30 January 2016


As you have probably heard by now, we were missing our targets... and in epic ways.  Drive to Canada for the Smew?  Missed it.  Try for the Kelp Gull 7x... no luck.  Look around in Florida (twice!) for anis... still no luck.  Drive from NY to MN for the Ivory Gull?  Sure... and you'll miss it by less than 24 hours.

Surely, the method of breaking that curse would involve driving to Texas!  I mean, the list of potential lifers down there was pretty high for us.  Rarities were being seen like Golden-crowned Warbler and Flame-colored Tanager which would both be new ABA birds for us.  Additionally, Tropical Parula has been reliable and that would be new for Ashley.  Then there are the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls that I've yet to catch up with and other rarities like Blue Bunting and Masked Duck that could show up anytime.

So we did just that.  After hanging out in Missouri for a few days recouping from our Minnesotan letdown meltdown, we blasted south (picking up new counties as we fled).  So here we go... best "Brace yourself"

Our first (and main) destination was Lions / Shelley Park in the town of Refugio:

We had high hopes, both the warbler and tanager had been seen recently.  So we got out and started the hunt alongside the hoard of rarity-chasers one might expect.  The only problem with this whole scenario, of course, is that we were doomed.  Somehow, someway, we missed both targets!

Not to panic, though, we had lots of time.  No, actually, you CAN panic now because after trying for these targets for parts of 3 days, we STILL came up empty.  

If there was any consolation prize, it's that we were able to surround ourselves with fun species we weren't going to see in New York or Missouri.  One such example, and actually a really rare bird for Texas, was the long-staying GREATER PEWEE that hangs out by the parking lot: 
When you put in the kind of time we put in at this park, you start to see all sorts of things you'd likely miss if you just breezed through.  A great example of that was when, in our failing, we found a pair of BARRED OWLS.  A photogenic bird, for sure:
Another great bird for Texas in the winter was this LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH, a long-staying bird that we found foraging along the riverbanks of the Mission River.  In fact, this is the first time I've ever seen this species in a winter month in the ABA area:
However, missing both of those ABA targets was on the verge of devastating.  Clearly we needed to avoid chasing birds.

But no, we didn't.

Remember, the parula?  We thought we'd head down to Frontera Audubon where a couple of goodies have been reliable.  Frontera Audubon Sanctuary, an oasis of habitat located in an urban Weslaco neighborhood, has long been a magnet for oddities in the LRGV:

As it turns out, I first visited this spot 12 years ago on my first trip to southern Texas.  It was on that trip that most of the Texas specialties were brand new and eye-opening to me.  On this visit, well, they're still pretty freaking cool!

Here's a GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER, a close relative of the Red-bellied Woodpecker, just hanging out back by the feeders:
See the red cap on the head?  That plumage mark indicates it's a male (females lack that):
From the back, the golden nape is as vivid as ever.  I was interested to find that the upper part of this yellow patch had orangish/reddish overtones:
Another year-round resident species you'll probably see in south Texas that you won't see elsewhere in the ABA area is the LONG-BILLED THRASHER.  Don't ask me why this species got pegged as "long-billed" when plenty of its relatives out west have much longer bills.  Perhaps this species was described first and only in comparison with Brown Thrasher?  Regardless, here's one rootin' around under the feeders:
Another ground-dweller in southern Texas is the OLIVE SPARROW, the only member of the Arremonops genus we have in the ABA area.  Here's one skulking around in the early light:
While we're discussing skulkers at Frontera, I might mention this PAINTED BUNTING that has been seen there this winter.  Although they're rare in Texas in the winter, this particular one has been right at home in the tangles and thick veg near the back feeding station:
Unlike the above skulkers, south Texas is home to a truly raucous species of flycatcher, the bold and widespread GREAT KISKADEE.  In fact, you'll probably hear one before you seen one.  They sound like this:
Their black-and-white head, yellow belly, and rufous back/tail all in one package makes for an attractive bird!
This TURKEY VULTURE was taking a break from sticking its bare head into corpses to say hi to us.  Hi.
If you're enjoying the sunny warmth of the southern US (which we were...some of the time), you may as well share it with some exotic waders.  This WHITE IBIS posed quite regally, quite proud... as if it forgot it was standing in some of its own poo:
South Texas is home to the diminutive GREEN KINGFISHER, a sometimes-tricky and quiet species of slow-moving streams and backwaters.  We caught up to this one but it didn't stick around long enough for me to capture a sharp image of it:
Frontera Audubon is a great place to catch up to another Texas specialty, the BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD.  We saw many but photographed only this one:
Since south Texas is nice, warm, and has plenty of food, several songbird species hang out for the winter before migrating back north to breed in the summer.  We saw several examples of this including a dozen species of warblers.  This particular one was out for a stroll as well; the distinctive OVENBIRD:
Not only warblers tend to stick around somewhere like that, it also hosted a couple of species of vireos including this BLUE-HEADED VIREO that came to us in some early-morning shade:
Even the doves down there are funky.  Take for example, the mega-scaly INCA DOVE that when it sings, sounds vaguely similar to "INC-uh".  Well, ok, maybe not... but it's how I remember it!
If you hear something in south Texas that sounds like velociraptors eviscerating some poor creature in the bushes, it's probably just the PLAIN CHACHALACAS that roam the south Texan jungles.  This one was squaring off with another chachalaca; note the stretched neck and odd posture:
Once upon a time, seeing a CLAY-COLORED THRUSH in south Texas was a big deal.  In recent years, however, this relative of our robin has done well and is now fairly common throughout.  In a given day at Frontera, we would see at least 3-4.  Although they're not as bold out in the open like the American Robin, you can still catch up to them in the thick undergrowth:
By now you've probably figured out that I'm drawing this out.  Did we catch up to anything rare at Frontera?  Well, MOST of the birders swarming the maze of trails were after an elusive and secretive bird endemic to Mexico, the Code 4 CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAK.  And, after birding the park for a couple of days, we eventually caught up to it too:
Although Ashley and I didn't actually need this as a life bird, they're rare enough that seeing another one is always a treat.  My lifer CCGR came at this exact park 12 years ago (on my first trip to southern TX, no less!).

As for the parula, you ask?  You mean the one bird that Ashley actually needed?  Of course, it was a no-show.  In now-normal fashion, we somehow managed to miss the birds we wanted the most.  Sadly, this no longer came as a surprise.

We figured maybe we needed to reset our karma sensor or something and so we bailed and decided to swing down to Santa Ana NWR which sits right on the Mexico border:

Our main reason for this side trip was to see the continuing Code 4 NORTHERN JACANA that has been around there for ages.  After the short hike in, we were relieved to actually find our target for once.  Of course, it was WAY in the distance and we didn't bother bringing a scope... so a horrible photo ensued.  Note the "Nessy" posture only one of my famously-bad photos is capable of showing:
Like before, although this is a rare bird, Ashley and I had already seen one in Arizona 8 years ago.  But hey, we were happy to see another.

Here's a first.  I was driving through Weslaco when Ashley said "Turn around, there was a Gray Hawk on the power lines back there".  Sure enough.  Hmm, kinda cool!
It was a hard decision but we eventually decided against sticking around in Texas hoping for our targets to reappear... if they were even still around; our bad luck was just too powerful.  So, with heavy bins, we tucked Bogens and headed north.  Maybe the Ivory Gull would stick another two days for us to try again?

End of story?  Ehhh... not quite.

It was getting late in the day as we drove north out of the LRGV.  We decided to take a quick detour out to the flat agricultural fields in hopes for SPRAGUE'S PIPIT, a somewhat secretive species we don't get to see too often.  I drove through the area back in 2013 and had half a dozen on one stretch of road... so we went there.  And missed them there.  Oh great, not again!  As we were heading back to the interstate, Ashley caught a glimpse of... plovers in a field?  We weren't sure so we turned around and took another look.  They were LONG-BILLED CURLEWS hunched down distantly in a field with only their heads sticking up.  As we sat there.... squeet squeet!... a pipit flushed nearby giving the easily-recognizable call notes.  Ha!  Victory.

Even though we were heading home without adding any lifers, we looked back and were glad we took the trip.  If nothing else, the great expanse of Texas reminded us that there will always be more reasons to return.