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My Life’s Birds: #358-360

December 9, 2009
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March 27, 1995 – Santa Ana NWR & Bentsen-RGV State Park, Tx – A trip to Southern Texas is hardly complete without the twin paragons of birding virtue that are Santa Ana NWR and Bentsen State Park.  They are, without fear of hyperbole, two of the most phenomenally wonderful birding locations in the entire universe.  The sort of places where you mind is easily blown by the sheer diversity and multi-huedness of the resident birdlife.  With apologies to Arizona and Florida, it’s the closest you can get to a real tropical birding experience without needing a passport.  It’s just that good.

So when I look back on my notes for that trip, it’s odd that the most exciting birds my dad and I turned up on our annual Santa Ana soiree were two surprises from the extensive marshes that surround Pintail Lake,  The first was a really nice adult Sora creeping through the cattails.  And I use the term “creeping” only so the Sora doesn’t lose face among it’s retiring rail relations, since it was practically an exhibitionist as rails go, allowing for lingering looks of the type most would be rail-watchers would die for.  Good good stuff.  And we must have won some sort of secretive bird lottery, since the co-bird of the day was an American Bittern doing it’s best reed impression not far from the Sora show. Needless to say, we were pretty excited since the only thing better that finding a Bittern and a Sora is adding birds like Kiskadees, Chachalacas, and Altamira Orioles to your day list.

But the day wasn’t over yet, we had arrangements to stay the night on the trailer loop at Bentsen State Park, which was a seriously happening place back in 1995.  In the years since, with the creation of the World Birding Center designation for several of the hotspots in the region, trailers and campers are strictly verboten in the park itself, which is now only accessible by foot, bike or tram.  This probably makes things easier for the folks who manage the park for birds, which in turn is better for the birds themselves, and since then the diversity appears to be better than it was before.  But there’s still a significant part of me that looks back on that crazy birding carnival atmosphere with no small bit of fondness.  When every trailer spot was taken and the campers hung up bird feeders, each one more elaborate than the one before, the birds would come.  You could get drop-dead gorgeous looks at many of the Valley specialties, and the area, which was essentially a one acre feeding station, would even attract some of the super rarities up from their Mexican homeland, and birds like White-throated Robins and Blue Buntings were always hovering there on the edge of your consciousness, dreams beyond dreams.

But the best part about camping in the loop was the access to the park after hours.  Walking the picnic area near the resaca, if you had sharp eyes, you could typically find one of the park’s gray-phase Eastern Screech-Owls nestled into the crotch of a mesquite tree.  The Screeches in the area are all of the gray variety, to better match the mottled ashy bark of that pre-eminent tree species of the region.  This population is apparently distinct enough from the populations of Eastern Screech Owls those of us in the rest of Eastern North America are familiar with to not only necessitate that they’re deemed a different sub-species, but many ornithologists believe they’re a whole separate species, the Mexican Screech-Owl.  It’s a situation that will likely be resolved in the near future as differences in DNA becomes as important for determining splits as differences in plumage is.  In any case, I look forward to the eventual armchair tick that this proposed split would allow me.

It undoubtedly would make up for my lost American Flamingo from the day before, no?

photos from wikipedia

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3 Comments
  1. December 9, 2009 9:49 am

    As both owls and rails are my declared nemesis bird groups, I am baffled by your hat-trick.

  2. Nate permalink*
    December 9, 2009 1:11 pm

    @Jochen- Any day with an Owl or a Rail is a very good day indeed.

  3. December 9, 2009 4:35 pm

    But doesn’t that apply to all the 10,000 or so bird species?
    I say any day (wow, that’s a lot of ay’s, ay?) with an owl or a rail is a miracle!

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