Just north of the Bird Center and Convention Center, the Bay Access provides easy access to the extensive mudflats of the Laguna Madre during low tide.
If one is cognizant of the nesting birds along the perimeter and of the ever-changing water levels, birders can drive out a good distance for easy access to the hundreds of gulls, terns and shorebirds during migration.
Previous Post #6 Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have you any Birds?
About the Area
The South Padre Island Convention Center grounds include three main attractions for birders.
Laguna Madre Nature Trail
The Laguna Madre Nature Trail head starts right next to the whaling wall. This 1,500-foot boardwalk is spread across acres of marshland, where many coastal and migratory birds can be seen year around. The boardwalk allows birders and photographers to get up-close and personal to the birds. Birds here are generally accustomed to people walking near them.
With limited nearby freshwater, the water feature is a much visited spot for migrating birds.
Providing a safe spot to rest and hunt insects, the clumps of trees in the back of the Convention Center can be hopping with warblers, flycatchers, buntings, orioles and vireos during migration.
Birding the Convention Center
A WARBLER IN MOURNING
As we walked from the parking lot (no fees, free parking), the first group of birders we encountered shared that there was a Mourning Warbler being observed in the back. My expectations for LIFE BIRDS on this trip was not very high and Mourning Warbler was one that I thought I might have a possibility of seeing. With adrenaline pumping I scurried towards the back while trying to get my binoculars strapped on correctly and getting my camera settings checked. As frequently happens in these situations, there were lots of people pointing in different directions and just as many people saying, “Where is it?“. Being a birder first, and bird photographer second, I NEEDED TO SEE IT FIRST, then try to photograph it. I got on the bird fairly quickly with my bins (SCORE #3 for the trip) and then attempted to get my camera to focus on this tiny, continually in motion, hiding behind twigs and leaves, bundle of yellow, green and gray feathers. I alternated between auto-focus and manual-focus trying desperately to get this treasure. After it finally flitted away, not to be seen (by me) again, I scoured through the images on the tiny LCD panel on the back of my camera. I was not very optimistic, but I hoped a little cropping and contrast adjustments might get me at least an identifiable shot of this life bird.
We spent another 30 minutes looking through the trees to try and refind the Mourning Warbler and did manage to see some other species.
Next, we headed out the Laguna Madre Nature Trail boardwalk and immediately found a Northern Waterthrush creeping along the edge of the water.
As we watched the Waterthrush, a group of Black Skimmers flew right over us. We watched as they banked and flew right back again, skimming along the water. While I have seen hundreds of skimmers, I never get tired of watching them slice through the water in search of something tasty to eat.
As we walked along the boardwalk, we could see several shorebirds working through the exposed mudflats including Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper. The WRSA was lifer #4 for the day and trip and would be the last lifer for me on this adventure.
Other birds seen along the boardwalk included Neotropical Cormorant, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron and a couple of Least Terns.
It was hard to pull ourselves away from the Convention Center, but it was now low tide and we wanted to see the mudflats of Laguna Madre and access to it was just north of us.
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!
Why would the three amigos from The Great South Texas Birding Adventure choose South Texas as their destination for this grand escapade? Two things, Lists and Photographs!
Astronomical Growth of Birdwatching
Huge numbers of people are bird-watchers; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that something like forty-eight million Americans watch birds. In fact, birding is one of (if not the) fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the country. Birdwatching is the second most popular hobby in the US (behind gardening) and has become the fastest growing recreational activity among young people in the United States.
What’s the difference between birdwatching and birding?
So, although the interest is the same, what separates birdwatching from birding is the level of commitment. While birdwatchers may have a field guide and pair of binoculars to identify yard birds, birders are slightly more obsessed and are prone to actively travel distances (sometimes great) to see a new bird to add to one or more of their lists. Birders areobsessive about keeping a life list, and often maintain country lists, state lists, county lists, and even zoo and tv lists of the birds they have seen or heard.
Advent of the Photobirder
On the birdwatchingdaily.com website is a story about how birding has changed in the 2010s. In his article “How birdwatching changed in the 2010s“, Matt Mendenhall lists bird photography as the number one factor that changed birding the most.
On the Geographical website Paul Jepson shares that bird photography is broadening public engagement with birds and is central to the design and development of social media and Web 2.0. Blogs, in particular, also create connections between bird-photographers and birders.
Just as there is a distinction of dedication between the birdwatcher and birder; there are different inclinations in bird photographers. Bird-photographers, or photobirders come in different flavors and distinctions.
Photobirder Type 1 – the Photo-IDer While in the field recently, I overheard a photographer comment: “I am a photographer first, birder second. I photograph a bird I see it, and then ID it later while editing my photos with the field guide next to my computer.
I feel sorry for true birders that have to ID the bird in the field without the benefit of a dozen photos to confirm the ID.
Photographer’s comments in the field
Photobirder Type 2 – the Photo-Lister The Photo-Lister tries to get a photo of every species and is not too concerned with quality
Photobirder Type 3 – the Trophy-Hunter The Trophy-Hunter is looking to get an outstanding action shot with the best photographic composition and exposure possible.
What’s so Special About the Lower Rio Grande Valley?
Nowhere else in the United States can the pulse and excitement of spring migration be felt more keenly than in South Texas! Birds funneling up from the Tropics to their summer breeding grounds pass through coastal South Texas in numbers and varieties that stagger the imagination. Adding to that excitement are almost two dozen Mexican northern limit species, plus a slew of regional desert and plains birds.
The second-largest U.S. state boasts a whopping 639 bird species, and perhaps the hottest birding hot spot in North America: The Rio Grande Valley. In South Texas, you can expect to see many species at the northern limits of their global range.
Lower Rio Grande Valley Specialty Birds Species at the northern limits of their global range
Southern US Resident Birds – includes birds typical of the Gulf coast, plains and desert habitats found across the southern US. This includes beautiful birds such as Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, Crested Caracara, Curve-billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren and so on.
Migrating Neotropical Birds – includes dozens of species of birds passing through on their visits to/from Mexico, Central and South America.
On a very early Monday morning on April 26, 2021, 3 intrepid birders from California’s Central Valley set out to travel to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in search of BIRDS. By the time we returned 9 days later, a total of 206 life Texas birds would be checked off our combined eBird totals. For all of us, this would be the first foray out from our isolated COVID-19 living conditions. Fully vaccinated, and following all recommended safety protocols, we ventured into unknown travel environments with many concerns about the interactions at the airport and flying conditions with two flights awaiting us.
As of this write-up almost a month later, fortunately none of us contracted that nasty COVID-19 virus. But I have to admit, I was plenty worried by the time we landed in McAllen. Both flights were packed to the gills with passengers. Jim traveled from Sacramento to San Antonio to McAllen, while Rich and I went via Dallas to McAllen. Rich and my second flight was delayed for more than two hours as we were evicted twice for mechanical issues (broken wipers…). Jim R got a head start on his Hidalgo County list while he dragged his suitcase to the nearby cemetery as he waited for us.
With a top notch Toyota Highlander acquired for our travels, we headed to the Hampton Inn in Harlingen which would be our lodging for the entire adventure. But first, our one and only stop at a Cracker Barrel in Harlingen for an initiatory celebration dinner.
Our conversation over the course of the dinner kept returning to the potential fallout conditions that looked possible later on in the week. As popularized by Jack Black’s character in The Big Year, a fallout is when migrating neotropical birds become exhausted and literally fall out of the sky in search of food and water.
This event happens when the normal south wind assisted migratory flight is hit with a full in-your-face strong north wind. The little birds have to literally fight for their lives to make it to land in search of sustenance. Photos posted during the fall out that happened two weeks prior showed dozens of colorful songbirds just sitting on the grass next to the South Padre Island Convention Center. Looking to the forecast for Friday and Saturday, a north wind was predicted to hit South Padre Island again.
Our plans for the next morning fit right in with The Big Year movie theme as we were going to head to the dump. The Brownsville Landfill to be exact. Home of the rare Tamaulipas Crow – a potential life bird for all of us. And the least scenic location of the entire adventure.
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist) Life List = 186 Year List = 140
Whereas this title may bring to mind either Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Gene Roddenberry’s Start Trek VI, it is merely a reference to the Eastern Merced County grasslands that I had never ventured into before.
I again scoured eBird for recent reports for Eastern Merced County. I seem to be following in the footsteps of Dale Swanberg as he recently reported a couple of my target birds for this area, this time of year. Most of his reports were for areas that I had not seen before.
TARGET BIRDS FOR THE DAY
The following photos were all taken in Stanislaus County, but are the focus of my adventures today.
White Rock Rd. STOP #1
I started driving north and then east on White Rock Road enjoying almost zero traffic for the entire area. Almost immediately I spotted two adult Bald Eagles roosting in a tree.
A short distance later I spied another very distant adult Bald Eagle, and then an even more distant immature Bald Eagle. I reached the county line and turned back, inching along, looking at every sparrow in hopes of finding a Vesper. A very white hawk standing in the field caught my attention. I approached it carefully and noted that it was one of my target birds for the day, a Ferruginous Hawk. Unfortunately as luck would have it, a large cattle truck rumbled very noisily by scaring off my Kodak Moment. 😦
A consolation Burrowing Owl was hiding in the gravel and rock pilings. A barely recognizable photo shows the ID, but it’s not the kind of photo I would like.
ONWARD TO STOP #2
Next up was E. South Bear Creek Dr. in hopes of re-finding the Vesper Sparrow reported by Dale Swanberg. There was literally no traffic and tons of sparrows to sort through. At the end of the road along the fence line was another Ferruginous Hawk, just a bit too far away for a good photo.
Once again, the Vesper Sparrow must not have returned from vespers last night because I didn’t find one here today.
CONTINUING TO STOP #3 – Lake Yosemite County Park
Here I was hoping to find and photograph one of the continuing Vermilion Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, or the Thayer’s Gull photographed by D Krajnovich. It was a sunny, cool and breezy spot, but unfortunately the only thing I succesfully photographed was a pair of Canada Geese at the entrance.
There was also a nice osprey soaring overhead, but it never got close enough for a good shot.
Same thing for a distant Belted Kingfisher’
On the way out, I spotted a likely candidate for the female Vermilion Flycatcher so I turned around for a second pass. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic and all I could do was slow down and shoot while driving past it. I then made the mistake of assuming it was my hoped for bird and I added “it” to my eBird checklist and closed it out. It wasn’t until I got home and had the chance to look at my images that it was painfully clear that my Vermilion Flycatcher was just a Say’s Phoebe. Oops!
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of today’s last checklist) Life List = 187 Year List = 141
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist) Life List = 183 Year List = 122
Seeing a break between storms, I reached out to Rich Brown and Dale Swanberg to see if they wanted to explore the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation areas. I was hoping that something unusual would show up with the unsettled weather and strong winds the day before. We met up in Santa Nella and Dale lead us to Los Banos Creek Reservoir which is a part of the recreation area that I had never visited before. I noticed a couple of new year birds that went unrecorded for the time being as I’m sure I will get them at an actual birding hotspot later (Great-tailed Grackle and Yellow-billed Magpie).
25 Jan 2021 – FIRST STOP LOS BANOS CREEK RESERVOIR
At the bridge over the Delta Mendota Canal, both Rich and I stopped to quickly photograph a female Canvasback that was swimming away.
We quickly caught up with Dale, who was wondering what we were doing. The entrance seemed to be lacking the usual entrance sign that most state recreation areas have. There was a sign at the base of the dam though.
After getting our parking spot assignment, we parked near the entrance, searching for roadrunners that might be hanging out. We dipped on the beep-beep, but had an encounter with a very large pig and about 20 little porkers running behind her. The skies portended inclement weather and the water was choppy.
I was amazed at the number of Aechmophorus grebes hanging out around all coves and inlets of the reservoir. Aechmophorus refers to the genus name of Western and Clark’s Grebes that used to be conspecific until their split back in the late 80s. A quick count using my telescope of the birds I could see gave me a total of a little over 300 birds with the ratio of Western to Clarks at about 10:1.
For a comparison, Clark’s Grebes have an orangish-yellow tint to their bills and their eyes are entirely or mostly surrounded by white facial feathers.
The Western Grebe lacks the orangish tone in the yellow bill and their eyes are surrounded by black facial feathers.
On the way out as we were fording the creek, off to our left was the big momma pig hiding quite effectively in the reeds.
The winds had picked up as we reached the boat launch area and the birds were scattered quite a ways from where we were. Dale and Rich (socially distanced of course), searched every corner for something unusual or new for the year.
As we skimmed over the rafts of Ruddy Ducks and American Coots, we could see distant Canvasbacks, Buffleheads and Common Goldeneyes with nary a Barrow’s to be seen.
Up ahead something caught my eye. It was a small grebe, much smaller than either a Western or Clark’s and it had too distinctive of a white cheek patch to be an Eared Grebe. We pulled over, jumped out and got our binoculars on a nice Horned Grebe. This would be the first of this species to be recorded in the county this year. Horned Grebes are more of a coastal wetlands and bay bird with a few spotted in the valley each year. Not rare, but certainly uncommon.
After checking off the Horned grebe on our eBird Mobile checklist, we focused on the many Scaup flocks, hoping to ID a Greater in with the Lessers. Greater Scaup are similar to Horned Grebes in that they are more usually found along the coast. The one spot they seem easier to find though is exactly where we were.
The Greater Scaup is slightly larger, has a rounded head without any peak and a bill tooth that is relatively wide at the distal end of the bill.
We decided to give the other side of the reservoir a check to see if the winds were a little less knock your hat off.
We were treated to much calmer conditions at the San Luis Creek area and were treated to a flock of Lark Sparrows as soon as we started down the trail.
We enjoyed lots of Juncos and sparrows and some offshore Bufflehead as we walked along the shoreline. There were plenty of kinglets, sparrows and Bushtits, but nothing else unusual or new for the year.