2021-05-04-5-6 SPI The Big Fallout That Wasn’t

This is a three day post. With my 2021 visit in south Texas drawing to a close, I’ve been pushing my limits to maximize my opportunities to meet migrating birds. This story is about Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday on South Padre Island. Besides the Convention Centre, I spent most of Thursday at the SPI Birding and Nature Center (part of the World Birding Center).

Philadelphia Vireo - Vireo philadelphicus
Many vireos showed up recently, but the Philadelphia Vireos were most abundant. Tuesday night’s winds at South Padre Island (Texas) did not produce the big warbler fallout we hoped for at the Convention Centre. Though there were several birding surprises in store for those of us who showed up to find birds.
Green Heron - Butorides virescens
It had been only about a week since I last visited the nesting Green Herons, and they’d grown so fast. Newer nests now sported young, hungry babies. 
Flame-Colored Tanager - Piranga bidentata
I met this rare bird Tuesday, but my Wednesday session with the camera was better.
Warbling Vireo - Vireo gilvus
Philadelphia Vireos look like a darker, more contrasty Warbling Vireo, but with more yellow.

Weather is the primary factor determining the number of northbound birds visiting the Gulf Coast on any spring day. Birds headed for their North American breeding grounds from their winter homes in Mexico, Central and South America, stage by the millions in places like the Mexican Yucatan, and wait for south winds to carry them over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They ride the wind as far as it will transport them, continuing inland as long as the breeze and their endurance can last. When they approach the coast and face a strong enough north wind, they will drop from the sky as quickly as possible, often exhausted and hungry. Timed right, they will make landfall in places such as South Padre Island. If they cannot reach the coast, they will fall to their doom in the waters of the gulf and perish.

Tuesday, many of us interested birders visiting SPI looked forward to one of these big fallout events. We tracked wind forecasts, trying to anticipate the bird’s movements. On Tuesday afternoon, the winds began shifting from south to north as expected. There were already many lovely birds visiting the island, which we all enjoyed. But the evening’s 10pm promise of 20-25 mph winds straight from the north, had us hoping Wednesday morning might bring a flood of travelling birds looking for a haven to rest and rejuvenate before resuming the long journey to their summer homes.

I arrived Tuesday on South Padre Island, planning to limit my visit to about an hour. After all, Wednesday promised to be so much better. Then a couple of rare birds showed up, and all bets were off. The rarities were the Flame-Colored Tanager and the Yellow-Green Vireo. These Central and South American birds rarely cross the USA-Mexico border, and it was my good luck to be on South Padre Island for the opportunity to meet them.

I retired from the island late Tuesday with visions of hoards of warblers falling from the Wednesday skies. But it was not to be. When I arrived early to the island, there were very few new birds roving the grounds. The spectacle of a few weeks ago was not to be repeated today. On that day we found the expansive lawns at the Convention Centre carpeted with birds, and the trees alive with avian life. Today the migrating birds had surprised us once again. Still, with a little sleuthing, many of us on the hunt for bird meetings ferreted out some surprising birds. Other folks saw the rare Yellow-Green Warbler, but I wasn’t able to find it. But the Flame-Colored Tanager treated me to several satisfying sessions of posing for the camera.

Wednesday morning another rare bird report came from next door at the Birding and Nature Center. It was yet another rare vireo, the Black-Whiskered Vireo. Having birded for several consecutive days, I couldn’t muster the energy to chase this rarity. Instead, I enjoyed the company of my fellow birders and photographers at the Convention Centre. It turns out I seem to have a knack for spotting birds even while engaged in conversations. Twice, while visiting with new friends, I spotted the Flame-Colored Tanager and helped others get pictures they might have otherwise missed.

A similar encounter happened while I was out on the boardwalk. Hoping to meet vireos or warblers, I was conversing with another birder, who’d not met the Least Bitterns here. I led her to the location where we often see them and swung my hand in a pointing gesture without first studying the mudflats below. My hand movement startled the target bird into a short flight. This produced the allusion, that magically, I’d pulled a rabbit out of my hat. We both had a merry laugh about it.

I didn’t want my pilgrimage to the island on Thursday to be a repeat of the previous two days, so after stopping for a brief visit to the Convention Centre, I drove next door to the SPI Birding and Nature Center to see what birds might be visiting there. As I was carrying my gear through the parking lot, one of my new friends (Daryl) and his bride pulled in to park their car. I’d told him earlier of my plan to visit here, and he decided to pay a visit as well. Wednesday he and I had a long visit. I learned he’d been a passionate nature photographer since the 1960s, when film and manual focus and exposure were the only game in town. Now a degenerative condition rendered him nearly blind and hampered his pursuit of nature photography. While he and I engaged in conversation on Wednesday, I spotted the Flame-Colored Tanager right in front of us, and directed his attention to the bird. I’d already gathered enough images for myself, but Daryl had missed it. He swung his 600mm lens into position and snapped away. I watched this man engrossed in the moment, and experienced a similar fulfillment, as if I was getting the bird for the first time myself.

During our Thursday meeting in the parking lot, I mentioned to Daryl, the nesting Green Herons I intended to visit. After entering Nature Center, I showed him and his wife where the herons were nesting. After looking for small passerines near the entry, I joined Darryl and the Green Heron babies. Then I wandered off to meet other birds. Later, I returned to the herons, and found Darryl still engrossed with the nesting birds. I walked back towards the entrance, where I met other friends stationed at the part of the Nature Center called “Songbird Alley”. Later, as Daryl was still enjoying the herons, his wife tracked me down to tell me how much she appreciated me helping her hubby. She hadn’t seen him so happy in quite a while. That act on her part hit an emotional note with me that surpassed all the other feelings about birding I was experiencing at that moment. 

After assembling images from the past three days, I had captured the following species: American Redstart, Bay-Breasted Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Chestnut-Sided Warbler, Flame-Colored Tanager, Green Heron, Indigo Bunting, Least Flycatcher, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Painted Bunting, Philadelphia Vireo, Red-Winged Blackbird, Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Swainson’s Thrush, Varied Bunting, Veery, Warbling Vireo, White-Winged Dove, Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and Yellow Warbler.

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