The Visitor Center and Sabal Palms, Sabal Palm Sanctuary


October 13, 2015, morning -- Brownsville  and Sabal Palm Sanctuary

    This was a change in my plans.  I cut off a day at Mustang Island to give me an extra day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.   I thought about going to Laguna Acosta NWR and the World Birding Center at San Padre Island because those were really productive for me on my last visit.  But then I thought that I probably would be mostly repeating birds that I've already seen a lot.   Instead I wanted to try Brownsville.  Okay, I admit it.  I wanted to see the parrots.  Does that make me such a bad person?

    I had my tent down, oatmeal and coffee cooked and consumed, shower taken, and car packed an hour before daylight.  I had been listening to mostly Drop Kick Murphies and Ting Tings in the car, which kept me pepped up.  For this ride I switched to first a play list with Neil Young and others, then did a play list of Emmylou Harris doing country songs in the style before "country became cool".   That felt right for cruising down through the last hundred miles of the Texas coast.

    I got to Sabal Palm Sanctuary by 9:30 and the effort paid off.  The Visitors Center is the former mansion of a man who preserved the last of the Sabal Palms in this region.  These are beautiful and classic trees.  I may have just arrived at a good time, but isn't that what happens on a treasure hunt?  Around the Visitor Center were a few Green Jays.  At the feeding station along the first trail, their were lots of Green Jays.  When the jays moved off the feeder, Black-crested Nuthatches darted in.  Sometimes big White-tipped Doves joined the jays.  Around the feeders, a lot of Olive Sparrows were in the bushes.  Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were numerous.  All these birds are resident in this tiny section of Texas and not otherwise found in the U. S.


White-tipped Dove Bogarting the seed, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


    I left the feeders and went down a path where I saw more jays and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.   This bird looks similar to the common Red-bellied Woodpecker that we have in the eastern US.


Gold-fronted Woodpecker, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


 The path led to a deck that is outfitted as a bird blind and gives a view on three sides of a marshy lake.  I took some pictures of Great Kiskadees.  These Robin-sized birds are really beautiful with bright yellow breasts and white and black streaks on their faces and a bright yellow streak across the top of their heads.  Their behavior is outrageous, almost as bossy and dominating and noisy as the Green Jays.  I was joined by a really experienced birder, a young man named Gus.  We shared the blind for at least an hour and had a great time working together to find birds.   Gus is an expert on the birds in the region, the plants and animals as well, and birding in general.  Here's the list of what we saw at the bird blind:  Green Kingfisher (Mike saw this one on the previous visit while I was taking a picture of a Grackle.  Now I've seen it too.), Green Heron, Great Kiskadee, Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Cooper's Hawk, Green Jay,  Couch's Kingbird, and Eastern Phoebe.


Great Kiskadee, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


Green Kingfisher, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


    Gus offered to let me accompany him around the sanctuary on his normal walk.   On the walk, we saw Northern Parula, White-eyed Vireo, Black and White Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Wilson's Warbler. Louisiana Water Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Plain Chachalaca.  Gus showed me a Verdin nest hanging over the path.  This is a little tiny bird that builds a softball-sized hanging nest with a small hole in the side.  He also pointed out Brasil berries on a bush and got me to eat one.  They are small and have a seed, so not a good berry for humans.  They do taste pretty good and Gus says that the local birds love them. 

    In many of the spots that I've visited, I've come across resident birders who have taken over an informal stewardship of that spot.  They go there a lot and do their best to take care of it.  Gus is obviously one of the stewards of this Bird Sanctuary.  In addition to sharing his rounds (his term) and some photography tips (get rid of the camera sounds on focusing and shutter click; use auto tracking to keep focus on the subject and then compose the shot), he gave me a point of view that I've been kicking around for a few days.  He said, "I take what I've been given".  We were talking about whether to chase after a photo of a difficult warbler tucked into the bushes.  In that context, the meaning is to let those ridiculous shots go and be ready when a bird sits up nicely in the open and sings his heart out.   I think Gus was meaning the phrase in a larger sense.   As you go through your day and your life, enjoy what you've been given.   Think how much more fun that is than going through your life thinking about this things that you haven't been given.

    Driving back to the hotel, I saw some unusual ducks and took their pictures, probably hybrid Mallards.  But I'll take what I'm being given.  Then I saw some small crow-like birds -- could I be getting Chihuahuan Ravens?  Nope.  They were grackles.  But hoy!!  The ducks were Muscovy Ducks.  That's a life bird for me.  Okay.  I'll take it.


October 13, 2015, evening -- Parrots at Oliveira Park

    This little park was only ten minutes from my hotel and apparently is the spot to see four different kinds of parrots.  I got there really early and hung around the park waiting for the birds.  This is right across the street from a school and every inch of the park was in use for after school sports.  It didn't matter.  The kids and parents assured me that the parrots would come.  A skateboarder told me which tree the parrots really swarm in and asked me if I had ever seen the Aztec bird, a huge mythical magic bird.  Skateboarders.  You got to love them.  When the parrots arrived  a half hour before dark, they made a dramatic entrance.  Flocks would fly in squawking, circle a few times, land, rise up together, and land somewhere else.  As more and more parrots came in, it got really, really loud.  This is their daily big social bonding event.  They were having a ball.  All around this racket, the kids were playing soccer.  The coaches were yelling instructions.  The parents were shouting out encouragement.  The human groups and the human groups were so involved in their own interactions that neither bothered the other, except for needing to be even louder to overcome the noise of the other groups.  I was standing on the very edge of a little kids soccer game, taking pictures of parrots in the tree directly above me and maybe twenty feet away.   The humans and parrots gave me my little space and pursued their games with abandon.

   The most numerous birds were Red-crowned Parrots, and there were also Red-lored Parrots present.  I didn't see the other kinds that were supposed to be there, the Yellow-headed and Orange-winged.  I was taking these pics in near darkness, so I'm pleased that they show any color at all.  The very poor light is why there are so fuzzy.



Red-crowned Parrots (blue patch on head), Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015



Red-lored Parrots (yellow patch on cheek), Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


October 14, 2015, morning-- Resaca de la Palma State Park

    I really enjoyed visiting this gem of a park.  I saw an average number of birds and several really good ones.  But what made the park fun was the way it is set up and the people who are running it.

    They have a shuttle that runs around a large loop that takes visitors to the trailheads.   Several trails were closed and one of the likely good spots was about a three mile walk away.  The very knowledgeable person at the front desk, told me that if I got out there and was too tired to walk back, call her.  She would send the shuttle out to get me.   I was ready to go at eight and the shuttle wouldn't be starting until 8:30.  So I started walking to the first trailhead.  That turned out to be a good move.

    On the trail away from the Visitors Center, I saw Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Great Kiskadee, Couch's Kingbird (another beautiful bird, with a paler yellow breast than the Kiskadee), Green Jays, Mockingbirds, Olive Sparrows, and an assortment of the resident doves.  The trail leads up to the resaca, which is another name for an oxbow lake.  That kind of lake forms when a river bends really far out and a new straighter channel forms, cutting the loop off as a small lake.  In the water, I found Least Grebe, Pied-billed grebe, and ducks, while in a tree over looking the lake was an Anhinga (snakebird).  In terms of activity, this was the most productive part of the visit.


Gold-fronted Woodpecker, Resaca de la Palma State Park, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


    The trails in the first section of the park pretty much just repeated what I already saw (with the addition of a Green Kingfisher), so I decided to take the Hunter's Trail hike out to the farther site that goes along the Rio Grande.  More water, probably more birds.  I wasn't even to the trailhead and I was thinking about whether I would have time to walk back.  Then a pickup truck came up behind me and I flagged it down.  The driver was one of the workers at the refuge and I bummed a ride from him.  He told me that when I stopped him, he thought I was a border agent.  An agent was in the area looking for somebody.  I asked if the area was safe.  He said yes, but only in the daytime.  Interesting.   He left me off on the park road and headed up a dirt road.  I continued on up the park road looking for my trail head and had a brief glimpse of an oriole.  After ten minutes walk on the road, I figured out that the truck had headed up the exact trail that I was looking for.  Bad luck.  I could have gotten a ride all the way to the birding site and then all the way back to the Visitor Center.   Halfway up the trail, I found out that I was having good luck.

    I saw what looked like an Osprey perched atop a dead tree -- eagle-sized and white in front.  I stopped short (like George Castanza's father in Seinfeld -- if you didn't see that episode, no problem.  The point is that I stopped quickly and drew the attention of the bird.)  The bird flew.  He was close enough that I could clearly see his tail with my naked eye.  It was long and split, like a swallow.  I had heard about this kind of bird, but never seen one before.  I got off a few quick shots while he was flying.  In those, you can clearly see that it is a kite, not an osprey.  You can't see the split tail, so the only evidence on that is my observation.  Other possibilities are Mississippi Kite and White-tailed Kite, but I think the most likely call is the one that I made.  Later I confirmed with one of the rangers that Swallow-tailed Kites have been found in the region, but not recently on this site.  So it was a big deal and I showed the pictures to the rangers at the center so that they could update the sighting board.  But the photo is much more indicative of White-tailed Kite and on enhancing the image with the editor, dark wrist spots became visible, which indicates juvenile White-tailed Kite.

   The end of Hunter's Trail was okay.  There is a small pond that had Coots and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  On the way back, I checked for the Kite again.   Gone.  When I got to the park road, I immediately called the Visitors Center and asked for the shuttle.  A different ranger said that they don't usually just send it out, but because no one was waiting, they would come and get me right away.  While I was waiting, I got an excellent picture of a female Cooper's Hawk and saw a Chachalaca.  The driver of the shuttle turned out to be an expert birder and a really fine person.  His name is Albert.   He took his time on the ride back and rustled up some interesting birds.  We saw a family of Least Grebes way out in the middle of the water.  These tiny grebes with strange staring eyes are only found in the extreme southern part of Texas.  The babies must have just been born and were probably only about a couple of inches long.  We talked about career paths (his is really interesting) and park ranger sounds like an excellent job to me.  We saw a few warblers, including a Wilson's and a possible Tropical Parula.  Also we watched a juvenile Black-capped Night Heron stand on a log.  Albert laughed.  "He thinks that we don't see him."   Albert, if you ever read this, thanks for the ride and the conversation.  Resaca de la Palma is very lucky to have you.  Of course, they know it.



 baby Least Grebes and parents, Resaca de la Palma State Park, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015



 White-tailed Kite, Resaca de la Palma State Park, Brownsville, Texas, October, 2015


October 14, 2015, afternoon and evening--  Estero Llano Grande State Park

    This is the park that is sited as one of the best (or the best) birding spots in the RGV (Rio Grande Valley for us regulars).  That was definitely true for me the first time that I was in the RGV.  The reason is most likely because this park has more water.  I had good luck here, but not as amazing as I expected.  Of course, that's partly due to being here early in the fall, rather than in spring, late fall, or winter.  My so-so results were also due in large part to time of day.

    I didn't get to the park until about 1 PM.  It was in the high 90's for temperature and very humid.  Some birds were still active though.  A group of Plain Chachalaca meandered across my path and one of them posed for pictures.  These are one of the signature birds for the region - chicken-sized, kind of behaving like a chicken, only found in this tiny area in the U. S,, with a very distinctive look.  I think even the most hard-cored, experienced birder must enjoy seeing these unusual birds.  At the observation deck of the Visitors Center, along with some lethargic Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and Coots, were two very busy Snipe.  They were on the edge of the long grass, in mud where last time I was here, there was water.  They were so busy eating that they kept there long distinct bills buried in the mud.  The sharpest pics were ones where you can't see the bills.  I think I'll show one of the pics where the pics where the Snipe came up briefly to look around.  Even though it isn't as sharply focused, you can see the cool bill.  When I walked the trails, I got so hot that I had to leave around 3:00.  I cooled down in the hotel and came back around 6:00 to try again in the evening.  I focused on looking at the White-winged Doves and Inca Doves.  I also made it out to the spot where Paroques are nesting, but didn't see the birds.

    Additionally I saw lots of White-winged Doves, a Green Kingfisher, Green Jays, and Coots.  


This Green Jay thinks he is suitable for framing at the bird blind, Estero Llano Grande State Park, October, 2015


Plain Chachalaca, Estero Llano Grande State Park, October, 2015


Snipe, Estero Llano Grande State Park, October, 2015



October 15, 2015, morning-- Santa Ana NWR

   This is one of our country's special places. It is a long time beacon for birder's, drawing them from all over the country and the world.  It is the most widely known of the Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife refuges.  For me, and probably for many other birders, it is synonymous with the Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, and the Plain Chachalaca.  Of course I was looking forward to returning here and was very pleased to be able to schedule the visit on my birthday.

    My family and my Aunt Jeanne all called to send me birthday greetings and thanks again for that.  Michele and Tom (sister and brother-in-law) sent me some great books and I am looking forward to reading them as soon as I get back home.  They have a very good sense on what is helpful for me to read next.  Also thanks to Chris, Kathryn, and Rachel for taking me out in September to the St. Anthony's Polish Festival in Wilmington for beers and polkas.

    As I was pulling into the Santa Ana parking lot, Kathryn called me.  We chatted about stuff for a bit and she commented that she was keeping up with me electronically for the last two weeks by reading this journal.  That gave me an idea that I ran by her -- electronic dad.  I could make updates to a journal ahead of time and have the entries post automatically according to their dates.  Suppose that I wrote fifty years worth of journal entries.  It would be like the Mr. Rogers show ("Won't you be my neighbor?") still airing brand new episodes ten years after the star had died.  With luck, my potential future great grand kids could have an electronic great grandfather!  Actually this sounded a lot better to me when I first thought of it.  Now I have to admit it is kind of stupid, which is a problem for me.  I was counting on this being the really smart thing that I said on my special occasion.  You know how you go to write something on a card and you think about it really hard and then end up writing "Congrats!".  That's where I'm at now.   I'm going to have to go another whole year before I get to write something venerable and wise on my birthday.  I hope I do better next time

    The refuge was pretty dry, even drier than last time that I was here.  Some of the lakes are lower than usual and one large resaca is currently a marsh.  The refuge is doing renovations on its dikes to provide more water habitat in the coming years.  I didn't feel like I was seeing a lot of birds, but when I reviewed the day, I found that I hadn't done too badly.  Also I walked every trail in one long morning that Mike and I had birded in two separate days.  I got two nice life birds, a Vermillion Flycatcher and a Harris's Hawk.  I took a sloppy pic of the flycatcher, thinking that the reddish bird was a Cardinal.  When I saw it was something different, it was too late - the bird had flown.  Although both pictures are not good enough to show, they were good enough to use to make definite ids.  I also saw Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Couch's Kingbirds, Marsh Wrens, families of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and families of Coots.  That's actually a decent list for a slow day.  Two super-experienced birders included me in their hunt for the reappearance of a possible rare Black Rail.  We were looking in the same spot that a rare Jacaranda had been spotted and photographed.  That bird didn't show at all.

    The bird count wasn't what made the day special for me.  It was remembering each spot on the trails where Mike and I had seen something special together -- Kingbirds in one grove, Whistling Ducks in the same pool as eighteen months ago, the spot on the trail where we saw the big snake, the tower where we saw woodpeckers, the Swainson's hawks outside the park, Chachalaca in the parking lot.  I had been so pumped up on my first visit that now I remember that visit like it just happened.  That had to be one of the most exciting birding days for me that I've had so far.  Re-walking every trail today brought back that memory.  It was a fine birthday present.



Couch's Kingbird, Santa Ana NWR, October, 2015




October 16, 2015-- the route FM 624 birding trail

    From San Juan, Texas to Marathon, Texas is 519 miles.  I had already driven about that far in Texas to get to San Juan and would be driving almost that far to leave Texas on its northwest corner.  It is a really, really big state.  I got a good night sleep in a well-staked down tent, a hearty oat meal breakfast, and an early start.  I was doing well on time until I went through a border security checkpoint which for some reason caused my Google Maps program to drop out.  I had been getting constant reminders on where to turn, but had no idea that the reminders were turned off.  So I drove way past my turnoff. 

    Fortunately, I had been keeping track of about how far each next turn was, so I caught the mistake after about ten minutes.  When I turned the program back on, Google Maps rerouted me onto Farm to Market 624 with only about nine minutes lost.  I figured, what the heck.  It would be fun driving down a more local highway and seeing a different slice of the state.  After I saw my fourth Caracara (Mexican Eagle), I pulled over and set up my camera.

    Slowing down from 75 to 55 mph, I immediately spotted a coyote and snapped his picture.  Some of the Caracara that I saw flew off as if they had been hunted and thought my camera was a gun.  Others just sat on the telephone pole or fence post perches and stared me down.  I kept a tally of how many eagles I saw by making marks in my notebook as I drove.  There were thirty-one.  I also started to see Harris's Hawks, which I knew pretty well from studying them the day before.  There were eight of them.  I didn't get their photos, but I also saw my first two Roadrunners.  Yeah!!



Caracara (Mexican Eagle), FM 624, Texas, October, 2015



Harris Hawk, FM 624, Texas, October, 2015


No particular date --  more about how memory works

    At the motel in Brownsville, I watched a really good PBS show called "The Brain".  It was hosted by David Eagleman.   It was a very good presentation on how we sense reality, what we leave out, and how this combination not only shapes our reality, but by definition is our reality.  This isn't metaphysics or philosophy.  It is straight up Neuroscience, backed by measurements and experimentation.

    A surprising statement that Eagleman made is that color does not exist in nature.  It's existence is totally a fabrication that exists in the brains of humans, and in brains of creatures that operate similarly with respect to color.  The point is that there are all kinds of electromagnetic rays bouncing about in the space we call space.  Our eyes are sensitive to only a very tiny portion of the entire electromagnetic spectrum.  The eyes gather input about those rays and send the input to the brain where a tiny portion of that is selected and patterns are identified.  The interpretation of the input as "colors" is something that happens in the brain.  This idea sets the table for a discussion about how we sense time.

    Eagleman gives examples about how in a very high pressure, life threatening event, the brain seems to speed up.  I expect most people have had a few of these episodes.  I remember once, while I was driving on a country road as a teenager, a lady and a baby suddenly appeared along the road.  I swerved to avoid them, into the path of an incoming car.  I clearly remember thinking, "I'm dead".  Then I remember thinking, "Maybe not", and yanked the wheel back the other way.  Then I got the wildly swerving and tire squealing car under control.  I drove on, thinking that my brain had been working super fast to do all that in a fraction of a second.

    Eagleman designed an experiment to find out if we really do "speed up" in a high pressure situation.  He had test subjects look at a display that was spinning out numbers clearly, but too fast for our eyes to interpret the input.  Then he had them look at the same display while plummeting to earth in a free-fall amusement park ride, simulating the threatening and frightening experience of true danger.  No enhanced ability to read the display could be detected.

    So the experiment shows that we don't actually speed up in our ability to sense information.  The alternate theory is that the brain opens up "more power" to the memory processing region to handle a greater portion of the input that it habitually receives.  That allows for better and quicker decision making.  Then afterwards, when the individual reviews a memory of the event, the massive amount of input that is contained in the memory makes it seem that it is "much longer" than a normal memory.  The memory seems to be longer because of its size compared to a normal memory.  It feels longer.  Intellectually we know that the actual event was very short, so we interpret that as working faster.

    Thinking about our brains working in this manner is useful.  It helps to realize how little of the environment around us is available to our senses.  Another idea is that what we sense is put together in our brains to create a useful picture that we call reality.  Our realities are completely an individual mental construct.  Another point is that different creatures sense in different ways (blind bats with echolocation, blind and deaf insects that bite you who have super sensitivity to heat and temperature).  What is their construction of reality like?   They appear to be self-aware and react in complex ways.  So they must build a complex view of the world they sense -- their reality.  It has to be very different from the realities that humans build.