Birder Heaven: Sabal Palms Sanctuary

sabalpalms-brownsville-tx_lah_4301I was a woman with a mission. On our previous trip to southern Texas (five years ago) I had added the Ringed Kingfisher to my life list, but the Green Kingfisher eluded me. In the following years, I’d hiked miles of southern Arizona, following tips from local birders, but still—no Green Kingfisher. Now that we were back in Texas, I was determined to not only see one, but photograph it as well.

With that goal in mind, we headed to Audubon’s Sabal Palms sanctuary. Situated near the mouth of the Rio Grande, mere yards from the border, this sanctuary protects one of the few remaining groves of sabal palms and the associated habitat. Plenty of trails lead through the thick undergrowth, and you can walk out to the edge of the river and gaze across at Mexico.

The $5 admission fee is a bargain, especially considering the sanctuary was closed for several years (2009-2010) due to a budget shortfall. Donations accepted, of course. Hours are from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., fine during the short daylight hours at the end of the year, but frustrating come summer.

As we checked in and signed the guest book, I asked about rare bird sightings. We learned that an Anna’s Hummingbird was visiting from California, and a possible Grey-crowned Yellowthroat had been sighted at the resaca (South-Texan for “lake”). Since the resaca was also the best place to spot the kingfisher, that’s where we headed first.

resaca_sabalpalms-brownsville-tx_lah_0543A short walk took us to a photo blind overlooking the water. Least Grebes and a Black-crowned Night-heron hunted for breakfast, an assortment of ducks were napping on the water, and rustling noises in the bushes suggested songbirds in hiding. My husband decided to run some errands elsewhere and headed back to the car; I set up my camera and tripod and settled down to wait. I didn’t have to wait long.

sabalpalms-brownsville-tx_lah_0601A few moments after Pete left, a local birder joined me in the blind. (I never did get his name.) He explained that the Yellowthroat was supposed to be nearby, and he was hoping to see it. Sure enough, the rustling that I’d heard got louder, then up popped a small yellowish warbler! It almost looked like an immature Common Yellowthroat, but not quite. It pays to acknowledge those nagging doubts when IDing birds. I snapped (sadly blurry) photos while the other birder studied the bird through his binoculars. We both agreed that we were indeed seeing a Grey-crowned Yellowthroat. I hope we were right, since we both counted it as a lifer!

Having gotten what he came for, the other birder asked what I was hoping to see. He assured me that Green Kingfishers were seen almost every day flying over the water, even pointing out the most likely perches. We waited some more.

And waited.

And waited.

The  morning mist burned off, leaving a high overcast perfect for taking pictures.

We waited some more.

At one point, my companion pointed out a duck in the distance, asking if I could tell whether it was a Greater or Lesser Scaup, or perhaps a Ring-necked Duck. I squeezed off a couple of shots, then enlarged them on my camera display. We could easily see the lack of ring on the bill, so that narrowed the field to the two scaups. I pulled out my field guide and studied the two birds. In the bad lighting, the feathers on the head looked black, so that was no help, but the forward peak at the top of our duck’s head was very clear. Checking a few more subtle field marks, we concluded Lesser Scaup. I looked up as the man’s whole face lit up. Turns out a Lesser Scaup was a lifer for him!

green-kingfisher_sabalpalms-brownsville-tx_lah_0580With one lifer under my belt, and two for the Texan, I figured I’d call it a morning and try the other trails at the sanctuary. But just as I turned to leave… (symphonic music swelling to a crescendo) a Green Kingfisher suddenly appeared on the branch across the resaca. Finally!

I took several dozen photos as the bird made foray after foray over the water, looking for fish. My skills weren’t up to catching the fast-moving bird in flight, but I was quite happy with pictures of the bird on its perch.

monarch-butterfly_sabalpalms-brownsville-tx_lah_4292Grinning from ear to ear, I finally packed up and went to explore the rest of the preserve. There were plenty of Green Jays, White-tipped Doves, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, along with an Eastern Phoebe, Orange-crowned Warblers, and other local species. Behind the visitor center, a butterfly garden attracted Monarchs and a white butterfly I couldn’t identify. The Anna’s was at the hummingbird feeder, so I got good looks of her, too.

Pete finally showed up bearing lunch, and we headed off to visit with friends for the afternoon. I wonder what my next “nemesis bird” will be.

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