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Estero Lllano Grande: A Feast for the Eyes

Thursday, November 15, 2012

 Blue-winged teal, drake in flight. Ahhhhh. That's such a singular blue on those lesser wing coverts. And I always forget that they have a brilliant green speculum, so taken with their shoulders am I. Frozen in flight by my Canon 7D, with its 70-300 IS L series lens. The rig of my dreams.

I was already getting tired of winter. Ohio has turned almost gray, with heavy rains and winds ripping the leaves off the trees. So it was a delight to come down to south Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, to bake our blanched bodies in warm sun, to feel the tropical breeze, which rapidly became a warm tropical gale.

Our first stop was Estero Llano Grande. It was Liam's birthday, and we wanted to spend the whole day together doing something we like to do. Birding. Butterflying. Paraqueing.

A Teleus longtail on Eupatorium (closely related to my lovely mistflower).

A clouded skipper. I think. Texas butterflies are a tad tricky for me. Mexican stuff, tropical stuff, stuff I never see. Makes it even more fun.

Bougainvillea. I miss my bougainvilleas. Had them in the greenhouse for years. They finally got too ungainly and sparse. Maybe this year. If we ever get the greenhouse done...we're looking at Saturday for our next series of roadblocks and heartbreaks. Or maybe even completion. This project has made a hardened pessimist of me.

White peacocks were everywhere.

Nothing subtle about this one--the  guava skipper, an uncommon to rare (even in So. TX) tropical species that's dependent on plantings of guava for egglaying and caterpillar rearing. Wow. Look at that helmet.

The orange headlights are a nice touch, as are the blue striations on thorax and inner forewing.

It was a difficult bug to photograph, because it liked to hang upside down. I like this one. It looks like a guy in a butterfly suit.

We smiled at the clambering antics of plain chachalacas, the U.S.'s only member of the cracid family. It's a guan. I still can't believe we have a native guan. How cool.

Though they bear a superficial resemblance to grouse, turkeys and chickens, they aren't galliformes. They're something much more primitive, stranger. Perhaps a very early (as in Cretaceous) proto-galliform.
When I saw a horned guan atop Volcan Atitlan, I knew I had seen something primitive, something elemental, something irreplaceable.
Noisy as they are, chachas are beloved by Texans.

Om nom on the orange.

A Cooper's hawk wished for an unwary chachalaca, green jay or dove.

One of my very favorite photos of the trip: a mottled duck in flight. Egad, look at that speculum. Note that it lacks the conspicuous white trailing edge to the speculum that mallards show. Though it superficially resembles a black duck or female mallard, the mottled duck is a separate species, Anas fulvigula, distinguished by a highly contrasting pale head and neck. Sexes are alike. This bird doesn't migrate; it's a subtropical resident in Florida and Texas. And boy, is it beautiful in flight.

I guess the highlight of the day, and the trip, was the moment that Bill jokingly offered the kids $50 to spot a paraque (easier said than done). This tropical nightjar is extremely well-camouflaged on the forest floor, where it rests all day after a night of moth catching. Within seconds, Liam pointed at his feet. "There's one." And within five minutes, Phoebe had one located in the woods. Holy cow. Harnessing the power of kid eyes. We were very, very proud of our youngun's. No biggie, right Liam?

Phoebe has been genuinely bitten by the birding mosquito, and if his dedication to cross-country (another of Phoebe's passions) is any indication, Liam will likely follow suit. She's all ate up about birding. Shh. Don't tell her how thrilled we are.

Liam clocks out now and then. Every brand-new 13 year old gets to clock out when he needs to. Especially on his birfday.

Phoebe's paraque.

And Liam's. We'd never have seen them but for the kids.

All hail Estero Llano Grande. What a place, what a beautiful place it is. It was so wonderful to be together as a family on this special day. Wearing shorts and feeling the warm wind lift the hairs on our arms. Mmm.


So, did they get $50 each or have to split it?

Julie, I enjoy all your posts, but I loved this one especially, because I visited Estero Llano Grande this past February. What a fabulous place!

I'm glad you got to see the Common Pauraque, one of the highlights of my trip. Isn't amazing how well-camouflaged they are? And the Chachalacas and Green Jays are so much fun to watch!

Thank you, Julie.
I just love Texas in all it's natural splendor. I used to drive across the country by myself when I was a young person, quite a few times, actually and strangely, always ended up spending two or three days at some rural Texas park, camping, walking, relaxing, reading, etc. It is a special place. Thank you for sharing your observation and celebration of the natural world and obviously a most cherished and loving family.
In anticipation of your next blog, I remain,

Posted by Anonymous November 15, 2012 at 5:55 AM

So pretty! I need to learn some of that nightjar magic. I've never seen one in my woods, but I'm convinced I've walked past at least a dozen! Can I borrow some kid superpowers please?

we will be spending the next couple on months in the Rio Grande Valley and will surely check out Estero Llano Grande.

Bougainvilleas can make interesting bonsai when they stop being interesting hanging plants.

I love this post! I grew up in South Texas, chasing those skippers and feeding bread to those ducks with my Gramma. It is lovely to see them!

What lovely photos and writing! I have never seen a nightjar or nighthawk—I'm not sure we have them in the Puget Sound area. I've drawn them, though. I think I remember that those whiskery-like feathers around their mouth are for netting insects on the wing. Very cool!

So, yes, did each child get $50?!!
Hope so!

And what a delicious post. You know so much about birds that I learn stuff w/out cracking open a book. Once again, enjoying a vicarious trip thanks to you,and this time to South Texas to see the birds and the butterflies and the special paraques. So glad you have a great camera, because someone with your talent needs one. And the family bond--makes my heart sing. Glad Chet Baker finally got to bed!

What a wonderful post. Estero Llano Grande is one of the newer bird preserves so I've only visited it once two years ago. I had dreams of working at Laguna Ataacos this winter but a sewage problem has closed the housing I needed. But I'll get in a long trip down there for a birding fix. We on the Texas coast don't realize how lucky we are to be able to see over 60 species in a day without working and up to 200 or more species if we work.

The last time I was at Estero Llano Grande, I was guided to a sleeping paraque.

And for all the birders reading your blog - one of the best resources for planning your trip to come birding in Texas is our series of birding hotspot maps. You can buy hard copies of the 7 maps covering 5 areas, or access them on-line and print them out.

I'm going to be in Galveston and a little in Corpus Christi this winter and love to take people birding.

Estero is our favourite Texas birding spot. Waterfowl in close enough for good photos, pauraque hiding under foot, Mexican rarities and a great deck to sit and watch the birds.

No biggie to a family of birders, probably, but I was thoroughly astonished and delighted the other morning, when a hawk flew in front of me, gliding silently about a foot above the ground, cruising for mice. He went another 100 feet before flying up, into a tree. Several nights this summer, I was awakened at about 3 AM by the sound of a hawk outside my window. Apparently, my back yard made a good hunting ground.

Thanks Julie for such a nice review of our little park, (ESTERO). Within our 230 acres, 100 species of birds can be recorded most days with a little luck. We do welcome and love showing our guests "our" Common Pauraques..So glad you and family had a great time and hurry back.

Posted by Huck Hutchens November 19, 2012 at 5:58 AM
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