Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas (February 2000)

On this trip, I spent about 12 days birding in Texas after making a brief stop in southern Mississippi and Louisiana. Highlights were hearing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, rescuing a Barred Owl, and seeing most of the Texas specialties that had eluded me on previous trips. Dalcio Dacol joined me for four days in Texas.

On Feb. 3, I visited Stennis Space Center, which is located in Mississippi just across the Pearl River from a site where David Kulivan had recently reported a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Early that morning, I heard calls that seemed to be consistent with the written description of the ‘kent’ calls of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I wasn’t able to move directly toward the calls because of an intervening ditch. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the Cornell recordings that were obtained in 1935. I’m sure it wasn’t a Blue Jay doing an immitation because the calls lasted for a few minutes. It was also not someone playing a tape. There is limited public access at Stennis, and there was nobody else in the area. The calls stopped by the time I walked around the ditch. I spent a few hours searching the area but didn’t hear the calls again or see anything out of the ordinary. Even though I wanted to believe the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still existed, I was still a skeptic. How could such a large bird elude cameras for more than fifty years? I couldn’t accept that what I heard was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, especially since the habitat didn’t seem right. The site is about three miles from the Pearl in a pine forest. I wrote it off as a mystery and dismissed the possibility that it was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. When I returned from the trip, I learned of the Cornell recordings and was stunned when I listened to them. I have no doubt that I heard an Ivory-billed Woodpecker at Stennis. Although the habitat didn’t seem right, I learned that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have been known to visit that pine forests that are adjacent to swamps.

Not realizing what I had heard, I decided to spend the next morning in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, where Kulivan had the sighting. I came upon a lake and saw movement on the far side. It turned out to be a Barred Owl dangling by a fishing line. I made my way around the lake and realized it was on an island about 100 feet out. I went back around the lake hoping it was just a peninsula, but there was no way to get out there without getting wet. Since it was a chilly morning and I had a flight to catch, I didn’t want to get my clothes wet. So I stripped down to my underwear and stepped into the water. I immediately sank to my knees. I thought about giving up but couldn’t bear to leave the owl to suffer. I walked along the bank and found a place where I sank only to my calves and made it across in waist-deep water. When I got to the island, I noticed an alligator. Great. Here I am naked on an island with an alligator in the middle of winter and having to cross the murky water again. I made my way over to the owl, which began snapping its bill and flashing its talons. I looked around for something to put over the owl’s head to calm it down. All I could think of was my underwear. That calmed it down, but left me a bit more vulnerable. I had no experience handling owls but managed to avoid its talons and grab hold of its legs. It bit me once, but that wasn’t too bad. I was hoping to release the owl, but the hook was really set in the wing. So I took it to a rehabber, who found no broken bones and thinks it should recover. I hope anyone who reads this will attempt to remove fishing lines that they find while birding.

I flew to Austin and drove down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where I birded during Feb. 5-7 before attending a workshop. My first stop on Feb. 5 was at Falcon Dam, where I took a nap while awaiting sunrise. After being awakened by a Great-horned Owl, I scanned the water below the spillway and took a walk downriver. The highlights were Green and Ringed Kingfisher, lots of American White Pelicans, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Cassin’s Sparrow, which I had never previously managed to find during the winter. I then headed for Salineno and was surprised to see a White-collared Seedeater near the water facility. I got great looks at this female from the car. It was odd that I found this bird in an unexpected location after having tried unsuccessfully a few times before at Zapata. Some birders down by the river told me about Clay-colored Robins feeding in a tree near the town square. I back tracked and got great looks at them. A short time later, I had the bad luck of just missing an overflight of Hooked-billed Kites. I stopped by the DeWind’s feeders for the usual show of Brown Jays, Altamira and Audubon’s Oriole, and lots of other species. The next morning at Bentsen, I unsuccessfully looked for kites along the Rio Grande Hiking Trail. Later on, I found out that this nemesis had been seen near the beginning of the trail. After an unsuccessful try for the Blue Mockingbird in Weslaco, I drove up to Sarita and got great looks at the beautiful Rufous-backed Robin. I also saw a Barn Owl roosting in a palm tree. I started to continue north to Aransas and then on to Austin for the workshop, but decided I’d better do a U-turn and keep trying for the kite. I ended the day being entertained by a flock of Green Parakeets at the Fort Brown Inn near the International Bridge in Brownsville. I spent the morning of Feb. 7 in Salineno. Since there had been recent overflights of kites, I planted myself in the DeWind’s back yard and scanned the sky. After five hours, a female Hook-billed Kite flew over at less than 100 feet!

I drove back to Austin for the workshop but was able to get away during the afternoon of Feb. 9 to visit Aransas. I was told that a pair of Whooping Cranes were hanging out near the observation tower, but there were none in view when I arrived. I took the loop road and spotted a pair nearly 1/2 mile away that were barely discernible. I drove back to the tower and found a pair about 1/4 mile away. I was able to get a fair look through the scope. Then these impressive birds flew over and landed nearby. Wow! After the workshop concluded on Feb 11, I drove back down to the Valley and birded for four days before going to pick up Dalcio. After seeing Red-billed Pigeon in Salineno and Red-crowned (and Yellow-headed) Parrot at a site in McAllen that Lou Baird had told me about, only Muscovy Duck remained on my target list. So I spent the next few mornings hoping for a flyby near the river in Salineno but never had success. During this period, I also spent some time exploring areas that aren’t described in the Lane guide. One of these is the field to the west of Salineno, where there is a dump. On my first visit there on Feb. 12, the place was loaded with sparrows. Driving along the fence line, I was surprised to find a Grasshopper Sparrow. A few seconds later, what appeared to be a Botteri’s Sparrow popped up on the fence right next to the car and gave me a great view. Salineno is supposedly just outside the range of this species, but I was pretty sure about the ID. I’ve compared singing Cassin’s and Botteri’s during previous trips to Texas and Arizona. Botteri’s appears noticeably larger and browner to me. I had a great view of this bird and even saw the lemon yellow sliver near the bend of the wing (I’ve also seen this field mark on Bachman’s Sparrow). I got out of the car and took a walk in the field and immediately found a female seedeater. A few minutes later, I found a male seedeater. I was skeptical of my own sightings until the DeWinds informed me that other birders had seen them there. I couldn’t believe the number of species of sparrows in that field. I stopped there several times and also saw Olive, Cassin’s, Chipping, Field, Clay-colored, Vesper, Lark, Black-throated, Savannah, Song, Lincoln’s, and White-crowned.

During the morning of Feb. 13, I visited Bentsen and ran into some Texas birders who were looking for the Roadside Hawk. We heard vocalizations that sounded right but couldn’t see anything. We took a hike down into the resaca and saw a Gray Hawk but not much else. I then stopped at Anzalduas, which was quiet. I decided to drive back upriver and made a brief stop north of La Joya. It wasn’t the best time of day for birding that area, but I saw a Prairie Falcon. Late that afternoon, Tom Driscoll and I hiked upriver from Salineno in an attempt to get a better look at Red-billed Pigeon. After a long walk in oppressive heat, we managed to get a pretty good look through his scope. Tom spotted a flock of about 10 of them as we were walking back. The next morning, we took a walk near the dump and Tom saw a Green-tailed Towhee. Then we spotted several Red-billed Pigeons that gave us great looks. They also vocalized, which was the highlight of the trip for me. They have quite an impressive song. I met Bill Taylor and Rose and Ian Peterson during the morning of Feb. 15 and showed them where I had gotten good looks at the pigeons and sparrows. After we found the birds and got a really close look at a few pigeons, I headed up to San Antonio to rendezvous with Dalcio.

I picked up Dalcio at the airport the next morning, and we drove straight to Salineno in time to see Red-billed Pigeons and visit the DeWind’s feeders. On Feb. 17, we saw 104 species during visits to Salineno, Chapeno, Falcon Dam, Falcon Park, Bentsen, Anzalduas, the McAllen sewage ponds, and roost sites in McAllen. The field west of Salineno was once again full of sparrows as well as a Vermilion Flycatcher that Dalcio spotted. We also found two Green-tailed Towhees and got more good looks at the pigeons at this little hot spot. We saw Brown Jays at Chapeno, and Dalcio saw a Gray Hawk at Anzalduas. At the roost near Dallas and Mockingbird, we found two Lilac-crowned Parrots mixed in with the Red-crowned Parrots. At the roost near 10th and Violet, Dalcio identified two Brown-hooded Parrots mixed in with the Green Parakeets. We attempted to camp (in the car) at Bentsen but got attacked by mosquitoes. We had a miserable night with little sleep, and the next day seemed to be a loss, but we somehow managed to see 99 species. We started at Santa Ana, which was nearly birdless. We then tried for the Blue Mockingbird in Weslaco. We struck out but met Richard Lehman, who gave us some information on birding in Weslaco. We drove up to the El Canelo Ranch to see Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and got great looks at this bird. We also saw Bronzed Cowbird, which we hadn’t been able to find in the Valley this trip. We wanted to spend more time at El Canelo but decided to zip up to Sarita. Unfortunately, the Rufous-backed Robin had skipped town. We ended the day back in Weslaco at the settling ponds, which were full of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. There were also several Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, at least five Least Grebes, and a Green Kingfisher. A half hour at this site proved to be much better than a morning at Santa Ana.

Since Dalcio and I were still looking for Muscovy Duck, we continued checking sites near the river below Falcon Dam, including a site that I had never visited before--Fronton. We also took a long hike along the horse trail between Salineno and Chapeno and found some interesting areas. On the afternoon of Feb. 19, we decided to visit Falcon Park and look for a Burrowing Owl that had been reported. We had no luck but ran into a birder who told us that Hook-billed Kite, which Dalcio hadn’t yet seen, was still being seen at Bentsen (a few days before, we had been misinformed that they hadn’t been seen there for a week). So we made another trip to Bentsen the next day, which was our last in the Valley. Shortly after sunrise, we got a fair look at a kite flying across the road. We then hiked to the resaca and got two good looks at Gray Hawk. On the way back, a birder had a kite perched off the trail, but it flew away before we got to see it. We took a long hike hoping to find a kite feeding on snails but had no luck. On the way back to the car, we spotted a kite in the air, which gave us a brief but good look. We made a brief stop in Salineno and found that we had missed a Muscovy Duck that morning. Drat! It was getting late in the afternoon and Dalcio still hadn’t seen seedeater. We had hoped to relocate the ones in Salineno but had no luck. We had just enough time to try Zapata and then maybe San Ygnacio. When we arrived in Zapata, we ran into two British birders who we had met that morning at Bentsen. They said they had just seen a seedeater, and Dalcio got to see it.

Species seen in Texas (174): Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Neotropic Cormorant, Great-blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little-blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis, White-faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Green-winged Teal, Mottled Duck, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Hook-billed Kite, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Harris’ Hawk, Gray Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, Plain Chachalaca, Wild Turkey, Scaled Quail, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Whooping Crane, Sandhill Crane, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, Common Snipe, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Caspian Tern, Forster’s Tern, Red-billed Pigeon, Rock Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Red-Crowned Parrot, Lilac-crowned Parrot, Yellow-headed Parrot, Brown-hooded Parrot, Green Parakeet, Greater Roadrunner, Barn Owl, Great-horned Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Paraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Blue Jay, Green Jay, Brown Jay, American Crow, Chihuahuan Raven, Tufted Titmouse, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Rock Wren, Carolina Wren, Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Clay-colored Robin, Rufous-backed Robin, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, American Pipit, Cedar Waxwing, Loggerhead Shrike, European Starling, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Painted Bunting, Olive Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Eastern Towhee, White-collared Seedeater, Botteri’s Sparrow, Cassin’s Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, Altamira Oriole, Audubon’s Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow