Thursday, October 2, 2014

Texas Tour 2014 - Travel day - Sept. 13, 2014

     Today was the day I planned to travel from Austin down to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) with a quick stop in Corpus Christi. In the early morning Maggie dropped me off at the Austin airport so I could pick up my rental car and get on the road. I am fortunate enough to be employed by an organization that has a corporate agreement with a couple car rental companies, so I was able to get a really good deal, along with a free 2 car class upgrade. This meant that I was to get a standard sized vehicle with unlimited mileage for the cost of a compact car. As I was standing at the car rental desk, I suddenly got a barrage of texts from my friend in the RGV (Tiff) telling me that the monsoon-like rains they had been getting for the last few days had caused a lot of flooding, and that her road was in very bad shape. She advised me to get a 4WD vehicle if possible. At this point the guy at the rental counter asked me if I would like to add on the roadside assistance for an extra $5 a day. I asked him if that would cover pulling me out of a mud pit anywhere in Texas. He laughed and said "absolutely". I took the offer. I figured that was cheaper than upgrading to an SUV, and hoped that the extra weight of a larger car would get me through whatever challenges were ahead of me that day. When I got to the rental lot to pick out my birding mobile, the lot attendant looked at my paperwork and pointed to a line of vehicles from which I could choose. There was only one car there, the rest were SUVs. I couldn't believe it. I had lucked out big time and got a new fuel efficient 4WD Chevy Equinox complete with backup camera!

The Birding Mobile

     This was my first experience driving in Texas, and I had just spent two days as a passenger watching all the stupid things that drivers do around Austin. Understandably, I was a little on edge, and was eager to get out of the city and onto the open road. Getting out of the airport was tricky, but once I got out into the countryside, the driving became much easier and less stressful. Temperatures were in the 70s (what a relief!), with spotty, sudden downpours. Unlike most of the states I have driven in or through, Texas does not construct their roads in a way that allows rain to flow off of them. Instead, they are paved to be as flat as possible, thus creating rivers in heavy downpours making driving very difficult.
     Inevitably, I eventually had to make a pit stop in one of the tiny towns located along the highway, so I chose a gas station where all the sheriffs were hanging out. I figured this was the safest place to stop, and it turns out I was right. One of the sheriffs even held the door open for me and tipped his hat as I walked into the convenience store. During this pit stop, Tiff began texting me again, urging me to head straight down to the RGV due to incoming rainstorms that were supposed to hit later in the day. However, I had a very strong feeling that I needed to stop in Corpus Christi first. Not only was I going to need  a mental break, but some internal instincts were telling me that changing plans was not what I needed to do.
     Resupplied and refreshed, I headed back out on road. Near the town of Seguin, TX I saw my first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! He was sitting on a fence along the road hunting insects. What an unbelievably awesome looking bird! I spotted many more after that initial sighting, each one just as exciting as the first. I even saw 5 males fighting at one point, with their long streamer tails going every which way in a chaotic flurry of flourishing feathers. Unfortunately, I never did get a photo of these fantastic birds. 
     I had left Austin at 9:10 am and finally pulled up to the Hawk Watch platform at Hazel Bazemore County Park in Corpus Christi at 12:30pm. I was unable to find my friend Libby who was supposed to meet me at this spot, so I contacted her to find out where she had gone. It turned out that literally minutes before I had arrived her Jeep had broken down while she was birding in the park and she was in the process of calling a tow truck. She was very lucky that I had swooped in at that moment to rescue her and provide transportation. I believe this is why I was feeling so strongly about needing to take a break in Corpus Christi.
     We took all her stuff out of her Jeep and put it in my rental while we waited for the tow truck to arrive. After over an hour wait, the tow truck finally showed up, and three guys popped out and ran over to the nearby river. They immediately started interrogating us about the procedure for being able to fish there, and their body language was giving off a creepy vibe.  This was the strangest, sketchiest towing brigade we have ever experienced, and Libby was very glad she could ride with me rather than having to ride in the tow truck with the 3 stooges. I am still not sure why 3 guys were necessary to put one Jeep on a flatbed. When they finally got around to getting the vehicle hooked up to the tow truck, their subsequent actions did not instill any confidence in us that they knew what they were doing, making us very nervous. As we were leaving the park the tow truck got "lost" by making a wrong turn and I ended up guiding them out to the main road. When we finally got to the repair shop that Libby's insurance company had approved, we found that it was closed. The tow truck guys told us of the only two repair shops in Corpus Christi that were open on Saturdays, but the insurance company said they did not cover them, so we ended up leaving Libby's Jeep in the parking lot of the closed repair shop.
     By the time all these things happened, it was around 3 pm, and I was going to have to leave if I was going to make it down to the RGV that evening. Just before I was about to say my goodbyes, Tiff informed me via text that there was an apocalyptic storm system moving through her area, with tornado warnings just north of her and rainfall of 2-3 inches per hour. After looking at the radar and seeing that I would hit this massive, nasty storm head-on if I left at that moment, I made a decision to stay the night in Corpus Christi with Libby and leave early the next morning for the RGV.
     Now that I wasn't leaving until the next morning, Libby and I went back to Hazel Bazemore County Park to do some hawk watching and general birding. By 5:30pm when the official hawk count ended for the day, the total number of raptors that had cruised past the hawk watch that day was around 1,700 individuals. Most of these birds were Broad-winged Hawks and Mississippi Kites.  At most small hawk watches in other parts of the country, this would be an extraordinary number for an ENTIRE season, but it is considered a "slow" day in Corpus Christi.
     Before going to get some dinner, Libby and I decided to do a cruise around the park to spot some more birds for my trip list. There weren't too many birds around, but seeing Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, American Avocets  and a white morph Reddish Egret were certainly worth the drive! Couch's Kingbirds were everywhere, and ended up being my 500th life bird! As we were creeping along the edge of the river, Libby suddenly yells at me to stop. She had spotted a bird flycatching from its perch atop a powerline. She also had seen a flash of red color in the fading daylight. Sure enough it was a Vermilion Flycatcher! A life bird for both of us!

White-winged Doves were everywhere.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird just starting to get the ruby feathers in!

Adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird giving me some sass. 

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird just starting to grow ruby feathers

Inca Dove

One of the local Red-tailed Hawks flying over the hawk watch

Reddish Egret (white morph)

Reddish Egret (white morph) scaring up some food by running around and flapping its wings. 

Sleepy American Avocets

Vermilion Flycatcher!!!!!!!

Couch's Kingbird

     Once it got too dark for birding we headed back to where Libby was staying to drop things off, then out to dinner at Miller's BBQ in Corpus Christi. The food was reasonably priced, and the staff was friendly, but it wasn't the best BBQ I have had, and was nowhere near the quality I had experienced in Austin. Then again, we had shown up 30 minutes before closing so that could have been a factor in the quality issue.

Miller's BBQ dinner

     We spent the rest of the evening exploring the huge old house where Libby was staying, and trying to figure out the chronology of when certain parts of the dwelling were added based on similarities and dissimilarities of architecture, placement, and design. This turned out to be a bigger project then anticipated, thus we didn't get to bed until pretty late. Nonetheless, we had a ton of fun working together on this mystery that included suspicious locked doors, doors that opened to a wall, and inexplicable empty spaces.


Upcoming: my adventures in the Rio Grande Valley!



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