Texas Day 6

San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the country but its downtown core can make you forget that. The Alamo ground and the River Walk in particular have a garden type feel. Sure, it’s more of an urban landscaped nature than the nature nature that I usually write about, but I enjoyed it just the same.

Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) and various smaller plants at the Alamo

My hotel faces the River Walk and right away after dropping my suitcase down on the bed I looked out the window and saw my only lifer of the day- the white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica). They are quite common in the south and I’m surprised it took me this long into the trip to see them. As soon as I saw the first flock, I started seeing them everywhere downtown, including on the same block as the Alamo. That’s a bird sighting to remember.

White-winged dove along the River Walk

The River Walk is the best way to get around downtown. You don’t have to stop for traffic and there’s a peaceful vibe about it. It doesn’t feel like a walk in the woods but it reminded me, with its beautiful ornamentals, of a botanical garden. The river winds through downtown, below street level, and is lined with gardens and large trees. On top of that, you can access shops and restaurants from it.

I don’t consider myself a big fan of cities, but this is a city done right. It incorporates flowing water and green living things into the life of the city and has a warm, cozy feel because of it.

It’s hard to believe that tomorrow I’m getting on a plane. Has it really been almost a week? At the same time, I’ve done so much in my time here that maybe I’m ready to go back home. I can’t believe I got my life list up to 300… and beyond.

Thanks, Texas.

Life list update:

#304: (Just like the) white-winged dove (sings a song sounds like she’s singing ooo baby ooo said ooo)

Texas Day 5

Today was a low-key day. After doing laundry and running in the morning, I decided to spend the afternoon outdoors. With all the birding and driving I’ve been doing, I wanted to take things at a slower pace.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is much less birdy in the afternoon than it is in the morning. I was there from about three to six and I did not see as many individuals or species. This surprised me. Estero Llano Grande SP was hopping around this time. Still, I was out for a walk in the woods and I was relaxed. Today I went to the Resaca Vieja Trail, which follows a resaca, or oxbow, that is no longer filled with water. It looks like a large, curved ditch.

Along the trail
The view down the resaca

The animals were few but noisy when I encountered them. At one spot, I was startled by a peccary (Pecari tajacu) that ran across the trail suddenly. It was with another and they both ran frantically to avoid me, like large barrels with tiny legs crashing through the brush. Similarly, I startled a group of plain chachalacas (Ortalis vetula) I hadn’t noticed. They flew off with wingbeats that roared in the silence.

I took my time walking out of the park. The sun finally started coming out after what had been a cool, cloudy, and slightly rainy day. Two chachalacas crossed the park road and a crested caracara (Caracara cheriway) flew overhead, perfectly illuminated by the setting sun. My second ladder-backed woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) of the day called from a tree. I thought of the fleetingness of this experience, a brief blink of an eye in this unique ecosystem. Back at the hotel again, the moments are once again memories. I will cherish them forever.

Plain chachalaca, parking cone
Ladder-backed woodpecker

Tomorrow, on my last full day in Texas, I will be driving to San Antonio. I might stop to see birds along the way, and I might also do some urban birding at the city’s many parks and riverwalk. Perhaps a trip to the Alamo is in order.

Life list update:

#303: Ladder-backed woodpecker

Texas Day 4

Hello once again from the Rio Grande Valley. Today I explored Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the National Butterfly Center just southwest of Mission. There weren’t many butterflies but there  were birds galore- I’d say it was better birding than any other day so far on this vacation.

The two birds I remember best from my first trip to Bentsen years ago are the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) and green jay (Cyanocorax yncas). I saw both of those again today right away after entering the park. I also remember seeing orioles when I was younger, but I don’t know which of the two orange species at Bentsen they were. Luckily I saw both today. It was a day of wonderful sightings including what is now my favorite Texas bird. Read the picture captions to find out which it is.

Great kiskadees (Pitangus sulphuratus) are everywhere down here but I’m going to take shots of each regional species whenever I get a good opportunity. When am I going to get a chance to see many of these again? I like this picture better than yesterday’s.
Green jay
Clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi). The orange mass is some sort of suet (?) the park puts out. It is particularly popular with kiskadees.
Golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons), the Texas equivalent of the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
My favorite Texas bird so far is the gray hawk (Buteo plagiatus). I heard this one whistling (many hawks don’t sound too fierce) from deep in the woods. I enjoyed its posh gray plumage, striped tail, loud call, and evasiveness. I’m glad I “met” it.
The Altamira oriole (Icterus gularis) is large oriole common at Bentsen.
The hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus) is smaller than the Altamira but looks somewhat similar otherwise. There’s a wing pattern difference and the mask is a slightly different shape.
Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)
White-tipped dove (Leptotila verreauxi)- a bird that looks constantly surprised

Life list updates:

#288: Buff-bellied hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis)
#289: Long-billed thrasher (Toxostoma longirostre)
#290: Altamira oriole
#291: Golden-fronted woodpecker
#292: Vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus obscurus)
#293: Clay-colored thrush
#294: Gray hawk
#295: Hooded oriole
#296: Black phoebe
#297: Black-crested titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus)
#298: White-tipped dove
#299: Couch’s kingbird (Tyrannus couchii)
#300: Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)
#301: Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
#302: Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

As you can see, I made it to 300 species! That’s a fun milestone. What makes it even better is that #300 is a species that isn’t frequently seen in the area. Double exciting! It was one of a few unexpected vagrant species the National Butterfly Center staff were more than welcome to give pointers on finding. I was told I just had to keep watching one feeder in particular. I got a picture. It’s not a very good one, but it’s of my 300th species so I’ve included it below, in all its off-center, taken-through-a-window glory.


Texas Day 3

Greetings from the Rio Grande Valley! I had a long drive today but still managed to get some birding in. First I spent over two hours driving to Brownsville where I went to look for the Tamaulipas crow (Corvus imparatus) in the only area of the United States it is found. A popular spot to look for them is at the Brownsville Landfill. I kept the windows rolled up. No crows. I did see a few species there, including my lifer white-tailed hawks (Geranoaetus albicaudatus) and the uniqueness of the experience made it worth it. The drive down was beautiful too. I am glad I went looking for the crows rather than not taking the effort.

Black vulture (Coragyps atratus) enjoying the trash life
Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis)- a species usually seen among cattle, but apparently just as at home at the landfill

On to the prettier part of this post.

Later in the day, after realizing I didn’t want to chase Tamaulipas crows all over the state, I headed toward Estero Llano Grande State Park. (I consider it wise to head in the direction of your next hotel after a certain point in the day.) The park had a wider variety of feathered friends than the landfill. It is mainly forest with some open areas and multiple ponds. There was something new to see around every corner and I found ten lifers there, along with a dozen or so other species. The park staff are friendly and want everyone to have a good time. I would definitely recommend this place to anyone visiting the area.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) looking for prey in the pond by the visitor center
Inca doves (Columbina inca)- much smaller than mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and amazingly cute
Great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), a large flycatcher. I’m glad I decided to investigate a loud noise coming from behind the bushes because it ended up being this guy.
Yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea)
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)- a bird that dives for fish then takes this pose to dry its feathers
Tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor)- a bird that I’ve wanted to see for quite a while

Honestly, I miss the coast a little, but the valley is great and I can’t wait to see what surprises it holds for me tomorrow.

Life list updates:

#277: White-tailed hawk
#278: Inca dove
#279: Great kiskadee
#280: Cinnamon teal (Spatula cyanoptera)
#281: Mottled duck (Anas fulvigula)
#282: Least grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus)
#283: Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
#284: Yellow-crowned night heron
#285: Anhinga
#286: Curve-billed thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
#287: Tricolored heron

Texas Day 2

Greetings from Padre Island! I spent my first whole day in Texas getting some coastal birding in. The barrier islands on the coast are expansive, and I only saw parts of Padre and Mustang Islands. Locations I would recommend are the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center and Nueces County Park on Mustang Island and Packery Channel County Park and Padre Bali Park on Padre Island. Mustang Island State Park was closed, probably due to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and I did not go to the Padre Island National Seashore because the sources I read were very ambiguous about whether it was closed or not due to the government shutdown. There is also only so much time in the day. I went where I had time to go.

It was a great day for birds. I had good sightings even when I wasn’t birding. When I walked out my door to get breakfast, I was greeted with the shocking pink of a roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) flying in the distance. On a beach run, I saw gulls, terns, and shorebirds. Of course, for much of the day I had my camera and binoculars on me.

Willet (Tringa semipalmata)
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Lifer herp: American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus)
Sanderling (Calidris alba)
Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) in non-breeding plumage- I’d never seen one in winter before and I had to consult my field guide to identify it. There were many of them on the Padre Bali Park beach.
Laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) transitioning into breeding plumage

Life list updates:

#270: Brown pelican
#271: Black skimmer (Rynchops niger)
#272: Royal tern (Thalasseus maximus)
#273: Sanderling
#274: Snowy egret (Egretta thula)
#275: American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) (first time I’ve seen one as opposed to merely  hearing them)
#276: White ibis (Eudocimus albus)

Texas Day 1

To go from 266 life birds to 300 in a week seems like a difficult task, but that’s what I’m trying to do over the next several days while on vacation in Texas. I’ve been to south Texas before… when I was 11. I remember some of the birds very clearly and they will be first-of-years for me. Most of them, however, will be new as far as my memory is concerned. I don’t trust my notes from back then, when I was just tagging along with my parents, so I only count the birds I know I saw. How could someone forget green jays (Cyanocorax yncas) or roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)? The more distinctive birds are firmly ingrained in my mind.

Today I landed in San Antonio and drove to Corpus Christi. I will be spending two nights here before heading to the Rio Grande Valley for a few days. After that, I will head back to San Antonio to get some city life. I will be birding on the road too. I guarantee it.

I already have three lifers.

The first was the great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus). I saw them pretty much everywhere. I didn’t know quite what I thought of them at first because I was only seeing them at a distance, but up close I realized something: I like these birds. They’re larger than the common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) back in Wisconsin, with a larger tail-to-body ratio. Half tail, half body basically. They have spunk too. They owned that convenience store lot and they knew it. Only when I started my car did a nearby one puff out its feathers and fly away.

The second was a black vulture (Coragyps atratus). I only got a good look at one while driving, but may have seen others within the San Antonio city limits. I saw it so clearly that I started cheering in my rental car. That’s what kind of trip this is.

The third was something special. Like the other two, I probably saw crested caracaras (Caracara cheriway) when I was younger, but for the life of me I could not remember seeing them in any specific moment. Much like the grackles, they are everywhere here. They are such beautiful birds. That orange face! I didn’t get any bird pictures today because I was focused so much on driving, but I want to get pictures of these three species and more in the coming days. South Texas has many birds that are found nowhere else in the United States. Many will be new to me, either through imperfect memory or because I really haven’t seen them before. I also can’t wait to reunite with some of the birds I consider “old friends” from my last trip down here. The real birding starts tomorrow. Today was just the warm-up.

Life list updates:

#267: Great-tailed grackle
#268: Black vulture
#269: Crested caracara

Spring Green Preserve in Winter

The Spring Green Preserve in Sauk County is a place I’ve spend a lot of time and I’ve seen it change throughout the seasons, mostly as the dominant flowers rotate throughout the year. The one thing I haven’t seen there is a winter landscape, or at least I hadn’t until yesterday. It’s still the same place but it’s totally different at the same time. What I normally associate with the preserve is the variety of flora and fauna I see there. That’s a little toned down right now. Sure, there are birds, but many species migrated and the herps and insects are hibernating. The flora is dormant too, and only some of the stalks are still standing. The whole place looked… bare.

Surprisingly, I liked it just as much as I do in the summer.

The snow was only a few inches deep so I was able to identify a few plant species. I learned some of them last year when I was doing prairie work and it was a good skill refresher. But mostly the land looked empty. The landscape popped out more than usual both on the prairie and in the woods.

Main view
Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa)
This is the most clear view I’ve ever had in the woods. Usually you can’t make out much of the hill in the background.
Cinquefoil, probably Potentilla arguta

In early January, every bird is a first of year. My favorite of the day was a red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). I first noticed it by its tapping and I’m glad I looked up as I do not frequently see them.

Red-headed woodpecker

There were four of us in attendance, and I take joy in sharing these experiences with others. Chatter keeps you warmer too. I enjoyed seeing the preserve through a different seasonal filter. It was quieter and less colorful than usual, but it had its own beauty and intrinsic value just the same.