Saturday, December 30, 2017

Deming, NM (12/27 thru12/30/2017)

There are a couple photos taken before leaving the Rio grande Valley that I want to share.  I was at a  wildlife refuge to photograph birds.  After hiking some distance, I sat down to watch a feeder, but this cute fellow showed up and scared the birds away.
I left and went to a nearby water feature, thinking the birds might come there.  Before long, however, my furry little friend joined me once again, apparently to wash down the bird feed he had just eaten.
Leaving Harlingen, I stopped in Kerrville, TX for two days, including Christmas.  The nice folks there treated me like family, even inviting me to their Christmas dinner.  It was a great time being with this wonderful group.

Next I drove to Fort Stockton, a small town in the middle of West Texas.  I remarked to the fellow at the desk I had been there several times, each time experiencing a sand storm.  He allowed that happens a lot in summer, but not this time of year.  He was right, since that night we had a sleet storm move in, covering everything with a sheet of ice and leading to my late departure to avoid icy highways.  As a bonus, there was a heavy fog that persisted until noon.  Thanks to changing the time zone, I had an extra hour to make it to Deming, NM.

Deming is a town of roughly 15,000 residents who enjoy hot, dry summers and fairly mild winters.  The town was settled in 1881, when two major railroads joined tracks here, becoming the second trans-continental railroad.  It is a haven for rock collectors, known as "Rockhounds", and has a nearby state park appropriately named "Rockhound State Park".  Other state parks in the area are Spring Canyon, in the Florida (pronounced Flo-REE-da) Mountains, and City of Rocks State Park, which I visited some twenty years ago.  About thirty-five miles south of town, on the border with Mexico, is the tiny village of Columbus.  In 1916, Mexican revolutionary General Pancho Villa raided Columbus, the only land invasion of the U.S. in history.  Escaping back into Mexico, Villa was pursued by Army General "Black Jack" Pershing.  Despite spending nine months in Mexico, Pershing's forces were unable to capture Villa and were recalled when the U.S. entered WW I.
Florida Mountains from my campground.

First night sunset
Driving one of the back roads, I spotted one of my favorite birds, the American kestrel, on a power line.  They always look sweet and innocent, but are very efficient at killing their prey, mostly large insects and small rodents.  They are also a challenge to photograph, being wary of humans.  This one soon left the wire and swooped into some bushes.  Not expecting good results, I nevertheless fired off a few shots, continuing to shoot when he returned to his perch with his prize in his beak.  Not fine quality, but I was happy to get these photos.

I read that the local waste water treatment plant attracts lots of birds, so I paid a visit one morning.  There were thousands of birds, mostly yellow-headed blackbirds, and plenty of ducks.  Unfortunately, they flew/swam to the other pools for safety.  Only a few stayed even close enough for long shots.

Northern shoveler
On my way to Spring Canyon, I met three men wearing hunting camo and sporting large spotting scopes.  They were scanning the mountains for Persian ibex, an exotic species introduced here by the state in 1970.  Hunting is allowed to maintain a herd of sustainable size.  While I was there, they located three animals high on a ridge.  I left, not knowing if they were going to hike within rifle range of these animals.  Incidentally, the ibex are very difficult to shoot, with eyesight that can detect movement at half a mile and agility that allows them to move over mountain terrain quite rapidly.

Here are a few photos from Spring Canyon.

Coming back, I encountered a small herd of longhorn cattle grazing freely along the shoulder of the road.  This one began to stare at me quite seriously, so I left and went back to looking for birds.
In Columbus, I found little of value, including Pancho Villa State Park.  The village is dilapidated and dirty, though surprisingly a few nice homes were located there.  I've no idea why, unless it involves smuggling.😉  There was one interesting structure I found, signed as a shrine to "The Perfect Man".

Obviously, the shrine had never been completed, but I was intriqued to know more about this "perfect man".  A little Google research told me Meher Baba was an Indian spiritualist who lived from 1894 until 1969.  Claiming to be the "Avatar" (God in human form), he developed a huge cult following.  He visited the U.S. and had a following here, but why would Columbus, NM be chosen as the site of a shrine to him, and why was it never finished?

Over the next few days, I plan to visit City of Rocks State Park and also look for petroglyphs said to be in nearby canyons.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Harlingen, TX (12/20 thru 12/23/2017)

The weather has been somewhat improved in recent days, allowing me to get back into the hunt for new birds.  Temperature certainly hasn't been the problem, with daily highs in the mid-80s most of the time.  It's the overcast skies and high winds that have been bothersome.  At any rate, I feel that I've made the most of  my time here, having visited the major parks that were on my list.  More importantly, there have been lots of birds, including sixteen "lifers". 

Some people may be getting bored with all the bird photos, so I'm going to include some other things that I hope will be of interest.

Sabal Palm Sanctuary is a former plantation located on the Rio Grande River, once covering more than 20,000 acres.  Only a small fraction of that has been set aside as a sanctuary to protect birds, mammals and plants.  Among the animals on the sanctuary grounds are two rare cat species, the ocelot and the jaguarundi.  If you look closely at the tip of the spire on the roof, you may see a small dot that is the American kestrel shown in the next image.

After visiting a state park one day,  I went to a local taqueria called Nana's.  The place is so colorfully decorated, I just had to share it with you.  And the food was pretty good, too.

The state park known as Estero Llano Grande provided a huge number of photo ops, far too many to show here.  Some of my first time sightings were pintail ducks and green-winged teals.

The park also has numerous reptiles and amphibians.

 Although I've seen them many times, belted kingfishers are a real challenge to photograph.  They are small, fast and extremely wary when they see a camera coming their way.  This one was too far away when he was perched, but he soon flew like a rocket across the lake, coming a little closer.  I feel very fortunate to have been able to catch a few shots of this guy in motion, even though the quality is a little below par.
I used to see the occasional yellow-crowned night heron in Florida, but this park had about seven or eight of them perched around the lake, along with quite a few other herons.

Another familiar duck is the blue-winged teal, much prettier in flight when the blue wings can be seen.

One of my favorite photos from this park shows the vermilion flycatcher going after a bug.  Look closely and you will see the bug he is about to gobble up.
An earlier travelogue showed an altamira oriole, but the bird was partially hidden.  Here's a photo that shows the full beauty of this bird.
During my stay here, I had seen a couple of the Texas indigo snakes, but they get out of sight very quickly and I had no photos.  This one was partly in the deep grass when I got the first shot, yet the snake was too long to fit in a single frame.  They are a protected species, and loved by Texans because this snake is said to kill rattlesnakes.

 One of the birds that can be seen in the U.S. only in Texas and Florida, the crested caracara is a raptor that also eats carrion.  Known as the "Mexican eagle", it will chase vultures away from roadkill to have it for himself.  Most of the ones I've seen are a darker brown, almost black, as in the first photo.  Some others are a much lighter shade of brown.  Yes, the one on the ground was in a cemetery.  Kind of creepy.

To wrap up this part of my trip, here's something I spotted while driving around today.  I know that Texans are comfortable with guns, and that everything is bigger in Texas, but I was puzzled when I first saw this huge pistol.  Turns out is is at the entrance to the gun club, which has a hidden drive, so the big gun is very helpful.
I'll be driving for the next few days, so I want to wish everyone a 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Harlingen, TX (12/12 thru 12/19/2017)

My time here in the Rio Grande Valley has been a mixed bag.  The purpose of coming here was strictly to photograph birds, many of which cannot be seen anywhere else in the US.  These birds are commonly seen in South America, Central America and Mexico, with just a slight carryover into this region of Texas.  A few of them can also be seen in the most southern part of Arizona.  In addition, Texas has numerous birds common to the rest of the lower 48 states.  It has the reputation for being a birding paradise, and I have wanted to experience this region for many years.

My first few days here, I easily saw at least seven or eight birds I had never seen before.  Some of these were featured in my last travelogue.  The pace has slowed considerably, mostly due to weather.  It has rained on several days, while others were heavily overcast.  If the sun did break through, it was later in the day, whereas bird activity is primarily in the morning hours.  As a result, I have not been able to visit all the parks on my list, and have been forced to take photographs in poor lighting.  It caused me to extend my stay for an extra week, and I am trying to take advantage of every opportunity afforded me.

My second morning here, I went out to the town's reservoir for sunrise and was very happy with what I saw.  Here are a few shots from that morning.

Later, I drove east toward South Padre Island, planning to visit the Laguna Vista Wildlife Refuge.  It turned out that a bridge was out for repair and the detour was much longer than I was willing to take.  So, I explored the town of Laguna Vista, then made a quick trip through Port Isabel, stopping for a photo of the lighthouse there. On my way back through Laguna Vista, I happened upon a rather large group of black-bellied whistling ducks, maybe as many as 150 of them, waddling around a town park.  Along the highway, there were several Harris' hawks and a white-tailed kite, both species of which I had never seen before in the wild.

The next day, I was on the road by 6 am, headed toward another national wildlife reserve, Laguna Atascosa, about 30 miles from my campsite.  My hope was to get there early enough to catch another good sunrise.  Once again, I was plagued by detours due to road construction, then led astray by Gertie (my GPS), falling behind schedule and watching a beautiful sunrise begin to develop.  I finally spotted some wind turbines in the nearby fields and decided to use them as foreground for my sunrise photos.

By the time I entered the reserve, it was daylight and there were hawks perched on many of the power poles.  Most were the Harris' hawks, but one was (I think) a Cooper's hawk, my first one.
Once at the Visitor Center, I hiked a few of their trails and saw a few more "lifers".  A great kiskadee and an Altamira oriole were the only ones I could photograph, and thy didn't make it easy.  A nighthawk was so well hidden in the leaves and brush, the ranger had to point him out to me.  It was just too dark in his hiding place to get a photo.

I took a tour that wasted several hours because we never got close enough to photograph anything.  The birders on the tour would see something through their powerful spotting scopes and get all excited, but my lens just couldn't match their range.  After the tour, I drove around and spotted a few more interesting birds, although none of them were new to me.  There was a tropical kingbird, a roadrunner, an American kestrel and the familiar red-tailed hawk.