Sunday was the day of our boat trip to see Whooping Cranes. These tall (tallest in North America) and beautiful birds are endangered, and I believe there is less than one thousand in existence today. We woke up early to a nice sunrise outside the hotel.
The trip would take us to small marshy islands not far from the mainland and was supposed to be three hours, although we ended up getting an extra hour out of it for our trip.
Unfortunately the weather called for dense fog in the morning, and as you can see from this photo, visibility was not good, especially when we set out.
In the end, it didn’t make a difference though. Perhaps it helped us get closer to the birds, because we were lucky enough to be able to watch the cranes at very close range for an extended period of time. They were fascinating creatures, and we watched them walk around and hunt for crabs. A juvenile had trouble eating one, and we watched as an adult showed us how it was done. At one point two adults grabbed the same piece of food and I got some photos as the larger one danced around after the disagreement.
Despite the fog, I got great close up looks at many uncommon and fascinating birds.
On the way back, we went by a large group of Eared Grebes, my second lifer for the morning.
Afterwards, we headed south along the coast, stopping to eat in a nice restaurant that had its kitchen being renovated, and therefore the waitresses had to bring the food in from outside where it was being cooked in a food truck. There was a nice lookout just outside the restaurant where we got views of more waterfowl and shorebirds, including yet another Reddish Egret and a Black Skimmer. I remember us noticing all the damage from Hurricane Harvey that was still visible. The area had been hit hard.
We stopped a couple of times along the coast and once by the beach, viewing more shorebirds including the first Ruddy Turnstones of the trip. Then we went to a small overlook by Port Aransas Nature Preserve. The overlook was partly demolished and we were only able to make it part of the way down the boardwalk, but we still got some great views.
Bitterns look almost alien to me and it is impressive how the American Bittern is able to stay hidden even though it is so large. This was only my second viewing of one of these birds and getting photos of it was as good as a new lifer for me. There was also a large Alligator there and a Nutria, apparently also called a Coypu.
They are somewhat invasive and not the prettiest animals so are generally disliked where they are common, but I still thought it was interesting to watch. I find mammals much harder to find than birds so I am always happy to get a photo of them.
This spot had about forty Black-crowned Night-Herons, more Roseate Spoonbills and about ten Black-necked Stilts, along with a good number of ducks and gulls and smaller shorebirds. Definitely worth stopping by if you are nearby.
Back out by the main road, there is small greenspace called Port Aransas Wetland Park. This was where I logged my first confirmed White-faced Ibis. Another long day of great birding nearly over we headed to our next La Quinta, stopping along the road a couple of times when we spotted raptors.
I had to take a photo of that sharp-looking Peregrine, but I was even happier when we stopped to grab photos of my first White-tailed Hawk.
The next morning we drove around the countryside, heading south from Kingsville. I saw a Great Horned Owl early in the morning and at an overpass, we watched Eurasian Collared-Doves, both varieties of yellowlegs, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker and some Snow Geese with a single Ross’s Goose fly over. At one point we came upon what looked like a field littered with some kind of gray garbage in the distance, but they turned out to be roughly 600 Sandhill Cranes that flew off as we approached. After some more interesting birds along the roads, we stopped at the Sarita Rest Area, which is a known roost for Brewer’s Blackbird, and I nabbed my first life bird of the day.
I also got a look at my first Black-crested Titmouse here, a slightly more handsome version of the titmouse we have in the east. The bathrooms here have amazing mosaics in them and are definitely worth stopping in, which makes sense – it is a rest stop after all.
Our next target was Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, but of course we had to stop along the road some more first and I managed yet another life bird – White-tailed Kite.
The National Wildlife Refuges never disappoint and this one was no exception. Not far from the entrance there was a well-stocked feeder area and a lot of typical Texan birds were stopping by while we were there.
We took a walk down a trail along the gulf and I could see the terrain in this area was definitely starting to change from what I was used to.
There were of course more interesting birds to see as well.
There were two new birds for me here – Curve-billed Thrasher and Greater Roadrunner.
I was very happy to see this bird of cartoon fame. It was a close thing as I missed a couple before this guy let us take some photos, although we did eventually see another one towards the end of the trip.
Another nice surprise as we were leaving was this little guy.
After the refuge, we made our way down to South Padre Island for a walk on a very interesting boardwalk out to views of the gulf. At some point along the drive, we took note of the massive windmills that were part of wind farms we saw throughout the week.
We were plagued with gray skies and occasional fog for our whole visit, but it didn’t slow our birding down any.
The boardwalk at South Padre Island was a great spot for rails and bitterns, and in addition to my last lifer of the day, a Least Bittern, we got great views of a Clapper Rail and Sora at close range.
I was lucky to get that shot of the very small and secretive Least Bittern. There were also Mottled Ducks standing out in the sun.
At the end of the boardwalk there was an overlook where we watched many other ducks (Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup), gulls and shorebirds.
This wrapped up the day for us and we headed to Brownsville for the night. Another whirlwind day and tomorrow was still only Tuesday! I had nabbed another ten life birds on Sunday and Monday. However, now we were entering the Rio Grande Valley, which would make those lists looks small in comparison.