2021-03-27 Palmito Hill & Boca Chica Beach

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Avocets far outnumbered all other shorebirds on the river mouth. I loaded my gear on my bike and rode out on Boca Chica Beach to the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the fresh water meets the Gulf of Mexico. Here the chances to meet and observe the dynamic interaction of species are high.
Double-Crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus
I watched as this cormorant caught a fish and then had to defend his prize from pirates.
Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Snowy and White-Morph Reddish Egrets have a similar appearance, unless seen side-by-side.

Weekends are the only time when Texans can access the beach at Boca Chica. The nearby Space-X launch complex executes tests and launch operations during the week and closes the road to the beach. Weather reports predicted Saturday was the best time to pay a visit there, so I broke camp early and headed out to meet the day.

Just 10 miles inland from Boca Chica Beach is Palmito Hill, another of my favorite birding locations. On my way to the beach, I stopped there to scout the birding opportunities. It yielded a White-Tailed Hawk. I found a pair of White-Tailed Hawks there in January, and it seems they are still in the area. Other birds were present, such as Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers and Eastern Meadowlarks, but their shyness dissuaded me from capturing an image this morning. My mission today was further east at the beach.

When I reached the end of the road at the Gulf of Mexico, I loaded my gear on my bike and rode 3 miles south to the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the fresh water meets the salty gulf. Here, the chances to meet and observe the dynamic interaction of species are high. Large concentrations of avian predators and fishy prey congregate where fresh and saltwater meet.

Shooting into the sun is not the first choice of most photographers. Subjects turn into silhouettes against bright backgrounds. When a river separates you from the shore with the proper lighting, and that shore is in a foreign country, you make do with the cards you’re dealt. The good news is that most of the birds foraging at the river mouth were on my side of the river. I believe this is because of the way the curving river cuts its channels. Families recreated on the Mexican south shore, and that seemed to discourage birds from foraging there.

I parked my bike in the damp sand and set up my stool and tripod low to the ground above the surging water by the river mouth. The waders and shorebirds feeding nearby moved a short distance down the beach, but I remained still, and they eventually returned. Hundreds of American Avocets lined the shores, many of them loafed upstream, but a few dozen foraged the water’s edges in front of me. Snowy Egrets, Reddish Egrets (White Morph), and Tricolored Herons mingled with the avocets and the occasional pelican and cormorant swam to the nearby water’s edge to seek fish. Terns (Forster’s and Caspian) plunge dived, often finding small fish to eat. There were Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones, busy probing the wet sands well above the high water. All I had to do was sit still and wait for the birds to come to me. And come they did!

One episode I found exciting was when I witnessed an attempted piracy by a Neotropic Cormorant on a Double-Crested Cormorant. The larger bird (Double-Crested) caught a sizable fish in the middle of the river, but struggled to swallow it. A smaller cormorant (Neotropic) approached the larger bird, causing it to take flight. Not to be denied, the smaller cormorant pursued, hoping to pirate a meal. The drama lasted several minutes, and a Caspian Tern joined the chase. I found the boldness of the smaller cormorant surprising, but it missed by the smallest of margins, its attempted robbery. The larger cormorant swallowed its meal in the nick of time.

The bird species I captured this morning were American Avocet, Brown Pelican, Caspian Tern, Double-Crested Cormorant, Forster’s Tern, Laughing Gull, Neotropic Cormorant, Reddish Egret, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, White-Tailed Hawk, and Willet.

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