Sunday, March 29, 2009


For those of you following the progress of our cat Zeke, I am sad to say the news is not good. I will be helping him die peacefully in a couple of hours. If you would like to read his obituary, I went ahead and wrote it up. It is in the blogpost below this one.
Now, to the story about our vacation:

Mrs. Snave and I like to take a birding vacation every few years. The last one was in June of 07 to SE Arizona. A few years prior to that, we found a way to worm some birding and exploring into a family vacation to Florida. This time it was a trip to south Texas!

We left La Grande on Thursday. We drove to Portland that evening and stayed at a Red Lion Inn. It was a nice place, but we had to get up about 4:00 a.m. to catch our plane to Dallas at 6:00 a.m. on Friday the 21st.

At Dallas we took a connecting flight to San Antonio. We were there just long enough to get our rental car from Hertz (a Ford Escape) and drove west into the Texas Hill Country. We took Highway 16 and then some backroads.

Our dinner stop was at the Lost Maples Cafe in Utopia. We had a lot of good meals on our trip, but we agreed this was the best. That was some of the best catfish and coleslaw I have eaten!
"Downtown" Utopia.

Here was an interesting storefront in Utopia. I didn't really have much inclination to go inside...

That night we stayed at Leakey Springs Cabins. This was a very nice place. Quiet, near a very pretty spring. The name is pronounced "Lakey".
Here are a couple of pictures of the spring taken on Saturday morning.

We spent the morning looking around the Leakey area. Along Highway 1120 and near our cabin we saw Turkey Vulture, Northern Cardinal, Mockingbird, Black-Chinned Hummingbird, Bewick's Wren, Cedar Waxwing, White-Winged Dove, Eastern Bluebird, wild turkeys, Golden-Fronted Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Wood Pewee, Purple Martin and Black Vulture.

Air plants are everywhere in this part of the state. We kept looking at trees and thinking we were seeing birds or nests, but it was just air plants!

We went for a hike at Lost Maples State Natural Area. A beautiful place! We saw some good birds here. Our favorite was a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher which was curious about us and got within ten feet of us near a pond. We also saw Tufted Titmouse, Chipping Sparrow, House Finch, Cardinals... Here are a couple of shots from the hike.

This is a view of Texas Hill Country from a ridgetop near Vanderpool. From this area we drove to San Antonio to spend the night.

In San Antonio we stayed at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio. Here are a couple of views from our room, which was on the 19th floor.

We tried to muscle our way through the crowds along the city's reknowned "Riverwalk" but ended up getting out of there. It was the last weekend of Spring Break for a lot of people, so I'm guessing the crowd was thick due to that.

REMEMBER IT! The Alamo, that is...
We had a bite to eat at Schilo's Deli near the Riverwalk before hitting the hay.

From San Antonio we drove east to Beeville (we saw our first Crested Caracara on the outskirts of town) and Refugio (saw our first Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher near there) and on to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge:

This was my most favorite sign I saw on the entire trip.
The Aransas refuge, home to Whooping Cranes and many other birds and wildlife, is in a drought. There was not much water there, but we did manage to see Great Egret, Blue-Winged Teal, Kestrel, Cattle Egret, Tricolored Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Lesser Yellowlegs, wild boars, javelinas, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Harrier, White Ibis, Tree Swallow, raccoons, Common Moorhen, Sora, Belted Kingfisher, Swamp Sparrow, Coot, Anhinga, White-Faced Ibis, and Brown Pelican.

White-Tailed Deer.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge overlook.

I christened this guy BIG BOY.

Mrs. Snave got this nice shot of a Nine-Banded Armadillo!

This was one of the smaller gators we saw at Aransas NWR, and he must have been four or five feet long.

We stayed that night at Fulton at a Best Western.

This morning it was up and at 'em early for the Whooping Crane tour. The boat was scheduled to leave from Fulton Harbor at 9:00 a.m., but we were there at sun-up. Here are some shots of the sunrise, with some birds of course.

A morning gathering at Fulton Harbor.

Brown Pelicans

Laughing Gulls and a Snowy Egret
The Whooping Crane tour with Captain Tommy on The Skimmer was great. We saw Whoopers, and also saw Willet, Forster's Tern, Caspian Tern, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull, Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Double-Crested Cormorant, Neotropic Cormorant, Common Loon, Bufflehead, Reddish Egret, American Oystercatcher, Long-Billed Curlew, Great WHITE Heron, Avocet, and Bottle-Nosed Dolphin.

The Whooping Crane tour on "The Skimmer" with Captain Tommy.
Some Whooping Cranes a ways off... we needed Mrs. Snave's camera to get some better pictures.

As Snave would attest, it was a very windy day.

Getting closer...
... and here we are! Good photo, Mrs. Snave!
We saw a total of 12 Whooping Cranes in five groups. There are only about 240 of these birds left in existence, so that means we saw about 5% of the entire remaining population.
After the tour we went just south of Fulton and Rockport to the town of Aransas Pass, where he ate a good lunch at a Mexican restaurant and then went to look at a heron rookery on a sunken ship. The birds are using the masts in place of trees for their nesting, which they usually do in groups.
We were surprised that we had not seen any starlings yet on our trip, but sure enough we finally did see some at Aransas Pass, on a dumpster (how fitting!)
This horrific monstrosity was somewhere near Port Aransas.
From there we headed south toward the Brownsville/Harlingen area.
Great-Tailed Grackles are ALL OVER in Texas. We loved watching them... they are absolute characters! This was taken at Kenedy County Safety Rest Area heading south from the Corpus Christi area on US 77. We also saw a Ladder-Backed Woodpecker and a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird here too, as well as our first...
Green Jay! What exotic-looking birds they are!
That night we stayed at the Inn at Chachalaca Bend at Los Fresnos. There are plenty of pictures of the place below. We stayed there Monday and Tuesday nights. A great place to stay!
We visited Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and got a few pictures. These first two are by Mrs. Snave:
Crested Caracara

Long-Billed Curlew
We didn't see any ocelots at Laguna Atascosa... they are rarely seen. As I recall, there are supposedly less than 100 of them remaining in this part of Texas. Some of the birds we saw here included Altamira Oriole, Curve-Billed Thrasher, Pied-Billed Grebe, Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Black-Necked Stilt, Common Merganser, Long-Billed Thrasher, Little Blue Heron, Glossy Ibis, Green-Winged Teal, White-Tailed Hawk, Brown-Crested Flycatcher, Cooper's Hawk, and Buff-Bellied hummingbird. We also saw a Mexican Racer Snake and countless lizards!
This is Laguna Madre at Laguna Atascosa NWR.

Lots and lots of wide open country.

Here's a shot of the campus at University of Texas at Brownsville. We went here to see parrots and didn't see any, but we did see a Coopers Hawk on a kill right in the middle of a busy foot-traffic area.

We saw some fun birds at the Inn at Chachalaca Bend. Here are a few:
Muscovy Duck

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck - a beautiful but clownlike species. They have an extra toe, so they can perch on wires and branches. They hang around in large groups, and yes, instead of quacking, they whistle!
Plain Chachalacas

The Inn at Chachalaca Bend
The place is very nicely manicured. Here are a couple of shots of the grounds:
Here are three shots of the downstairs at the Inn.

We stayed in the Green Jay Room. Here are a few pictures of it:


Cemetery Viejo is actually inside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a reknowned spot for birders, and we were there on Wednesday morning.

Someone said this is a fire ant nest. I didn't want to get too much closer... it was in the cemetery.
Here is a leaf-cutter ant trail. I had hoped to see the ants at work, but oh well. I thought their evidence was pretty cool, anyway.

The Rio Grande River at Santa Ana NWR. Wow, that's Mexico on the other side!

This little Texas Spiny Lizard posed for us.

After Santa Ana NWR, we went to nearby Weslaco to a place called the Valley Nature Center. It's a 6-acre area in the middle of town, created as a botanical garden and a place for birds and butterflies.

This is some gnarly-looking stuff. I thought about rolling about in it naked, then decided against that idea.

A cute little anole at the VNC.

After that, we drove to South Padre Island where we spent the night.

This is one of the views from our room at the Isla Grand Resort hotel at South Padre Island. We were there during Spring Break time, so there were lots of kids there partying. I hadn't taken that into consideration when I booked us there. The hotel had a loud pool party for the vacationing kids from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. I had thoughts about heading to the pool and creating a "Caddyshack" moment, but thought better of it.
Another view from our room. The hotel has two parts, a modern high-rise hotel and an old motel built about fifty years ago. We stayed in the old part. We got there to check in at about 5:00 p.m. and there was still someone working on cleaning the room. There was some kind of Army promotion going on during the time we were there. I wonder how many young, inebriated people sign on amidst all the partying?

All in all, we weren't overly impressed with South Padre. We did have a nice dinner there at a place called the Sea Ranch, though. There were lots of nice flowers on our hotel grounds, too... check out this hibiscus:

This is a horrifying roadside attraction between Port Isabel/South Padre and Brownsville. We drove past it after departing the Isla Grand:

This place advertised "Christian Gifts" and the opportunity to enter something like "Captain Bobz' World". Hideous!

At least we saw a Tamaulipaus Crow and a Chihuahuan Raven en route back to Brownsville, which made up for passing by this wonderful bit of Americana.
This is Mont Meta Cemetery near Rio Hondo, TX.
This is a good birding site, but we were there during the middle of the day. I tracked down a Tufted Titmouse, anyway.

Willow Pond at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. We went back that evening to see if we could see any Ringed or Green Kingfishers, but again, no luck on either.

Bee hive at La Quinta Inn at Alamo, TX. We stayed at Alamo on Thursday the 26th.
We spent the morning at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, a very nice place created from land donated by the parents of Lloyd Bentsen. From what I understand, it used to be a crowded kind of place with campers/RVs/etc. but has now been toned down to a quiet place without those things and with lots of hiking and bike paths.
Neotropic cormorant at Bentsen State Park.

Javelina at Bentsen Park.

A cute l'il frog at Bentsen.
We also saw a Ringed Kingfisher at Bentsen, as well as a Gray Hawk and a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (that is one of my favorite bird names of all time!)
After the morning birding, we headed north via some small towns like Hebbronville, Freer and Tilden along Texas highway 16. Along the way we saw more Crested Caracara and numerous Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers, along with some Scaled Quail near Guerro and a Greater Roadrunner near Freer. That night we stayed at a Hampton Inn near San Antonio Airport.

A long day. We caught a 6:00 a.m. flight from S.A. to Dallas, and it arrived late enough that we barely had time to catch our connecting flight to Portland. Once in Portland by 11:45 Pacific time, we learned that while we had barely made the plane in Dallas, our luggage had not! So, American Airlines was good enough to give us a meal voucher for lunch and we hung around Portland International until about 2:30.

We got back to La Grande around 7:30 p.m., and found our cat Zeke not doing well at all. This has of course tempered our enthusiasm about our trip.
But it was a great trip. The people we met were all friendly and courteous. There was a bit too much religion in Texas for my tastes, but it didn't seem totally overpowering. The weather was good for the most part... we don't do "hot and muggy" very well, and the lower Rio Grande Valley was very much hot and humid. But hey, it sure beat the 30s and 40s and snow we are still having in NE Oregon! No April Fool: we had snow on the ground this Wednesday morning!
There is no such bird as the Green Kingfisher. This species was created when someone realized there was someone from NE Oregon who loves kingfishers, and the people who made up this species realized they could get this NE Oregonian and his wife to travel great distances and spend money in places like SE Arizona and south Texas in vain attempts to see the bird. This bird DOES NOT EXIST. However, SE Arizona and south TX are still great places to visit, and there are lots of other REAL bird species in both places!!! 8-)> And for that matter, Painted Bunting does not exist either.