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.