We woke up refreshed and looking forward to our next foray along the Rio Grande. Checking out of our hotel quite early we made our way the short distance to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. This is a big reserve, and whilst you can walk it, it is not really the American way – believe it or not there is a shuttle that runs loops. We decided to take one of these but to first spend a bit of time birding around the impressive visitor centre. This was excellent, with another top target Altimira Oriole found in the trees here – found by Henry. There were plenty of Plain Chachalacas around too, and of course lots of Hummingbirds and a variety of other small birds. The ubiquitous Orange-crowned Warbler, and quite a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. After exhausting the possibilities here a friendly ranger drove us on the shuttle around to the Hawk Observation Tower, and it was on this short drive that we managed to bump into a Roadrunner, a bird I was keen that Henry see given his enjoyment of the eponymous cartoons. He commented that the bird wasn’t quite as blue and orange. Quite.
At the Hawk Tower, an impressive structure, we met a volunteer on raptor-watch duties, and he helped us get on to various spiraling and gliding birds headed south into Mexico. Loads of vultures, Broad-winged Hawk, an Osprey and a few others, although unfortunately the local Gray Hawk did not make an appearance. Another Altimira Oriole here, and a Long-billed Thrasher feeding around the base of the tower. All too soon however it was time to go – we had a monster drive back up to somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston. We stopped for lunch briefly at a packed Mexican eatery in Edinburg where the menus were exclusively in Spanish – one of the best meals we had all trip – and then we hit the road.
There is something about US road trips that is very enjoyable despite the distances involved, I cannot quite put my finger on it. I think it is just a fundamental part of the American experience. We had good music (or what I call good music!) and as you don’t exactly travel fast we could look for birds as we went, stopping whenever we saw something interesting. Our route was the 69 North to Falfurrias, and then “Raptor Alley” (285) east to Riviera. This did not disappoint, with several White-tailed Hawks and various other birds of prey . Then we rejoined the 77 up to Corpus Christi and passing the USS Lexington headed across the bay towards Aransas NWR, our late afternoon birding stop.
Aransas is some distance from the main road, as you have to track across small country roads to the coast, or rather the inner coast – the gulf of Mexico is behind the barrier island of Matagorda at this point. The place was near empty at this time of day and we headed over to the amazing observation tower that overlooks Mustang Lake. As we approached the tower we could see lots of black shapes on the top – Turkey Vultures! Deserted, they were using it as a huge roost and it was covered in both birds and bird droppings! As we climbed up the long zig-zags that raise you above the tree line the birds gradually flapped off, and then to our delight they simply started cruising around the tower. Birding was momentarily forgotten and the cameras came out. Although we had taken cameras, generally what happens on exploratory trips like this is that photography comes a distant second, a few grab shots as I go but nothing more as I’m much more keen to see stuff and to get a decent list going. So it was nice to have a half hour session devoted entirely to seeing what I could get on film, and the light was gorgeous. The wind wasn’t quite right for banking shots, but with perseverance I got a few nice ones – not that vultures are the nicest of subjects but sometimes that doesn’t matter. As the sun set and the birds settled down on other roosting sites we had a quick scan of Mustang lake – lots of Egrets as you would expect, but we were too early for the Whooping Cranes.
Our destination for the night was Lake Jackson, south of Houston near the coast, so we still had some distance to go, well over 100 miles. I think we did around 350 miles in total so we didn’t arrive until mid evening. We stocked up on chicken wings at a total dive of a sports bar before gratefully hitting the sack. Final day tomorrow!
Trip List = 134