The Business Birder:  Fall Outing (or Falling Out) in Texas

 

I just flew in from the east coast.  Boy, are my arms tired.  Old joke; old jokester.  I actually fell out in Texas during the month of October due to air travel exhaustion; however, this story starts on Cape Cod. 

 

My company, located near Boston, had a meeting that was postponed from mid-September until the first weekend in October.  I had really looked forward to the trip at the earlier date because I had never been to the Cape during a migration. 

 

I flew up the weekend before the Monday meeting and stayed on the Cape.  My visit, unfortunately, coincided with the first cold front that blew through the northeast for 2001.  I really mean blew.  The winds were steady at 50 miles per hour on Saturday and 35 MPH on Sunday.

 

Well, the outbound migrants were mostly gone and the inbound wintering birds had not arrived and the hanging around birds had taken shelter.  I actually saw a flock of ducks checking into a bed-and-breakfast.  I sometimes have luck under these conditions by working the lee side of the trees.  The wind was so strong, for all practical purposes there was no lee side.  The wind, however, did not stop the cable televised football games nor the pizza delivery. 

 

On Sunday, I managed to tease out Black-throated Green Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Northern Harrier, and Northern Bobwhite Quail at Wellfleet plus a few other birds around the Cape.  

 

The trip had its benefits.  I was unofficially field-testing a Coleman soft cooler (packs in your luggage) and the large field guide cover for Sibley’s (www.fieldfare.com).  They proved to be wonderful products for this business birder. 

 

The Big Cover enables me to now use Sibley’s as my main field guide, versus leaving it in the car due to its size and weight.  The Sibley’s guide is all about “quality birding”, with its detail, its treatment of subspecies, and the quality of its pictures.  We will talk more about quality birding later. 

 

On the Texas trip, I field-tested Shade Coppertone 30spf sunscreen in the solid stick form (perfect for the briefcase) and Arizona RxStress Herbal Iced Tea (the one-gallon size).  I recommend them.  I found that the gallon jug can be “recycled”, after you have consumed a gallon of tea, if you get my drift.   

 

Why did I begin a tale about Texas birding on Cape Cod?  To illustrate again the premise of the Business Birder: You go where you have to, you bird when you get there, you take the birds that God gives you, and you can always count on changes to your travel plans.  Like my fall outing in Texas.   

 

I had a trip planned to San Antonio for a meeting on Monday and Tuesday, October 22-23, continuing to Lubbock to work with my client for the remainder of the week.  I planned to go out on Saturday and bird around San Antonio and south Texas prior to the meeting.  My plans changed when I also had to go to Lubbock the week before the meeting.  Instead of flying back to North Carolina and then back to San Antonio, I chose to save my body (my wings were very tired) and drive from Lubbock to San Antonio for the meeting and the birding and then back to Lubbock.  I would fly only four flight segments instead of twelve.

 

Prior to my trip, I had consulted two members of the Lower Cape Fear Bird Club, Bruce Smithson and Maurice Barnes, about where to go within the San Antonio area.  They recommended Rockport and Laguna Atascosa in addition to other places we had visited as a group earlier in April, such as Sabal Palm and Santa Ana.  Bruce recommended staying at the Cayman house, near Rockport, and trying to link up with a birding trip led by the owner, Michael Marsden.

 

I recently discovered the Llano Estacado Audubon Society (LEAS), located in Lubbock and visited their Web site at www.leas.bizlanf.com.  Llano Estacado” is the name an earlier birder, a Mr. Coronado in 1541, gave to the southern high plains of the Texas Panhandle and Eastern New Mexico.  The name means “the staked plains” in honor of all of the yucca stalks.

 

I contacted Rich Kostecke from the LEAS via e-mail for suggestions about birding around Lubbock and for my trip south.  Rich suggested the South Llano River State Park and Laguna Atascosa NWR plus the other famous Rio Grande Valley and Hill Country sites.  He also suggested the Muleshoe NWR in the Lubbock area.

 

On Wednesday, October 17, I birded around Lubbock warming up for the trip south.  My Lubbock birds which included: Belted Kingfisher, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, American Coot, Osprey, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Northern Harrier, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Ferruginous Hawk, Mourning Dove, and Western Meadowlark.

 

Armed with birding suggestions and driving directions from the hospital barber, I left for San Antonio Thursday afternoon.  I took the route through Sweetwater, Bronte, Ballinger, Eden, and Menard to Junction, Texas, where I picked up I10 for San Antonio.  Wow, I have now been to Paradise and Eden in the same year!  Paradise, Arizona and Eden, Texas that is.  Eden’s motto is “The garden of Texas”.  No kidding.

 

Arriving in Junction, I proceeded to the South Llano River State Park for a quick birding adventure and then returned to the Come ‘N’ Get-it restaurant, back at I10, for one of the best rib eye steaks I have ever eaten. 

 

I was welcomed to the park by turkeys and deer standing everywhere.  In addition to many White-tailed deer, a family of spotted deer crossed the road.  I could not believe my eyes.  The bucks, does, and fawns all had spots like I would expect to find only on fawns.  The buck had a huge rack and was as tall as my Blazer.  No, I have not sustained a recent head injury. I believe they were an exotic species imported from overseas by a nearby rancher.  Unfortunately, I do not have a world field guide for deer.   Someday I will have to look up this brand of deer.

 

As it turned out, much of the park along the river is closed from October through April because it is roost for up to 800 Wild Turkeys (the Western or Rio Grande race).  There were turkeys everywhere!  I also saw a Greater Roadrunner and a Black Phoebe.

 

Given my change in itinerary, I luckily had two of my Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail maps with me:  the Central Texas Coast (CTC) and the Lower Texas Coast (LTC).  Plus my binoculars and field guide, now standard accoutrements for the draped crusader on any business trip.

 

As with most of my trips, I had no reservations, emotional nor accommodation-wise.  I knew from my Internet research that the Cayman House was closed for the winter; however, I jotted down Michael’s number just in case I could schedule an impromptu birding trip with him.

 

On Thursday night I fell out around midnight at the Comfort Inn and Suites at the junction of I37 and US77 outside of Corpus Christi.  I put in five hours of work the next morning before striking out for Rockport.   I called Michael about 11:30 AM, he was open, and we were birding by 1PM.

 

We covered the Mustang Island loop:  the Rockport waterfront, Mustang Island, and a couple of sites in Corpus Christi.  The sites included the Port Aransas Birding Center (CTC 57), Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge (CTC 69), and Blucher Park (CTC 71).  Birds observed included:  Pied-billed Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Least Bittern, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Green Heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Vulture, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, White-tailed Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Forster’s Tern, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Magnolia Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Indigo Bunting.

 

There is a distinction between power birding and high quality birding and sometimes a trip can be both.  This trip for me was not about numbers because I had seen most of the birds earlier in the year on trips to High Island/Bolivar Peninsula and the Rio Grande Valley.  This trip was about quality.  We saw two adult Peregrine Falcons and nine adult White-tailed Hawks on the power structures along Mustang Island.  We also saw a side-by-side contrast of the size difference of Brown versus White Pelicans, Neotropic versus Double-crested Cormorants, and many of the Sandpipers.  We also saw four Least Bitterns within 100 feet of each other.  That was high quality!

 

Since the Cayman House was closed, I stayed Friday night at the Best Western Inn by the Bay in Fulton, which is exactly two miles from the Cayman Inn.  The hotel can be reached by calling 361-729-8351 or 800-235-6076 (for reservations).  For food, the Back 40 across the street is a little too fried but acceptable; however, I understand that Latitude 28° 02’ in Rockport is great.

 

All year I missed the Green Kingfisher from Southeastern Arizona all the way to Sabal Palm.  When Michael told me we would most likely get one on the trip he had booked for Saturday, I jumped at the chance to tag along.  I accompanied Michael and his party (Randy Thompson, his wife Lisa, and her sister Wendy) on the first part of their trip.  Small world, Wendy is from Lubbock and was visiting her sister in Corpus Christi.  They were a good group to bird with.

 

Our first destination was the area around Holiday Beach and Goose Island State Park, north of Fulton on TX 35 (UTC 48).   It looks like a fairly good site for migrants. It has lots of scrub oaks and fresh water ponds and part of Goose Island State Park is better in the spring because of its tall trees.  At a small pond, we witnessed two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on the ground whistling at a flock overhead.  The flock whistled back and then banked for a landing, joining the pair on the ground.  This was the first time I had even heard the whistle!  Again, quality!

 

At this site and along the road to Refugio, we added: Cattle Egret, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, Crested Caracara, Common Moorhen, and Boat-tailed Grackle.

 

The kingfisher site was Lion’s/Shelly Park (CTC 38), in Refugio, on the Mission River.  We waited for about 30 minutes and no kingfisher.  Michael and the others departed to find shorebirds and I stayed, planning to go to Aransas NWR after seeing the kingfisher.

 

Mind you, the Green Kingfisher was not a target bird, just a four-hour obsession.  There was a sign that said “Green Kingfisher Point”, so I sat there a while having a picnic lunch purchased from a nearby Subway.  While I ate, I noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk feeding just below me.  I could not make out what it was eating.  Could it have been a Green Kingfisher?  Which brings up a birding ethics question, if I identified the meal as a Green Kingfisher, could I count it?  Just kidding.   

 

I heard two kingfishers along the river but never found them.  Finally, on my final pass along the trail, I heard one and snuck up on it.  Wow, I was not prepared for the size difference!  Michael, it was just off the bridge where we first looked.  Judging from the white stuff on the branch over the water, it is a favorite perch.

 

Next, I journeyed to Aransas to check it out even though I knew the Whooping Cranes had not arrived (mind you, they were not a target bird).  I understand there is a pair of cranes that can be seen from the observation tower and that they are bringing a young one with them this year.  Whooping Cranes are like Sandhill Cranes in that they roost in shallow water overnight; however, they need a lot of territory and do not travel daily to other sites for food.  Therefore, you may see only one pair of cranes from the tower so the best way to see them is on a boat tour out of Rockport.  Whoopers are five feet tall, compared to a little over four feet for the Sandhill.  I will return next spring to see one of these monsters!  

 

I drove from Aransas to the Rio Grande Valley and stayed at the Comfort Inn in Harlingen (956-412-7771), near the junction of US77 and US 83, because it was new and was strategically located for my Sunday trip.  

 

My first stop Sunday was Laguna Atascosa.  I was met at the entrance by about 70 Sandhill Cranes flying out to the fields adjacent to the entrance road.

 

I took the lakeside car tour first.  Laguna Atascosa itself was very dry.  I could barely see the birds across the lake at the small remaining puddle of water, even with the telescope provided by the refuge.  I almost gave out of gas and would have if I had taken the bayside trail first.  The refuge ranger provided a gallon of gas, which got me 15 miles to the nearest gas station.  I will have to take the bayside drive next visit. 

 

Unfortunately, I gave up trying to find the Aplomado Falcon to run for gas; however, I was happy with seeing a Common Black Hawk!  I also saw: Harris Hawk, White-winged Dove, Green Jay, and Couch’s Kingbird.

 

After gassing up, I took the back county roads to Sabal Palm.  The sanctuary was extremely dry and there were few birds.  At this time of the year, the small birds, even at Sabal Palm, were organized in little feeder waves.  I managed to add: White-eyed Vireo, Tufted Titmouse (Black-tufted Texas form), and Anhinga.  Then a quick stop at Santa Ana and similar conditions, where I added: Great Kiskadee, House Wren, and Altamira Oriole.

 

If you go to the Rio Grande Valley, very detailed maps of Brownsville, Harrligen, and McAllen areas are a must.  I sure could have used one when I had the little gas problem.  Also, driving between Sabal Palm and Santa Ana, I got lost in the middle of Brownsville and almost went into Mexico twice, on different bridges.  Road signs from one part of the country to another are anything but consistent and sometimes non-existent.

 

Michael Marsden had given me an address in McAllen where Green-bearded Mango, Berryline, and other interesting hummingbirds had been hanging out.  I took US 281 out of Santa Ana for San Antonio, which passes through McAllen.  Duh.  I gotta get me some of that hummingbird action! 

 

I was forced to buy a detailed map of the McAllen area at a convenience store on the way and, as luck would have it, the store was close to the hummingbird site. 

 

There was a note on the front door, welcoming all birders and giving courtesy directions.  As I began observing the feeders, a car pulled up and couple number one got out.  Shortly thereafter, a man returned to get his sunglasses left earlier that afternoon.  He told the three of us that a Mango was at a site about a mile away, so the three of us followed as he took off in the wrong direction.  After a wicked road turn that reminded me of Bruce Smithson, we found the new site.  As we drove up, three people were sitting on the front lawn staring at a feeder.  Now there were six.  I waited about 20 minutes and then returned to the first site.  As I left, a couple arrived to take my place on the lawn.  When I returned to the first site there were two people observing the feeders.  They talked of a third site and one asked the other if they could follow them to that site.  Unfortunately, I had to get back on the road.  As the three of us departed, couple number one reappeared and said the Mango had shown up at the second site after I left.  I was already very late departing for San Antonio so I hit the road.  Did you follow all of this?  

 

Mind you, the Green-bearded Mango was not a target bird, just a two-hour obsession!  I did find Rufus Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and an American Redstart.

 

After returning to Lubbock on Tuesday, I visited the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, October 24.  The refuge is approximately 75 miles from Lubbock via TX 114 and TX 214 (which splits the refuge).  The refuge consists of playa lakes and short prairie grass ecosystems.  The lakes were mostly white and dry; the effect of accumulated gypsum salts left by periodic evaporation of the lakes. 

 

Muleshoe is the winter home of up to one hundred thousand Lesser Sandhill Cranes plus many waterfowl.  There is a Prairie Dog village near the visitor center.  Prairie Dogs are a keystone species, like Gopher Tortoises, providing home to many other species.  I saw no Burrowing Owls and I also did not see them as usual with the Prairie Dogs in Lubbock.  The have probably migrated. 

 

I added: Rock Wren, Lesser Prairie Coyote, and a Pale Adult Western American Robin.  There were several thousand Sandhills and a few Pintails at Paul’s Lake, the only lake with water.  The sound of thousands of Sandhills, to me, is one of nature’s most beautiful sounds!  I listened for about an hour.  The best time to see them is late in afternoon as they return from the fields, which may be 30 plus miles away, or early in the morning as they leave for the fields, as I did at Laguna Atascosa.

 

A couple of years ago, when I lived in Gainesville, Florida, I was honored by about two thousand Sandhills flying over my house each morning for about three weeks.  They had discovered a fresh cattle pasture just on the other side of our sub-development and worked it hard before moving on.  I love with their different sounds.

 

I have a copy, somewhere in my files, of a Gainesville Sun newspaper article written by cancer survivor.  She wrote about the coming of the cranes each November and how that sound overhead was a symbol of change and the passage of time and a reminder to celebrate life.  Personally, it was so good to hear that sound overhead in November and sad to hear and see a large flight of cranes high overhead in late February. 

 

Next visit, I plan to include the Grulla (the Spanish word for crane) NWR, which is 28 miles northwest of Muleshoe NWR.  It is near the Texas/New Mexico state line, about 25 miles southeast of Portales, NM, on NM 88.

 

One last look, on the way to the Lubbock airport on Friday, October 26, yielded Canvasback and Wood Ducks on Canyon Lake 6.

 

As usual, I thank all who gave me advice and birded with me.  It is always an education and you are my teachers!

 

***

 

The author, John Ennis, is a full time (and free-range) healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, North Carolina area.  An average birder by any stretch of the imagination, he is prone to mini-obsessions while in the field and sometimes gets his bird.  Sometimes.

 

Postscript:  The day I returned to North Carolina I discovered and immediately purchased two items related to this article:  the new Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior and a sheet of stamps published by the Post Office depicting the ecosystem of the Great Plains Prairie, showing the contribution of the Prairie Dog.

John B. Ennis © 2001

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