Update from Texas

Well, I’ve just finished a brilliant week in California – so this recounting of Texas last week, which seems like a month ago, will be brief, but with some hopefully interesting pix. Then I’ll get back to reporting on California – and it does involve condors! BTW I write this on a flight from San Diego to Tucson, with Phoenix as an hour-long stopover.

The point of the Texas trip was twofold: to get onto a tour of King Ranch – the place to see Ferruginous Pygmy-owls – and a lot of other birds inhabiting the tiny remaining vestigeous of once-widespread live-oak savannah woodlands; and to see Whooping Cranes at Port Aransas – I was booked on tours in both those places.

The only way to get onto the King Ranch properties is through their excellent nature tours program – which the juggle well with hunting guiding activities and running cattle. Though the ranch is enormous, the stocking level is very low, hence a great reputation as a genuine wildlife resource that can sustain hunting and ecotourism activities.

The day prior to my King Ranch Norias District tour was dedicated to tracking down a flock of Mountain Quail that had been reported the day before – about two hours north of King Ranch, making it a four hour drive from my Corpus Christi base. I got to the site at about 4PM, right on 24 hours after the first report – which provided details of 23 birds congregating on recently plowed field. This is a real tough species, especially since I’d fooled around and not gotten onto wintering groups reported through a number of States, but now are pretty much all in transit northwards, from easy to scan flat brown paddocks to much more challenging native grassland habitats. I’d arrived at one of the Arizona wintering sites a few days earlier, but was apparently a week or two too late. So this was an exciting opportunity. I’d find out later that another eBird report occurred from a visit just an hour before my arrival – again, 23 birds. I put up the scope in the high winds and soon had a group of Mountain Plovers. Er, well, they sort of looked like Mountain Plovers, but… The good news was that the count of 23 was correct; the bad news was that as hard as I tried, I couldn’t convert them from American Golden Plovers into the much scarcer Mountain Plovers. The eBird reports had been wrong. Bloody ‘ell. Maybe in Colorado with Murray in a few weeks.

So early morning and onto the King Ranch with in-house birding and nature guide, Tom. Tom had done some graduate research work on the ranch 20-odd years ago, and was so impressed with the properties that he worked with the owners to set up the nature tours that are now well established. Tom was a great guy and incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of the ranch, from cattle to calculating Douglas points on a trophy White-tailed Deer. There were four others in my tour, and they were experienced birders – following the birding travels of a well-known birder couple who had passed away in recent years, following apparently many decades of birding country wide. Brad Bramblin, a grandson of the couple (I’ll try to recall names and add here – ‘Red’ was the grandfather) was in the group, and the journey was something of a pilgrimage for him.  Upon entering the ranch and stopping to get our bearings, we were immediately presented with the price bird on the property – a Code 3 Ferruginous Pygmy-owl. We would later see another, more photogenic FEPO. Also on no fewer than three occasions we saw Tropical Parulas – a Code 3 warbler that I went to a lot of trouble to see many weeks earlier. A reminder that doing a North American Big Year is like anything else, including Aussie big years – a second go at it would be much easier and more effective than the first time around. But then, as Apollo Creed said under his lost breath to Rocky after photo-finish win: “Ain’t gonna be no rematch”, to which Rocky mumbled: “Don’t want one”. And trust me, there ain’t gonna be no rematch for me either – which is why I’m throwing everything I can at it now, including a kitchen sink if that helps.

During my day in the 7-seater I saw a bunch of first-for-year birds, including Sprague’s Pipit and Grasshopper Sparrow. We heard a Western Screech Owl, which I’d already heard in Arizona, but without any witnesses – a scenario that I like to minimise.
Unfortunately, during the course of the day, the folks who run the boat trip out of Rockport to see the Whoopers cancelled due to impending winds. So I researched where to go, and made the two hour drive up to Goose Island. As always, the palms begin to sweat as I closed in on the exact street and paddock where the birds had been seen a few days earlier. I rounded a corner and could see that there weren’t any large white birds to greet me. Instead, a vehicle was pulled over on shoulder opposite my lane, and two ladies – one in front seat the other in the back were looking through binoculars at the cluster of waders across the road (on my side). I was in a nervous state, which sort of explains what I did: I pulled up next to them, blocking their views, saw their startled faces and asked “Haven’t seen any cranes have you?”. They were stunned at the rudeness, but muttered that there’d been a flyover earlier, and that a good place to look is 4th St. I didn’t know what else to say, so blurted at one of them “I think I’ve seen you somewhere previously – maybe South Texas?” She said “I don’t think so, and made it clear that it might be nice if I’d rack off so she can see the waders. I sped off feeling like a clown as usual, but soon found 4th Street. I could see two dirty big white birds off on the right, and a gentleman had pulled over where I joined him, as he tried to hold his camera high enough over the bushes to get a photograph. I busted my way through the shrubbery/hedge row, went ‘click’, then had a nice binocular  Tick! I went back to where I’d interrupted the gals to offer an apology – which probably would just get me in deeper. Although they were gone – three Whoopers had moved into the paddock – a pair with a young-un! Terrific – I began the four hour drive to McAllen for my flight to San Diego.

Feeling drowsy along the way, I pulled off the highway and scouted for a location to lower the seat back and have a snooze. I found a shade tree along a residential road, sort of halfway between two houses, as I like it – thinking that the neighbors of each house will think I’m visiting the other house. As soon as I dozed off I was awakened to rapping on my window by a young police officer. I was surprised how long it took him to be satisfied that I was who/what I said I was. He picked up on my Australian citizenship from my NSW drivers licence, and disappeared with my passport for a good five minutes. Unlike Australia where there are roadside rest areas galore, and an outright encouragement for people to pull over and ‘revive and survive’, there’s none of that here. He said “No sleeping in front of houses – next time get a motel or something”. “Yes sir.” Crikey.

Off to California! Following are some pix:
Big Year newbie at King Ranch (after the trip)
Texas Longhorn
View from bird tour van of beautiful oak habitat, and some volunteer turkeys at no extra charge
The reason most people come to King Ranch: Code 3 Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Barn Owl
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Upland Sandpiper - a nice find where the Mtn Plovers were a bust

Here they are: