The Business Birder: BIG Rio Grande Adventures
In February, I signed up with the Lower Cape Fear Bird Club, for an eight-day birding trip covering the Texas Hill Country and the Rio Grande from Big Bend to Brownsville. The trip was planned for late April. Being the quintessential road warrior and a “business birder” (motto: “Have time, will bird. Even if wearing wingtips.”), I know things never go as planned. Sometimes it ain’t even close. I signed up anyway.
Then I was offered the opportunity to go to a conference in Albuquerque and prefixed that to the beginning of the birding trip. This, in fact, meant I would arrive in Concan, the Hill Country home of the Black-capped Vireo, a day and a half before the other members of the group. OK so far.
And then, I signed a new client in Lubbock, Texas. So I got in some High Plains Texas Birding. Ok so far. And then, I volunteered to give up my seat on an overbooked flight, thereby earning a free round trip ticket. So I said to myself: “Self, lets go to High Island and the Bolivar peninsular again this year”. So I did…..the first weekend in April.
As you will discover below, I gladly interrupted my birding holiday to assist my Lubbock client. All totaled, I spent far more days in Texas in April that I did in my home state. At one point, I had flown 14 segments in 10 days and that was before the Rio Grande birding trip. My luggage was lost twice during this timeframe. Yes, I did bird that first day on High Island in my wingtips.
And now I return you to the BIG trip. I showed up at the airport in Raleigh with all of the regalia of a road warrior and a birder on an extended trip. I had a cell phone, pager, laptop plus accessories, digital camera, SLR camera body, two lenses, and binoculars. They had to call in reinforcements from the second shift just to get me through security.
My conference was held at the Hyatt in downtown Albuquerque. It has a great sunset view from the 16th floor. A good place to stay, just do not eat the Green Chile Stew! I repeat, do not eat the Green Chile Stew! If you do, call 911 before your first mouthful!
I had almost no time to bird in Albuquerque. I stopped by the Rio Grande Nature Center but it was not open and there were too many people and dogs on the bike trail. I did see the Rio Grande! It is wide and shallow, as advertised. And, unless you like jetty jacks, is not a pretty sight at this location.
After the conference ended Thursday, I flew from Albuquerque to San Antonio, arriving around 11:30 PM. There were no rental cars. The manager promised to get me a car by nine the next morning and I had planned to spend the night close to the airport anyway. When I got to the hotel, people were in the lobby in their pajamas. This is never a good sign. Someone had pulled the fire alarm as a prank and broken it. The trip seemed to be getting off to a bad start.
Just as I had gotten to sleep, the phone rang. It was Avis and, at 1:30 AM, I was back in the lobby accepting a rental car from the Avis manager…...a 4-door, 4-wheel-drive Blazer. Bless you Avis!
Mid-morning Friday, I left San Antonio for Concan and decided to make a stop on the way at the Hill Country State Natural Area. The drive from Hondo to the entrance of the park was beautiful, especially if you like wild flowers and mostly dry and rocky arroyos that meander on both sides and under the road’s many bridges. There were good birds along this drive: White-winged Dove, Great-crested Flycatcher, Clay-colored Sparrow, Northern Harrier, and Crested Caracara. And you must like Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. There were so many that they could have stood flatfooted on top of each other and touched the moon.
From Hondo, the park headquarters is 27 miles. Just behind the headquarters, I saw male and female Vermillion Flycatchers and at least a half dozen Lark Sparrows. Other birds included: Purple Finch, Black-crested Titmouse, Nashville Warbler, and White-eyed Vireo. I barely grazed the potential of this park in my one afternoon. For the record, I also saw a Jack Rabbit so BIG it could stand flatfooted and look an adult Shetland pony in the eye!
I spend three nights at Neal’s Lodges (www.nealslodges.com) (830-232-6118), overlooking the beautiful Frio River. I could have stayed forever. During this part of April, it was an almost bug-free environment. My birds at Neal’s included: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Hooded Oriole, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Rock Wren, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Bushtit, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Song Sparrow, Bronzed Cowbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Eastern Phoebe (building nest on my porch).
Neal’s has a decent café across the highway from the store/office. The catfish dinner was the special on Friday night. I ordered it and liked it! When in Rome, order the special.
Somehow, I picked up on the fact that a motorcycle club was staying around me at Neal’s. There must be a law, that if you own a Harley, you must rev the engine about every two minutes. Mercifully, they stopped partying about 10 PM and I got some sleep. Ok, it was a middle-aged motorcycle club.
On Saturday morning, I left my cabin early to look around. Immediately, I saw a Hooded Oriole atop a telephone pole. What a great way to start a morning! I walked up the hill behind the lodges and saw Rock Wrens and got a fleeting look at a Raven. About 9AM, all motorcycles departed for their morning ride, which ended birding for about an hour.
So I went to breakfast. Call it “birding at breakfast”. The café has a corner that I called hummingbird corner. There were three opened, screened windows with a humming bird feeder outside of each. Since I was inside behind the screen, I could stand close to the feeder. At one point, there were six hummers feeding less than two feet from my face.
After breakfast, I visited Garner State Park. I found a lot of people since it was mid-day Saturday. I did find male and female Summer Tanagers and a Yellow-throated Warbler. The male Tanager was fighting with the side-view mirror of two different vehicles. I also had a great view of a Wild Turkey preening himself across from me on the Frio River. I did not intimidate him. He was big enough to stand flat-footed at argue with a pit bull.
My group from the bird club, came into San Antonio that afternoon from Wilmington, and joined me for dinner. Of course, they stopped at a few sites between the airport and Neal’s. The special: Chicken-fried steak. Yum, Yum. Pass the Lipitor.
Approximately 25 cute high school girls were eating inside the café and approximately 25 members of the motorcycle club were eating on the picnic tables outside. Apparently, one scruffy biker in bib overalls had been verbally ogling the ladies as they arrived in twos and threes
We speculated that the girls were on spring break and had been “sold” Cancun, Mexico by their travel agent and it turned out to be Concan, Texas. The flirting was heavy and the giggles and squeals filled the restaurant. It turned out to be a birthday party.
The scruffy dude came inside and sang several songs for the girls. He sang the Do Wa Ditty song a cappella plus a couple of other love songs for the honoree of the birthday party. For you chick flick viewers, he was better than Tom Cruise’s bar singing adventure in Top Gun. He had a great voice! The entire restaurant broke out in applause.
On Sunday morning, after not finding the Black-capped Vireo, we journeyed to Lost Maples State Natural Area and got Indigo Bunting, Acadian Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Red-shouldered Hawk, Rough-legged Swallow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Black-and-white Warbler, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Magnolia Warbler, and Golden-cheeked Warbler (male and female). We also saw a Porcupine asleep in a tree. The animal was so BIG that the branch was bending with its weight. The porcupine could have easily stood flatfooted and spit in a goat’s eye. Yes, an adult goat.
The round trip to Lost Maples was only 80 miles. On the trip back, we were treated to a male Vermillion Flycatcher’s acrobatic mating flight and Cliff Swallows, with their adobe houses, under the Farm Road 1050 bridge near Garner State Park.
During dinner Sunday, again at Neal’s café, we overheard a conversation about a bat tour and talked ourselves into an invitation at $10 each. Mexican Free-tailed Bats became $10-tailed Bats. There were ten million plus or minus a few million (I heard reliable estimates of between 2 and 17 million, so what is a few million among friends?). On a unit basis, they were almost free.
We saw a Canyon Wren and a Rock Wren while waiting for the bats. Most of the group added a Black-throated Sparrow but I stayed behind, not wanting to miss my chance to take a picture of the bats exiting. Little did I know not to worry.
It was beyond being phenomenal! They began to stage at the mouth of the cave and then began pouring out at the rate of hundreds per second. Thirty minutes later, they were still pouring out at the same pace. They flew right over us; the sound overhead of millions of bat wings was unbelievable, yet very soft.
We had watched a Red-tail Hawk floating motionless over the hill behind the bat cave. Someone mentioned that the bats would be out soon; the hawk knew it. Once the bats started pouring out, the Red-tail started feeding, taking bats on the wing. The hawk’s mate and a Sharpie later joined the hunt. Both Red-tails took out at least five bats.
On Monday, my group and I temporarily parted company. About 5:30 AM, I left Concan for Laredo where I would catch my Tuesday flight to Lubbock. They birded the Neal’s area and then drove to Big Bend. Fortunately, they saw the Black-capped Vireo and, unfortunately, I had not.
The trip to Laredo was 176 miles through heavy rain and could have been driven in about three hours under better conditions and without “bird stops”. On my way, I saw an interesting sign across from a prison near Crystal City: “Prison Area; Do Not Pick up Hitchhikers”. Duh. Do you mean people mind living in a gated community?
At Carrizo Springs, I wheeled into McDonald’s like Broderick Crawford on Highway Patrol (you have to be at least 50 to understand my analogy or be trying to cure insomnia by watching Nick-at-Night.) I realized that I had not seen a McDonald’s since Friday and, while that was a good thing, I was terribly hungry!
Between Carrizo Springs and Laredo I saw many Crested Caracaras and small flights of migrating blackbirds on the power line structures. Separate structures, of course. Rain, darkness, and poor light after dawn held down the number of birds I saw during my drive. I did stop to watch a pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.
I checked into the hotel in Laredo and headed out immediately to get in a little more birding before turning back into mister businessman. I drove 41 miles to the Zapata city park where I found: Green Jay, Cedar Waxwing, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Green Heron, White-collared Seedeater, and Lesser Goldfinch (Texas form). My next stop before returning to Laredo was Falcon Dam and State Park. Additional species included Couch’s Kingbird, Great Kisskadee, Neotropic Cormorant, and Harris Hawk.
I rejoined my group on Friday morning in Weslaco. I had driven in from the Laredo airport and arrived about 1AM. I was too excited to need sleep. Our first stop was the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The BIG score included: Plain Chachalaca, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Olive Sparrow, White-faced Ibis, Greater Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalarope, Long-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Ringed Kingfisher, Short-billed Dowitcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Long-billed Thrasher, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Mississippi Kite, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Least Bittern, Groove-billed Ani, White-tipped Dove, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Mexican Mallard, and American Wigeon.
We added a Gray Hawk and Blackburnian Warbler at the Anzaduas Park and Dam. The next stop was Bensen Rio Grande Valley State Park, future home of the World Birding Center scheduled to open in 2003.
Shortly after arriving at Bensen, it began to rain fairly heavily. We saw a few good birds but I know Bensen would have given up more birds had it not been for the rain. We observed Altamira Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Eastern Screech Owl. Plus we saw a huge, Texas-sized Oriole nest. We also enjoyed the sight of two rain-soaked Chachalaca preening each other.
We missed the Clay-colored Robin at Bensen; however, we saw a giant, clay-colored toad. It was (Ta! Da!) a Giant Toad! (Its scientific name, Bufo Marinus, roughly translates to “bigger that an ocean”.) They have dropped ‘Killer’ as its middle name because of the effect it was having on tourism. According to the Peterson Field Guide for Reptiles and Amphibians, the toad’s voice is….and I am not making this up….“a slow, low-pitched trill, suggestive of the exhaust noise of a distant tractor”. The tractor only wishes it was as impressive!
On Saturday morning our first stop was off the Old Port Isabel Road, where we found: Common Night Hawk, Whimbrel, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Meadowlark, Willet, Common Bobwhite Quail, White-tailed Kite, Laughing Gull, Cassin’s Sparrow, Botteri’s Sparrow, and Bewick’s Wren. Wow!
The next stop was Sabal Palm. Our birds included: Swainson’s Thrush, Bay-breasted Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Veery, Least Grebe, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Tennessee Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Wood Thrush, and Hermit Thrust. If a Least Grebe is cute, then a baby Least Grebe is cute to the fifth power. And a baby Least Grebe riding on its mother’s back…you do the math! We saw it!
Heading north on US 77 from Harlingen back to San Antonio we observed several Swainson’s Hawks and a White-tailed Hawk.
We visited sites and targeted birds based on rare bird reports. Sometimes you miss the bird. Sometimes the birds appear on queue, as did the Tamaulipas Crow, the Red-crowned Parrot, the Cassin’s Sparrow, the nesting Gray Hawk, and the Botteri’s Sparrow. The Green Parakeets and the Masked Duck were no shows. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were the “bird de trip”; they were everywhere.
For the final tally, I found 144 species and my group had over 230 species. For me, 61 lifers! The above bird lists by location, generally do not repeat birds found at previous sites, except special birds such as Scarlet Tanagers.
And now a few travel tidbits based on my keen powers of observation. The Laredo airport has a great Mexican restaurant and no parking fees! Try Bubba’s Gumbo at Bubba’s Bayou Bar & Grill at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental airport, near the crossroads of Terminal C. In the Dallas airport, the men’s room is labeled “caballeros”; in Laredo it was “hombres” (which I think is Spanish for dude). I like the sound of the latter. Some day I had better look it up.
In researching the trip I used The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail – Lower Texas Coast map (to order call 1-888-TXBIRDS) and Texas Wildlife Viewing Guide by Gary Graham. The map notes the Valley Rare Bird Alert line at 956-969-2731 plus other valuable references.
Texas Parks and Wildlife (www.tpwd.state.tx.us) is one wonderful organization! Of course, they co-sponsor the Birding Trail, along with the Texas Department of Transportation, and provide much more. I used three of their publications: “Migration and The Migratory Birds of Texas”, “Birds of Hill Country State Natural Area”, and “On the Warblers of Texas”, which can be ordered from their Website. Also see their Website for the Texas Birding List (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/birds/txchecklist/intro.htm).
I recommend their Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine (www.tpwmagazine.com), especially the April 2000 and April 2001 issues. The April issue seems to be the birding issue for the year. In additional to some good birding articles, it contains the Great Texas Birding calendar for the year. No, I don’t think they have a swimsuit issue.
If you go to the Hill Country, stay at Neal’s. They have a resident expert, June Osborne, who shares her knowledge of the area and current sightings. She can be reached at Jobirder@aol.com. June is the author of a great pamphlet, sold through Neal’s: “Birder’s Guide to Concan, Texas and Surrounding Area”.
I owe my group a big “thank you”, especially our very experienced leaders. This trip was extremely enjoyable and educational for me. All group members were my teachers.
Finally, the state of Texas has a BIG heart. All “BIG jokes” aside, I made a tour of the state in April and was treated wonderfully. It is great to visit areas that value ecotourism. And if Texas has a physical heart, it must be the Hill Country. I cannot wait to return.
The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around. He lives in the Wilmington, NC area. An average birder by any measurement, he sometimes finds great birds. Which proves again, even a blind nut finds a squirrel once and a while.
John B. Ennis © 2001