Smallest of the South Padre Island (SPI) Big Three birding spots, the Valley Land Fund Lots on Sheepshead Dr. seems to have the biggest concentration of birds. The fact that the dense vegetation is at the southern end of the island and birds would head for it first.
preservation efforts of The Valley Land Fund and its volunteers. These wooded lots serve as an oasis to the birds struggling to make it across the Gulf of Mexico during spring migration.
The Valley Land Fund
South Padre Island is located at the confluence of two major flyways: migration routes on which birds travel during Spring and Fall to and from North, Central, and South America.. In the Spring, SPI is a crucial first landfall – a lifesaver – for birds making the arduous cross-Gulf migration. For many years, the 12 lots owned by the Valley Land Fund and private landowners between Pompano and Sheepshead along Laguna Blvd., have been a crucial location for these worn out migrants to stop, rest, feed and regain their energy. Serious birders have long known what an important area this is, and flock there to view some of the 350+ species of birds which have been identified in South Texas. – From The Valley Land Fund Facebook Page
Over the course of the next 4 days, we visited Sheepshead Dr. location 6 times.
After a most excellent fish taco lunch and short stroll in Roloff Park in Laguna Vista, we decided that we wanted to explore the other side of the bay. While there are a number of “Must Visit” birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, when it comes to seeing migrating birds from the tropics (neotropical migrants), none is higher on the list than South Padre Island.
Geologically speaking, Padre Island is a young island, having formed in just the last several thousand years. It is one of 300 barrier islands stretching from Maine to Mexico. These natural barrier islands act to protect the mainland from the direct onslaught of storms. Padre Island began forming as a submerged sandbar some 4,500 years ago, while the actual emerged island may be only 1,000 to 1,500 years old.
The island is mostly prairie/grasslands with ephemeral marshes and ponds bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and on the west by the Laguna Madre. The highest elevation is approximately fifty feet.
Most of the seashore is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Gulf beach is composed of white sand and is less than a hundred feet wide.Bordering the beach is a narrow dune ridge running almost the length of the entire island. West of the dune ridge are the grasslands and marshes. Few trees exist on the island. Those that do are mostly mesquite, live oak, or willow. On the western shore of the island are extensive mudflats.
THE MOTHER LAGOON
The Laguna Madre Bay is a “hyper-saline” bay meaning the salt content is higher than the rest of the ocean. It is one of only six hyper-saline bays in the world and is the largest with an average depth of only 3.3 feet. Laguna Madre is composed of extensive mudflats, which are considered environmentally sensitive. Because there is little flow of sediments along the Laguna shore, damage to the mudflats can last a long time. Tire tracks and footprints left over twenty years ago can still be seen in some parts.
South Padre Island was a beautiful, desolate place where native Karankawa Indians, migratory birds, and sea turtles were the only residents. The Island was granted to Nicolás Ballí from King Carlos III of Spain in 1759 and later passed to Ballí’s grandson, Padre José Nicolás Ballí. Soon after, Padre José brought the first permanent settlers, establishing a church and teaching Christianity to the Karankawa Indians.
When Padre Ballí owned the Island, it was known as the Isla de Santiago. Due to the Padre’s reputation as a kind man, the people to whom he ministered affectionately referred to the Island as La Isla Padre – Padre Island.
Five nations have owned Padre Island at different times. First the Karankawa people, followed by Spain until 1820, then Mexico until 1836, Republic of Texas until War with Mexico in 1848 and currently, the United States. Throughout these times, the island has been known by several names, with Padre Island being only the most recent. It has also been known as “la Isla Blanca” (White Island) and “Isla de los Malaguitas” (Island of the Malaquites, a band of the Karankawa people).
Today, tourism is the leading economical venture on the island, mostly confined to the south end of the island.
Bird species found on the island mostly fall into two groups; the Residents and the Migrants.
RESIDENT SPECIES – Resident species include various waterfowl such as Blue-winged Teal, Mottled Ducks and Redheads. South Padre Island is also home to several heron and egret species like Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Also hundreds of Laughing Gulls, Elegant Terns and Black Skimmers can be found year round. Skulking around in the seasonal wetlands, the more secretive rail species may be encountered.
NEOTRIPICAL MIGRANTS – During the seasonal push of migrant birds from the tropics, the number of birds stopping along the island can be staggering, especially during fall out conditions. The list of Neotropical migrants is quite impressive with birds ranging from the Yellow-billed Cuckoo to the brilliant Indigo and Painted Buntings and 44 species of warblers. The list goes on and on.
WHAT IS A BIRD FALLOUT? Are we there yet?
Bird fallout or migration fallout is the result of severe weather preventing migratory birds from reaching their destination. This can occur while birds are traveling south or returning to their breeding grounds. Due to the distance travelled, birds will not have enough energy to continue flight when encountering high winds. This exhaustion results in many birds resting in one area. While South Padre Island isn’t the answer to a bird’s Are we there yet? question, it often is a much needed pitstop along the way towards their final destination.
After a brief, but successful stop at the Laguna Atascosa NWR Bahia Grande Unit, AKA Apolmado Falcon Viewing Area for the … Aplomado Falcon, we headed to a little spot that came highly recommended from the Rio Grande Valley Birding facebook Group. It really was a hidden gem and we weren’t really sure we were at the correct location until we saw the entrance sign.
The Nature Trail is nicely set up and very clean.
It has several rest benches and 3 observation blinds, each with its own water feature.
In addition to many new birds, there were a couple of reptiles lurking nearby.
By the time we finished up exploring the Nature Trail, we began the search for something to stop the rumblies in our tummies, it was time for food! We happened upon what was perhaps the best lunch of the entire adventure, The Bay B Boomers Bar & Grill in Laguna Vista, 717 Santa Isabel Blvd, Laguna Vista, TX 78578. Best fish tacos EVER!
Feeling fully restored and anxious to keep rolling, we spotted Roloff Park and beyond it, the famous Laguna Madre.
With a few more species checked off at the park, we succumbed to the lure of the famous South Padre Island and headed east.
Next Week Blog Post #5 South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca
Listed by the American Birding Association (ABA) as a Code-3 Rare bird, the Tamaulipas Crow occurs annually, but in very low numbers in the US. As many as 6 had been photographed by birders at the ubiquitous Brownsville Landfill in recent weeks, and this was our highest priority bird of the entire trip. The one bird that would be a life bird for all three of us.
As we followed the Google maps directions, our noses told us we were close before we could even see the entrance. The air was a swirling mass of Laughing Gulls with Great-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Turkey Vultures mixed in. As we approached the Brownsville Landfill Information sign, Jim R called out “Hooded Oriole!” and we all spotted the bright orange Icterid flitting around the entrance shrubbery.
Not knowing where to look amid the giant landfill, we asked one of the employees at the entrance booth where to go. With a pair of binoculars in hand, he stepped out and pointed up the road.
Over the course of the next 2 hours we carefully scrutinized every black-colored bird, including one likely candidate that turned out to be a piece of trash! We added Black Vultures, Crested Caracaras, Harris’s Hawks and Herring Gulls to our growing checklist.
As we back-tracked to the most likely spot, we found a Chihuahua Raven that got us excited, briefly. But not the crow…
We chatted with other dump birders, all unsuccessful in our quest to find the Rare Tamaulipas Crow.
And then the call rang out, loud and clear; “TAMAULIPAS CROW ON THE FENCE!!!” Did we finally have our treasure or was it just another close call? A quick survey; small size – check. Small bill – check. Funky squawk – check!
This was it! And it posed for us for several minutes, calling and calling the entire time.
Jim R and Rich posed and celebratory photos were captured as Jim R got his only trip lifer ON HIS BIRTHDAY!
What a great way to start our Great South Texas Birding Adventure!