Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Aransas and the Rio Grande Valley

If there's one thing about me- it's that I'm not a meticulous planner. I tend to make last-minute decisions, and really love an adventure. The element of surprise just adds to the fun of the adventure, in my opinion. So, it was no surprise that I decided to go to Texas on a birding trip just hours before leaving my house. Originally, I was supposed to go to St. Marks in Florida on a birding trip with a friend, but after he cancelled, I decided I should go somewhere else.
My first choice was to go up to Ohio, where I am familiar, to nab some northern birds for the year list such as Snow Buntings, Short-eared Owls, Long-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Black-capped Chickadees, etc. However, a snow storm would be moving in, and I decide that the weekend would not work to my advantage. So, why pay all that money and spend that time driving to potentially be trapped up there in a massive storm? No thanks!
That being said, I consider going to the Everglades. It's a twelve hour trip and completely doable in a weekend (I tend to Iron-Man my trips... sleep in the van, driving straight through sometimes on very little sleep, and still hiking and birding all day. Having five kids and a budget, I don't get to take cushy vacations.)  :)
But then, something a local birder friend said to me came to my mind. She asked: 
"How do you plan on reaching 400 this year without going to Texas?"
Texas! Of course! I think about the Whooping Cranes at Aransas and decide to check any ABA rarities being reported. I notice in the Rio Grande Valley (Hidalgo County), two code 3s are being regularly seen: Hook-billed Kite and Tropical Parula. If I'm going to drive 16 hours (according to Google maps), I'm going to chase some rarities in the process!
That with a report of a Painted Redstart at Aransas NWR- my plans are sealed that morning. I would leave Friday evening to go to Texas. Just checking eBird checklists, and factoring in the three rarities, I have a possibility (though damn near impossible) to add up to 167 year birds to my list, and 75 lifers. I am super excited for this trip!
However, my half-assed, last-minute plans aren't going as haphazardly planned. I am two hours late getting out of the door to even start my drive. Forget the fact that once I arrived in the Baton Rouge area, the roads were iced over, and they shut down I-12 and I-10, forcing me to take US-190 to get over to Texas, which was 50% iced over bridges. I fall behind another hour and a half, and almost in tears. I text a friend who suggests finding a local hotspot instead, but I have my heart set on the Rio Grande Valley, and damn-it, I'm going to make it there!

So, I push through. Around the Lake Charles area, I-10 is finally open, but bridges are still icy and clear through Beaumont, Texas, there is a lot of stop-and-go and slow traffic. I realize, fairly quickly, that in order to make this trip work I will have to reverse my plans. My first stop would now be Aransas NWR instead of Mission, Texas. I would spend the afternoon birding at Aransas, and then Sunday morning down around Mission and Santa Ana NWR before heading home.
Once to Houston, the traffic is moving very smoothly, and I am able to make up about an hour of the time I lost. I arrive to Aransas NWR around 1:30 CST.
Of course, my GPS takes me to the rear gate and back gravel roads. In this area I would find my first Burrowing Owl. A cagey fellow, I was lucky to get a shot at all.

I text my friend again for help, not knowing how to get to the visitor's center, and he provides me an address. I get there around 2 PM. I scan the trees for the Painted Redstart for about 20 minutes, and give up because I am short on time. I hate missing a target bird, but there was so much to see in 4 hours, I don't want to waste time on ONE bird. One of the refuge workers suggested the Heron Flats, so I go to walk that mile and a half trail.

On the bridge at the beginning of the trail, I look down in the marsh area to see a Sora feeding in the open. I snap off some shots and proceed to the observation deck, where they have a scope in place. I view five Whooping Cranes feeding out on the flats, along with some other waders such as Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibises, White-faced Ibises, and Tricolored Herons.
I continue down the trail, with Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers surrounding me. Perched in a bush is a Ringed Kingfisher, with its back to me. At first I decide to call it a Belted, but once it turns and I see the solid rusty underparts, I realize my mistake. It would be moments later that a female Green Kingfisher would fly by, after the Ringed Kingfisher is flushed by my walking by.
Out on the flats, tons of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are feeding. I notice two American Avocets amongst them, which gave me a big grin. For 2013- Avocets had been my nemesis. I lost count of how many times I chased them and missed.
Along the trail I would also encounter an armadillo, who really didn't care that I existed. I could've touched him and he would've probably just kept doing what he was doing. But I decided against it since leprosy doesn't sound like a fun time.

 As it starts growing dark, I decide to take the auto tour on the hopes for some hunting raptors or owls. While I didn't find many raptors, I did see that Javelinas were active (a sow with babies crossed the road in front of my van- talk about adorable!), and I found a Great Horned Owl perched in a coma tree. I would end my first day at Aransas with 76 species seen. Tallying those up with birds seen while driving, and at a random stop along the way to Aransas- 80 species total!
I am exhausted, and decide to head to Mission (over 200 miles from Aransas) and grab a bite to eat. I would end up finding a travel plaza to park and sleep for the night.
Aransas NWR checklists:

Around 1 AM, I wake up. I had fallen asleep around 7 or 8 PM, and being a mom of five, I rarely get more than 5-6 hours of sleep at a time. So, I could not fall back asleep. I got online and started looking at the parks I would be visiting once I made it to Mission.

I was an hour out still from the truck stop I rested at. Around 3 AM, I decided to finish the remainder of my drive and stop somewhere for breakfast.

One place I wanted to stop was Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. So, I punch it into my GPS and go along my way. Around 5 AM, I arrive. Of course my GPS takes me down some rough dirt roads before the entrance (I have no idea why it does this). Normally, this sort of thing ticks me off... but this morning, it would prove to be awesome.

So, as I inch down this narrow dirt road, that drops off on both sides, mind you.... and by drops off, I mean if I go off the side, my van is going to roll. Feels safe! Anyways, I continue down it slowly, high-beams on... because at this point, I don't know if the road is actually going to lead anywhere, or if I'm going to have to drive this entire distance backwards to get out. I peer ahead when I see some eyes shining in the road. I slow down and inch up on whatever this thing is in the road. Once I'm up on it (it's about 8 feet in front of the van), I can clearly see it's a nightjar of some sort. I reach for my camera, not removing my eyes from the bird, when it takes flight and I notice the wings seem shorter and rounder. I know there are two types of nightjars I could see here- and I eliminate Lesser Nighthawk. This bird was a Common Pauraque! (Why couldn't I get the picture? Argh!)

Continuing down the road, it's not much further before it leads to the back of the maintenance building at the refuge. I am able to turn around and head back. Coming up on a tree, I flush another bird, which I think is a Greater Roadrunner, but since it's pitch black and I cannot locate the bird, I leave it off my list for now.

I head back to the city, to kill a little bit of time before the refuge opens. Around 7 AM- I head back out.

Once at Santa Ana, I start scanning the trees. The first birds you will hear when you pull in are the Great Kiskadees. I don't know if you've ever heard one before, but they are loud. And there were lots of them. Another loud bird in the trees there: Green Jays. Binoculars and camera in hand, I start taking photos and watching them. It's hard not just to sit and stare at new birds, watch their behaviors, and generally just enjoy them. But, I was short on time, so I was "Power Birding" this time around.

Great Kiskadees, Green Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, Black-crested Titmice, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, White-tipped Dove, Inca Dove, Greater Roadrunner... so many new birds on my short walk. I head back to the visitor's center where one of the workers is refilling the feeders. He is surrounded by a bunch of excited and hungry Plain Chachalacas. They didn't seem to be frightened of our presence at all. I check the hummingbird feeders and find a male Black-chinned feeding. I don't want to leave! I spend an hour, tally up species, and decide to head over to Mission to find the Hook-billed Kites.

One thing that has spoiled me about Alabama and Ohio is that generally, the parks are free to get into. And I've never had to pay to get into a National Wildlife Refuge. This isn't so in Texas. The refuges gave me envelopes to send money in, since I do not carry cash on me (especially on trips), and allowed me in. However, the park where the Hook-billed Kites are, was not as lenient. It would likely take me 25-30 minutes just to find an ATM to draw out money. So, I decide (after talking to a gentleman who tells me the Hook-billed Kites are likely returning to nest) I will go on up to Edinburg Municipal Park to chase a Tropical Parula that's been reported there instead. At this point, I have dipped on 2 of 3 of my target birds. I am still happy with what I have seen though.

Arriving at Edinburg, thankfully I don't have to pay to gain access to the park. However, they have a wetland area called a "World Birding Center" (I noticed other parks have this as well), which was closed for Sunday, and also costs money to get into. I am able to walk the perimeter of the fenced area, and pick up birds that way. It doesn't take long before I find the Tropical Parula in a tree with a Northern Parula. This made it easy to see the differences and know that I had found the bird. One of three target birds and a code three? I'll take it!

One of the large ponds at the park is hosting some ducks, so I walk around to the fishing pier and notice a large group of Black-necked Stilts in the water. Also, a pair of Cinnamon Teal were dabbling near the shoreline. Cormorants were flying in and out, and I notice they aren't the usual Double-cresteds, but Neotropics. This park is alive with activity, and I pick up a few more lifers/new year birds here in the hour I spend. Now it's 10:30 AM, and I have to start my long drive back to Huntsville.

A bird I really wanted to see, and hadn't at this point, was a Crested Caracara. On the drive home, I would count 28. (Where were all of them on my drive down?) I also would see a White-tailed Hawk on my drive home, amongst a couple other new species. The drive home was brutal. I was exhausted and wondered if I could even make it home safely towards the last three hours of it. Multiple stops for coffee, to walk around, splash water on my face, etc... I finally arrive home 18 hours later. Was it worth it? Well, for 71 new year birds and 35 lifers, I'd say so!

Santa Ana NWR Checklist:

Edinburg Checklist:

Thanks for reading- and until next time... Happy birding to all of you!