Five days. Five straight days that have included snow in April. I know. I know. I live in Minnesota, I'm used to snow. But dang it, that's brutal even for our standards. It's especially hard having just come from the warmth of South Texas.
When I got off the plane in South Texas, I was greeted by long time friend Marci (who runs the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival) and new friend Nydia. Marci and Nydia were nice enough to go birding with me and show me some great spots for species I really wanted to digiscope. Both apologized right away for the weather, "It's going to be sunny and nice the whole time you are here."
They weren't being ironic to a Minnesota girl, they were being serious. Part of the fun of coming to the Rio Grande Valley in spring, especially in April is for the migratory fallout that can happen with storm fronts. If you're not familiar with what a migratory fallout is all about about, check out these photos from a lighthouse in Maine. Exhausted, colorful birds drop from the sky to rest and fuel up before heading further north. It's more likely to occur in some areas like the Texas coast because the birds are crossing the Gulf of Mexico. I was ok with the beautiful weather...it meant I could go birding in a skirt and opened toed shoes (which was great for my broken pinky toe--these Keens hid the bruising quite well). And at the end of the day, the Rio Grande Valley as some 30 odd endemics--birds that you can only get here. So, even without a fallout, you're going to get a lot of great birds for buck.
I wanted to head out to South Padre Island because I love beach birding and regardless of migratory fallout, birds are going to be great here. One of the perks is that you pass by Laguna Atascosa on the way. I've been there before and anytime you go near there, you have a decent chance of seeing an aplomado falcon. My birding posse for this day included Marci and her husband Terri who both know how to bird the crap out of this area. Sure enough, they found us an aplomado flacon right away on East Ocean Boulevard. They pulled over so I could digiscope it while it was on the wire. See that tiny dot? That's the falcon.
Here's a photo I got with my iPhone 4s through the scope. What a cute little falcon! For some listers, this bird presents a quandary. It's an awesome bird...but according to the American Birding Association guidelines...not countable on the list for Texas. This is part of a reintroduced population to the Rio Grande Valley and until the population is sustainable without humans releasing young birds in the wild, it can't be considered a truly countable species, surviving on its own. Now, the birds that are released have color bands and this bird does not. Could it be argued that this is a truly wild one from Mexico that flew up into Texas? Maybe. But hard to prove. Either way, I'm counting it for my Digiscoping Big Year. Birds living in the wild are a challenge to photograph and that's more what this is about. And at the end of the day, you as an individual determine what challenges you want to set for a birding list. The American Birding Association sets the baseline and you can choose to follow it yourself or tailer it from there.
This is the South Padre Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka Sheepshead) owned by The Valley Land Fund. It's a pocket of habitat in the neighborhoods that is set with trees and shrubs for food and shelter, water for bathing and people bring in fruit and seed. This can be a great pocket for warblers, tanagers, vireos and hoo boy, lots of blackbirds. Tucked way back in the shadows I even saw a sora checking out the pond--you never know what migrant will find refuge here.
I big treat for me was a male hooded warbler hopping around on the ground. It was tough to digiscope at this spot. It was a cloudy day, but the cover is dense and the birds are hanging out in low light areas. But the iPhone does really well in lowlight conditions so that's how I was able to digiscope this bird. There was also a yellow-breasted chat, worm-eating warbler and white-eyed vireo at this spot.
This is one of the really cool features on South Padre Island, a very shallow stream just outside the Convention Center. The shallow depth makes it perfect for small birds to bathe in and during migration, this is a good spot to plant yourself and watch what comes in.
Here's a Tennessee warbler that flew in for a bath.
There's a gazebo set up nearby so you can sit and watch the birds in the water, though I suspect when migration is hot and heavy, this area will be packed with birders. The surrounding trees offer food for birds like orioles and hummingbirds. There were orchard orioles and buff-bellied hummingbirds working the flowers nearby.
This is my new friend Nydia Tapia-Gonzales who came birding with us. We were on the South Padre Island Convention Center Boardwalk. It gets a little confusing along here because some of the boardwalk connects and some of it does not.
The older boardwalk is free to walk along, but the newer boardwalk is part of the entrance fee with the World Birding Center. Either one you visit, you're gonna see cool birds, above is a great blue heron lurking. But you'll hear rails and if you're patient enough, you'll see things like soras and clapper rails pop out.
Here's a smattering of the bird life on the paid end of the boardwalk--redhead ducks, American avocets and a little blue heron! I've been here before during the festival and it's always loaded with fun birds. I've even gotten spoonbills here.
This boardwalk is full people walking by, some enjoying the scenery, some looking for wildlife. A father out with his two kids seemed a bit incredulous that I was only watching birds here and not alligators. I tried showing them the avocets and they conceded they looked cool, but I could tell the dad was dubious in my assertion that I found them more exciting than an alligator.
Here are some laughing gulls, it was fun to see them in breeding plumage, I typically get them here when they have whiter heads in November. As I was taking photos and racking up species for my Digiscoping Big Year, some ladies paused and asked, "Are you from Minnesota?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Are you the lady who tells people to feed sunflower seeds to cardinals and other birds?"
I was touched for several reasons: 1. I didn't expect to get recognized from my Twin Cities tv appearances in South Padre island. 2. They actually remembered me for what I say! They used actual birding advice to identify me and not just "you're that 'bird lady.' 3. They were friendly enough to say hello.
I asked if they were birding and they said that wasn't really what they were doing, just spending time on the boardwalk while the men in their party were fishing. So I showed them some of the birds that I enjoyed in this area.
I mean, I couldn't let them leave Texas without them noticing a black-bellied whistling duck, what kind of bird chick would I be?
We worked our way out towards the open Gulf and that was full of shorebirds and more rails. Here's a short-billed dowitcher that was working the mud along the boardwalk.
With the open water, we had everything from gulls, terns, skimmers and herons zipping past us. Above you can see a tri-colored heron hunting near the boardwalk. When I looked beyond it, there was a stretch of beach where people were driving on to the sand to go fishing and paragliding. I scanned the sand with my scope:
I could see black skimmers, laughing gulls and oh hey, look at the pink Franklin's gull mixed in. Fishermen were walking through the roosting birds and they would flush but settle back down. If they were that used to people...how close could I get? I asked my birding posse if we could head over to that stretch of beach so I could digiscope the crap out of those birds. We would have to pay a fee to drive on but it would only be $5. That seemed worth it to me. And so we wrapped up the boardwalk and headed over for more birding enjoyment.