Birding isn’t only about birds

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This is not the tail of a cat

Birding gets you outdoors. It puts you in a specific place at a specific moment of time with all your senses open and receptive. And then you just never know what might pop up to surprise you.

This story takes place at Bosque del Apache NWR in central New Mexico on a day in early March. It began with witnessing what may have been the last large group of Sandhill Cranes leaving the refuge for their journey north. A couple hundred flew over before I even got to the refuge, but at the entrance road pond there were still an estimated 600-700 birds clustered, taking off at intervals in groups of varying sizes, filling the air with crane music. Over the course of 15 minutes every one of them had lifted off and I never saw or heard another the entire day. There are always a few stragglers that hang around well into late March, but the majority by now are winging their way to the nesting grounds.

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This softshell turtle is lying on a patch of earth that had recently been burned. It lay unmoving for so long I began to worry it might have been caught unawares by fast-moving flames and heat and had died there. But when I opened the car door it literally spun and leapt into the water in maybe 1/10 of a second. I had no idea they could move at such speed.

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This female Ladder-backed Woodpecker worked her way from one water weed to the next

I just don’t associate woodpeckers with water, but Ladder-backs seem especially adaptable in their choice of hunting locations. I’ve seen them on chollas and poking around at the base of creosote. As I walked north along the edge of the Flight Deck pond, this female never once left the flooded shoreline as she foraged her way just ahead of me.

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Female Northern Harrier, perched on tree surrounded by water

On the west side of South Loop, I had stopped to look at ducks when I noticed movement through the woods in a large flooded area. It was a long line of mule deer wading single file through belly-deep water. One after another they appeared through an opening, all walking at the same stately pace a few feet behind each other and disappearing on the other side of the gap. The effect was similar to some of those looped tapes you might see on YouTube as the deer just kept appearing. I had counted 21 before I moved on, and still they came.

Ended the day at the visitor’s center. Had a Green-tailed Towhee in the cactus garden.

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Green-tailed Towhee

Plus this partially leucistic White-crowned Sparrow. Or maybe it’s the love child of a White-crown and a White-breasted Nuthatch.

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An anomaly. White-crowned Sparrow with white cheeks, partially leucistic bird

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Here’s an article that explains leucism. Essentially it’s a genetic mutation that prevents pigment from being deposited in feathers. Bird Leucism

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The biggest highlight of the day, however was the red streak of a mammal that flashed across the path in front of me as I was leaving the cactus garden. And yes, that tail photo at the top of this post belongs to it. It was a Long-tailed Weasel, a masked southwestern subspecies.

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Long-tailed Weasel. Mustela frenata. A masked subspecies like this one is found throughout the southwest.

I crept up the path to the point where I had seen the streak disappear. A few moments later I looked to my left and there it was, eyeing me.

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It began moving towards me in cautious fits and starts. I was torn between wanting to get photos, wanting to just stop and look, and worrying that it might be rabid and on its way to sink sharp teeth in my foot.

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Instead, it seems it was just deciding if I posed a threat or not. Here it’s turned away and looking intently at something.

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Weasel and wood rat

I probably startled it right after it made this kill. I think it’s a wood rat as it had a long hairless tail. The weasel snatched it up and ran off with it in her mouth. It must have weighed at least as much as she did. With that long skinny body she wove a crooked path, curving at times like a snake around obstacles. I followed but lost sight of her after about 75 feet.

You may notice I switched to saying ‘her’. When I got back down to the visitor’s center one of the volunteers was standing outside, looking as excited as I was. She had just seen it run by and around the west side of the building with the large rodent. The volunteer said they had seen her one morning about a month ago under the observation window and she was very plump at that time. Their theory is that she’s raising young right now, and hunting pretty far afield trying to keep up with the energy demands of that task.

Sometimes the bird of the day isn’t a bird at all. And if it weren’t for the birding passion (possibly I could even say obsession) I wouldn’t have been out there for all the wonders the day held.

Dolphins, Shorebirds, Coastal Plain

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Black Skimmers and gulls at Jaime Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp

There’s a joy to seeing large gatherings of birds, wherever they may be. Just makes me happy knowing there are still enough of them in this world to swirl and fill the skies with their voices. This boat ramp and fishing pier right next to a busy highway was a treasure trove of shorebirds.

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Black Skimmers with one partially leucistic tan bird

Leucism is a genetic abnormality that prevents pigment from being properly deposited in a bird’s feathers. Sometimes a bird with this condition may be completely white or very pale overall, but more often the odd coloring is in patches as on the Black Skimmer above. This bird’s legs also look pale in comparison to its mates.

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Black Skimmers with Laughing Gulls. Note the bill on that Skimmer

I’ve been entranced by Black Skimmers for years, but this was the first time I was ever close enough to one to see how the bill is constructed. I had no idea that their lower mandible is at least 1/4″ longer than the upper one. It explains how they accomplish their odd feeding method. Skimmers fly along just over the water’s surface with their bills actually skimming the water, scooping up small fish and shrimp.

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That roughened edge on the lower mandible probably helps them grip whatever they catch. Easy to see in this photo how much shorter the upper mandible is.

Laughing Gull

Adult Laughing Gull in winter plumage. In breeding season the entire head is black with the white eye arcs very visible, and the bill turns red.

Laughing Gull juvenile

Juvenile Laughing Gull.

Laughing Gulls were by far the largest number of gull species in the area. I’m not good at identifying gulls, but these guys are pretty distinctive. One of the difficulties in id’ing gulls is that some of them have different plumages for two or three or even four years before reaching full adult coloring.

Ring-billed Gull adult & Juvenile

Ring-billed gulls, with juvenile on the left and adult on the right. This is the most common gull species we get in New Mexico.

Black-necked Stilts & Ruddy Turnstone

Black-necked Stilts. Tuxedo birds. A Ruddy Turnstone is crossing at water’s edge in front of them.

Black-necked Stilt & Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone in flight. Here it’s easy to see the exceedingly long pink legs on the Stilt and how it got its name.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher probing the mud for crustaceans.

A major pipeline is in the process of being constructed right through miles of marsh and wetlands here. Looks like its path will take it directly across this lagoon. One can only shudder at the fragile vulnerability of this teeming ecosystem.

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Brown Pelicans with assorted gulls.

One morning we took a boat ride up the Intracostal Waterway to look for dolphins. Our boat was small and had only 3 other guests plus 2 dogs that barked every time the dolphins were near.

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Christy got this shot of 3 Bottlenose Dolphins racing towards us

Three or four dolphins played around us for close to an hour, sometimes coming right up alongside the boat, other times tumbling over and around each other looking as playful as otters.

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You can just see the face and nose of the one in front

We were traveling up the last section of the 3000 mile Intracoastal Waterway. I had vaguely heard that term but knew nothing about it. It starts in Boston and consists of a mixed system of natural protected channels, bays, and inlets combined with some constructed canals. It hugs the Atlantic coast, rounds Florida, and traverses the Gulf, ending in Brownsville, Texas, just a few miles from where we were. We saw a couple of barges go by.

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Shrimp boat with gulls and pelicans anticipating a meal when the net is hauled up

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Here’s the net being lifted in

We were horrified to learn that some of the larger tourist boats drag heavy nets like this shrimper’s across the bottom and haul it up just for people to gawk at the sea life. The mauling that occurs in this process results in death for much of what’s caught in the net.

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras, looking intently at something. Caracara isn’t quite such an irresistible name as Chachalaca, but it comes close.

Crested Caracara

And here’s that same pair conferring. Note that each of them is standing on the right leg and holding the other foot up against the belly.

These birds and a couple of White-tailed Hawks were seen on the road into Laguna Atascosa.

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Some sort of Leopard Frog in an old stock tank thick with algae

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Haven’t found the name of this plant yet. A very distinctive bloom, so it looks like it should be easy to identify.

Tawny Emperor, Asterocampa clyton

Tawny Emperor, Astercampa Clayton.

Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia

Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia

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Interesting tree fungus that reminds me of Japanese bells

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Young White-tail buck in the path watching us

Great-tailed Grackles

Tree full of Great-tailed Grackles

Green Jay

Green Jay on wire.

On Christy’s last morning we stopped by Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen for a brief walk and found this Yellow-throated Warbler. It’s an uncommon bird for the time of year and the only one I saw during the whole month.

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler. A good farewell bird for Christy

 

Resacas and Sabal Palms

Rabb house, Sabal Palms visitor center

Rabb House. This grand old mansion is now the visitor’s center for Audubon’s Sabal Palms Sanctuary.

The first phase of the border wall, back in George Bush’s days, was slated to go through this sanctuary, but it got re-routed and left the property intact. The entrance road runs parallel with the wall.

This is the southern-most spot in Texas that’s open to the public and its 527 acres preserves the only remaining native Sabal Palm forest. These palms once grew in dense groves along the Rio Grande for about 80 miles upstream from the Gulf. They were cleared out to plant citrus and other crops along the river bottomlands.

Red-bordered Pixie, Melanis pixe

Red-bordered Pixie, Melanis Pixe. Found this beautiful creature at the beginning of the trail. Its U.S. range is limited to this southern tip of Texas.

Green Anole

Green Anole, hiding in plain sight

Twisted vine

Rope-like twisted vine

This forest has a feel all its own, as close to old growth native forest as exists along the lower valley. There was something about it hushed and calming. Taller trees had shaded out some of the dense underbrush prevalent in many other refuges, and as older trees fell natural meadow-like openings were created. Christy and I ended up separating for a while, wandering on different paths. I think we both had a need to experience it quietly on our own.

I met up with Christy again at a blind in a marshy area, where we had a Green Heron and a Ringed Kingfisher.

Green Heron

Green Heron. This is a small shy heron that’s found throughout much of the U.S.

Ringed Kingfisher

Ringed Kingfisher. U.S. range is south Texas only. They’re the largest American Kingfisher and have a massively long bill that looks like it might tip them over.. Never could get close enough to one for a good photo.

In the days when the Rio Grande was a wild river and its delta was a braided meandering place there were natural channels that carried floodwaters away from the main flow. As the river was tamed and the flow controlled, those old channels, locally called resacas, were cut off from their water source and many began to dry up, only filling during rainy periods. In Cameron county, there’s been a concerted effort to fill them again, and thus maintain a system of lakes and channels that serve as places of beauty and recreation, invaluable habitat, containment for flood water, and storage for irrigation use. This wise choice enhances the whole area in so many ways.

When we left Sabal Palms we spent some time at a resaca in Brownsville. There were about 150 Black-bellied Whistling ducks on a small island there.

Black-bellied Whistling duck family

Family of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. 2 juveniles with muted bills in front and 2 adults.

There is something inherently comic to me about these birds. I think part of it is that white eye ring that makes them look startled and bewildered but attempting to conceal it by affecting a hyper-vigilant attitude.

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Shall we look left? Shall we look right?

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A designated rear guard

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Ah! A leader at last! Neotropic Cormorant directing the choir if he can only get their attention.

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Very dignified bunch of spectators

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Everyone on the same page now

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Nap time. That level of vigilance is exhausting

There were a few startlingly weird feral Muscovy ducks in the resaca. Some were so truly hideous I couldn’t even bear to photograph them, but then some were quite beautiful in their odd Muscovy way. And in fairness to these birds I have to say that even the homeliest among them seemed fully accepted.

feral Muscovy duck

Muscovy duck

feral Muscovy duck

Muscovy duck. He doesn’t look quite real, does he?

Tricolored Heron, juvenile

Juvenile Tricolored Heron. Mastering the art of resting on one leg.

We hadn’t yet seen an Anhinga, a bird high on both our wanted lists, so we headed up to the Inn at Chachalaca Bend where one was being reported regularly. Sure enough, there it was right across the resaca from the Inn’s boat dock.

Anhinga

Anhinga. Either an adult female or a juvenile bird.

Anhingas are related to Cormorants and like them they produce no oil to waterproof their feathers as most water birds do. This reduces buoyancy and allows them to swim deep and fast, but requires that they spread their wings out to dry. Anhingas are sometimes called Snake birds because they may swim with only their heads above water.  Their hunting style is to swim slowly underwater and spear fish in the side with that long thin bill. Strange and beautiful birds.

Resaca, Inn of Chachalaca bend

The resaca at Chachalaca Bend

Tillandsia, Inn an Chachalaca bend

Tillandsias. There was some ball moss here, which is also a Tillandsia, but there were more of this long-leaved variety.

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Christy in a glade of Spanish Moss, still another Tillandia and a member of the bromeliad family.

2 Imm White Ibis, 1 Snowy Egret

2 juvenile White Ibis, and 1 Snowy Egret

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Juvenile White Ibis. This was the only place we saw juveniles.

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Juvenile White Ibis

Resaca, Inn of Chachalaca bend

The resaca from the Inn’s boat ramp

I’ll put in a plug here for the Inn at Chachalaca Bend. It’s a gracious Spanish colonial style  mansion that’s been converted into an elegant inn, with beautiful tile work and furnishings, meticulously cared for and nestled in a setting of gardens maintained for both beauty and wildlife habitat. With a call ahead they welcome birders unless there’s an event going on. And if you want to splurge a little a couple of nights there could be the highlight of a lower valley trip.

Boca Chica, where the Rio meets the sea

Fishermen and Pelicans at the river's mouth

The spit in the foreground is the US, looking upriver to fishermen and birds on the Mexico side. I love the idea of a river as a flowing permeable boundary, a shape-shifting place that by its nature invites mingling. And now, sadly, we are contemplating a hard thing, a rigid wall, to divide and separate.

I’m dedicating this post to my friend Basia Irland, an extraordinary artist whose reverence for the lives of rivers has been a primary focus of her work for more than 30 years. Her Rio Grande project, which followed the river and her peoples from its headwaters in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado to this place where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico, profoundly influenced my journey through the Lower Rio Grande valley.

Basia has seen this mouth of the river bone dry, its water just a puddle drying up in the sand before reaching the gulf. She has also seen it flowing exuberantly here at the tail end of its journey. The way it looked this November would have made her happy.

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Looking down the Gulf coast beach to the river’s mouth and Mexico

Before I left on this trip Basia said she was going to give me an assignment. She wanted me to take pictures of the river wherever and whenever I could. That directive, coupled with  what I knew of her work from a PBS special on the Rio Grande project and her own writing and photos in her book Water Library, helped me tune in to the powerful influence of the river on this landscape and its impact on all the beings human, animal and plant that rely on it for sustenance. I am so grateful to Basia for this gift, this extra layer of awareness.

You can see some of her evocative work at her website Basia Irland.  The creative ways she finds to raise people’s awareness of the lives of rivers, of the absolutely essential roles they play on all levels from survival to aesthetics are inspiring and beautiful.

on the road to Boca Chica

On the road out to the coast, flat sandy plains

Harris Hawk

Harris Hawk. For several miles it seemed that every other power pole held one of these dramatic dark hawks with their chestnut shoulders and flare of  bright white at the base of the tail.

Harris Hawks are unique among North American raptors which tend towards solitary lives outside of breeding season. Young Harris hawks may stay with the family group for a year or two and they often hunt cooperatively. The largest groups of 5 to 7 birds are found in Arizona where the open country offers little opportunity for sneak attacks on prey. Jackrabbits are one of their primary food sources. One or two birds may swoop down at a rabbit from one direction while others close in from behind. When they’re successful that one rabbit can provide a meal for 3 or 4 hawks.

It’s not unusual to see two or three of them perched on a single arm of a suitably tall Saguaro in Arizona. In New Mexico the groups tend to be smaller, with 3 or 4 members, and they’re most often found perched side by side on the cross poles of power lines. In Texas where thorn scrub is prevalent and there is more cover, they tend to work in pairs.

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Looking across the plains from the Boca Chica beach.

The paved road ends at the gulf, about 3 or 4 miles north of the river’s mouth. To get down there you have to walk or drive on the beach. I’ve always been pretty judgmental about people driving on beaches. Too many living creatures scurrying and burrowing and washing up and washing back out. They’re vital zones. But on this beach and many others on both coasts, beaches are pretty heavily used as roadways. I really wanted to see the place where the Rio meets the sea and neither I nor Christy could have made that round trip on foot. So off we went, with a mixture of worry, thrill, fear, guilt, and excitement.

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Christy took this photo as we drove down the beach

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And there’s the Honda, turned around and ready to head north if conditions changed quickly. Enough debris had piled up on the beach near the river to put an end to the joy ride,

Sanderling

Sanderling. These are the little birds you see skirting the edge of the waves, dashing along and staying just beyond their reach.

Sanderling, after a confrontation

Another notable thing Sanderlings do is be very aggressive with each other. This one is all ruffled up after a series of feints and posturing with another equally angry bird. Once their personal space was established they resumed chasing their food at the water’s edge.

There were mainly Willets, Laughing Gulls, and Sanderlings on the beach. And we saw several Great Blue Herons elegantly posed on the crests of the dunes.

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Great Blue Heron on the dunes

Jellyfish

Jellyfish. Thousands of them had washed up on the beach. Their center looks like Moon Jellies, but they didn’t have long tentacles so are some other species unknown to me. CORRECTION: they are indeed Moon Jellies. 

After I posted this I got a comment from a reader that prompted me to do further research on these jellyfish. Turns out they actually are Moon Jellies. Those 4 petal shapes at the top of the bell are definitive for them. The ones I thought of as Moon Jellies with long trailing tentacles are actually Atlantic Sea Nettles.

In the course of my reading I came across a wonderfully named jellyfish–the Pink Meanie. They were discovered just a few years ago, feeding on Moon Jellies, and were so different from anything known that an entirely new taxonomic family was created for them.

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More of the jellies

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Very few intact shells. Mostly they were polished bits, smoothed and rounded.

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My dear friend Christy, travel partner extraordinaire, grew up in Southern California and misses the sea terribly. She confessed to me that she had always longed to drive on a beach, and when I started to panic and worry we’d get stuck or a big wave would overtake us, she kept me going. All worth it to see her so happy!

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All the beaches we encountered in Texas were flat a long way out. No sharp drops into the deep.

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This fisherman, casting a circular hand net, is standing right in the middle of the very point where the river and the sea come together. The water barely reaches his knees, but it looks like the currents would be strong out there.

Christy at the mouth of the Rio Grande

Christy watching more fishermen on a sandy spit with the Rio Grande behind them

 

Boca Chica, mouth of Rio Grande

Cloud light turning the sea green. Mexico on the far shore.

Tide was turning and we headed back with the waves washing higher over the sand. It won’t take much of a rise in sea level to eliminate all these beautiful flat beaches.

On our way back home that day we had one of the best bird sightings of the whole month. We were less than 1/4 mile from the Border Patrol check station when Christy said we had just passed something different and we should go back. I thought if I did a U turn right then it would look like we were fleeing from the checkpoint, so when we got to the patrol guy I breathlessly said we had just seen a rare bird and needed to go back and was it okay if we just turned around quickly. Didn’t really give him time enough to say no. Here’s what we found.

Aplomado falcon

Aplomado Falcon, the last falcon on the endangered list. Both legs have been banded.

This small falcon once lived in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The last known wild breeding pair was in Deming, NM and they disappeared in 1952. The precise reasons for their extirpation are not clear, but generally habitat loss is considered to be at least part of the likely causes. Their range is all the way down into South America, but nowhere are they abundant. An ongoing attempt to reintroduce them in Texas has resulted in some success. In 2016 there were 37 known breeding pairs in the state, but their status is still tenuous.

Aplomado falcon

This bird seemed entirely unconcerned about our presence. We sat in the car directly across the two lane road and watched it for 15 or 20 minutes and it never did fly.

Aplomado falcon

The all-important task of grooming. Or maybe it’s just checking out that armpit.

Aplomado falcon

All fluffed and a little wind-blown

Aplomado falcon

Just before we left a ray of late sun lit up that beautiful rufous belly. We were both feeling awed by this rare creature, hanging on with the help of many dedicated people who are working to keep it with us in this world.

 

South Padre Island, part 2

So. Padre Island beach

Looking north on the Gulf side of the island

I didn’t expect the Gulf to be so much like ocean. I imagined a more sluggish and muddy body of water. The sandy beach and white caps and sound of surf were a fine surprise.

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The north road, which appears to be in a constant state of siege by the dunes. I think it wouldn’t take much time for the sand to bury all traces of highway.

This is the longest barrier island in the world, about 113 miles. Most of it is protected as the Padre Island National Seashore. This road only goes about 10 miles beyond the town. It’s a skinny island, too. In the resort area at the south end I don’t think it could be more than half a mile wide.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish on the beach

An expanse of mud flats on the Laguna Madre side hosts a large number of birds. Laughing Gulls, Black Skimmers, several species of Terns, both White and Brown Pelicans, American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstones, a variety of sandpipers, and many others hang out there. The sand is so packed and the slope so slight that you can drive over the flats and right through puddles. Fishermen waded out long distances into water barely over their knees. Windy afternoons brought a contingent of kitesurfers out and the birds were so used to them they rarely even turned their heads when the riders sailed by.

Caspian Tern in left, Royal Tern on right

Mudflat birds. Red bill in the back is a Caspian Tern. Orange bill is a Royal Tern. The ones with red legs and tucked heads are Black Skimmers

Royal Tern in foreground. Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls

Royal Tern in winter plumage. That black ruff at the back of the head makes me think of a balding man with a big nose and a sharp wit.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull, looking a bit gimlet-eyed. These were the most common gulls

Willet and Tricolored Heron

Willet on the left, and a Tricolored Heron

Back into the marshes at the World Birding Center. Coots and Gallinules.

These feet are made for walking. American Coot

American Coot. I adore Coot feet. The toes look leafy. They’re a clever adaptation as their width helps them be effective when the birds are swimming and diving, but give them the flexibility on land that webbed feet don’t have.

Bigfoot. American Coot

Bigfoot. Pretty impressive set of toes, eh?

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule. Similar in appearance to Coots but more colorful. Also more restricted habitat. Primarily in marshes and shallow water. They don’t have awesome leafy toes, but their toes are very long and slender and allow them to walk easily across half-sunken reeds and leaves.

Shorebirds are a big draw on and around the island. There are a few small hotspots, though, where all kinds of interesting songbirds can show up, especially during migration when they’ve had to fly across the Gulf and need a place to rest up and eat. When a northerly storm hits during migration exhausted birds land here in the thousands, a phenomenon known to birders as a fallout. Just about anything might turn up in one of these events.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat, male. A warbler usually found near water and in marshy areas.

American Redstart

American Redstart, female

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, female

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, female

Indigo Bunting, female

Indigo Bunting, female

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Sunset at the mudflats

Common gallinule

Dreamy image of Common Gallinule

South Padre Island and Laguna Madre

Across the marsh from So Padre World Birding Center

View from World Birding Center boardwalk towards the southern part of the island

My friend Christy flew down from Albuquerque to meet me for a week on South Padre Island. For two desert dwellers the soft air and salty sea breezes, expanses of water on all sides, was pure heaven.

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The view from our deck, looking across Laguna Madre

We had a beautiful Air BnB about 1/4 mile from the 3 primary birding locations on the island: the World Birding Center and right next to it the So. Padre Convention Center, and just beyond that the mudflats.

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Boardwalk and bird blind on Laguna Madre at World Birding Center

We hustled our gear upstairs and hurried over to the World Birding Center. En route a beautiful White-tailed Hawk, one of the birds that’s found only along the Texas coast and lower Rio Grande valley, soared gracefully over us.

Alligator

World Birding Center has both fresh water and salt water habitat. This Alligator was in the fresh water right at the beginning of the boardwalk on our first visit.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill. One of the birds I most wanted to see.

Roseate Spoonbill

One morning there were a dozen rosy-hued Spoonbills out on the flats. Can’t look at these strange and beautiful birds without smiling.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron. They’re about the size of Snowy Egret.

This bird looks rather sepulchral with that ghostly gray bill and legs, and the dark plumage. Here it’s hunched into itself for the night. I watched one hunting, though, with neck stretched out and weaving back and forth like a hypnotic charmer’s snake, till it spotted something and that long dagger of a bill darted out quick as a snake’s tongue.

Great Blue Heron and Little Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron. The Great Blue stands at 46″ and weighs 84.8 ounces. The Tricolored Heron is 26″ and only 13 ounces.

Reddish Egret

 

Reddish Egret, the wild man of the family

This bird, with its shaggy neck and wildly active hunting strategies is the extreme opposite of the cautious slender Little Blue. These guys are dancers. I saw one take great leaps in a large circle, landing each foot with a big splash, seeking to stir up some hiding creature. When that didn’t work it opened its wings and used them to loft into the air for several feet, coming down with a bigger and messier splash, weaving its way across a small cove. I also witnessed one moving sideways through the water in what looked almost exactly like a Grapevine step, one leg seemed to be crossing over the other.

Reddish Egret

Patience is not a strong suit for Reddish Egrets. If nothing’s moving they go into action and make things move.

There’s a white morph Reddish Egret. I spotted one at some distance, not by its appearance but by the way it moved, dancing across the shallows. Reddish Egret is a mid-sized bird, bigger than the Little Blue Heron and the Tricolored Heron, but much smaller than Great Egret.

Tricolored Heron in morning light

Tricolored Heron in morning light

Tricolored Herons are just a couple inches and one ounce bigger than the Little Blues, but they look more robust.

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Tricolored Heron, feathers refracting blues and purples in the evening light

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, by far the largest of the herons.

Great Egret

Great Egret. Largest Egret, but weighing only 30 oz compared to the Great Blue Heron’s 84.8 oz

Black-crowned Night Heron, juvenile

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, juvenile

I originally identified this Yellow-crowned Night Heron as a Black-crowned. Thanks to Judy Liddell for nudging me to take a closer look. The Yellow-crowned were new to me on this trip and I didn’t even think about them as a possibility for this juvenile. This one has longer legs and smaller spots on wings with narrow white edges. Also clearly defined narrow streaks on breast. I love learning these kinds of things!

There were seven members of the Heron and Egret family in Laguna Madre. Four of them–Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron and Yellow-crowned Night Heron were new for me. None of these 4 are western birds.

Mottled Duck, female

Female Mottled Duck. I love those bright orange legs and the cinnamon edging on her feathers

Mallards, that most common duck in the west, are rare in south Texas. The similar Mottled Duck fills their niche in a very limited range along the Gulf coast and throughout Florida.

White Ibis

White Ibis.

White Ibis also is found primarily along the Gulf coast and Florida and through the Carolinas.

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey was the most abundant raptor in the coastal areas.

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Boardwalk from the Convention Center, viewed from the World Birding Center’s boardwalk. The two come within a couple feet of each other at one point, but they don’t connect.

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Sunset from our deck

Sabal Palms at Frontera Audubon

Two tallest Sabal Palms in so. Texas

The two tallest Sabal Palms in Hidalgo county. Sabal mexicana

Sabal palms once covered thousands of acres along the lower Rio Grande. Now there are only a few remnants of that forest left, with the major one being the Sabal Palm Sanctuary closer to the coast. Frontera Aububon has planted groves of them and they’re a testament to how quickly and luxuriantly things grow in this climate. These two tall trees, however, were transplanted about 5 years ago from a nearby gas station that had closed. Note how dense their crowns are.

Washingtonia palm note more open crown

Mexican Fan Palm, Washingtonia robusta. This tree is on the same property as the two Sabal palms. It’s crown is much more open. This is the most widely planted palm in Texas.

Sabal Palms and Bald Cypress

Grove of Sabal Palms with some tall Washingtonias in the background. This grove was planted around 2005

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Sabal palms, skirts intact

Eastern Fox Squirrel

Eastern Fox Squirrel. The most frequently seen squirrel in the valley.

One chubby squirrel

Squirrel yoga in the pursuit of food. This chubby character seems to have perfected the move.

White-tipped Dove and Eastern Fox Squirrel

White-tipped Dove foraging with Fox Squirrel.

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A feel and look of the tropics here

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Bald Cypress in the pond. Strongly tapered trunk.

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Buff-bellied Hummingbird, adult female

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Branch shaped by encircling vine

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Small tree shaped by vine

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Beautiful bark pattern wrapped with vine

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Several of these trees had this odd abrupt change in bark pattern just above ground level

I found a lot of birds at Frontera Audubon, but most photos did not come out well in the low light. I have to say, I was most taken here with the beauty of the foliage.

Pigeon Berry, Rivina humilis

Pigeon Berry, Rivina humilis

Pigeon berry is a very common understory plant in shady locations. It seems to tolerate a  variety of conditions but does require shade.