This post follows on from the previous one and details our recent trip to Texas. There are some photos later in the post so you can scroll or speed-read down to them if you like.
Once off the main highways we drove through farming country. We were heading for sod fields, optimistic that we were going to be able to find and identify distant blobs through the heat haze. The blobs would be Mountain Plovers and they had been tripping around this particular set of sod fields for around six weeks. Their original flock had numbered three figures and even contained a few Buff-breasted Sandpipers but three or four cold fronts had pushed birds off and the latest eBird reports suggested that under a dozen Mountain Plovers remained.
On the way we passed large flocks of Sandhill Cranes and a couple of smaller groups of Greater White-fronted Geese. Tucked in with them was a lone Snow Goose, we didn’t really cast it a second glance. The sod fields were easy to find but the area was quite big. Most fields were ploughed up but not finely tilled and they bounced with Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows and American Pipits. Way off in the distance a tractor was working, cutting up some yellowed sod fields, the remnants of a grass carpet now destined to be turned, ploughed, tilled and sown ready for new grass.
There were birds there, some right under the 100m long watering devices on wheels. A quick look was enough to know that we had found at least one Mountain Plover, it was scope time. Although the plover was only about 150m away the heat haze was still a pain, no photo ops arose even with the digiscope rig but we got pretty good views of the bird as it fed in what can only be described as a plover like manner!
After due examination of the bird, we scanned the field further and found another one, then another and this continued until we had counted a total of seven plovers working away at the buried grubs. In the same fields were groups of Black-bellied Plover and Killdeer and tons of meadowlarks, all Eastern as far as I could tell. Angling for better light we worked our way around the farm road and found a Sprague’s Pipit, a species that, to me at least, has a hint of Woodlark about it. Time was pressing and we had more miles to devour until we got to Rockport, our base for two nights. As we packed up a hawk came over and panicked the birds. The Mountain Plovers got up and formed a tight flock, now we could see all of the scattered birds together, we counted seventeen.
Rockport is OK. The hotel was a Hampton Inn and was actually very nice, perhaps the best Hampton we’ve stayed in. Being on the main drag it was handy for everywhere, the breakfast was good, the room nice and the staff friendly. A few miles away was Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and that was where we would be going to look for our next target, Whooping Crane.
Our 1997 trip missed the cranes, early April was a bit too late and we later found out that there were only two pairs left on the vast reserve when we were there. Viewing at the Aransas reserve is restricted to a tower, the odd trail and a few pull-ins off the main road. There is a 16 mile driving loop but we found it pretty useless in 1997 and were not going down that same road this time, literally. Aransas had also recently hosted a Painted Redstart and Red-headed Woodpecker in the Oaks around the visitor center, birds we also wanted to see, especially the redstart – it being an ABA tick and all.
If we failed to see the cranes we would try to take Captain Tommy’s Whooping Crane tour the next day http://www.whoopingcranetours.com/4.html At $55pp it is an additional expense but we thought that it might be the only way to see the birds. When we got to Aransas we found that the redstart had moved on and the woodpecker frequented the park staff residences and they didn’t like birders milling around there, after all, there was plenty more of the reserve we could access. The restriction was rather at odds with a lot of the other Texan sites but this being a NWT the there is an air of formality about the set up.
We walked the rail trail as best we could, some parts were closed. Almost the first bird we saw was this American Bittern, unobscured and hunting crayfish.
Just about everywhere you go in Texas you bump into Northern Mockingbirds like this, we must have seen hundreds during the week.
At the end of the rail trail you reach an overlook and from there we saw two Whooping Cranes gliding effortlessly over the marsh before settling at some distance. Not great views but in the bag. The rest of the visit was also pretty productive. We saw two more distant cranes from the high tower and had a good selection of other birds on the water or marsh.
After thinking it over we decided to take the boat trip anyway and it turned out to be excellent, perhaps one of the better birding boat trips of its kind that we have taken. We went out over the bay and then up th various channels seeing a ton of birds. The highlight was when we go pretty close to a pair of cranes rooting around in a pool for the Blue Crabs that make up such an important part of their diet and that dictates how well the subsequent breeding season will go.
Below are a few of the shots taken. The birds stayed for about 20 minutes before flying off to another feeding spot in their winter territory. In all we found five pairs out in Aransas Bay but these were the closest. The species list dock to dock was 59, to put that in context it had taken six weeks to see 54 species in Quebec and I am out most days as regular readers know.
The short time we’d been in Texas had seen us find two lifers and renew acquaintance with several regional specialities such as Harris’s Hawk and White-tailed Hawk. After the boat trip we did a birding circuit around Rockport and were blessed with great light and a few photo opportunities plus a few unexpected year list additions, more about Rockport in the next post.