillion Flycatcher

As usual, getting near the river means seeing loads of Ospreys, that are common all along it's length. I was lucky enough to get a few shots of this Osprey, Taking off from a post, its lunch in tow.

Ospreys always carry fish, heads
first, for aerodynamic reasons

One of the last and most interesting birding ops for watery journey, was a huge funnel of Vultures, consisting of two species; Black and Turkey Vultures. But wait... not so fast! Was one of those 'vultures' a fraud?

No ordinary vulture funnel

Amid the vultures was one deceptive little raptor, conspicuous at first sight only by a white band on its tail. The boatload of birders frantically all tried to key in on the 'suspect' amid the 25 or so vultures. Once you really stared at the flock, the imposter became easier and easier to track with binoculars; a Zone-tailed Hawk. The sneaky things fly with vultures, which small rodents and such ignore. Then... when the rodents least expect it, that one not-the-vulture, swoops down and BAM! Dinner time. Rather cunning don't you think?

I was pleased to not only see the Zone-tailed Hawk - and I haven' seen one in a decade - but get a half decent photo of the pseudo-vulture.

Zone-tailed Hawk, an incognito Vulture

The boat ride was about 2 hours long, and soon all birders were off the pontoon and on a bus, headed for McAllen Texas, and it's fairly new Nature Center. We were barely off the bus when I was so distracted at the Center's gate, wondered if I would ever get around to actually entering the place. First there was a convenient Golden-fronted Woodpecker, one of the few which actually offered a view of it's lightly golden feathered belly.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Even more distracting was something that caused quite a commotion under a funny little tree called a Guamuchil. There were several of the native trees planted around the gateway of the Center.

Kerfuffle around a Guamuchil

The cause of the little foot traffic jam was a single black - yes, black butterfly, called a Red-banded Pixie. I kid you not, this was the most amazing butterfly I've ever seen. There was only the one butterfly on the tree, which the butterfly species exclusively lays its eggs. This flutterby is so interesting it is the McAllen Texas City butterfly. It is as auspicious as an insect can get.

Wish I'd spent more time focusing on this living Pixie

Eventually I tore myself away from the Pixie and entered the gates of Quinta Mazatlan Nature Center.

Finally though the Gate

Our lady tour guide is quite devoted to Quinta Mazatlan, having been involved in the homestead's acquisition for the city. She told us some tantalizing gossip about its origins and said there would be a short tour of the mansion, if we could tear ourselves away from the birds and butterfly gardens. She was not joking!

Right off the bat, as we walked up the path, there was an orange traffic cone, and just inside the shrubbery in the vicinity of the cone was a treat. Two Parauques were day napping there on the ground among the leaves. I was so excited I could barely maintain my dignity (ok, I lost it). Stare at the photo below. Can you make out the Parauque?

Cryptically feathered Parauque,
slumbering on the ground

No one who saw the Parauques could be un-enthused about them. The birds were not easy to see, even if they were only 3 or 4 feet from your own feet. They weren't easy to see if they were at your feet! Once I learned to spot them I was quite full of myself. I could pick them out easier and easier as the week progressed. The bird above will not be the only Parauque I will shove in your face during my trip.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird buzzing a Turk's Cap (flower)

What lovely gardens, all planted with native species. They were grouped together along pristine walkways and maze-like paths. Dozens and dozens of butterflies fluttered about near whatever plants were actually planted with the winged candy in mind.

Queen Butterflies

Our tour guide sent half the birders to the mansion for a tour, and the remainder of us, down a path to a bird feeding area. We all headed through a maze of shrubbery, and finally we turned a corner to see dozens of bird feeders. There were peanut butter feeders, suet feeders, oranges were jammed onto sticks ever where we looked.

But there was more than peanut butter - there was a young girl, standing over a small, scenic bird pond. She held up the voluminous skirts of her purple, poofy Quinceañera dress. Her mother hoovered nearby and chattered instructions. A photographer snapped away, also shouting instructions to the girl, who seemed to be in danger of being engulfed by her own dress. So there the girl was, in the middle of this grand, giant sized bird feeder area, while some 25 perturbed birders stood around looking - wildly disappointed. The little photo shoot picked up and left the area and the birders happily settled onto many benches that faced the bird feeders. Later on, the tour lady told us most of the income that keeps the Nature Center going comes from Weddings and Quinceañera. Oh the residual guilt!

Birdie Garden and scene of
the cut short, Quinceañera shoot.

It was wonderous how quickly the birds returned once the photo shoot stopped.

Presto! Birds galore

The birds didn't care who sat watching, so they shot in, raiding the feeders and putting on a show: Kiskadees, Clay-colored Thrushes by the dozens, several Curve-billed Thrashers, A good dozen or 2 of Plain Chachalacas and more House Sparrows than anyone cared to see.

Clay-colored Thrush

Kisskadee perusing the lunch menu

After much time spent sitting to watch birds, chasing birds - in other words, the usual - it was my turn for a tour of the 1930s Quinta Mazatlan adobe hacienda.

The courtyard

The swimming pool

An elegant cockfight in tiling

Thick red tiles line the hallway

The tour allowed close looks at some of the many nooks and crannies. My favorite spot was a room used by modern brides and their bridesmaids for changing in & out of their gowns. That room featured a gated, Romanesque bathtub, fit for an emperor.

The Roman bath

There was a great room, featuring a giant tiled archway. Glass inlets housed fancy dinnerware from the hacienda's hay day.

Archway, and view of the inlet cupboards of fancy dinnerware

Antique Plate featuring, what else... a bird

Fireplace featuring a lovely tapestry

A skyward view of the hacienda greenhouse

The tour ended at a small gift shop, where I meagerly gave into my penchant for a Quinta Mazatlan pin and patch. I then enjoyed a little more outside viewing, but soon it was time to leave McAllen and return to Harlingen.

It had been a long morning, and as the tour group unloaded from the bus, I thought I'd done enough for the day - NOT! I was off to yet another National Wildlife Refuge, but more on that in my next post.

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