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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Last Round-up - of Texas Birding sites

Snowy Egret
All good trips must come to an end eventually, and my week long birding trip must
too. This final day I toured two World Birding Centers, starting with Estero Llano Grande State Park. I've had wonderful visits to the park in the past so was eager to bird there again. The park's walkway is cobbled and lined with trees and flowering shrubs the butterflies and birds love.

An Olive Sparrow on the cobblestones

Being the laziest birder on earth, I sometimes enjoy the birding center; sitting on the patio, watching the parade of waterfowl and wading birds on the marsh.



 The patio overlooking the marsh


Today there was a volunteer with a spotting scope. He invited me to see a Wilson's Snipe (first snipe-of-the-year for me). I asked if I could take a digiscope of the bird (that is, an iPhone video shot through the eye piece of the spotting scope). The video is horrible, but at least its short.

The friendly volunteer clued me in there was an Eastern Screech Owl to be found out on the trail, and possibly a Parauque so that temptation set me off on the trails. Stupidly I'd totally forgotten the concepts of 'sunscreen' and 'hat'. DUH! Oh well, I hiked, looking for interesting birds and good photo opts. There are several ponds, one with a massive flock of Lesser Sandpipers.

Tiny scattering of the b'jillion Least Sandpipers by the boardwalk
close-up of yellow legged, Least Sandpiper
rainbow-headed Blue-winged Teal drakes & hen, plus yet-another-coot (foreground)
I got in a good hour's hiking which is rather energetic for me, but it was worth getting my bare noggin' beaten on by the strong Texas sunlight. Saw my first and only American Alligator for this trip and it was a "BIG UN" maybe 12 to 15 feet long.

Sunning Gaitor along 'Alligator Alley' at Estero Llano
I spent a good 10 or 15 minutes with other birders staring at under tree leaf litter, but none of us could spot a Parauque. The volunteer later told me that means the cryptically plumaged birds were likely becoming secretive as they began their nesting season. I was able to spot the twee little Eastern Screech Owl sitting at its doorway, in its tiny doorstep, high up on a post.

Awaiting Squirrel Nutkin no doubt...
After viewing the little owl, and the large gator, I sat on a wooden bench for a spell. I noticed I had company in the trees on the opposite shore.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
I counted about 25 Yellow-crowned Night Herons which sat amid tree branches. There were some juvenile Night Herons that wore much more drab pajamas than their elders.

snoozing Night Heron youngster
On my return to the Visitor Center I spent time at the Butterfly Garden chasing butterflies that were too fast for me to get any photos from. Then there were thrashers, Chachalacas and hummingbirds to admire at the bird feeder area behind the Visitor Center.

I then headed off to another World Birding Heritage site, in McAllen, called Quinta Mazatlan, which is as much fun to pronounce, as well as visit (HEEN-tah MOT-zat-lon). 


Had my eyes open to spot a Parauque in the shrubbery on the way in, but no dice today, but I did find some interesting statuary.
Javelina sow with metallic piglets
 I don't recall the statuary from my last visit to the grounds, but maybe I was totally distracted then by the birds and such. The statues were everywhere, and represented all the wildlife you could have found roaming the grounds ages ago - Insects (Leaf-cutter Ants) and reptiles (Indigo Snake), various birds, and a full sized and antlered White-tailed buck. Shown below are the Plain Chachalaca,  Collared Peccaries (Javalina),  and a Horned Lizard.
Plain Chachalacas and chicks
Texas Horned Lizzy
The grounds used to be a magnificent home, but now the grounds, which includes a pool, is a Visitor Center. I hit the center - to use the restroom facilities and inside the building I espied a young Hispanic bride, bedecked in lovely clothing for a photo shoot. I suspect weddings and QuinceaƱera celebrations bring in a pretty penny's worth of income for the grounds and facilities.

Gateway entrance to Quinta's inner sanctum
 beautifully cobbled pool & garden
 Took quite a long walk around the grounds. It was getting on towards evening and stubborn me, I decided to take one more crack at finding and photographing McAllen's Red-crowned Parrots. So... once more I drove off towards Dallas Street where the birds occur - no parrots - then I drove and parked at a local church where I read the parrots can be seen - again, no dice. However I was granted a booby prize by the gods of birding - 2 or 3 acre empty lot, on which marched busily, at least 25 Long-billed Curlews.

We get Long-billed Curlews on open farm lots and at wildlife refuges in my area at home, but a in a suburban lot? Not so much... lots of children were on their way home from school, and they walked with their backpacks, just feet from the foraging birds. The kids didn't look up or seem to notice the birds.  Hope I never get blasee about such long legged far-from-the-sea birds.


I imagine there are wiggly and yet yummy things down in the grass
Winner of the 'stare back at 'cha' competition
Enough whinging about the kids for no good reason - I mean, they didn't notice the birds but that doesn't mean they don't occasionally enjoy them as much as I do. Tomorrow I fly back to California myself, a birdie sort of migration, don't you think?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

South Padre Island, New friend and Surprise Lifer

South Padre Island Audubon Center
Yesterday, was spent up valley at Chapeno and at Bensen Rio Grande State Park. Enjoyed a lazy day birding and recovering from a shock. My backpack strap has undone itself causing the strap to slip out of my grasp, breaking the protective glass cover for my 100 - 400mm lens. Thankfully, there was no damage to the lens itself, and I found a great camera shop that got the dented and broke cover off the lens for me - *whew!*
Prior to this vacation, I told Rick - of Rick & Nancy fame - I was going to be in his childhood habitat, the Rio Grande valley.  He recommended I might meet up with his brother Bob & sister-in-law Maryann to perhaps meet up for dinner. I called them, leaving a phone message, resulting in meeting up with photography buff Bob for a morning of at South Padre Island's Audubon Center. Yes, unbelievable as that sounds, I, Claire M., actually picked up my iPhone and used its communication bits to call people I hadn't yet met. Impressed? Honestly, I'm impressed too.

I visited this Audubon Center first, in 2011 and was eager to return. It has almost a full mile of connected boardwalks, a fraction of which can be seen in the view below, taken from the top of the tower.



There are many shaded, benched gezebos along the boardwalk and lots of wildlife to enjoy and photograph close at hand.






Bob enjoys photographing Texas' great outdoors and I believe he gets as excited about achieving a great bird photo as I do and that's saying a lot. He told me he often visits the Audubon Center trying for increasingly better photo skills and bird photographs. Having seen some of his work, I think like his brother Rick, he exceeds his goals. 


It was an outstanding day to bird the boardwalks, not hot, nor was it windy, just lots of perfect & sunny weather, and the birds were out in force.

As Great and as Blue as herons can get
Quirky, cute & colorful little Moorhen
Many of the photos here are uncropped which gives an idea how close the birds are to the boardwalk.
A Little Blue Heron posing on the railings
I was busily ignoring a Snowy Egret, when a fellow birding lady said to me, "Do you know what you've got down there," pointing to a similarly cute white bird further along the railing. I stared... Yikes! It wasn't yet-another-Snowy-Egret, which I see plenty of in California, it was a snowy white, immature Little Blue Heron, the young of the blue bird in the photo above. Cool, huh?
Junior Little Blue Heron - note its bluish, black tipped bill
Bob was having fun going for some good birdy snap shots too. Here he is photographing some Pied-billed Grebes in the marsh.
Bob in one of the gezebos, focusing on a pair of grebes
Now, I would have passed by this photo op without noticing it, but Bob pointed out to me how the play of light on the waters makes this photo I got pop. Thanks Bob!

Pied-billed Grebes on a background of dancing lights on the water
A showy, Green Heron
As a tour guide said once, on a Texas birding boat tour on finding some Spoonbills, "Who doesn't love BIG, PINK, BIRDS!"  Bob and myself wished the spoonbills that flew in were closer to the boardwalk, but hey, one takes one's shots where they lie. Love the reflections on the water that give us a little more pink & white to admire.
BIG PINK BIRDS!
Red-eared Slider turtle sunning itself


Bob searched some spots where he knew a big ole Texas Alligators were apt to sun themselves, but today the gators were off on gator business. There was a consultation prize of a nice turtle with interesting designs on its carapace.


Red Admiral Butterfly



Around noon we headed back to the Center building to visit its butterfly garden. Here's a Red Admiral out in the marshes that I held still long enough for a portrait pic.


We were talking about lunch options when a front door opened and the very lady who had pointed out the Juvie Little Blue Heron to me, entered the Center in a rush.

"There's a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in the parking lot!" she said, full of excitement.

How sweet she was to come find us so we could enjoy this streamer tailed beauty below. The woman told me the bird was the first she has seen for the year, so Spring must be on its way in South Texas.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
After taking a million or so Flycatcher photos, Bill and I went off to enjoy a nice Fish & Chips lunch as a local restaurant while we talked about photography and equipment. Totally a fantastic morning with a new friend, an opportunity I don't often get on my solo travels. Nice to meet you Bill, and thanks for loaning me your sibling Rick!

After lunch Bob left but I decided I wanted a bit more boardwalk time. That's when I discovered there was an ELEVATOR to the top of the tower, DUH! I didn't get up there the last time because I was too lazy to climb stairs, so that was a treat. Back out on the boardwalk I found a nice Reddish Egret.

By the by, Reddish Egret is the species name, not just a description
And far more exciting, there were black headed Laughing Gulls and Black Skimmers that hadn't been there earlier in the day. LOVE flying Black Skimmers with their upside down bills.

Black headed Laughing Gulls' and alighting Black Skimmers
More-or-less in focus Skimmers in flight - my heart's delight!
A Skimmers bill snaps shut when its longer-than-the-upper-bill bumps anything
Awesome flying machine, like a mini-pterodactyl
After I felt I'd had enough tromping of the wonderful boardwalks, I decided to visit the University at Brownsville  where I heard Red-crowned Parrots were resident. You may recall a week ago I saw some Red-crowns, but didn't get any photos.  I drove to the university - no parrots. I waited, skimmed about the university campus and still, no parrots seen or heard. It was approaching sunset - an excellent time to view parrots as they head to roost -  I thought I'd visit a second location mentioned on line. I was on my way when I heard the tell-tale screeches of dozens... no hundreds of parrots.

One of many flocks over the streets of Brownsville
I u-turned parked and looked at some nearby palm trees. Hundreds of noisy, parrots, busily grooming their mates and settling in for their evening snooze. Then it dawned on me... wait a second here... these aren't Red-crowns, they're Green Parakeets - LIFER!
Lots of pre-snooze grooming going on

 pigeon sized Green Parakeets
COMING AT 'CHA!
Yikes! I was startled that I didn't even realize at first, that these birds had long & pointed tails and green heads, quite different from those of the larger Red-crowned Parrots. What an unexpected bonus and treat, I could scarcely believe my luck. I did a bit of mental calculation - that's eight species I have for this Texas trip. And to think I flew down here on vague idea of seeing three new lifer species and while enjoying some birding. I'm feeling like I really have lucked out on this trip.
The Parakeets holes in palm trees and cover of fronds for their nests
Look at those long pointy tails - no Red-crowns here!

Monday, February 22, 2016

How to find an 8 gram birdie in a 15 acre thicket

White Ibis in a Frontera Audubon pond
Today was fun, beginning with a re-visit to the 15 acre Frontera Audubon where I hoped to find 'alleged' Groove-billed Ani and the Tropical Parula (warbler). I treked one of the nature walk trails 'between Nature Placards A and E', because the Parula was said to have been seen the previous few days. So up and down the lovely, tree-canopied trails I meandered, forlornly expecting to see nothing significant with wings. Then after 10 or 15 minutes I would sit one of several plastic chairs arranged in front of a area between A and E that where there were lots of bird feeders. There I would find winged entertainment; fat waddling White-tipped Doves, a few Carolina Wrens, Plain Chachalacas and marauding squirrels.

An Ovenbird skipped into the underbrush and kept me entertained for a while.
The Ovenbird
Nice view of Ovenbird's racing headgear

A group of four women and their male birding guide arrived and sat in the other chairs, chatting amiably. I didn't speak, but rudely listened to the birding bits they spoke of (you never know if you'll hear useful advice, right?). There we sat until a glint of movement from the canopy of trees wreathed over me... what the...? 
My sad and sorry back lit, fuzzy shot








Above my head, straight up, fluttered a tiny mite - with wings. What the... there was no doubt.  Leaping out of the chair I squeaked my best stage whisper,

'Tropical Parula!'

Quickly everyone was up, their eyes glued to the little warbler. The group's guide started calling the bird's ID, "Yellow ventral surface that runs all the way to the legs, No eye rings..." and so forth. The bird darted over us and into another tree while I desperately tried to keep my camera on it for a decent photo, but that wasn't happening. Here is my 'best' shot, if it can be called such.
I'm thinking SOME little birdies hold still



To the left here, is the shot as it exists in my noggin, for my happier, inner self. Yes. If only, right?

However, no use crying over very-nearly-almost spilt milk. The bird was present only for 60 seconds or so and the way it darted about - well, that's my excuse and I'll have to live with it for now. The bird had also been a lifer for one of the other ladies and we congratulated ourselves and shared a high five.

As the morning turned into afternoon, I decided to head out. I had all my things with me because I was checking into the Casa Santa Ana Bed & Breakfast for the remainder of the week. That's the B&B that was so welcoming when I wanted to view the White-throated Thrush. I don't know if I'll be actually there much of the time, but I'm hoping perhaps the thrush will return for a new round of photos.


Loved my room at the B&B. My favorite thing about it was - wait for it... wait for it... the bathroom! The giant shower stall had a shower you step down into, it was cool, and the sink was beautiful Mexican tile sink. Wish I could have a sink like that.





As I often do, traveling by myself, I had two beds to sprawl around on.




And a cute little sitting area. Really like the B&B.





 This afternoon I really took it easy, having lunch at a great little Chinese Buffet I discovered. Will be eating there more than once this trip, that's for sure. Day's end, another lifer, that's um... *takes off shoes to count on toes....* seven lifer species for my Texas Spring.

[Update: Visiting my friend Judy in Napa, CA, I entered the guest bath to see this beautiful plate with a memorable pattern hanging on the wall. Ah...it was like a trip back to the heart of Texas - or maybe Mexico?]