Friday, March 9, 2018

South Texas Days 4 and 5: Dogs and Owls Around Austin

Barred Owl Near Austin, Texas

Day 4
Dogs and Owls Around Austin

Eric and I left our hotel early and drove through a fog to meet with a local leader of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America so we could begin setting up the course for the Working Aptitude Evaluation (WAE) Eric would conduct for more than 20 dogs. I had never been to a WAE so I was looking forward to learning about the process and meeting the people and their beloved dobermans.

Eric greeted and oriented the participants just before the evaluations began. Each dog had to remain out of sight and away from the course until it was its time to pass through the course. Each male dog went through the course first so they would not be distracted by the scent of a female that had been through the course ahead of them.

I captured a few images of the dogs and their owners as they individually passed through the course. One of the owners,Destani, gave me permission to share a couple of images I captured as her dog Ego made his way through the course. Ego responded properly at this stage of the course when the lady in the camp chair unexpectedly popped open the umbrella as Destani and Ego approached.

Eric would provide feedback and instructions to the owners based on how their dogs responded to the various challenges of the course.

After observing a few dogs passing through the various stages of the WAE course I walked over to the expo center across the parking lot to experience my first visit to an All-breed Conformation Show. I could not believe all the breeds that had been gathered in one place. The owners took great care to groom and prepare their dogs for the conformations.  It was very apparent that they adored their dogs. I asked a few of the dog owners if it would be okay to photograph their dog with my phone and each one of them had a smile on their face as they approved. Here is a very small sampling of the numerous breeds that were participating in the Conformation Show. I welcome correction if I have incorrectly identified the breed. I am far from an expert when it comes to identifying dog breeds.



Afghan Hound

Belgian Tervuren


Golden Retriever


Hairless Terrior
We ate a late lunch after completing Eric's responsibilities with the doberman evaluations and then developed a plan to bird Hornsby Bend with hopes of locating a Barred Owl, one of my prime targets for the Austin area. I had seen Barred Owls before in my home state of Kentucky, but I had never photographed one.

Hornsby Bend

We let the GPS guide us to Hornsby Bend and became a little confused when it directed us to enter a gate that was monitored by a guard station. I wondered if we'd somehow gotten the wrong location, but the guard, who was quite familiar with birders, noticed the confused looks on our faces and quickly assured us we were in the right place. She then told us how to enter Hornsby Bend for birding.

A pond presented our first observation of birds. Savannah Sparrows flushed from the tall grasses along the road sides as we drove along the road bordering the pond.  An Egyptian Goose (lifer) was a nice bird to see on the water since I was not expecting to see one.

Egyptian Goose Hornsby Bend Austin, Texas
Other than the goose the other birds on the water were typical of what we see in Utah in terms of ducks and grebes. A handful of Least Sandpipers were foraging along the shoreline. We parked the van and did a walk through the woods below the pond and close to the river. We saw flickers, herons, Carolina Wrens, chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Orange and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Cedar Waxwings, a lone Eastern Bluebird, and Chipping Sparrows, but no Barred Owl. We drove to another likely place for Barred Owls just before sunset, but we failed to locate one there as well. That park was closing and park rangers were driving through to make sure people were leaving so we headed out.

After going back to the hotel for a few things we set out for another target owl species, The Eastern Screech-owl. Unlike the Barred Owl, which is active diurnally and nocturnally, the Eastern Screech-owl is strictly nocturnal. We reviewed recent sightings for Eastern Screech and decided to head over to Red Bud Trail. We arrived before it was completely dark so we chilled in the van for a little bit. We picked up Field Sparrow for another species to add to our list for the trip as I noticed them in the brush on the other side of the road from where we were parked.

Red Bud Trail

We heard our first owl call from deep in the woods about twenty minutes after the sun had sunk below the horizon. I played a call and the bird passed over my head and landed in a tree right next to me. I called Eric over so he could see it was well.

Eastern Screech-owl Near Austin, Texas
Other than missing the Barred Owl, our day had gone pretty much according to plans. Next on the agenda was a nice BBQ dinner. Unfortunately, the dinner plan developed a few wrinkles. Our top choices were closed so we had to go to plans B and C, so to speak. Finally, we settled on one that had good reviews online. We plugged it into the GPS and soon found ourselves sitting in the parking lot of a gas station wondering if we'd ended up at the wrong location. Just as I had that thought I noticed there was a small trailer and some canopies on the lawn across the parking lot from the gas station. Sure enough that was our destination, Smoky Z's. And it appeared that they had also closed for the night.

We were about to go somewhere else when I noticed a man who walked out from behind the trailer.  We decided to check and see if they might have a deal on some leftovers from the day. It turned out that the owner/chefs were willing to feed us. We enjoyed a little visit as they prepared a couple of nice meals to go. We heard about their history and how they put a lot of TLC into their cooking.  We were the recipients of southern hospitality. I demonstrated my poor selfie skills when I captured this image of Eric and me standing outside the mobile kitchen with the owner/chefs putting a little TLC into our dinner.

Before long we were in our room enjoying dinner and looking forward to our final day in Texas.

Day 5
The Final Morning in Texas

West Bouldin Creek Greenbelt

We started our last morning in Austin at West Bouldin Creek Greenbelt, a birding hot spot with recent reports of Barred Owls. The weather was consistent with every other day of our trip, gray skies with a dose of cold air and intermittent rain.

The greenbelt was quiet, but we managed to tally 17 or so species as we casually walked through the woods listening and looking for Barred Owls. Prior to our trip I had hopes of herping (looking for reptiles and amphibians) while in Texas. However, if you've followed the recent blog post you know the conditions were not conducive to cold blooded reptiles--few reptiles are active when the temperatures are in the forties. However, I got the idea to look for salamanders as we passed through the woods of the greenbelt. I carefully flipped a few rotted logs to avoid damaging habitat while checking for salamanders. Those efforts proved more productive than looking for Barred Owls because I managed to find several Western Slimy Salamanders pretty quickly.

Western Slimy Salamander Austin, Texas

Western Slimy Salamander Austin, Texas

Western Slimy Salamander Austin, Texas
The only new bird species we turned up for our trip list during our visit to the Greenbelt were White-throated Sparrow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Hermit Thrush.

We had a little more time before we had to head out to the airport so we did a little research in the Birdseye app and agreed to make Mayfield Park our last stop of the trip.

Mayfield Park

Birding Mayfield Park proved to be a good decision. Our walk through the woods and down to the water turned up some handsome Wood Ducks, a Belted Kingfisher, and a Great Blue Heron perched in a tree top. Mallards, Cedar Waxwings, and Downy Woodpeckers were also discovered along the way. A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks gave a few screams as they soared above us, but I kept my eyes peeled and my head on a swivel as I tried to observe every possible Barred Owl roost I could. Then came that moment when Eric and I both stopped in our tracks and listened intently to see if we'd heard what we thought we heard. And we did, because heard it again--the distant "who, who, who cooks for you" call of a Barred Owl. It was coming from behind so we reversed our direction and quickly and quietly made our way toward the owl. We soon discovered that there were actually two owls calling. Those big black eyes were shining despite the lack of direct sunlight.

Barred Owl Austin, Texas
The image below as captured as the owl was calling. It was apparent that they put their whole body into their calls as the bird leaned forward and extended its neck to deliver its notes.

Barred Owl Calling in Austin, Texas
Barred Owl Austin, Texas

Barred Owl Austin, Texas

Barred Owl Austin, Texas
The Black Eye

Apparently, I wanted to make the photo shoot with the Barred Owl a memorable one. Let me start by saying that out of nineteen owl species in the US and Canada only four have black eyes. Most species have yellow irises.  Right as we were about to stop photographing the owl and just before heading to the airport I got the idea that I could get a better angle on the owl by climbing onto and walking along the top of a rock wall. I finished with the owl and then thought about jumping down from the wall. It seemed a bit too high so I walked farther down the wall to where the ground was a few feet closer. I jumped, landed unevenly, and shockingly found myself falling backward onto my tail bone and then onto my back. My head bounced against the soft, rain-soaked ground, and then my harnessed binoculars collided with my face, making a direct hit to my left brow.  Throughout this chain reaction of bouncing and banging things that shouldn't have been banged nor bounced I instinctively held about $4k worth of camera and lens in my right hand as if it were the torch of the statue of liberty. I naturally sacrificed the body while protecting the gear. While flat on my back on the side of a road I made a declaration followed by a rhetorical question. "That was so stupid! What were you thinking?" And then I quickly looked around to see if anyone saw my very clumsy move. I was relieved to learn that it would remain unknown to others until I shared it with the world through a blog post. When I got into the van I looked in the mirror and realized that I was bleeding from my brow. I washed away the blood by squirting water onto some napkins I had left over from a restaurant and then borrowed and applied Eric's bottle of cold iced tea to the wound to try to prevent swelling. Here is a collage documents the fact that I got a black eye while trying to photograph a black-eyed owl. I'm sure that not a claim very many birders would ever want to make.

It took until we were inside the airport, but we finally made it to one of our planned BBQ restaurants in Austin, The Salt Lick. A great meal capped off a great Texas adventure.

We finished our trip to the Rio Grande Valley and Austin with a total of 143 birds species recorded. Twenty-one of those were life birds for me personally. Eric had birded Texas before so his list of life birds from the trip ended up being sixteen.  We were quite pleased with those numbers considering the weather and that we were there during the off season. I highly recommend birding the Rio Grande Valley if you have never been there. I know I want to go again, and soon.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Looking for Lifers: Rio Grande Valley Day 3

Rio Grande Valley Day 3
South Padre Island Convention Center

The first stop of our third day was the South Padre Island Convention Center boardwalk. The boardwalk is right next to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center and is free to the public for those who may not want to pay the entrance fee required at the Nature Center. We can't say what we missed by not going to the Nature Center, but we picked up some good birds along the boardwalk of the Convention Center which provided access to the same habitats.  We observed Tricolored Herons, Green Herons, Little Blue Heron, Blue-winged Teals, Reddish Egrets, Night-Herons, Northern Waterthrushes, Dunlins, dowitchers, Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs, gulls, terns, Clapper Rails (lifer), and a couple of skulking Common Gallinules.

Common Gallinule South Padre Island Convention Center Boardwalk
One of my favorite experiences at the Convention Center was observing this Sora that preyed on and nibbled this tiny fish to death. This was a memorable experience since these birds are so secretive and it was the first time I'd ever seen a Sora display carnivorous behavior.

Sora Preying on Minnow South Padre Island Convention Center Boardwalk
Sora Preying on Minnow South Padre Island Convention Center Boardwalk

The Sora was so accommodating I decided to capture some video to record the behavior.

A pair of Green Herons flew across the water while a Black-crowned Night-Heron was snoozing on the edge of the water as we left the boardwalk and went back to the van to drive to our next planned location.

Old Port Isabel Road (The Falcon Was Worth the Mud)

From the Convention Center we drove off the island via Highway 100 (E Ocean Blvd) to Old Port Isabel Road.The fields along Old Port Isabel Road provide the right habitat for Aplomado Falcons. Our Birdseye app indicated that there had been recent sightings in multiple areas in the days before we arrived, including Laguna Atascosa, but we chose to try Old Port Isabel Road. We noticed that the dirt road had become mud as we turned off of the highway. It seemed passable so we proceeded. At one point, however, it became quite sketchy for us. The van was bogging down despite Eric's attempts to maintain our speed and control.  It looked like we would be okay if we could make it just a little farther.  Eric sustained forward movement, but we were losing traction as the loose mud filled in around the tires.  There was a moment when I wondered if we were going to be "those guys". Fortunately, Eric successfully navigated the worst part so we pressed forward until that fortuitous moment when we saw, for our very first time, an Aplomado Falcon (lifer). It was perched on a snag about 100 yards to our left.

These falcons used to range across the southwest in Arizona, Nevada, and Texas and down into Central and South America.  Their preferred habitat is open desert grassland with scattered perches. They were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1986. After 1952 there were no known breeding pairs in the US. The Peregrine Fund reintroduced them to parts of their US breeding grounds in the early 1990s and now there are breeding pairs in South Texas. Aplomados are about 16 inches tall and weigh about 10-12 ounces.

We ran across a few White-tailed Hawks along the muddy road and they were all perched on distant poles and somewhat obscured by mist and/or fog. They are not well lit and they are deeply cropped, but I kept the images below since they show the typical field marks for the adults of this species. I was quite surprised to see how short the tail was relative to the wing tips when perched. It made me curious to see how the short tail of a White-tailed Hawk would compare to an actual Short-tailed Hawk.

Deeply Cropped Image of a White-tailed Hawk Under Fog Port Isabel Texas

Deeply Cropped Image of a White-tailed Hawk Under Fog Port Isabel Texas
We eventually decided that it was time to turn back and return to the safety of asphalt when we found a relatively safe place to attempt a three-point turn.  I took a moment to check out the exterior of the van.

We did better at getting through the mud on our way back to the main road by approaching with the speed that respected the mud rather than the crawling speed that was conducive to scouring the horizon for falcons. I had a little fun this time by making a video of the return to better ground.

Once we were back on the road we made our way toward Brownsville Old City Cemetery. My Birdseye app was showing recent reports of a few more life birds, including Anhinga.  Mother Nature kindly provided a bit of a car wash with occasional rains as we drove to Brownsville and other destinations throughout the day. 

Brownsville Old City Cemetery

We arrived at the Old City Cemetery in Brownsville under, you guessed it, light rain and heavy cloud cover. The first bird that caught my attention was this Tricolored Heron that was on the bank of the pond. It was rather accommodating as it stood in a light rainfall.

Tricolored Heron Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas

Tricolored Heron Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
Muscovy Ducks (lifer) were also amenable to some portrait photography.

Muscovy Duck Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks whistled from all around the small pond.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Pond Sliders (Turtles) Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
We saw what we hoped was going to be an Anhinga, but it turned out to be a cormorant. We did not see any signs of an Anhinga as we cruised around the cemetery and pond in the van for an initial assessment of the area, but I was determined to inspect the pond and possible roosts with as much diligence as possible so I got out and inspected on foot. I ran across what I believe is a Tropical Kingbird as I walked along the open side of the pond.

Tropical Kingbird Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
With some persistence I was able to put my eyes on an Anhinga (lifer) that was taking cover from the rain under a tree that was on the opposite side of the pond. That area of the pond was inaccessible because it backed up to private property. I did my best to focus on the bird through the rain that was falling and the branches between us.

A Hidden Anhinga Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
Near the cemetery was another small body of water that presented a couple of White Ibises (lifer). This bird was standing on one leg with the other tucked under its wing.

White Ibis Near Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
A crop of a similar image shows a little more detail of the rain drops beading up on the head and back feathers.

White Ibis Near Old City Cemetery Brownsville, Texas
Time was ticking and we found ourselves having only minutes remaining to enjoy birding the Rio Grande Valley. We had to get up to Austin for the evening to prepare for Eric's responsibilities with the dog show that would take place the next morning. We set our course back to Austin via Corpus Christi, hoping to get better views of Roseate Spoonbills.

We made a few random stops on our way back to Austin. One included a stop for a perched  Crested Caracara in the middle of who-knows-where.

Crested Caracara Somewhere in South Texas

Another stop include a ranch where a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl had been reported. However, the guard at that gate would not let us pass. We made a few phone calls to those with stewardship over the ranch, but they would not acquiesce despite the application of my best negotiating skills. They said big game hunters had paid big bucks to hunt on the property and that might pose a risk to our safety and the hunters' experience. The guy on the other end of the call asked me how much he should charge birders to go on the ranch and observe their Pygmy-owls. He was friendly, but not giving in. We had nothing to sway him so we resumed the trek toward Austin.

We reached Corpus Christi a little before 3 PM and this lone Harris's Hawk was perched on this wire above a canal.

Harris's Hawk Corpus Christi, Texas

We drove across the JFK Memorial Causeway to South Padre Island, but the weather turned against us so we turned back rather quickly to continue our trek toward Austin. We picked up three more species for our trip list as we went across the causeway and back--American Avocet, Black-bellied Plover, and our only Peregrine Falcon.

Hans A. Sutter WMA

We pulled into the Hans A. Sutter Waterfowl Management Area about 3:30. This would be our last shot at getting better looks at and photos of spoonbills. The rain started falling on cue, right as we stepped out of the van and began to don our binoculars and cameras. By this time we were quite used to wearing the rain gear. We walked along a boardwalk to a semi-covered viewing area. There were no spoonbills present, but we did end up observing twenty five species and Eric located a Sedge Wren. Marbled Godwit, Willet, Forster's Tern, Black Skimmer, and Sanderling were new birds we added to our total list for the trip during this stop. I didn't spend much effort with photographs due to the rain, but here are a few.

Long-billed Dowitcher Under Rain Corpus Christi, Texas

Brown Pelican Approaching for Landing Under Rain Corpus Christi, Texas

Black Skimmer Under Rain Corpus Christi, Texas

Black Skimmer Under Rain Corpus Christi, Texas
An Odd Combination for Dinner

We made it to Austin after dark ready to eat some more Mexican food. I had a little bit of a desire to try some Chinese food, but I decided on Mexican instead. Eric searched for Mexican restaurants with good ratings as I was driving. He found a restaurant that met our requirements and requested directions with his phone. As we pulled into the parking lot of the place we realized that the restaurant had a different name and the tag line for the place was "Chinese and Mexican". "Well, it might be Chinese food after all," I thought to myself.  Both of us thought that Chinese and Mexican seemed like an odd combination, but we went in to give it a try. The place kind of felt like a hodgepodge of things. Eric said afterward that it looked like they were having a garage sale inside the place because of all the odds and ends they were selling at the cash register.

Anyway, the list of Mexican food items on the menu was short. I asked the server if they had chili rellenos and he responded with, "What?" And he had a confused look on his face. I then asked if there was meat in the enchiladas since meat wasn't listed on the menu. "Not really. Maybe little scraps." Eric asked about what type of meat was in the tacos and that was met with another weak response. The server then justified his lack of understanding for the Mexican food by stating that they were more of a Chinese restaurant. At that point I decided I'd take the Chinese route to dinner.  I asked about one of my favorite dishes, General Tso's chicken. "Oh, you want the General Toast?" "No. I want General Tso's chicken. T-S-O or T-S-A-O." He said, "It's actually 'toast'". I looked at the menu and it actually showed General Toast, the fifth dish from the bottom of the chicken section, right above the Beef choices.

I asked how it was made and it sounded like the right thing so I ordered it. Minutes later, for the first time in my life, I was enjoying Mexican chips and salsa with a Chinese entree. It was actually pretty good food despite the meandering course we took to get the food on the table.

Interesting culinary experiences are a great way to end a fantastic day of birding. Sometimes those experiences make great stories to recall.

We put another memorable day in the books as we checked into our hotel in Austin and prepared for the dog show that would take place the next day.