Estero Llano Grande State Park

And yet more Texas birding goodness. Incidentally, if you have been reading these entries and thinking, "Dude, I so have to get my birding butt to south Texas!" I have been in contact with a friend of Non Birding Bill's who runs a travel agency and we are putting together a trip for next October...

I had so much fun on my field trip to Estero Llano Grande State Park on my first day of the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival, I thought I would go back and do some proper digiscoping before I had to work the birdJam booth on Saturday morning. It really is a cool park--it's new and I think over time will gain in popularity.

I wanted a chance to see and digiscope the black-bellied whistling duck without the fog. These guys were all over the park and they kind of whistle and their bellies are black--boy ornithologists must have been having a bad day--a bird that actually fits its name. Shocking.

The park isn't all wetlands. The path to the visitor center is quite lush and great for watching butterflies. Please don't ask me what kind--I do know lots of people were freaking out because some rare butterfly had been spotted but I can't remember the name. I'm taking baby steps towards butterfly id--I mean, I ranch caterpillars but I don't drop everything to see a hairstreak. I am kinda getting more into it...I must admit that I did pick up one or two butterfly id guides. Man, butterflies have much better names than birds: Shasta Blue, Frigga Fritillary (say THAT 5 times fast), Dull Firetip (kind of an oxymoron name), Definite Patch, Confused Cloudywing--seriously, those are all butterfly names. Ornithologists, if you discover any more birds on this planet, please take note of butterfly names and come up with something creative.

The area also had some hummingbirds. I will mark off a few points from the park for not having their bird feeders filled. Guys, what were you thinking? It's a bird festival weekend, plus you have your own programs going on, how can you not have your bird feeders filled? For a new park, this is not a good first impression--empty feeders on a busy weekend? If you're trying to attract regular birder traffic, that's not the way to do it. I know some of us left feed back on that, so hopefully after the park is open awhile they will have a regular schedule to keep their feeders filled. The empty hummer feeders did put the kibosh on my chances of getting a decent buff-bellied hummingbird photo. Believe it or not, there is a female ruby-throated hummingbird in the above shot. Can you see her? No? She's hard to see? You betcha', so I put my camera to the scope:

There she is. She would fly towards the empty hummingbird feeder, test it out and then sit on the thorn, waiting or perhaps hiding from the buff-bellied, it seemed on constant patrol and ready to chase her off if she even thought about approaching a feeder.

Periodically, a buff-bellied hummingbird would show up, but it never landed in a spot that was easy to photograph. This was the best I could do.

The park did have a nice shorebird selection and after my class that I took this summer, I thought I would try my id skills. It was tough because I learned how to id shorebirds for Minnesota and the Dakotas, not Texas. But I had the time, they were fairly close and it was a good idea to practice. Above we have sleeping shorebirds, mostly dowitchers and stilt sandpipers. But time to break 'em all down and see what I can find.

This one is easy enough--a black necked stilt. Can't really mistake it for anything else.

Here's a family group of stilts. Actually, while I was digiscoping these guys, a rail flew past me. It was so fast and I only saw the silhouette, but I'm assuming it was a Virginia rail. Several soras scooted about the reeds too.

Argh! Here is where it would get tough. Okay, there's a dude in the back with light colored legs and it's smaller than the black legged dudes in front--they guy in back has to be a least sandpiper. But what are the other three? They are either western sandpipers or semi-palmateds. There bills didn't look blunt and kind of down curved--are they westerns? I'm thinking that they're westerns.

Fortunately, as I was digiscoping, I found Clay Taylor (digiscoped above). He confirmed that they were in fact westerns--wrong time of year for semi-palms anyway. Incidentally, he was there for the butterflies.

Now, here was an interesting scenario. The bird on the right is a yellowlegs with a broken leg and the other three are dowitchers. Now which yellowlegs and which dowitchers. Lesser yellowlegs are about the same size as either dowitcher, so this would be a lesser yellowlegs. Now, the dowitchers were very vocal and my shorebird instructor said that if they're noisy, they're long-billed dowitchers. Everyone who passed me called them long-billed as well. Plumage-wise, I just can't really tell. If anyone wants to add tips in the comments on your tips for separating dowitchers--please feel free. I'm calling these long-billed dowitchers.

Or maybe I should call them long-billed bullies, because they would go after any bird trying to feed in their vacinity. Note the posture of the bird in the middle of the dowitchers--puffing itself up and stretching its neck to look impressive. The injured yellowlegs was in no position to argue and soon flew off. But the bird in the middle was not finished.

It made a beeline for a stilt sandpiper (on the right). Again, notice the dowitcher craning its neck as it approaches the stilt sandpiper, major intimidation mode.

But then suddenly everybody flew off--even the thug dowitcher (that's his rump in the above photo in mid take off. I looked up and sure enough, there was a Cooper's hawk cruising overhead. The shorebirds formed a tight flock and circled the water noisily. The Coops didn't dive for any of the birds, but continued over the wetlands in search of less suspecting prey.

A few minutes after the hawk passed, an immature lark sparrow popped up to see what was going on. About this time, I needed to head back towards the convention center. I ran into Clay who was still searching out the butterflies. We talked for a few minutes and one of the visitor center staff came out and said that they had observed a bobcat lurking in the vegetation behind us. Who knew? Stuff like that always makes me wonder what I miss. How many owls do I walk under? How many coyotes cross the path behind me? How often has mountain lion considered whether or not I'd be worthwhile prey?