Monday, July 28, 2014

Chiri Chiri Chickadee: To Suffer the Bird

The Chiricahua Mountains, famous throughout North America for their unique rock formations as well as their excellent birding and excellent herping, are nonetheless one of the less visited and studied ecosystems (as well as mountain ranges) in Arizona. Despite the ever-present possibility of fabulous Mexican vagrants (talking about birds here) and highly endangered rattlesnakes, the remoteness of these mountains, a good four and a half hours from Phoenix often relegates them to mere talking points in discussions about AZ birding destinations. The closer, better-covered Santa Rita, Catalina, or Huachuca Mountains are now preferred. But even with Short-tailed Hawks seen on Mt. Lemmon this year, there is still one bird the Chiris hold that the rest of AZ's many mountains cannot claim. It was for this bird that I decided to use up the last of my summer vacation, for this bird that I passed up better birding opportunities in the White Mountains with some of AZ's finest. The Mexican Chickadees loomed, and finding this species would finally close the Chiricahua chapter of my AZ birding. So many birders before have been forced to come and pay homage to the lithified temples here, the steep canyon walls and ascending pine forests. I wanted to pay my dues and have this corner of the state map no longer taunting me with its incompleteness. 
What follows is a tail of considerable woe and verbose redundancies. It may be harsh; it may be negative; it will have good birds; it will certainly be iconoclastic. It will be about birding in the Chiricahua Mountains, one of the cradles of the big North American birding movement in the 1960s and 1970s, now the grumpy older relative we all must visit at least once, or forfeit an inheritance.

The Chiricahua Mountain range has extensive trails running throughout its expanse, moving between 5,000 and 8,000 feet elevation and exposing one to a variety of habitats. The well known Cave Creek and South Fork birding trails host many of the southeastern Arizona birds, such as Trogons, Sulphur-bellied and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, and myriad Hummingbirds, and also pull vagrants such as Slate-throated Redstart. And of course, there are the Chickadees. The Southwestern Research Station, located on Cave Creek, has multiple on-going field studies, many concerning herpetology in the area (which, even to my uninformed eye, was overwhelmingly excellent) and offers some nice birding on its grounds, where it also accommodates guests as well as researchers. 

I was joined by a good friend for two days of camping, two days to find the Chickadee and enjoy the unique volcanic Chiricahuan formations. The camping started out well, with a spot on the John Hands campground next to a waterfall, which proved to be a saving grace after several long and sweaty hikes. Our first morning started on South Fork, where FOY Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and other lovers of the sycamores made for a busy morning. As we gained some miles and some altitude though, the birding died down, the temperatures grew higher, and the ol' post-op knee, not much the fan of hiking any more, started to ache and swell considerably. We covered about three miles, and knowing each step we took farther up trail would also a be step we'd have to trek back down, I chickened out. No amount of boiled eggs and Nature Valley bars could argue for further progress. We did not gain enough elevation for the Chickadees, but did have some lovely birds along the way, including a Western Tanager that allowed me finally, justly, to document the species. 

Truth be told though South Fork disappointed, not because the birding was bad itself, but because the place has such a strong, international reputation relative to how mediocre the birding was by general SE AZ standards.
All in all the incidental reptiles we encountered were of more surprise and intrigue. There was a herpetology class/field day of some sort going on, and after encountering one Rock Rattlesnake on the trail we were able to help some of the herpetologists onto a a very young one. We then found another second year snake farther down the trail, totaling three different rattlesnakes in an hour, and I would also be remiss not to mention that seeing so many snakes right next to the trail, obscured in tall grass, was a bit unnerving.

Various Collared Lizards, Spiny Lizards (mostly Yarrow's), Whip-tails, and Alligator Lizards also made for a cooly cold-blooded hike, and did well to compensate for, if not replace, the overall lack of birds. By time we were back to the car we had maybe two dozen bird species.

So aspects of the first major hike, which consumed the majority of the day, were disappointing, but it was not all a bust. Any place where Blue-throated hummingbirds are one of the more numerous and dominant species cannot be decried too much, even if their shade-perching preferences render one unready to photograph them when they finally come out into the light.

The Blue-throats could be very accommodating, though they don't have quite the flair and sparkle of a Magnificent or Broad-billed Hummingbird.

After falling short on South Fork, we decided to get efficient and drive up to the Chickadee-preferred mixed conifers, typically occurring above 6,500 feet in the area. Rustler and Barfoot Park, though damaged by recent fires, fit the bill, and have the most numerous Chickadee reports in the last few years. Unfortunately, they're a 10-11 mile drive up a steep and poorly graded dirt road, and our vehicle wasn't exactly off-road ready. It was slow and painful getting up, but the Chickadees would be worth it! Except that...scour as we might, we could not find the birds. In fact, somewhat understandably at 3:30 pm, the whole area was pretty dead. Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos, as well as Stellar's Jays, were our main company.

An FOY Band-tailed Pigeon helped validate the excursion, but by time we were back to camp I was feeling a bit hard-done. Going back to the Research Station, I was further bothered to check eBird and see that some people had recently reported 6+ MECHs at the station (not nearly high enough, no suitable habitat), which I'm going to have to go ahead and call bullshit on right now.
Admittedly, this was much more peeving than it would have been had I not fruitlessly spent the day chasing these little buggars with a bum knee, but really, 8 Chickadee at the station is pretty lazy and/or misplaced, all the worse when I was trying to find the best realistic spot for them, so, grumble grumble grumble!

We did not want to try the Rustler Park drive again the next day, nor even the comparatively lighter 7 miles (one way) drive to Turkey Creek, where the birds also dwell, given how rough it had been on the car. With our last day we had one risky option: hiking the 4.6 mile Silver Peak trail on the farther east side of the Chiris. If we followed the trail to its end, we'd be high enough (from 4,945 feet to 8,008), and presumably encounter the right habitat, for the birds, but there were no eBird reports nor hearsay from the Research Station to back this up. In fact, there are no eBird reports for this trail at all. Nevertheless, we set out early morning for the 9+ mile hike. It started in this kinda stuff:

Hedging our bets on finding the Chickadees on this lengthy trek was a calculated risk, considering we didn't have a lot of options. But my failing to accurately surmise that the first 3 miles of the hike would be in steep desert canyons, in full sun, and bringing only two water bottles, was an outright mistake. The surrounding scenery was pleasant but the hike was brutal. 

After going for a couple of hours and having little idea of our progress, we forlornly scanned the pine-strewn valleys far away, thinking that they, surely, could hold some of our target birds, but seeing no way in which our trail would take us that far. So, to reiterate, I went into this hike with insufficient information and preparation. And, very unpoetically, we persevered from a combination of ignorance and stubbornness!
The Silver Peak trail map only showed one set of switch backs, near the end of the trail, so every time we encountered one of the 5 preceding groups, we assumed we were nearing the summit, and decided to proceed. We weren't expecting to get the birds here but wanted at least to accomplish something, and thus by continually underestimating how far we'd actually gone and by continually assuming the peak was closer than it really was, we blundered on until the pines started getting closer and closer...

..and closer and closer, until finally the trails crossed through some of the comparatively verdant valleys. We crossed through 3 such pine valleys, for lack of a better/proper term, and though they were not exceptionally birdy we regained some hope. The rocky hillsides provided a couple of Montezuma Quail, and a Short-tailed Hawk even called and then flushed up the mountain, pursued by some angry Jays (and this was, in a sense, a rarer sighting than the Chickadees). 

We were pretty exhausted and almost out of water when we hit the fourth and largest of the pine washes, but here at approximately 7,200 feet, we had three of our Mexican Chiquitas, our esoteric little parids at long last. It had been an ordeal, and we still had to continue to the summit, for pride's sake, before trekking the 4.6 miles back down without water. Finally, finally, finally, we had the birds.
And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Now here I will publicize an opinion that is sure to fly worse than a led balloon, or even a soggy Coot. One of the biggest senses of relief and satisfaction I got from the MECHs was not studying this cute little bird in itself, but in knowing I'd likely never have to go back to the Chiris again. I know, that's a pessimistic angle to take after a successful trip.
The mountain range is pretty, there is tremendous ecological value there, but good grief...we put in a lot, A LOT, of work for considerably little pay out. This is not meant as an invective against the Chiricahuas or the people that choose to bird there, but more so a comparative thanksgiving to have mountain ranges that offer almost the same birds (in fact, more of them), much closer and more accessibly. That being said, I'm still looking forward to doing this sort of thing all over again for Colima Warbler in west Texas. Birders can be gluttons for punishment just as well as for plumage. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Take it to the Barnyard

This summer's great birding adventures have drawn to a close and work--preparing for the next school year with a panoply of meetings and seminars and meminars and seemittings--is now underway. Of course, the next thing one has to do when the great birding trips are over is start planning new ones, but even that cannot fully dull the pain of late summer birding doldrums in central Arizona. So at a time like this, when there's not a great opportunity for even in-state birding, it back to the birding chores, tying up loose ends closer to home.

One such loose end was the Barn Owl out at Base Meridian WMA. Just west of the superlatively birdy Tres Rios Wetlands, B&M WMA is a pretty reliable spot for Barn Owls each year, in fact that's how I've ticked my BAOW year bird for the last 3 years or so. In fact, this is the only place I'm actually, clearly seen living Barn Owls (I have a knack for finding dead ones). In fact, this bird has always been kind of a pain because I've never gotten photos. In fact, even if they were crappy, that eluding needed to end.
So this late July birding chore was to finally photograph the skittish Barn Owl at B&M WMA. I'll be straight up though, I got there later in the morning, around 10am. The birds were no longer roosting, and the photos are very poor. This is entirely for posterity.

Although I only had one bird, a pair of BAOWs successfully raised at least one chick here this year, and others have had great looks at these reclusive birds. I didn't get great looks; I got blurry flying-away shots, but it had to be done.

B&M is also a great spot for Clapper Rail (a very tough bird in central AZ), Least Bittern, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I arrived too late in the day to have much of a shot at the skulking riparian birds, but a couple of Cuckoos were still braving the heat. Well, not exactly braving it.

Not that I can blame them. It was around 110°F and I could feel my overly Irish mantel burning even through my shirt, so I didn't stay out very long either. The birds were more active near the B&M run off, where the scant remains/returning run-off of the Salt River are finally allowed to flow al naturale.

Some of Arizona's best birders and bird bloggers are rocking it up in the White Mountains right now, notching sweet state birds like Pine Grosbeak, American Dipper, and Gray Jay. Alas that I could not join, but in my limited time available here there's perhaps one trip left in the tank, one trip to the southeastern corner of the state, one trip to find some Mexican Chiquitas and a blunted Hawk. Hopefully the Chiricahuas produce, more on that soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Blucher Park: Chucked Out and Great Kisses

Blucher Park...a small, fairly ubiquitous park in the midst of Corpus Christi, one that doesn't immediately emanate the vibe of 'fantastic birding spot'. Sure, it's got some thick vegetation. The Chimney Swifts and Cardinals make their presence known. But what sets it apart from other similar constructs? Well, maybe all Corpus parks have excellent birds. Certainly catching Blucher Park earlier in the season yields some phenomenal results, like perched and crushable Chuck-wills-widows. 

After dropping off cousin Mike early in the morning, Blucher Park was a quick stop before continuing on to Anahuac and the Bolivar Peninsula. It was late in the season, but maybe, just maybe, a Chuck-wills-widow--at this point a heard-only bird--would still be around. 
I'll be mercifully blunt, instead of dragging you through hours of scrupulous searching high and low like that which I had to endure: no, there were not. The park was small enough that I can confidently say I searched the whole place, also enduring a latch-on (somebody who just follows you around because, hey, they're not busy, and you clearly are just watching birds so you don't have anything else going on either, let's be buddies but I won't even offer you a smoke) without any nightjars. However, and perhaps unusually for Butler's Birds and my general temperament, this is not an anecdote leading to a large excoriation of one thing or another. Blucher Park did indeed cough up a life bird, and even more than that, it gave personally unprecedented, crushing views of one of the best North American birds, the Great Kiskadee.

There were three of these large, loud, and thoroughly handsome, dominating birds at the park. The two parents were constantly harassed and solicited by their amply-sized chick. It was not yet a Great Kiskadee, but was a Pretty Good Kiskadee.

They foraged/patrolled the little creek bisecting Blucher Park, and unlike at the larger nature preserves where I had previously been chasing these birds, they were pretty accustomed to people. In fact, one of the birds perched on the ledge of the elevated concrete bridge over the creek not more than ten feet away, and just...abided. This bird did not care, perhaps because of its eminent beautifulness. 

*Note the faint yellow on the crown

The overwhelming good it did heart and soul to have such confiding time with these magnificent specimens cannot be articulated, not now any better than it was then. Faces melted and hearts palpitated. The exclamations and expletives even dried up, a rare day indeed.
But luckily another articulation took its place, the simultaneously musical and interrupted vocalization of a Vireo, one with a suspiciously yellow belly and appropriately so, for its courage, if not its braggadocio, could be called into question.

There are several species of Vireo, Yellow-green included, that remind me of someone who's trying to sing a song but does not know the lyrics very well, or an inexperienced kid practicing an instrument. There are frequent, awkward pauses before subsequent notes or lyrics are made, and all of the notes are made a bit more boldly or loudly than a more nuanced, experience playing would advise.
This is not meant as an admonition of the Vireo chorus of course; I appreciate that it makes their songs easier to pick out from the canopies, where this relatively rare bird spent its time. It's just 'inneresting.

The YGVI doesn't have quite the stage presence of a daylight Chuck-wills-widow, but statistically speaking it's the rarer bird and a better find. Apparently this bird had been hanging out at Blucher Park for at least a week, but being removed from the internet for a while I was not plugged into this fact, and thus even got the feel good boost, for a couple of days, of having found my own little rarity. That being said, the best bird of the day was still the Great Kiskadee, big, bold, raw, and unapologetic. 
See this bird before you die. In fact, if this bird is your cause of death, and you get a good look at it in the process, that'd be the perfect way to go. 
* Nate McGowan rocked it in such a way and posted at almost the same time. The universe is telling us something.

I'll be away, again, from the civilized world for a couple of days, though this time I shall not flee civilization to such an extent that I'll go to Texas (lol no jkjkjkjk totes rotfl), and hopefully there'll be some AZ birds getting back into the mix. But if you're getting tired of the Texas posts, well, that's just too damn bad, because there's more coming!
In the mean time, merry birding to all, and to all a good birding!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Recipe for Good Birding

There are many different recipes floating around the interweb these days. Lots of them relate to gluten free muffins and bacon-infused such and such.
Of course, recipes do not only pertain to the culinary arts. Disaster gets its own recipes, and there are several different recipes all purported to create 'fun' (often booze and/or cosmic bowling is a primary ingredient). Following the same recipe won't even yield identical results, and sometimes it seems unimaginative, but time and resources are precious; as birders and conservationists we want to make the most of them. There are common trends and expectations with a recipe, in our ordered universe, and this is no exception with the recipe for good birding. Obviously, I am no master birding chef, so this recipe may still need some work. Please contribute any extra ingredients you think essential for a successful day/outing of birding.

1 binoculars, camera and spotting scope to taste
2 cans of 'whoop ass', opened up when first hitting a trail and hearing bird calls
1 pint elbow grease, especially important later in the day in hotter climes
1 tbsp. Indefatigable optimism--the next great bird is hiding just around the corner
1 whole uniform--combine comfort with pragmatics, avoid blaring colors
2 bags of cherries. If long driving is involved, this is the best road trip snack to keep one going at the wheel; it fights drowsiness and can be eaten continually without creating a feeling of bloating of gritty teeth and dehydration (compare with Cheez-its)
1 all David Bowie mix tape, if driving 80+ minutes.
1 bag beef jerky
3 lbs. trail mix, with M&Ms an essential subcomponent.

Directions: Mix together in a good habitat for a few hours before letting sit and adding beer, Buffalo Trace, or Hendrick's Gin afterwards (maybe during).
**Good habitat is essential. For best results, begin mixing just after sun-up, but recipe can provide optimal birding relative to time of day in all conditions.

As a case in point, this recipe was applied during heavy rain and fog around the Bolivar Flats and on the Galveston Ferry in east Texas. The conditions were very poor but the habitats were excellent. Elbows were greased up, various cans were opened, cherries were munched, and I still picked up two lifers in very poor and mosquito-infested conditions.
Always great-to-see birds included Roseate Spoonbills; nifty Lifer came in the form of Seaside Sparrow (not pictured) and nifty almost-lifer came in the form of Clapper/King/'Cling' Rail, because nothing is sacred anymore. Cling Rails...thanks Obama!

At the recommendation of great birder and friend Nate McGowan (another strong but optional piece of the recipe--having informed birder buddies and/or their info) Butler's Birds utilized the drive-in Galveston ferry to scan for seabirds. Expectedly, Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans accounted for everything seen around the harbors.

Things got busier in the middle of the bay, where a rather boringly named fishing troller was brewing its own little pelagic birding trip--though they need a better recipe for bigger results. The same birds as were around the Bolivar harbor followed the boat, but of much greater interest were the eminently impressive and spectral seabirds flying higher in the sky.

Just biding their time and waiting to tyrannize the troll boat scrappers, ABA lifer Magnificent Frigatebirds soared effortlessly, and somewhat spookily, in the gloomy skies.

Driving west from Galveston, I stopped by Brazos Bend SP in the middle of the days, ostensibly the worst time for birding. Again I put the recipe to good use, and again the birding was surprisingly (or rather, not really) excellent. That recounting is for another time. There's yet more Texas left in these veins!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Getting the Groove On: Early Morning Anis and a Sanctuary in the Rain

The preceding day at Estero Llano Grande was one of the best birding days on this side of 2000; truly it would be a tough act to follow. However, we still had some LRGV residents to pursue and others that we had not yet satisfactorily seen. With Common Pauraque off the list, Groove-billed Ani was the next to take it's place as the LRGV's Most Wanted, and one of the best places to find this bird was at the Resaca de la Palma preserve east of Brownsville. 
We arrived very early, before the park even opened, actually, and heard the birds calling in their strange way almost immediately, and very near one of the trail heads. Since we were hoping not to spend much time at Resaca, which is otherwise a neat place but without much we wouldn't see elsewhere, this was stupendous luck. However, it was still early and overcast, so even though this Ani wasn't exceedingly energetic, it was still difficult to photograph in any decent sort of way at 1/35fps.

Luckily Anis are pretty shabby (said affectionately, they're a favorite of Butler's Birds) and don't themselves mind a sloppy portrait. These birds have a bit of the tropical mixed with a bit of the prehistoric in them. While they do stray into Arizona every couple of years, it was nice to have the bird close and audible in its preferred habitat. 

In fact, after a few minutes it was joined by another, and here's where things get weird. For you see, dear reader, there can form a congress of Loons, a bevy of Quail, a conspiracy of Crows, a flock of Seagulls, and a Raft of Ducks, etc. When two or more Anis get together, it is called a cooch
This term was apparently developed by the infamous British ornithologist and explorer Sir Henry Caligula, who was later expelled, in disgrace, from the Royal Naturailist Society for refusing to abide by the small placards in the museum reading "Don't touch the displays" and who is also and independently responsible for the disclaimer that now appears on curling irons: "For external use only."  
Another theory is that the term cooch was applied by an unambitious young birder in the early 1900s, whose two favorite things in life were couches (for sitting) and coozies (for beverage temperature regulation), and upon discovering a group of Anis, he simply defaulted to the greatest possible thing he could think of (a couch that kept beverages cold).
There is a third, counter-theory that this term also was developed because Anis like to tickle each other (coochy, coochy, coo), but this is generally dismissed by natural historians as being idiotic. 
So thank you anyway, trashy TX strip-club billboards, but we got all the cooch we needed by 7am!
(Yes, this joke needed to be made. No, it's not in poor taste; Anis give one a pass).
I shudder to think what a group of Dickcissels is called.

Resaca de la Palma was also echoing with Cuckoo calls and its trees as well as its utility wires were adorned with Oriole nests, yet we saw none of these birds. We quickly moved on to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the same side of Brownsville, TX, and just missed a big, several-dozen strong movement of immigrants coming through the preserve (as we were exasperatingly informed by the attendant). 
Sabal Palms proved to be another excellent birding spot, perhaps not as varied in habitat as Estero, but hosting a couple of other attractions, including large groves of the native Sabal palms. 

At this point in the day, 7:30am or so, we were already enduring microbursts, so we didn't want to go anywhere we'd be stuck in the open with optic gear and drenched. Sabal Palms has some pagodas along its tropical paths, and also a feeder station, where I was finally able to get photographs of Long-billed Thrasher, which up to this point I'd seen often but always high and obscured while singing. 

Here we also put White-tipped Dove to rest, another south Texas bird heard often and seen fleetingly in the thick woods, finally brought into the open. Seeing these weird Doves scurrying along skinny little trails and then magically disappearing into the dense foliage at nearly every other site we visited thus far and created a bit of mystique about them, but given the right incentive, or just a familiar place and sense of security, they'll behave much like any other Dove (although we never did get Red-billed Pigeon!). Crush you very much WTDO. 

I've mentioned before my detestation for feeder shots as being the lowest common denominator of bird photography. It's not the idea of baiting the birds that I find troubling. After all, putting out food in a designated, habitat-controlled preserve is only another degree of human involvement anyway. It's just the actual aesthetic offense caused by plastic hummingbird feeders (and don't get me wrong, I've taken many, many such photos--sometimes that's all you get) or hanging boxes. But feeder stations work much like blinds, providing much closer view and study of birds than often otherwise possible, at least in a limited amount of time, and we didn't have blinds, just a bit of patience for the birds to move somewhere without too much 'hand of man' in the shot. 
It would otherwise be, perhaps, many a year before I could get dandy images of Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a very damn dandy bird. 

The Sabal Palms Sanctuary is also good for another LRGV resident that has little to do with the palms themselves and likely won't turn up at a feeder station. The water features at this preserve used to connect via estuaries with the Rio Grande, but the levels dropped enough that they broke up and were isolated into ponds, even lakes, if one is generous enough. The smaller Grebes like murky ponds with cover, Pied-billed and also, most best superlative of all, Least Grebes. I do not know what the term is for multiple Grebes (let alone Least). Let's just call this a Neatness of Grebes. The main pond at Sabal Palms had a nesting Neatness of Grebes. 

These tiny tachybaptus Grebes were foraging very actively, even during the intermittent downpours, and gave much better looks than I've ever had at Pena Blanca Lake in southeast AZ, were they also have small population. When alarmed, these birds will dive and hide with only their beaks protruding from the water's surface, combining techniques of alligators and snorkelers. But they had no such need at Sabal Palms, where they were a/the top predator.

Along with Red-billed Pigeon, Fulvous Whistling Duck was one of the larger misses from the overall Texas adventure. But the Fulvous absenteeism was covered, to an extent, by their handsome Black-bellied cousins. When these fellows are flying overhead, they put the Seven Dwarves to shame.

A familial raft of BBWDs really upped the 'cuteness' scale, even after the cavorting Least Grebes. Nine ducklings and two handsome parents makes even the hardest of heart birders--a Birder Pharaoh, if you will--melt with feelings of warmness and fuzziness.

But the BBWD cutesy show got even more extreme with the microbursts. Here is Mrs. Belly playing parasol for all 9 of the chicks, while Mr. Belly stands stoically out of focus. The funny thing was Mr. Belly eventually ditched the log and flew off somewhere for the duration of the downpour. He returned afterwards (presumably, it could have been a different duck) and she snapped at him and scolded him away for a while. He was in the dog house.

We were camped out at the resaca (lake) blind for a little while, mostly because the continual cloudbursts discouraged trail time. When the rain finally subsided, some of the resaca's protruding dead trees made for nifty perches as the passerines sallied forth after the deluge.
Of course, having seen lifer Anis in the morning, another bird would show brazenly without solicitation. It would have been super crushable in better conditions, such a groovy good bird!

A flyover light morph Swainson's Hawk gave a brief hope of finding lifer White-tailed and what was first adjudicated to be a Tropical Kingbird (the conspicuously large beak) kept the tyrannid game going. In the comments below, none other than WBRS's #7 Seagull Steve defied convention, however, and returned that this is still a COKI, just a well-endowed specimen. 

Of course, the birds weren't the only critters to get out in the open while they could. We hit up the trails, weather permitting, and recorded Buntings and other passerines on the larger loops, also finding a cavity with six large, brown-spotted eggs. Near some smaller ponds with heavy mesquite cover, a Green Kingfisher, documented Bigfoot style.

Right across from the tree with the nest cavity, which for reasons of dumbness I neglected to photograph and later research, we also had a nesting Buff-bellied Hummingbird, who either had great confidence in her camouflage or had reached the point of parenthood already where she just didn't care anymore. Her nest was hanging over the trail and this photo was at maybe 150mm, very close.

We never were caught out in the rain too badly, although a misplaced baseball cap did require some sodden searching, but some birds missed the ark and ended up looking like celebrities pictured on National Enquirer, just terrible!

Green Jays were not a lifer but, for obvious reasons, were one of the most desired birds of the trip. They were always tough to photograph, as we didn't go anywhere that particularly lent itself to photographing them (I have memories from birding in the area 8 years ago, though I don't remember where at exactly--maybe Santa Anna--and there were near of dozen Jays around a feeder stations with an adjacent blind...what I wouldn't have given to remember that spot).
They're a pretty suspicious bird and not very accommodating, though no doubt enough time in the area will yield some solid shots of this gorgeous bird. 
It never was the perfect shot, but this fellow finally got himself in order after the rainstorm and looked pretty dapper. We didn't get to see the Green Jays doing anything cool and clever, like using sticks and other tools to catch insects (which they do), but when you look this good, you don't have to be clever. 

Probably the greatest value at Sabal Palms was that it supplied us with much improved looks at many species we had seen only briefly or unsatisfactorily. It was a great spot, for its purpose. Afterwards we headed farther east to South Padre Island, just in case anything cool was hanging around the bird center (there wasn't), before heading back north towards Corpus Christi.
Since we had some time to kill in the evening, we checked out North Padre Island spots, most of which were standard beach, but had some luck at Bird Island Basin. Along the way though, we had to make it through a very treacherous strip of beach highway. It was a single-lane road, hedged in with sand dunes and grasslands--you know the type if you've driven near the gulf coast, and there were no less than 3 traffic cops in a 5 miles stretch! Not only that, but there was this checkpoint on the road, apparently only constructed for traffic enforcement because there wasn't anyone collecting tolls for the State Park access. Ridiculous police state stuff, maybe people drag race here or something. 

Anyhow, the slow-paced incursion down this strip of beach was richly rewarded when one of our turn-offs brought us by some rare trees emerging from the grassy dunes--surely a couple of trees in miles of grassy dunes would be highly desirable real estate for any bigger birds in the area. 
We had dipped on White-tailed Hawk so far in the trip, but here was a nesting pair in the middle of nowhere, well-guarded by ornery traffic cops. This was a pretty clutch lifer as it was our last stop of the day, Mike was leaving early in the morning, and it was well north of where we expected to see these birds, though North Padre island (latitudinally equivalent with Corpus) is still within range. 

Scopes would have been most welcome but we still had pretty decent views and caught many distinguishing marks. This is another bird I'm sure one can see often and well if spending significant time in the area, but with only busy and brief time down south and no specific area to look for this bird, we felt pretty lucky to come away with the Last-Gasp Hawk, as it shall henceforth be known.
Many exclamations and high fives were shared.

Also, there were Meadowlarks.

Next up, a missed lifer and a better consolation back around Corpus Christi.