Raptor Road Trip
By Penelope Warren
A bird lover's guide to the best places to spot hawks in South Texas.
Travel time from:
- Austin - 4 hours /
- Brownsville - 3.5 hours /
- Dallas - 7 hours /
- El Paso - 10 hours /
- Houston - 5.25 hours /
- San Antonio - 2.5 hours /
- Lubbock - 8.5 hours
We drive into a pale dawn. The sun, all its color leached by the winter-white sky, poises just above the horizon. On either side of the road, mesquite and huisache stand silhouetted against the broken clouds, together with the telephone poles that march along the road. Hunched hawk shapes occupy the crossbars, frequently a pair together, but the light is too dim to make out their identity. They begin to stir as clouds break and stream away in a freshening wind, and at regular intervals along the wires smaller shapes, too upright to be mockingbirds, puff their feathers and preen. The light grows around us, and suddenly one of them sails into the air, the sun catching the sheen of copper on back and breast, modulated to bright bronze where it shines through the spread fan of the tail. “Kestrel,” says my friend Susan Foster, and we have our first firm ID of the day.
We are headed for Lobo Creek Ranch, some 11 miles east of Laredo on Highway 359. Owned by architect Willie Cavazos and his wife Chacha, the ranch is one of the hottest privately owned birding spots in the area. As we approach the turnoff, the “pole hawks” become red-tails, Harris’s hawks and caracaras as they spread their wings and tip elegantly off their perches. A bumpy but short road leads to the new ranch house, where Willie and Chacha greet us, and we set out for a morning’s birding.
A turn around the broad pond just behind the house nets several Wilson’s snipe and the ranch’s trademark bird, a vermilion flycatcher. A shadow skims along the water, and we look up to see a pair of red-tails gliding by not 20 feet above us. This close, they seem as huge as eagles, though their distinctive dark “bellybands” and trademark rust-red tails permit no mistaken identity. We trek through the woods, then clamber up a berm that runs beside a stock tank. As we gain our footing, Willie points to a caracara climbing into the air. We glance up perfunctorily, and then Susan cries, “Look! It’s caught something!”
And it has. From its beak dangles something small and indistinct, splotched with dark red. As we watch it disappear into the trees beyond the tank, Willie does a double take. “There’s another one!” And this one, too, has made a successful hunt as it follows the first one out of sight. A third caracara appears, also laden, flying along the same trajectory as the other two. A raptor family? As we head back to the ranch house we note a pair of soaring Harris’s hawks with their white rumps and chestnut wing patches. We spend our last half hour of the birding day on the patio that backs up to the creek, watching a belted kingfisher struggle with a catfish half as long as he is, bashing it repeatedly against the branch where he perches.
The next morning finds us again on Highway 359, this time bound for Riviera and Baffin Bay. As we name off our road hawks it becomes almost a game of “I spy.” Red-tail, red-tail, another red-tail, caracara, Harris’s, Harris’s, caracara. Once, a Cooper’s hawk scuds across the road ahead of us, pursuing a smaller bird into the brush. We slow to pass through Hebbronville, and then pick up the litany of red-tail, Harris’s, caracara — whoa! That’s no red-tail! Not even close!
A sharp U-turn brings us back to a post where a beautiful white-tailed kite perches, its gray back and wings sleek and elegant against its white body, its eyes the deep red of perfect rubies. A mile or so down the road, we backtrack sharply for a white-tailed hawk. Like the kite, this one is content to sit still for several minutes and let us admire it, its copper-flashed gray wings set, like the kite’s, against a snowy breast and belly. We will see more white-tails all the way to the coast, not as numerous as red-tails further west, and not displacing them, but very much a characteristic bird of the coastal plain. Sadly, they are state-listed as threatened because of habitat loss.
At Riviera, we enjoy a lunch at the King’s Inn, heaps of shrimp and scallops served with sliced tomatoes half as big as the plates and the glorious avocado-topped Bombay salad. As we eat, we watch an osprey work the inlet visible from the window, plunging into the water to emerge with a fish, carried head-forward, so it is streamlined, in its talons.
Our afternoon search for the out-of-season groove-billed anis we found close-by last year proves futile, but we do record a number of migratory sandpiper species. We turn home late, and all along the road, the hawks are settling in to roost. Just inside the Laredo city limits, we get a late glimpse of a northern harrier over Chacon Creek, its concave face distinctive even in the fading light.
Our third day in the field finds us convoying the 90 miles south on Highway 83 to Salineño for the Falcon Dam Christmas Bird Count. The Monte Mucho Audubon chapter is out in force: Judy Kestner, Walt Jenkins, Raul Degollado, Susan and I will link up with other members at the boat ramp, and then head out to identify and record every bird we see. When we arrive just after daybreak, chapter President Jim Hailey already has a young gray hawk in his scope. With its streaked breast and brown back, it looks nothing at all like the elegant adult it will become. Only the barring of the tail shows the beginning of mature color and pattern.
While Jim names off the teams, everyone takes a look (or two) through the scope, searching, too, for the hook-billed kite we’d seen here a week before. No luck, though, and we split up to cover our separate areas.
The first part of our assignment takes Dwain, Dick Heller and me looping through the monte on Avalos Road, which intersects Highway 83 just north of the turn-off to Salineño. Almost immediately, we spot three Harris’s hawks perching together, and another triplet a couple miles farther on. Unlike other raptors, this species practices polyandry, with one female mated to two males. Both fathers defend the nest and help to feed the young, frequently through cooperative hunting. One bird flushes the prey, the other catches it, and it is carried back to the nest for dining en famille.
Several dozen black-throated sparrows and a covey of quail later, we notice a bird hanging motionless in the air except for the beating wings; it’s a white-tailed kite, kiting. The prize of the morning, though, comes as a surprise. As birds go, hawks run large, but this one is huge. It perches in the top of a bare tree in the middle of a bare meadow, the full sun clearly showing its white breast and throat, the mottled gray and rust of its back and wings. We mutter as we page through our guides, “Juvie red-shouldered?”
“Nah, too big.”
“No way, it’s not red.”
“What the —?”
Sibley nails it for us. His painting of the first-year ferruginous hawk could be a portrait of this individual bird, the ID confirmed as it finally takes flight and banks to show the almost pure white of its wing linings. Dwain marks it down with satisfaction. These birds are very rare and not expected in South Texas even in winter; our team has just acquired bragging rights.
We bird Roma from the truck, snag a quick fast-food lunch, and head down to Fronton. The trees that line the plowed fields here are home to gray hawks, and we find one atop a telephone pole, being harassed by a mockingbird. When it flies off in almost palpable disgust, we turn back to Salineño. The other CBCers have preceded us, and we find them comfortably ensconced in chairs in the clearing surrounding Pat and Gale DeWind’s mobile home. The DeWinds, winter Texans from the Midwest, maintain dozens of bird feeders and an open house — or yard — from 7:30 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon. We sit down to rest and enjoy the show as green jays and brown jays, Altamira orioles, cardinals, goldfinches, white-tipped doves and a myriad of other species flock to the suet and orange halves nailed along the tree branches. We boast a little, tease a little.
“Nothin’ much, just a ferruginous hawk.”
“Yeah? Any gray hawks?”
And so it goes.
On the way home, we stop at El Paraiso in Zapata. This small restaurant serves a championship chicken fried steak, cut on the premises and never frozen that is, well, paradisiacal. “Next year we’ll get the hook-billed kite,” someone says, and we pledge to it with iced tea and decaf. “Next year in Salineño.”
It’s a perfect end to 3 Days in the Field.
Lobo Creek Ranch
Lobo Creek Ranch is owned by Willie and Chacha Cavazos. From the intersection of Highway 359 and Bob Bullock Loop, drive 11.2 miles east. The ranch is on your right, identified by a small green sign and a bright yellow gate. To arrange a visit, call Cavazos and Associates, Architects, at (956) 724-8123. Tours are self-guided, aided by a map. A guesthouse is available on weekends.
Take Hwy 359 East from Laredo to Hebbronville. From Hebbronville, continue east on 285 through Falfurrias to Riviera. From Riviera, take County Hwy 771 east, turning north on 628 to Loyola Beach. King’s Inn is located at 1116 E. CR 2270. Phone (361) 297-5265. Total distance is about 115 miles.
From Laredo, go south on U.S. Hwy 83 to the Salineño turnoff, approximately 74.4 miles. Turn right onto River Road, which takes you to the boat ramp. Just before the parking area, note the gate to the DeWinds’ property on your left. Birders are welcome between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. There is no fee, but donations toward the fruit, seed and other supplies for the birds are accepted with thanks.
Still on U.S. Hwy. 83, head south through Roma to the intersection of 83 and FM 650, about 7.4 miles. Take 650 south to Fronton. Go .1 mile west on Plaza, then turn south on River Road for half a mile. This will take you to the river. To look for gray hawks, take the dirt roads that edge the fields and run along the old aqueduct.
Zapata: El Paraiso
The restaurant is on Hwy. 83 as you drive through Zapata. Look for the saguaro sign on your right going south, on your left coming north.