King Ranch & Whooping Cranes Mar 29—Apr 02, 2006

Posted by Kim Eckert

Kim-eckert

Kim Eckert

Kim Eckert, with over 40 years of birding experience throughout the U.S. and Canada, has now been guiding birders or teaching bird identification classes for more than 25 o...

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What drought conditions? You would never know it from all that standing water we saw in the cotton fields of the Laureles Division of the King Ranch. But it seems there were some pretty substantial rains both the day this tour started and on the previous day, enough so that this leader’s flight was delayed, and everyone finally met an hour and a half late at the airport for our drive to Kingsville and the start of the tour.

Still, it would take more than just these rains to break the long-term drought currently prevailing in much of Texas. Indeed, King Ranch was just emerging from its driest fall-winter season in 115 years, and, despite the flooded fields at Laureles, Escondido Lake in the Santa Gertrudis Division was the lowest I had ever seen, and now mostly mudflats. More disturbing was the condition of all those live oaks in the Norias Division, on which pygmy-owls, tyrannulets, parulas, and orioles depend: many trees had lost most of their leaves.

Besides being somewhat apprehensive regarding the drought’s effect on the birding, I admit I was also somewhat uncertain about how the tour would go without Tom Langschied’s guidance. Tom had been King Ranch Naturalist for ten years before recently moving on to another position, and his replacement, Brian Williams, was still learning the ranch’s uncharted roads and wide array of wildlife. My doubts couldn?t have been more misplaced, as Brian and Beto Maldonado (lifelong resident, employee, and now part-time guide) escorted us around the Santa Gertrudis and Laureles divisions on our first full day of birding. Beto was his usual knowledgeable and amicable self, and Brian was every bit as skilled and personable as Tom.

At Santa Gertrudis, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers seemed to be everywhere, whistling-ducks and several large alligators loafed in the mud at Escondido Lake, and we had our first (and sometimes best) looks at several South Texas specialties at the Borregos Lake feeding station: White-tipped Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Bronzed Cowbird.

Laureles is the least scenic King Ranch division, mostly just miles of cotton fields which are worth a couple of hours at best; it has even been skipped entirely some years. This time, though, Laureles was well worth our attention. Dozens of migrant Swainson’s Hawks stood around one of the flooded sections, several migrant Upland Sandpipers walked along the roadside, a group of quite unexpected Baird’s Sandpipers and a few Franklin’s Gulls appeared in temporary ponds, and Brian successfully stalked and flushed a Sprague’s Pipit into the open for all to see.

Our next day at the Norias Division is always the most important of the tour, as this division’s live oaks provide habitat for the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Tropical Parula, two highly local specialties which normally nest in the U.S. exclusively in South Texas ranchlands. Hearing this diurnal owl is not too difficult, but seeing one is always a challenge, and Brian and the other guides had been having more trouble than usual finding them?possibly because the owls were bothered by the lack of leaves and cover. But on this day, with Brian’s guidance, we saw two calling pygmy-owls, and there were several singing Tropical Parulas for us to see. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, another specialty of these oaks, was also seen (though less cooperative than the parulas).

After stops the next morning at Jim (part-time King Ranch guide) and Margaret Sinclair’s hummingbird feeders, and at Corpus Christi’s Blucher Park (for migrant warblers and an unexpected Green-tailed Towhee), we headed for Rockport and an afternoon boat trip to see the famed Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. They certainly did not disappoint. Some were in flight, others were heard calling, juveniles were visible, and one group of three foraged only 65 feet from the boat (according to the reading on one camera)?the closest I’ve ever been after dozens of trips here! The boat also took us to see an exceptionally unusual vagrant: an immature Greater Flamingo banded the previous summer in the Yucatan, which had been wintering in the vicinity since November.

Before returning to the airport in Corpus at noon the next day, there was still time for more birding. In a Rockport neighborhood before dawn, both Common Pauraque and Eastern Screech-Owl eventually cooperated and posed for us in the spotlight. On this morning we also rounded out our list of 30 shorebird species, probably the most ever for this tour. But most impressive of all was a totally unexpected Black Rail calling continually in a marsh near Rockport. Though it never came out into view, at one point it approached and called within 10?15 feet of the road. I had once gotten a glimpse of this highly elusive species a few decades ago, but I had never heard its distinctive territorial call before!