South Padre Island Birding

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. skirt birding

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 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.

aplomado 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.

South Padre Island feeding station

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.

Hooded warbler

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.

South Padre Convention Center

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.

Tennessee warbler

Here's a Tennessee warbler that flew in for a bath.

Birding Gazebo

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.

Heron in the grass

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.

hodge podge of birds

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.

South Padre Island World Birding Center


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.

laugning gulls

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.

whistling duck

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?


short-billed dowitcher

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.

tri-colored herons


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:

beach birds

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 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.




2 Caracaras In 1 Year

Winter and lots of snow brings with it cabin fever. We have lots of modern conveniences that help ease that tension, like Netflix Watch Instantly and Amazon Streaming and alcohol! You don't have to go to a rental facility, you don't even have to wait for Netflix to arrive in the mail--you can have most any movie...even things you shouldn't watch like Dagmar's Hot Pants delivered right to your tv with the press of a button. But that leads to things like watching Inception several times in a row, which for me leads me to vexing states: either I need a more exciting job or I have no idea what reality I'm living in.  Bwaaaaaa. But being cooped up is a great time to go through photos and put them in storage since I'm running out of space on my laptop.  I have so many birds that I have not blogged!  Holy crap, I completely forgot the caracaras!

One species was observed during the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival at Laguna Atascosa.  I remember looking at their images in field guides as a kid and thinking, "How cool would it be to see one of those?"  They are one of the birds that attract me to Texas.

Man, stick a cigar out the side of this bird's beak and you could confuse it with Groucho Marx. I'm not sure if you can make it out in the above 2 photos, but there's a yellow bulge on the caracara--that's a full crop.  These birds eat quite a bit of roadkill and will forage for insects too.  Man, what must it be like to get a nice big fat food baby in the middle of your chest and then have to fly around.

I have to admit, it kind of grossed me out to watch the bird preening around the bulge.

The second species of caracara I saw in 2010 is a yellow-headed caracara on one of the field trips with Canopy Tower in Panama.  I didn't get the weird crop/saggy yellow boob view on this one, but it was cool to see nonetheless.

So random bird blogging coming soon.

Can't Stop Blogging About The Rio Grande Valley!

Can you believe I still have blogging to do about Texas?? It really is one of my favorite birding trips I do all year. I love the organizers, the birds, the food, the temperature--it's tops. Check out this altamira oriole that was just cleaning itself off after using a bird bath at Laguna Atascosa NWR.

I think I have finally caught up from all my traveling. I was trying to catch up all last week from being in Ohio, New Jersey, and Texas. I was home between those trips, but only for brief periods. In that time, the apartment had exploded into a chaos world of bunny fur, cockatiel dust, and hay. Books were staging some sort of coup and weren't returning to shelves, my suitcase refused to unpack itself and a glacier of laundry was moving out of the bedroom. Amid trying to work and catch up on the blog, Non Birding Bill said those magic words: "I'm taking Friday afternoon off, let's go see the new Bond movie!"

But late Sunday, well into Monday and Tuesday I went into a cleaning and organizing frenzy. Interrupted briefly by a one way conversation with my stomach Tuesday morning. Still not quite sure what that was about. Was my stomach getting into the spirit of my apartment purge? I didn't feel sick which is completely out of character when I throw up. I suspect it had more to do with a bad combo of coffee and omega 3 fish oil gel caps.

But back to talking about Laguna! I love the trails and I love the wildlife drive. I took almost a full day to creep along and look for birds to digiscope. I was hoping to get some great shots of a caracara.

But had to settle for the Dr. Seuss stylings of a long-billed curlew! I was showing this photo to a non birding friend of mine (even more so than Non Birding Bill) and he looked at the photo and asked, "What the hell does it use that for?!" The beak is a little striking. I checked out the always fabulous Birds of North America Online. It said that the long decurved bill is used when foraging earthworms or shrimp and crabs. BNA also suggested that the long bill is used mainly when feeding on their wintering grounds as opposed to their breeding grounds. Basically, observers see curlews probing more in winter on the migratory habitat and see more pecking on the breeding grounds. Interesting to have a bill like that and only need it for part of the year.

Osprey were all over the place. The above bird was trying to eat its fish in peace, but had an audience:

This young turkey vulture (it's young because the head is still dark) was biding its time on the side lines, trying to work out a way to sneak in and steal a few bites for the osprey. This bird must really like fish because there's an abundance of fresh roadkill in the Rio Grande Valley. Why didn't the vulture just for that instead?

Laguna had signs posted warning of you alligators. The first gator I ever saw in the wild was at Laguna. I did see a few on my drive:

alligator car

This one was right off the road. I got out of the vehicle to digiscope it. I took a couple of images through the scope with my phone and sent them off.

Here's a digiscoped image. I have to say, there were a couple of points where I felt like I was in the Blink episode of Doctor Who. When I turned away, it almost seemed as if the alligator was closer. It wasn't long after I took this photo that I looked to my left...

second gator

...and found another alligator lounging not too far from me. I digiscoped it too:

Well if that just isn't the most contented looking alligator ever. Realizing that I'm rather short, there are warning signs, and having two alligators near me, I hightailed it back in the car. I love a little adventure in my birding. I love going to places where there are animals that could knock me off a rung or two on the food chain.

The Heart Breaking Aplomado Falcon

One of the fun parts of visiting the Rio Grande Valley is the chance to see an aplomado falcon. One of the best places to look is Laguna Atascosa NWR. Two years ago I got the chance to chase one down (it practically took half the bird festival to help me get it). The aplomado falcon in this area is a reintroduced species, their populations have been affected by pesticide use and the Peregrine Fund has been releasing captive raised birds in an effort to reestablish the population. They eat mostly small birds and insects.

On Sunday morning, as I was driving into Laguna Atascosa, I noticed a car pulled over ahead of me, I slowed to find out what they were looking at. It was an aplomado falcon perched on a fence post about 30 feet from the road. As I slowed, the bird took off, but then perched again on the fence further down the road. Both the car in front and I approached slowly. It was painful. I had all my digiscoping equipment next to me in my rental vehicle, but I knew if I got out to set it up, the falcon would fly off. I so wanted to get an awesome photo for the blog, but rather than spoil the perfect view, I decided to just enjoy the bird in front of me. When I reached the visitor center at Laguna, I took photos of their stuffed bird for the blog entry. It was a kick ass look.

As I birded some more around Laguna, another aplomado falcon flew over my vehicle and landed in a far away palmetto. Such a pretty bird, but gone in a flash. While I was out, I ran into Sam Crow and Hugh Powell who do Round Robin Blog for Cornell. Hugh showed me his photo of the aplomado, they had come across the bird on the fence earlier (I now wonder if they were in the vehicle in front of me). They got a good shot and it was painful for me to see. You can view the apolomado photo over at Round Robin.