The Not So Plain Chachalaca

There is something mundane about a bird that has “plain” in it’s common name. But when that is paired with “chachalaca” now we are talking about a bird that birders will travel to the deepest depths of Texas to add to their life list, because of it’s very limited range in the US, confined to the lower Rio Grande Valley. The great news for birders wishing to add this species to their list is that it is very common and in some parts of Hidalgo County, it is a backyard bird.

The only thing plain about the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is it’s uniformly brown plumage. The name “chachalaca” is in imitation, according to the Nahuetl language, of it’s loud and raucous call, most often heard during the breeding season. And I was in southern Texas during it’s breeding season. When chachalacas call, they are very hard to ignore and worthy of a spread in my journal.

While I was hawk watching on the observation tower at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, it afforded views, down into the tops of trees. I would often see, and hear,  chachalacas calling from the tallest branches.

Looking down on yet another plain chachalaca calling from the top of a tree, Santa Ana NWR. Digiscope photo.

After my hawk watch I headed over to the National Butterfly Center to visit their feeders, and to look at butterflies. Here the chachalacas where so tame that they were within grabbing distance. (I kept my hands to myself.)

Getting up close and personal with a plain chachalaca at the feeders of the National Butterfly Center. No zoom or scope required.

A quick field sketch from the National Butterfly Center.

I sometimes wish all birds were this easy to identify. A plain chachalaca under a sign featuring the most common birds of the Rio Grande Valley. National Butterfly Center.


The Gem of the Valley

At 8:35 AM, I found myself 40 feet above Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on top of the observation tower. This was my second hawk watch of the trip and my third attempt to add one of the most sought after birds in the entire Rio Grande Valley. This was and is the hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax unicinatus). 

This tropical treesnail hunter is only found in the United States in the wide Rio Grande Valley, between Falcon Dam and Brownsville but Santa Ana NWR is the epicenter for most visitor’s kiteless search.

To prove this point, an hour later, I was joined by two Twitchers (very committed bird watchers) from Essex, England. It’s always good to have witnesses!

Scope view from the Santa Ana NWR observation tower.

Two days before I had hawk watched for three hours and there was a prolific northern movement of hawks, coming up from South and Central America. The most numerous raptor was the broad-winged hawk (thousands) and a good number of Swainson’s hawks, the raptor with the longest migration on planet earth.

This day the hawk migration was more of a trickle, allowing me time to explore the treetops of Santa Ana. What immediately stood out was the local Harris’s hawks that were perched along the canopy.

A pair of the local Harris’s hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus). Two in one scope view!!

As the skies continued to be raptorless, I looked around at the treetops. A small black bird perched on a power pole caught my attention. What stood out, even at distance, was the birds intense red eyes, like it hadn’t gotten any sleep in a week or more. I focused my scope on the bird just to confirm lifer # 526, Bronzed cowbird!

Bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus), flying from the power pole. 

There was plenty of downtime between raptors and, as always, I filled in the time with a sketch. This sketch is a birder peering off to the south, wearing his “birder’s bra”.

I noticed a mixed kettle of black and turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks. Then I saw a bird that clearly stood out, a bird that looked like no other. I trained my scope on the soaring raptor. I mentally ticked off the paddle-shaped wings, heavily barred underwing primaries, distinctive head and beak shape, lazy and deep wing beats.

“I got the kite!” I announce to the British birders and they were soon on the soaring Hook-billed. I was able to watch the kite in the scope for a good five minutes. The search for The Gem of the Valley was over!

One my way back from my triumphant kite watch, an added bonus was seeing the stunning scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannous forficatus). I got great looks at this seasonally common kingbird and as I raised my camera to my eye, just as I pushed the shutter button, it flew.


Spring Whoopers

“It’s time to light the fires and kick the tires!” Captain Jay announced and then he turned and headed up to the bridge to ease us out of Fulton Harbor. 

As the Skimmer headed out of port, for a three and a half hour tour, laughing gulls covered the docked boats and breakwater. It was funny to think that birders where picking trough large gull flocks at Pilarcitos Creek to find this extremely common gull on the Coastal Bend. It reminded me that even somewhere, every bird is rare.

Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore! Laughing gulls in the swimming pool in Rockport.

But the “power birders” on board where not here to look at common gulls of the Gulf Coast. We where here for a bigger and rarer bird. Everyone wanted to check off the elegant whooping crane (Grus americana) on their lifelists.

One reason that the whooper is such a desirable bird is because of it’s rarity. In 1941 there were only 21 cranes in existence. And today there are about 350 birds that breed in Canada and winter in the marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Coastal Texas. The whoopers success has much to do with the efforts of biogists and the captive breeding programs. The Texas birds represent the only migratory, self-sustaining population of whooping cranes in the world.

The second reason that these birds are so desirable is that they are simply beautiful. Cranes are a revered group of birds the world over. These birds are known for their iconic beauty and grace and they are often represented in art and origami. Their haunting bulging call is know by many cultures. They are collectively known as “Birds of Heaven”.

After motoring across the bay we entered Dunham Bay, a wide intercostal waterway which is a watery boulevard for shrimp and oyster boats. The captain throttled down and he then explained that cranes were not guaranteed in the spring. The entire Texas population could be on the wing, headed north for their Canadian breeding grounds. We were going to keep our fingers crossed.

All eyes scanned the shoreline looking for the bird that Captain Jay affectionately called “the Marsh Cow”. Was that far off white bird a lifer?! No it was just a white egret. How hard could the tallest bird in North America be to find? You’d think they would stand out like two large, white sore thumbs. Two because mated pairs are almost always seen together and sometimes with a single juvenile.

From above came the shout, “Cranes!” And all binoculars where trained and focused on the port side. In the far channel, on the far shore, were two foraging whoopers! Within an hour into our cruise, we had out target bird!

“I love spring cranes!” Captain Jay enthused from the bridge.

Whooper field sketch from the steps of the Skimmer.

Overall we saw a total of ten cranes. We got close to one pair as Captain Jay drifted into one foot of water at the edge of the reeds. The two cranes, whose very existence today, was so dependent on the human species, paid no attention to us as they foraged and preened to the presences of the species who brought them back from the brink. But their presence in this marsh, on this earth, was thank you enough.

A pre-Texas Whooping Crane sketch.




Rio Grande Valley and the Coastal Bend

While planning a birding trip to South Texas in April I sketched some  birds on my wish list. I chose to sketch in a woodcut, stylized way that focused more on shape rather than fine detail. The style is that of a preliminary working sketch if I were designing a linocut.

The birds are, from left to right, top to bottom: whooping crane, sandwich tern, fulvous whistling-duck, green parakeet, king rail, ringed kingfisher, red-crowned parrot, white-collared seedeater, bronzed cowbird, green jay, Audubon’s oriole, cave swallow, northern beardless-tyrannulet, and Couch’s kingbird.

Bird notes:

Whooping Crane: One of our rarest and tallest birds in North America. In the 1940’s where were just 21 whoopers in the wild. Since then, with conservation efforts, their numbers have grown. I hope to add this bird to the list on a cruise on Aransas Bay.

Sandwich Tern: A medium-sized tern of the Gulf Coast with a black bill dipped in mustard.

Fulvous Whistleling-duck: I struck out on this duck on my last visit to Texas but am determined to add it to my list in the ponds around McAllen.

Green Parakeet: I should find this gregarious green gem at it’s nighttime roost, about ten minutes from my digs in McAllen.

King Rail: Missed this rail in Florida but I am hoping to hear, if not see it,  at Ticano Lake. This is our largest rail in North America.

Ringed Kingfisher: I missed this kingfisher, the largest in North America, by a few minutes at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

Red-crowned Parrot: Another McAllen specialty.

White-collared Seedeater: Found only in a few places along the Rio Grande. I’m going to search around Falcon Dam.

Bronzed Cowbird: This devil-eyed bird can be found in parking lots in McAllen.

Green Jay: Not a lifer but very common in the Rio Grande Valley. This beautiful jay is a blockbuster bird in south Texas and it’s found nowhere else in the US.

Audubon’s Oriole: Hoping to add this bird to my list near my digs at the McAllen Nature Center.

Cave Swallow: Similar to the cliff swallow. I will keep my eyes to the sky to see this lifer.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet: This small, drab flycatcher is inconspicuous, until it sings.

Couch’s Kingbird: Almost identical to the tropical kingbird, until it sings.