“How many Lifers?” This is the question I was asked when I returned from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, my first trip ever to Texas. A Life Bird, for any non-birder reading this blog, is a bird that you have seen for the first time. And, seen well, no quick fly by or back view. Life Birds are a source of pride and status in the birding world. A subset of Life Birds is ABA Birds, birds you’ve seen in the North American geographical area accepted by the American Birding Association. But, when my friends ask me, “How many Lifers did you get in Texas?,” my answer is, “I haven’t counted yet. All I know is, I saw some perfectly marvelous birds in a perfectly marvelous state near the perfectly marvelous Rio Grande.”
Here are some of those birds.
I was driving down a road south of Laguna Atascoa NWR on a late afternoon, noting to myself how long the tails of the mockingbirds were in Texas, when it hit me. “Those are not mockingbirds!” I shouted at myself in my head, pulling over to the side of the road. Yup, it was row upon row of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. It’s funny what the brain will tell you when your eyes are seeing something else. It was a busy road, and I was scared that if I put one foot out of the car I would flush all the Scissor-taileds as well as the Couch’s Kingbirds and Loggerhead Shrikes that were also perched intermittently down the wires. So, I photographed the birds from my car. I’ve seen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in Florida and even in New Jersey, but this was the first time that I’ve watched those tails in action. They really do look like scissors opening and closing when the bird flies, especially if it’s chasing, as this one is, a yummy dragonfly.
This is the “default” hummingbird in the the Rio Grande Valley, and I saw one or two every day, wherever there were feeders or flowers. I was surprised that the hummers were still there in November. Texas is the only place where they breed in the United States. I photographed this hummer at Hugh Ramsey Park, on the outskirts of Harlingen, a very good site for Texas specialties.
This is a rather plain looking and very sweet sparrow that is one of Texas’s “specialties,” a neotropical species that belongs in Mexico and other countries of Central America and which has also made a home in the Rio Grande Valley. It doesn’t migrate and can be found in thickets and undergrowth. I’m not sure if this was a Life Bird or an ABA Bird for me, I need to check my Costa Rica list. I was very happy to see it on the Upper Rio Grande Field Trip led by Jeffrey Gordon (I believe it was leader Ben Lizdas who coaxed them out into the open) and the next day in Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen, where this photo was taken. I actually succeeded in drawing out this bird for another birder with a tiny bit of playback. And, then we realized there were two of them. And three. Maybe four! It is a common bird throughout the Valley, but not always easy to see because it loves those thickets.
This small kingfisher can be hard to spot, it just sits very quietly on a branch near the water. And then, it will quickly fly out, over your head, and to another pond out of your camera’s reach! Well, this was my experience when I saw the bird till I got to Sabal Palms. This is a female. The male was seen later in the trip:
Pyrrhuloxia, Cardinalis sinuatus
I’ve wanted to see a Pyrrhuloxia ever since my friend Marylee told me about them. Pyrrhuloxia is a bird that looks like a Northern Cardinal, but isn’t, with a name that is much harder to spell. (I ended up just calling it Pyrrs and Lox.) I saw a male and a female at the feeders at Falcon State Park; this one is the female. The male had a stylish red-gray coloring, but would not deign to pose. Pyrrhuloxia is another of the several Life Birds I saw on my first festival trip, the Upper Rio Grande, definitely one of the highlights of the week.
At the end of every festival birding day, before partaking of the Kiskadee Kordial, birders fanned throughout Harlingen looking for parrots coming home to roost. I was told to go to the Holiday Inn, in the middle of Harlingen, for Green Parakeets. This is an established population in the Rio Grande Valley, and a parrot species considered countable by the ABA. At 5pm on the dot, about 50 squawking Green Parakeets flew over the Holiday Inn and landed on wires across the road, cuddling and chuckling and licking drops of water from a leaking pipe on the roof of a wireless phone company. Fifteen minutes of fun, and then they were off again!
Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus
Roadrunners are the birds that cartoons are made of (beep beep!), and us Easterners can’t get enough of them. I had a quick view of one on my SoCal trip, and saw this quirky beauty on the road, drinking in warmth on this tree. The bus driver obligingly pulled over and inched up and back as all 48 birders tried to photograph the bird through the windows. What I like about this photo is that it shows off the blue around the eye, which reminds me of Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and the fact that Roadrunners, like Anis (see below) are members of the Cuckoo family.
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium brasilianum
The one sure place to find Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the Rio Grande Valley is at the King Ranch. The RGVBF field trip took us to the Norias division of the Ranch, which is huge, 825,000 acres, and scattered in different parcels throughout southern Texas. We spent the early morning walking a field in search of Sprague’s Pipit (we found them, Life Bird!), and then searched for the owl. I’ve read blogs which describe finding this tiny owl very easily, but for some reason it took over an hour for our group to finally see him, way back in the live oak. (Oh, I see elsewhere that it is a lot easier to find in spring. Good to know.)
I was one of the few people in the group who saw the owl posed right in front of us for one minute, and gave up my most excellent photo op so I could try to get other birders on it. Of course the owl quickly flew into the owl fourth dimension, and I’ve been wondering if my fruitless altruism was stupid or the birder thing to do ever since. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are common in Central and South America, where I’ve seen them numerous times. The best part of these owls is that they have large black spots on the back of their head that look like eyes. This is a very fuzzy photo, but it gives you the general idea. Yes, back of head.
Another thrill while birding the King Ranch was looking up at one point and seeing a sky filled with White Pelicans.
Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris
Anis are wonderfully primitive looking birds usually seen in Central and South America, in farm fields and pastures in small family groups. This is where I’ve seen them during my travels. (I’ve also seen Smooth-billed Anis in Florida, but they’re hard to find there these days.) Anis are good birds to know about if you do crossword puzzles. There are Smooth-billed Anis and Groove-billed Anis, and they look alike, only the Groove-billed Anis have more grooves in their huge bills. Southern Texas is the only place where you can reliably find Groove-billed Anis in the U.S., but this is usually during the summer, so people got very excited when a group of these birds was sighted at the Santa Ana NWR.
My field trip on Friday missed the Anis, so my first stop on November 11th, a post-festival day and my last day in Texas, was Santa Ana NWR. I was happy to bump into Irene and Saul Grysman there, birding friends from Queens who had also attended the festival. They were also looking for the Anis, and we planned to meet up again at Willow Lake, where they had been seen in the past few days, about a 15-minute walk. I needed to do a rest room stop and sign in at the Visitor’s Center. (There was no entrance fee because it was Veteran’s Day, but the refuge still asked that you sign in and get a yellow wristband. This is what happens when you’re near the border.)
When I emerged from the ladies’ room, I was startled to see Irene gesturing to me from an area just beyond the feeders that were just beyond the Visitor’s Center. A small group of birders had their bins trained on something. I really did not think it would be the Anis. First of all, the Anis had pretty much only been seen at Willow Lake. Second, I was so discouraged from Friday’s experience, I couldn’t believe I could be so lucky to see the birds first thing in the morning. I was envisioning spending the whole day looking for the darned cuckoos (yes, Anis are members of the cuckoo family). Welcome disappointment! Irene, Saul, and their guide, Bob Behrstock, had found the group of six Groove-billed Anis right there, a half-minute walk from the entrance. They were happily feeding in a group of large bushes, or small trees, sometimes totally disappearing in the foliage.
Rose-throated Becard, Pachyramphus aglaiae
There are some birds that just talk to your inner core. Rose-throated Becard is one of those birds for me. I hear the name and I immediately flash back to my first birding travel adventure in 2003, a Field Guides trip to southeast Arizona. (I feel sad that Field Guides no longer offers this particular trip, where you stayed at the Crown C Ranch in Sonoita and did day trips. It worked very well for me as a beginning birder and for older, more experienced birders who didn’t want the stress of traveling to different motels every few days.)
Rose-throated Becards had nested earlier in the season across from the famous Patagonia rest stop, and the word was that the birds were still there, though the nest had either been abandoned or disturbed, I don’t remember which. I do remember that the nest was behind a fence, and that there was a lot of discussion about the fence, and that one of the experienced birders on the trip really really wanted to see the Becard. My first encounter with a dedicated lister! So, we spent a lot of time at this spot during the week. At one point, I saw leaves move. I thought I saw a bit of a bird. I was so excited! For years I had Rose-throated Becard on my life list till common sense prevailed and I took it off till I could put it back on again after seeing, really seeing, the bird in Costa Rica.
But, even now, I hear Rose-throated Becard and I get all trembly and excited inside, connecting back to that feeling of new discovery and listing mania in Arizona. So, when Saul Grysman flagged me down as I was leaving Santa Ana NWR and told me that he and Bob Behrstock had just seen a Rose-throated Becard in the parking lot, about 36 feet from where I had been sitting in my car, I did an inner squee and jumped out. The Becard had flown almost immediately from this first sighting. I searched and left and returned. It was in the picnic area. It might have returned to the parking lot. I talked to local birders about previous Becards at Santa Ana. We were in the middle of observing a Common Green Darner eating a Black Saddlebags (or vice versa, it was really hard to tell), when word came that an enterprising birder had re-re-located it on the tiny dead-end path off the picnic area. I ran. I got into the required position to see the Becard, ensconced high up in a tree at the end of the dead-end path. I cooed and squeed and my heart leaped up and down. The birders waiting in line to stand in the required position were patient, but I could sense eyebrows being raised. So, I quickly took the above photo and gave up my spot. My trip to Texas was complete.