"The real voyage of Discovery lies not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes"
Marcel Proust

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Hawk Highway

To most travelers, Texas State Highway 100 from Los Fresnos to South Padre Island is a rather nondescript stretch of road. The short 24-mile highway is straight and flat as it courses across the coastal grasslands of Deep South Texas. However, more observant travelers might notice that the fences and power poles paralleling the highway between Los Fresnos and Laguna Heights are adorned with an amazing number and variety of hawks.  In this 11- mile stretch it is not uncommon to see seven or eight different kinds of hawks as well as closely related Black and Turkey Vultures and the stunning Crested Caracara. Many of these birds will be close enough to the road to identify without binoculars as folks drive down the highway.

On a recent trip along this raptor-lined road, I observed several individuals of each of the following species perched on fence posts and power poles: Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Ospreys, and the small but colorful American Kestrels.  Around these perched hawks, slender Northern Harriers fluttered like gigantic butterflies above the grasslands. At times they seemed to bounce along the top of the grass. Each of these species can be found throughout much of the United States.  However, this corridor is also home to some south Texas specialties.  

White-tailed Kite
White-tailed Hawk
I saw a half dozen White-tailed Kites hovering along the roadside; their wings beating fast, holding the bird in place while they searched the fields below for their dinner. The gorgeous White-tailed Hawk, found only in south Texas, was even more common.  Their gleaming white breasts and tails stood out from great distances. Upon closer inspection you could see their rusty shoulder patches.  At the other end of the color spectrum were the mostly black Harris’s Hawks. These social hawks are black with reddish shoulders, white rump and white-tipped tail. Unlike most hawks, they are often seen in small groups.  I could see four of five together on the electric wires or in small trees that dotted the landscape. It occurred to me that in light of the impressive number of hawks seen per mile, I would not want to be a mouse traveling along Highway 100!

Aplomado Falcon
The avian star of this highway is the rare and endangered Aplomado Falcon. This medium-sized falcon was extirpated from the U.S. -- another victim of the widespread use of DDT and excessive grazing by ranchers in the early and mid-20th century. By the 1940s, Aplomado Falcons were wiped out in this area. They were added to the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1986. In 1993, a non-profit organization called The Peregrine Fund began large scale releases of these falcons back into the coastal prairies of south Texas. 

This falcon is a bird worth slowing down and even slamming on the brakes for.  Indeed, I did stop at the intersection of Old Port Isabel Road (Buena Vista Road on Google Maps) and Texas Highway 100. Old Port Isabel Road is famous among bird watchers as a place to see this elegant falcon but it was too muddy to drive, so I scanned the flat open landscape from the edge of the highway with a spotting scope focusing on the tops of poles, posts, and palms. Aplomados are readily recognized at a long distance because they have a dramatically marked plumage of gray backs (Aplomado means “lead colored” in Spanish.), black and white heads, and varying amounts buffy orange (young) or cinnamon (adults) on their undersides.  It was a rather tedious task to sort through the many raptors perched and soaring in all directions. After having scanned about 180 degrees, I happened to look up from the scope to see this zephyr of a bird flying fast towards me. Immediately I knew it was the Aplomado with its sleek missile shape and long pointed wings. It shot past and gracefully swooped up and landed on a fencepost across the highway. There it afforded beautiful views through the scope. While looking at this bird I could not help but consider that this individual was one of only about 80 living in south Texas. 

It is a wonderful thing that this species once again flies the bluebonnet south Texas skies. And it is a wonderful thing to be, like these roadside raptors, at the top end of the food chain!
 -- Posted by Birder Man, Ted
(photos courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)