Broken Toe Birding Part 2

In the previous blog post, chronicled how I broke my pinky toe and was birding Estero Llano Grande in the Rio Grande Valley with a bit of a handicap. alligator pond

Ranger John was graciously giving me a tour of the park via tram and we picked up a few extra birders along the way. We were birding around Alligator Lake which is a known spot for anhingas, green kingfishers, herons and well...

alligator teeth

...alligators if you can believe it! How often do see the animal a like is named for? There are a lot of Otter Lakes that have left me woefully short of otter sightings. This alligator was a huge beast--you can even see the teeth. There was a story going around that a group recently witnessed an alligator in this pond take out a nutria.  Well...I found the blog entry with the photos (warning, that link is GRAPHIC), If you are like me and like to watch a good train wreck, you'll want to see those images.  The above was a large gator, I wonder if that was the one that took out the nutria? If not...that means there are several huge ones in that lake.  Yikes.

gentleman I always manage for find people generously willing to carry my scope. Even though my scope is really light and not bad to carry (unless I'm on some insane odyssey up the side of a Guatemalan volcano) folks seem to genuinely want to help me out. Above, Bob (a new birding friend) kindly offered. I'm sure my doctor wouldn't be thrilled with me carrying things around on my broken pinky toe, so I was relieved to have some help.

night heron

There were a few herons around like the above yellow-crowned night-heron and I imagine they all fish the lake with a bit of trepidation, they could easily wind up like the afore mentioned nutria. Other birds zipping around included scissor-tailed flycatchers, green kingfishers, little blue herons and egrets. As we were watching the birds, my coffee had worked its way through my system and I needed a restroom.  I asked John if he would mind driving me back and some of the other group thought a drive to the visitor center restrooms was sensible. As we slowly made our way back, I had a text message alert. Some friends have a group messaging system they are testing for rarities. The text read, "Curlean male @ Estero by the start of the Green Jay Trail."

"Hey, John, I just got an alert about a Cerulean male at the head of the Gree..."

Before I could finish the location, he gunned it and we were on our way! Some poor aramdillo tried to crawl up on the road and as much as I would have loved to stop and get his photo, a Cerulean is a warbler I have not seen in years and waved as went by. John had us there in less than two minutes. We could see the group of birders scanning the trees and made a beeline for them. Someone from our group asked, "Hey, didn't you need to use the bathroom?"

"A cerulean takes precedence," I said. "Also, I apologize now in case my excitement at seeing this bird gets the better of me and well, I don't make it to the bathroom. This bird is worth a pee in the pants!"

We started scanning.

cerulean warbler


There mixed in with a couple of northern parulas was the cerulean warbler male. Not the best photo ever of a cerulean, but a documentable shot and I'm going to count it for my Digiscoping Big Year (the fundraiser for Friends of Sax Zim Bog is the Half Year, but I'm very curious how many species I can get photos of in a year and I'm going to take it to December). But what a treat to get a look at this bird again. I think the last time I saw one of these was before I even started blogging in 2004! I neglected to apply any bug spray before walking in the shade and ended up with some mighty fine insect welts, but it was worth it to get a look at a bird like this!


After finally hitting a restroom, John took me around to grab more bird photos at the ponds. During migration these can be filled with fun birds like black-necked stilts and all sorts of fun shorebirds from snipe, dowitchers, yellowlegs and any number of sandpipers.

fulvus whistling duck Waterfowl migration was starting to shift northwards but I was still able to get some fun target birds like the above fulvus whistling ducks. Fulvus refers to this ducks color.  I learned something very interesting from John.  You can black-bellied whistling ducks at this part too.  The black-bellies will nest in cavities and nest boxes, whereas the fulvus nests on the ground.  But this is one of the species you come to valley to see.



Another favorite that I got to see was a cinnamon teal! Love that bird and loved that he was mixed with some shoverelers and green-winged teal.

ice cream


John eventually had to head back to do a butterfly program and I happily spent time on the shaded deck. If you like digiscopiong or taking photos in general, the deck is best in the afternoon and the sun shifts to being behind you.  You can also grab some ice cream from the shop and watch birds to your heart's content! I had an ice cream and ibises in front of me: heaven.


While I was hanging out on the deck, I ran into a Minnesota birder named Alex.  I think because Sun Country flies direct from the Twin Cities, this is a popular and economical destination for Minnesota birders, I run into them every time I'm here.  But it was fun to hang out with Alex and watch the birds as well as catch up on each other's lives. Turns out we were both rooming at the same place for the night.

So, even though I didn't start my birding in a new place in Texas, no day at Estero Llano Grande is ever wasted.  I had only planned visit for half a day, but ended up dedicating a full day there.  I could easily spend a weekend in the Rio Grande Valley and just park on that deck...actually, I have done that with a girlfriend and we had an amazing girl's weekend.

harris hawk All parks are a must visit in the Valley, but I hope if you ever come here, you'll have as much fun at this one as I do.  It has a little bit of everything.  Even Harris's hawks!




Broken Toe Birding at Estero Llano Grande Part 1

I am both incredibly excited and a little nervous about my current spring travel schedule. It is action and birding packed but wow, it's a lot. Last week I was a guest speaker at Quinta Mazatlan but you can't go to the Rio Grande Valley for just a day. If you're going to head down, you want to take advantage of the tremendous birding opportunities. However, the day before I left for the valley...I was running around my apartment tying up loose work ends, booking future travel, packing, etc when I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking and slammed my little toe into the corner of one of our many bookshelves.  Yes...I know what you're thinking. Ow. So here's a text exchange that immediately occured between Non Birding Bill and I (he was out writing at a coffee shop):

spouse texting

I can't believe NBB wasn't willing to watch a couple of YouTube videos demonstrating how to realign my toe.  Ha. So we went off to a clinic where my doctor said, "It's not dislocated, it's either bruised, but most likely broken.  Either way, you need to stay off it for the next four days and ice it for 20 minutes every two hours for twenty minutes."

estero llano grande

But...but...but...I have a 5K at the end of the month and I'm going to Texas for a week tomorrow (insert stern doctor look here). So wildlife drives for me it would be. This time my goal was to try and visit places I haven't visited before in RGV...or at least in a long time.  However, I cannot visit this area without at least a day at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Just a stroll down this path to the deck instantly relaxes me--especially as winter holds on long and fast as if it's been taking advice from Ned Stark. So after months of monochrome cold white and gray, I'll gladly squee over green and a mere 80 degrees. Estero is arguably one of the best spots to start your south Texas birding adventure the  first time you visit. They have a deck with wifi and a great view of water and I thought maybe I could hang out there and digiscope. My toe wasn't too bad and I could do some walking but I knew that wouldn't be the best way for it heal.

john yochum

On the deck I ran into Ranger John Yochum who I have met before on my Texas travels.  He said his school group had cancelled and if I wanted, he'd give me a personal tour. I mentioned my toe and to my surprise, he insisted on giving me a tram tour! I was Miss Daisy to his Polk and he saved my toe from a lot of hurting. Thanks to him I got to do a butt load of digiscoping, which was great for my Digiscoping Big Half Year Challenge for Sax Zim Bog.


Like I said, this is a great spot to get a lot of common valley species off your list. Many of these birds will be at several parks like the above female golden-fronted woodpeckers but Estero has wetlands too.

estero feeders tropic trail

John took me to one of the newer feeding stations. Some of the parks are figuring out that people are coming here for photos and though I don't mind taking a photo of a bird at an obvious feeder, most photographers do not, so they set up natural perches were seed, suet and fruit can be tucked away and you can get some natural looking shots.

methed out dove

Here's a shot of a white-tipped dove, a specialty bird in the area. I'm sure the sun is just hitting the pupil just right, but the dove kinda looks a little methed out to me.


The great kiskadee is a specialy bird here and these sassy birds will fly in for peanut butter. I had to be fast to get photos, it was migration and following the northbound songbirds were lots of accipiters and they periodically bombed through the feeding station. But if you waited a few minutes, the birds would return.

inca doves

The above Inca doves. There were some common ground doves but I alas didn't get a photo.

white-winged dove

Here's a white-winged dove (yep, like the Heart song...oops I meant Stevie Nicks, cause Amy just lovingly yelled at me in the comments.  Love that woman).

pauraque roost

Estero is a well known as a spot to get a great look at common pauraque and John took me to a different spot to find one in the tropical area. Yes, truly, there is a bird on the ground in that photo...though even I am having a dickens of a time seeing it and I was there and too this photo.  Fortunately, I digiscoped it.

pauraque snooze

As John was toting me around, we saw a trio of birders that I recognized as staying at the same bed and breakfast I was lodging in.  We pulled over to say hi and I asked if they had seen a pauraque yet.  They hadn't.  They were very casual birders and I was worried they may miss it so I asked John if they could join us in the tram and continue on with us towards more pauraques.  Everybody seemed game so the tram filled up and we headed towards Alligator Lake, the known spot for pauraques.

see the nightjar?

OK in this photo, I can totally make out one of the pauraques.  It's on the ground, towards the top of the photo, in the center. It's amazing how quickly someone who already knows where to find the birds like these can become a de facto guide for other birds.  But I really do get a kick out of taking people to see their first pauraque and waiting for them to discern its shape on the ground.  It's like one of those magic eye posters!


It took some fancy angling of the scope, but I was able to get it in.

common pauraque

Look at that giant beautiful frown eye! I always assumed these birds were like nighthawks, flying around high in the sky at night after aerial insects, but learned I was quite wrong.  Reading up on them at Birds of North America Online, I learned that they are considered a "terrestrial feeder" and flies very little during foraging. "Appears in many locations to take most of its food by 'jumping and flopping' or rarely running on the ground....When foraging on the wing, generally makes low, short, circling sallies to the air from ground or favorite low perch on rock, stump, branch, or fence post for flying insects."

Gets its food by jumping and flopping, eh? Sounds like Thanksgiving at my family's house--HEY-O! Angela, Mom, Terri, if you actually read this, I kid, I kid.



I'm going to try and divide up some of my Estero adventures in more posts.  I have too many photos for one post at this spot and I have to get  dressed and go work at the park service.









Flat Stanley In Texas

So, I was checking out photos of Flat Stanley other people have put in at the Flat Stanley Project and people totally photoshopped him in on some photos.  That's cheating.  I could have done that with my nephew's Flatty S--he could have been in Israel and birding with me in a minefield but I didn't have him when I went there and that is so not the point of a Flat Stanley.

But I did take him to Texas and to the happiest birding place on Earth--Estero Llano Grande. Here I had Flatty S ( I couldn't help but give him a good rap name) looking through my scope.

He enjoyed all the different ducks including shovelers, green-winged teal and cinnamon teal. But we weren't the only ones interested in the waterfowl at Estero.

We found a Cooper's hawk very interested in the ducks--see Flat Stanley is pointing to it.  This was one relaxed hawk, I can't believe how close it was to the trail and that it let us walk past without getting spooked.  I tried digiscoping it with my phone.

The Cooper's hawk looked and Flat Stanley as though it was thinking, "Can I eat that?"  But the hawk did not eat Flatty S.  It stuck around for quite some time, even others walked past without phasing the bird.

The hawk sat there for so long even a pigeon flew into bathe...then suddenly had that awkward moment when you realize that a predator has joined you in the bath.

These were awesome birds but I wanted to show Flat Stanley a real Texas specialty, something he couldn't see anywhere else so we went to look for for the common pauraque.

Here my buddy Flatty S is pointing the mysterious nightjar the common pauraque.  Can you make it out at the trunk of the tree?  No worries, I took a photo with my iPhone through my scope:

Here's the hiding pauraque up close.  I had to chuckle, as I was taking photos with Flat Stanley on of Estero's volunteers said, "I have to ask...what's with the little guy?" I explained Flat Stanley and what I was doing, then he gave me a hard look..."You're not going to put it up against the pauraques are you?"

Feeling a little sassy I said, "I'm not THAT stupid." I know he meant well and he had no idea what kind of birder I was.  The pauraques were close to the path and though their defense is to stay still and hidden, some people would take advantage of that and might try to get closer than they should.

So, I've sent Flatty S back home.  Wonder if my nephew will catch the birding bug?




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).