Birding’s Party Bus
You know how it is when you do something so intensely and thoroughly that when it’s all said and done you feel like you need a couple days to unwind from it? Even when it’s something I love so much as birding. This is kind of where I’m at right now upon my return from the totally epic Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, 5 days of non-stop bird-o-rama. When I wasn’t birding, I was thinking and talking about birds to bird people. This is generally the sort of thing that I really enjoy, but anything 24-7 can wear you out. But I still care, dear reader(s), so I’ll try my hardest to relate that first great morning to you.
I came down to Texas without a plan. I was a guest of the American Birding Association and, as such, I had a fair few responsibilities to them. But as far as planning field trips and daily bird-finding? I was as wide open as the west Texas horizon. So when Jeff Gordon asked me if I wanted to come along on the trip he was leading the next day to the San Gertrudis Division of the famous King Ranch up the coast a bit in Kleberg County, I said sure thing. It was going to be an odd introduction to the Valley, in that it was likely the least tropical of any of the field trips being run at the festival, but it was a new place with the best opportunity for new birds. I, of course, was game. So early the next morning I jumped on the Greyhound bus with 40 other excited birders, including my old pal Christopher Ciccone of the Bloggerhead Kingbirds and Picus Blog, are made the long journey northward.
When people think of King Ranch they generally first think of the tiny Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, which can be found with some regularity at some units of the massive private ranch. The San Gertrudis Division is not the one with the pygmy-owls, but it’s typical of the sort of Texas coastal plain habitat which isn’t the sort of place one visits when they come to the Valley. As such, you see some different birds, even if they tend to be a little more familiar than those farther south.
Take, for instance, this juvi Red-tailed Hawk with some serious wing problems.
We stepped off the bus to some serious wind that nearly blew many of the participants right of the road and kicked gravel dust in our eyes. The wind got the raptors up, though, and before long we’d added White-tailed Kite and Hawk, Kestrels, and Harriers to the day list. It was here, at the very first stop, that i picked up my first lifer of the trip too, a winter plumaged Lark Bunting perched atop a Prickly Pear cactus. I’m pretty sure that, of all the people in our group, I spotted the bird first, but I didn’t have my birding head on straight, and I sat there for a full thirty seconds watching this thing and wondering why this apparent Vesper Sparrow looked so weird. Then the call went out and I practically slapped my forehead when I made the connection instantly.
Note to self, prepare better.
We tooled along in our bus (more on that in another post), until the whole behemoth shuddered to a stop, and people started piling off as fast as they could (not very fast) to witness a pretty incredible herpitological scene.
Two massive Texas Indigo Snakes were entwined in what seemed to be some sort of courtship display. The two snakes, that were at minimum six feet long and as big around as my forearm, hissed and puffed and tangled around each other while 40 birders stood and watched. I realized quickly that it would be bad form to rush the snakes and try to grab one of them (my general impulse when it comes to most non-venomous reptiles), so I let them do their thing. This was probably a good decision as from everything I’ve heard Indigo Snakes can either be extremely docile or extremely aggressive, and if it’s the second, they have a nasty bite. Still though, I would have loved a close look at these impressive snakes.
From the relative comfort of the big bus, we picked up Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and once, a flushed Barn Owl. The short-cropped cattle pastures were crawling with Long-billed Curlews and Sandhill Cranes. I finally got a good look at a Say’s Phoebe, and when we reached a small, shallow lake, my trip list blew up with shorebirds, waterfowl, and terns.
Best bird of the day, at least for the leaders (I was still pretty partial to the Lark Bunting) was a trio of Scoters that blew by showing some impressive white patches on the wings. White-winged Scoters were completely unexpected, I believe they were even a first record for King Ranch, and the third bird ended up being a Surf Scoter. Not the sort of thing you go to Texas to see, but excited nonetheless.
Even though most of the trip had a very southern plains feel, there were still the required Valley birds in evidence. A couple Vermilion Flycatchers here, a Great Kiskadee there. Inca Doves and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and a sharp Pyrrhuloxia (better named Desert Cardinal by this birder). We gathered at a wayhouse for a barbeque lunch that seemed to hit the spot (at least for those who don’t champion the superiority of eastern North Carolina barbeque), and we headed out of the park for the afternoon attempt at a true south texas target.
And that story will have to wait until later…