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2021-01-22 A Day at Estero Llano

Common Pauraque - Nyctidromus albicollis
Had it not been for the kindness of strangers, I would have passed by these cryptic birds roosting among the leaf litter in the underbrush. I spent Friday exploring a jewel of birding in south Texas; Estero Llano Grande State Park. I couldn’t visit this place last spring because of the pandemic. It is a wonderful place to meet birds.
Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans
I arrived only seconds before a lady photographer with a small camera chased this bird away with her aggressive approach to the bird, trying to get a picture. 

Friday morning I launched out of my campsite on a mission to explore one of the crown jewels of birding in south Texas; Estero Llano Grande State Park, south of Weslaco. It was a little over an hour’s drive via the Military Road, which follows the Mexican border. I drove through a drizzling overcast sky, and on my arrival I had doubts about how to protect my gear from the leaking skies. I’d made a water resistant cover for my big camera and lens, but it seems I left it on the West Coast before I left home. I thought I’d experiment with my D500 with the 70-200 f2.8 and a 2x extender. Including the 1.5 ratio sensor on the camera, I can shoot at 600mm and the rig is small enough to allow hand holding, plus I can tuck it under my rain jacket if need be.

I walked down the path leading from the parking lot and when I reached the end of the trail, I heard the commotion of an upset bird. I followed the noise and found the Elegant Trogon I’d heard was visiting the park. There were a few other observers there. One of them was a woman with a small camera who aggressively approached the bird in her efforts to capture an image with her undersized camera gear. Clearly she had upset the bird. Within minutes, the bird cleared the boundary fence and left the area and wasn’t seen again the rest of the morning. I snapped a few frames with my hand-held rig before the bird flew off, but only one image was usable.

As the morning progressed, the skies lightened, and the clouds lifted. So I hiked back to the RV and swapped my light camera rig for the big setup I prefer. When I returned to the scene of the crime, some kind birders put me onto a pair of Pauraques. The cryptic coloring of the birds made them all but disappear in the leaf litter under the tree where they sheltered on the ground. During the time I spent with these nightjars, they remained all but motionless. I left them undisturbed to look for other birds in the park. I returned twice over the following two hours, and they remained stationary, but the changing light made it worth persisting in my efforts to catch more images. I kept hoping they would at least open their eyes, but I never saw more than a narrow eye-slit, not even the reflection of an eyeball.

I continued exploring the park and found trails to the visitor center and the adjacent ponds. I learned they had recently filled them with precious water. I walked the full perimeter of the nearest pond (called the Ibis Pond) and found a bright male Vermilion Flycatcher hawking insects from high perches. I worked on capturing him in flight and successfully caught several takeoffs and landings. There were other worthy birds at Ibis Pond, but I especially enjoyed a Great Kiskadee when it posed nearby. I’d been hearing their calls all day and catching fleeting glimpses of them high in the canopy, but this bird was at eye-level and in perfect light. I even captured several frames of this large flycatcher while it was airborne.

I stayed late into the afternoon, and when the day was done I’d marched almost 2 miles. Aside from getting teased with the trogon earlier, the birding started off slow, but later picked up nicely. I took an awful lot of images and had my work cut out to pan for gold. After washing out most of the sand and gravel, there were a few flecks of color at the bottom of the pan. Estero Llano more than lived up to the reputation I’d heard about.

The birds I met and photographed included American White Pelican, Black-Crested Titmouse, Black Phoebe, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-Winged Teal, Common Pauraque, Eastern Fox Squirrel, Elegant Trogon, Gadwall, Golden-Fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Green-Winged Teal, Least Grebe, Least Sandpiper, Mottled Duck, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Orange-Crowned Warbler, Red-Tailed Hawk, Red-Winged Blackbird, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Snowy Egret, Spotted Sandpiper, Vermilion Flycatcher, White-Tipped Dove, and Yellow-Rumped Warbler. I also enjoyed meeting some Texas butterflies on my walk. I’m not the most experienced butterfly hunter, but I believe I captured images of Mexican Bluewing, Lyside Sulphur, and Tropical Leafwing butterflies.

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