King Ranch & Whooping Cranes Mar 28—Apr 01, 2007
Posted by Kim Eckert
One good thing about unfavorable weather during a tour is that the leader at least has something to blame when birds don’t cooperate! (Given good weather, you see, the leader has no convenient meteorological alibi for any lack of birds.) Accordingly, I had no shortage of excuses at the ready during this year’s King Ranch tour, although fortunately I didn’t need to cite them much. It turned out the birding was a lot more decent than was the weather.
You’d think that our first two full birding days with steady winds in the 20-30 m.p.h. range would be a total loss, but such conditions are almost the norm here, and it seems the birds are used to it. Indeed, during our first morning on the Santa Gertrudis Division I can’t think of anything missed for which the winds were to blame. Our first significant stop was at Borregos Lake and the feeding station maintained by our guide Jim Sinclair and King Ranch Naturalist Brian Williams. It was here that we had our only looks at Long-billed Thrasher and Olive Sparrow, and our best looks during the tour of Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, and Bronzed Cowbird. In addition to these five species, we heard our only White-tipped Doves which failed to appear at the feeder, for a total of six specialties that normally occur nowhere else in the U.S. outside of South Texas.
Once we were able to turn our backs on the feeders, there were Least Grebes, another South Texas exclusive, on Borregos Lake itself, along with our first Roseate Spoonbill, and close looks at both Sora and Virginia Rail. Elsewhere on Santa Gertrudis, we found still more specialties of South Texas: Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Neotropic Cormorants, Great Kiskadees, Couch’s Kingbirds, and the broad cupped nests of Cave Swallows. More mundane finds that morning included Anhingas, several Crested Caracaras, our first Greater Roadrunner, some huge alligators on Escondido Lake, and we never drove far between sightings of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. If the wind was trying to make things difficult, it wasn’t trying hard enough.
Most of the afternoon was spent in the wind-blown agricultural fields of the Laureles Division, where relatively few birds are to be seen even in good years. We missed hoped-for Burrowing Owls and Sprague’s Pipits, which this year had already flown north, and the only shorebirds of note were a few American Golden-Plovers.
But the key day on this tour is always down at the Norias Division, our only chance for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Tropical Parula, and Audubon’s Oriole, and the wind refused to let up. Of these four specialties, only the parula is relatively easy to locate, but we managed to locate everything (sort of?the oriole was mostly heard-only), so I couldn?t gripe too much about the high winds. However, the birding was very slow that day, and it took a long time to find everyone a tyrannulet, and even longer to locate the pygmy-owl. Indeed, we didn’t succeed until 1:30 pm, the longest I ever had to search for it (although Jim admitted it once took him until 3:00 to find one.) But both members of a mated pair at different times eventually posed up high and in the open for all to watch at leisure, and they even briefly appeared together on the same branch at one point?something I had never seen before!
Finally and mercifully, the wind subsided during the last day-and-a-half of the tour, which is spent along the coast between Corpus Christi and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. But the winds were replaced by rains much of this time, and finally I had a legitimate?and two-fold?complaint about the weather. First, along with some abnormally high tides, this resulted in generally high water levels and fewer shorebirds than usual. And second, the precipitation curiously failed to ground any migrant passerines.
Still, the Whooping Cranes were as impressive as ever (and the weather temporarily and surprisingly ideal!) during our boat trip to Aransas; we enjoyed green-lored egrets, orange-tailed spoonbills, and an oystercatcher chick on the same ride; two Clapper Rails swam across a channel not far from a pair of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks; an unexpected American Bittern flew in circles around our van; and no fewer than nine species of terns were present along the coast.
It was more than enough to make us forget that the weather was lousy, that we somehow nearly missed seeing any Ring-billed Gulls, and that we never did quite make it to Whataburger for lunch!