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2021-01-18 Sabal Palm Sanctuary

Least Grebe - Tachybaptus dominicus
Least Grebes are the smallest of grebe clan in North America. This was my first meeting with them. On my first visit to Texas last spring, the pandemic of 2020 caused the Sabal Palm Sanctuary to close its doors. It took until this Monday in January for me to manage my first visit here.
Foggy Scenes - Scenery
Foggy scenes greeted me as I arrived at the sanctuary.
Green Kingfisher - Chloroceryle americana
Green Kingfishers are the smallest of North American kingfishers. This was my first meeting with them. 

Less than six miles from my base camp in Brownsville (Texas), is a birding destination of world renown. In the 1890s and early 1900s, it was one of the largest post Civil War plantations in the area. Today they call it the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. The Audubon Society and the Gorgas Science Foundation operate the property as a research and education center. Measures to intervene against the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 precipitated a decision to close the facility to the public, and it denied me the opportunity to explore this amazing place.

This past Monday I found my way into this Garden of Eden and wandered many of the primitive trails through its South Texas jungles. I wanted to meet Least Grebes. My research told me I could find them there. The sanctuary is only five and a half miles from my Breeze Lake camp, and I arrived on site shortly after their opening hour of 7am. After three hours had passed, I’d walked along two miles of trails through moss-covered oaks and the famed Sabol Palm groves.

It was a foggy morning when I came into the grove, and it added an eerie, mystical quality to my experience. Long tentacles of Spanish Moss draped the trees, adding a sense of wonder to the morning. I heard loud rustling sounds from overhead. Looking up, I found many of the tree-tops hosted roosting vultures. I took a few obligatory pictures, but my goal to find Least Grebes kept me moving along the trail. After the sun burned away the fog and warmed the air, I saw 40-50 vultures sailing above me in a kettle formation.

Before I launched down the trails, I met another visitor in the parking area that seemed familiar with the sanctuary. I mentioned my interest in the grebes, and he directed me to the resaca ponds and told me to watch for Ringed and Green Kingfishers as well. He said I should follow the signs to the “Blinds”. As I walked the meandering trails through the forests, I was grateful for the directional and informational signs placed at every intersection along the trail. I reached the resacas and the first of three blinds, and found the grebes I sought. After getting acquainted with these smallest members of the grebe clan, I continued exploring the trails through the sanctuary. The fog persisted as I wandered the paths, casting a mysterious tone to the morning.

I suspect winter is not the busiest birding time to meet birds anywhere in Southern Texas, and this sanctuary was no exception. Despite this, I encountered ducks, woodpeckers and sparrows on my walk, and enjoyed the quiet serenity of the morning. As the fog lifted, and the sun’s rays broke through, my walk led me back to the blind where I’d earlier met the grebes. I stepped into the blind and found the lighting on the scene had improved. I captured more images of the grebes and tried to catch the posing flycatchers and warblers flitting about before me.

I’d hoped to meet kingfishers here, but I’d not seen or heard any during my hike. While watching an Eastern Phoebe perched on a low snag just beyond good camera range, a small bird swooped down from an unseen perch to chase the phoebe away. It was a Green Kingfisher. Enticed to linger now, I watched this new player’s behaviour and hoped for an opportunity to capture a worthwhile image. The bird at last rewarded me with a perch near enough to its photograph and even captured prey during my vigil.

When winds kicked up and clouds rolled in, I ended my visit. I’d been caught in squalls when hiking in such places. I didn’t want to risk getting myself or my gear soaked. When I finished my visit to the sanctuary, I’d met and photographed two species new to me; the Least Grebe and the Green Kingfisher. I also captured the Black-Crested Titmouse, Green Jay, Olive Sparrow, and Turkey Vulture. There were birds along the trail I missed getting images of that included Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, Golden-Fronted Woodpecker, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, Plain Chachalaca, and Gadwall.

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