Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Texas Trip Part II - 01/24/08 Birding in the Rain

This is our first day of really serious birding. Five am and it was drizzling outside. After doing our early morning ablutions, we headed over to the hotel annex where a free, hot breakfast buffet was being served. Surprisingly (then again, maybe not) we were the first customers. The Mexican lady in charge kept talking to us in Spanish. I guess that because we were not "white", she assumed we were Hispanics as well. (We would get this kind of treatment many times over during our stay in South Texas. Come to think of it we didn't see many Orientals here.). Hurdling the language barrier (she understands and speaks some English, too) we settled for some pancakes, ham omelet and of course, steaming coffee. We will have this same breakfast every single morning, except when we had to leave early on Saturday and stopped by Denny's along the way.

Our intended destination that morning was Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge some 50 miles northeast of where we were staying. Funny thing was we kept ignoring the directions given by our GPS unit - which we christened "Eartha" as in Eartha Kitt (a famous singer from our generation - as an FYI to you, young ones). Kitt, as some of you may remember was the talking car in Knight Rider, a TV series in the 70's (or was it 80's?). And since "Global", the "G" in GPS is synonymous with "Earth", and the unit's voice being female, thus Eartha seemed appropriate. So there.

Enough of the digression. Two miles before reaching our destination, the pavement ended. Since it had been raining on and off for the past few days, the unpaved road had turned quite muddy. (How apt - atascosa is Spanish for muddy). It would be sheer stupidity to attempt to navigate this mucky, icky two miles with our little rental car with teeny, weeny wheels. Had we followed Eartha's directions, we discovered a few days later, we would have been spared of having to go through the muddy portion of this particular road. But for now, we had to quickly come up with plan B. Looking at my printout of local birding hotspots (whose directions we pigheadedly followed instead of the GPS), we noticed that there was a small nature park not too far away from where we were.

Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen was only a fraction in size compared to the vast Laguna Atascosa but my references indicated that it is quite birdy nonetheless. A few yards after doing a U-turn from the pavement's end, we were surprised to see an Osprey perched on a tree stump by the roadside. Cynthia readied her camera as I inched the car closer to the bird. Of course, it flew off just before she could press the shutter. Further down the road, I spotted a flying raptor with a white tail. I screeched to a stop and watched the raptor land on the grassy ground much too far for our camera lens' reach. Using my binoculars I noticed the conspicuous white head as it walked on the field. A white-headed, white-tailed raptor that walks? That could only mean that it was a Crested Caracara! We just got our first lifer of the trip! We encountered another one as we neared the city of Harlingen, but it was deja vu as the bird would fly and then land way beyond photographic focusing distance.

We picked up our second lifer along this route as well. the bright yellow belly of a Great Kiskadee flashed as the bird flew from the side of the road to a nearby tree. Unfortunately, we are unable to park the car to try to take a picture because again, the road shoulder was soft and quite muddy.

Soon we were at Hugh Ramsey Park. There we met a park volunteer just as he was leaving. He was kind enough to give us a map and pointed at places where we are most likely to encounter the local avifauna. We tried the Hummingbird area first. There were feeders of different kinds catering to the various needs of the resident bird population. Many of the feeders were empty at this time and so we didn't see a lot of activity. A whirr of wings startled Cynthia who suddenly realized she was just a few feet away from a Buff-bellied Hummingbird trying to obtain nourishment from a red feeder. We got our third lifer!

At this point allow me to squeeze in a disclaimer: All photographs taken during this trip were below our standards. Gloomy, rainy weather pervaded throughout our stay in South Texas. The ambient light was always poor and the birds tended to stay under the shades and out of the rain and wind.

For the most part of the morning we see-sawed between the Hummingbird Area and a trail that leads to a small pond. Out of these perambulations, we picked four more lifers: Olive Sparrow, Long-billed Thrasher, Carolina Wren and White-eyed Vireo. The latter we didn't even realize until we reviewed the photographs back at the hotel.

We looked for a place to have lunch debating whether to go a fast food joint or to a more expensive sit-down restaurant. Looking bedraggled after spending several hours under wind and rain pretty much killed option 2. We were then thrown into a dilemma, since we really didn't want to go for burgers and fries. We were driving along in such a quandary when we spotted a familiar, albeit unexpected name. In the two times that we visited Sierra Vista in Arizona, we have always enjoyed the buffet and the casual ambiance of the Golden Corral. The food there was always good and the price very reasonable. We thanked God for solving our gastronomical (and economical, I might add) problems and enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at the Golden Corral in the city of Harlingen, Texas.

Per suggestion of Bob Archer, whom we met at Hugh Ramsey (he replenished the feeders later that morning) we proceeded to the Estero Llano Grande Park in Weslaco, some 20-odd miles from Harlingen. It was probably due to the inclement weather or it being a weekday (or both) but we were the only visitors to the park. We were warmly greeted by Ben Luna, the Park Ranger, who gave us information on where to go and what birds to expect in the area.

When I met up with my wife after I answered nature's call, she had this smug smile on her face that told me she had seen something I ought to see for myself. Without saying a word, she pointed to a big, brown bird sitting forlornly on top of a feeder just a few feet away from us. The Plain Chachalaca was added as lifer number 8.

As we walked away from the Visitor Center, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker became number 9 on our life list.

Later on at Alligator Pond (yes, there were supposed to be alligators there but we didn't see any), we added three more to our list: Anhinga, Tri-colored Heron and Least Grebe. By 4 pm, the drizzle had metamorphosed into real, honest-to-goodness rain. With 12 new birds under our belts, we called it day.

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