King Ranch & Whooping Cranes Apr 05—09, 2008

Posted by 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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As evidenced by our long species list (nearly 180 species!), there's certainly a lot to see on this brief four-day tour. The most highly sought birds, though, are just four in number and found during our day down in the live oak mottes of the Norias Division of King Ranch. It’s here that we concentrate on seeing Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Tropical Parula, and Audubon's Oriole—all birds found practically nowhere else in the United States.

True, the tyrannulet and oriole can also be seen locally at a few favored places along the nearby Rio Grande River, but to see that owl and parula you normally have to arrange a visit to the King Ranch or one of the other private ranches in Deep South Texas. Over the years, we've found that the oriole tends to be the most difficult of the four to see. For some reason, this species is typically reluctant to respond to recordings of its song, and, should we miss one of the four Norias specialties, it's usually this bird.

Second-hardest is usually that pygmy-owl. I don't think there has ever been a tour when one wasn't at least heard, but there have been a few on which this shy, diurnal owl refused to emerge into view from the thickets. Third in difficulty tends to be the tyrannulet, a bird that's vocal enough, but it can be shy, unresponsive to recordings, and with drab plumage difficult to discern among the vegetation. And easiest of the four is usually the parula, a colorful and persistent singer which readily appears to defend its territory.

So, it was certainly an oddity this year to find these four in exactly the reverse order. The Audubon's Oriole was not only the first one to appear, but it even came a full day before our day at Norias: i.e., on Day Three in the Santa Gertrudis Division, where the species does not normally occur. The species also appeared for us at Norias, and it was again the first of the four specialties to show up that day—and at our very first stop in the oaks. Then, just a few minutes later in this same motte, we tracked down our first Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Last year it took us well into the afternoon to see this owl, but this time we had the two hardest specialties almost before we found anything else.

We then moved on to another stand of oaks where a Tropical Parula was singing away. But (and you guessed it) before we all saw this "easiest" of the four specialties, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet began singing, and an unusually cooperative pair of them came into view before the parula did. No one was complaining, to be sure, to have seen all four specialties in such a timely fashion, but it was still strange for their timing to be so backwards.

Only four species discussed so far in this summary, with 170+ others to go. Space limitations preclude talking about all of them, of course, but leading the list of other highlights has to be the pair of overwintering Masked Ducks waiting for us at Santa Gertrudis—the first time in many years we've seen this exceptional rarity!

Memorable as well were an exceptionally close pair of Whooping Cranes bowing and leaping in courtship display within a few yards of the tour boat. Also significant was our list of no fewer than 29 shorebird species, perhaps our best list ever (and it would be an even 30 if we count that probable golden-plover near Riviera). And a final highlight was our brief visit to Blucher Park near downtown Corpus Christi before returning to the airport: besides eight species of migrant warblers, an overwintering and out-of-place Clay-colored Robin posed on a nearby branch in full view—certainly this had to be the first time ever for this South Texas specialty on this tour!