Late Winter Trip to Texas and Oklahoma (February 1997)

I just returned from a great birding trip to Texas and Oklahoma. Although the weather was lousy at times, I was able to see many of my targets thanks to rare bird alerts and tips from local birders. I started and ended the trip in Dallas and drove 2600 miles, including a loop that went through the Lower Rio Grande Valley and a one-day excursion up to Sooner Lake in Oklahoma. I saw the 144 species listed at the end.

Following tips from Sandy Dillard, I visited Lake Tawakoni on Feb. 20 to look for SMITH’S LONGSPURS. I gave up after spending a few hours walking through the fields near the headquarters. I later learned that I was probably a week or so late for SMITH’S LONGSPURS that far south. Although the area seemed to be pretty birdy, I didn’t find any of my targets. However, I heard what must have been a HARRIS’ SPARROW. I next went to check out the fields near Kerens, where Sandy had seen the other three longspurs. It rained very hard, and it appeared that I was too late for these birds as well. This was the low point of the trip. My next stop on the way to Austin (where I had business the next day) was Camp Val Verde in Waco (I selected this stop at the last minute from Kutac’s book on Texas). My luck improved a bit because I got my first good look at a LINCOLN’S SPARROW.

After completing my business on Feb. 21, I zipped over to Brazos County to look for NEOTROPIC CORMORANT, LECONTE’S SPARROW, and AMERICAN WOODCOCK that Bert Frenz posted in the Feb. 16 edition of the Heart-of-Texas rare bird alert. At Lake Bryan, I saw the NEOTROPIC CORMORANT sitting next to DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS, which was very convenient for comparison. I had to slosh through muck and wade through a foot of water to get over to the marsh area. I didn’t see the LECONTE’S SPARROWS but I did get a good look at a SEDGE WREN (I later found a MARSH WREN for comparison). There was no sign of the AMERICAN WOODCOCK on Steep Hollow Rd. Oh well, I finally saw one for the first time right here in Virginia the day after I got home! Up the road, I got my first good look at a YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER. Since this area is very birdy (including the largest colony of EASTERN BLUEBIRDS I have seen), I drove away that night disgusted with the fact that ground has been broken for a housing project in the field that is home to the AMERICAN WOODCOCK. Before leaving Brazos County, I called Bert Frenz for some local tips. He invited me to go along on the Rio Brazos Audubon Field Trip the next day. I badly wanted to go, but the ‘Call of the Valley’ was too strong to resist (especially since my time was very limited).

I began the morning of Feb. 22 in Zapata looking for the WHITE-COLLARED SEADEATERS near the pond by the library. I wasn’t optimistic because it was windy. Indeed, there was no sign of them. However, I did see a a female VERMILION FLYCATCHER. I then drove north on Rte. 16 and a side road for about 25 miles looking for LARK BUNTING based on another tip from Sandy. I saw lots of nice Texas species but no targets. This brief leg of the trip was well worthwhile, however, because I got to see several CRESTED CARACARAS in flight. On my other trip to the Valley, I only saw these birds late in the day when the were perched. I then proceeded to Falcon State Park. As the fickled finger of fate would have it, I spotted a flock of LARK BUNTING near the entrance. Some of them were beginning to molt into breeding plumage. I drive through the campgrounds and got close views of several nice birds, including BRONZED COWBIRD, YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD, ALTAMIRA ORIOLE, and GREEN JAY. I met a couple at the campground who gave me some hot tips regarding Chapeno and Salineno. I went to Chapeno first and saw a GREEN KINGFISHER but none of my targets. I went to Salineno and saw the EASTERN SCREECH-OWL that roosts in a nest box and got great views of AUDUBON’S ORIOLE as well as several other Texas specialties. I enjoyed visiting with the DeWinds, who maintain the feeders and even provide lawn chairs for birders! I drove back to Chapeno and arrived just in time to see four BROWN JAYS, two of which were juveniles. I watched them at the campground, down by the river, and flying across the river. This trip was really starting to get into gear! I ended the day in Salineno watching SCALED QUAIL eating grain that is put out every day for them by an elderly resident. I later realized that I had missed a chance to see a BARN OWL that roosts in Chapeno.

Early in the morning of Feb. 23, some campers at Bentsen gave me a few excellent tips. Following their suggestion, I showed up at the photo blind at 7 am. I saw the female BLUE BUNTING at around 7:15. The male showed up right on time at 7:30. Seeing birds at feeders is less rewarding than seeing them in the outback, but it’s certainly better than not seeing them at all! This was my first time in a photo blind. It was very nice to get extremely close views of birds that are easy to see at a distance, such as PLAIN CHACHALACAS. I saw an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER less than a foot away but couldn’t see the orange crown! I then went to the location on the Rio Grande Hiking Trail where GRAY HAWKS had been spotted but had no luck. I then proceeded to Anzalduas County Park to follow up on tips from the campers. As I was driving in, I saw two birders (who later told me they were from Ohio) and heard one of them say he saw a BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER. It’s a good thing my car had ABS because I stomped on the brake pedal. I hopped out and was able to relocate this target bird after a few minutes. I then went below the dam and spotted a CAVE SWALLOW (an unexpected treat) and some ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS. A few hundred yards down the river, I located my objective, a male EURASIAN WIGEON in breeding plumage. After pointing this bird out to the Ohio birders, one of them pointed out a RINGED KINGFISHER (another target) to return the favor. This bird was far off, but it was kind enough to bank about 90 degrees so its belly was in plain sight. I was beginning to get on a roll! I then stopped at Burger King on Rte. 83 for breakfast. I went out back to feed my remaining hash browns to the GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES and HOUSE SPARROWS and got another unexpected surprise. I saw two brilliant yellow birds with black wings flying away. I had no idea what they might be based on the homework I had done on the birds of the region. Fortunately, I noticed that one of them had perched on a wooden fence behind the Coastal Station next door. I noticed some very striking field marks, including a orangish-red head, a yellow wing bar, and a large yellow patch on the back (the bird was nice enough to turn around and model for me).In order to avoid being biased by photos, I drew a sketch before looking in the field guide. Much to my surprise, it was a WESTERN TANAGER. I had looked for this bird in vain in California! I then drove north of La Joya to look for MOUNTAIN PLOVERS. I saw many of the nice birds to be expected in scrub habitat, including CURVE-BILLED THRASHER and PYRRHULOXIA, but didn’t see the MOUNTAIN PLOVERS. However, I did find two small groups of SAGE THRASHERS, which were high on my list of targets. I returned to Bentsen and found a NORTHERN BEARDLESS TYRANNULET on the Rio Grande Hiking Trail. It was easy to make a positive ID based on the ‘pee-yeerp’ call, the bushy crest, small size, light lemon-yellow belly, and faint wing bars. I went and got Jack and Cathy, who had just told me that they wanted to see this bird, but we weren’t able to relocate it.

I began Feb. 24 at Santa Ana NWR. This day got off to a bad start because it was drizzling and I could not locate my prime target, the LEAST GREBE. After getting my first good look at a REDHEAD, I got some directions to the hangout of the LEAST GREBE and saw two of them. On the way out, I got an unexpected surprise, a beautiful male VERMILION FLYCATCHER. The light was just right to accentuate the lovely shade of red of this bird. Things were starting to roll again. Or so I thought. I then had to decide whether to go to the Sable Palm Grove or to Aransas. Since the BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD was “a given” and there was a TROPICAL PARULA about, I couldn’t pass up the Palm Grove. I actually hoped I would have time to do both. This stop did not pan out. It turned out that the hummer hadn’t been seen for several days. A birder told me he had seen the parula each of the previous five days but not this day. Oh well, you’ve got to have some bad luck every now and then. Rather than cut my losses, I stubbornly stuck around the rest of the day hoping to spot the parula, which would have been my 40th warbler. At the end of the day, I had to decide whether to go to Aransas or further north I choose the latter based on some tips from a birder from Houston (Due to haste and fatigue, I was negligent throughout this trip and failed to ask names several times).

Early on Feb 25, I stopped in Longview to look for the HENSLOW’S SPARROWS that had been reported. The Houston birder told me the bird was easy to find because the field was small. Only by Texas standards. It had to be at least 100 yds by 100 yds. It was full of sparrows and wet and muddy. After more than two hours of slogging through this mess, I was about to give up. After driving 560 miles through the night, however, I forced myself to keep trying a bit longer. I then flushed a small bird that flew toward a small bush. I said, “Land in the bush!” And it did! There I had a very cooperative HENSLOW’S SPARROW. What a striking little bird. I couldn’t believe how green the head was. It stayed on the branch for a few minutes. Then I stepped back and watched it drop back into the grass. I followed another tip from the Houston birder and returned to Lake Tawakoni. A flock of about 30 LECONTE’S SPARROWS had been seen there recently (unbeknownst to me on my previous visit). I saw no sign of this prime target but finally managed to turn up a HARRIS’ SPARROW. This field (down the road and across the street and a fence from the headquarters) has several massive brush piles that are loaded with sparrows (I had never seen so many FIELD SPARROWS). There were also good numbers of SAVANNAH SPARROWS out in the field. I drove over to HAGERMAN NWR in hopes of seeing GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, but the roads were closed due to flooding.

On Feb. 26, I followed up on leads from Joe Grzybowski and visited Sooner Lake, which is a bit over an hour north of Oklahoma City. The place I visited is on the west side of the lake off Rte. 177. Just north of a ranch that has a barn with a large stone front is a small road leading toward the river. I walked out into the fields to the right of the parking area. Things did not look promising because it was drizzling and a bit cold. After going back to the car to warm up, I went out determined to find a SMITH’S LONGSPUR. I saw lots of EASTERN MEADOWLARKS but few other birds. This was fortunate because it meant that all I had to do was look for a non-meadowlark. I eventually saw a small bird fly a short distance and vanish into the grass. This had to be the bird, but it was obviously going to be hard to get a good look. I walked through the field and flushed a few more birds but could not get a good look. I then noticed a flock of about 20 of them and carefully took note of where they landed. I slowly walked up on them and could hear them occasionally. I got almost on top of them before they flew off. I was able to see the white sides of the tail, a hint of buff on the belly, and small light patches on the wings. One of my field guides mentions the wing patches but does not contain a sketch. These had to be the birds, but I just had to get a better look. When one of these birds flew toward a fence, I hoped out loud that it would land on the wire. And it did! I ran about 150 yds to get a better look and was able to see some field marks very well. It then dropped down into the grass on the other side of the fence. After I moved closer, it hopped back onto the fence and I got a great view from < 20 ft! This bird was in an intermediate plumage between the breeding and wintering plumages illustrated in the Stokes guide. It was closer to the breeding plumage, having all the dark ‘helmet’ markings on the head. Another obvious field mark was the row of dark spots that appear on the wing (just below the white spot in the diagram in Peterson’s guide). I also noticed that this bird seemed to have exceptionally long claws. Is that the origin of the term longspur? This was definitely worth the drive up from Texas! I then got another unexpected surprise. I heard a deep cooing/gobbling sound up the hill. As I was going up to investigate, a NORTHERN HARRIER flushed four GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKENS! They were only about 50 yds away. What a sight! I saw the barring on their breasts and watched them fly/glide off to safety. Joe had mentioned they were around, but I never dreamed I’d be lucky enough to see them. What a great way to end a great trip!

*Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, *Neotropic Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, White-faced Ibis, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Canada Goose, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, *Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, *Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Harris’ Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Plain Chachalaca, *Greater Prairie-Chicken (Oklahoma), *Scaled Quail, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Snipe, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Rock Dove, White-winged Dove, Morning Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, *White-tipped Dove, *Eastern Screech-Owl, Paraque, *Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, *Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, *Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Eastern Phoebe, *Vermilion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, White-eyed Vireo, Solitary Vireo, Blue Jay, Green Jay, *Brown Jay, American Crow, Chihuahuan Raven, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, *Cave Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse (both morphs), Verdin, Cactus Wren, Carolina Wren, Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, *Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, *Sage Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, American Pipit, Cedar Waxwing, European Starling, *Black-throated Gray Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, *Western Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, *Blue Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Olive Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow (Oklahoma), Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, *Lark Bunting, Savannah Sparrow, *Henslow’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, *Lincoln’s Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow (Leucophrys), *Harris’ Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, *Smith’s Longspur (Oklahoma), Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, *Bronzed Cowbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Altamira Oriole, *Audubon’s Oriole, House Finch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow