After landing more or less on time, give or take half an hour, we eventually struggled through the queues for immigration, and drove a leisurely 6 hours to find the last room of the two motels in the small town of Mathis near to Lake Corpus Christi, ideally placed for the first full days birding. The journey should have taken much less time, but we spent almost 3 hours crawling around the outskirts of Houston on a packed Friday afternoon. The choice (!!) of motel was excellent, and as usual after a western bound flight to the States, we were awake and up by 5am (it wasn't fully light until after 7am).
We easily found the 10 minute route to Lake Corpus Christi, parked the car, and took one of the tracks through the dense cottonwoods to the base of the dam. There seemed to be copious numbers of birds calling within this environment, and we did see a few Northern Cardinals on the wires as the sun rose. These proved to be not only the most common bird, but also the most common mimic of other species, with a variety of calls usually turning out to be these. Just after our first critters of the day – 3 to 4 White-tailed Deer crisscrossing the tracks in front of us – we managed to pin down our first tick of the trip, an elusive Black-crested Titmouse amongst the continuing calls of Cardinals. We eventually arrived at the base of the dam, along with a few fishermen also enjoying their own definition of Saturday morning recreation. The dam couldn’t be approached due to an intervening fence, but was festooned with numerous Black Vultures, intermingled with the odd Turkey Vulture, and hundreds of Cliff Swallows, which were not only common over the woodland, but also the concrete of the dam structures. This was the site of the second critter of the day, a Raccoon sniffing around a small pond within the forest. At the base of the dam, in the gushing outfall, were a couple of wading Snowy Egrets and a pair of basking Double-crested Cormorants. We had a good look at these through the telescope, not only to look at the angle of the gular pouch, but also the breeding tufts at the side of the head. As we retreated from this area, we picked up a drumming Ladder-backed Woodpecker, which was found with a female at very close quarters. They were quite happy to sit in front of us, taking turns at the top of the bare tree. We continued our return to the car, with yet more Cardinals, and overhead many small flocks of ibis spp. We also had at least 3 Black-bellied Whistling-ducks over here. Back at the car park, a singing White-eyed Vireo remained elusive, despite its noisy song. An additional Ladder-backed Woodpecker flew over and landed in the trees on the opposite side of the road.
We decided to vary our habitat by ignoring the trails on the opposite side of the dam, and found Farm Road 70 a mile or two down the road, which was bounded by much more open countryside. This was an excellent choice, and led to a greater variety in the morning's birds. Almost as soon as we left the Lake Corpus Christi side road, we came across Red-bellied Woodpecker, Bronzed Cowbird, and Lark Sparrow within half a mile or so, perched on telegraph wires next to the road. After a short distance, we turned South on to FM70, which is 4-5 miles of almost straight tarmac passing through open farmland, being predominantly grassland grazed by cattle in many cases. It was here that we had our first sightings of the hugely impressive Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, some of which could be approached very closely in the car. This was also a prime spot for sparrows, and although Clay-coloured & Dickcissel were hoped for, there was ample recompense in the form of numerous Lark Sparrows, and some small flocks of Savannah Sparrows, the latter of which were presumably passing through. We also started to pick up Crested Caracaras here, with a singleton perched briefly directly above the car, but most overhead demonstrating their strangely characteristic silhouette. This rolling open grassland was a habitat that we hadn’t experienced before, and was very enjoyable.
After finding Kingsville, and more importantly the local branch of Chilli’s serving up our first half rack of ribs for the trip, we made our way to Dick Kleberg park. This wasn’t the type of park that we had expected, being more of a recreational area in a vast acreage as is the American way – open fields and sports courts. Next to the car park is an extensive playground for the kids, but just beyond this is the elongated lagoon which is bounded on the eastern edge by the aforementioned swings and things, and on the western side by some seemingly inaccessible woodland. We started off by walking towards the bridge at the North end of the lake, which is reputed to hold nesting Cave Swallows. We didn’t see any around the structure, but small numbers were over the water – at first a little more distant, but eventually flying ever closer showing diagnostic pale throats. First water birds were small groups of Blue-winged Teal, but we also found a handful of waders. In addition to 3 Black-necked Stilts was a group of peeps - 4 Least & 1 Western Sandpipers. On the shoreline, a breeding plumaged Spotted Sandpiper seemed to be approaching us, but must have eventually taken the safe option and flew to the small mud bank in the centre of the lagoon. We searched through the trees on the eastern edge of the lake quite extensively. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were very obvious, but most common birds were probably Northern Mockingbirds, and Ladder-backed & Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, with Lark Sparrows regularly appearing. Early on, a Belted Kingfisher flew past and seemed to land near to our position, but must have disappeared below the tree line. We were a little surprised to see terns passing through, at first 3 Gull-billed Terns, followed by 4-5 fishing Least Terns. Additional flycatchers were a pair of Great Kiskadees which were possibly nest building in the park, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. All in all, this was a nice little stop for the birds, but perhaps not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the Farm Road earlier in the day.
Next on the itinerary was to be FM285, which has been renamed as Hawk Alley, to look for raptors, but we searched for some of the chicken farms as we left Kaufer-Hubert memorial park, where chicken carcasses are put out and attract various raptors. We did find one of the farms, but their worth at the time we went past seemed to be much exaggerated with no sign of any raptors. Peak time is more likely to be during the morning. However, Hawk Alley lived up to its name and reputation, where we found all, or almost all, of the expected birds of prey. The scenery was again a little different from what we had expected. It was described as arid, but we found vast ranches of pasture land on one side of the road, which was very open, and reasonably open low woodland on the opposite side. After 3 Red-tailed & 2 Swainson’s Hawks , we did eventually stumble across a pair of hunting Harris’ Hawks. They kept themselves low over the treeline, but did pop up above the horizon on occasion. Next on the menu was Crested Caracara. The first ones were in the air, before finding one on a telegraph pole, and eventually one feeding on a carcass at the side of the road. It looked quite comical, trying to avoid the heavy lorries passing by, even more so when the carcass turned out to be a discarded bread crust. To complete the set, we found a few White-tailed Hawks further on, all soaring and from a distance, until one landed on a bare tree about 400 metres away on the pasture land.
Last journey of the day was down Route 77 all the way to the overnight stay at Harlingen. Overall, this proved as good as, if not better than, Hawk Alley. The information was that birds of prey and other specialities can be seen at the oak stands on the journey South. We didn’t formally stop at any of these, mainly because we saw plenty as we drove along the highway. We passed at least half a dozen Harris’ Hawks, most of which were perched on telegraph wires. In addition, we saw a couple of White-tailed Hawks, and the last of these was also perched right next to the road. Ringtail Northern Harrier was added to the raptor list as it was hunting on the central reservation. Crested Caracaras were quite common as we neared our destination, with at least 10-12 birds.