2022-08-21 Mustang Island

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
After I boarded the Port Aransas Ferry and crossed the channel, I noticed that the air was thick with migrating Black Terns. After disembarking, I found a vantage point where I could capture some images.
Magnificent Frigatebird - Fregata magnificens
While I worked on the terns foraging, I was surprised by a fly-over by a Magnificent Frigatebird.

Mustang Island is one of the long strips of dune islands, or barrier islands off the Gulf Coast of Texas that protect the mainland from the worst fury of the storms that regularly pound through the region. It is one of the smaller of these islands, extending from Port Aransas to Corpus Christi. My visit there resembled a three act play. Act One began with a bang, at the Aransas Pass – Port Aransas Ferry Landing. Act Two, at the Port Aransas Nature Preserve, was somewhat slow. Act Three, at Mustang Beach, left me on a high note.

Sunday I drove from Austwell to Port Aransas. The route I traveled used a ferry to cross the channel leading to Port Aransas and Mustang Island. The waters we crossed were wealthy with Black Terns in hovering flight. It is a phenomenon I’ve seen at ferry crossings before. I suspect that the churning of the ferry’s propellers stir up the water and provide feeding opportunities not available elsewhere on the rivers or bays. After disembarking on the island, I parked and walked out to the water’s edge with my camera gear. While there were other birds working the agitated water, the terns were by far the most numerous and compelling of the subjects before me. I met this species in Canada and in the highest latitudes of the USA during my journey this spring. In those meetings, they sported the dark cloak that comes with their time of breeding. But here in August, they’d traded their spring garb for their fall and winter colors, and they brought with them their juveniles from the recent breeding season.

I left the terns behind and visited the nearby Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. A year and a half earlier, I spent a lovely morning with the birds here, that included a pair of Whooping Cranes and their full-grown colt. Given the season, my expectations this day were low for meeting a wide variety of birds. When I reached the reserve, my expectations were exceeded, but only by a little. I found a Tricolored Heron, a few Common Gallinules, some gulls, grackles, and distant avocets. There were even a few of those Black Terns patrolling the skies over the shallow lake in their elusive, swallow-like fashion.

I left Port Aransas and headed south along the length of Mustang Island looking for a place to rest for the night. While on my way to the Walmart Astoria in Corpus Christi, I passed a beach access road and turned back to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Mustang Beach. This ad hoc stop turned out to be one of my favorite sessions of the day. 

Unlike the beaches I visited on South Padre and Boca Chica, the sands were moist and hard-packed. I could have safely driven the van out to the water’s edge, but because I could see promising subjects only a short walk away, I parked near where the road met the beach. I found three tern species loafing above the surf-line. I could tell them apart because of the obvious differences in size. Here again were Black Terns, but they were the mid-sized bird in the trio. Least Terns, the smallest of all in this family, roosted nearby. The third species were Sandwich Terns in their winter garb with their full-sized juveniles. 

The usual Texas shorebirds also patrolled the sands. When I’ve visited the Gulf Coast beaches in Texas, I could always count on meeting Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Willets. Snowy Plovers are resident on these shores, but while I’ve missed them on earlier visits, I got eyes on one here along with a Semipalmated Plover. While I enjoyed the visit with the terns, Sanderlings, and turnstones, I hoped the plovers might enter the arena where I had set up my gear, but they did not pose for me.

I left the beach and found a suitable Walmart Astoria to spend the night. And so with this visit, I concluded my tour of this portion of the Texas Gulf Coast. Monday I drove three hours south to begin my stay at the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

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