Clellie Lynch: In Texas doing the chachalaca cha-cha
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Although the major spring migration has not yet begun, the Texas Gulf Coast, with its plentiful grasslands, prairies, estuaries, bays, rivers and shore, is host to many species, some new to us, others our resident summer birds enjoying a warm winter. Local guides direct us to all sorts of birding areas open to the public, some national (like Aransas NWR), some local. State, country and city parks are scattered throughout, available not only for birding, but for recreation and camping.
At Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, we find our first flock of birders snapping and clicking with their long lensed cameras as a sleek, stripe-y American bittern slowly high-stepps in the butterfly garden not six or seven feet away. Danny and I observe for a short while and then continue along the path that parallels a broad channel surrounded by reeds.
The water here is rife with ducks: shovelers, pintail, gadwall and wigeon mixing in with teal (both green and blue) including a pair of cinnamon teal. Graceful avocets and stilts mingle along the shore with dumpy dowitchers. Coot and moorhen float in and out of the reeds along the edges ignoring the enormous alligator snoozing on the bank.
In the channel visible from the tower, roseate spoonbill feed along side white and white-faced ibis. An osprey soars overhead while a gliding harrier sends panic among the waterbirds. This is one of the few places listed in the guides that is truly host to hundreds of easily-observed birds.
We slice through Padre Island, where I dare say, it’s hot, too hot; the sun is glare-y and birds are few. A white-tailed kite perches on a fence post patiently awaiting prey as do a trio of handsome Harris’ hawks atop a telephone pole. Harris’ hawks are the only predator that hunts in packs and invariably we find three at a time.
In Corpus Christi, at the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge on the edge of Oso Bay, the tide is ebbing. Shrieking gulls and terns, shorebirds and ducks, herons and egrets and pelicans sit, swim, prance and feed all across the bay. Brown pelicans are much smaller than their gleaming white relatives. Who knew?
At the inland Hazel Bazemore County Park, it’s a lifelist bonanza. As we park, a spectacular green jay flies up into a nearby tree. This green, yellow, chartreuse, blue and black bird makes our flashy bluejay seem quite conservatively plumaged. A pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers dance up the trunk of one tree while a ladder-backed woodpecker probes the bark on the next. The golden-fronteds sound and look very like our red-bellied, but with gold/ orange touches instead of red. A great kiskadee and a Couch’s kingbird pose not far from one another on a telephone wire. All birding should be so easy!
The next day, crisscrossing backroads to the Laguna Atascosa NWR, hundreds of eastern meadowlarks rise up and land again camouflaged by the newly-plowed fields. Uncooperative sparrows too fly up and disappear into the landscape.
"Stop!" I shout, as we cruise along the dry dusty road. In no time we have a large bird in the scope. A car slows down and the driver asks what we are looking at. "The falcon," I say, "the aplomado falcon."
"I have been looking for this bird for years!" she exclaims, "It’s the holy grail!" We certainly made her day!
Ocelots breed here so the major wildlife loop is closed for the moment. Chachalacas, like drab, slender turkeys, awkwardly dip and dance their way into the trees. A five-foot long Texas indigo snake slowly slithers across our path. How blue it appears in the bright sunlight!
Using the telescope to scan the open water, we find coot and scaup. While I am watching these ducks, a wildcat walks into view! It looks huge. The creature crouches and slinks in the reeds for 10 minutes or so but the wise ducks paddle quickly to deeper water. The cat’s head pops up here and then there, but it never makes a move and eventually ambles up the bank and vanishes.
At last we make it to the Mexican border and into the Sabal Palm Audubon Center where black crested titmice, a clay-colored robin (now called thrush) and olive sparrows cavort in and among the chachalacas, hooded orioles and green jays. The constantly calling white-eyed vireo ("gimmme-gaaator-ade") finally hops to the top of a bush.
Further up the Rio Grande, Santa Ana NWR is by far the busiest park yet. Here we observe many of the same birds. The swooping cave swallows dip and fly over the lakes snagging the now awakening mosquitos. Another life bird!
On "sparrow road,’’ the elusive pyrrhuloxia, a cardinal look-alike that wears gray flannel, poses on a leafless bush. Tick! A ringed kingfisher, like a giant version of our belted but with a completely robin-colored breast, watches and waits before plunging into the water to snag a tiny fish. Tick!
The doves -- the Eurasian collared, the Inca and the white-tipped -- finally become easy to distinguish from one another at a glance. Alas, the little ground doves which are supposed to be everywhere are nowhere for us.
By the time we return to Houston, blackbirds are amassing and roosting on the wires at night. By early evening, the wires look like lines of sheet music so thick they are with birds: great-tailed, common and redwings. Although blackbird music is not very mellifluous, this is a weird and delightful serenade to send us on our way with another 41 birds to add to our lifelist, and 183 for the trip.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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