My first, and only other visit to Bentsen prior to this year, was in February of 2008. On this trip I camped in the park for 3 nights. I was the ONLY person there, and I have to admit it was a bit creepy. I survived just fine, and I was looking forward to a repeat visit during my stint in the LRGV this year. What I had not realized was that the entire park had been inundated with rains and floodwaters during Hurricane Alex in 2010. The park was underwater for weeks. This flood killed many of the oldest trees, and it dramatically altered the park landscape in other, countless ways. Talking to local birders, they all echo the same sentiment; "Bentsen just hasn't been the same since 2010" rings out with alarming frequency. There is still great birding in the the park, but it has changed since my last visit. One great thing about Bentsen is that cars aren't allowed into the park. There are paved roads through the park, and, for most visitors, the bicycle is the preferred method of locomotion. Rental bikes are available at the office. Alternatively, some folks walk, and there is a small golf-cart like tram that shuttles folks around as well. It is really nice to visit a park that is so pedestrian- and bicycle-centric!
Back to today. My plan worked basically as conceived. The dense morning fog eventually gave was to a higher cloud ceiling. As this transition occurred, I left the woodlands to climb the 2 story hawkwatch platform from which I could scan for kites/raptors as morning gave way to afternoon. There were a few raptors around, but the air above Bentsen was not as active as some of the more easterly areas I birded yesterday. I stayed on the platform until 12:30 when I decided I needed a venue change. I cleared out of the park and headed east towards Anzalduas. I returned to Bentsen at around 3:30pm where I saw the sign pictured below.
View from the hawk watch platform at around 11am
3rd line, white lettering
DAMN IT!!!! I missed it!!!
Apparently, some time after I had cleared out of the park, a kite had materialized right over the entrance road. So close! One of the park staff had a decent photo of it so I know it was a legit sighting.
Those reading closely at this stage should wonder I did with the time I was elsewhere. I had decided to bike around and make several stops at places with good sky views between Bentsen and Anzalduas. I spent about 20 minutes at my first stop before heading to stop 2. I reached stop 2 and scanned around for 45 minutes. There were a few raptors floating on the midday thermals. These were representative of the fairly common 8-9 species I saw in this area yesterday. At this stage I was getting a bit tired, and the birding was really slowing down. I put my bike helmet down on the ground and sat down on it. I pulled out my phone and began checking sports scores, email, and Facebook (gasp - guilty!).
The sky view from stop 2
I was wondering how the hell I was going to fill up the rest of the afternoon - and tomorrow. I can't do much more than stare at the sky in search of this bird. I zoned out for maybe 10-15 minutes before I realized the task at hand required my attention. I picked up my binocs and scanned the left hand side of the horizon. After a minute, I put my binocs down and rolled my eyes thinking, "this is completely pointless, but I can't leave. I'm locked into this". During this eye roll, I saw a dark bird that looked like a black crow ~100 feet to my right. Hmmm. I binoc'd up and nearly had a heart attack - dark phase Hook-billed kite! Damn, where's the camera? Crap! It was resting on my bag, out of my reach. I jumped up and grabbed it just as the bird disappeared over the trees behind me. Farts! I had missed my opportunity. The bird was flying fairly low and with apparent purpose as it blew past me. He was likely gone for good. No one was going to believe that this bird had materialized right in front of me. Magically though, the bird started to soar just as it crossed the treeline. It was soon in full view above the trees. The bird slowly spiraled up, and I slowly collected myself enough to grab a few record shots. It soared higher and higher, and eventually disappeared out of my field of view. I hung around for anther 40 mins hoping it would come back; It was gone. It was a brief but breathtaking encounter with this very rare species. I was really fired up after this encounter. It ranked right up there with the celebrations that followed the appearances of Black-throated blue warbler, Greater sage-grouse, and Sinaloa wren. I am fairly certain that anyone within a quarter of a mile was wondering what the heck was going on as I hurled excited expletives into the air. It was an incredible feeling.
#609 Hook-billed kite!!! Dark morph even!!!
After this I decided to return to Bentsen to just kick around and feeder watch. It was now close to 4pm. This is when I rolled in to find that a kite had been seen at the park earlier in the day. Talking to the ranger who photographed it, the time stamp on his photo said 2:04. Looking at his shot, it showed what I can only assume is the same dark morph bird. My photo was taken at 2:25, so it appears as though this bird made his way out of Bentsen and towards my spot in the intervening 20 minutes.
Today was the same old story: Right time, right place. Sure, I got lucky, but I feel as though I have been making my own luck for months now. Every birder likes seeing rare birds, but far, far fewer are really willing to put in the hours and hours it often takes to find or relocate them. When I was looking for Fork-tailed flycatcher last week, so many people drove up and asked if the bird had been seen. As soon as they heard "No", they disappeared. They didn't even get out of their cars. They just drove away. Great, gas burned to not-bird! You certainly have to be lucky to find rare birds, but you sure as hell aren't going to get lucky from your couch or from the mall. You simply have to spend every possible minute looking, looking, and looking. Very few birds have avoided detection this year, and I attribute this to my ability to stay at it even when folding my hand on the search seems the easier path. I was getting frustrated today, but I'd rather zone out for minute than call off the search completely. You just have to push through slow birding, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, rain, wind, mosquitos etc. You won't be rewarded every time, but you'll surely be rewarded more than if you just drive or walk away without putting maximum effort. I think my career in science taught me this. I spent so mush time optimizing, analyzing, and perfecting experiments and their interpretation that I understand how to push through the often boring and frustrating tedium to achieve a defined goal. There's a reason it's called RE-search after all.
*Disclaimer - Active birding is rarely, if ever, boring; Waiting and waiting for one individual rare bird to appear, especially when it involves just sitting and waiting, sure all heck can be!
Oh wait, I almost forgot! The Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings played in the NHL today. As per usual Sonia and I had a friendly wager on the game. Since my Flyers won, I am allowed to post embarrassing photos of Sonia on the blog. Without further ado....
Startled in the tent!
Those awkward high school years
** Presented without comment **
We'll end with something normal, for once.