Editor’s Note: As we gear up for this year’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I pulled out this oldie-but-goodie that originally appeared on my personal blog in 2010. It captures many of the delights of birding Old Port Isabel Road in southeastern Texas.
Just a few weeks ago, my friend Sally and I drove north on a dusty road in southeast Texas. The road was straight as an arrow, piercing the horizon as it sliced through remnants of sweeping coastal prairie.
Old Port Isabel Road’s claim to fame is its raptors, and our target was Aplomado Falcon. Aplomado Falcons are significant in the southwest because they were extirpated from the region long ago, and placed on the endangered species list in 1976. An intensive reintroduction program has put them back on the map, yet sightings and nesting activity are uncommon enough to remain special. I was eager to make up for last year’s dip on the bird during the last Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, so Sally and I accepted a local expert’s advice to drive up Old Port Isabel Road in search of the falcon.
The day wound up being a raptor-ous morning where, in the space of just a few hours, we’d see the Aplomado Falcon and eight other predatory species along this one lonesome but precious dirt road.
From Harlingen, we headed east toward the Gulf on Rt. 100 on our way to Old Port Isabel Road (that’s what locals call it, but Google Maps calls it Buena Vista Road). Not long before the turn, we spotted the chunky orange bill and white undertail of a Crested Caracara in flight. Fantastic bird, and a great warm up for the day ahead!
We hung left onto the dirt road and bam! We immediately saw not one, but TWO Aplomado Falcons perched in a bare-limbed tree. The birds seemed to be associating with a stick-built nest in the tree’s upper quadrant. Aplomado pairs remain together year round and hunt cooperatively. They typically nest from March to June, and do so by taking over the nests of other raptors or corvids. Whether or not this was their nest from earlier in the season, we couldn’t be sure. But I am willing to be some local birder knows very well.
The birds were tolerant of our presence, yet we did not approach too close. I pointed my zoom lens out the window and snapped photos like mad. The birds were animated during the minutes we observed them—moving from branch to branch, making short flights, and flapping their wings. In the photo above, I captured one returning to its perch after a brief sojourn. Look at that tail spread! A band on the left leg of one of the birds shows that this bird was tagged as part of the restoration program.
Further up the road, we saw my first Harris’s Hawk, then a second, and a third. We watched as these chunky black hawks – probably members of cooperative hunting group – surveyed their territory from utility wires. The late morning sun glistened off their backs and rustled their red shoulder feathers.
An Osprey appeared soon after, along with two or three more. Then the white rump of a Northern Harrier appeared – the bird skirted close to the ground in search of prey then banked left and disappeared. A Red-shouldered Hawk made an appearance.
We drove a little further. In the distance we saw two white birds sitting on a tree – White-tailed Hawks. Then, hovering above us – two White-tailed Kites! The white head, red eyes, and black-as-night shoulders on this kite are intimidating enough to thrill.
As we drove north on Port Isabel Road, a few smaller predators entered the mix: American Kestrels and Loggerhead Shrikes. Finally, adding a dash of spice to an already hot meal, a bevy of Northern Bobwhite crossed the road like fussy old women and a Couch’s Kingbird sang from the wire. Thank goodness for the latter, because voice is the only way we avoided going home with a lousy “Kingbird sp.” on our lists (Couch’s Kingbirds are nearly identical to Tropical Kingbirds and are best differentiated by voice).
Thanks to the birds, the local’s advice, and Sally’s companionship, this was easily one of my most memorable birding experiences. I happily related tales of the day to any festival attendee who would listen. How great it was to encounter so many raptor species in one small area.
But that is the Rio Grande Valley for you – chock full of great birds and great places to explore, and the perfect place to be in early winter when birds are scarce but cold is plenty up north. Check out details for this year’s festival in mid-November.
As luck would have it, on my return from Texas the airlines would lose the bag that contained my birding trip list. While my checklist is now gone, nothing will take away these memories.