The Birds of Southern Texas

One of the perks of being back in college is spring break. Kassie and I took the opportunity to head to Rio Grande Valley, South Padre Island, and Corpus Christi regions of Texas for some birding. Why choose those regions? Well, during the year over 400 species of birds and half of North America’s butterflies can be found in this region, which borders Mexico. There are brilliant tropical birds and northern migrants. March marks the time when the migrants are starting to move, and many of the winter residents of Texas move out.

All told we observed 120 species of birds and were able to enjoy many habitat types throughout southern Texas. We birded ‘hard’ for 5 days through grasslands, estuaries, sand dunes and beaches; our time outside gained us some red to cover up the Minnesota and Alaska ‘white’ from the winter. My skin definitely had not seen the sun for awhile!

Our stops along the way on our Southern Texas Birding Trip
Our stops along the way on our Southern Texas Birding Trip

This was a birding trip, so naturally there were a lot of birds. In order to keep this post a reasonable length I have included a full gallery of birds at separate page. It has a bulk of the photos in it. You will find it by clicking here the or the following link: .

THE SOUTHERN TEXAS BIRD GALLERY

 

The rest of this post is dedicated to highlights of locations and some of the things we saw/did there. Also, just a tap- clicking the location name will bring you to a Google map of it.

Bentsen State Park

Bentsen was my first look into the “Texas style” of birding. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and their birding blinds fit that bill. By walking into a birding blind you can observe species at close distance thanks to a small, habituated trust of humans and the wooden wall between you and the birds . At these stations  variety of Rio Grande Beauties can be observed.

Green Jay
Green Jay

Bentsen is close to the Mexico border, and it’s pretty normal to see border control and helicopters flying through the area. The region in general is a blend of Mexico and the United States and the mixing of cultures show through the housing and lifestyles of its residents.

Great Kiskadee
Great Kiskadee
Black-crested Titmouse
Black-crested Titmouse

Estero Llano Grande State Park

This park focuses around wetlands. As a  birder you can expect a variety of ducks, wading birds.  This location provided our first look at white ibis. The bird pictured here is a juvenile, but will become stark white as it ages.

White Ibis - Estro State Park
White Ibis – Estero State Park

Estero was also home to this wee-little Sora and Common Gallinule. Sora are a very shy species, so after spotting them it’s important to be patient as you wait for them to reappear from the cattails. Gallinule are the exact opposite and I think some would consider them to be ‘dumb birds’ because of how close you can get. However, I think they realize there is no threat from us in this location.

Gullinule
Common Gullinule
Sora
Sora

One of the INCREDIBLE bird species in this location are the Common Pauraque. These ground-dwelling birds have camouflage so good that even when you know where to look you have to look twice. Can you see him?!

Paraque - can you see it??
Common Pauraque – can you see it??

Estero is also home to some impressive gators. Stay on the trails and you’ll be OK! 🙂

The Alligator could be found in a variety of wetlands across southern Texas, just keep your eyes out!
The Alligator could be found in a variety of wetlands across southern Texas, just keep your eyes out!
Alligator - Esro State Park
Alligator – Estero Llano Grande State Park

Salineno

The highlight of Salineno was seeing both a Hooded and Altamira Oriole. These orange beauties are sought after users of the feeders.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Altimura Oriole - Salineno, Texas
Altamira Oriole – Salineno, Texas

Salineno is very, very close to the border. Can you see Mexico from there? You bet! Just look across the river!

Welcome to the mighty Rio-Grande River! Mexico on one side, the U.S.A. on the other!
Welcome to the mighty Rio-Grande River! Mexico on one side, the U.S.A. on the other!

Near to Salineno was a far different landscape than the lush river valley. An arid landscape was brought to life by the windmill which still dripped water. Cacti, succulents and mesquite were the predominant vegetation on the landscape.

Llama!
Llama!
This mill still pumped some water which provided a spark of life for the birds in this mostly arid spot
This mill still pumped some water which provided a spark of life for the birds in this mostly arid spot
This demonstrates the habitat around the "dump" road just outside of Salineno. Scrubby mesquite and succulents were dominant on the landscape
This demonstrates the habitat around the “dump” road just outside of Salineno. Scrubby mesquite and succulents were dominant on the landscape

Falcon State Park

Meep Meep! Falcon State park brought hopes of the mighty and fabled roadrunner. Although we did not see any empty crates of ACME or a The Wiley C. there we were graced by the roadrunners which were truly running on the road.

The Road Runner - Falcon State Park
Greater Roadrunner – Falcon State Park
The road-runner Falcon State Park
The roadrunner Falcon State Park

The other species that were great to find were the pyrrhuloxia. These birds are similar in sight and sound to cardinals. I’m not sure which habitat is preferred by this species, we found them feeding on the ground as seen here as well as in the shrubs.

pyrrhoxlia - Falcon State Park
pyrrhuloxia – Falcon State Park

While you are walking around the sand dunes there is a common feature on the landscape in the form of small funnels in the sand. These were not made by water drops or meteors, but instead, the vicious ant lion! These predators live in the bottom of their sand pits waiting for prey to fall in. They flick sand up at it before dragging it into the sand for consumption. Remember seeing that movie Tremors or Enemy Mine? Kinda like those. Check it out the video of ant lion vs prey

This ant lion has been removed from his native nest. The bulbous part of his body is at the bottom and the jaws grab insects pulling them into the sand
This ant lion has been removed from his native nest. The bulbous part of his body is at the bottom and the jaws grab insects pulling them into the sand

South Padre Island

At the World Birding Center of South Padre Island (SPI Birding and Nature Center) a small wetland marks what is left of the once diverse island habitat. Here, many shorebirds, ducks, and warblers pile in every spring and fall on their migration route. One of the most memorable moments from the trip was when this scissor-tailed flycatcher landed a just a few feet from us. These birds use their “scissor tail” to do wild acrobatics to catch insects. In front of us they swooped and stooped catching unseen winged invertebrates.

Scissor-tail Flycatcher - South Padre Island
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – South Padre Island
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

South Padre Island is highly critical to one species in particular – the Redhead duck. It is thought that 80% of the world’s redheads over-winter here. Although the vast rafts of 1000s of birds had moved out by the time we got there, some of the hungover ducks were still sleeping off their winter blues.

Roseate Spoonbill and Redhead Ducks
Roseate Spoonbill and Redheads

The showiest bird was undoubtedly the roseate spoonbill. These filter feeders use a large spoon shaped bill to sift through the shallow waters for invertebrates and small fish.

Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore is marked by windswept dunes and long, long, long beaches. At this location, after miles of beach combining we discovered something truly amazing, and it’s not bird related! The butterfly clam shells which was up here can be found alive and well just inches under the sand. They are tossed up in the surf and a scoop of the hands will bring up hundreds. They come in many colors, all of them beautiful! Not sure what I’m talking about?

One of the great discoveries at the Padre Island National Seashore were these buttefly clams. Their old shells were scattered up and down the beaches. By digging a few inches into the sand you could pull up vast handfuls of these beauties!
One of the great discoveries at the Padre Island National Seashore were these butterfly clams. Their old shells were scattered up and down the beaches. By digging a few inches into the sand you could pull up vast handfuls of these live beauties!

Port Aransas

Never have a seen a more docile duck. I’m not sure what was ‘in the water’ so to speak but it was truly incredible to be mere feet from Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Green-winged Teal. This location also contained an uncountable amount of Black-crowned Night-herons which roost there day.

Blue-wing Teal
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Shoveler
Green-wing Teal
Green-winged Teal

One of the other firsts for me in this location was the Nutria. These invasive rodents from Eurasia were brought here for the value of their fur. However, once here it was discovered there was no market for these wetland destroying terrors. Nutria breed rapidly and are renowned for stripping native wetland vegetation bare.

Nutria - Los Aranos, Texas
Nutria – Port Aransas, Texas

South Texas Botanical Garden

This spot is a cool juxtaposition of sculpted gardens and wild-wetlands. There was a good variety of ducks and waders to be found in this area. However, one of the highlights was their blooming orchid greenhouse which has varieties from across the continent. Incredible!

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Hans Suter Park – Texas A&M University

This stop was the last of our trip and yielded an unexpected (but exciting!) bird. Behold! The black skimmer. This feeding specialist has a bill that allows it to fly next to the water and skim small fish and invertebrates from the surface. We got to watch these birds feed up and down the coast. On top of that dowitchers, godwits, a variety of ducks, laughing gulls, spoonbills, a crested caracara, and many other species were found along the board-walk.

Black Skimmer - Corpus Christi, Texas
Black Skimmer – Corpus Christi, Texas
Black Skimmer - Corpus Christi, Texas
Black Skimmer – Corpus Christi, Texas

I hope you have enjoyed the birds! I wanted to leave you with one last thing. Bird-watching is all about seeing bird behavior. Throughout the trip I took video of bird behavior. I have compiled just some of it here. I hope you get a feel for what it’s like to see them!

The WORLD Ice Carving Competition

I just got back of 2 hours of jaw-dropped-mouth-breathing. The world ice carving competition is being held in Fairbanks. This is its 25 year and brings a wide swath of international artists. The competition offers categories for professional and novice carvers in a variety of categories including “abstract”, “realistic”, and more. They are also categorized by block size including single block and multi-block. Ice is harvested from the lake adjacent to “Ice Park” and is renowned for its clarity. It looks like glass!! There are no air bubbles in it.

The visions of the artists are truly incredible and I can probably say that I have NEVER enjoyed art as much I did tonight. I hope you enjoy! Lots of pictures, and not much writing for this one :).

For information you can check here : http://www.icealaska.com/en/

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SINGLE BLOCK

These single block sculptures are carved from a large block of ice. The carvers can dice up the block however they want, but they only get one! The blocks are not small, and result in sculptures that average 7 feet or so. However, they were some over 10 feet!

Single Block size - uncut!
Single Block size – uncut!

Here’s a gallery of many of the single-block entries. In this case the pictures do not do them justice, truly incredible! (The images here are in a gallery, so clicking any of them will enlarge them and allow you to easily go through each of them. )

MULTI-BLOCK

The multi-block sculptures were HUGE. Some of them were 12 feet tall or more and some were 12 feet around or more. These were all roped off, so perspective was a bit hard, but they are a sight to behold!!

There is more carving categories this week and the location is open through the end of March, so you may see more Ice Carving pictures in the future!

 

Ice Road Truckin’ : Fairbanks to The North Slope of Alaska

I just had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel with a BBC film crew to the North Slope of Alaska. Their goal is to film Arctic foxes in Prudhoe Bay, AK. This trip covered 500 miles along the Dalton/Hall road made most famous by the reality TV show “Ice Road Truckers”. Along the way we stopped for two days in Coldfoot, Alaska at the southern base of the Brooks Range (Google Map Point B) and filmed within Chandler Shelf/Atigun Pass (Google map point C) before finally making it to Prudhoe Bay (Google map point D)!!! The road-trip through the Alaskan tundra land was truly incredible, and I’m excited to tell you about it :).

I thought I would ‘open up’ with the footage I shot while driving the roads of the Dalton Highway.  Because the footage is shot while driving there is only so much I could do, but I hope you enjoy the scenery! I patched it together in hopes of bringing the feel of the road to you.  Description of some of the finer points of the drive can be found below. Both the video and text follow a day to day format which ties them together.

DAY 1

Just north of Fairbanks you are surrounded by pines heavily laden with snow. They resemble free-standing cotton candy. Their white juxtaposition against the blue sky is tremendous! Unfortunately, the wind had blown the snow off the trees for the rest of our trip, so this was our only opportunity for these snow-covered pines.

The cotton-candy pines. This picture was taken through my windown and I got some window-based feedback.
The cotton-candy pines. This picture was taken through my windown and I got some window-based feedback.
The cotton-candy pines. This picture was taken through my window ( I should have rolled it down), it has been transformed to black and white to reduce some window-based feedback.
The cotton-candy pines. This picture was taken through my window ( I should have rolled it down), it has been transformed to black and white to reduce some window-based feedback.

The road is never, ever short of vistas and views. Here you can see a long vista as I crossed over a ridge north of Fairbanks. I converted this shot to black and white to add contrast to the mountains in the background.

A beautiful vista transformed to black and white via post-processing
A beautiful vista transformed to black and white via post-processing

Crossing into the Arctic Circle is a big deal! We are officially in the land of the ‘midnight sun’. The last time I crossed into these realms can be read about here : THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN. From here on out the trees become short and stunted. And the winter days become long! Somewhere near this area we crossed the ‘farthest north spurce’. It’s a fairly arbitrary point, but represents the last tall tree between it and the Bering Sea.

Making progress! We conquered the Arctic Circle!
Making progress! We conquered the Arctic Circle!

The sunset just south of Coldfoot, AK. After driving through light blowing snow and cloudy conditions this eruption in the sky was truly incredible!! The blowing snow added depth to this picture which you cannot get on a clear day.

After an afternoon of lightly blowing snow, the sun broke through the clouds and burned an orange hole through the sky just south of the Coldfoot, AK
After an afternoon of lightly blowing snow, the sun broke through the clouds and burned an orange hole through the sky just south of the Coldfoot, AK

DAY 2

Day 2 started off with clouds and snow. The goal for the day was to film sequences for the ‘making of’ the documentary, as well as to head to Chandler shelf and Atigun pass for scenic photography.  It was just matter of finding the ‘perfect’ scene which was just a little better than the last! Lets face it : there is incredible scenery everywhere!

With the snow coming in the sunrise was hazy, but beatiful! This picture is taken at an unknown pull-off north of Coldfoot, AK
With the snow coming in the sunrise was hazy, but beatiful! This picture is taken at an unknown pull-off north of Coldfoot, AK

I am not sure what this knife-edged mountain is named, but at one time I knew. If anyone reading this could tell me it would be much appreciated! I am standing on the Dietrich River  for this picture – hopefully that can serve as a landmark.

Vista at the Dietrich River
Vista at the Dietrich River

We reached the top of Chandler shelf after competing with snow removal ‘blowers and blades’ on the way to the top. At the top cold, windy conditions buffeted us. A sun-dog stood sentry over the mountains as if to re-affirm the cold.

Sundog over Chandlar shelf
Sundog over Chandlar shelf

DAY 3

The goal of Day 3 was to make it to Prudhoe bay. We departed at about 7 AM.  As we passed back through Chandler Shelf a beautiful sunrise greeted us, as did the blowing snow! It can be seen in this picture. I focused this shot in the foreground to capture the sailing ice crystals. These small daggers are rough on the skin and eyes.

Chandlar shelf sunrise. Lots of blowing snow gives this picture a 'hazy' feel.
Chandlar shelf sunrise. Lots of blowing snow gives this picture a ‘hazy’ feel.

Continuing snow and blowing conditions made Atigun Pass a bit dicey for the big rigs going through. They decided to go one-at-a-time to ensure they did not endanger anyone else if they went off the road. When it came to our turn to head up the pass we closely tailed an 18-wheeler who busted drift for us at the bottom. The road conditions improved as we reached the top of the pass, but big drifts cut by blades along the sides of the road were a reminder that were lucky to be coming through!

Before crossing through Atigun pass we hit a large line of trucks waiting to go through 1 at a time. The conditions were poor with the high winds and snow. There was significant drifting at the bottom of the pass, but the roads cleared up as we went over.
Before crossing through Atigun pass we hit a large line of trucks waiting to go through 1 at a time. The conditions were poor with the high winds and snow. There was significant drifting at the bottom of the pass, but the roads cleared up as we went over.

After clearing the pass, the conditions were still windy but the skies were clear. Here’s a nice little poser in front of the northern Brooks Range. The ski-goggles were my driving companions as well as protection from the outside wind!

Posing just north Atigun Pass
Posing just north Atigun Pass

One of the items that will show up in the video is the Alaskan Pipeline. While driving the Prudhoe it is an ever-present feature on the landscape. This pump station is responsible for pushing the oil over the Brooks Range, wow! The pump stations can also cut off the oil in case of an emergency anywhere in the pipeline reducing the threat of a spill. The pipeline was built from 1974 – 1977. Since that time it has shipped crude from the North Slope.

The pump station just north of the Brooks range. It is responsible for pressuring the oil enough to get it over the Brooks Range, wow!
The pump station just north of the Brooks range. It is responsible for pressuring the oil enough to get it over the Brooks Range, wow!

The tundra is really just a cold, white desert. This picture , which includes the hood of the trusty ‘Golden Colo’**. You can see the northern face of the Brooks range and not much else but snow in this picture!

** A note : Golden Colo was my radio name during the trip. The BBC suburban was a bit conflicted on which radio name they wanted. Fiely opted for ‘RubberDuck’, but the Brits, Toby and Tuppance, wanted ‘Broadsword’. This gave me a lot to work with. Throughout the trip they were interchangeably known as “RubberSword” and “BroadDuck”.

The tundra expanse with the "Golden Colo" - the rig I was driving.
The tundra expanse with the “Golden Colo” – the rig I was driving.

The view from north of Toolik Field Station was just as nice as any. Here a frosty sign warns truckers that a steep hill should be expected! You can see Toolik Field Station and Lake in the background. For more reading about when I visited Toolik for a couple days you can read here : TOOLIK.

Every foot I went past Toolik was officially the farthest north I have been!

A cold 'steep slope' sign with Toolik Field Station in the Background
A cold ‘steep slope’ sign with Toolik Field Station in the Background

DAY 4

Although it’s not reflected in Day 3, we made it to Prudhoe! Sorry if the suspense was killing you. Here’s a sunrise on a cold, windy day in Deadhorse, AK.  On this morning the winds were sustained at 20mph and the temperatures hovered at about 30 below F. Even residents of Deadhorse admitted it was a ‘cold day’.

A Prudhoe Bay Sunrise. With temperatures hovering at -30 F and winds ripping at 20 mph you could not keep your fingers out long!
A Prudhoe Bay Sunrise. With temperatures hovering at -30 F and winds ripping at 20 mph you could not keep your fingers out long!

Our lodging at Deadhorse Camp. These ‘camps’ are the Deadhorse equivalent of a hotel. This one served good food, although there were some aspects of it which were less than desireable.

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Drilling in the Arctic

Of course Prudhoe Bay is known for its drilling. In some cases drilling in the North Slope has become very controversial- I am sure you are familiar with some of those views. However, here’s some of the meat-and-bones of drilling in the Arctic that I learned.

Pictured below are the oil-derricks. They are far,far,far different than their western counterparts. I’m thinking of the ones that look like giant dinosaurs and move up and down on a cam. This is just a hunch, but I’m guessing these derricks are different due to the bitter cold. Metal becomes very brittle at cold temperatures, so moving parts are a liability! These small huts are likely more reliable.

These are the oil derricks. They are not the large, prehistoric looking ones that you see in the west.
These are the oil derricks. They are not the large, prehistoric looking ones that you see in the west.

There are several drilling rigs set up in Deadhorse. These drills puncture the Arctic and insert a casing. Believe it or not, this rig is actually mobile!! Once it it done drilling it is packed down, moved off and a derrick is created. The oil drilling rig can be wheeled or FLOWN to another location. Whoa!!

A drilling rig on Prudhoe Bay. These rigs are completely mobile and once the well is drilled they put s small derrick over top of it to pump the oil.
A drilling rig on Prudhoe Bay. These rigs are completely mobile and once the well is drilled they put s small derrick over top of it to pump the oil.
A drilling right and metal boneyard at Prudhoe Bay.
A drilling right and metal boneyard at Prudhoe Bay.

The Flight Home

All too soon it was time for the flight home. I hopped on this snazzy charter plane and headed south. The flight only takes 90 minutes to get to Fairbanks. A stark contrast to 20 hours of driving over the Brooks range!

My flight home.
My flight home.

The flight over the Brooks range was incredible. I stared out the window the whole time trying to observe what I could about the landscape. I did find some cool and unique things! Below this lake has a river that flows all the way through it. The river can be seen through the snow as it crossed through the lake. Interesting – it doesn’t follow a straight line even through the lake. You can also see the large delta it has created in the lake through the years and the trees growing on it.

The river feature in this lake is INCREDIBLE! You can see where it flows through the lake and has created a large delta which has trees growing on it. The snow is depressed in the lake where the river flows through.
The river feature in this lake is INCREDIBLE! You can see where it flows through the lake and has created a large delta which has trees growing on it. The snow is depressed in the lake where the river flows through.

I am very interested to know more about the circular bands perpendicular to the river. Any thoughts anyone? How could they have formed?

I am very curious to know what forms the snow belts perpendicular to the river. These are some type of river channel, but how were they formed? Insight is appreciated! Comment below.
I am very curious to know what forms the snow belts perpendicular to the river. These are some type of river channel, but how were they formed? Insight is appreciated! Comment below.

And finally, a look over the Brooks range as we passed on by. Breathtaking!

The Brooks Range
The Brooks Range

In summary, this trip was truly incredible. The only part was a lack of wildlife – although that’s not really unexpected in the winter. Possible animals could have included Musk-ox and Caribou and Arctic Fox. We did see moose and ptarmigan, but couldn’t stop for pictures of them. I wish I could have stayed on longer, but was pulled back to Fairbanks due to class, work and other commitments. You can only forget about the real world for so long. I can’t thank BBC and Jonathan enough for letting me tag along. Truly incredible! This Alaska premier will be showing on Animal Planet in about a year. I don’t have TV, so keep an eye out for me! 🙂

If you’ve made it this far through the post I figured I would include a gallery of images from the trip since this is a ‘picture heavy’ post.

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