“The area we will be exploring here on La Copita Ranch is referred to as tamaulipan (tom-all-ee-pan) scrub,” Tom Langschied, explained. Tom was our local Texas guide and is a research scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
He pointed to a nearby tree. “This is a mesquite, an extremely hardy, drought-tolerant plant. It is the most prevalent tree on the ranch, and I want you to recognize it so you will quickly know where to look if I tell you that a bird is in the mesquite,” Tom stated.
The terrain and vegetation looked very similar to southern New Mexico.
My attention was diverted to a covey of Bobwhites that scurried across a clearing into the under brush. Since it blends in with its surroundings, it had been one of my nemesis birds and I was delighted to have a good look.
La Copita Ranch, located near Kingsville, is owned by Texas A&M University and used primarily as a wildlife research station.Tom took half the group to check out the feeders behind the headquarters building and the surrounding area. Almost immediately, Green Jays started flying in, accompanied by Cardinals and Bronzed Cowbirds.
Tom drew our attention to a kingbird that landed on a power line. “Notice the notch at the end of the tail. The notch differentiates the Couch’s Kingbird with a Western Kingbird. Southwestern Texas is the only place in the U.S. that Couch’s can be seen,” he told us. They looked very similar to Tropical Kingbirds.
“I hear an Olive Sparrow,” Tom beckoned as he led us away from the feeders. “It is one of the rarest sparrows in the United States.” Pretty soon the bird came into view, followed by a Verdin, which was so active that many did not get a good look.
Common Ground Doves emerged from behind the water tank and headed off down a trail.
Three Harris’s Hawks were perched in the tops of some the trees a short distance away. “As opposed to other raptors, you often see several of them together. They hunt in packs, in much the same manner as wolves.” Tom was certainly a wealth of information.
As we walked back to the headquarters we watched a kingbird dive-bomb a Crested Caracara.
Our group then joined Chris Woods and Jessie Barry from the Cornell Lab or Ornithology who took us to another part of the ranch. One of the first birds we saw was a Pyrrhuluxia, a common bird in southern New Mexico.
A row of Crested Caracaras seemed to be watching us as they perched on mesquite trees along the dirt road where the ranch manager took us in a shuttle pulled by his tractor.
Those from the east were interested in watching Curve-billed Thrashers. “Curve-billed Thrashers like to eat chile fruit,” Jessie told us. “They are not affected by the capsaicin, since they don’t chew the seeds, but rather disperse them whole through their droppings.” I’ll have to remember to put some green chile out for mine. Maybe it will please the thrashers and deter the squirrels.
A Great Kiskadee called its name from some nearby trees.
When we returned to the headquarters, Tom was trying to get a Verdin in the scope for those who hadn’t seen it earlier.
“There’s an Audubon’s Oriole,” Chris called. Not many people seemed interested; however, it was a life bird for Barb and I, so we followed Chris while the oriole dashed in and out of the scrub. It finally perched long enough for us to get good views.
As we rode in the bus to our next stop, Tom told us that while the Bobwhite is threatened elsewhere in the U.S., it is doing well on the King Ranch where he also works. Even though hunting, including bobwhite quail, is one of the ranch’s primary sources of income, the King Ranch has been in the forefront of wildlife management
At Baffin Bay Tom introduced us to Glen Perrigo, professor of biology and ornithology at Texas A&M- Kingsville. “Before we move to the Botteri Sparrow territory,” Glen said, “Let’s check out the birds near these houses on Baffin Bay.”
We watched a Buff-bellied Hummingird buzz in and out of some trumpet vines. When it perched, I could see its red bill. Then a Hooded Oriole flew in.
A long-billed Thrasher called. “You can tell geographically what kind of thrasher it is by the location. On this side of the road, they are all Long-billed. Across the road in the grassy area, there are only Curve-billed,” Glen explained.
“My friend forgot to leave me the key,” Glen said, “so we are going to have to climb over the fence to get onto the Hubert Ranch. We took turns hefting ourselves up and over the gate.
As we walked back to where the Botteri’s were nesting, a flock of Franklin’s Gulls flew overhead. “Notice that there is no black on their wing tips,” Chris pointed out.
“Also, they are not as rosy as those that were migrating through last month,” Glen said.First Glen and then Chris played the sparrow’s song on an iPod. It would pop up and then go back down in the deep grass. It was hot standing in the sun; however, we finally were rewarded when one flew up and perched in full view.
The sun beat down on the light gray clay soil of the road as I trudged back to the bus. “You look like a soldier coming back from war,” Tom told me.As we ate our lunch in the shade of the trees at a nearby park, the male Great-tailed Grackles fanned their tales and called loudly to attract a mate. After lunch at Kaufer-Hubert Memorial Park, we checked out the birds on a pond at the adjacent Sea Wind RV Park. There was both a Lesser and a Greater Scaup hanging out with Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.
“This is a good time to notice the difference in the bills of the two scaup,” Chris explained. People often rely on head shape to differentiate these two species, but it can sometimes be deceiving. The bill of the Greater is much more spatulate or flared.” At that distance, it was hard to see this difference through my binoculars.
Next we stopped along the Los Olmos Creek estuary on the Laguna Salada, where there was a myriad of shore birds, including Least and Semi-palmated Sandpipers. Someone spotted a Long-billed Curlew. It was hot and humid and there was not much shade; everyone tended to congregate around the large sign describing the area.
At a stop along the road, we scanned a flooded field and marsh where we were delighted to see a Hudsonian Godwit stopping for nourishment before continuing its long journey to Alaska.
And one last stop produced White Ibis, Least Grebe and Fulvous Whistling Ducks.
It had been a varied and fruitful day – from birds on the tamaulipan scrub to resident and migrating birds in a south Texas coastal habitat.