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texas gulf coast birding and raptor migration tour march 25-april 2, 2000

2003-08-04 - 4:16 p.m.

For the bird checklist from this trip, please click right here.

For many years, I had dreamed of seeing the Whooping Cranes and other Texas specialty birds. Ironically, the Texas Gulf Coast was almost too close. There always seemed to be a better argument to be made for visiting a more exotic location. Finally, the opportunity came for a once-in-a-lifetime trip personally guided by Bill Clark, author of The Photographic Guide to North American Raptors and other books. There was only one other person on the trip, which allowed for plenty of personal guidance. It promised to be an exciting adventure.

A few days before the beginning of the trip, I received a special VIP invitation from the Lake Charles tropics-themed casino. The opportunity was too good to be missed. So we actually left on the afternoon of Friday, March 24, and stayed in Lake Charles that night, where we enjoyed a delicious steakhouse dinner complete with bottle of wine and after-dinner cognac.

We got an early start on Saturday morning, after making a quick stop to sample the complimentary breakfast buffet. The drive to Corpus Christi was fast and easy. Although it wasn't all interstate, Texas State Highway 77 was apparently in the process of being transformed into Interstate 69, and it was already near interstate quality. We arrived at the hotel early, with plenty of time to explore the town. It wasn't long before we ended up on Padre Island, where we made an exciting find. A proud Peregrine Falcon sat on a telephone pole by the side of the road, tolerating our admiration and our doubts for over ten minutes. We could hardly believe our eyes. Our first raptor and it's a Tundra Peregrine Falcon? I checked the bird guides again and again. The bird could be nothing else. But what were the chances of seeing such a rare bird our first time out?

Back in the hotel room, I reviewed the birding magazines I brought along and learned that Padre Island is a staging ground for migrating Peregrine Falcons -- of the Tundra variety. Bill Clark later confirmed this information. Hey, we're actually starting to get the hang of this identification thing.

The real excitement began on Sunday, March 26. We started with a tour of Padre Island, where we immediately spotted a pair of White-Tailed Hawks sitting up close and personal near a woman's front door. They truly looked silly with their wings longer than their tails. In quick succession, we then spotted Kestrels, a Merlin with her tail spread to show off the bars, Ospreys, and, of course, a Peregrine Falcon. It wasn't as close as our Peregrine, though.

Next, we headed to the count site and settled in to watch the migration. Bill warned that we had "started at the top" by visiting Veracruz and not to expect too much from a spring migration in Corpus Christi. But we were not to be disappointed. At mid-day, a huge wave of several kettles of broad-wings passed over -- over 15,000 birds. It was truly a "wow."

We had to crawl out of bed super-early on Monday, March 27, the appointed day to catch Captain Ted's whooping crane tour. Within minutes, the serious birders had abandoned their seats and crowded the top deck of the boat, where we spotted species after species, including a white Reddish Egret and several busy Northern Harriers. The stars of the show, and a new life bird for us, were the Whooping Cranes -- all 41 of them. We saw pairs and also largish gatherings of juveniles. The boat was experiencing engine trouble, and we returned at a very slow speed, but I don't think anyone was disappointed in the trip. 188 Whoopers wintered on the refuge this year, and we saw close to one quarter of the birds.

Monday night the motel had a complimentary cocktail reception with Jack Daniels and Chivas. Hey, not bad.

On Tuesday, we checked out the King Ranch and the old chicken plant area, where 100 Crested Caracaras used to gather for discarded chicken parts. Today, chicken scrap is used for animal feed, and the less efficient chicken plants have fallen by the wayside. But we saw plenty of Crested Caracaras performing road patrol -- diligently searching for armadillos, possums, and who knows what. Bill and Roger even saw a road-killed Great Horned Owl.

In the afternoon, we scoured Laguna Atascosa for Aplomado Falcons. Much of the wetland area was dry due to a prolonged drought, and we didn't see as many birds as some people have reported. Yet we couldn't be disappointed at the sight of proud Ospreys with their fish being watched by greedy Chihuahuan Ravens hoping for some crumbs. A big thrill was observing a pair of White-Tailed Kites who performed a courting flight and then mated in front of us. At the end of the day, we finally discovered an elusive pair of Aplomado Falcons, who rewarded our search with a nice long look.

Wednesday, March 29, began with a bang. Through a mishap, we actually got started earlier than we planned -- the so-called Continental breakfast was not provided by the motel -- and we ended up at Santa Ana refuge, where an enormous take-off of (mostly) Broad-Winged Hawks began around 7:30 A.M. The birds kept coming and coming out of the trees -- hundreds of them at very close range. It was an overwhelming experience.

The biologist in charge of the count had just started that morning, so Bill modestly showed her his guide to the hawks and shared some quick identification hints.

Thursday, March 30, was the day of Hook-Billed Kites. We visited Bentsen State Park, where many snowbirds (the two-legged kind) camp for the winter in their RVs. Putting out bird food, including marshmallows for Altamira Orioles, is a matter of course. We enjoyed the questionable sight of a mature Plain Chachalaca consuming vast quantities of peanut butter and then thoughtfully extruding the whole mess right in front of us for a well-grown youngster. As the regurgitated peanut butter kept coming and coming, I was reminded of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

The real show came at the Rio Grande trailhead. As we got out of the car, we nearly had our hats removed by a low-flying Swainson's Hawk. Moments later, the first Hook-Billed Kite sailed casually overhead. It stayed in view for a long time and came quite close. But it wasn't the first. Before we left, we'd seen six Hook-Billed Kites, including a loose group of four juveniles. For the rest of the trip, we teased Bill about the Hook-Billed Kite being an "easy" bird.

On Friday, March 31, we visited Falcon Dam, crossing halfway to look over the water but not actually entering Mexico. While in the area, we were amused to observe a rather questionable transaction. A small fishing boat cruised over from Mexico and met a man from the American side to exchange...whatever. Apparently, the underworld has learned that birders are peaceful folks not likely to be eager to play vigilante.

On Saturday, April 1, we slowly headed back toward the Corpus Christi count site, taking our time and enjoying such sights as Harris's Hawks copulating lustily on a telephone pole. It had been an exciting trip which reinforced the identification of birds previously seen in Louisiana, Veracruz, and Arizona, but which also had enough life birds to keep the list growing. New lifers included Ringed Kingfisher, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Whooping Cranes, and of course the ubiquitous Hook-Billed Kite.

For dinner, we visited Landry's in Corpus Christi, a floating restaurant which provided a nice view of the city as well as plenty of Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and a Great Blue Heron which flew right by the window.

We drove home Sunday, April 2. The long drive from Corpus Christi to New Orleans was broken up by a pleasant stop at the Isle of Capri in Lake Charles to enjoy a free champagne brunch for two featuring crab legs. Oh yes.

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