Background Switcher (Hidden)

Amusement Park for Birdwatchers: So. Padre Island, TX

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

We're walking the South Padre Island boardwalk in Texas. It's like an amusement park for birdwatchers. We're looking at the expected (great egret, little blue heron) when Phoebe stops dead with a "Mamamamalooklooklook what's this?"

Well, that's a least bittern. A bird I've seen in glimpses, heard cooing in Connecticut wild rice and North Dakota cattails, but never ogled for long.


Learning later that this little character is well-known along this boardwalk did nothing to lessen the thrill of having our daughter point us to the best least bittern of our lives.

He gave us every possible spraddled pose; he lengthened from little Nerf football to javelin.

He dove out of the frame (check that leg anatomy, folks, that's a lean little drumstick there with the feathers on it, and a pretty good thigh)

and came up with fishies

and then he flew under the boardwalk (just try not to hum THAT now)

and I cussed missing the shot because he wears a coat of many colors and he looked like a Promethea moth in flight. Don't miss his tiny black tail here. Yes, we fell in love.

We will come back to him because we caught up with him on the other side and banged away at him for the better part of an hour. It was so much fun.

Sure, you see more great egrets in a lifetime than you do least bitterns, but they are so saurian, so fine, and they croak in the most splendid way when they fly.

Awwwwk! Rawwwwwk! Raaawwwwk! The voice of the velociraptor is heard upon the land.

The vinaceous plum neck of the little blue heron enchants me.

As you can see, the South Padre boardwalks associated with both the Convention Center and the World Birding Center (both of which centers were closed this fine Sunday afternoon) afford terrific photographic and birdwatching opportunities. The boardwalks remain accessible 24-7. Heavenly!

Coming here was a huge delight for us. We met up with Ohio friends and birded the daylights out of that marsh. 

 The wind was ripping along at a sustained 30 mph with gusts that tottered the Science Chimp. Yet there were birds absolutely everywhere. I could only imagine what we'd have seen had it been still.

Below us, mystery big-eyed suckers. Still waiting for that Sibley Guide to Fishes of North America (that was a joke, David...) I have had to call in my beloved Floridacracker to help with ID. For your amusement, our correspondence:

Zick to Floridacracker:
I come, hat in hand, to ask for a fish ID. South Padre Is. TX, mid-Nov., swimming in small schools in very shallow brackish marsh off the Convention Center boardwalk. Mouth downturned, suckerlike, pectoral fins oddly upward-pointing. This was not a momentary accident. They swam with their arms up. Maxed out at about 14". Very large eye. I wanted to call them bigeye suckers, but I know nothing about fish, so I stood there flapping my arms. Audubon Guide has failed me. Need the Sibley Guide to Fish of North America.

Floridacracker to Zick: Hey Zick! THAT is the real "chicken of the sea", a mullet. Historically, a fish of life saving abundance for early Florida colonists and settlers. Vital through every step in the foodweb, they are forage fish from the moment they are spawned...every predator in the sea loves mullet.
They are grazers and algae slurpers.Also... they are birds,  not fish. Years ago two poachers,who were caught redhanded with an illegal amount of mullet, argued in court that since mullet had a gizzard (they do) ... well they must be birds.
I believe they won their case.
Fried mullet gizzards are pretty yummy.

Thanks for sending me a fish I know.

(That was characteristic FC modesty and tall-tale embroidery at work there)

Zick to Floridacracker: HEY FC!
You're such a prince, handling my fragile Science Chimp ego with kid gloves. Mullet crossed my mind because I had seen them jumping in the brackish mangrove shallows at Ding Darling, but I couldn't imagine that a mullet had such big goopy eyes and flying fish fins. I realize that, for you, this is equivalent to someone sending me a picture of a pileated woodpecker and asking what on earth this strange creature might be. Marine life humbles me. So thank you for being gentle. 

If you have never experienced Floridacracker's blog, PureFlorida, you have an amazing treat in store. I know many of my regular readers robinandrea are enraptured, but there are always those who haven't been exposed to his steady drip of subtropical natural history, cookery, humor, Labrador cuteness, underwater merman escapades, teacher tales, home renovation, and mudwallering ironman derring-do. And their lives are poorer for it.

And overhead as I mull over what turned out to be mullet, royal terns cutting fleurs-de-lis in the sky. This year's babies are full-grown but still wheedling their folks for fish. Mmm-hmmm. Probably money, too.


Very glad you included photo of mullet, because if one does a google image search on mullet, the results are highly entertaining but not very helpful with fish ID.

Years back, birding that boardwalk with friends, we also had amazingly powerful encounter with a least bittern - caused us to gasp, cover our mouths, and reel backwards against the rail. Least Bitterns!
weezie in Texas

Posted by Anonymous November 27, 2012 at 6:10 AM

The whole of south Texas is such a wonderful spot for birdwatchers. I seldom get to South Padre Island but really enjoy the Padre Island National Seashore. After working in the northwest, I can really appreciate all the bird species and numbers we have in Texas.

And least bitterns are among my favorite birds.

Thanks for a beautiful post.

Blushing like a school girl here.
I count getting to know THE ZICK as the coolest thing that blogging has provided.

Thank you for the kind words.
The saltmarsh is my favorite habitat on the planet, and for once, OURS is bigger than Texas's.

Congrats on the least bittern shots. I had a close photo encounter with one in Savannah National Wildlife Refuge back in my Kodachrome days.

We visited there last Thanksgiving and loved every minute on the Boardwalk. I'm going to have to review all the photos I took to see if I have a least bittern!

I found the Pure Florida blog a few years ago (probably thanks to you) and love it. I would love to meet FC. Science teachers rock!

Posted by Anonymous November 27, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Love seeing these birds, the ones who like to hang out by the water. Makes me miss the coast so much.

Yes, I'm a big FC fan!

Still waiting to see my first bittern, American or Least, up close and personal. That has been a goal since reading an article about them screaming when encountered hidden in cattail marsh. Guess I'll have to head on down to Padre boardwalk.

Glad you got to scope out my old home-haunts, though I have NEVER seen a Least Bittern down there! I'm jealous!

[Back to Top]