Documenting the Birding Adventures of Scott Whittle
Friday, March 28, 2008
A Texas-Sized Entry
It's been a couple of weeks since my last post, in part because of my recent trip to Texas. I've posted a gallery of Texas birds here. I went down for Fotofest, a biannual fine-arts photography conference where photographers come from around the world with their portfolios and meet with gallery owners, book publishers, collectors, museum curators and the like. I was in Houston for five days, and although it made me nervous to be out of NY State for any longer, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to steal a few days in the Rio Grande Valley, considered by many to be the best birding spot in the US. I spent four glorious days driving up the Rio Grande River from South Padre Island on the coast to San Ygnacio in the interior. The birding spots there are legendary, from South Padre Island itself to Santa Anna to Bentsen to Falcon State Parks. The area borders Mexico (at times I was a literal stone's throw away from Mexican soil), and you never know when a Mexican bird will stray north into the area. At the same time, the western and eastern sides of the US butt up against each other in Texas, so you have birds converging from both halves of the country. To give a sense of the variety, a recent Big Year birder logged 522 species in one year, as opposed to the NY State record of about 340.
After Fotofest, I drove about six hours from Houston to the southern tip of Texas, Brownsville. The next morning I drove across the bridge to South Padre Island. It was spring break, but it was early on Friday and so the hordes were still a few hours off. I met Mary Beth Stowe, an experienced birder from McAllen, TX, who was kind enough to let me join her in her bird count for the island. Despite the sunbathers and springbreakers, South Padre is a mecca for birders, and although we weren't in high migration yet there were still lots of beautiful birds to be seen. One of the joys of birding a whole new area is that many of the birds, even the common ones, are "life birds", seen for the first time. I'd actually seen two life-birds in Houston just picking up my rental car. Here I had a first view of a Clapper Rail, Common Moorhen, Reddish Egret, and Mottled Duck, as well as a big flock of Black Skimmers, Terns and Lauging Gulls. Coming from New York in early March, which is relatively quiet, it was great to be in a place so alive with birds.
From there I crossed back to the mainland to Laguna Anacosta, a costal park that is also a great birding spot. Driving up the road to the park I saw my first Roadrunner, Curve Billed Thrasher, Inca Dove and Harris' Hawk, and that was before the entrance! Inside were a host of other birds, including Green Jays and Altamira Orioles, and a migrant Indigo Bunting. The park also holds 70% of the US Ocelot population, but I wasn't lucky enough to see one. I spent about six hours exploring the area, and then went back to South Padre. This time I did get a taste of the crowds, and whereas the bridge crossing took five minutes that morning, it took an hour now. Every car around me was blasting either Hip Hop or Justin Timberlake. I got an overpriced bite to eat and fled back to the mainland again and up the Rio Grande Valley.
The next day I met up with Mary Beth again, this time at Bentsen State Park for a tour she was co-leading. At the visitor center we spotted a Couch's Kingbird flopping on the ground, and by the time I got to it it was dead. It had flown into one of the windows at the center and broken its neck. This is a very common occurence, and I've been told that windows account for bird mortality only after cats (yes, cats...they are a major source of mortality for birds in this country). The silver lining of this ominous start to the day was that we got to really examine the bird...being able to touch a wild bird is always exciting, since generally I almost always experience them with my eyes and at a distance. The Couch's is bright yellow with an olive back, and it's feathers are soft like fur.
We continued at Bentsen and saw some great stuff...Mississippi Kite, a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and several other South Texas specialties. My next stop was Santa Anna, another park on the border, but on my way I stopped at a private nature reserve called the Blue Mockingbird. In fact, it's a private home with a couple of acres of land that has been highly landscaped to attract birds. Over the years the spot has accrued some really impressive rarities, and today was no exception. A White Throated Robin was hanging out there, and it appeared almost immediately after I showed up. This bird is a rarity for the US, period, not just Texas, and was probably the rarest bird I saw on the trip. The folks who pointed him out to me turned out to be two couples that were doing a birding trip of their own, and I met up with them again at Santa Anna later in the afternoon. We had a very nice time working our way around the ponds and woods of this famous reserve, and they pointed out some lizards, snakes and butterflies that I might never have seen. We had a Zebra Longtail butterfly that I'm told is very unusual. Butterflies seem to become a passion of a lot of birders, and in that Zebra Longtail I may have seen a future obessession...
The next day was Falcon SP and Salineno. I found a great hotel by Falcon, by which I mean a clean place for $40/night that wasn't a chain. Chains are a cancer in the Rio Grande Valley, and one is hard pressed to find a meal or bed that isn't identical to one in a thousand other cities in America. This place was an oasis, and only minutes from the park. I was up before sunrise and, on a tip from my friends at Santa Anna, was at the ranger station early listening for Common Paraque, a reclusive and noctural bird. Their voices are distinctive, and I heard several before heading to the feeders where a Green Tailed Towhee had been seen. The Towhee appeared as predicted in the first half-hour before sunrise, along with a pair of Black Throated Sparrows and a Cactus Wren. I was gone by 8am, as the Easter revelers pulled into the parking lot to set up their picnics.
At Salineno there was already a group chainsawing wood by the river to start their holiday barbeque. There was also a Canadian couple who, like me, were looking for a Muscovy Duck fly-by and for Red Billed Pigeon, which reside on an island in the Rio Grande. We did wind up spotting the Pigeon, though the Muscovy Duck eluded us. We also visited the feeding stations, where after a bit of a wait we spotted an Audobon's Oriole among the other colorful birds and the large flock of Red Winged Blackbirds eating the peanut butter and seed put out for them.
My last stop that day was at San Ingnacio, where the specialty White-Collared Seedeater is sometimes seen. I spent two hours alone at the feeders there without any luck. I parked by the river, and as I left I waved to a Mexican family on the opposite bank, also celebrating Easter.
I drove part way to Houston, stopping at a hotel and sleeping off the severe allergies that I'd picked up in South Texas. Several people there told me they had never had never had allergies until they visited the Rio Grande Valley in the spring, and I guess I'm one of them as well. The allergies let up as I headed north, and mostly cleared within a day or two. On my way to the airport the next day I stopped at the Attwater Prarie Chicken Reserve outside of Houston. This rare prarie area is the home of some of the last Greater Prarie Chickens in the US; the birds are restocked frequently and are still barely holding on. They are rarely seen. I did enjoy a walk in the prarie and found a Grasshopper Sparrow, as well as a several hawks and passerines. It was a soothing way to spend a morning before flying back to New York and my Big Year.
My name is Scott Whittle and I'm a professional photographer (www.scottwhittle.com). I have an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started birding as a teenager, and then dropped it for many years. I started to bird again in 2007, and have been birding since then in Brooklyn, NY and Cape May, NJ.