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Lower Panhandle

Part 1:  McAllen to Littlefield

I was bone tired from a long week at work, but decided to get laundry done the night before leaving (had hit the HEB during lunch to fill the cooler), and I think that was a good plan; I always feel better being able to hit the road after the morning routine!  After everything was packed the next morning we headed out while it was still dark (I was wide awake at 4:30).  We didn’t even have to see the first bird of the trip, as the cacophony of awakening Great-tailed Grackles along Monte Cristo Road was deafening!  As it got lighter, a largish raptor powered across US 281; I thought it might have been a Redtail, but then caught sight of a white band at the base of the tail, nailing it as a Harris’, a good Valley species for the trip!  A Caracara was next to power by (another Valley specialty we’re not apt to get later), and later positively ID’d a Kestrel on the wire (it’s hard for me to ID anything zipping along at 75 mph)!  The Scissor-tailed Flycatchers starting to flock for migration were fun to see!

After passing through the checkpoint we approached the Falfurrias Rest Stop, and I got to thinking about the Painted Redstart that had apparently returned for a second (maybe even the third?) winter there. I really had no intention of trying for it, but felt compelled to stop regardless (I really could have used the potty anyway), so I pulled into the area where the bird had been hanging around and started to wander.  Right away I heard an Eastern Bluebird do-doing, but kept looking for the redstart while heading in the general direction of the restrooms.  I managed to add some nice Valley birds to the list:  Golden-fronted Woodpecker (although these do occur in Palo Duro Canyon), Couch’s Kingbird, and Green Jays all called, while a Kiskadee kept flying over my head and yelling!  I spotted a Summer Tanager up in one of the oaks, so I had a chance to try out the new camera (only got a butt shot, but at least it was in focus…)!  A couple of Butterbutts were around, and I tried out a little of the two hiking trails, where I found an Eastern Phoebe.  I almost walked through a bunch of complicated spider webs (good thing the sun was shining on them), so I turned around at that point.  After using the facilities I made one more pass around the picnic areas and then glumly started for the car when I heard the redstart singing!  I never did spot it, but I was happy to have heard it!  Whew! 

One of the trails at the famous Falfurrias (Brooks County) Rest Stop along US 281

General habitat at the rest stop

First attempt at shooting a bird with the new camera (don't worry--they get better...)  Summer Tanager, in case you're wondering...

Having stopped there instead of Alice (which is the normal 100 mile stop), the next leg got us to Three Rivers.  Originally I was going to bypass San Antonio (as I always do), but I just felt compelled to take the Connelly Loop (I-410)!  On the way up (after we passed the Jourdanton exit that I normally would have taken), we passed the huge new Baker Hughes training center; I confess I felt a twinge of pride! J

We made it to I-410 without incident, and even on 410 there was very little traffic.  Before long we were back on the 10, and I was really beginning to think we weren’t gonna run into any traffic when all of a sudden traffic came to a halt!  I put the emergency flashers on to warn anyone coming up behind us but I got that horrific adrenaline rush as I realized the guy in the white van way behind us wasn’t slowing down as fast as I thought he should and anticipated being rear-ended (just what I needed after hitting that deer the last time), but thankfully the guy stopped in time!  Turns out they had closed a portion of the freeway for construction, so traffic went along at a crawl, and about a half hour (and two miles) later we were able to sneak off and get a McDonald’s for lunch.  After a nice man let us in the line (on the road, not in the McDonald’s), traffic was soon back on the freeway and buzzing along! 

It was along this stretch through gorgeous Hill Country scenery (between Kerrville and Junction) that about all that was available on the radio were country songs, so had a good time poking fun at the lyrics!  When we got off on US 83 and headed north, this was new territory for me; the habitat gradually changed from typical Hill Country live oak to what looked no different that South Texas Brush Country!  Ballinger was the next logical stop, but as we made the turn onto US 67 I didn’t see a decent gas station, so I decided to head on to the next place.  Only I noticed that, according to the little indicator that tells you how many more miles you can go on your current fuel, we used up 40 miles’ worth of gas in ten!!  I was starting to sweat a little, because these little Podunk towns we were passing through didn’t have any gas stations!  But I had found the Christian station out of Abilene, so the Lord seemed to be saying to me, “Trust Me!  I know the road ahead, and I’ll get you there!”  Sure enough, we made it into Santa Anna where there was a gas station (when I told the gal that I was never so glad to see a gas station in my life, she assumed I was talking about needing to use the bathroom), filled up, then checked the map to see where the closest motel would be.  Turns out we had missed our turn for SR 158 completely:  apparently in Ballinger, after you hit 67, you’re supposed to make an immediate left on 158, so we had gone about 20 miles out of our way! L  There had to be a reason, though (the thought crossed my mind that maybe it was time to get one of those Garman thingies); and in fact, it turned out that the closest hotel was in Coleman anyway, so it was good that we got lost!

Shot going up US 83 on the fly (with "Bob the Bald Eagle"...)

They had a room at the Best Western in Coleman, so up we went, and it turns out that we’re only three and a half hours from Littlefield!  It was actually quite pleasant the next morning; an older lady had checked me in, and when I went to the office for breakfast she was still there!  I teased her by saying, “Don’t you ever sleep?!” J  She admitted she was supposed to be relieved by some family members, but her daughter-in-law (I think) was expecting, and they wanted to go on a road trip before she had the baby, so she didn’t get much relief! L

Headed out towards Colorado City (but not before getting totally turned around in Coleman, if you can believe that), where one of the highlights of the day was along SR 153:  a Great Horned Owl perched on a telephone pole (and it was light enough to take pictures, too)!  Picked up a singing Eastern Meadowlark for the day while I was shooting him, and more staging Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  Found my way to Lake Colorado Lake State Park, pulled in, and asked the ranger (Maria) if Kyle O'Haver was around (formerly of Estero Llano Grande SP), and she said it was his day off!  I moaned and told her who I was, and she called him (saying she had to call him anyway, as their Internet went down)!  I didn’t want him coming all the way in just to see me (as I had to leave around ten), but she said that he lived there—of course he would!  Most of these state parks have residences for the managers; that’s not too shabby!  So since he was birding anyway, he agreed to meet me down at the lake (which was “stuffed with ducks” according to him)! 

       

Great Horned Owl on the way to Colorado City

Obligatory entrance sign...

Roadrunner trying to hide on the way in...

Driving down the main drag to his house nabbed me a Roadrunner (I will say that the shutter is much faster on this thing than the old Olympus; it’s as good as the SLR!), and after catching Kyle on the road and hugging as best we could, he pointed me down towards the boat ramp area, and after parking he joined me, and it was a great reunion!  The area is pretty much sage scrub (I told him that it didn’t look much different than the Valley in that regard, and he agreed), but the lake was indeed full of waterbirds:  lots of White Pelicans, and the ducks consisted of a mix of Ruddies, scaup, Pintail, wigeon, Gadwall, coots, and a big flock of Redheads that flew in!  Both Eared and Pied-billed Grebes showed up, but the only shorebirds we logged were a fly-by Killdeer (that I thought was a falcon at first L) and distant Least Sandpipers calling.  A few Black-crowned Night Herons claimed a dead tree, and a Great Blue croaked from somewhere around the corner.  A Belted Kingfisher was on a buoy, and Kyle said he was just waiting for a Ringed to show up one of these days, as they like to follow rivers!  He was bemoaning the lack of Rock and Canyon Wrens (although I did hear a Bewick’s when I got out of the car).  On the way up I had seen two different pairs of ravens (one in an agricultural area and the other in what looked very much like Hill Country pinyon/oak stuff), so I asked him which is the most likely, and as I feared, he said, “Both!”  He had a pair of Chihuahuans nesting there, only they got chased off by some Commons, and now neither nest; they just pass through, as do Crows, so all three black corvids are potential (will have to wait for a vocalization…)! 

After that we chatted a bit about nemesis birds (fellow ranger John Yochum was giving him a hard time during a training retreat at Davis Mountains because John saw the Phainopepla and Kyle missed it… J), then I headed out and on to Littlefield!

   

Ranger Kyle O'Haver sets up his scope on the lake overlook and then gives me one of his famous smirks... J

White Pelicans and ducks

Just to give you an idea of how strong this camera's zoom is, scroll back up to the first picture of Kyle and check out the spit of land just to left of my scope (just barely in the picture)!  That's where these White Pelicans were!

Tree-full of young Black-crowned Night Herons

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