Sunday, February 10, 2013

Border Tales 2012-13

site 215 counter-clockwise from lower right: 2010, 2012, 2013
We arrived safe and sound mid-afternoon at our familiar Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort site #215. It’s always a bit of a long day's drive from Kerrville so we were most grateful to arrive to a welcome back party hosted by Canadian friends David and Sandy located a few sites from ours.
We were delighted to find that Ray and Sue, along with “the boys”, their four-legged companions Mickey and Jerry, are still our next door neighbors. Mickey and Jerry had no trouble remembering that we carry dog treats. It's difficult for Ray and Sue to take the boys walks without Mickey or Jerry straining their leashes toward our site, ever hopeful of a doggy treat.
New this year, a few sites over, are Dick and Sally who are, like us, pretty serious birders. Quite evident when Sally asked us, "Have there been any reliable sightings of White-collared Seedeaters lately?" It turned out that they both graduated from Neenah High School and that Dick is a graduate of Lawrence University.

friends Anne and Don at South Padre Island World Birding Center
It never seems to take long to get settled back into some familiar routines and this year was no exception. Tom began to get caught up on blog entires while Carol worked on Christmas decorations. The process of washing and waxing the RV got underway while Carol signed us up for “couples” country dance lessons. We quickly came to the conclusion that couples dancing wasn’t going to fit as well as Carol had thought it might. Tom was relieved.
This year we don't see nearly as many of our WI birding friends lining up plans to visit the RGV but shortly after our arrival, we got word that Greg Seegert would again be in the area. We managed a day birding with him at Estero Llano Grande State Park although his plans to travel more extensively in the area made it difficult for us to join him. Greg thinks nothing at all about driving insane distances in a short period of time...something we've kind of gotten away from doing.

Green Jays in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
Green Parakeets
We've clearly noticed that birding overall across the upper and lower Rio Grande Valley this year has been much slower. In great part attributable to a continued drought in South Texas. It seems like whenever there is a chance for rain that storms have moved further north and east.

American Woodcock sneaking away from beneath our RV
We picked up where we left off last year volunteering in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park next door where the drought impact has had a dramatic impact. The park is still unable to pump water to most of its more critical habitat areas plus an unexpected problem with the pump system (maintained by U.S. Fish & Wildlife) at the Hawk Tower has further complicated matters. The bottom line: no water translates into a lot fewer birds and wildlife in general.


Harvey and Gayle (top), Karen and Jerry - Christmas Eve
We experienced a bit of a hiccup with our truck when it came time to refill the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). After purchasing some DEF at a local GMC dealer, the DEF system warning light (typically lights up to indicate it's time for more DEF) continued to remain on after filling the DEF reservoir. Following an appointment at the dealer where we purchased the DEF, we were informed that the DEF tank needed to be removed and “cleaned” before the DEF system could be tested. That required another appointment after which the dealer told us the system needed repair and would cost $500...and that the work would not be covered under warranty. After reading the warranty language for a diesel powered truck, Tom begged to differ.
The long and short of it was that once GMC customer service got involved, the needed repairs were performed. Under warranty. But the whole process took well over a week and a half and included a rental truck (GMC’s nickel). In the end the problem was resolved due to GMC's diligence (i.e., repeatedly holding the local dealer's feet to the fire). The final cost of repairs was very close to $2,000! Cudos to GMC for its complete coverage. Suffice to say we'll be trying a different dealership in the Valley for minor work like oil changes, etc.

Great Blue Heron
Reddish Egret
Christmas was pretty low key again this year. We spent Christmas Eve at Jerry and Karen Smith’s RV (more WI birding friends) along with friends Harvey and Gayle. On Christmas Day we joined in with the rest of the RV park at the annual Christmas dinner hosted in the park's club house. Carol managed to put up a few Christmas decorations/lights in the RV but we both agreed that Christmas in Texas, for multiple reasons, is nothing like we were used to when we lived in our house in Appleton. However, we didn't have to deal with Wisconsin weather, either!
Little Blue Heron
On the day after Christmas, another Wisconsin birding friend, Dave Frericks, and his girl friend Andi (from Ohio) were in the RGV for a few days. Together we birded Estero Illano Grande State Park, again, the one park in the Valley that seems to have a consistent supply of water which continues to attract birds.
All too quickly the first of the year rolled around. On January 1 we spent the day with Dick and Sally propping up a start to our 2013 annual bird list. Birders always look forward to New Year’s Day when they can start their annual bird lists all over again. Naturally, when birding, food is never far behind which mandated a stop at P.F. Chang’s. 

Least Grebe
Common Paraque
On January 3 we again participated in the local Anzalduas/Bentsen Christmas Bird Count. Our assigned area this year, nicknamed “The Great White North”, was a huge count section that took us through several small towns plus some very desolate and depressed (read: depressing) rural areas. We suspect that this is one of those count areas that gets assigned to unsuspecting participants unfamiliar with the area! Since there were no public lands to hike, we pretty much were relegated to stay on roads and bird from our truck. Roadside birding only netted us 42 species while we covered 121 miles. "Boring" was the operative word. It didn't help that it was a very windy day. However, it wasn’t snowing, either. The followup pot luck dinner that evening in the state park next door was a lot of fun. Total for the count day including all other teams hit 151 species.
 
resident Cooper's Hawk in our RV park
While birding draws us back to the RGV each year, it is by no means the only reason we return. We look forward to reconnecting with established friends and making some new friends. Old or new, inevitably we all gravitate toward meeting in area eateries. Some favorites include "The Blue Onion" in Weslaco (wraps and poorboys), "Pelican Station" Port Isabel (seafood), "P.F. Chang’s" (Chinese - killer 'Dynamite Shrimp'), and "Cheddars" (burgers) to name a few. The local Valero gas stations (also known as “Stripes”) serve some pretty good breakfast tacos for when we're on the birding go. And we added a few new places this year. There's "Cafe Renee" (atmosphere decidedly more like what we're used to in Arizona; southwest breakfasts) and the "492 Bar-B-Que", our newest favorite place for ribs or bar-b-que since Bad Bob's was sold to the Famous Dave's chain. Close to home there's "Crazy Joe's Bar", a ramshackle saloon which features free foot-stomping live music (yes, country) on Saturdays and Sundays. Quite a popular hangout for local Winter Texans. One of those places you wouldn't think twice to stop at without understanding the place's attraction.

birthday party gathering at our place to celebrate Ray's (yellow shirt) B-Day
While we don't usually chase rare bird sightings, when a Flammulated Owl suddenly appeared on South Padre Island we made the hour and a half dash over to catch what was a life bird for both of us. The second smallest owl in North America, this is a bird typically found in higher mountainous regions of the southwestern U.S. (which would require a late night prowl to find any). It was most convenient to have this bird at sea level and available to see roosting during daylight hours. Both times we saw the owl it was pretty well buried in foliage so no opportunity for useable photos.
Another chase of sorts took place in late January when we spent an entire day traveling with Dick and Sally to the city of Laredo in search of the mythical White-collared Seedeater. "Mythical" because after several failed attempts during the past three years to find one in the U.S. we had pretty much decided that people who do see them are simply perpetuating a hoax. We have seen them in Mexico where they are typically found, but, small populations have sprung up along the Rio Grande border in Texas therefore making the species “countable” as ABA birds. Having failed on numerous occasions searching at other locations, we tried distant Laredo...where we again (insert appropriate curse words) missed seeing any. Therefore the bird remain mythical to us.

Kowa iPhone 4/4s adapter and mounted to our scope
In spite of not seeing any seedeaters in Laredo (nor did we see any young cowboy draped in white linen) we managed several stops along our route at Salineno, Zapata, and San Ygnacio. By the way, San Ygnacio is a charming little border town filled with historical buildings which the town has gone to great lengths to preserve. Having spent driving over 300 miles round trip, it was gratifying to have seen something of consequence!
Tom has added a few toys to his collection. One is a very small Bluetooth stereo speaker, a Jawbone's "Jambox". This was our Christmas gift to ourselves. Perfect for streaming music wirelessly in our RV. Tom also acquired a short VGA cable to directly wire his laptop to our HD TV. It works well for movie playback plus displaying programs run from his laptop.
The last and most recent item was from Eagle Optics, a Kowa adapter that attaches our iPhone 4 to the eyepiece of our spotting scope. Prior to this Tom had pretty good luck capturing video clips by hand-holding our iPhone to the eyepiece. Now, however, with this gem, he no longer frets about balancing the iPhone "just so" while has his hands are now free to pan, zoom and focus the scope. The whole process is far less stressful and far more productive! And so far, his video results have proved his point about needing one!
Our most recent visitors from Wisconsin, were Peter and Cynthia. They've been in the Valley in years past to visit Cynthia's parents who, like ourselves, are Winter Texans. Cynthia and Peter stopped over for an evening to view our pictures from Ecuador since they'll be part of a group we’re taking into the Amazon Basin in 2014.

Tom, pilot, and Dick
While birding at Anzalduas County Park with Dick and Sally we happened upon, for want of a better description, a "job fair" for young adults wishing to enter Federal or state law enforcement as a career. This was a non-public gathering of several agencies to demonstrate various opportunities by demonstrating equipment. There were Texas State Police gun boats, ATV's, Border Patrol on horseback, K9 team demos, Army Air National Guard helicopter, and a U.S. Customs helicopter. The pilot from the latter walked over to where we were birding (finally found Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet for the year) and we engaged he and his copilot in a lengthy discussion about the job fair and specifically his role as a pilot. Fascinating. It turned out that the pilot had attended the 2012 EAA convention in Oshkosh representing U.S. Customs, plus, to play the bag pipes with a a color guard. We wound up getting a personal tour of his helicopter...but alas, no rides! You just never know what or who you're going to bump into!


Collared Lizard
Burrowing Owl
And so, here it is, nearly the middle of February. We have a few events lined up not the least of which is a return trip to Costa Rica in mid-March with the "usual suspects" from the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club. And while it's only the middle of February we've already begun to plan for our return to WI by booking us into High Island, TX for a week in mid-April. Perhaps this year we'll hit the Spring migration just right?



Eastern Screech-Owl

Burrowing Owls
American Alligator, South Padre Island
Altamira Orioles
Border Patrol air boat, Rio Grande River at Salineno
Red Slider Turtle closeup

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