My Winter Trip to Texas (or the escape from another South Dakota winter)

I headed south just before the big New Years Eve storm hit. I stopped at various state parks on the way, including Scott Lake State Park in Kansas, Copper Breaks State Park and Brownwood Lake State Park in Texas, but when I got to Brazos Bend State Park near Houston, I was far enough south to escape the cold weather. I stayed at Brazos Bend for four days (visited my sister Susan and her husband Rick in Missouri City too, where I got my photos of Black-bellied Whistling Duck in their back yard), then went further south to Port Aransas. Here I set up the camper at Mustang Island State Park. Weather was cloudy and windy but I'll stay here until it improves, there are lots of shorebirds, gulls, terns, and other birds I need to photograph. Then I'll head south to the Laguna Atascosa NWR and the Rio Grande River valley. Here's a short account of my stops.

At Brownwood Lake, I got my first photos of the Black-crested Titmouse and my best yet of a male Golden-crowned Kinglet flaring his colors.

At Brazos Bend State Park, my cameras got a workout. Life birds that were photographed include White Ibis, Least Grebe, Tri-colored Heron, Louisiana Waterthrush (which should have been way south by now), and Anhinga. Other birds that I've seen before but didn't have any good photos of were Pine Warbler, Carolina Chickadee, Common Moorhen, Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron. One morning a Carolina Wren came inside the camper to see what was going on. I later photographed a Carolina Wren at the campsite. Alligators are common here, sometimes blocking the trails. Here's a small one, many were too big or too close to get in the frame with a 500mm lens on.

Rick and Susan came to Brazos Bend State Park on Saturday the 8th, and we birded most of the morning, finding four more Least Grebes, a lifer for me, and relocating the Louisiana Waterthrush, a lifer for them. We had a picnic lunch, then I headed south to Goose Island State Park and got a campsite. The next day I got out for some shooting in the late afternoon light and took these photos of a Brown Pelican trying to catch a Pied-billed Grebe that was underwater when the pelican flew over and dove at it. I think was a mistake on the part of the pelican, but even if it wasn't, the grebe got away.

Monday morning. I packed up and drove down to Port Aransas and Mustang Island State Park. It is cloudy and windy, but when the conditions improve, this area will provide lots of good photo opportunities. In poor light, here are Black-bellied Plover, Royal Tern, and Ruddy Turnstone. Had supper with Gary and Sally Marrone in Port Aransas, Gary showed me lots of good birding areas around the area.

Tuesday and Wednesday I resorted to flash photography. It is still cloudy and windy. I prefer natural light in the early morning and late afternoon, but the Canon 580 EX flash with a Better Beamer does a good job at freezing the action in poor light conditions. Here are some more photos of Black-bellied Plover, Piping Plover, Royal Tern, and Ruddy Turnstone. Tuesday I found a flock of Black Skimmers, a life bird for me, and got some images of skimmers skimming.

Thursday, cloudy, cold, windy and wet. Didn't do any photography.

Today (Friday the 14th) I moved the camper into the Nueces County Park in Port Aransas and paid for a week. It is still cloudy and today it is drizzling. I drove the beaches and found a my first Dunlins of the trip and a small group of Red Knots. I was happy to get photos of these birds in winter plumages. A Lesser Black-backed Gull let me drive right up to it. I found some banded Piping Plovers. I learned that the plover with the green flag was banded on the Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam, another refugee from South Dakota. I'm seeing some Horned Larks that are much darker and more brightly colored than our prairie Horned Larks. Not sure which race these are, perhaps northern Horned Lark.

Susan and Rick came down for Saturday and Sunday. The weather was terrible, rain and cloudy skies for the most part. But we had some good birding despite the weather. The highlight of the weekend for me was a Clapper Rail. We wound up at Aransas NWR on Sunday and saw some distant Whooping Cranes, more Least Grebes, Merlins, and many other birds. Monday, the sun came out for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, but otherwise it was cloudy and drizzly. Tuesday, finally some decent weather. I went back to find a Clapper Rail for some photographs and after an hour of searching found one at the same place we saw it on Saturday. With the sun finally out, I took photographs of many birds that I already had photographed, but with flash. Here's a page with a bunch of them. I took this shot of a dolphin as it leaped from the water in front of a tanker. A Sandwich Tern wrapped up the day, another lifer bird for me.

Today, Wednesday Jan. 19th, was the first morning I've actually seen the sun rise since I arrived at Port Aransas. I walked into the salt water marshes and found another lifer, the Gull-billed Tern. Just my luck though, by the time I found this bird the clouds had come back so the light wasn't too good, but the photos still came out pretty good. It was a good day for Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets too. Later in the afternoon, I found a concentration of shorebirds feeding in a bay. The light was perfect and I could get very close to these birds, so it was time to lay down in the sand and let them come in. I like the effect of shooting from a low perspective like this, although it is messy and I have to carefully clean the lens and camera of sand.

Thursday was cloudy, cold and windy. I took care of some maintenance and stocked up the camper.

On Friday the 21st, I headed south for the Rio Grande valley. Along the way I saw several Crested Caracaras and a couple of White-tailed Hawks but couldn't stop on the highway for photos. Late afternoon, I parked the camper at Adolph Thomae County Park, which is located within the Laguna Atascosa NWR, near Rio Hondo. The first birds I saw here were a couple of Olive Sparrows. By the end of the day I had seen more lifers, including Green Jays, Long-billed Thrasher, White-tipped Dove, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (no photos yet).  I thought it was a pretty good day. After sundown, while I was processing photos, I heard some strange noises outside. I went out and heard my first Common Pauraque. I set up the camera with flash, and after about 1/2 hour, I located the bird in the beam of a flashlight, and got a few shots. There were several others calling in the area.

Saturday and Sunday I spent at Laguna Atascosa NWR and vicinity. Lots of good birds were seen, including Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Altamira Orioles, and an Aplomado Falcon. This is probably the best place to find an Aplomado Falcon north of Mexico but they aren't an easy bird to get, so I was really glad to see it. Now if I can just find an Ocelot! There are lots of shorebirds here but very difficult to get close to them. I'm seeing White-tailed Kites, Crested Caracaras, White-tailed Hawks, and lots of Harris's Hawks but no good photos yet. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird showed up at my feeder on Sunday, I'm hoping for a Buff-bellied Hummingbird to appear.

Monday, I went to Harlingen to check some parks in that area that are reported to have Green Kingfishers. I found two, and a Ringed Kingfisher too. Just like our Belted Kingfisher, they are wary. I took some distant photos but to get better shots will take some patience. I scouted out some likely places to hide and wait for them to come to me. I'll try it tomorrow. A Couch's Kingbird gave me a nice opportunity.  

Tuesday, Jan. 25th. I returned to the kingfisher location early this morning and hid by a likely perch. Cloudy and foggy, had to use flash but I got some closeups of the female Green Kingfisher, I added the photos to the kingfisher page, scroll down to see them. Other good birds today were a Great Kiskadee, Pine Warbler, and another Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

Some new birds photographed on Wednesday and Thursday were a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (another lifer for me!), a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker (I had photos of a female in AZ but needed a male) and a Harris's Hawk. The tyrannulet appeared in the mesquite bushes at the campground. The Harris's Hawk was on the road to Laguna Atascosa NWR, and was very cooperative in the early morning sunlight. On Thursday morning I got five more photos of the female Green Kingfisher, but I still need better shots of the male. These little kingfishers are proving to be more difficult to photograph than Belted Kingfishers, not because they are warier, but because they are smaller and I need to get closer. I've got lots of birds coming to oranges and raisins at the campsite. Green Jays, Olive Sparrows, Altamira Orioles, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Orange-crowned Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Long-billed Thrasher, Northern Cardinal, Black-crested Titmice, Lincoln's Sparrow, and White-tipped Doves are all regulars now. At night the Common Paraques are calling and lots of coyotes howling. I like it here so much I paid for another week.

Friday and Saturday were spent at Laguna Atascosa NWR. On Friday I found another Aplomado Falcon (scroll down at this link), this one was close and in a bush. Definitely a different one, looks like a sub-adult bird compared to the adult I photographed before. I've actually had four sightings now, but they may be of the same two birds. Finally got my Plain Chachalaca photos too, these birds are so big I have hard time getting them all in the frame. They come to the feeding stations at the refuge, but are kind of wary. The best bird was a Tropical Parula. This bird had been reported around the visitor center for several weeks on the Texas Rare Bird Alert, but I could never find it until today. It was dark, cloudy and windy and like all warblers, this bird doesn't hold still for long. So I was faced with shooting a moving target at low shutter speed. I shot over a hundred photos but nothing was much good until it suddenly landed on the ground and caught this cricket. Although this bird has a faint split eye ring, all the other characteristics point to Tropical Parula, which should be the only parula still in Texas at this time of year. According to the Peterson Warblers field guide, some Tropical Parulas do have faint eye rings, but more current news indicates that these may be hybrids. On a long hike I got these photos of a juvenile White-tailed Hawk and a Great Kiskadee.

Today (Sunday) I went back to the Hugh Ramsey Park to try for the Green Kingfishers again. Had some great luck, as I discovered where the pair is excavating a nest site. The female landed very close to me and I got the best photos yet! If the weather is good tomorrow, I'll go back and set up closer to where they are working. This should solve the problem of not having good photos of the male.

Monday, Jan. 31. Returned to the location where the Green Kingfishers (scroll down, I added the photos to this webpage) were excavating a nest. I had to set up in some soft mud, but I didn't have to wait for more than 1/2 hour before the male showed up and let me take a dozen photos. Then I left and spent another 1/2 hour cleaning the mud off my tripod, boots, and blind. Spent the rest of the day doing laundry, cleaning out the camper and truck, and various maintenance jobs.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the weather has really gone downhill. Tuesday wasn't too bad, I took a drive through the Laguna Atascosa NWR and took this image of an American Kestrel hiding from the wind. Later in the day, I was able to catch a flight shot of a Mottled Duck. Wednesday, it was cold and windy. I had to re-winterize the camper, temperatures will be well below freezing tonight and hover right around freezing on Thursday, with freezing rain. Along the campground road, this Crested Caracara posed for me and the wind raised it's crest up. Cold, cloudy, windy, mostly I'm staying in the camper and reading.

It's Friday, Feb. 4. I'm leaving the Adolph Thomae County Park and heading west. Last night it rained and froze all night. The power went out sometime during the night so I had no heat. The camper was winterized so no problems there. A little freezing rain and snow shuts everything down here. Yesterday, when it was just cold and drizzly, they closed the local schools and the library in Rio Hondo. By 10 AM this morning, the roads were fine, but they still had Highway 83 closed, so I had to use the service road, stopping at all the stoplights for 40 miles. That took a long time. I finally got to Mission and found the Americana RV Park. I'm located about 10 miles from Santa Anna NWR and 3 miles from Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. This place will keep me busy for awhile. Today I got two lifers, a Clay-colored Robin and the Black-vented Oriole that has been posted on the Texas Rare Bird Alert for a few weeks. Great photos of the Clay-colored Robin but only one lousy image of the oriole. I hope I get another chance at it.

Now, it is Tuesday, Feb. 8. I've been birding mostly at Bentsen Rio Grande but made a trip to Santa Anna NWR too. Lots of things happening, maybe the most interesting was witnessing a bobcat attack a Cooper's Hawk. I was sitting on bench watching the birds when a loud ruckus broke out behind a pile of brush, then I saw a bobcat leap about 6 ft. into the air, go back to the ground and the ruckus started up again, then it was quiet. I walked over slowly to see what was going on, the bobcat got and backed off into the bushes and a Cooper's Hawk was on the ground, but it wasn't dead. It couldn't fly though, it hopped up onto a branch, where it still was when I left. I saw the bobcat come back, so maybe it finished off the hawk and ate it. I wish I could show photos of the bobcat with a Cooper's Hawk in it's jaws, but all I have to show are some photos of the bobcat. I think the bobcat saw the hawk waiting in ambush for some birds, thought it was a Chachalaca (favorite prey of bobcats here) and attacked. But when the hawk fought back, it got a surprise.

I've seen the Black-vented Oriole several times but still don't have any decent photos. There is an Allen's Hummingbird at the park visitor center and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird too, but they visit the feeders very infrequently. Tuesday afternoon, I stood at a feeder for a couple of hours waiting and was rewarded with a visit from the Allen's Hummingbird, a life bird for me. This is an adult male, with which is very similar to the adult male Rufous Hummingbird, but has a green back. Females and immatures are virtually indistinguishable from a Rufous, unless one has them in hand or has very good photos of the tail feathers.

On Monday, Vic and Donna Fondy from Whitewood arrived here. We birded for awhile in the morning, they invited me over for supper and we looked at bird photos. Some new photos for the past few days include Great Kiskadees hovering in front of feeders, my best ever photos of White-eyed Vireo, White-tailed Kite, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Here's a smudgie, that's what they call the hybrid Audubon's/Altamira Orioles that are found around here. I'm told that there are no pure Audubon's Orioles at Bentsen Rio Grande but that I will see them at Falcon State Park.

This is my Thursday Feb. 10 update. Vic and Donna have headed east to continue on their trip to Florida. I've been birding Bentsen Rio Grande and Estero Llano Grande State Park over by Weslaco.  At Estero Llano Grande, I got my photos of the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a Common Pauraque on the ground, and Fulvous Whistling-Duck (lifer!). I got a quick look at the White-throated Thrush that has been there for a few weeks, but no photos.  Today, I finally got some good shots of the Black-vented Oriole. I had spent the morning looking for the bird, but didn't see it anywhere. I did get some nice shots of a Hermit Thrush and a Curve-billed Thrasher. Then, as I was just about to leave the park, I saw the Black-vented Oriole by the entrance area. For the next two hours I stood there and watched it foraging, waiting for it to come out into the open. Sometimes it would disappear for a while but it always came back to a tree that was dripping sap, where it appeared to lap up the sap. I finally got the photos I had been hoping for. It was a great way to wrap up my last day here, I'm heading west to Falcon State Park tomorrow.

Sunday, Feb. 13. I've been at Falcon State Park for two days. This is more desert-like, but still many of the lower Rio Grande valley birds species are found along the river. In the uplands, species like Cactus Wrens, Scaled Quail, and Pyrrhuloxias are more common. At Salineno, there is a birding area on the Rio Grande River, the hosts maintain feeders. Here I got my lifer Audubon's Oriole. There are several Ringed Kingfishers on the river, I've been able to get some photos of them. I'm going to keep working on the kingfishers here. I've got Northern Bobwhite coming into camp but they are pretty shy and take off at the first hint of movement. Pyyrhuloxias are very common and easy to photograph.

Wednesday, Feb. 16. I've been going to Salineno every morning. The numbers of orioles at the feeders is pretty amazing. There are four Ringed Kingfishers on the river, I keep trying to get some good photos, but so far, they are just OK. One more day to go and then I head back north.