Spring in South Texas Apr 01—10, 2017
Posted by Barry Zimmer
We reached the Norias Division of the King Ranch at dawn and quickly headed to the colony for a quick bathroom break before our birding began in earnest. We were laser focused on our four targets for the day (Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Tropical Parula, and Audubon’s Oriole), and wanted to get to the appropriate areas for those birds as quickly as possible. Stepping out of the vans by the bathroom, it was hard not to be distracted. A Tropical Kingbird sang from a treetop to the left, while its nearly identical cousin, the Couch’s Kingbird, sat up to the right. A Brown-crested Flycatcher joined the Tropical Kingbird in the bare tree, as did a brilliant Hooded Oriole. Our ranch guide told us of a Barn Owl roosting in an old building just around the corner, so we detoured for that. After seeing the owl in the scope, we attempted to load up the vans when two Green Jays arrived noisily and demanded our attention. You can’t really pass up your first Green Jays without taking a glance! Finally, we tore ourselves away from the bird activity around the colony and headed south toward the extensive oak forests near the Tate Mill.
After a short fifteen-minute ride, we arrived at the Caldera Camp. It was almost 8 AM. I began whistling pygmy-owl calls and within minutes had a brief, though somewhat subdued response to our right. A dense thicket of mesquites did not provide a very good spot for searching for this tiny owl, but we had lots of eyes looking. The owl went completely silent, but as we searched, a noisy Great Kiskadee flew into the oaks over our heads. The soft flute-like notes of an Audubon’s Oriole drifted through the trees not far away, but we remained focused on finding the owl, our primary target and a species we had no chance to find elsewhere. Once again the owl called briefly from the same area, but eluded detection. I thought briefly about pursuing the oriole, but instead decided to change my location by ten feet and search the thicket again. The slight change in angle provided a somewhat different perspective, and now I saw a fairly obscure brownish lump amid the green leaves of the mesquite—the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl! We quickly got scopes on the bird and enjoyed great, prolonged studies.
Eventually the pull of the oriole called us, and we bid adieu to the pygmy-owl. After some brief playback, two orioles flew in right overhead—one an adult Audubon’s and the other a hybrid Audubon’s x Altamira. This hybrid combo is quite rare, but has been documented on a few occasions in South Texas before. The Audubon’s Oriole is a notoriously shy bird, so our views of this individual were exceptional. After a brief celebration and high fives, we loaded up the van and headed to the Tate Mill just a couple of miles away. En route, we stopped once more at a spot where Jim, our local guide, had recently heard a tyrannulet. Within minutes of exiting the vans, we had a tyrannulet uncharacteristically perched in bare branches right next to the road. Three targets down, one to go! Down the road a few hundred yards, the Tate Mill did not disappoint. A male Summer Tanager sat up in the open, as did a couple of Hooded Orioles and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Suddenly, from the Spanish Moss-laden oaks, the buzzy, rising trill of a Tropical Parula could be heard. After a few tense moments of searching, we had the stunning male no more than twenty feet away. I looked at my watch. It was only 8:47 AM and we had already seen all of the King Ranch targets and more! What an amazing start to the day!