Texas Birding Adventure 2014 - The World Birding Center
We began planning our Texas Birding Adventure almost a year before setting out on our 10-day birding trip through south Texas. We picked mid April for our trip because it is in the middle of the Texas Spring bird migration season (early March to mid May).
The bird trip: Choke Canyon State Park (two days), Bentsen Palm RV Park (four days), and while staying there, visit three of the nine World Birding Centers; the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park (within walking distance of the RV park); Estero Llano Grande State Park (Weslaco, TX); and the South Padre Island Birding Center (about two hours away from Bentsen Palm RV park). Finally, on our way to Houston for Easter, stop at Goose Island State Park (Rockport, TX) for one night.
We decided to turn "The Big Year" (from the movie with Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin) into "The Big Week" and keep track of all of the birds we see during our 10-day birding trip. Saturday, before we left the Austin area, we saw the following birds:
South of Austin, on our way to Choke Canyon, we saw vast fields of Bluebonnets with Indian Paintbrushes sprinkled in. Around noon, we stopped in Karnes City for lunch at the recently opened Red Dog Ice House. The half-pound burgers and crispy onion rings were very good and the wait staff was courteous and friendly.
We couldn't help but notice that the once sleepy town of Kenedy, Texas, had become a booming oil town. There were lots full of temporary housing and oil field equipment staged everywhere. A man at a local grocery store commented, "I liked things the way they used to be..."
Choke Canyon State Park
After enduring a strong south-west head wind, we finally arrived at Choke Canyon State Park headquarters. We went inside, paid for our campsite, and while leaving the building, were happily greeted by a Vermilion Flycatcher! That put smiles on our faces. I wasn't worried about getting a picture of this bird, because I remembered seeing many of them at Choke Canyon on a previous trip. I knew I would have another opportunity.
On Sunday, we hiked the park's trails in search of rare bird species and saw several birds along the way.
Our first and only other visit to Choke Canyon was about 12 years ago and quite different from this trip for two primary reasons. First, they closed the camping area below the dam, where we had camped before, and had seen many Vermilion Flycatchers as well as many other species of birds that made that part of the Frio river their home. Second, the once lush "Bird Sanctuary," located in the Calliham Unit camping area, was no longer being maintained by volunteers and or park staff and there were no birds to be seen.
We saw several wild turkeys while driving the park roads and hiking the park's trails. Despite the disappointments with bird habitat, we had a great time and still managed to spot the following birds during our two-night stay:
By the way, I never saw another Vermilion Flycatcher. Note to self: always keep your camera handy and don't pass up on picture taking opportunities.
On Monday morning, we packed up and headed south down Highway 281 through Falfurrias, Encino, and Red Gate towards Mission, Texas. The fields of Bluebonnets faded as we drove south, and were replaced by Nodding Thistle, Lantana, and other assorted wildflowers.
At Mission, we easily found the Bentsen Palm RV Park and it was better than we hoped it would be. The park is within easy walking distance from the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park HQ.
We arrived at the RV Park to find that almost all of the winter Texans had left - there were plenty of spaces to choose from. The park host said that we could pick any site that we wanted, so he took me for a ride in his golf cart to show me the selection of available sites.
We chose an RV site that is the home of a Golden-Fronted Woodpecker and a Dwarf (Elf) Owl. The host told me that every evening, the Dwarf Owl comes out of his hole at the top of a dead palm tree.
We soon discovered that all of the other birders in the park knew about this owl's habits too. Every evening, 5 to 15 paparazzi birders with tripods, cameras, and binoculars claimed a spot outside our trailer waiting for the owl to appear.
Bentsen Rio Grande State Park - TWBC
On Tuesday morning, we walked over to The World Birding Center headquarters, from Bentsen Palm RV Park, and spent the day hiking the various nature and birding trails. On the .3 mile Green Jay Trail, we visited the Green Jay Blind and saw Red-Winged Blackbirds, White-Winged Doves and Kiskadees.
Later, we hiked to the Kiskadee Blind and saw mostly Green Jays. We hiked the Kiskadee Trail to Road Runner Crossing and down Nopal Road to the .2 mile Hawk Tower. Afterwards, we felt energetic and hiked the 1.8 mile Rio Grande Trail that comes within just a few hundred feet of the Rio Grande river and Mexican border.
After about 5 miles of total hiking for the day, we decided to take the Tram back to the park headquarters. Once back at headquarters, we enjoyed ice cream in the park cafe while watching the birds in the park's excellent bird habitat.
We saw many species of birds in the park's habitat. In fact, we saw the greatest variety of birds right there at HQ. The birds we added to our list from our visit to Bentsen Rio Grande State Park were:
Wes-Mer Drive-In Theatre
Tuesday night, we headed east to Weslaco to watch a movie at the Wes-Mer drive-in theater. My Grandfather owned the Wes-Mer back in the 1960s, and I once worked the ticket booth when I was about 12 years old. Most drive-in theaters in Texas and in the US have shut down, but I was happy to find this particular one back in business after being shut down for several years.
We bought popcorn and a soda from the concession stand. I asked to speak to the manager so that I may introduce myself and share some history. The manager was running the cash register and he introduced me to the popcorn girl - who turned out to be the owner's daughter.
The visit to the Wes-Mer drive-in theater was both memorable and nostalgic. When we are in the area again, we will definitely pay them another visit.
Wednesday morning, we stopped for bacon, eggs and coffee before continuing on our 45 minute drive to Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas. As it turns out, the park is only a few miles from the Wes-Mer drive-in.
The architecture of this World Birding Center park was very similar to Bentsen Rio Grande State Park - metal roofs with extensive water catchment systems that supply water to the bird habitats surrounding the Estero Llano Grande Park headquarters.
We hiked to Alligator Lake and Grebe Marsh and the trails of Camino de Aves. Along the way we saw Green-headed Kingfishers feeding on small fish, Tri-colored Herons, and Black-necked Stilts (among many others).
There is a fairly large water component to the park. We added several water birds to our 10-day list.
South Padre Island Birding Center
On Thursday morning, we made our way to South Padre Island Birding Center, located on the southern tip of South Padre Island. The drive from Bentsen Palm RV resort took about 2 hours. We arrived about 11:00 am and spent about 20 minutes browsing the park's headquarters and park store.
The birding trail is 3,300 linear feet of boardwalks built over dune meadows, salt-marshes, and intertidal flats that provide excellent habitat for migrating birds. We headed out on the wooden trails and immediately saw several species of birds.
At the end of the boardwalk, looking back towards the mainland, we spotted a wade-fisherman probably yelling, "Fish ON!!" He was about 100 yards from the outer edges of the boardwalk. The Laguna Madre is mostly shallow silty flats, but there are several man-made channels that were created for small to mid-sized commercial and non-commercial water craft.
In addition to the boardwalk, the South Padre Island Birding Center has 5 bird blinds and a birding tower. Inside the main building, there is an auditorium that has featured movies and the Nature Gift Store.
A fat alligator was laying up in the tall grass waiting for his next meal. We saw one other swimming along next to the boardwalk.
The birds we added to our list were:
After all of the birding excitement, we were in the mood for seafood, so we stopped at Blackbeard's (South Padre Island) for shrimp baskets on our way back to Bentsen Palm RV Park.
Goose Island State Park
Friday morning, we left Bentsen Palm and headed north up 281 to Falfurrias and turned east on highway 285. We stopped for gas in Riviera and headed north on 77 through Bishop and Kingsville towards Sinton. We turned left in Sinton on a road that headed directly to Rockport, TX and Goose Island State Park.
Though we had only planned to use Goose Island State Park as a rest stop on our way to Houston, it turned out to be an excellent birding area. The park was completely booked, but we managed to get a great wooded and private campsite.
While relaxing in the evening, an Indigo Bunting visited one of the large oaks in our campsite. This was the first of several beautiful birds we saw migrating through the area. They were feeding on hatching worms at the tops of the trees.
On Saturday morning, on our way to the showers, we ran into a birder looking fellow who told us about the woodland-bird-walk hosted by the park's April Birding Hosts, Larry and Judy Geiger.
Larry and Judy were very knowledgeable about birds migrating through this part of Texas and it was obvious they had been doing this for several years. In a short time Saturday morning, we saw:
Late Saturday morning, we had to depart for Houston to meet family and begin celebrating Easter, but we thoroughly enjoyed our brief visit to Goose Island State Park and will definitely plan our next visit as a two-day stay.
The World Birding Center - This main site contains information on the birding center and links to all of the World Birding Center sites.
Bentsen Palm RV Park - This RV park is right next to the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park (the home of the World Birding Center).