Texas and Beyond: Road Trip Part II

Hopefully it’s no surprise at this point that we’ve been traveling the last several months. We arrived home a few days ago (much to our parents’ relief) and were able to celebrate Easter with family. Originally we had planned to arrive in Pittsburgh very early on Easter morning and then head to church and then hang out before starting all kinds of other planning and trip-related chores. We realized however, that it would be beneficial for us to have a few more days at home so we adjusted our schedule and were able to arrive home on Wednesday as opposed to Sunday. In just those three days, Ross finished our taxes, completed an online Accounting course for his MBA, and started planning South America. We’ve been so busy the last few days catching up with family that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about what we’ve been up to the last two weeks, but believe me, I haven’t forgotten! 

In order to get home earlier, we obviously had to cut a few days out of our US roadtrip but essentially our 3-week trip across the US looked like this: CA → AZ → NM → TX → OK → MS → IN → OH → PA! We mainly chose the route that we did, the southern route, to increase the number of bird species we would see across the US. Unfortunately, as it worked out, we picked our car up in mid-March and proceeded to bird the US at probably the worst possible time of the year. A month earlier would have produced more wintering species and even just two weeks later would have produced a large number of neo-tropical migrants on their way north. We’ve always wanted to do something like this and having our car shipped to California from Hawaii was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse, even knowing it wasn’t the best time of year. With all of that being said, we ended our road trip with just under 350 species which is nothing to shake a stick at.

You can read about the first half of our roadtrip here.

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

Before leaving Arizona and heading east, we decided to drive two hours in the opposite direction to find a key species that we had missed earlier in the trip, Gilded Flicker. Gilded Flicker is often found amongst Saugaro cacti, so we went to Saugaro National Park. In addition to getting another year bird for Ross and a lifer for me, we also were able to cross a US National Park off of our list as our goal is eventually to make it to all of the national parks!

Me with a giant cactus

Me with a giant cactus

IMAG5452_1

Saugaros, prickly pears, and various other species of desert cacti are found here.

After leaving Arizona we drove 10 ½ hours to Big Bend National Park located in west Texas. We arrived to the park on March 26 at 5:30AM, went to sleep and then got up at 6:30AM (yes, you read that right) to hike roughly 10 miles up the Chisos Mountains with our main target being Colima Warbler. The Colima Warbler isn’t a breathtakingly beautiful bird by any means, but it is one that you won’t be getting in the ABA (American Birding Association) area unless you are in Southwestern Texas in Big Bend National Park. (The bird is common in Mexico but only comes as far north as this small area in South Texas from the months of April to September/October.) We arrived in Big Bend a few days earlier than the typical arrival of the bird. Although we knew we were early, we had an opportunity to visit this remote national park so we figured we would try for it anyways!

An overly friendly Mexican Jay

An overly friendly Mexican Jay that we met while hiking the trails

Like I said earlier, we woke up early to begin hiking as the bird is only found at a certain elevation and we wanted to climb in elevation while the morning was young. We spent nearly two full days in the park looking for this bird, hiking over 20 miles in the process, but unfortunately we were unable to turn up a Colima Warbler this early in the year. Some reports from previous years did state that the bird could be seen as early as late March, but no such luck for us.

View from Big Bend

View from Big Bend

Thankfully having four Lucifer Hummingbirds at a nearby desert oasis was a nice consolation prize, as these birds can be relatively hard to come by.

Male Lucifer Hummingbird

Male Lucifer Hummingbird

Female Lucifer Hummingbird

Female Lucifer Hummingbird

We left the Big Bend area of Southwestern Texas and essentially followed the border until we arrived in the lower Rio Grand valley. We spent the night “car-camping” along the side of a nearby road and then woke up the next morning right along the Rio Grande River at a known spot where Red-billed Pigeon is known to fly over. The scene was absolutely beautiful as we stood watching the fog along the river dissipate with the sun coming up behind. At this location we also had nice looks at Audubon’s Oriole, Green Jay, Hooded Oriole, and Ringed Kingfisher. 

Green Jay

Green Jay

Audubon's Oriole

Audubon’s Oriole

We had booked a hotel for that evening so we decided to check in early to take full advantage of a shower and a bed, something we hadn’t had for a while. As it turns out, the hotel room we booked was significantly larger than our apartment in Hawaii! We showered up and then headed to a local restaurant recommended to us by one of Ross’s former Sergeants who grew up in the area. Anyone in the Harlingen Texas area, we highly recommend eating at Las Vegas Cafe, an inexpensive and absolutely delicious restaurant.

After dinner we drove about an hour to see Green Parakeets at a roost and then we headed back to our hotel. With this being the first hotel we had so far in to the trip, it is probably needless to say that we slept well but regardless, we slept well that night. We woke up the next day and headed to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge where a morning’s walk of the nature trails produced birding highlights such as Altamira Oriole, Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds, Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Least Grebe and Common Pauraque.

Common Pauraque

Common Pauraque — Anyone else want to find this kind of camouflage to wear?!

Next on the agenda was Laguna Atacosa National Wildlife Refuge where we saw Northern Bobwhite (a species of quail), White-tailed Hawk and Aplomado Falcon. Then we drove to some grain silos in Progresso Texas where we had great looks at Yellow-headed Blackbirds mixed in a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and Bronzed and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Great looks at Yellow-headed Blackbird is all thanks to the “explore data” section of www.ebird.com where we were able to look up recent locations of sightings of birds we wanted to see. Using this feature online is both an example of how far modern-day birding has come and a resource for out-of-towners to find local birding spots such as this.

Bronzed Cowbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Next we drove to a Monk Parakeet nest site and then finished the night finally seeing a Green Kingfisher, after trying for this bird five separate times.

We drove about 5-6 hours and eventually ended up at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge around 1AM. After a good night’s sleep parked right next to a sign reading “No Parking and Camping” we woke up to scan the marsh of the refuge looking for Whooping Crane. Unfortunately no cranes could be found at this location.

Ross doing the scanning and me providing the comic relief when no cranes turned up

Ross doing the scanning and me providing the comic relief when no cranes turned up

Ross scanning

Ross intently scanning the marsh from the observation tower

Ross was determined not to go home without seeing this particular bird so again turned to Ebird for guidance. We found a nearby estuary that had recent sightings and when we arrived at the location, we found a pair of adult Whooping Cranes feeding in the marsh.

Next we drove to Bolivar Flats, one of the best shore-birding locations in the country. This location is known to be a resting place for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds every year and known globally among birders for its important habitat. Here we picked up numerous year birds, including Piping, Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, American Oystercatcher, Sandwich Tern, and Reddish Egret.

After leaving Bolivar Flats, we visited nearby Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge looking for Roseate Spoonbill and Tricolored Heron that we missed earlier. We saw both of our targets before heading to Houston to visit an old friend who recently moved to Texas. On the way out of the refuge we came across a snake in the road. Ross moved a very ungrateful Water Moccasin from impending doom by relocating it off of the road.644A6422

The night out in Houston was great and we were able to spend the night on a couch as opposed to our car for a change. We left Houston early and spent the morning in the Texas hill country north of Austin with our main targets being Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Sadly due to the closure of the most reliable Black-capped Vireo spot (and again being about a week or two too early), we missed the bird. We did locate several Golden-cheeked Warblers while walking Shin Oak Trail on Doeskin Ranch in Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. After searching a few other areas for the vireo, we admitted defeat and started on the twenty-hour drive home to Pittsburgh.

Ross and I alternated driving while heading north. As we were driving, Ross again searched Ebird.com and found a location that looked good for Harris’s Sparrow, Oxley Nature Park, in Tulsa, OK. We arrived at the location fifteen minutes before dark and after a few frantic minutes of running down a park trail, we were able to locate a flock of nine Harris’s Sparrows. At the same time, numerous Barred Owls started to call in the woods. Ross does a mean Barred Owl imitation and was able to call them in. (Seriously, if you ask him, I’m sure he would demonstrate!)

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

We got back into our car and continued driving through the night. The next morning, as we were passing St Louis, we stopped at a small park (again found via Ebird) to see Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a species we had seen hundreds of while in Asia, but wanted to stop to see again as these ones are special because this is the only place you can find them in the United States.

After seeing a single tree sparrow, we continued heading east before making our last detour along our trip home. This time we stopped at a prairie burn outside of Indianapolis, a known location for migrating Smith’s Longspurs. The owner of the property, Clint, was out in the fields and assisted us in locating several hundred Smith’s Longspurs. We got back on the road shortly after and the remainder of the day was spent in our trusted Subaru Forester.

We arrived safely in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 1 and have been running around like crazy people ever since. Yesterday being Easter was a great day to slow down and spend time celebrating the resurrection of our Savior with family.

Of course we went birding a few times since being home, picking up several trip birds with PA highlights including a displaying male American Woodcock.

Today we decided to take a trip down to Charlottesville, VA to see the condo that we officially closed on while we were traveling. After driving 11 total hours to and from Charlottesville, we officially have nothing else on our agenda other than buckling down to finish planning some last minute trip details for our upcoming trip to South America.

We leave Friday, April 10 for our next adventure! First we are headed to Tierra Del Fuego in Southern Chile and then off to Boliva, Peru, and Ecuador! I will keep you posted on our travels as best as I can.

Until then, au revoir!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher