Thursday, July 10, 2014

Show me the Money Birds: Hugh Ramsey and Estero Llano Grande

There were great birds in San Antonio, and great birds in Laredo and Corpus Christi as well. But these places and birds were all prelude to the next few intensive days of Tex Birding. Finally, with the Rio Grande just a site and a sniff away, we were in the tropics around Harlingen and Brownsville. This was what I had been missing for years, being totally immersed in birds I couldn't see elsewhere in north America, in new habitats, and even in newish shoes (though the old birder rags stayed the same). Nothing but Valeros and Whataburgers, and birding habitat, far as the eye can see Tip of the fin LRGV birding time. BOOM!

The morning was misty and often overcast--the really annoying kind of overcast where thin clouds don't keep out the heat, but do make settings and subjects brighter and hazy to behold, forcing a constant semi-squint. 
Hugh Ramsey Park, pretty near the our hotel, was the first stop. Long-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows were loudly foraging in the tropical mesquite willow stuff. White-tipped Doves cooed loudly from deep in the growth. Plain Chachalacas were also boisterous members of the morning traffic.

Also known as the Mexican Turkey Chicken, the Chain Plachalaca, and the Raucous Brown Pheasant, this bird was not a lifer, but one I missed very badly from my brief time in south Texas years before. It was one with which I was determined to return possessing souvenir photographs this time around.
Since I have, to date, not seen a single species of Grouse or Ptarmigan, and thus otherwise not known the joy of having a large bird close by in a tree and easily visible, I must cherish and hold the Chachalaca close to my man-bosom. It is my Tatalaca.

"...What the hell did you just call me!?"

Hugh Ramsey Park was excellently birdy. It has plenty of little paths and differing habitats painstakingly established--or at least funded--by one Audubon group or another, and some of the shady cul-de-sacs offered fantastic views of perched Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.

Although I still seek the similar-looking an equally impressive Berylline Hummingbird, this looker was a particularly satisfying find. In typical hummingbird fashion, after about 2.17 minutes of acclimation it entirely quit caring about our presence in its territory, and would sometimes land abidingly close while circulating through its various perches. Shade and clouds made for low shutter speeds, but I shan't complain because we avoided feeder shots, the lowest form of bird photography (in which, of course, I do still operate when there is no other option). 

Chachalacas and Buff-bellies are wonderful, and also easy, non-draining birds to ID. That's less so the case when one starts examining the yellow-bellied tyrannus birds that reside in the area. For a non-Texan birder lacking Texas-sized confidence and ability, the Couch's vs. Tropical challenge is a bit daunting. As with many empids, waiting for these birds to vocalize can cost one a considerable amount of time better spent with other birds (maybe I should always try playing tape of both species eh?).
This fellow was one in a group of three birds, two of which were immature. The beak doesn't seem big enough for Tropical here, so I'll posit Couch's for it.

This next tyrannid, which was actually photographed later in the afternoon at another site, seems to have more olive-green on the breast and a larger beak in proportion to its head, though no doubt this is a much different angle and perspective than with the preceding bird. I'm still going with Tropical on this one--a bird we also get in small numbers in Arizona, and one I should study more diligently.

Ramsey Park had its select offerings and was very conveniently near our lodging. We decided to return in the evening (when the Hummingbird above was actually photographed) and move on to a larger destination, one with an absolute advantage over Ramsey in terms of its birds, one for which I had the highest hopes and expectations for the trip, one that is now, surely, one of my all time favorite birding destinations thus far visited in North America, Estero Llano Grande.

It rocked my socks off, though luckily I brought an extra pair. Before we'd even gone through the visitor's center/official entrance, we had out first and only Altamira Oriole of the trip (during what would prove to be a very low-Oriole couple of weeks overall) and a lifer Clay-colored Thrush. There were also absurdly crushable Olive Sparrows, a bird I was intently seeking as a part of the unnecessary and unsolicited Butler's Birds quest to find, photograph, and judge all North American Sparrows.

I think my understanding of the presence of the CCTR was a bit dated, as I thought this would be a rare and difficult bird to find. This individual was one of two found during the whole trip, but apparently they're more reliable, especially in shady areas near feeder stations or clearings with other easy food sources. At any rate, this was a lifer that surprised me, one of those birds I wasn't particularly expecting to see, relative to other potential lifers at Estero I was prepared, at least theoretically and with extra undies, to behold.

Not only did this normally shy skulker show well, it even vocalized a bit. This is an interesting bird, though it's tough to articulate why. It's clearly related to Robins and other Thrushes, and is a rather dull brown overall. And yet, maybe just because I'm prejudiced in knowing this bird's range and seeing it specific habitat, but there's something very obviously tropical-seeming about it.

Around the Clay-colored Thrush there were, of course, more obliging Olive Sparrows. Perhaps knowing I was a very stern judger of Sparrows (I am, The Law), they did their best to impress and importune their way towards ingratiating my Dred Judgment. I won't say it didn't work.

Eventually we did make it through the official entrance. The attendants there provided some information on the resident Common Pauraque, the main Estero attraction, that can be found and photographed very well earlier in the season at the Alligator Lake bench area. Unfortunately, they informed me that no one had found any birds for the last couple of weeks, including during the morning Audubon walks led by docents who knew all of their usual haunts. Apparently, once the birds have fledged their young (or tried), they all disperse into the thicker and inaccessible vegetation.
This news was tremendously disappointing, as COPA was one of the most anticipated birds of my trip. With heavy heart and hearty head we set out onto the Estero trails, splitting up pretty soon to see what all was still around. The ponds were devoid of smaller shorebirds, but still held the larger residents.

I spent about an hour scrupulously searching every pile of leaf litter, every bump on a branch, every shadow and every other conceivable Pauraque-type thing in the Alligator Lake area, turning up only a White-eyed Vireo for my troubles. In the mean time, Mike spent most of his time birding in the much shadier and far birdier 'tropical area' while I stubbornly languished in the nightjar-less plot.

I later rejoined Mike where we had some concentrated and excellent birding. For future reference, the 'tropical zone' at Estero, which actually lies outside the visitor center controlled area, was by far the best birding. We had the earlier Olive Sparrows and CC Thrush there, as well as Kiskadees, Green Jays, Northern Beardless Tyrannulets, Bronzed Cowbirds, and plenty of other goodies, with the pièce de résistance being a vocalizing but distant (and shaded) Tropical Parula.

But the shady joys of the 'tropical zone' were, until later in the day, quite apart from me. I was in the baking sun, without a Pauraque and really much else to show for my time and trouble. A pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, both stuffed full with bugs, were a nice but insufficient consolation on the way back from Alligator Lake. It was at this point I also ran into the bird walk group completing their morning rounds. The conspicuously dressed guide rather indignantly mentioned that, of course, they hadn't seen any Pauraques this time of year and day, like maybe I was implying this was a failure on his part and embarrassing him in front of the 60 year old bird ladies he was trying to impress. 

Whatever. Failure is, in fact, an option at Butler's Birds. In fact sometimes it happens without even being chosen, obnoxiously enough. But not this time, or not so easily.
The Camino de Aves trail in the northeast portion of the park terminates at Kiskadee Lake, and I figured maybe here I'd get a shot at some tropical Kingfishers (not at all, as it turns out). Along the way the path winds through cactus and mesquite bosque on one side, and willow scrub oak type stuff on the other, with thicker cover and more leaf litter. I was still looking in the leaf litter and low branches for Pauraque bobs, but Long-billed Thashers and Common Ground Doves in the more deserty stuff kept distracting me. After one such distraction, attempting to photograph a Roadrunner--which isn't even a bird I should be spending time on in Texas--I audibly said to myself (yes, I talk to myself a lot both in general and while birding, I don't have to justify anything, leave me alone!), "Ok Self, stay focussed on the other side here or there'll be no chance at all of finding this bird. Get it together man."
Right as I made the utterance--and for once, no hyperbole is being used here--I looked back over to the thicker side of the trail and there, just beyond the liminal grass, sat the gorgeously patterned Pauraque.

It almost knocked me on my backside. In fact, only the nearby presence of cactus and a quarter century of learned experience about what cactus does helped steady the knees. After so much expectation, and with so much hope having drained away, by luck or judgment, there sat the not so Common Pauraque, and it was stunning, totally stunning.
I'll admit to a very, very slight disappointment that the heavy grass and overhanging branches prevented a full, close crush of this bird, but I got to examine it from every angle, admiring its many chevrons and herringbone patterns, its smears of buffy and peanut butter, its massive nictal bristles and eyes next to to tiny little peaked beak.

I quietly back away and found a nearby little red flag that someone was using to mark a sprinkler head or bubbler line. Now it was marking the Pauraque spot. I went back to find Mike, and after we enjoyed the afore mentioned bounty of the tropical zone, we returned to find the COPA, as expected, in its same spot but turned with and away from sun.

Estero Grande turned out to be a tremendous spot. It provided several lifers and many fantastic views of other birds, including fantastic photo ops. It must be truly incredible in May, when migrant Warblers and shorebirds are also in the park. Even though I'd have much less to gain by way of new birds upon a return, the sheer birdiness of this place is a very strong temptation to return some time in May. 


  1. Yea dude, Estero is my favorite place in the valley. Fucking sick.

    Glad you got the Paraque. The feeling you get when you finally pick one out of the cover is indescribable. I've always had more luck with them in the tropical zone.

    Also, the Tyrannulet and Parula are not gimmes there at all.

    Well done, man.

    1. Cheers Nate. The dynamic you describe is key to making Estero so awesome. There's plenty of easy, crushable, and fantastic birds there, and also excellent challenge birds and even some strong rarity potential.

      Being there in May is almost an unimaginable pleasure/fantasy.

  2. Awesome birds and the photos are outstanding! Great post and congratulations!

    1. Thanks Gordon. We were maybe overdue after : ::Aransas:: :

  3. Not a damn one - that's how many of these birds I've seen - and there were several I've never even heard of before. Good thing I'm getting an education at Butler's Birds. Well done, man!

    That's pretty sweet that you got the one you really wanted and that it came when you had nearly given up all hope. That's the heart of a good birding story right there. It's a pretty cool-looking bird too. Did you rub it in that docent's face afterward and steal his harem?

    1. No probs Josh. B's Bs is hoping to get official certified and accredited in the next year, so reading posts here will count for college credit and can be put towards a Master's Program.

      Unfortunately the docent had already boogied with his babes (or they all went home separately). It would have been a bit tricky to rub it in face, because he was wearing a camouflage bandana thing up to his eyes--very serious, very professional, very cavalier to the ladies.

  4. Wow Laurence,

    What an EPIC FREAKING post!

    That Pauraque story is by far one of the better birding stories I have ever heard. It's one that could be told/illustrated in a movie or one that you brag about in a circle around a campfire. Epic! What I like about it is how the dork treated you, and then you went in the woods and found your own bird. Who needs those people anyway, right? Anyways, nightjars are hard to find. I've never found a Common Poorwill or Common Nighthawk in daylight. Well done and congrats.

    The other birds are great too. Tropical Parula, White-eyed Vireo, Olive Sparrow, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Clay-colored Robin, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and of course the Tatalaca. Did you photograph any Green Jays?

    1. Thanks close to ending in utter tragedy and disappointment. I hate to admit it and how spoiled I was being, but the whole time at Estero would've been soured without the COPA turning up.
      I also have not found any Poorwills or CONI in day time.

      The Green Jays were surprisingly difficult to photograph. They were pretty boisterous but mostly stayed in thick canopy cover and moved on quickly when I was around. Nonetheless, there are some photos of them coming up next post : )

  5. This post also makes my recent posts seem so freaking boring. Gosh I want to bird Texas.

    Like your new quote too: "Rock with your noc's out". Awesome stuff!

    1. hehe well I've been enjoying your posts tremendously. It's great to see the birds of home again too, plus I still need--any--photo of a Barn Owl, so I'm trying to hit up B&M when able.

      All these here Texas birds will be ready and waiting when you're able to go : )

  6. This is your magnum opus. The post they'll link to on your e-headstone someday. The suavity with which you showed that guide what for! The poise with which you faced a Tyrranus conundrum! The something with which you did a third thing! All impressive achievements that each of these birds will tell their grandchildren about.

    Great pictures, and great stories. Way to blog!

    1. Gratzie Mille Dr. Martens,

      I had not yet begun pondering my lapidary, but headstones with links is a very intriguing idea.
      I appreciate the complimentary benefactions coming in a nice package of three too--that's excellent form there, sir.
      The plan is to then go back, find all of these birds' grandchildren, and crush them as well! But softly and politely, of course...

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Okay, so you have already made me want to go here, but careful of what you say about 60-year old ladies as I will be approaching that age in the not too distant future! I am sure I can still give you a run for your money! Well written and funny post. I am glad you found your paraque. I felt the same way when I finally found my Florida scrub jay!

    1. I'm glad you're sold on Texas Kathie.

      As for the 60year old ladies, I must protest that all I said about them was that this fellow was trying to woo and impress them, which means, if anything, that 60 year olds are still a hot and prized commodity in the birding world!
      I've never had a guide try to woo and impress me...

    2. Nice try, sweetie pie! ...and I hope I make it to Texas someday just to bird! I have driven across that state a couple of times now and counted birds at the rest areas and in the hotel parking lots, but that's it! Oh...I did manage to go birding (sort of) in my friend's home town in east Texas, but we didn't hit any big birding hotspots, so we only saw a few birds and none of the ones you saw on this trip!

    3. I'd block a solid 3 or 4 days at least Kathie, make this a vacation spot, or maybe rig the car to break down next time you're driving through, so you'll have to spend a little extra time...

  8. What's a "Chain Plachalaca"? Yes, Hugh Ramsey and Estero Llano Grande were amazing spots. I didn't fully appreciate them until I got home. It was just bird after bird. You got some amazing shots, too. Well done.

    Iowa Voice

    1. It's another name for Plain Chachalaca, and surely it is mere coincidence that it's also an anagram.
      I think you said it best and most succinctly; it was just bird after bird (after bird, after bird). Awesome place, glad you were there too.

  9. Nice!!! I had no idea that some of these birds could be found in Texas. Texas. Ugh! I will stick to the wild places:) To be honest, I do love Austin and San Antonio. But they shouldn't be a part of Texas:) Anyhow, great birds! Even better that you saw them in the US. I've seen most in Central America EXCEPT the Couch's! Really great find. And the Common Pauraque......fantastic! Well done and glad you did not dipperoo. The Plain one of my favorites. I had one sit on my shoulder and not move! The most random bird ever! Between you and Gordon, you both have wet my appetite for some Texan discoveries....maybe next year. For people doing a Big Year, I realize there is a huge landscape to cover and it's amazing to see Florida, Arizona, Texas, the Plains(but not boring) States,California and the warbler migration locales as some of the "musts" in any competion. Well done and congrats!

    1. Thanks Chris.

      Texas certainly has its negative aspects, but man, it's the birdiest dang state in the Union, and some of these birds are just too gorgeous and exclusive to pass up! It is tough, as there are so many fantastic spots, especially when looking at birding on the national scale. I highly recommend blocking some time for it when next your travel options open up.

      In the mean time, good luck with the big year!