So about once a year my patents invite us to go with them to wherever they traded their time share this year. Usually its a place at least more south than Wisconsin, and probably with some good birding or other interesting wildlife or natural history type features within a reasonable day trip distance. So far, Ryan and I haven’t managed to be in a place where between budget, pets (at various times including dogs, cats, chickens, and maybe ferrets), heating the off-grid home when we still were in PA, and other logistics, where we could both be away from home for more than a few days. Ryan has been gallant and stayed home to “guard the fort” so I could spend time with my amazing parents.
This year we went to South Padre Island, Texas. Its a loooong drive from Mom and Dad’s house in northern Wisconsin, and because of the massive storm and power outages that hit the evening I was planning to drive to Wisconsin after work, my first day drive was about 3 hours loooonger. But that’s ok, driving with them is a blast, we get along well.
Every year, Dad keeps a list of all the bird species he sees, and Mom usually sees about the same birds–excepting maybe once and a rare while where one of them happens to be in the lucky spot and see a chance unusual bird pop up. If you have read many of my other blogs, you already know that birding is something I enjoy, too. That makes it easy enough to decide most days what we are going to do, more or less.
We keep our eyes out while driving, because there is always the tiny chance something unusual and hopefully easy to identify will be perched along the interstate or swoop over the road. Something super obvious like a snowy owl, something you can i.d. at 65 miles per hour on a cloudy day. Even without that kind of bonus, depending on where you are, it seems like there is a hawk of varying amount of buffy brownish creamy mottle streaks is perched on a fence post, power pole or line, tree top, or yep, “hawk on the pole” again. Even better, they’re fine with cars driving past but as soon as you stop to take a picture or peek at them with binoculars they fly off because odd behavior from a car might be dangerous.
While we enjoy and do our best at bird spotting, watching, and identifying, we aren’t super expert. I admit we all probably will recognize the major feeder birds (like ones you would see at a bird feeder, not ones you are feeding to things!) and some others (especially if the rascals hold still), and we would know some characteristics on a bird to try to check to make identification easier, we also probably know a little more than someone not interested in birding. We’d at least know where to start looking in our bird books, and that makes it a lot easier to try to figure a bird out. Sometimes, they don’t cooperate, and you just have to be happy with “well, it was some crazy warbler looking thing” or “another really impressive brown mottled hawk”…
So with two days of serious (like maybe 15 hours per day) driving split between the three of us, and a third day of maybe 6-8 hours, we made it safely to South Padre Island. It’s on the southern tip of Texas and also on the ocean. Not quite Mexico, but far enough south to start really being in a more Mexico desserty kind of ecosystem just inland, and therefore have a lot of species you would not usually see in Wisconsin or Michigan, especially at this time of the year. Some of them you wouldn’t see even in northern most Texas. So that kind of makes the drive worth it. We have been to South Padre Island a few times in the past, so we have a few remembered good starts for birding. And we always pick up info from other birders we meet along the way.
Having said all that, expect most of my pictures to be of birds. Most of the rest will be of the landscape or animals.
I will try to identify accurately but I cannot promise I am right, a few birds I may not know, and honestly, it’s just what we thought they were. A few of them we had help in identifying from more skilled birders, which is nice because birds in real life never are posed exactly like the bird book illustration, and things you can obviously see on them in the book can look totally different from a distance through binoculars on a cloudy day.
On the last day of driving down, we stopped at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. A large portion of world population the very endangered Whooping Cranes winter there. We’re talking rare like in 1941, there were about 15 in the world. If you’ve ever seen a Sandhill Crane, make it white, and larger and that’s a quick description of the Whooping Crane. There is essentially one area they nest in the summer in the north, and one area they winter … in the winter. So if you want to see them, your best bet in the winter is Aransas. That’s also where last time we went, we saw a Great Kiskadee and it was super cool, we saw one, just one, but it was cool! And this trip, well, we saw lots. They’re yellow and black and white.
So here is a huge dump of the pictures…
I am not sure I have them exactly in order. I’m also not sure about that yellow sign… I mean, if I went to the rest room to do what is usually the point of going to said room… am I allowed to flush it? I mean, I’m only allowed to flush water and toilet paper… I think that bug (yes, not just an insect, a true bug) is a leaf-footed bug. I thought it was an assassin bug, but I’ve done some internet noodling and leaf-footed bug is more similar.
After Aransas, we got back on the road and drove into the evening to get South Padre Island. Oil refractories or whatever those were can look really spectacular in the night. It was super windy the next day, and because of that it was kind of chilly despite being warm. That day we just got settled in, got groceries, and recuperated from the drive. The next day, we went to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge the next day. It’s one of Dad’s favorites because of the bird blind, he really likes Green Jays. I got better pictures coming up of Aransas, and some of these I took with my cell phone, some with my camera. And I am really sure these pictures are either missing a day or out of sequence, because the Laguna Atascosa pictures here are from the next day, when we went back and took the guided bird tour in the morning, which meant we got to be in a bus with some other bird people and a husband and wife who drove and spotted and helped ID birds. Also, it meant we got to go on a road which is not available to be driven by car unless you are with the tour or like, NWR maintenance staff because it’s sort in dire need of repair in a few locations but construction has been delayed. We got lucky and spotted Bobwhites on the side of the road leaving one of the refuges, which was cool.
Anyway, we saw armadillos at least 4 times. One of them must have been fed from vehicles because when we stopped to take a picture, I opened the side door on the van, and it headed straight for it. Of course my empty soda bottle flew out because of the wind, and I had to chase the bottle as soon as I got a few pictures, but the little hopeful cutie almost went under the van.
Just about every day we ended up stopping in at this little birding spot, it was about 1/2 a block in size, but was split onto two sides of a side street on South Padre Island (Sheephead street?), and was maintained by a land conservancy group as a bird refuge… a place for birds to stop in and refuel and rest, or hang out or whatever. We met a lot of experienced birders with expensive scopes and cameras (and lots with less high tech equipment) and saw some birds there but they never held still for a good picture.
And then we tried the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, which was a lot lot LOT smaller than the wildlife refuges we had already been to but is also very full of birds. And turtles. And some alligators. There were skimmers, gallinules, coots, great egrets, a green egret, tri-colored herons, pin tailed ducks, other water fowl, we saw a couple rails (same one? or different individuals of the same species? who knows! I think they were … clapper rails? Carolina rails? I forget..), roseate spoonbills, a mottled duck, Mexican mallards, a night heron, great blue herons, and so many more! Oh yah, and a very INTENSE great-tailed grackle!
Our next birding adventure was at a place recommended by many birders at our previous stops. Just about everyone phrased something like this: “Have you been to Estero Llano Grande State Park yet? And when you go, make sure you go to Nana’s Taqueria!” So, we went to Weslaco, Texas where both of them are, and they were both great!
At Estero, it was cloudy for the first bit, then got super sunny. We saw a bunch of different water birds and other birds at the deck at the visitor center, and a lot along the paths. Some of the other birders helped us identify what we were seeing (and a lot of them also said to go to Nana’s… Seriously, I’m saying: Go. To. Nana’s. It’s not super expensive, it tastes great, and it’s like a few miles from Estero. And fancy clothes are not necessary . And the food was yummy but bland enough for me, because I asked for bland. They can make it spicier if you want it that spicy, but however spicy or not ya want it, it is super yummy!
We saw Green-winged Teals, Blue-winged Teals, I think there were some Northern Shovelers, more Pintails, Gadwalls (I love them! They’re sooo cool looking!), Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, various egrets and herons. Hm. That was at the observation deck. We saw other birds that of course didn’t hold still long enough to identify and I’m definitely not going to remember all the birds we did figure out. We saw a Vermillion Flycatcher female, which was a tricky one. It was kind of brighter colored than the book but a lot of other birders said we’d see one right where it was hanging out, and there wasn’t really anything else it could have been.
Dad has a set of birds he looks forward to seeing when we get this far south, those include the Green Jay (the ultimate of ultimates), the Great Kiskadee, the Roadrunner, and the Plain Chachalaca. He’s also pretty interested in the Crested Caracara. We had already seen the Kiskadees in several places, the Green Jays ditto, the Caracaras were on just about any fence or telephone pole top a few places we drove, and we spotted a Roadrunner sneaking into the bushes at Laguna Atascosa on our own, then the next day on the tour we saw one on the side of the road posing (or warming in the sun?). Every time we spotted our first individual of each species on the list, there was the “Hurray!” feeling of finding one of the ultimate birds, and then we joke about well, now we just need to find a/an [insert bird on list] before we go home. We jokingly acted like well gosh, the rest of the birds we have seen weren’t good enough, even the ones on the informal epic list, and we aren’t going to be satisfied by anything less than the [insert next bird name]. So we kind of were down to the Chachalaca—which is a super fun name to say. I felt bad because Mom wanted to see a paraloxia… a paradoxical… oh fine I’ll check the bird book for the spelling. It looks kind of like a cardinal, but it’s greyer. Pyrrhuloxia. That one… anyway, we all kept our eyes open for one but didn’t see one.
Luckily, we did find a BUNCH of those Chuchuchuchulalalalalalalacacacacacaaas at Estero. They’re kind of like a pigeon and a turkey were blended together. When we weren’t spotting them, we saw what we think was probably a Yellow-Throated Warbler (not to be confused with the Common Yellowthroat… which we saw at the Bird Center and is also a warbler…with a lot of yellow on it, including on the throat). And the little squirt (the Yellow-Throated, not the Yellowthroat) didn’t flit, dart, and zip fast enough to stop me from taking a bunch of blurry pictures, and a few which were almost in focus.
Here are some more pictures, including the Snipe, Chachalaca, Kiskadee, Killdeer, a Tropical Kingbird (someone heard it sing, and said Tropical, because that’s the only way to tell it from a Couch’s), a Paraque, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. There also were a few lizards–one was over a foot long and up in a tree in the sun, and another was super tiny, only a few inches on a sign side. The Paraque was super exciting because we weren’t really expecting to see one… usually you get super lucky and get surprised by seeing one, or a local knows where one hangs out on a regular basis and you get lucky and it’s where it often is when they show or tell you where to look. The first person at a different birding place had said he sees one in certain area occasionally and a bunch of us went with him to see if it was there, and it wasn’t. So for another birder to mention that he could show us one was a super second chance at Estero, and crazyness, it was there! To see it, look at the picture that doesn’t seem to have a bird in it and isn’t on the shore. It’s the picture with some small sticks (really young trees or shrubby stems without a lot of leaves on them) in the center… behind those stick-things is a bird that looks like a bunch of small brown leaf colored feathers and some super surprised eyes. It looks like a Nighthawk, but doesn’t fly around hunting, it sits in an open area like a path, spots a flying insect, darts up, grabs it, lands, eats it and repeats. I swear, that bird is in the picture (maybe a bit blurrily).
We saw at least two kinds of hummingbirds–which was cool because basically, there is only one species of hummer you get east of the Mississippi River, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. We spotted a hummer in some trees along one of the paths, and because it was so much larger than the ones we are used to seeing, we were pretty sure it wasn’t a Ruby-throated. Some of the other birders had said there were Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, and that was probably the hummingbirds we would see.
The fun thing about birding is… well, one of the fun things is there are usually people out there that know as much or more than you, and a lot of them are willing to help ya along. And sometimes they may not all see same bird you did, or the other people did. One of the things about birds is they move around. And sometimes they end up where they usually aren’t seen. And there are more than one of them out there, in the trees/shrubs/grass/sky/water/sand… And they don’t often hold still, or sit where you can see them well from great angles. Even with a camera, you’re not guaranteed the chance at a confident identification, and even if you get good pictures, sometimes they’re molting, or they’re a juvenile or highly variable in plumage within the species. And that’s what I think we had fun with when we tried to figure out the hummingbirds we saw at Estero.
Hummingbirds are one of my favorites–they’re so brave, beautiful, agile, spunky, and almost magical. So I was stoked to see some, because I’ll have to wait until spring to see the ones come back for the summer at home. And these were probably ones I don’t see regularly–even cooler! Later in the day at Estero, we found one of the bird blinds–which was SUPER COOL and must have taken a lot of effort because several walls of it were little segments of wide wooden slats -maybe about ten inches by six inches by maybe 1/2 inch thick. From about waist high to maybe nose high, the walls were made of them, and each end was attached to vertical two by four boards, but with little bracket pivot points so they could be tilted inwards individually, letting you see out through a horizontal rectangle, or put it back up forming the wall. That way you could open one or two, or whatever number ya wanted to, and you could pick where they were open and where they were closed, so however tall you were, standing, sitting or kneeling or whatever, you could try to get the best angles for viewing!!!! It sounds simple but the amount of work, effort, and repetitive precision put into the blind was impressive, and I felt super grateful to the group of people who worked on it!
I don’t know how many of the hummingbird pictures I’ll end up posting, I didn’t really get anything great. We saw hummers at a feeder at the observation deck, and we saw hummers at the blind, and we saw one or two in the parking lot bushes, and saw one on the side of the path in the bushes. They almost drove me nuts, because some people said they were all Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. Then we saw some that they’d seen something else and we also had seen something that looked not like a Buff-bellied at one of the feeders at the deck. Some people said they’d seen Black-Chinned Hummingbirds, and that’s what we would be seeing. Which was cool because we don’t see them in Wisconsin or Michigan. But there were other people who said we would be seeing Ruby-Throated hummingbirds (the ones we see in Wisconsin and Michigan normally). But then looking at them as they zoomed in and out at the feeders by the blind, I was paging back and forth through the bird book and getting more and more confused because sometimes what I saw looked like either the Black-chinned or Ruby-throated, but sometimes looked a little different from either but the more experienced, local, or with better spotting scopes and cameras birders said they were seeing the two already mentioned species, and of course, the Buff-bellied hummer which has an orange beak. The others had black or dark beaks, which didn’t help identify them…Telling the Black-chinned from the Ruby-throated came down to figuring out minute forehead shapes and wing tip length versus the tail…because what we were seeing would be females or juveniles in the colors we saw. But the more I looked at my pictures, both on the trip and once I got home, the more confused I got because there were seeming discrepancies in bill color on a few, and rump area tints of buff where they shouldn’t be… but how many birds did we see? How many different species were we seeing?!? GAAHHH!! And I just now went back to check the pictures again and noticed yet another anomalous bird in just one picture with a black bill, buff belly, and green back… WHAT AM I SEEING? How many things, and what are they? Are they juveniles moving into adult coloring? But what adult coloring, female or male? And my favorite bird book is one I got as a present when I was in college the first time, so it’s special but I think the ranges for some birds may be changing as the climate changes… and also, each book is often a bit different on ranges anyway…and I wonder if maybe we also saw a juvenile Rufous Hummingbird? Who knows!
Anyway, here are some of the confusing pictures!
We ended up adding a TON of birds to Dad’s list. I avoided major sun burn, and we decided to head north a day early because we heard another set of crummy weather was looming. We spent a little more time on the beach and the weather was interesting again with some haze. I found some more of the small and less than dramatic shells on the beach, and I found what might have been some sort of comb jellyfish? Our last day before we left, we went to the Turtle Rescue place, I love that place. Its gotten a lot bigger than last time I was there as a tiny kid. After the Turtle Rescue, we stopped in at a light house… and man was that an experience…. (such an experience, we needed Dairy Queen afterwards)…
And here are some of the last pictures of the trip–spoiler alert, we all made it home safely! We stopped back at the tiny little birding spot one last time, and saw some small bird…maybe a ‘butter butt’ also known as the Yellow-Rumped Warbler… or some other warbler. There were some really cool looking pelicans against the sunset there, too. And one last look at our resort from the water, and one last Texas rest stop bathroom mural. And then a rest stop in … I think that was Alabama? It was super pretty. But apparently, had snakes. And we saw the St. Lois Arch again… at night, again. And it looked pretty cool at some of the angles we saw it from. And apparently someone had to get creative with the toilet paper holders in a rest stop somewhere… and not just in one stall, I checked all the other stalls in the gal’s side (the roads were pretty uncrowded so there was nobody to weird out at the rest stop by wandering around the ladies room…).
And BAM! That’s the end of this blog. Thanks for making it to the end! Hope y’all liked some of it. And nope, there are lots of great parents out there but ya can’t get me to trade mine for anyone else, because mine are awesome and they’re mine.