THE TRIP TO ARANSAS
©Steven Mumford, 1993
DAY ONE - Saturday February 20, 1993 Departed sunny Fort Lauderdale at 12:05pm arrived in cool and overcast Houston at 1:55pm CT. Had a lovely lunch of some kind of chicken breast (not a lifer) compliments of Continental Airlines and shared three seats with a lovely woman from San Antonio (no lifer there either, darn!).
Retrieved my bag and phoned Alamo (seemed appropriate choice for rental cars in Texas) to come fetch me. The shuttle bus was prompt and took me to their dispatch office on one of the outlying roads. Spotted robins and grackles browsing in the medians of almost all the roads.
Picked up my rental Chevy Cavalier and headed out-a-town (southwest) via route 59. On the road by 2:30pm, pretty good time made so far - maybe I can get some birdin' in along the way! Missouri City, Rosenberg, Wharton, El Campo, Louise, Edna, Inez, names on the map correspond with the direction I wish to go. Guess I'm headed the right way even though I now can't tell north from south or east from west. Does this ever happen to anyone else? If you're in a strange environment and you can't see the sun, do you loose all sense of direction?
It's now almost 4:30 p.m. on Day One and the only thing I've been able to positively ID are robins, grackles and mockingbirds. I could've stayed home in South Florida and seen all these rarities!!
There's a Motel 6 on Route 59/77 in Victoria, Texas that has a Burger King right across the road. My kind of place! I get the last available room for the night, the unfortunate couple behind me from Wisconsin were shut out of the inn. Sorry. I relax for a while and check my maps and guides.
Aransas (can you hear the celestial chorus give a
collective gasp when I say that word!) is just down the road
maybe an hour or two away. Tomorrow may be the day to do -
Aransas (celestial etc). I'll sleep on it after I digest
this Bacon Double Cheeseburger and fries. Tomorrow is
another day and we'll see which way I go.
DAY TWO - Sunday, February 21, 1993 Checked out of the Motel 6 early, on the road again at 5 a.m. (and I thought this was going to be a vacation! Sleeping late is not part of the game plan). Have decided to save Aransas (celestial groan this time) for later in the trip and head southwest along Route 77 towards Brownsville.
I pass through many sleeping Texas towns at 70 miles an hour. This seems to be the average speed limit in this area of the country and still people will pass you by. A cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin from a friendly Circle K fortifies me for the day ahead. So far no birds...
At approximately 8:00 a.m., the coffee and muffin begin talking back to me and I find an oasis on the long road - a comfort station maintained by the kindly people of Sarita, Texas. I take advantage of the stop to stretch my legs and use the communal facilities. As I exit the building, a strange call draws my attention to the stand of stunted oaks that fill the median of this wide spot in the road.
I walk cautiously to the area and scan the branches overhead. I don't see anything!! I walked back to the car and got my binoculars - nothing gonna keep me from seeing what is making that strange noise! As I approached the stand of trees for the second time, a flash of blue/green/yellow dashes from one tree to another! I raise my glasses and apparently I've stepped from a comfort station in Sarita, Texas into the Land of Oz because what I see can only be escapees from the Emerald City! Six beautiful Green Jays cavort in the top of the oaks!! Fantastic! What a place this Texas is!! I follow the Jays' progress as they finally fly across the north bound lanes and Route 77 and disappear into the undergrowth. I feel exhilarated! What a morning!
I return to the car and immediately look up this Lifer in the NatGeo guide. The picture doesn't do it justice! It was stunningly magnificent!
Well, I finally start the car and begin heading back southwest down 77. A mile or so down the road there's a Border Patrol station that checks the northbound traffic, I glance at the building and movement in front of me draws my eyes back to the front. What's that standing in the middle of the road with it's crest raised and tail cocked up at a jaunty angle?! It's a Roadrunner!! Beep, Beep - there's lifer number two!! Great place this Texas! The roadrunner doesn't stay in view long, he runs into the underbrush towards the Border Patrol Station.
I put the pedal to the metal and continue down the yellow brick road, keeping an eye on all the fence rows and tree tops. Northern Harriers, Shrikes and Mockingbirds each have their designated territories. "Every dog has it's day" well every mockingbird has it's bush and there's a shrike in every other one.
By now it's nearing 10:00 a.m. and I'm nearing Brownsville, roughly 5 hours driving time from Victoria. I see a sign that says there's a Visitor's Information Center just ahead, I figure I'll stop and see if they can give me directions to someplace called Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary that's operated by the Audubon Society.
The young man at the Brownsville Information Center was most helpful with a map to the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary and a free diet coke. I bought a pamphlet called Birder's Guide to Brownsville that actually unfolds into a great poster with large portraits of the most sought after species. Well worth the cost!!
Back in the car, continued down the road to International Boulevard and hung a left (to the right is the bridge to Mexico - I would have loved to visit our neighbors to the south but as my rental agreement says "it is illegal to drive Alamo rental cars into Mexico" - maybe it's something in the gas).
Sabal Palm Grove was easy to find and quite a find it was! As soon as I entered the small courtyard in front of the office I noticed a group of birds feeding just within the canopy of trees at the start of the trail...hummm, let's see: green jays (I've seen them before - ho hum) and some large chunky mourning doves. I enter the office and have a nice conversation with the young woman at the desk. She gives me a rundown of the recent sightings and I purchase a trail guide for my collection. She mentions that the green jays and the white tipped doves are right outside the window and I say, "Yea I saw them, nothing special - WHITE TIPPED DOVES?! Those are White Tipped Doves!" Bingo Lifer number three!!!
I observe the action for awhile before I have to send them scattering as I begin to walk down the trail. It's a nice generally shaded walk thru an old sabal palm grove that loops around for about half a mile. Just a short way down the path I see movement in the top of one of the palms. I focus in with the binocs and figure "oh it's my old friend the red bellied woodpecker" NOT! This woodpecker has a wonderful splash of gold on the back of it's neck in addition to the red crown...it's a Golden Fronted Woodpecker! (L#4) Wow!
This walking path is supposed to take about half and hour but two hours later I am just returning to the office. Along the way I've seen: black crested titmouse, black shouldered kite (L#5), white eyed vireo, black throated blue warblers, yellow throated warblers, long billed thrasher (L#6) and as I near the end of the trail a large moth that really raised a racket with it's wing beats. But wait, you guessed it - that's no moth it's a hummingbird of some kind! It took me quite a few minutes to figure it out but the red bill with the black tip clinched it for me...it was the Buff bellied hummingbird (L#7)! God I love this state! Back at the office I compared notes with some other visitors (purchased a limited edition silk screen T-shirt with a Green Jay on it - beautiful!) and lamented the fact that I hadn't seen the infamous Plain Chachalaca (Mexican pheasant).
Sitting on the bench outside the office,I pointed out
to my fellow watchers the buff bellied hummer that was now
visiting the feeder hung in a nearby tree. We all waited
patiently - hoping the Chachalacas would come out to feed.
They didn't. But through the underbrush I see movement in a
spot of sunlight - I focus in on two Chachalacas!! (L#8)
DAY THREE - Monday, February 22, 1993 Yesterday, after a late bar-b-que Texas dinner I decided to o'er night in San Benito. I had thought of going further north(?)west to Santa Ana NWR and maybe to Falcon Dam, but after consulting my donated Lane's guide (smile) I chose to start back up the coast to Laguna Atascosa.
Day Three finds me arriving at Laguna Atascosa at 8:30 a.m.. A Ladder backed Woodpecker (L#9) sits on a telephone pole! Two Kiskadees (L#10) fly by! As I near the entrance of L.A., I see a large brown creature crossing the road a couple of hundred yards ahead! I keep my binocs ready on my lap and slowly creep closer. It's a Peccary! (L#?) Directly behind the peccary, I see a flock of something on top of a catcus (century plant?). They appear to be eating the large spray of white blossoms.... yes - five Chachalacas! Much better view of these large pheasants than I had yesterday at Sabal Palm Grove.
I return to the not yet open welcome center and attempt to pay the entrance fee but there are no envelopes!! Hey I like to be legal - I tried! (later, on leaving, I paid the clerk in the welcome center!!)
Lane says that the Bayside Drive at L.A. is usually very good, so I take his advice. Just a short way down the drive is the Paisano Trail. I feel like stretching my legs so I park - suit up in my birdin vest - and set off down this short trail.
Immediately the sound surrounded me. An almost overpowering cacophany of chachalac! chachalac! chachalac!
Obviously there are more Chachalacas here than I had seen! Continuing down the trail, a Roadrunner pops into view and keeps pace with me for a short while. A bunny (white tail rabbit?) stands his ground til I'm about 5 feet away.
Suddenly I'm buzzed! (and I'm not even at work! I'm on vacation!) I look for the receptionist but all I find is a small brown bird in a bush! Break out the NatGeo and find it's Bewick's Wren (L#11). In the same bush, an olive drab sparrow also catches my eye - Hey that's what it is! An Olive Sparrow! (L#12)!! Whew, I'm ready for a nap.....
I return to the car and continue down the Bayside Drive.
At the crossover of Pelican Bay I spot Long billed Curlew (L#13), Northern Pintail (L#14), Gull billed Tern (L#15), white pelican and Redheads (L#16)!
With my slow pace this driving trail has taken a couple
of hours. I continue to roll through the back prairie-like
areas of L.A. and flush a pair of Pyrrhuloxia (L#17)! They
look like a parrot mutant cardinal! But with a certain type
of charm - Ole! Finally.....I near the main road again and
spot a brown thrasher with a deformed bill. Can't fool you
can I? It was a Curve Billed Thrasher (L#18)! That's enough
for today, I definately need a nap.
DAY FOUR - Tuesday, February 23, 1993 (well almost) After leaving L.A. (late on day 3) I return to Route 77 and head north. Aransas (you know...) is now next on the list!
I arrive in Fulton/Rockport on Monday night and take lodging in....(ta da) The Sandollar Motel - the widely known mecca and headquarters of Capt. Ted's Aransas Boat Tours! I immediately visit the Captain's office to reserve my place on Tuesday's morning voyage! Alas! Alac! They don't operate on Tuesday! It's boat maintenance day!! OH SHRIKE!
I fail in my attempt to talk them into taking a Tuesday trip and rescheduling their maint. for Wednesday...I return to my room.... (those green bottle stores are handy, right CW?)
DAY FOUR - etc. (for real) I use this day for relaxation and contemplation, looking at where I've been and where I hope to go, WRONG!! At 5 a.m. I'm out and driving to Aransas to do the car tour! Aransas has a 16 mile tour route that should kill most of the day the way I do it.
Along the approach road (just to the left) I find a flock of Sandhill Cranes (L#20)!! I guestimate there's at least 50... Closer to the park entrance, eight Pyrrhuloxia fly into the fence row on the right! I continue up to the welcome center and guess what? This place is free! No charge! Even at two bucks it would have been worth it already!!
I drive along the tour and come to the start of the Heron Flats Trail (foot tour). Here I go again. Walking along the trail (that also intercepts part of the Rail Trail), I spot Downy Woodpecker, Bewick's Wren, Song Sparrow (L#21), House Wren (L#22), Brown Thrashers, blue and white phase Snow Goose (L#23), pintails, white pelicans, blue wing teal, green wing teal, northern shovelers, pied billed grebe (in striking breeding mask), eastern phoebe, BGGC and Goldfinch (L#24)!
My head's spinning. Somewhere along the tour I spotted a chunky oven bird that was perched above a roadside ditch/stream. I looked at this sob for the longest time til I realized he didn't have the brown stripes and orange crown that a normal oven bird has. Darn...that's a Hermit Thrush!! (L#25). It flew away when another visitor's car passed me where I sat parked in the middle of the road. (some people have no respect!)
It's taken me four hours to complete the 16 mile loop and I am about birded out.
I return to the Sandollar Motel (very nice room, very very nice people), have Shrimp Scampi at the Sandollar Pavilion Restaurant (very tasty and very reasonable) then return to my room to pour over my field guides and learn about all that I had seen. z z z z z z z z z
DAY FIVE - February 24, 1993 7:45 a.m. - Welcome aboard The Skimmer! Captain Ted takes us out of dock and invites everyone to help themselves to doughnuts, coffee, tea, orange juice, apple juice (both hot and cold), and wine! It's all complimentary! If you need binoculars just ask! They have plenty to share around!
The voyage leaves the Sandollar Pavilion marina and cruises thru St. Charles Bay, Blackjack Peninsula; past Bird Point, Blackjack Point; thru Dunham Bay, Cedar Reef, Carlos Bay, Pelican Reef, and Poverty Reef.
Throughout the trip, Captain Ted keeps up a running commentary pointing out the birds we are seeing, history of the Whooper in this area and many other amusing anecdotes.
Somewhere along St. Charles Bay I commit a faux pas!
We are cruising slowly up the waterway and I pipe up, "Captain! I see a Whooping Crane ahead on the left!!" (L#24)
He gives me a somewhat stoney stare and says, "You're not supposed to look that far ahead." OH MY GOD I'VE PISSED OFF CAPTAIN TED! i wanna die...
El Capitain doesn't make me walk the plank. He pulls closer to the birds I spotted and explains that this family group lays claim to this entire point of land. Any other whooper approaching or landing is in for a whooper-like talking to by the resident male. They are stunning! Suddenly they take flight and land a short distance away. They are majestic in flight! Cap Ted backs us off the mud bar we've been stuck on and continues through the cruise.
The Skimmer is aptly named, it can get into and out of places the other tour boats only dream of going. At one point it's namesake flew by - in the hundreds! A huge flock of Black Skimmers flew across our bow - I've never seen so many at one time in one place!
Here's the rundown of sightings aboard the Skimmer: Red-winged Blackbird, Double-crested Comorant, Whooping Crane (L#24), Mottled Duck, Northern Pintail, American Widgeon (L#25), Hooded Merganser (L#26), Red-breasted Merganser, Green Winged Teal, Lesser Scaup (clouds of 'em!), Northern Shoveler, Great and Snowy Egrets, Canada Geese, Boat-tailed Grackle, Eared Grebe (L#27); Herring, Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls; Osprey, Northern Harrier; Tricolored, Great Blue (Henrietta) and Little Blue Herons; Killdeer, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Meadowlark, American Oystercatcher (L#28), White and Brown Pelicans, Black-bellied Plovers, Spotted Sandpipers, Black Skimmers, Roseate Spoonbills (celestial vision!); Forster's, Caspian and Royal Terns; Ruddy Turnstone, Turkey Vultures, and Willet! I feel like I've seen and typed Peterson's!!!
All told I personally saw 28 Whooping Cranes. I hope the next time I visit them there will be more of them to see!
Round-a-bout 11 a.m. we return to the marina. A round of applause salutes Captain Ted. He, his crew and craft deserve it!
I checkout of the Sandollar and hit the road. Next stop is closer to Houston. The Katy Rice Fields! I seek the Prairie Chicken! That's for tomorrow.
DAY SIX - February 25, 1993 After leaving Rockport/Fulton yesterday afternoon, I drove north up Route 77 then east towards Houston on Route 90. I overnighted just outside of Katy and planned on visiting the rice fields this a.m. however news reports of a police search for armed suspects in and about Katy made me change my plans.
I continued through Houston and headed north on Route 45 to Jones State Forest the morning of Day Six. It was by far the worst weather to date! Driving rains, rush hour traffic and minimum visibility! But I pushed on and arrived at Jones at 8:45 a.m..
I stopped by the Forest office and picked up a map to the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker nesting colonies! I drove to Jone's road and parked in the limited parking area around a small picnic pond. It was still drizzling and cold.
I walked down the red dirt road to the first area of marked nesting trees. Well I spent about an hour just standing still and searching the trunks overhead for the elusive RCWP. No luck!
Furtive movement around the trunk of one nearby tree turned out to be a Brown Creeper (L#29), these guys are supposed to be around in South Florida but I had never seen one! A small warbler starts harassing me from the low hanging branches. Check him out! He's got a bright red spot on his head!? Darn that's a Ruby Crowned Kinglet (L#30)!... I'm still looking for woodpeckers though.
There's a broken off (ten foot high) pine trunk stand- ing at the end of the pond. I see movement at the very top. NatGeo indicates that it's a Brown-headed Nuthatch (L#31)! He's busy escavating a hole in the trunk. Spring is near.
Further searching for the RCWP is fruitless! The closest I find is a Yellow bellied Sapsucker. Also present were Carolina Wrens, Pileated Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse. This is a beautiful little oasis just north of Houston and the map of RCWP colonies (along with the easily found "banded" nesting trees) promises that during nesting season it would probably be easy to find the RCWP.
Someday I'll return and try again.
Tomorrow I fly back to Fort Lauderdale and to work. This week has flown by!
I will return to Jones State Forest for one last time tomorrow morning before my flight in a last ditch effort to find the Red Cockaded but I'll tell you now it just wasn't to be! No RCWP for me!
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