Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Going Too Pharr For A Bird

Since late May a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush has been hanging out in a backyard in Pharr, TX. The nightingale-thrush is normally found in the tropical forests of Central America, and this is the first US record (I’ve seen it in Costa Rica, where it is more expected). Pharr (pronounced far) is down in the Rio Grande Valley, just this side of the Mexican border, and at least a 7 hour drive from my east Texas home.

All summer I’ve more or less ignored news of this wondrous discovery, along with reports of two or three other potential lifers in the Rio Grande Valley. But I had no plans for the weekend, and the idea of sitting around my house for three days was a bit unappealing, so I decided to go for it. Reports of a Greater Flamingo near Brownsville gave me all the extra incentive I needed.

Now conventional wisdom would suggest that August is not the best time for a birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley. It’s hot. Hot and humid. The temperature rises fast in the morning, and you usually don’t get a cool breeze. The air is heavy and still, only disturbed by the loud whine of cicadas. The birds have already nested, and most aren’t singing much at this point. During the middle of the day they become even less active, taking refuge in the shade of dense thorny thickets. Considering all the negatives, my good luck with the birds on this trip was a bit surprising (and even the discomfort wasn’t quite as bad as I anticipated).

I left the house Saturday morning at about 10:15am, followed the arc of the Texas Gulf Coast south, and arrived at the Whatabuger in Pharr at about 5:30pm. As it turned out, the Whataburger was less than a mile from the William’s residence, recent home of the famous nightingale-thrush. By the way, the first Whataburger was in Corpus Christi, TX. Now you know.

The William’s have landscaped their acreage with native plants, creating a small island of "natural" habitat. In the middle of their backyard, in a shady thicket, there is a birdbath with double rows of seats facing it. A constant drip attracts birds. This is where the nightingale-thrush is supposed to make it’s daily appearance, usually in the evening around 8pm.

While I sat there waiting for the bird to make its regular appearance a few other birders arrived. One guy had just come from Houston, had driven almost as far as I, and had forgotten to bring his binoculars! If no other birders had been there this would have spelled disaster, but I told him I’d let him borrow mine if the bird ever showed up. As it turned out, he was the first to see it. While searching the brush with my binoculars he spotted the thrush moving around in the thicket to our right. It was a little after 7:30pm. We both got good views, and later saw it a couple more times, although it never came to the birdbath while we were there. John Odgers, who had emailed me directions to the place, was also present, and gave me directions on where to go for Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots.

Other valley specialties seen in the William’s yard included Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Red-crowned Parrot (a few screeching overhead on their way to somewhere else), Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Olive Sparrow. There was an empid that defied identification, and which I alone seemed to take an interest in (the other people there were completely focused on the one celebrity bird). As the sun went down the cicadas started up, raising an ear-shattering racket. I observed one that was definitely a source of this whining noise, but it didn’t appear to move. I always assumed they produced the sound with their wings, but its wings were resting motionless. So how do they do it? Hmmm...

The next morning (Sunday) I went to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. At the resaca I managed to achieve a kingfisher slam – all 3 North American species (Ringed, Belted, and Green) visible simultaneously in the same line of sight! At one point I was startled to see the big Ringed Kingfisher fly right up to me, chatter in alarm, and do an abrupt turn. Along the trailer loop (which will need a new name, since it’s now closed to trailers) I saw a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, a Bobcat, and a Javelina. Of course I also got many of the usual valley specialties, like Groove-billed Ani, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Oriole.

At Anzalduas County Park I missed the Gray Hawks that nested there this season, but took consolation in finding a Least Grebe along the entrance road. After that I tried searching for the Greater Flamingo along Highway 48 between Brownsville and Port Isabel. No luck. It was a long drive, but at least it wasn't a total waste of time - At Laguna Vista I stopped to scope the Laguna Madre, and saw Redddish Egret and Harris's Hawk, among other things. After that I went back to the William’s residence, and again saw the Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush in their backyard at about 7pm. This time I was the only observer, although I met John Odgers again on my way out.

I had planned to try for Green Parakeet in the evening. Following the directions that John Odgers had given me, I visited a nearby residential area in McAllen, and easily found a few Green Parakeets sitting in palms along a quiet street. Toward sunset more parakeets and a few Red-crowned Parrots began to arrive. Even in this suburban environment I found valley specialties such as Plain Chachalaca, Couch’s Kingbird, and Great Kiskadee. Also there must have been a large roost of Purple Martins somewhere in the vicinity – 50-100 were seen flying over the neighborhood.

When In Roma…
Monday morning I got stopped for speeding in Roma, a sleepy little town on Highway 83 west of McAllen. The officer let me off with a warning, which surprised me, since the towns in that area are notorious speed traps, and probably get most of their revenue from issuing tickets (the speed limit suddenly dips to 30 mph in certain stretches!). I was on my way to Salineno to try for Muscovy Duck, which turned out to be another miss. The Rio Grande was running high, which didn’t seem to bother the Belted, Ringed, and Green Kingfishers that were patrolling the river channel. Farther upstream at Chapeno I made a last-ditch effort to find a Muscovy, and although I missed the duck (and got my feet wet for my trouble) I did get another consolation prize, a fly-by Red-billed Pigeon.

Monday afternoon on my way home I got stopped again. I was birding by car along Highway 77, where it cuts through the famous King Ranch. I doubled back a couple of times near the first rest stop south of Sarita (well known to birders for sometimes hosting Tropical Parulas) to check out raptors perched along the highway. One of the birds I stopped for turned out to be an adult White-tailed Hawk (cool!). But in circling around I repeatedly passed a white SUV parked at crossover points. Wherever I went, there was that white SUV, and I was beginning to feel like I was being followed…

Well then I was headed north again, and several miles up the road there was that white SUV, and then two Border Patrol vehicles pulled onto the highway, and their lights came on, and I was being stopped. The guy from the unmarked white SUV walked over and told me to keep my hands up where he could see them…Well I knew that they were making a mistake, so I wasn’t that worried. Apparently there's a lot of traffic in illegal aliens in the area where I had been birding, and my behavior led them to believe I was acting as a mule or something. The binoculars around my neck and all the birding stuff in my car cleared things up pretty quick, and soon I was on my way again. Feel kind of bad about wasting their time.

I got back home late Monday evening, and now I’m starting another string of graveyard shifts. Here is the bird list from my three-day trip to South Texas:

Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Harris's Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Plain Chachalaca, American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Laughing Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Rock Pigeon, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Greater Roadrunner, Groove-billed Ani, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Couch's Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Cave Swallow, Barn Swallow, Green Jay, Chihuahuan Raven, Black-crested Titmouse, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Bewick's Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (!), Northern Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, White-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Olive Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, Altamira Oriole, House Sparrow.


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