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Words and images © 2007 & 2008 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in any form.
A Birding Tour of Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley featuring stories and large photographs of these birds, in order: Red-tailed Hawk, Harris Hawks, Great Horned Owl, Tropical or Couch's Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Pyrrhuloxia?, Mockingbird, House Sparrows, Spotted Sandpiper, Great Kiskadee, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Green Jay, Altamira Orioles, American White Pelicans, Turkey Vulture, Parrot, Long-billed Thrasher, Plain Chachalacas, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Black-necked Stilts, Long and/or Short-billed Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpiper, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Olive Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, Great-tailed Grackle, Curve-billed Thrasher, Black-crested Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, White-tailed Hawk, dead Barn Owl, Crested Caracara, Bob White Quail and various mystery birds, whose identifications we'd appreciate. Email J R.
= multiple photos; = and considerable detail.
US 281 South of Alice,
The Lower Rio Grande Valley
December 23, 2007
In the last hundred or hundred and a half miles down to the Valley, south of San Antonio, past Alice, Texas, we began to see many hawks along the side of the road. Perched in trees and on wires. Waiting, watching. Few of them flying — until we stopped to photograph them, no doubt annoying or frightening them away. Anna was driving, and I was either leaning out the window or shooting through the sunroof.
In brighter light I got better focus and exposure. More than a decade ago my late friend Mary Iron Eyes gifted me a pair of Red-tailed Hawk feathers. She said they would help protect me. I used to be a really bad driver, but I haven't hit anything since I've owned Blue, so my car karma is much improved. Not convinced the feathers slowed me down. Probably age and experience did, but I've kept those feathers on my rear-view and have long felt an identify with the Red-tailed Hawk. I feel this bird's spirit.
Feathers don't last forever. I still have the first two, but they've worn significantly, and my more recent Red-tail feathers come from Indiana where one molts near a friend's home. It is illegal to take feathers from live birds — or kill them for their feathers, and some feathers are verboten entirely. Of course, picking up feathers on the ground is okay, so is pulling them from dead birds, and they are available in decoration and other stores.
So I have a history with Red-tailed Hawks, even though I've seen very few of them and photographed even fewer. Never before have I got this much detail. This shot is the same bird sitting in a tree before he flew away. But aren't the flying photos so much more exciting?
Further south and a brighter, bluer sky. Plenty sunlight means in-focus hawks. A Harris, we think our first. Our, because Anna stops when we see each new hawk down the highway, then maneuvers, so I can be comfortable and easily photograph these birds, some of whom don't care a whit about our presence. Others are not happy about an audience. This one stood for awhile, intent on something else.
Then jumped into flight away.
We found this and several more like it in differing color combinations and horn formats on one of our hawk stops. A strong Texican symbol redolent of cows and cowboys.
south, Anna spied this pile of flapping feathers on
the left side of the divided highway. We parked safely off the right-of-way,
I walked over, noted the small damage done in killing it (probably vehicular
homicide early that morning or late that night) and decided to harvest it
for feathers and photographs its various parts for our avian education. We'd
been shooting hawks, and we assumed this was another. Binocular birders
have to identify birds immediately. Photographers take our time to look them
up, once we get them in focus. Because our owl experience has been so limited,
it only much later entered our mind that it could be one of those..
We didn't want to take it apart on the side of the highway and once we got down near Edinburg, Texas in The Lower Rio Grande Valley proper, we did not find any rural roads out into the countryside, so we called my Mom and Dad to ask if we could use their extended backyard out by the neighbor's grove. We could and did, and both Mom and Dad joined the adventure. Dad even brought his long-armed clippers to help us de-wing it. Somewhat after we'd abandoned the still unstinking carcass, someone told me that an owl skull is an amazing thing to see.
When we finally got our feathered friend into the backyard, it quickly became clear that it was not a hawk but a medium-large owl. Only later, looking it up in one of my parents' older field guides did we decide it was a Great Horned Owl. We wished we could have seen it alive.
Almost everything about this bird was new to us. We'd never seen a Great Horned Owl before. Dead or alive. Exploring it up close and personal — my overwhelming sensation was how soft it was. And how light — was thoroughly educational, although we always felt sad it had died.
We explored it thoroughly. When Anna pried its long, sharp talons apart, we saw these little clumps of gritty pads like Velcro. Useful, no doubt, for holding firm to branches and prey.
Very efficient hardware, developed over millennia. See also the feet of a Barn Owl we found in similar circumstances. Near the bottom of this page.
If its neck weren't broken, this would be a more appealing photograph. But we would never have got the chance to get this close to a live owl, except in a zoo or collection of captured birds.
Note the long feather that forms the leading edges of the bird's wings. Rigged for silent running.
I think I remember this as armpits, but it doesn't match color with other photographs showing that area.We originally thought their very soft, light feathers and down must contribute to the silence of their flying by quieting wing flaps. Many months later, I learned that it was true. And that the soft trailing edges of their wings also help diffuse the usually audible rush of wind past their wings.
The more we explored this bird, the more fascinated with all its parts and how they fit together we became. What an amazing find, despite our dismay that it had been killed, probably by an automobile.
Such an amazing, intricately constructed entity. Exquisite!
I photographed this same stuffed owl on the first Birds of the Rio Grande page, then added the dark background. These last two photographs are here to remind us how the real, healthy Great Horned Owl is configured. I remember thinking when I first saw this stuffed version, how yucky. I still would not want to have a stuffed much of anything in my home, but it is truly beautiful, and informative.
I especially like seeing those middle winglets
on its back.
My Parents' Backyard
My parents' yard has always been a natural wonderment for me. Palm trees border the land high, all around, which is utterly amazing to this northern city-zen. I've counted more than two dozen varieties of tropical plants there — productive banana, papaya, mango, Bird of Paradise and other trees, cactus and a pyrotechnic display of flowers, many of which I have no words for — little riots of color in corners and open spaces all around the house.
Plenty of birds, too. I always see Great Kiskadees there, and spent many long minutes watching them dive from high wires, waffle and somersault in the air catching odd-flighted insects, then fly back to the wire or a tree. These particular birds, however, are not kiskadees because the best shot of a Great Kiskadee [below] this trip was at Bentsen State Park, our favorite of the official birding sites in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
These vivid yellow birds hang out in my parents' yard, because there are many wild things to eat there. They are at Bensen's, too, but Bentsen feeds them till they become used to having humans around to provide for their needs and so become nearly immune to us. The birds at home eat what they find and are properly timid around humans.
BB: "This one looks like both a Tropical and a Couch's Kingbird. Trouble is, to tell them apart reliably you have to hear them sing. The best you can say for sure is that it's one or the other — you can get both of them in the valley (We did when I was there last January). It has less than the usual amount of white under the chin for some reason. Juvie perhaps?"
These yellow birds are also not Kiskadees, but I thought they might be when I photographed them. It's actually fun trying to figure them out from my various Texas and national bird books and a great little brochure I bought at Bentsen's the summer I came down before, "Specialty Birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley." It cost $2 but I didn't see it anywhere we visited this trip, or I might have bought another. One side of the 9 x 21-inches long 5-fold brochure is a long, horizontal grid of color pictures of the Valley's specialty birds.
I keep hoping to find these yellow birds and that one I've been called Greenie there, but it hasn't happened. Maybe if I search through it a dozen more times...
After I shot this and chimped it on the camera's LCD, I assumed it was a female cardinal, but the photo of a real female Northern Cardinal [well down the page] isn't similar enough. The face color is too dark for a Pyrrhuloxia [See that bird on What Bird.com], which it resembles. Another mind-mixing unsub.
As it appears in the photograph is how
I remember it being in life. The wing-edge is reddish here, but
the face colors are not. So it remains a mystery.
With my luck, this is probably a Mockingbird. Oh, damn. It is a Mockingbird. I looked it up. Great hump.
Nice thing about old favorites — as opposed to new species — I can figure out who they are.
We hadn't met when Elvis walked up to the patio where I was photographing birds. Mom told me his name. Very friendly. I've made it a point to include various varmints who crossed our paths this trip. Elvis was my first non-human or bird — well, the first pleasant one. That longhorn [above] only stared at us through the barbed-wire fence. Elvis was mostly soft, though he could use a serious ear brushing. Anything involving ears that big has to be serious. Sometime after Elvis had left the building, his owner came by looking for him. Told us never to feed him, but I think everyone does or why would he leave home?
While I sat there, I saw a mostly dark blue hummingbird hovering very briefly about four feet off the ground near the jungle-like Banana and Bird of Paradise tree. So briefly I never had a chance to pick up the camera and shoot. It still shimmers vaguely iridescent in my memory. It might have bee a Blue-throated but I thought it was darker than that. Maybe a Buff-bellied. Or something else entirely.
Waiting to get it together for a bunch of us to go birding or something, I wandered around the yard. Easily found the usual bunches of Kiskadees, something darkish and green-like playing among the bushes along the back and various others of the Little Yellow Birds that plague me with identifications. And this.
Not my first Spotted Sandpiper, but an active one. I've photographed one flying up and down the creek [in the birders journal] off Sunset Bay on White Rock Lake in Dallas, Texas. That one was bright brown spotted underneath, in full summer spotted plumage. This one's in its more muted winter plumage.
Valley State Park
in Mission, Texas
We didn't visit all ten of the birding places [Morning Birding Suggestions online] in the Lower Rio Grande Valley this trip, but we'd like to come back till we've collected them all. Of the places we did visit, we liked Bentsen - Rio Grand Valley State Park World Birding Center, which was absolutely the best place we explored down there. It's a long walk over varied landscapes, but there's regular (every 20 minutes or) trams, bicycles and tricycles to rent, and cars are prohibited.
Many years ago, before it became a wildlife center, it was a beautiful green picnic park, and I remember running and playing and eating in that lush place as I was growing up. Many years later, while we visited with several of my younger nieces and a nephew, Mom told me it was going to become a wildlife center. I had no idea what that meant..
We have Golden-fronted Woodpeckers at the lake not far from here in Dallas. Though none as brave as this. Dallas woodpeckers are shy, flitting about in trees, melting into treescapes, invisiblating themselves. Not hanging out in plain sight and close enough to focus easily. I kept telling fellow family birders about Q Mazatlan, which I likened to a zoo without walls or fences. But Bentsen was very like that, only much bigger. With lots of bird food drawing many birds into the open.
Sometimes they are a riot of contrasting colors, and others merely monochromatic with black and white. Bentsen was a tamed wild place.
I've seen orioles before, but never this close and personal. Here we can see side views, back views and even their undersides.
At first I called them "Hooded Orioles," but what they are is Altamira Orioles.
Dad still grows citrus, so we Compton kids and friends and families have plenty. I'd never thought of them as bird food before. Jagging a half grapefruit or orange on a nail is the simplest way I've ever seen to feed our bird friends. So I'm struggling with the notion. I still think it's a bad idea to feed birds and animals who should keep constant their skills at feeding themselves. The only time I've fed bread to birds is when I'm attempting to entice them closer to pull something off their bill — and I felt guilty every step of that way.
But at Bentsen, Santa Ana and Quinta Mazatlan, they feed their birds. Often and prodigiously. Which means lots of birds may be seen by human winter visitors.
I suspect they feed the Javalinas, too but saw no evidence. Probably the wild pigs have developed a taste for bird food. Which seems a less than ideal situation overall. But it was grand fun watching them. We wanted to get closer and feel what that bristly hair felt like, but we gave them their distance, not knowing all the differences between wild boars and javas.
My telephoto lens has foreshortened Anna and her renta-trike here, so she's not really miniaturized. We'd thought the trikes would save energy. Hers did, but mine was not set up to my leg length or stride and was probably more nuisance than ease up hills. Down them though was grande, floating, and the ups were far between on the great loop that is Bentsen State Park. And the bucket in back held camera and excess jacket and shirts as I warmed my initial too-cold to hot.
Not for the first time at Bentsen, while I was still in the throes of serious Bronchitis, I was tired. Exhausted prone and had been awhile, lying back on a short bench under a small roofed bulletin board along the major road where the path led off to Hawk Tower, when I noticed these very familiar birds flying very high overhead. Sparkling in the sunlight. We were a couple hundred yards from the Texican/Mexican border, so these were international travelers.
Afterward, I kept asking birders if they'd seen the American White Pelican flyover, knowing that unless they were staring straight up, they probably missed them. We have them six months of the year at White Rock Lake inside Dallas, Texas City Limits, so I immediately recognized my old friends. Nice of them to fly over.
Last time I was on this long, gradually rising wood path up the rambling wood Hawk Tower, I also did not see any hawks, though I did [barely] capture a Groove-billed Ani — that I thought at the time was a grackle. This time, we at least saw one large bird of prey up very close.
I need to someday spend a day laying back in an lawn chair watching ravens fly. They supposedly do as well as Turkey Vultures, but I have my doubts. Nothing settles into the air with such ease and grace as Jonathan Livingston Turkey Vulture, gently rocking its outstretched wings in the air all over Texas and beyond.
Louie is 32 years old. About a third of the way as long as parrots live. He is certainly the most colorful bird we saw in The Valley this trip. And he was — as his owners were — from Dallas. Though we had not become acquainted with him there. No, we had to go more than 500 miles south to meet him. In this photograph he is probably biting the feathers on his back. A nasty habit of self-mutilation perhaps caused by long-term captivity among the humans. We tend to make our captive species nervous. Sometimes very nervous.
However, I chose not to photograph its much-bitten own back, where a large, featherless bald spot attracts all the attention, lending the overwhelming notion that Louie is not a happy camper. But he was careful not to complain while his owners were in earshot. And for Louie, that's a considerable distance.
Another Javelina, looking wild and malevolent, and we did not discover otherwise.
I wrote a book about armadillos in 1974. It was in the Library of Congress until somebody stole it, way back in the late 70s. I should probably send them another copy. I still have some. It looked like a cheap comic book, had a game, a song, a recipe and lots of real and fantasy stories and original Austin, Texas armadillo art. Not many years later, I designed and produced The Special Official Souvenir Program for the Fourth First International Armadillo Confab and Exposition in Victoria, Texas.
So it was especially lovely to see this Nine-banded armadillo crawling up the side of the road not more than fifteen feet from Anna on her trike. It wandered up the side of the road, ignoring me as it snuffled along, eating bugs crawling in the reeds. It's the first dillo I ever photographed in the actual wild, if Bentsen park can be called wild. Well, wild enough.
I was calling this a Mexican Mockingbird (Mex Mox) because it holds its tail up like the smaller, nearly universal Estados Unidos mocks do. Otherwise, there's not much comparison. The Thrasher is another first-sighting for us. According to Sibley's Guide to Birds, it's 11.5 inches long with a 12-inch wingspan. We did not see it fly more than a few feet, more a hop, actually.
There are more pix of more, less vivid Thrashers below.
This is the only photograph I got of a Green Jay flying. Actually, I was trying to take it of the jay holding still. But when I got it alls et up, the bird flew instead.
Something Bentsen had many of was Plain Chachalacas. When we first arrived on this scene at the official, inner main entrance to the park, we were both tired and in no condition to tippy-toe around these birds. We chunked into the first chairs we found, and the chachas fled into the surrounding woods. Anna tricycled back to the headquarters while I sat there, slowly swinging back and forth on that comfortable nylon mesh swing.
I wasn't expecting anything but eventual recuperation, but after about twenty minutes, the chachas began coming back to their just-abandoned feeding station. At first a few, then more and more.
At first, I just watched at. Eventually I picked up my heavy camera and began taking photographs of the reluctant volunteers. The Nikon D200 is anything but quiet, but I was careful only to move as much as it took to pendulum me back and forth in a gentle, soothing rocking chair motion.
As I was photographing them, they began to show off a little.
One pair, in particular, began a little dance. I assumed the dance had to do with mating, but this was my first serious encounter with chachalacas, and I didn't know from beans about them. I was fascinated, took more pictures and began paying a lot more attention.
Their tails up in various conditions that may vary by sex, the two chachas began to slowly circle and unmaliciously peck at each other. I've since learned that when they do mate, they make loud vocalizations. Chachas are not particularly quiet, but I heard nothing that could be characterized as loud vocalizations during this formal minuet.
Gradually, they got closer and closer, till sometimes it looked like there was just one bird with feathers sticking up in various directions.
When one moved itself up into the raised-tail back end of the other, it was less vague what they were up to. I love that the chach on the right, though bumped up into the rear end of the other bird, is peeking out at me as I clicked away at them.
After this persistent but hardly aggressive butt sniff, the two separated and joined the milling crowd all around them during their pas de deux.
I'm only guessing at the age of this chach. It looks young and vigorous, strong and firm. Besides, it's in sharp focus.
When I noticed that they were taking turns flying in, past the building by the gate, and down into the area I was over looking, I began to pan along, since I'd never seen chachas fly before.
Eventually I tired of that game and began photographing other antics.
Like this bird swinging on a citrus food station. I also saw other chachas climb onto seed stations scattered around the park, then vigorously shaking the box and scattering their contents, so the other chachalacas could eat.
I was still exhausted when we finally returned our trikes and left Bentsen, but Anna pointed out these two birds by the center's bus-turnaround lot. It almost seemed that they were camouflaged though neither of them's colorations matched that of the dried-out landscape. They were difficult to see, although my eyes were pretty bleary by then. Nice to see such familiar shapes and colors again.
Of all the birds I know of, I most identify with Great Blue Herons, who are usually solitary, independent, steady if not plodding, an athletic and amazing flier, subtly dressed, colorful in a fairly narrow spectrum and usually gentle. My nose isn't that long, my legs not that skinny and my body's nowhere near that slender and GBHs are look more stylish.
National Wildlife Refuge
near Alamo, Texas
At first, all we saw at Santa Ana was the same birds we'd seen at every other Valley venue, although this nearly tame Green Jay in the wood trough fountain near their headquarters let us get closer than any any other. Most of our long trek along the path got us nearly nothing. Until we arrived on the distant shores of Pintail Lakes. We'd already seen what I later decided was a Harris Hawk in the top branches of a tree on the far side of the lakes but didn't see how to get close enough to it to identify it or get better photos.
Couple years ago when Dad drove Mom and me through this same park, it seemed vast and haunted. We saw few birds that summer visit — and lots of hanging moss. This trip made it look different, feel different.
At Pintail Lakes proper, our luck changed drastically. Unfortunately however, I concentrated on the exotic Black-necked Stilts bright and active in the foreground and nearly ignored all the other birds right there in front of us. To trek that far into the park, then ignore such an amazing variety of little — and larger — brown birds was pretty stupid. But we got some pretty soft images of the unsubs.
We couldn't get very close to the water birds in the little lakes. Probably a good thing, because all those birds seemed safe from humans where they were, and humans close tends to make birds go further. Two women with binoculars pointed us at the Black-necked Stilts but didn't mention all the other varieties in view, and I foolishly concentrated on the prancing, carefully choreographed Stilts who were amazing to watch as they pranced together to each new dipping spot, often leaning down under the surface.
What I missed following the acrobatic stilts was everything else going on. Here in Anna's photograph, we see, clockwise from top right, a couple of difficult at this distance to identify dark ducks; almost a line of other birds whose beaks seemed to stay underwater most of the time we were there across the vertical center of the picture; and an adult nonbreeding American Avocet, white in most of the places the stilts were black.
The mystery birds with their faces in the drink across the middle of the image one up from here, and all the birds in this shot that we didn't take notice of till way too late, are, I believe, Dowitchers of either the long- or short-billed varieties. I've looked in at least a half dozen bird books in bookstores lately, as well as in the more than a half dozen in my own library.
The nice little Lone Pine Birds of Texas book with the Great Horned Owl on the cover that I bought at Quinta Mazatlan has been especially helpful, describing these birds very close to how I remember them and what I see in these photos. Its authors call the short-billed Dowitcher "stockier than most shorebirds" and "plump." Which these birds seem. I'm still not certain which Dowitcher it is, but from these and the birds flying picture below, I've come to believe they are Short-billeds.
Note the white swath over their eyes and overall brown stripeyness.
The top tiers of mystery birds here are probably more of the same. But those closer, smaller birds with white butts stuck up and a tent of darker feathers on top look like something quite different. But what?
All the time I was in sight of the Pintail Lakes I was wishing I had a longer lens than just 300 mm (the 35mm equivalent of a 450 mm lens). Of course, I just wanted more detail in the Stilts. One hopes with a much longer lens I would have explored all the species in sight. But I was right there and I didn't. So who knows.
Love the colors and the collective lean. They knew the names of the stilts, at least. We probably should have asked about the rest of the birds. Orange and blue and orange with parallel binoculars. Nice humans shot.
And who are these long-winged peeps? If they are the same birds whose identities we've been struggling with, they are likely Short-billed Dowitchers. Again. No other shorebird has that swath of white up from the tail along the back. The Short-billed Dowitchers' swath is longer, as is shown in this photo, than the Long-billed. So this might just cinch this elusive identification. Nice to think all this research has actually got one more species identified.
I've got used to seeing much bigger birds trailing their legs and feet behind them — egrets and herons at White Rock Lake in Dallas — that I didn't realize that very few birds fly like that. Especially medium-sized to little ones like these. I've looked at a lot of birds on a lot of pages in books and websites, and I never found these guys. But Anna did. I wasn't so sure at first, but now I agree. These are either Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs.
The two look almost identical in the air. The Lesser is slightly darker. The main way to discern the two is by their calls. And neither of our audial memories are as good as our visual memories. So good luck with that.
These are either flying pictures of some birds we already photographed. Or an entirely different set who just happened to fly by. Wish I'd been paying better attention, but I was tired and cranky by then, and not noticing nearly enough already. But these very well could be the smaller birds with darker tent feathers over white butts in the air we saw in the picture up a few from here.
Wouldn't it be ducky to have identified all the Pintail Lake birds?
I like this shot because, except that this couple has Canon cameras and lenses, big ones, they're a lot like us from the blue jeans to the hair colors.
I climbed the ricketiest tower I've ever climbed, maybe six stories up and looking out over the huge wooded area that is the Santa Ana refuge. Every step anyone on that tower took — kids running and adults plodding — shook the hollow aluminum tower a little more. I had to wait till everybody on it climbed down all those echoing stairs before I could take any photographs on that darkish cloudy day. I shot this hawk dozens of times before I got it sharp.
The view from that tower was several varieties of wonderful, in all directions.
Heading back to Santa Ana's headquarters and
parking lot, I nearly stumbled over several mousy birds underfoot in the
deep shady underbrush of the path. Lousy photo, I know. But of another new
species, an Olive Sparrow. There were bunches of them down there.
Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center
in McAllen, Texas
We didn't have time to stop at the World Birding Center off South Tenth in McAllen — on our way back north to Dallas, but we went anyway. I wanted to peruse their bookstore, and we still hadn't got a really good Valley Birding T-shirt, so we wandered the crisscrossing paths through their extensive gardens, looked around inside, picked out the best bird T-shirts we'd seen, and I bought the Pine Top Birds of Texas book.
I'd been there before and really wanted to show it off to Anna. Lush like Bentsen, but significantly smaller, so we could walk around easily and we tracked all the cement paths. Santa Ana had a bigger bookstore, but we'd got there late and didn't have time to spend much time in the Headquarters. That's where I shot the stuffed Horned Owl (above).
Before I learned what this green bird really was, I called it "a Greenie."
So now, finally, I can caption it what it really is.
Great-tailed or Boat tailed? From its rounded, less angular head and not much other evidence, except that this was shot down in the tip of Texas where Boat-taileds live, I'm guessing Boat. But that's mostly because here in Dallas we mostly have Great-tails, and it'd sure be nice to have photographed something else for a change. Which is a lot like saying, because I want it to be a Boat-tail.
This bird looks a lot like my "Mex Mox," but its stripes are more muted. More like a Curve-billed Thrasher that also lives in South Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. I just photograph them then hope I can identify them. Sometimes it happens.
In this shot, this bird looks smaller, stubbier, but it is very probably the same bird.
Amid the identity confusion, it's sometimes nice to discover examples of the the tried, true, and easily namable.
Like this hearty little mockingbird tearing away at an orange. So glad we took the time to visit Quinta Mazatlan again. I'll be back.
Brooks County Rest
It's the first official rest stop north of the only large customs and other stuff inspection stop on US 281 up out of The Valley. They have sniffing dogs and lots of border patrol and cops, but all they've ever asked me was, "Are you a U.S. Citizen?" and I always have been, and they've never kept me from escaping north. Although I have seen them delay others for an extensive, everything-out search. Less than a couple miles north is this wonderful little oasis between the divided highway. Oddly built Old-world (Mexican) buildings and one delicious path on each end — north and south — ends with birds we had and hadn't seen anywhere else down there.
Oh, and it's free and restrooms and vending machine offerings are close by no matter where on the limited acreage you are. I've been stopping there every time I visit the Valley for the last few years. It's always an enriching experience. Sort of an official hello/good-bye to The Valley place with lots of avian and vegetation color in a deep-shade little world.
I knew this was a Titmouse, but I didn't realize till much later that it was an entirely new species of Titmouse for me. Not a Tufted, a Black-crested. I love this place, which oddly is not listed on any Birding List for The Valley we ever saw. But it should be.
Cute little bird. Colorful in its own subtle fashion. I got a couple out-of-focus shots of it eating some of the nuts scattered on the ground around it.
I'd seen Bluebirds one other time in Texas. At Lake Tawakoni several months back. But not from the front that time. Someday I'll catch the blue in a bluebird — more than the thin slice we see of it here.
Not just interesting architecture and birds,
but lots of native — we assume — plant varieties also. A glorious
little treasure. I've been stopping at Brooks County Rest Stop each time
I enter or leave The Valley for the last several years. It's all I know about
Brooks County, and I'm glad to know it.
US 281 North
I'd noticed in the bird book I bought at Q Mazatlan (but have since managed to lose, so I can't adequately identify it here, yet) that both White-tailed Hawks and Crested Caracaras both territory only along 281 in far South Texas, so I mentioned to the Universe that it would sure be nice to see one of each. Then we found this, fairly obvious hawk-looking bird sitting in a tree along the highway. I thought it ill fitted its place, looking like a "duck in a tree."
But it was a White-tailed Hawk. Usually, we don't get that sort of quick service from the Universe. But we thank it. All the rest of the several dozen shots I took of this bird were seriously out of focus.
We did not expect nor hope for another dead owl. But apparently, dead Barn Owls are not unusual here or internationally. See the "Raptor Ruin" story online that Anna discovered.
Unlike the nearly pristine — except for its head — Great Horned Owl [above] we found coming south to The Valley, this Barn Owl had been more totally ravaged, with not much left of its body, and one eye already gone.
A few of its feathers were still intact, as was one foot.
Compare with the similar feet of the Great Horned Owl, above on this page.
Busy twisting around in the passenger seat trying to get a Caracara that was making great circles in the air between US-281 and some old frontage road in focus a good deal further away when a bunch of fluffy feathery phantasms fluttered to my lower left. I'd got nearly backwards in the chair and did not untorque enough to catch the nearly invisible brown flashes against the soft landscape. I shot several times leading them across the gray background never managing to find focus. Everything moving away, all stripes and soft and indeterminate. I still don't know what they are.
I want them to be pheasants to fit into my flurry of sibilant F sounds, but they're not. Before I startled them into near-silent flight, they were probably eating something in the straw along the wildly biodiverse soft edge of the highway. I never got a clear impression. But they have vivid dark brown stripes with wide bluish tails.
Not pheasants or chickens. Owls? Is that black & white protrusion on the third bird over a face? Don't they blend into the background particularly well?
Turned out they were what one birder called "declining, secretive and hard to see" Northern Bobwhites.
A clearer, more contemporary image of a Bobwhite Quail is among The Birds of Oklahoma.
When they disappeared and I discovered I was photographing birds that weren't there any more, I switched back to the Caracara and even managed to get it almost in focus as it continued its wide sweep of the area.
Until, of course, it landed.
Though it didn't stay long. I was happy to capture it in several form factors.
Soft shot, but look at that form.
Full-wide wingspan the Caracara banks gently into the woods off the edge of the road.
Another Harris Hawk. (First one near the top of the page.) More details this time. More form factors flying.
This is a big, strong bird. Not surprising many of the people who shared that rickety aluminum tower at Santa Ana with me assumed that second Harris Hawk was an eagle. Everybody always wants unknown birds to be eagles.
Certainly eagle-ish. Big beak, wide, watchful eyes. Huge claws.
If any reader can help us out with identifications of unsub or mystery birds here, please email J R. Or if we've misidentified something.
No reproduction without specific written permission from J R Compton