Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rio Grande Valley Day Three: Double Down (Part 1)

Posted by Kirk Mona
This is part three of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

I'm sitting at a $100 minimum bet blackjack table in Vegas. I've taken $300 out of the bank but I only intend to bet $100. The other $200 is just for show so my buddy Trent and I can get free drinks at the high roller table.

In the first hand the dealer gives me a five and a six. I've got eleven showing. My buddy Trent tells me to double down. "Double down baby. You gotta double down on eleven." He says.

"...but that's two hundred dollars!" I protest.

The dealer only has a two showing. We don't want to look like we don't belong or know what we're doing so I reluctantly double down and put down a second $100 chip.

The dealer deals himself a king, then a four, he's gonna bust...then a five. He has twenty-one and I lose $200 just like that.

Wait, no, that wasn't me. That was the 1996 movie Swingers with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. Life and movies get blurry sometimes. The point being though that you always double down on eleven even if it might mean losing. The payout is too good to pass up.

We were all set to double down to Tuesday when things went wrong.

It is my turn to make breakfast. This turns out to be a task as I'm trying to do it half in the dark and super quietly to not wake up our hosts. Clair probably wouldn't have minded but I try to be a class act. I'm also, against every fiber of what is right in my body, making scrambled eggs with no milk and no butter. I crack open eight eggs, scramble them in the pan and then add onion, salt and pepper for some flavor. I grate peccorino goat cheese on top. I'm thinking I have created a pretty tasty breakfast and I later discover that Tony hates onions. This is the problem with birding on the cheap. If we were in a hotel, we'd get up, hit the sub-par contenential breakfast and be out the door before dawn. Everyone could pick out the least offensive item from the continental buffet and no one would get onions in their eggs because they wouldn't have any onion and eggs wouldn't be an option anyway. Why on earth did we think it was a good idea to cook up eggs every morning? 

On a tip from our host Claire, we left San Benito and bypassed Hwy 77, taking a back-road to Hwy 100 instead so we could look for hawks. Characteristically, the directions are to go over here and take a left, then go down this one other road until we get to a cemetery and then turn right on the next road, whatever it is, can't remember, look for hawks, keep going, you'll hit 100. This is how birders give directions. I'm thinking we need some nationwide intervention on how to give directions. Amazingly, and in clear defiance of birding tenet #1, the directions mostly work out.

Loggerhead Shrike
We're greeted early on by a Loggerhead Shrike and birds are plentiful. Someone spots a raptor and we quickly pull off the side of the road. Setting up spotting scopes on the side of a busy road, trying to not get hit by cars, we find a pair of White-tailed Kites. They were beautiful and a lifer for me.

White-tailed Kite
We could hear a woodpecker and soon enough it showed itself. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Another lifer.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
This farm field turned into a pretty good spot to stop. We also saw Eastern Meadowlarks, Osprey, Lark Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Green Jays, Northern Mockingbird, Red-winged Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles.

Further down the road we pulled off again. We'd come to the turn to go to Laguna Atascosa NWR and suddenly there is discussion of going there instead. I'm starting to realize I am birding with people who aren't real keen on making plans or sticking to them.


The plan is to bird along this road until we get to 100, then take 100 down to the coast. Just before South Padre Island, we'd turn back toward Brownville. We can then connect up with the Boca Chica highway and take it back to the coast again. This is the key part of the plan. We need to go to the Boca Chica Highway. When I arrived in Texas on Sunday, a rare bird alert came across my twitter feed. Someone had seen a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. I've never seen one and they aren't a regular in Texas. They aren't a regular anywhere in the United States. There are thousands of scissor-tailed flycatchers around but not the Fork-tailed. Monday, the same bird was re-found a few miles away from the first location. It could have disappeared anywhere but as luck would have it, someone re-located it and it basically stuck around. This was golden information. The bird had been in the same location for three days. We'd been dealt an eleven. We had to chase it. You always double down on eleven , you always split aces, you always chase a rarity as soon as you hear about it.

Why? Because it might not be there tomorrow. The common birds will still be there tomorrow, or the next day, but a rarity is far more elusive. Even if we somehow managed to miss a Green Jay, rest assured, on any trip back to Texas there will be thousands of them waiting for us. Miss a rarity and you'll regret it.

With this in mind, I was excited for our plan. Unfortunately, it pays off to make sure everyone agrees with the plan, knows the plan and promises to stick with the plan once you are out in the field.


After a brief discussion we decide not to go to Laguna Atascosa yet and keep heading down toward the coast. Along the way we see a distant Swainson's Hawk, Turkey vultures and several Harris's Hawks. We pull off on the side of an even busier road when we see some smaller birds. There is a huge flock of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a Kingbird hanging out with them. We spend some time trying to figure out if it is a Tropical Kingbird or a Couch's Kingbird but since it isn't singing it is hard to say. Given our location it was probably a Tropical Kingbird.

Three Scissor-tailed Flycathers and a Kingbird in the bush. 
While hanging out there we also have a gorgeous fly over of a White-tailed Hawk.

White-tailed Hawk
The white-tailed hawk is exactly the type of bird we're here to see. They are mostly found in South and Central America, only coming into the very southernmost part of the US.

The birds were great so far, and now we had reached Hwy 100.  We fueled up on snacks and gas at the gas station and I missed a white-eyed vireo in the parking lot. Oh well, on to the Fork-tailed Flycatcher! Well, maybe not. Somehow, our well-reasoned plan derailed and we spontaneously continued straight  onto South Padre Island instead of turning back toward the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Oh well, it will be there tomorrow right? More to come in Part 2. Coming soon!

~Kirk



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