Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Texas Tour 2014 - Rio Grande Valley: Day 1 - Sept. 14, 2014

     Just before 7am I packed all my things back into the birding mobile and headed down to the Rio Grande Valley from Corpus Christi. Temperatures were in the low 70s for the entire drive allowing me to have the windows down rather than blasting the air conditioning. I made it to Tiff's house in about 2.75 hours, and thanks to 4WD I was able to make it down her dirt road. Thankfully, I have had a lot of experience driving through deep snow and slush, so navigating the very squishy, slippery, muddy road was not as frightening or as disastrous as it could have been. Once I got the SUV unpacked and had a proper introduction to Tiff's foster dog we headed out to the famous Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park for some birding!
     The Plain Chachalacas at Bentsen were perched awkwardly in the treetops while they called to each other in their chicken-like mini-dinosaur voices. A few migrating warblers were hanging around, notably Hooded Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Yellow Warbler, and Wilson's Warbler. A Yellow-breasted Chat even hopped out into the open for a quick glimpse. The highlights of our walk around Bentsen were: a singing Altamira Oriole, a roosting Eastern Screech-Owl, and a family of Groove-billed Anis. However, my favorite sighting was a Greater Roadrunner, doing what they do best - run!

Northern Mockingbird

Plain Chachalacas being awkward in the treetops

Yellow Warbler

Plain Chachalaca keeping an eye on us

Groove-billed Ani drying off from the last rainstorm

Eastern Screech-Owl 

Altamira Oriole showing off his ninja moves

Altamira Oriole singing!

We also saw some odd looking mushrooms that Tiff said were newly described to science, and only come out after heavy rains. After doing a little research I found that their latin name is Podaxis longii, and were indeed not officially described until 1985. In addition, they can grow to be over 1.5 feet tall! Seems like I visited at the right time as there were many of these along our path.

Podaxis longii

     After about 1.5 hours and 28 species later, we left Bentsen and drove to Mission Nature Park. We were on a mission for Cactus Wren (pun intended), the largest wren species in North America.The habitat in this park was one of the strangest I have ever experienced! The place was thick with shoulder-high prickly pear cacti, which was tucked under a thin tree canopy. We searched for the Cactus Wrens for at least 20 minutes before finally locating one, and then one more showed up, with a third calling in the background! These birds are very curious and checked us out thoroughly before going back to their daily business. Of course, they were sure to check us out from perches that were not photo friendly making getting a clear photo impossible.

Cactus Wren!

Old Cactus Wren nest

     By the time we were done hanging out with the wrens, it was past noon and time for lunch. Being so close to the Mexican border, I wanted to try some Mexican food, so we went to a place called Costa Messa in McAllen, TX. I was impressed with the size and decor of the restaurant, and the professionalism of the waitstaff. As soon as we sat down, drink orders were taken and the chips, queso, and salsa were served. I ordered the "Tacos Bandera" which consisted of 3 Corn tortillas with fajitas, onion, cilantro and tomato, served with rice and beans. The food came out quickly, and was very filling and delicious! I would definitely eat here again.

Tacos Bandera at Costa Messa

     Now in a post-lunch stupor, but determined to continue birding, we headed off to Estero Llano Grande State Park. On our approach to the park headquarters, Tiff pointed out my first ever Texas Spiny Lizard! We were then approached by a park official who told us that although we were welcome to walk the grounds, the buildings were all closed due to an overflowing sewer caused by the recent flooding. While we were speaking with the park official, a non-native, invasive Brown Anole decided to climb up onto the railing and show off his push-up skills and bright orange dewlap. I was also slightly startled by a huge wasp-like insect that zoomed past us. It was a Tarantula Hunter Wasp or Tarantula Hawk which is a huge, metallic blue/purple spider wasp which can grow up to 2 inches in length! As the name indicates, the female wasp spends her days looking for tarantulas in which to lay her eggs. The male wasps simply sip on nectar all day and look for females to chase (females also feed on nectar when not busy hunting). Luckily, these wasps are not aggressive unless provoked. I say luckily because the painfulness of their sting is second only to the sting of the Bullet Ant.

Texas Spiny Lizard

Brown Anole showing off
     We didn't have too much time to walk around the park before the rain came. This was not a shower, it was a serious, long-lasting, intensifying downpour. The downspout/rain water collection tank setup couldn't even keep up with how much water was coming off the roof!

Rainstorm at Estero Llano Grande State Park

Rain water collection tank just couldn't take it anymore.

     I was happy that we at least got to see a roosting Common Pauraque before having to seek shelter under the roof at the main viewing area. We then spent a considerable amount of time watching the Buff-bellied and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds playing around the feeders in the downpour, and enjoyed watching the Least Grebes and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks taking baths and feeding.
Note: most of the following photos were taken before the rain started

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Least Grebe

Black-bellied Whistling Duck family

Least Grebe skulking through the vegetation

Common Pauraque
Least Grebe in the rain. 
Once the rain slowed down enough for us to escape from our shelter and walk back to the car, we decided to head home. The drive back was quiet challenging with more heavy downpours and serious flooding along the edges of the roads. There were times when I could barely see in front of the car, but pulling over was not an option, and neither was stopping. Making it down the now even muddier, squishier road to Tiff's house proved to be slightly nerve-wracking, and I don't think I breathed for most of that experience. By the time I parked at her house, the underside of the SUV was caked with mud and stones, and there were spots of mud all the way up to the door handles. I am surprised the condition of the vehicle was not worse.

     The rest of the evening was spent catching up and playing with her foster dog. I even sampled some of the Prickly Pear products she had made over the summer, and they were delicious!

Stay tuned for my 2nd day in the RGV!

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