Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bentsen State Park’s Guided Bird Walk: The Black-vented & Much More!

If you haven’t spent a Sunday morning enjoying the Bentsen Guided Bird Walk, you are missing a real treat!  This park-hosted twice weekly event is free, with the price of park entrance (which is also free for Texas State Park Pass holders).   If Sunday mornings do not work for your schedule, the Guided Bird Walk is also available on Wednesday mornings, at 8:00 a.m. (during the winter season).
Today’s birding guide, Javier de Leon, is the Bentsen State Park Biologist and one of the park’s team of outstanding naturalists.  Javier is an avid birder, and an outstanding guide for both beginning and seasoned birders.  Listen closely as he describes the birds and habitat of this park and you’ll note that he mentions his birding experiences on his days off.  Yes, when “on duty” as a state park employee, he is leading bird walks, one of several of his official park duties; and when he has a day off, you may run across him in the birding field!
Each Sunday morning’s Guided Bird Walk begins at 8:00 a.m. at the World Birding Center (WBC) Headquarters building.  Be sure to arrive a little before 8:00 to acquire your day pass from the Bentsen Park Store, within the WBC building. A human line was beginning to form at 7:50 a.m. this morning as I was “banded” with my day pass, a paper wristband that gives access to the park throughout each day’s date of admittance.
The walk is scheduled from 8:00-10:00 a.m., but when the birding is abundant, as this morning, don’t be surprised if Javier does not rush to complete by 10:00 a.m.  I’ve never heard a birder complain. 
We begin the morning’s Guided Walk at the World Birding Center Headquarters’ grounds, with Javier providing information and immediate sightings:

A Black Phoebe greets us as we make our way into the park, a first of many “good gets” for the morning.  The Easter Phoebe has a broad range through the mid and eastern United States but the Black Phoebe is a southwestern specialty.  Its arrival to the RGV is a probable example of ongoing habitat change and/or species adaptation:

The group stopped at the Interpretive Center’s bird feeders and we were rewarded with a coveted “get” for even the most-experienced birders:  The Black-vented Oriole.  (Note that the upper right side of my blog’s home page includes a listing of “Emily’s Favorite Post Links”;  the second link, titled “The Black-vented Oriole” provides additional information about this fabulous and rare visitor.  As mentioned in that blog post, you won’t find the Black-vented Oriole in a North American field guide.  It is a Mexican and Central American specialty.
I’ll include an almost-focused photograph from this morning, as our group got quick looks at the Black-vented Oriole:

 This Black-vented is developing a reliable morning habit of flying into this area of the park to enjoy the specialty treats that wait.  Park volunteers provide a wonderful service with their care and maintenance of the park’s many feeders.  This second photo from the morning’s guided walk accentuates the species’ black vent, for which this oriole acquired its name:

When not watching the Black-vented Oriole, our group got great looks at both a Clay-colored Thrush and an Altamira Oriole.  I encourage a check of your field guide and note the range map for both of these species. These two beautiful birds have a bird's version of a U.S. passport that ONLY bring them as far north as the Rio Grande Valley!

Our group's look at a Clay-colored Thrush:

Our group’s look at an Altamira Oriole:

Javier drives one of the two trams supporting today’s guided walk, sharing his knowledge and experience about the birds, habitat and history of the park:

We stop at Kingfisher Overlook where we are greeted with good looks at both Green and Ringed Kingfishers.  The group then turns our attention to a fabulous sighting of two Pied-billed Grebes and two Least Grebes swimming alongside each other in the park’s beautiful Resaca.  The more experienced birders called out distinguishing markings between the two species:

We walk across the beautiful picnic area to the Kiskadee trail.  Jim Bangma, park volunteer and experienced birder, points out a reliable location for a Screech-Owl.  We get a delightful “bird’s eye view” of this beautiful owl, as it slept in a tree's notch, blending in so perfectly that it was almost invisible.  This “get” of the Screech-Owl is a wonderful example of the benefits of joining a Guided Bird Walk.  Without the experience and knowledge provided by those volunteers and staff familiar with the park, the owl is missed by almost all that walk by (that is the owl’s intent).  The sharing of this Screech-Owl’s location came with an appropriate request—do NOT attempt to invade the privacy of this owl (or other species in the park) by getting too close for viewing or photography.  We want this particular owl to keep this spot as its daily safe haven for slumber.   
We ride the tram to the Hawk Tower, and from its incredible vista views, we sight Long-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and several other waterfowl.  I could hear Verdin scolding in the trees below and behind us.  And did I take pictures?  No.  I was too busy delighting in great views via Javier’s park-provided scope.  Because of that scope, and park volunteer Jim Bangma, I added a new lifer that was sorely missing from my life list:  the Stilt Sandpiper. 
Only yesterday I was at the hawk tower with my trusty 10x42’s.  But neither their power nor my solo ability would have allowed me to differentiate the Stilt Sandpiper from the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs that were present at this viewing distance and easterly-facing morning light.  But today I was on a park-facilitated free tour that included Jim Bangma’s volunteer time.  Jim provided the group an impromptu lesson in the differentiation and sighting of the Stilt Sandpiper.  Even silhouetted, I now feel confident in its differentiation from the two species of Yellowlegs. 
And as Javier drove us back to the WBC Headquarters’ building, an alert member of our morning’s group spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched openly at eye level for our pleasure.  I took a quick look, but my mind was already focused on opening my Excel spreadsheet and checking a new lifer, the Stilt Sandpiper.  Thank you Javier and Jim!  And thanks to Bentsen State Park for this wonderful service.  If you haven’t spent a Sunday morning enjoying the Bentsen Guided Bird Walk, you are missing a real treat!
(A couple noteworthy points: first, this “walk” is really a comfortable tram ride throughout the park.  No strenuous walking is required, and most of the “birdy spots” along the route have benches for those that may need seating.  Second, this guided walk is a wonderful experience for both beginning and advanced birders.  A positive group dynamic flows easily, with enthusiastic sightings from all.  Each time I participate, I learn something new.  Javier encourages dialogue, and the morning’s more-experienced birders add knowledgeable tidbits, while the less-experienced birders add enthusiasm that makes each sighting a joy.)


  1. Sure wish I could have driven to the Valley today so that I could go on the walk in the morning. Mary

  2. Hello Dear Friend. Double stuff story was great - amazing shots you got on that one! Definitely your element. Good when you throw in those pics for someone like me who's got mental block on prose. :)


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