South Texas Finale--a Refugio bonanza


Flame-colored Tanager was an awesome surprise at Shelly/Lyons Park in Refugio.

I got up early--maybe too early--to start my last birding day in South Texas. I walked for an hour in the dark out to the hawkwatch platform in Bentson Rio Grande State park, listening to the many Paraques and a few Great Horned Owls. I even got a photo of a Paraque in the road.

A paraque on my night-time walk to the hawkwatch in Bentson State Park.

I intended to spend my last morning of birding in the Rio Grande Valley trying to see and photograph Hook-billed Kite and Zone-tailed Hawk at the hawkwatch platform in the south part of Bentson Rio Grande State Park. This was the best place in the ABA area to see Hook-billed Kite. It was not a particulary good place to see a Zone-tailed Hawk, although they had been seen periodically in the days before my visit. It turned out that neither species was cooperative on this hazy morning. We saw both adult and juvenile Gray Hawk. An American Bittern flew in, which was quite unexpected and rarer than either Hook-billed Kite or Zone-tailed Hawk in Bentson, but it was not the rarity I was looking for.

I stayed longer than I had intended and it was past 11 am by the time I left the hawk watch. I was between trams so I just walked out and it was about noon when I reached the canal that runs along the north edge of the park. Cave Swallows were supposed to be a gimmie here, and just five minutes before I had just spoken with a birder who had just seen a swarm of Cave Swallows from the bridge where I was now standing. But in my current world, the bridge was birdless. Actually, there was a Black Phoebe, a trip lister, but the bridge was certainly swallowless.”You’ve got to be kidding me” I thought as I stood in the early afternoon heat. I stomped around and looked around but no swallows. Then, 10 minutes later, just as I was getting ready to give up, I heard a cliff-swallow-like voice. And there they were, swirling overhead and around the bridge--Cave Swallows. It was tough photographic conditions—fast moving birds against a bright white background but I managed surprisingly OK photos of the Cave Swallows, a life ABA photo.

I got my life Cave Swallow photos at the canal at the entrance to Bentson State Park.

Now I was running very late. My plan was to swing by Anzalduas County Park to try for Sprague’s Pipit and then drive hard for Refugio. By the time I got to Anzalduas County Park, however, it was well into the 90s, breezy, and my chances for Sprague’s Pipit seems somewhere between zero and nil. The birds had been reported on ebird only a few times since New Years, mostly in January, all from the big field at the entrance to the park. I pulled over just past the entrance kiosk, grabbed my camera, and headed out into the big field. I trotted quickly around what seemed like the shortest-grass areas and suddenly a bird with white tail feathers flew up in front of me. It made a steep vertical ascent before dropping straight back into the grass a hundred years from me. Everything about the bird said “Sprague’s Pipit”. I walked another 50 steps and a different bird flushed, and this time it flew only 100 feet and landed. I could see it standing in the grass not all that far away. I walked more or less toward it abut not directly at it. If I angled to my right, I estimated that I could pass within about 70 feet of the bird and get it in much better light with the sun to my back. It worked. I walked to within 70 feet of the bird and, even hand-holding my 400 mm lens, got decent photos. This was the first Sprague’s Pipit I had ever gotten to study on the ground and a life photo for me.

Sprague's Pipit was surprisingly easy in the big field at the entrance to Anzalduas County Park.

After the Sprague’s Pipit, without penetrating more than the edge of Anzalduas County Park, I drove north toward Refugio. A Greater Pewee had been reported in Refugio since before New Years. It was a bird I had seen two decades before in the moutains of Arizona, but it was a bird I wanted to see again and it seemed like a good opportunity to get a life photo. Even if you hear Greater Pewee’s high in the Hauchuca Mountains of AZ, they are hard to see and even harder to photograph. This wintering bird held the promise of an easier photograph. It also offered a distraction during the six-hour drive from the Bentson State Park area to Houston where I was going to spend the night before an all-day drive back to Auburn. So, I zoomed north to Refugio.

Following my cell-phone maps directions, I pulled into Lion's/ Shelly Park in the small town of Refugio at about 4pm. The Greater Pewee had been seen only intermittently and I was not all that optimistic. But it was right on my drive and the park looked surprisingly nice as I pulled in.

I started to get out and get my big camera gear setup out—this always entails getting out my tripod, then the big 500 mm lens, then the camera, and finally the flash setup. As I was getting my equipment ready, a young woman with binoculars was coming down the trail toward the parking lot and eventually directly at me. Just as my setup was complete she was unlocking the car next to me (and this was a small park with only a few people around and only 3 cars in the lot).

“Looking for the bird?” she pleasantly asked.

“Yes!”, I answered. “I was hoping to get a photo of the Greater Pewee.” I was excited at prospect of some recent information.

“Oh Yeah.” She responded. “The Pewee should be right around in these trees.”, She was gesturing to the fairly large hardwoods, just across a little lagoon and only a couple of hundred feet away. “But what about the tanager?”

“The tanager?”, I responded in a confused voice. “What tanager?”

“The Flame-colored Tanger. I thought that is why you were here.” She responded, excited to share some hot birding news.

“No” I answered. “I didn’t know about a Flame-colored Tanager.”

“Oh, well it is coming in to tree by the bridge. Just down the trail.” She related.

“No way. There is a Flame-colored Tanger right down that trail!” I exclaimed in a voice that was maybe a bit more skeptical than I meant it to be.

“Yeah.” She replied. “I was just looking at it not more than 20 feet away. It keeps coming into this tree that has some sort of caterpillar outbreak.”

“Where exactly did you see it?” I asked, starting to actually believe that I was about to see a Flame-colored Tanager.

“On the far side of the bridge on this trail. You can’t miss the bridge. It is right in those trees there." she said pointing to trees along the creek only 200 feet away. "And there was a birder looking at it. I’m sure he will just point it out.”

I thanked the woman profusely and then pretty much ran down the trail toward the bridge. Within seconds, there was the bridge and there was the other birder.

As I put my camera down, in as calm a voice as I could muster, I asked “Have you seen the tanager?”

“Oh yeah.” He answered. “It was just here. It has been coming to that tree every few minutes.”

"The tree" he was referring to was about 20 feet from where we were standing. And just as I was about to ask some more inane questions, I saw a medium-sized yellow bird fly in. I didn’t even need binoculars to see that it was a Flame-colored Tanager. It was a female or subadult male male plumaged-bird with bold wing bars and an overall yellow appearance. It had distinct orange feathering on the head. It was a life bird (and of course life photo) for me and a bird that I never expected to see without a special trip to Arizona some year. And it was right in front of us. As I watched in amazement, the bird posed right in perfect profile as it ate caterpillars and I was able to get what are for me, excellent photos.

I was surprised by my own audacity when, within seconds of the tanager flying off, I asked—so have you seen the pewee?

My new birder friend didn’t pause “Yes, it was just down the trail a few minutes ago. I can show you.”

Greater Pewee was my target bird at Shelly/Lyons Park in Refugio, but by sheer luck, I also stumbled into a Flame-colored Tanager.

We walked a few hundred feet up to the little open area directly across from where I had parked and where the woman I had met in the parking lot said the pewee was hanging out. It wasn’t in the trees where the birder said he had seen it 40 minutes before, but it only took me a few seconds of scanning to find it. It was back-lit but low and close, and with a few seconds of fooling with my camera setting, I was able to get a half-decent photo. I stopped to look at the tanager again on my way back out and then got in my car and headed north.

Wow. What an afternoon. After missing everything at the hawkwatch in the morning, in rapid succession I saw Cave Swallow, Sprague’s Pipit, Flame-colored Tanager, and Greater Pewee. I ended my 5-day Texas trip with 4 life birds and 11 life photos. It was a much better way to spend spring break than hunched over my computer.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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