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.
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.