A Quick Trip to South Texas

Earlier this year in January, I was attending a conference and workshop in San Marcos, TX and found myself with a free day.  I decided to spend the day looking for life-birds, I had targeted using eBird.  There was a small list to be found in and around Austin, of a few very common birds and a few more uncommon birds with very low odds.   I had considered driving down to  find the lingering Amazon Kingfisher at the border, but my childhood memories of Texas had me convinced everything in central Texas was 10 hours away from everything else.  I spent the first afternoon taking a drive down south of San Antonio, TX to chase some desert species with just a little luck.  A pair of lifer Verdin were found in the rest area just off the interstate outside of Cotulla, TX as I slogged back to the car from the nearby birding trail which had been hot, dry, and silent.  It was getting late so I checked my map to head back and  I came to the realization that I was only about an hour away from Laredo (and the border).  I didn’t have anywhere I had to be until the following afternoon, so I headed south.

I spent the night in Laredo with a little trepidation.  I had never been near an urban center of the U.S. Mexico border and didn’t know what to expect.  My irrational brain worried about drug cartels, whether there would be hotels, and if anyone spoke English.   Once in Laredo, I found myself to be in a typical American city.  It was disturbing to note how colored my expectations were of a place by the stereotypes I’ve seen played out on TV my whole life.  That night, I checked into the (totally normal, non-roadside motel with no huge neon pink cowboy road-sign) hotel, and used the high speed internet to check on the status of the Amazon Kingfisher.  I was in luck as it had been seen this afternoon!  I woke up an hour before sunrise in anticipation and headed down to Zapata Creek trail.  The trailhead, if you could call it that, was a parking lot in a residential neighborhood with interesting regional architecture (that did fit my media fueled expectations) between a basketball court and the Zapata Creek canyon.

I was extremely impatient for the sun to rise as I knew I had to be back on the road to my obligations before lunch.  I hadn’t considered the sunrise being a full half hour later than back at home in Louisiana so I sat on the bank of the Rio Grande and sipped my coffee as the sun rose.  A border patrol agent pulled up and asked how I was doing.  I responded by bombarding him with questions about whether he knew about the Amazon Kingfisher and what trails were good and he, although very friendly, was obviously overwhelmed by too much enthusiasm on my part for before sunrise.  He returned to his vehicle and I returned to the river.  Ringed Kingfishers, typically only found in the U.S. in extreme southern Texas, were the earliest risers and were soon fishing and perching all around me.  The banks of the river were erupting in bird calls from Common Yellowthroat, Great Kiskadee, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and even a White-eyed Vireo.

Now that the sun was up, I walked upstream to the falls and was glad I had waited for day light.  Old sidewalks and observation platforms had been swallowed by erosion from the canyon walls.  The trail was not clearly marked but obviously well traveled so I followed it down to the falls.  The falls were littered with garbage which was a little sad because the rock formation was beautiful and teeming with birds.  Snowy egret and Spotted Sandpiper were working the edges of the pool and several species of duck were in the creek just upstream of the falls.

This Black Phoebe was one of the highlights at the falls along with a Zone-tailed Hawk that never gave me a satisfying photograph.

The Amazon Kingfisher is an ABA Code 5 bird, meaning that it either has been seen in the ABA Area less than 5 times or less than 3 times in the past 30 years.  This bird had been present in the area since October 30, 2016, so I thought I had a pretty good shot at seeing it.

I sat down and decided to wait to see if the Amazon Kingfisher would show and within seconds, a kingfisher landed 50′ from me on the falls.  I KNEW it was the Amazon and I photographed it as well as I could in the still increasing light of the early morning.  That dark green back and bright red chest were beautiful and like nothing I’d seen before.  It flew off after about ten minutes and I decided to go hike the rest of the trails to see what else I could see.   I even met a couple of birders on my way up, showed them the photo, and they said “yes, that’s it! we saw yesterday too”.  We saw a few Green Kingfishers (female) and they did look different than the one I had photographed.  I felt fulfilled.

Well, I would’ve felt more fulfilled if I had actually done my homework.  I received an email from the local eBird moderator as I was leaving Laredo that said the FEMALE Amazon Kingfisher hadn’t been seen in about a week and that photos would be appreciated as someone had reported a male Amazon Kingfisher the previous day.  I texted a photo and was politely informed that I had photographed a male Green Kingfisher, common on the river.  I apologized for the mix-up and edited my list.  There’s a lesson to be learned here about wanting something to be true so much that I believed it to be true without questioning.  Despite the fact that some friendly strangers confidently confirmed my incorrect ID, I should always look for field marks and never travel without a field guide.

But hey, Green Kingfisher!  That’s still pretty cool!

Great Kiskadee were noisy and conspicuous and also a life bird.  We’ve had a pair breeding in Louisiana for the last few years, but it’s on the extreme other side of the state from me, so I haven’t ventured out to see them yet.

This Ladder-backed Woodpecker was supposed to be one of my easy Austin, TX birds but I’m glad I saw one here because I didn’t see another over the rest of the trip.

A handful of Olive Sparrows (life bird) were a real treat pointed out to me by some other birders.  I only wish I had gotten more satisfying looks at them.  This species is only found in U.S. in extreme southern Texas.

Green Jay was one of the main reasons I had considered a trip to Laredo because, I mean, just look at them.  Speaking of just looking at them, I had a hell of a time getting a photo of one of these.  They were noisy but rarely let me see them except in flight between trees to mob a hawk.  I finally managed a passable photo on my way out up near the basketball court.  This species is only found in the U.S. in extreme southern Texas.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker wasn’t a life bird, but only technically since I had photographed it in Big Bend National Park back before I was officially recording lists.

A completely unexpected find of an Audubon’s Oriole; a species that is also only found in the U.S. in extreme southern Texas was my best bird of the day, despite horrible views.  This species likes to skulk in heavy vegetation and it wasn’t even on my radar for the day.

True to my word to myself, I left before lunch time to make it back to San Marcos, TX for the afternoon, but I had racked up ten life birds in less than a day!  Seeing the Rio Grande and the U.S.-Mexico border in an urban setting makes you realize how connected our countries as culture and geography mix naturally with no heed or need for invisible fences or otherwise.

And really… just where do they think they’re going to build a wall here?