Friday evening (Feb. 2nd) I arrived at the starting location for an eight day tour of Southern Texas – a La Quinta hotel in San Antonio.  For the next nine nights, I was to stay in La Quinta hotels all over south Texas, with a group of six other intrepid explorers (including one fearless leader).  I had dinner with some of them and in the morning we set out early to discover new birds (to most of us) of Texas.

We stopped at a gas station just outside the city and I immediately spotted a strange bird.  One of the group was a very accomplished and experienced birder, and he said it was a wren, but I doubted him – the bird being too large in my mind.  But the leader came over and confirmed, it was indeed a Cactus Wren, my first lifer of the trip!  We gathered closer and two of these interesting birds showed themselves off for us, just across the road from our pit stop.

Cactus Wren

After getting into The Beast (our very large van), we drove for four minutes before spotting our first Crested Caracara!

Crested Caracara

In the falcon family, this amazing looking bird is actually a carrion eater, and we saw dozens of these along the road during our trip.

We had hardly started birding and I already had two great birds for lifers.  I knew this was going to be a great trip.

It was a long drive to the coast from San Antonio, so to break it up our leader stopped at an overpass.  We got out and stretched our legs and took out our scopes to see what was around.  It was windy and I wasn’t sure if we would see much, but at this seemingly random overpass I spotted four more life birds!  A few Green Jays flew between trees in the distance, a Long-billed Thrasher sang from a tree in the water, several Great Kiskadees gave us good looks, and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker let me take some far away photos.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is similar in shape to our Downy Woodpecker.  There was only one other woodpecker in the area, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, which is similar to our Red-bellied Woodpecker.  I saw this bird at our next stop – Choke Canyon State Park.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Here I also saw my first (of many) Harris’s Hawk and a Least Grebe.

Least Grebe

This was a tiny grebe with a very slender bill.  I was racking up the sightings already and it didn’t end there.  The birds all seemed exotic and interesting to me and I was also having great birding fun with non-lifers, getting great looks at loads of waterfowl and other interesting birds like Wilson’s Snipe and Common Yellowthroat.

Couch’s Kingbird

On the way out, I spotted a Couch’s Kingbird, and we pulled over again to take photos of this much better looking cousin of our Eastern Kingbird.  We stopped for lunch at a small burger joint with excellent food – including free cornbread and bean soup – and I couldn’t believe we had only just completed our first morning of the trip.  A note about the food – we stopped at many out of the way restaurants during this trip, and the food was always absolutely excellent, especially in the many Mexican restaurants.  The chefs at these locations really outdid themselves, and at very reasonable prices.

Hoping for the very rare Golden-crowned Warbler, we stopped at a local spot called Shelley Park, but in our first miss of the week, we had no luck.  The birds reminded us that they don’t just hang around for our pleasure, and that we have to be sharp-eyed AND lucky to spot them.  However, a Wilson’s Warbler was nice enough to show himself.

Wilson’s Warbler

This was a bird I had just not spotted in North Carolina yet, and I was surprised to see him here.

Our last stop for the day was Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

We stayed just under two hours until sunset, and managed to rack up a count of 39 species.  It was a great spot for birding and I logged my first sighting of Reddish Egret.  We also spotted a Great Horned Owl just sitting on the side of the road.

Great Horned Owl

It seemed a bit dazed and Ron, our leader, said it may have been stunned or injured by a car, as it didn’t look well and did not fly away.  He spoke with one of the rangers in the office, who gave him a cardboard box and some thick gloves.  In one of the most memorable moments of the trip, I watched as Ron chased the owl a few feet and managed to grab it.  He put it in the box and we drove back to the rangers, who said they would bring it to a local rehabilitation facility.  Ron, who has spent time working in a rehab facility in Charlotte, explained how he could tell the bird was emaciated and weak, and probably would not last much longer without help.  He would never have been able to catch it had it been a healthy bird.

I am not planning on making a post for every day on this trip, but this first day was an amazing start – 14 life birds in a single day!  It was fun and memorable and I enjoyed the company as many of us laid eyes on these birds for the first time together.  More to come!

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