#785-#791: Big Day in Texas

Today started the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I signed up for the Big Day vans to chase as many species as possible. As big days go this wasn’t the largest–we didn’t start till a little after 6:00 AM and finished around 4:15 PM; but we did rack up about 125 species including nine life birds. I squeezed into a van with Greg Miller of Big Year fame and Matt Denton from BirdQuest.

We left Harlingen around 6:05 AM and headed down Highway 100 to South Padre Island, adding a few hawks along the way. However, the real counting didn’t begin until we got to the South Padre Island Convention Center, where we tallied more than 60 species including my first life bird of the day, #785, Franklin’s Gull. This was a good one. I’d missed it by a few hours in Port Aransas earlier in the year, and I don’t think it was seen at all later in the week.

Next stop was a small patch of protected land in the middle of a residential and hotel area on Sheepshead Road. (LTC 036 on eBird). 16 species here including a rare Pine Siskin. However I missed potential life bird Green-tailed Towhee that Greg Miller spotted. This would become a common theme throughout the week as I repeatedly missed the Green-tailed Towhee at multiple sites.

We left the island around 9:30 and drove back up Highway 100 looking for raptors. We found several including #786, Harris’s Hawk. I didn’t bring my camera with me on the trip, since it slows us down, but here’s a Harris’s Hawk I shot on the last day of the festival:

Harris's Hawk perched in tree

We also found a not-really-countable Aplomado Falcon. (The species has been reintroduced in Texas after being extirpated around 1951.) However I’d seen that in Panama a few weeks before at El Chirru, so it wasn’t as big a deal for me as for some other participants.

We turned around and drove south on Highway 100. Next we stopped at a small industrial area off Highway 48 where we could view a bit of the bay, and added Marbled Godwit (initially miscalled as Hudsonian Godwit) and Mallard (Mexican subspecies). Then it was off to Sabal Palms along the Rio Grande.

Sabal Palms is a great site with a native palm habitat that’s very uncommon now due to the draining of the Rio Grande. We had about 30 species here including 4 personal life birds, #787 Plain Chachalaca, #788 Olive Sparrow, #789 Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and #790, Least Grebe:

Least Grebe in water

We then took a long drive west on the Brownsville Highway (our route wasn’t really planned to minimize driving time) and along the way picked off #791, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, perched on a wire.

The final stop was Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, where we tallied about 30 species. However we missed all potential lifers there including the supposedly unmissable Common Parauque. (We got lost looking for it. More scouting would have helped.)

Our total for the day was a respectable but not prize-winning 125 species. At least two teams beat us, one with 147 and the winner with 153. We probably should have chosen a different route that had more birding and less driving. We also missed some species we could have picked up in Harlingen at either end of the day including Bronzed Cowbird, Yellow-throated Warbler, Lesser Nighthawk, Green Parakeet, and Red-crowned Parrot. But seven life birds is still a very good day. That’s the most I’ve had in the United States in a long time. I’m not sure there’s anywhere in the ABA area east of Attu where I could do that again.

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