Monday, April 10, 2006

Birder of the Year: Monday

The possibility of seeing hawks lured us -- Sheridan, Leigh and me -- back to Santa Ana NWR. We walked in with Martin, and Plain Chachalacas and Couch's Kingbirds greeted us. Then a Broad-winged Hawk flew across the road -- the first of many raptors.

Martin spotted four Mississippi Kites perched in a tall, bare tree. They remained oblivious to us, and we enjoyed many looks from different points before they flew. Such beautiful gray birds of prey.

We focused on finding a Northern or Tropical Parula, walking underneath the trees draped in Spanish moss. The parula's wind-up song kept taunting us, but in the meantime, we saw Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Bronzed Cowbird (blazing red eyes!), Long-billed Thrasher, Green Jay, Harris's Hawk and Olive Sparrow. The latter appeared to be bathing by rubbing against wet bougainvillea leaves -- fun to watch.

Then Martin pointed out the hawks overhead. The morning lift-off had begun! We hustled to an open area and marvelled at the Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawks soaring overhead in kettles. A Crested Caracara blazed across our view.

On the walk toward the hawk watch, we saw two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, male and female on the telephone wire, giving us a chance to see the difference in tail length. An Altamira Oriole blazed across the gravel road leading to the hawk watch. There, we enjoyed the dozens and dozens of TVs and Swainson's overhead before meeting up with Carla and beginning the drive up river.

If someone hasn't driven west on 83, he or she might be surprised by the changes in scenery -- both natural and man-made. I'd mentioned to Leigh and Carla that parts of south Texas can look like a Third World country; I don't think they believed me until we arrived at Chapeno (northwest of Roma) and El Rio RV Park.

Spots like that make it clear that birding -- and the money that birders spend to eat, sleep and fuel their cars while looking for birds -- is an economic benefit to the local population. We need to educate those residents and the local governments about that fact. No one else can convey that fact adequately; it's up to us. (Stepping off the soapbox now.)

The birds really made us wait for 'em, but we saw Osprey, Pied-billed Grebe, a familiar subspecies of Anas rubberii, American Coot, Great Blue Heron, Common Moorhen and Purple Martin. The latter flew close to the river's surface and quickly dipped its chest into the water repeatedly; Leigh said it's a cooling technique used by nesting birds.

Black Vulture, Neotropical Cormorant, Red-winged Blackbird and Ringed Kingfisher also made appearances along the river. The desired avian guest, Brown Jay, didn't visit the platform feeder near the river, but an immature (with the yellow bill) and an adult (with the dark bill) eventually visited the feeder near the office. Leigh was stoked to see the rare corvid.

A quick stop at Salineno revealed few birds, notably our first Northern Cardinals of the trip. Then Sheridan and Martin departed for home, while our trio departed for sustenance. We found cool refreshments at the "Texas stop sign," where the Birder of the Year enjoyed her first Blizzard ever.

After a bit of a trek east and south, we found Vieh's Bed & Breakfast in San Benito right where Lana said it would be: to the right of the big white mailbox. We also found dozens of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks perched in the trees and on the house's roof. Charlie provides nestboxes for the squeaky-sounding ducks, and they provide lots of entertainment.

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