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My Life’s Birds: #426

September 15, 2010
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March 21, 2007 – Bentsen RGV State Park, Tx – This is, without doubt, one of my favorite bird stories.

My dad and I got up early the morning of the 21st to hit Bentsen State Park hard.  It had changed a lot since those days in the mid-90s when you could camp in the park itself along with dozens of winter Texans and their RV feeding stations.  Cars aren’t allowed anymore, though you can access all those old hotspots by a volunteer-driven tram that doesn’t get rolling until around 8:00 am, far too late for the intrepid birder.  Fortunately, there’s no reason you can’t just walk in, which is what my dad and I did, heading down the paved road towards the heart of the park.  An Elf Owl yipped in the near distance, a Common Pauraque hawked moths from the asphalt, allowing the crippling looks the Border Patrol had denied us a few days prior.  Dawn slowly rose and birdsong steadily increased.

As we arrived at the open area that used to host a tent campground we heard a rhythmic whistled toot* coming from a thick stand of scrub.  I had done my research and was fully aware of the species that remained unseen for South Texas, the ones I “needed”.  This was one of them, a big one (metaphorically if not physically).  Nothing short of a calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and, from the sound of it, not more than 10 meters away.  Finding it, however, was another matter completely, especially since we’re talking about what amounts to little more than six inches of owl in a dense mesquite brush pile.  So my dad and I spread out. We peered into the brush and ran our binoculars along every twig.  We whistled back at the owl, an easy enough call to imitate.  But it sat still, never giving up its location, and eventually it stopped calling.

*I’m looking forward to the google searches “rhythmic tooting” brings me…

This left a predicament.  I don’t count heard birds on my life list, I need to see them.  And while there was no doubt as to the identification of the calling bird I still didn’t want to go against my listing ethics, even for a bird as highly desired as this one.  So when the bird stopped calling and didn’t appear to be starting up anytime soon, we had to call it the one that got away.  Everyone has them.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is hardly my first, nor will it be my last.

We had a great morning birding.  I didn’t get any lifers but we found the third Clay-colored Robin of the trip.  We got point blank looks at a roosting Eastern Screech-Owl (one of the Mexican subspecies that might be a distinct species). We found a good flock of migrating warblers around the old trailer loop that contained such dandies as Nashville, Wilson’s and Black-throated Gray Warbler, a lifer for my dad and a bird I hadn’t seen since my trip to Arizona 13 years prior.  The Pygmy Owl was a frustrating miss, as was a Spotted Towhee that had been seen around that would have also been a lifer for me, but beyond that there was little I could complain about.  Any morning in South Texas is great for obvious reasons.

But the Owl still bugged me. It was practically on top of us and we couldn’t find it and the whole day I was racked, racked I tell you, with frustration at the missed opportunity.  So after dinner I suggested heading back to Bentsen, no more than 5 miles away, to take another shot at dusk.  My dad was unable to go, having worn out his birding good will, but I was a free agent.  After dinner, just as the sun was setting, I laid down tracks for Bentsen.

I walked into the park for the last hour of daylight, and didn’t hear the Owl immediately so I headed back to the feeding station where the Towhee had been seen hoping to salvage this trip.  Nothing doing, and with the light failing me I headed back to the car dejected.  It was then I heard the rhythmic tooting that could only be a Pygmy Owl, and started jogging towards the sound.

You’d probably be surprised at how far an Owl’s call can carry.  I could tell I was getting closer but it always seemed just ahead of me.  When I reached the fork in the main loop, I found two other birders, campers, peering intently into a mesquite tree.  I walked over and said hi.  There was no need to ask what we were looking for.  The bird was calling from very nearby.  The light was fading and our opportunity was closing when one of the birders next to me said “I’ve got it”.  I was on it not more than a few seconds later.  A tiny long-tailed Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl whose throat pulsed with every little hoot.  We drunk it in, until the owl had enough and flew over our heads into the woods behind us.  Calling distantly once more for good measure. High fives were exchanged and three birders parted ways happily.

Persistence pays off.

FEPYOW by Alastair Rae via flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0)

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6 Comments
  1. September 15, 2010 11:48 am

    Yes, great birding story and with a happy ending too! Wow frequent is FEPO at Bentsen?

  2. Nate permalink*
    September 15, 2010 11:52 am

    @Pat- It wasn’t present at all when I visited in the 90s, but I understand now it’s fairly regular with at least two breeding pairs. Finding it is the hard part.

  3. September 15, 2010 1:16 pm

    Fantastic story. The most fulfilling bird sightings are always those that had some struggle and disappointment along the way.

  4. September 15, 2010 5:37 pm

    But has your dad seen one yet? And, if not, what are you doing to rectify the situation? 🙂

  5. Nate permalink*
    September 16, 2010 9:36 am

    @Idaho_Birder- Indeed! This os one of the few times where the struggle has a happy ending. Too often I never get the bird.

    @Corey- No, he hasn’t. And not enough.

  6. Greg (Dad) permalink
    September 16, 2010 6:59 pm

    Corey, I like the way you think! Yeah, Nathan, what are you doing to rectify this dreadful situation? I was back at the RV Resort covering for your rear! 🙂

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