Alamo Inn B & B in the Rio Grande Valley--just for birders!

I typically stay away from places that have the phrase "bed and breakfast" in the title. As a birder, I don't have the schedule to truly appreciate all the extra amenities. Yeah, I'm sure you make fabulous scones but your 7:30am start time doesn't always jive with my field trip that leaves at 5:30 am. Also, I'm sure the fellow guests are lovely, but I basically want to eat and run. But I've heard of the Alamo Inn B & B and Outdoor Store and how this popular place caters specifically birders. I was intrigued. Really? A B & B for birders? How does that work?

birder breakfast

This is for sure a birder's bead and breakfast! All sorts of portable food is ready to go from breads, spreads (bonus points for Nutella), fruit, even portable apple sauce and  chips. I was a particular fan of some of the fresh fruit--like the small sweet mangos--yum.


Besides the usual coffee and tea there all sorts of juices, almond milk, soy,  yogurt, single serving humus, lunch meat and even eggs.  The eggs are from the owners hens and hard boiled so you can eat them on the spot or take them with you. You are only charge for the food that you take and the prices are very reasonable.

assigned cooler

You can even be assigned a cooler to take some of these goodies with you on the road.  This is incredibly smart for birding in the Rio Grande Valley because you never know where your birding day will take you.  Your stomach may tell you that it's time to go hit Fat Daddy's barbecue, but you may be on to some hot shorebird action at Estero Llano Grande and you don't want to disappear and miss a single peep. You can keep the cooler with you and you can even take some frozen water bottles with you to keep your items cool and have a supply of cold water to drink later in the day.  It's genius!

alamo B and B

The rooms have a very homey feel, so even if you are going to "crash for the night" you can crash in the comforts of home. Its the little touches of table clothes and books that are there for you to read that get you comfy.  The rooms have good couches as well as beds, so if you are going out with your birding buddies, it can accomodate them as well. Don't worry, there's a tv and wifi so if you find that after a hard day of birding you like to unwind with a little technology, you can.

I met an amiable set of folks from California birding the valley for the first time. Two men and one woman--all friends and finding the Inn to their liking.  I even found a fellow Minnesota birder and friend Alex Cruz staying at the Alamo Inn--it's almost like that bar Cheers from the 80s tv show. All had done a bit of googling and found the Alamo Inn had rave reviews from fellow birders and their rates were comparable to the local hotels.

emergency vests

I had to chuckle, the Alamo Inn does have a birding store with field guides, bird finding guides, binoculars...and birding clothes. It drives me nuts, but birders love to wear their vests and if you forgot to pack your vest, you can purchase one on the spot if you need too.  There are even shorts! This place has just about everything to cater to a birder visiting the valley.

The owner, Keith Hackland, is a true birder so he knows what we need and how to make our visit to the valley special. He has various check lists and directions readily available. He does offer guiding services if his schedule permits but is happy to make suggestions based on what he knows is being seen in the area recently. The inn itself is in an old historic building on the corner of old Main Street in Alamo, TX. Deceiving on the outside but snug and comfy on the inside. Keith and his family live nearby in apartments and I got the added bonus of seeing a lesser nighthawk hunting over their roof.

palm trees

It's centrally located to Harlingen and McAllen, TX. Several popular birding destinations are less than 30 minutes from the Inn, one of the closest being Sabal Palm Sanctuary. If you tire of watching all the nest cams out there, check out their live feeder cam that gets green jays. I hadn't been to Sabal Palm for a few years and made a visit on this last trip to Texas. I forgot how much I loved the habitat of an old growth palm forest. It smelled of primeval and baked in heat. It was a bit windy on my visit which kept the mosquitos down and the warmth had a very pleasant degree.

forced rellent

Speaking of mosquitoes, you know they are going to be bad when you stop in to pay your entrance fee and you see an assortment of complimentary repellants set out for you to wear. The skeeters are aggressive here, don't leave the visitor center without some coverage.

Crimson-collared grosbeak

While I was visiting, Sabal Palm was hosting a rare bird, a female crimson-collared grosbeak. I got her right off the bat thanks to a group of birders staked out at the feeder watching for it. They were kind enough to point it of them turned out to be a fan of the podcast and especially Non Birding Bill. Ha!

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 9.49.03 AM

Along with the lovely trails, there's a photo blind that excellent viewing in the morning. If sit there long enough, you're sure to get a view of the tiny green kingfisher, one of the Rio Grande Valley specialty birds. This bird even landed right below one of the blind windows, far too close to digiscope, but what a treat to be only four feet away from it.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 9.49.14 AM During the spring, fall and winter, the water can be chock full of ducks. Most had headed north during my visit in early April, but there were still plenty of least grebes hanging out.


The boardwalks over the marshes can give you glimpses of teal, rails, herons, warblers and kiskadees.  They are worth the walk (just don't do it without repellent).

old growth palm forest




Because I Love Bird Camouflage

I was recently at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival in Harlingen, TX. If you can't tell by how often I talk about South Texas, it's one of my favorite places to visit not only for the birds, but also for the great friends I've made at the festival. Next year is the 20th Anniversary of the festival, it should be a wild time and if you have never been, you should have it on your bucket list.

I have an odd checklist when I visit, I've seen almost everything I can possible see there but getting the key valley species as soon as I arrive is always fun (like the above great kiskadee). This time I went with a new friend that I made at the Biggest Week In Birding Festival in Ohio last May. She had never been to the valley so showing someone all those great Texas specialties for the first time is as fun for me as seeing them the first time.

I could spend several days at Estero Llano Grande (and have) and this photo though not the best on the planet is a great cross section of the amazeballs birding that can happen. In one scope view I have green kingfisher, American bittern and great kiskadee.  I ask you, where else would you get such a great birding trifecta in the same field of view? South Texas, it's hard to beat.

I swear there is a bird in the above photo.

Estero is where the nightjar known as the common pauraque is relatively easy to find. I've posted about their camouflage before. And though we were able to find them easily in that same spot, we were pointed out more parauques by field trip leaders that were hunkered down in yards of people who live next to Estero.  There's one in the above photo...can you find it (even Non Birding Bill was able to find to find it in the photo).

Yep. I swear there's a bird in the above photo too.  That's the pauraque in the "usual spot" at Estero.  There are actually about two or three in this spot (but only one in the above photo). I know brown birds aren't for everybody. I know that I can seem unreasonable in my love of things like native sparrows and pipits but you have to give it to pauraques as a brown bird. They at least stay in one spot for several hours to give you a chance to find them.

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.

Do You See That Pauraque?

I'm going to start this post off with landscape shots that have a brown bird called a common pauraque in them.  See if you can find the bird(s) and at the end of the post, I'll put up the photos pointing out where they are and you can see if you were able to find them.

Let's start with an easy one, there's one common pauraque in this photo.

There's one pauraque in this photo.

There's one pauraque in this photo.

This is the hardest one, but there sure is a pauraque in this photo.

There are actually 2 pauraques in this photo, one almost impossible.

Most of my birding time during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Fest was spent at Estero Llano Grande State Park.  Partly because I love it but also because some of my other favorite birding sites in the area were closed due to flooding.  I went there several times with both Birdspot and WildBird on the Fly.  One of the target birds on the trails is a common pauraque, a nightjar that is similar to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills.  I've heard them and I've seen them flushed on roads at night in Central America, but I've never seen a roosting pauraque.

I knew people were seeing between 1 - 3 at a time and I was hopeful we'd find more than one.  We sure did, above is one of the pauraques.  With that cryptic brown plumage, you can understand how they might be easy to miss.  They are active at dawn and dusk and fly around to catch insects with their mouths wide open.  Don't let that tiny beak fool you, it belies a mouth worthy of any mother-in-law.

The park rangers and other birders were very helpful to point out the general areas of where the nightjars were being seen, but you still had to some work.  Here's the trail near alligator lake where they typically have been found roosting.  Note the white sign, it warns people to stay on the trails so the pauraques do not get flushed.  Note the pile of brush on the left side of the trail, that's where the pauraques were.  I suspect the brush was placed there to encourage people to stay on the trail and not wander in looking for the birds and inadvertently flushing them.

Check it out: Disapproving Pauraque! We found one right away and I was happy for that.  These nightjars were a challenge to digiscope.  Number one: they were in the shade.  I could get around that by using the timer on my camera and minimize camera shake for a long exposure.  However, the second and the most challenging problem was that the birds were too darned close to focus in my spotting scope!  The sticks that were protecting the pauraque roosting location blocked some angles and I wasn't about to move the sticks, they were there to help the pauraques. But with patience and creative angling, I managed to grab some shots.

As I was setting up the above digiscoped shot, I found a second and then a third, each closer than the last.  The third pauraque we found was literally three feet away from the trail. Finding the pauraques reminded me of morel hunting.  Once you find one, you instantly see all the other mushrooms surrounding you.  It was the same with pauraques, once you found one, the other popped out like an image in a magic eye painting.

Many of the pauraque photos like the above bird were not digiscoped because they are just too close.  I always wonder how many owls I pass under on a regular basis, not I wonder how many pauraqes, poor-wills and other nightjars I have almost stepped on in my birding travels.  The pauraques did seem to be everywhere in South Texas.  Birdspot and I were wandering around Frontera Audubon, watching a brown thrasher that was working some leaves, when all three  of us--especially the thrasher jumped with a leaf toss flushed a pauraque.  I wonder how often other birds flush nightjars.  And I wonder if they are irritated because of the scare?

And now to see how you did with finding the pauraques in the first five photos:

Here's common pauraque number one.  This one may have been too easy, that eye sticks out.  But I walked past it at least twice before I finally realized it was three feet from the trail.

Hidden pauraque #2.

Pauraque nestled all snug among sticks.

I realize that even though it's circled, this pauraque is hard to see, so here is a zoom in of the cryptically plumaged nightjar:

Even up close, you can see how well their feathers work in their habitat!

The one in the front is fairly obvious, but the one in the back is really hard to see.  Here's a close up:

See, there really is a parauque by those sticks!

Ah, nothing makes me as happy as looking for brown birds!

Birdwatch Radio

There's a new podcast up for Birdwatch Radio. It's part one of a two part series made during this year's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. He talks to my buddy Jim Danzenbaker from Kowa (and Jim even schools you on how to properly pronounce the name Kowa).

Also interviewed is one of the guys from Rockjumper Tours...learn how much money you'll need to go to Africa and some of the cool things you'll do on their trips.

And my personal favorite part of the podcast is the interview with Kevin Karlson and he talks about his book he coming next year on birding by impression. Non Birding Bill was listening with me and when they started talking about "jizz" birding, coffee shot out my nose, and NBB was shaking his head with laughter. In the podcast, Steve asks is if it's spelled jizz and Kevin does say what the real spelling for jizz should be. And if you don't know what the slang meaning for jizz is...well...ask the nearest teenager. They'll probably turn three shades of red and be too busy giggling to answer but you might get the meaning.

Anyway, fun podcast to have on in the background.

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.

All Over The Place Post

Here is a yellowlegs that WildBird on the Fly and I observed at one of my favorite digiscoping spots, Estero Llano Grande. She and I went there a couple of times and I tried to get some lifers and do some digiscoping. I discovered that I need to focus on one thing at a time. If I'm after a lifer, I should concentrate on that, if I want to take pictures of birds, I should focus on that. If I try to do both, I don't know where to focus my attention and I miss good shots and I totally miss birds.

Estero has several different trails and the boardwalk around the ponds is usually a good place for shore birds, like the above solitary sandpiper (who is actually living up to its name, it's by itself).

We some colorful birds too like this little blue herons,

black-necked stilts--love those guys,

least grebes (check out that crazy yellow eye),

and a young male vermilion flycatcher.

We even did our good deed for the day by rescuing a dragonfly (although, after reading Born Again Bird Watcher's post, maybe we should have left it). Amy notice this dragonfly on its back in the water. I couldn't reach with my arm, but used my scope's tripod to fish it out. We took a few photos and then set it down on the board walk to finish drying out.

I generally do not take field guides with me. It helps you focus on the bird in front of you rather than spending too much time with your nose in a book. It kind of forces you to pay attention to field marks. Like the above shorebird. It was tiny, kinda brownish, and the legs were a different color than the bill--that's a least sandpiper.

The other reason why I don't bring a guide is that someone on field trips always has a book, I know many birds and what I don't know, I can usually digiscope and id later, or I'm almost always out with someone who knows the area better than I do and will confirm id for me. Well that bit me in the butt.

We got to a spot with some kingbirds and I wasn't sure what type we were seeing, but I figured I would digiscope it and then look it up later. I have it narrowed down to either a tropical kingbird or a Couch's kingbird. I thougt I would go over to BNA and see if I could work out the difference. Here's what Cornell had to say:

"Couch’s is most similar to the Tropical Kingbird and these species are often difficult to distinguish in the field by appearance alone. In the field, adult Couch’s is slightly larger, with a proportionally shorter bill,"

Hmmm, that would be difficult, the bird's bill is facing right at the camera, can't really tell proportions. Let's try the next one:

"and more olive-green back than adult Tropical, but the back fades to grayish during the breeding season making this character unreliable."

Well, again, the bird is facing me so I can't really see the back.
"The plumages of juveniles are inseparable in the field, and only extreme specimens can be identified in the hand (Traylor 1979)."

Wow, that sounds like I'm totally hosed on the id. Wait, there's a little more to read,

"Vocalizations however, may be used to separate these species reliably in the field. The slowly repeated pit (or kip) and pitweeeer of Couch’s are easily distinguish-able from the rapidly repeated, metallic-sounding pit calls of Tropical Kingbird. The dawn songs are also distinctive. Although T. couchii is probably more vocal than T. melancholicus, silent birds cannot therefore be positively identified as the latter."

Yeah, I totally did not pay attention to the calls and did not take any video. I will have to chalk this bird up to some sort of Tyrannus.

There were some great birds being reported around Estero and they had a great little kiosk in there from ebird called Trail Tracker. You can use it to find out which birds are being reported and where they are being seen. The observations also become part of eBird and includes photos, audio, video and life history information for the birds seen. I tried to use it to find some cool birds being reported like a rose-throated becard (didn't see it) and a paraque (looked at it, but didn't see it, but Round Robin got shots of it).

Skywatch Friday, In Transit From Texas

It's Skywatch Friday again! If you have a blog with a photo of sky, you can link your post up to Skywatch Friday and share the beauty. I thought I'd share one of my "in transit" days.

I never cease to be amazed at the ability to change time and temperature with our ability of global travel. I marvel at my Monday this week. I woke up in south Texas, in Harlingen, near the border. I'm surrounded by warm weather and exotic species.

Not just blue jays here, no, crazy birds like green jays (above), curlews and kiskadees. When I boarded my plane in the morning, it was sunny, windy, and temperatures were in the 80s.

The view of the sky from the plane was an intense palette of blue and white. The sky, so clear and so blue, pushing down on a thin layer of clouds.

Take in that blue for a moment.

The clouds had some fluff but were mostly thin. It's so strange and such a privilege to get to see clouds from above. I try to concentrate on them as opposed to my fear of flying (or rather, crashing) in a plane.

As the clouds gave way, I could see some of Minnesota below, my final destination. The land had been dusted with snow. How strange to start a morning with humidity and 80 degree temps and then end the afternoon in 30 degrees with snow. I never get tired at the wonder of travel and where you can find yourself in a day.

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.