I spent last night in Port Isabel, TX. This put me right in the center of the "Aplomado-zone" in the extreme southeastern portion of the state. This species used to be found throughout the southwest, but became extirpated as a consequence of habitat loss. Reintroduction efforts in Texas have proved at least partially successful, and the ABA made this species full countable this year. The treatment of Aplomado falcon from a "countability" standpoint is very much like that of California condor; All individuals, regardless of whether they are bred in captivity or wild-rasied, are countable, and a birder need not spend time trying to sort out the origins of individually identified birds.
Aplomado sightings from eBird
Just 28 miles today
Looking at the above map of Aplomado sightings in Southern Texas, an experience eye might notice that almost all of them come from along roads. These birds inhabit coastal savannahs over which they are often seen hunting. However, the far more common way to find these birds is to look for them perched on utility poles, antennas, and yucca plants along at the roadside. This was my strategy today. I would ride the very productive Route 100 that runs between Port Isabel and Los Fresnos. By slowly scanning the sky and poles along this stretch, I was fairly confident I could find at least one of these birds today.
Route 100 roadside this morning - lots of nice poles!
My first pass of the most productive stretch of Route 100 yielded lots of raptors but no Aplomados. I recorded 8 raptor species: Turkey vulture, Red-tailed hawk, White-tailed hawk, Harris's hawk, American kestrel, White-tailed kite, Crested caracara, and Northern harrier. Other than these the only notable bird of the first part of the day was Stilt sandpiper chilling in a roadside pond.
Old Port Isabel Road
After sticking to the 2-lane, paved, Route 100 for the first 13 miles of my search, I then detoured down the very rough and muddy Old Port Isabel "road" to extend the hunt. I could only make it about a mile down the road before a very wet and muddy stretch forced me to turn around. The fact that several 4-wheel vehicles made the same decision validated mine. I spent a stationary half hour scanning the savannah. Loads of other raptors came and went on the building winds during this time. I was slowly oozing back towards the paved highway when I saw 2 distant candidate birds. I quickly assembled the scope, but this proved relatively useless as there was a ton of wind and the birds were backlit at the time. I watched some incredible ariel acrobatics as they chased one another high above the ground. They eventually drifted out of sight to the west. They were too big and strong to be kestrels, yet not big or strong enough to be peregrines. These were almost certainly Aplomados, but this look was not enough to actually count them. I mean, it could have been 2 Eurasian hobbies, right? I really wanted to ID this bird positively versus just eliminating the other falcon species.
I stood around for a bit longer. A single falcon appeared out to the west about 5 minutes later. It was actually flying right towards me. I assumed it was one of the two birds I had seen a few minutes prior. This bird kept coming, and coming, and eventually landed in yucca not 80 yards from me! I was able to get a few shots of it both in flight and perched. This bird is strikingly beautiful, and I was stoked that I was able to get such a good view of it. This was my 30th life bird of the year! They are certainly amazing fliers, and the ease with which they cut through the steady 20 MPH winds only demonstrated this further. Despite this wind, it was a really nice morning of birding. It was a warm wind, and the myriad of raptors I listed above used it to hunt/soar at all points on the horizon around me. It was really relaxing and quite beautiful.
Aplomado falcon for #606!
Speaking of relaxing, since I was curious, the other day I measured my resing heart rate while pigeon-ing in Salineno - 52 BPM! I will also comment that I can feel that my blood pressure is below my normal. I have of late been getting a bit lightheaded when I stand-up to quickly. This never happened to me before I embarked on this adventure. Also on the health front, my right foot has developed a mysterious, daily ache. I cannot identifying a single incident that triggered this, but it is a mild nuisance that I hope does not evolve into anything more painful during the last month of the year. Otherwise, my ass is sore and my legs are tired. I guess this isn't even news at this stage of things though.......
By the time I was done with the falcon it was really windy. Birding and riding would be equally unproductive in these conditions. I decided to cut the day short and return to Port Isabel to strategize for the next few days. I saw what I presume was a 3rd falcon perched on a pole on my return trip along Route 100. While it seemed unlike that the Fork-tailed flycatcher would be seen today (it wasn't), I wanted to be within striking distance of Laguna if it was.
Right at midday, I received word that a/the Tropical parula was spotted this morning at Quinta Mazatlan back west in McAllen. This bird had been around for most of November before disappearing this last week. I had hoped to spend time looking for it this weekend before getting pulled east by the flycatcher. I did not have time to make it to Quinta Mazatlan today, and it is closed the next two days (closed as in there's a fence around it and I can't bird it unless it open). So, I suspect/hope this bird will hang out in that area like it has done previously. As there isn't much I can do about it until Tuesday, I will spend the next two days biking/birding my way back towards McAllen. I should be able to tick Red-crowned parrot in Harlingen en route. The nice thing about the parula is that I have a free/nice place to stay right nearby. I can look for the parula every morning until I find it, and I can spend the afternoons of the days that I don't at Anzalduas and Bentsen looking for Hook-billed kites and whatever other rarities might turn up. I really want to do some general birding and walking around, and I think I'll get a few days of this during this week. This plan makes perfects sense, so I am sure some great rarity will appear and force me to throw it out the window!