Just a few weeks ago, my friend Sally and I drove north on a dusty road in southeast Texas. The road was straight as an arrow, piercing the horizon as it sliced through remnants of sweeping coastal prairie.
Old Port Isabel Road’s claim to fame is its raptors, and our target was Aplomado Falcon. Aplomado Falcons are significant in the southwest because they were extirpated from the region long ago, and placed on the endangered species list in 1976. An intensive reintroduction program has put them back on the map, yet sightings and nesting activity are uncommon enough to remain special. I was eager to make up for last year’s dip on the bird during the last Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, so Sally and I accepted a local expert’s advice to drive up Old Port Isabel Road in search of the falcon.
The day wound up being a raptor-ous morning where, in the space of just a few hours, we’d see the Aplomado Falcon and eight other predatory species along this one lonesome but precious dirt road.
From Harlingen, we headed east toward the Gulf on Rt. 100 on our way to Old Port Isabel Road (that’s what locals call it, but Google Maps calls it Buena Vista Road). Not long before the turn, we spotted the chunky orange bill and white undertail of a Crested Caracara in flight. Fantastic bird, and a great warm up for the day ahead!
We hung left onto the dirt road and bam! We immediately saw not one, but TWO Aplomado Falcons perched in a bare-limbed tree. The birds seemed to be associating with a stick-built nest in the tree’s upper quadrant. Aplomado pairs remain together year round and hunt cooperatively. They typically nest from March to June, and do so by taking over the nests of other raptors or corvids. Whether or not this was their nest from earlier in the season, we couldn’t be sure.
The birds were tolerant of our presence, yet even so, we did not approach closely. I pointed my zoom lens out the window and snapped photos like mad. The birds were animated during the minutes we observed them—moving from branch to branch, making short flights, and flapping their wings. In the photo above, I captured one returning to its perch after a brief sojourn. Look at that tail spread! A band on the left leg of one of the birds shows that this bird was tagged as part of the restoration program.
Further up the road, we saw my first Harris’s Hawk, then a second, and a third. We watched as these chunky black hawks – probably members of cooperative hunting group – surveyed their territory from utility wires. The late morning sun glistened off their backs and rustled their red shoulder feathers.
An Osprey appeared soon after, along with two or three more. Then the white rump of a Northern Harrier appeared – the bird skirted close to the ground in search of prey then banked left and disappeared. A Red-shouldered Hawk made an appearance.