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Christmas Trip 2003

Part 17: Santa Ana NWR and Bentsen Rio Grande State Park

All photographs © 2004 Mary Beth Stowe

God gave me a great last day! After crawling through Pharr we finally made it to Santa Ana, where who should show up again but the couple from New York! He raved about a couple of White-tailed Hawks he had on the White-tailed Deer Trail yesterday (the pun just hit me), we watched the Chachalacas poking around the feeders, and then we went our separate ways. It was still pretty cool and dreary and quiet, with the exception of the kiskadees and woodpeckers!


An Altamira Oriole graces the entrance to the trails at Santa Ana NWR

I did my normal route taking the B Trail, and then hooking up with C. Actually, the most action was along the Rio Grande, where I had both a Black-and-white and Black-throated Green Warbler! A stunning Altamira Oriole also sat out in the open. Found an overlook where two Ringed Kingfishers were making a racket, then one finally lumbered by! I thought I heard a Green, but the tacking was distant enough that I suppose it could have been a Yellowthroat, so I let it go. But the stars of the show caught my peripheral vision, and I twisted around in time to see a pair of Hook-billed Kites hanging in the air! Terrific!


Scenes along the "C" Trail include a marsh (that's actually part of Willow Lakes), a boardwalk (even here you can tell it's winter, as the trees have lost their leaves), and the Rio Grande, looking over to Mexico.

Ran into the New Yorkers again and told them about the kites, then headed down to Pintail Ponds. They indeed had Pintail, as well as both Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal and the regular dabblers. A mob of stilts followed a few ibis as they fed, and dowitchers probed closer to the trail. Pipits came zooming in, and a Least Bittern called from the reeds. There was also a Great Egret, which I was surprised to see marked as only "occasional" on the checklist! Also failed to mention that I once again had an incessant cheep! cheep! cheep! that I would have called a Hutton's Vireo anywhere else, but it was across the marsh in the willows, so of course I never got a visual (and I forgot to tell the ranger later...). [Ed. note:  since moving here, I've discovered the perp to be a Carolina Wren...]  Ran into said ranger who told me about an over-wintering Common Nighthawk that I had every intention of looking for after doing the A Trail, but my feet were shot and I wanted to head to Bentsen.

    The C Trail and Pintail Ponds

So after watching the Chachalacas rip an orange to shreds I headed back to the A Trail, where Mr. New York had informed me he had both Green Kingfisher and Least Grebe! I ran into a photographer shooting a Kiskadee (which he kindly shared with me and I evidently subsequently erased; I hope it was on purpose...), then I headed on to the other overlooks. Nothing but an Eastern Phoebe and some Pied-billed Grebes at that one, but the next one had a bench where I rested and enjoyed Mottled Ducks and White-faced Ibis. A group of casual birders came wandering in and asked me if "this was the Least Grebe" as they pointed over the railing. A Pied-billed had been right close earlier so I assumed that's what it was, but when I got up to check it out, it was the Least Grebe: a young one with stripes still on his face! He entertained the crowd for a long time! Meanwhile a Belted Kingfisher came in (more Ringed were rattling as well; this was the most I've ever seen in Texas!), but no Green; got a Song Sparrow instead, which I was even more shocked to discover was considered "rare" here! Did have plenty of Lincoln's, though, especially back at the Rio Grande. Finally dragged myself away and took the B Trail back to the parking lot, where a group of Chachalacas were feeding on the trail in front of me, and eventually let me walk right up to them!


Chachalacas make short work of an orange while a Common Ground Dove sits by...


A young Least Grebe hangs out in the B Trail Ponds


The B Trail again; look hard for the chachalaca on the trail!  (...very tame and amusing!)  

Headed towards Bentsen after that, following the guy's directions to take the Military Highway. Lost that somewhere past Mission, but a nice man in a mobile home park got me back onto Military, which at that point was not the main road! Bumped along on that for awhile before it curved and turned directions yet again, so I pulled over and asked some farm workers where the park was! He said to keep going to the stop sign, turn left, and that would take me straight to the park! Thank God for that guy, cuz there were no signs whatsoever!

Got my pass and the nice ranger gave me an update on the park's status: RV camping is no longer allowed (although tent camping is), and several feeding stations have been established along the route. You can drive in now, but eventually they'll eliminate that as well and have a shuttle bus available to take you to trail heads, or golf carts you can rent. Walking and biking will be fine, and truth be told, that won't be all bad cuz that walk I took several years ago during the ABA Convention (they weren't ready to set up the artists yet that morning so I came over to take an "exercise walk" around the loop) was very productive, and not tiring at all!

So I decided to check out all the stations: had an Anhinga and more Least Bitterns at the resaca, and the blind there was just hopping with stuff: volunteers keep the feeders going, so there was a constant line of Inca and White-tipped Doves, Chachalacas, and Green Jays, plus the occasional Cardinal and Long-billed Thrasher, and several pretty (for winter plumage, anyway) Indigo Buntings! Down the road they have a brand new blind with slats that flip (took me awhile to figure that out), and that place also had the regulars, in addition to an Olive Sparrow and a knockout Altamira Oriole!


Left:  White-tipped Dove; center and right:  Inca Doves


L-R:  Northern cardinal, Indigo Bunting, and Olive Sparrow

My timing was just a little bit off in that the "feeder-fillers" were following me instead of vice versa; at the next stop in the campground loop, I nearly fell over laughing cuz all I had to do was approach the bench and the Chachalacas came running, just like a bunch of chickens! Once they realized I wasn't the food master they went back to sunning or mooning each other, but when the crew showed up, what a madhouse! A Bronzed Cowbird joined the fray at this one!


Chachalacas make a mad dash across the street, thinking I'm the one with the food!


They wait patiently for the feeders to be filled, either displaying or sunning in the meantime


An Inca Dove waits her turn while another Chachalaca plays dead...


With the arrival of the volunteer feeder-fillers, the mayhem begins!  Chachalacas aren't the only ones to raid the feeders, however...


Bronzed Cowbird and Long-billed Thrasher

At Eagle Lake Trailhead it was the same story, only one Chachalaca was so friendly he actually hopped up on my lap; I couldn't believe it! (...and no one to take a picture, naturally...) I joined a couple from Louisiana where the husband was trying to shoot some pictures, and his wife kept talking about the "bunny" coming in to the feeders; when she said it was up with the Green Jay on a hanging feeder and I was wondering how the heck a rabbit could get up there, I realized she was talking about the bunting!


Yet another friendly Chachalaca and Green Jay at Eagle Lake Trail 

Headed down to the Eagle Pond blind after the crew had replenished the feeders, and was there ever a party going! All the regulars were there (including another knockout Altamira), but one oriole came in that had us all stumped (and fortunately let me get some nice shots): it was the size and build of an Altie, but he was a pale washed-out yellowish-orange (almost like a youngster) but with a lot of dusky about the face, cheeks, and forehead, and his black back was streaked with orange! His tail was also missing, but he had the orange first-wingbar of an Altie, so I was wondering if we perhaps had something with Audubon's or Streak-backed genes in it (it certainly didn't strike me as a pure Streak-backed). After posting this guy on the Internet, I discovered that's indeed what it was: there were several Altamira/Audubon hybrids hanging around Bentsen, and had been for some time! That solved that mystery!


The Eagle Pond feeders had some interesting visitors, including regulars like the Green Jay (center) and White-tipped Dove (right)...


...and knockout Altamira Orioles!  (This Northern Beardless Tyrannulet was along the trail...)


Occasionally you find something that stumps everyone; this turned out to be a hybrid Altamira/Audubon's Oriole (the lack of a tail notwithstanding...)

That was the last feeding station, so since my feet had recovered, I decided to go ahead and hike the whole Rio Grande Trail. Was a good exercise walk: ran into another couple at the loop-around point, and after I started back they caught up with me a couple of times, once for an Orange-crowned Warbler and the next time for something better: a Beardless Tyrannulet! Further down I spooked a young Gray Hawk with lunch, but he was so far back and they were so far behind me at that point that I decided to continue on.

Reported the weird oriole at the office, then headed back to McAllen, which was a lot easier this time! Had a huge Chinese buffet and came back and crashed.  Made it into Fort Stockton the next day, which was a lot farther than I expected! As forecast, the weather was great, and made it all the way into Casa Grande the next day, which gave me good hopes of getting into San Diego at a decent hour!  Made it into San Diego fine, and everything was still here and in one piece, PTL!

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