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Christmas in Florida

Part 1:  The Drive Out

Stopping at Willcox was a great idea: we got in in plenty of time to check out Twin Lakes! But the drive over was fine; the gas stop at Gila Bend was the quietest I’d ever seen it (usually the place is packed), but my plan to have a bagel at "lunch time" backfired because, while it was a noble idea to avoid the fast food joints on driving days, I forgot that they generally have the best restrooms! So I went ahead and got a double cheeseburger (I also forgot that we changed time zones; I really wanted a sausage croissant…) and left it at that… Bird-wise picked up a couple of San Diego things in the process of packing (I guess Anna’s Hummer was the only reasonable "San Diego bird"), and other western things here and there at various rest stops, like Black Phoebe. The Imperial Valley was kinda dead bird-wise except for a big flock of Double-crested Cormorants, but the best "fly-by" bird was an immature Harris’ Hawk between Benson and Willcox. Had a little excitement, too, as two cops went tearing by with their lights and sirens blaring, but one was on his way to a minor accident (blow-out), and the other was helping to put out an apparent brushfire!

But Twin Lakes was great: driving in I ran into a big flock of Lark Buntings that posed for pictures, and the lake had plenty of ducks: mostly shovelers, but also wigeon, pintail, Ruddies, coots, a few Ringnecks, Canvasbacks, Green-winged Teal, and Common Mergansers, but the real treat was a pair of Snow Geese on the opposite shore! No shorebirds (except for Killdeer on the golf course), but a train scared up a big flock of Sandhill Cranes, which was really neat! A harrier cruised the field, and I managed to pish up a couple of Savannah Sparrows, but unfortunately no longspurs "kettled" over. Tons of blackbirds and starlings were coming in to roost, but the best dickey bird was on the way out: a brilliant male Pyrrhuloxia!

Birds at Twin Lakes, Willcox AZ...


L-R:  Lark Buntings, Northern Shoveler, and American Wigeons


Snow Geese and Pyrrhuloxias 

Checked in, got settled, made a reservation for Fort Stockton, practically busted a gut watching AFV, and made plans to visit Fort Bowie first thing, seeing as last year I reported getting in to Fort Stockton "early".

Did just that, and was shocked to see it was still dark when I left around 6:30! On the way in a big flock of cranes was flying with the dawn; that was neat! Hit the dirt road a little after dawn, and it was nippy and kinda quiet, but I occasionally ran into the sparrow flock that was made up of mostly Brewer’s with some Vespers thrown in, and one big flock of Whiteys. A huge Prairie Falcon flew over the road in front of me, which was nice because what I suspected was one flew over earlier in poor light, and I just couldn’t get a good enough look to rule out White-tailed Kite (it was very light underneath). There were also Verdins along this first leg, and as we got into the National HS, picked up a few more goodies (especially at a spot past the fort that would have been luscious in spring and early summer) including a "chewy"ing Crissal Thrasher, a mewing Green-tailed Towhee, and a family of Scrubbies that sounded almost as raucous as Steller’s Jays! At the "outsit" had Cactus and Rock Wrens calling, and in Bowie proper had great looks at the Collared Doves! Then on the way to the freeway had a flock of what I’m sure were Chihuahuan Ravens sitting in a tree with a Harris’ Hawk: they weren’t much bigger than him (but now that I think about it, maybe they shoulda been smaller than him…) At any rate, there were 99.9% sure Chihuahuans later on, as they were flocking and seemed very small.


    Eurasian Collared Dove hanging around Bowie

The drive in to Stockton was good, a little later than I normally would have wanted to stop, but the only other alternative is to stop at another State Park on the way and just spend an hour there. Bowie wasn’t bad: the dirt portion was only eight miles or so, so it didn’t take all morning.

The restaurant was supposed to be open at six the next morning, but it was black as pitch in there, so I decided to make some oatmeal in the room. Headed out before the crack of dawn (which turned out to be around 7:30, interestingly!) with what I thought was gonna be a Red-tailed Hawk on a freeway sign morphing into a Great Horned Owl! Besides the owl, picked up Robin, Black and Turkey Vultures, Belted Kingfisher, and a pair of caracaras about 100 miles west of Sealy! Made it in to Sealy in good time, and headed over to Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR! Picked up White-faced Ibis on the way in, and crawling along the entrance road added Savannah and Vesper Sparrow, and the big prize, a knock-out White-tailed Hawk soaring away! The stiff wingbeats of the Eastern Meadowlarks were easy to tell here, and at the Visitor’s Center an American Goldfinch called from a tree. Nothing unusual was around according to the ranger, so I headed off on the auto trail, getting behind this couple from Houston and stopping where they stopped, picking up Eastern Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrikes, and several ducks that way. Their checklist said I had a "moderate" chance of seeing House Wren, but I must have had at least five along the route! Pished up both Swamp and Song Sparrows at one point, and had a good selection of ducks at one pond while a flock of Snow Geese flew overhead. There wasn’t the huge mass like there was last year, but good lines of White-fronted Geese flew overhead as well, and at another "duck stop" where I finally caught up with the guy and had a chance to chat, we added Lesser Scaup, Ruddies, and Ring-necked Ducks to the list (he thought he had a Cinnamon Teal but it turned out to be a very chestnutty female scaup). Before I caught up with him, three more Caracaras flew over the road and into a tree, and a young Bald Eagle also soared over! Harriers were all over the place; in fact, I saw one (youngster?) drop something he had in his claws; I have no clue why he did that. Some snipe flew by that I thought were dowitchers at first (no white back), and pished up a Yellowthroat at one little grove (which I had a "low" probability of seeing, interestingly) along with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Had a very cooperative Vesper Sparrow pose for pictures as well!

Birds at Attwater Prairie Chicaken NWR, near Sealy, TX...


L-R:  young Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Cattle Egret, and young Great Blue Heron


L-R:  Common Yellowthroat (apparently rather rare this time of year), Savannah Sparrow, and Vesper Sparrows

Headed in to the hotel where I caved in to ribs, then caught up on this; this’ll be my first attempt at using a hotel-provided high-speed Internet access, so we’ll see how it works! (it didn’t…)

The next morning was cold enough to have ice on the windshield, but turning on everything took care of that before it was time to leave, so off we went (after icing and gassing up)! More sparrows bounced around on the way in, and because of my dire need of exercise decided to hike 20 minutes’ worth of the Pipit Trail. It wasn’t too terribly cold, thankfully, but enough to wear my wool hat over my ballcap, and managed to add a few dickey birds from the woods, like Cedar Waxwings, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and two Carolina Wrens song-battling. A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks got all mad, and on the way back was treated to a great pair of White-tailed Hawks in a tree near the car! Also flushed a couple of what I suspect were Grasshopper Sparrows, but they wouldn’t land where I could see them, naturally…



Pipit Trail at Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, which is probably one of the most reliable place in Texas to see White-tailed Hawks! (In flight, perched, and preening)

Used the facilities and managed to get a Carolina Chickadee out of it (peeked through the window slats at their feeder while on the potty), then headed around the drive, spotting a very nice immature Whitetail who posed for pictures! Ducks were still in the two ponds, and added both Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal to the lineup while an American Pipit bounced by (picked up a Tricolored Heron in here, too). Finally caught a pair of Mallards wheeling away, and at the second pond (where tons of Green-winged Teal and Pintail took off as I approached) a suspicious smacking turned out to be a Lincoln’s Sparrow! At the trees a Marsh Wren came out in perfect light, but unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough with the camera (and I was afraid that if I moved too fast he’d be gone)!


Immature White-tailed Hawk, perched and in flight

Headed for Houston after that, and when I finally got on the Sam Houston Parkway (there was still a backup just before there, even at noon!) I suddenly noticed this huge ten-inch-long crack in my windshield!! I didn’t even see it forming; it was just suddenly there! It seemed to stay pretty stable for the most part, so I didn’t worry about it; I figured I could get it replaced in either Jacksonville or Fort Meyers. But then traffic came to a standstill just west of Lake Charles, and they diverted all the traffic off the freeway due to a big rig that had capsized, and I just followed the crowd until the truck leading us stalled at an intersection and acted as though he didn’t know where he was going, so I backtracked all the way back to the interstate, and asked the sheriff how to get back on! He directed me to follow these two state routes (he said there is a "back way", but if you’re not from here, you don’t wanna go there!), so I finally made it back to I-10 and to the hotel in Lafayette, which was really off the beaten track! Because I was so shot (and it was after dark by the time I got here), I asked for an upgrade for the same price, and they gave it to me! (When they answer the phone they say that "the customer is their top priority", so it wouldn’t have looked good for them to say "no", I guess…)

Continue to the Panhandle