[texbirds] Laguna Atascosa NWR (Cameron Co.) 07/01/12

  • From: "Rex Stanford" <calidris@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "TEXBIRDS" <texbirds@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 2 Jul 2012 23:04:11 -0500

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En route to Laguna Atascosa NWR (LANWR, Cameron Co.) we checked the resaca that extends both north and south of Hwy. 510 at its juncture with Ted Hunt Road. The highlight was WILSON'S PLOVER (3) in the recently somewhat rain-replenished segment that lies north of Hwy. 510.

We had not birded LANWR for many weeks because of its being very dry and relatively unproductive. Yesterday, recognizing that there had been some rain in the area, we visited there in the hope of perhaps seeing the place coming to life a bit after some life-giving rain. We have said for years that LANWR often is a place of surprises, and yesterday proved no exception, yielding some nice ones.

A quick trip down Lakeside Drive yielded a very long-billed (probably female) Long-billed Curlew. We birded primarily the Bayside Wildlife Drive (BWD) hoping to find migratory shorebirds. Our best luck in that regard was when we stopped at the overlook atop the culvert at the outflow for Pelican Lake, looking north/northeast at the water that had accumulated from recent rains. Water was still in relatively short supply, but it extended from the culvert far north/northwest into the large sandy area that recently had seemed bone dry, and in a dry land a relative little can mean a lot to the wildlife, including the birds. In this case, we found BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (35-40 est., a few in nice breeding plumage), BLACK-NECKED STILT (several, widely dispersed), GREATER YELLOWLEGS (35-40 est.), and WILLET (70-80, est.; almost all being the western subspecies, inornatus).

It was a nice contrast to see the dozens of Western Willets, which were lighter-colored, relatively white-faced, longer-legged, thinner billed, and more slender, less dumpy-looking than the very few Easterns. The Westerns also, gave the impression of being more godwit-like in build and leg length. They tended to feed in a group, albeit a loosely spaced one, and when one or two took off, the others usually would follow.

It was the Greater Yellowlegs at that location who provided, from our perspective, one of the most entertaining surprises of the day. Far back in the remote, elongated water-covered area these large birds were rapidly tracing very straight, long lines, back and forth in the water, with bill tips (only) submerged as though they were skimming into their bills small creatures of some kind. At this distance, we had, though, no chance of detecting what was being ingested. The movement of these yellowlegs seemed very unorthodox for this species in our experience, on account of the long, very straight, linear movements of the birds, back and forth in the elongated pool, looking very much like the kind of foraging we often have seen with American Avocet, except that the yellowlegs bills were never swung back and fourth but furrowed the water in a very straight line. At first, just seeing these birds' size and pattern of linear movement, we thought of avocets, but a moment's look at their quite plain plumage, more squat posture, and less tilted bodies vanquished that impression. Nonetheless, these yellowlegs' foraging pattern yesterday seemed far more linear and systematic than the often darting, dashing, frantic foraging strategy so often shown by Greater Yellowlegs. A somewhat humorous-looking sideshow was a single Tricolored Heron striding immediately north of the string of yellowlegs, paralleling their straight-line movement and their tendency just to run back and forth while foraging. It really looked like it might have been inspired by the many yellowlegs to constrain its own usual darting-dashing behavior in the interest of getting whatever they were getting.

The BWD itself was a disappointment relative to shorebirds, for we found only a relatively few of each of the above species--Black-bellied Plover predominating (6)--but we added a single RUDDY TURNSTONE.

A start of another surprising episode occurred when a Willet came dashing across the pavement, in front of us, in pursuit of something that at first looked like it might have been a crushed deep-blue can with something large and off-white attached to it but moving rapidly--we at first thought it might be due to wind movement. As the trash-like enigma approached the brush on the west side of the road, it became clear that it was a very hurried and harried Fiddler Crab (or, at least we think that was its species) waving it large, single, fiddle-like claw over it head, seemingly as a defense. It managed to disappear underneath some roadside vegetation. Up the road we subsequently saw five additional such crabs along the roadside. We did not recall ever having previously seen crabs cross this road, despite many past journeys down it. The crabs--to us looking like Fiddler Crabs (but are we wrong?)--seemed to be busily on the move, and the movement direction was, in every instance, from the left (east) side of the road toward the right (west side) of the bayside leg of the BWD.

The northern half of western leg of the BWD 13-mile loop provided another surprise. Many dozens (150-180 est.) LAUGHING GULLS were congregated along the west side of the road for about a 0.25 mi stretch, often looking toward the road and giving the appearance of a crowd awaiting the passage of a celebrity along the road. They were spread out along the road's west side, sometimes 4 -7 deep, and although they were facing the road--the direction of the wind--it quickly became evident that something in the short vegetation on the roadside was the focus of their interest and the cause of their strange-looking aggregation along the road. They stood there, studying the substrate and, each would, from time to time, reach down to pluck off the ground some food item. It often seemed small and oval, and we began to wonder if baby crabs might be the cause of the feeding frenzy and that our close encounters earlier with adults were part of some kind of herding of offspring. That is pure speculation, but, for sure, the food items were small. We had never seen anything like this in our many trips down this road, and pictures were taken as a souvenir of this, for us, unaccustomed encounter with the feeding habits of this gull. Our guess it that they were feeding on highly seasonal goodies, possibly young crabs (but might it have been baby frogs?)--although we saw no hopping movements. What we could not figure out was the fringe of this avian crowd being out onto the road and looking eastward, seemingly with some intent. Might they have been wondering if even more of the same was available east of the road? They remained along the roadside as we moved slowly on.

We picked up a few of the expected waders along the bayside portion of the drive, but on the western leg we had another enjoyable surprise in the form of a very large Texas Indigo Snake crossing the road, the picture of snake elegance (even if that might seem an oxymoron to some folks).

There had been something over an inch of rain in the area in very recent days, and the blessing of some rain continued, at least along the immediate bayside area, in some degree, much of the time we were on that leg of the drive. It had been years, literally, since we had seen the lovely Cenizo (Purple Sage) in substantial bloom along the BWD. Yesterday, the areas of the drive that have these hardy flowers were almost every one already in moderate to heavy bloom and well on their way--if some rain continues--to a veritable avian "ode to joy." This seemed to herald a welcome rebirth of the natural beauty of this lovely place where green growth had substantially healed the unsightly scars of the recent controlled burns. Seeing the flowers breaking forth and the onset of shorebird migration made our return to this place an occasion for rejoicing.

Rex and Birgit Stanford

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