Monday, July 26, 2010

Texas Pelagic Trip & Rio Grande Valley Birding, 17-18 July

Thought I'd post a belated report on the pelagic trip out of South Padre Island on July 17th.  What a great trip!  These days it's rare that I am able to spend a full weekend birding, rarer still that I travel a substantial distance to do so.  Parental responsibilities tend to limit such activities and keep me close to home.  So I was really looking forward to this trip, and as it turned out, I was not disappointed.  We saw some good birds, and encountered some awesome marine creatures that made the trip unforgettable.  Afterward I visited some Rio Grande Valley sites before heading for home.

The Gulf of Mexico is off the main migratory path of most pelagic species, and I had been told (repeatedly) not to expect much.  Texas pelagic trips typically produce very low numbers compared to similar trips off the east and west coasts, and this trip was no exception - we had less than twenty individual birds that would qualify as truly pelagic, including 5 Masked Boobies, about 8 Band-rumped Storm-Petrels (a lifer for me), a Greater Shearwater (only the 16th state record?), and 2-3 Bridled Terns.  Actually, my impression was that there were plenty of birds, it was just that the vast majority were terns, and they were concentrated over shallower waters and around shrimp boats.  It was only when we were far offshore, over deeper water, that the birds became very few and far between.

The Greater Shearwater was clearly "the bird of the day."  It was found far offshore, associating with a school of tuna that were churning up the water in a feeding frenzy.  This bird REALLY liked our boat, and stayed with us for quite a while, giving us no shortage of good photo opportunities:
As rare and exciting as the shearwater was, it was overshadowed by the sudden appearance of a whale shark at our bow!  After that initial sighting it was announced that there were as many as three present in and around the area in which the tuna were feeding (I can't personally attest to that, because whenever I spotted one my attention remained riveted on that one individual).  Here one is seen raising its head to the surface (like a whale "spy-hopping"):
On our way out, just as we reached deep water, I spotted a whale off our bow.  It turned out to be more than one whale, but they were elusive, and went unidentified (speculation was that they were probably beaked whales).  We also had Bottlenosed Dolphins bow-riding, and one lone individual that came to the boat appeared to be of the larger pelagic type.  Flying fish were often seen skipping across the water, and at one point I saw a sailfish jump in our wake.  Most of the time there was nothing to see, but isn't that how it usually is?  Moments of intense excitement punctuating long periods of boredom.

Whale Shark & adult Masked Booby:
Sunday morning, July 18th, I drove part of Old Port Isabel Road in Brownsville looking for sparrows, particularly Botteri's, which would be a state bird for me.  Cassin's Sparrows were performing their flight songs, and I managed to kick up a few Botteri's Sparrows (larger bill, buffy unstreaked breast) along the roadsides.  This immature White-tailed Hawk was perched on a fencepost near the road, holding some unfortunate creature in its talons.
Near the intersection of Port Isabel Road and FM 511 I came across a mix of flycatchers that included a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a Western Kingbird, and 2-3 Tropical Kingbirds (vocalizing to distinguish themselves from Couch's).  Tropical Kingbird was a new state bird for me, and a species I had been hoping to see on this trip.  Apparently they have greatly expanded their Texas range in recent years.  Here's one perched on a roadside wire:
...and here's a Couch's Kingbird seen minutes later at Los Ebanos Preserve:
Shortly after I arrived at Los Ebanos Preserve a lady approached me to see what I was doing.  She informed me that the preserve was closed after May, and explained that it was too hot, and the local people "don't go birding in summer."  When she found out I that lived in Texas she commented that I must be used to the heat (which at 9 a.m. wasn't really that bad).  I don't think she intended to chase me off, but I was uncomfortable about the trespassing issue and figured it was time to leave. 

About birding in the summer heat...yes, it can be uncomfortable, particularly at midday, but the birding can be just as good as at any other season.  I've had great experiences birding the Rio Grande Valley in summer, and if the locals want to spend the whole season indoors that's their loss.

My last stop was the Nature Conservancy's Chihuahua Woods Preserve near Mission.  Hook-billed Kites had recently nested there, and I was hoping they might still be in the area.  I didn't see the kite, but as soon as I got to the gate I spotted a Groove-billed Ani perched in a tree ahead, and just past the ani I had a male Verdin and a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet vying for my attention.  The tyrannulet responded very inquisitively to my pishing, allowing me to get some nice photos:
This is my bird list for that morning, in case any Texans who don't go birding in summer would like to know what they are missing (note: due to flooding and park closures along the Rio Grande I was unable to visit any of the great birding spots on the river):

Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Tricolored Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Harris's Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Northern Bobwhite,  Killdeer, Laughing Gull, Black Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani, Greater Roadrunner, Common Nighthawk, hummingbird sp., Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Couch's Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, White-eyed Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Bewick's Wren, Verdin, Horned Lark, House Sparrow, Botteri's Sparrow, Cassin's Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird.


Post a Comment

<< Home