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South Texas

      Forgoing the traditional New Years Eve festivities we set a course for the warm temperatures and exotic wildlife of the lower Rio Grande Valley.  Upon leaving we managed to load everything including: gear, three adults, and two full-size retrievers into and onto my small Toyota Rav 4.  Needless to say it was an uncomfortably tight fit; which the dogs promptly let us know with their first fight only half of a block away from home.  After removing the rawhide chews that seemed to be causing all the commotion things settled down a bit and we were moving once again.  We drove through the first night, and then thru the next day, finally late in the afternoon we reached San Antonio.  We figured we had made it far enough south now that it would be worth keeping an eye open for artificial cover in the form of dilapidated  billboards and roadside trash dumps. We of coarse had great expectations of finding a significant number of the herpetofauna species that south Texas offered.  Well, Ryan and I did anyhow.  Brian Scheidt, the third party in our group (and all around good sport) is a geologist and could take or leave the herps either way, but he does appreciate a good road trip and enjoys exploring new areas.  Anyhow, as it turns out, fate had other plans for us.  The first piece of cover that Ryan and I flipped, a nicely situated sheet of plywood that used to belong to a billboard revealed nothing but bone dry, cracked earth.  Neither of us wanted to admit it then but we were both thinking it, this was a definite omen for the rest of the trip.  Even back home when it gets too dry the herps simply disappear, lay low, and conserve moisture until the rain returns.  We tried a couple more spots with similar results before we headed for Choke Canyon State Park where we planned on camping that evening.
      The first campground we arrived at didn’t look too bad other than it basked in the glow of a monstrosity of some sort of terrible looking factory that towered above it.  Looking for a more natural experience we decided to keep going and check out another campground that lied about eight miles further up the road.  This campground was in a much nicer area but as luck would have it the gate was locked.  The sign read “gate closes at
ten p.m.”, our watches read ten fifteen p.m.  By this time we had all been in the car for far too long and wanted nothing more than a good night's sleep.  Back at the radio active campground we found the gate closed but unlocked so we invited ourselves in.
      The next thing I knew I was waking up to a sunny south
Texas morning in much better spirits than the night before.  It was much easer to ignore the factory now that the sun was up and the factory lights were off.  Although we still couldn’t ignore it enough to fill up our water bottles from the campground spigot.  Sitting at a picnic table covered in maps and papers, I discovered that we unknowingly camped just a few miles away from one of the first spots we planned on herping so after a bit of birding around the campground we packed up and headed out.
      It wasn’t long before we were out of the car and flipping various pieces of artificial cover around a few old buildings.  Right away we notice a flock of large birds flying high over head and recognize them as Sandhill Cranes by their calls, a species we had all hoped for and were happy to see.  As I’m watching the Sandhills disappear through binoculars, I hear Ryan shout out “indigo shed” and he held up a super sized shed skin from one of our most sought after species of the trip.  This certainly got our blood flowing but regardless of looking through some great habitat we just couldn’t turn up the original owner of that giant skin.
      I was off looking through some boards lying atop an old concrete foundation when I turned up the first of many little scorpions that we would find on this trip.  It just so happens that we were already familiar with this species, Centruroides vittatus, from the miniature Ozark deserts we call glades in
Missouri.

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      A little Mediterranean Gecko was also taking cover in these boards.  This was a life species for all of us and I was looking forward to photographing it until I regrettably broke off its tail.  Ryan found the next lizard, a very good looking Rose-bellied Lizard.  Again this was a lifer for us all and again we would have loved to photograph it but unfortunately I screwed this one up as well.  I’m still not sure how it happened; the lizard was in my hand on second and gone into some hidden hole the next.  I did get a chance to redeem myself though; after everyone else had given up on the spot I headed for an abandoned trailer that we had been avoiding in case of bees. There turned out to be a lot of good cover surrounding the trailer where I found a nice adult Southwestern Rat Snake, a new sub-species for us.  After a few well placed “I told you so’s” directed at my companions we took to making some photos of the snake.

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      During our rat snake photo session we were lucky enough to spot another life bird; a Harris Hawk that was flying along the shore line of a large lake situated across the road from us.  This was especially good for me as I had spent a lot of time looking unsuccessfully for this bird on a previous trip to Arizona years before.  At the time I didn’t realize that this would be one of the most commonly seen raptors on our trip.
      After releasing the rat snake back at the trailer I was lifting the last few remaining pieces of cover when I found this Great Plains Narrow-mouthed Toad.  At this spot, in the morning, and in the shade just a little bit of moisture could be found under cover but unfortunately it would be the last we would find.

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      The rest of the day was spent making our way south from herping spot to herping spot, finding nothing but scorpions, tarantulas and dry earth.
      By night fall we made it to
Falcon Lake State Park where we were greeted by a very friendly and helpful ranger that seemed to set the tone for our whole stay at the park.  After setting up camp, while waiting my turn for a much needed shower, I took a walk around the shower house scanning the walls with my headlamp for geckos.  Sure enough, just as I had suspected there were at least two geckos per wall scurrying around hunting insects.  This time I was a bit more careful while handling them.

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      No moon, clear skies, and a big wide open view that night made for one of the most spectacular displays of stars I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping under.  When morning came we awoke to enough bird activity just around our camp site to considerably impede the taking down and packing up procedures.  One bird of interest for me and a life bird for Ryan spotted that morning was the striking Vermilion Flycatcher. 
      The only thing about Falcon Lake State Park that park that wasn’t pleasant was their “Watch Out for Snakes” signs that seemed to mock us as we were leaving.
      Granted we should have learned by now that artificial cover was just next to useless for finding herps under these conditions but we spent the first part of the day flipping it anyhow.  We did find another Indigo shed, a Patch-nosed Snake shed, and a couple of others that were too decomposed to identify.  We also came across this brush fire; apparently these were burning in many other areas of Texas due to the drought.

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      Being thoroughly satisfied now that we were not going to find anything by flipping cover, we headed east.  We planned on staying at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park, a national landmark for bird watchers.  When we arrived we learned that we either had to ride the tram or walk into the park.  Having lots of gear plus the dogs, we decided to skip it. We moved on down the road to check out Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. 
      Arriving at Santa Ana we learned we could only hang around the front of the Sanctuary with the dogs and it was too hot to leave them in the car.  We knew this was a possibility and so we were prepared for the disappointment.  It turned out that hanging around the front of the sanctuary was enough to get us a couple south Texas specialty life birds, Rio Grande Leopard Frogs, and another Southwestern Rat Snake.  Our first bird was the large Ringed Kingfisher that sounds like a machine gun going off when it calls.  Then we got many good looks at a south Texas icon, the flashy Great Kiskadees.  While walking along a concrete irrigation ditch trying to get a solid ID on the frogs that were quickly diving in at the slightest disturbance, we spotted something moving oddly on the opposite side of the ditch .  A look through binoculars revealed it to be a South Western Rat Snake but it just wasn’t acting right.  We moved closer and discovered it was tangled in some sort of vegetation and was quite exhausted.  Ryan made his way back the way we came where he could cross the ditch and come back up on the opposite side.  He pulled the snake free and noticed a few wounds on it from who knows what.  We left the snake on the bank of the ditch hoping it would be ok and continued on our way.  Walking the ditch also produced another indigo shed and a large ribbon snake shed. 
      We left Santa Ana and headed for Brownsville where we would camp and start the next day fresh at my original destination, the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary.  Finding a campground turned out to be a huge pain.  All the campgrounds on the map were turning out to be RV only.  We spent a good deal of time driving around dead tired looking for one of the campgrounds that allowed primitive camping before finally stopping in one of the RV places to ask directions.  A lady there told us that we could stay there in the RV park if we wanted and pitch our tents in a grassy area behind some trailers.  But, she also gave us what we thought were clear directions to the campground we were looking for.  We went looking for the campground and wasted another hour that should have been spent sleeping before we gave up and went back to the RV place.  This time we asked how much it was going to cost to pitch our tents in that grassy spot and were told twenty five dollars.  Now this doesn’t seem like much money but we were traveling on a shoestring and the whole point of camping was that it was cheaper than a motel, and for ten more bucks we could have gotten a cheap room.  By now everyone was pissed and just wanted out of the car, so we stayed.  We may have just as well camped in a pond as wet as the grass was, in addition my tent and sleeping bag were still soaked  from packing up before the dew burnt off the previous morning.  For a desert in the midst of a huge drought there was an ironically large amount of dew in the mornings.  You would think this would be enough to make for a poor evening but it only gets worse.  The dogs are as tired of being cooped up in the car as we are so we let them out to have a romp and stretch their legs.  As I’m unpacking I notice that its way too quiet and that can only mean one thing that the dogs are into something they shouldn’t be into.  Sure enough I walk around the car and they’re chowing down on the rankest, nastiest pile of feces I’ve ever had the pleasure of smelling, like it’s the best thing they’ve ever eaten.  This stuff was so bad there was no way of even telling what it came from.  So I take my stinking dog, Quinn, and tie him up then alert Brian to the situation with his dog.  I finish setting up my wet camp, take Quinn and head for the shower.  Arriving at the shower I can now see the extent of the damage, Quinn not only had to eat the feces but he had to roll around in it as well.  The shower is the size of a small closet, the shower head doesn’t move and it is aimed no where near my dog while he’s on the floor of the shower.  To say getting Quinn clean was difficult would be a severe understatement.  I may have forgotten to mention how cold it is by now and not long after we get into our wet tent, Quinn, soaking wet, starts to shake.  Regardless of how big of a pain in the ass he’s been all evening I still care dearly for him and don’t want to see him freeze all night or even worse get sick so I stuff my wet dog into my (girlfriend's) wet sleeping bag the best I can and we suffer through the night in our wet tent.
      Waking up was a chore the next morning, even considering our uncomfortable accommodations.  Regardless, it didn’t take me too long to come around considering that the Sabal Palm Grove offered the best, and not too far from the only, chance to encounter the exotic Speckled Racer in North America.  We made it to the palm grove early but again dogs were not allowed so Brian generously offered to spend the day sitting the dogs at the beach allowing Ryan and I a full day in the palm forest.  So we made a detour for Boca Chica State Park and the beach.  Along the way we were lucky enough to get views of White-tailed Kites, White-tailed Hawks, and a Peregrine Flacon perched relatively close to the road.  Arriving at Boca Chica we were surprised to find the place empty of people with miles of beach to freely roam.  We took a short drive down the deserted beach and set up camp for that night.  This allowed for things to dry out from the previous night and would provide Brian and the dogs some much needed shade later that day when things heated up.  Ryan and I bid farewell to our companions and feeling a bit guilty about abandoning them in a desert completely void of shade other than a tent; we left for the forest.
      When we returned to the forest the birding was fantastic right off the bat; hoards of Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, Black-crested Chickadees, and White-tipped Doves were surrounding the feeders at the visitor center.  Unfortunately the herping did not follow this same theme. We looked long and hard for the Speckled Racer in every imaginable way but ended up empty handed.  Still though, the Palm forest was a super cool place providing a look into a very unique subtropical habitat that, like the Speckled Racer, is found no where else in North America.  Some killer bird watching was had here as well, other than the species at the headquarters feeders, we also got a few more south Texas specialties: a Green Kingfisher that was smaller than I ever imagined a kingfisher could be, a Groove-billed Ani that I though was a grackle at first, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Mottled Ducks, Least Grebes, and a Couch’s kingbird.  We did manage to find one life herp here though; this Four-lined Skink was rolled under a palm tree log.

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     I walked away from the palm forest that day with two minor injuries.  The first one came while crossing a barbed wire fence.  As I was throwing a leg over the fence and shifting my weight to that side I managed to stab a very long thorn a full inch into my calve.  When I reached down and pulled it out it just seemed to keep coming with no end in sight.  This resulted in much more pain over the next couple of days than I ever expected.  My entire calve was swollen and so sore that I bitched and moaned about it until my friends started bitching and moaning about it.
      The next injury was pretty minor compared to the thorn episode but a bit scarier.  Before leaving for south Texas everyone warned me about killer bees; well I don’t know if the bees I encountered were of the killer variety or not but they did chase me a good ways.  Ryan and I were turning a couple big chunks of concrete tubing and I guess we uncovered a hive.  I noticed something buzzing around on my leg and without thinking I swatted at it and it stung me on the leg.  Then I suddenly remembered KILLER BEES!  I guess Ryan came to this realization the same moment because we both took off running at the same time.  Or maybe I hollered “oh shit bees!” I really don’t remember.  I made it about sixty yards and hadn’t noticed any buzzing black cloud behind me so I stopped.  Immediately a couple of them were on me again so I again bolted as fast as I could before stopping another forty yards away due to a lack of oxygen.  This time the bees were gone and I had a chance to reach down and pull out the throbbing stinger.  This experience wasn’t exactly life threatening but it made me wonder if I would be able to outrun a large angry mob of these things; especially in the thick scrub habitat that is so common down here.
      The drive back to Boca Chica that evening got us a pair of the coolest Raptors of the trip, a set of colorful Aplomapo Falcons.  These guys were extirpated from the southwest in the recent past but captive breeding efforts and reintroductions have helped them make a comeback.  Aside from the falcons, there seemed to be an Osprey roosted on every telephone pole and the poles that didn’t have Ospreys on them had Harris Hawks or Great Horned Owls.
Back at the beach that evening, Brian was sunburned and the dogs were covered in sand but everyone was happy and healthy.  That night, we sat around our campfire enjoying the ocean breeze with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.
      The next morning these little crabs were scurrying around our campsite.  Anybody have a name for these?

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     I wanted to give the palm forest one more shot that morning.  We decided it would be ok to leave the dogs in the car as long as it was cool, then when it warmed up we would head north for Laguna Atasoca National Wildlife Refuge.  Things were pretty uneventful that morning other than Ryan getting buzzed by a border patrol chopper.  As Brian and I were hanging out at the feeders trying to get shots of Green Jays a helicopter kept circling around and dropping low over the sanctuary over and over again, scaring away all the birds.  At the time we thought it may have something to do with Ryan who was still in the field looking for herps.  Later that day Ryan admitted it was tough fighting off the natural flight mechanism from overtaking him. 
     It wasn’t a far drive to Laguna Atacosa where Ryan finally got to see his first American Alligator.  Unfortunately it was a bit unclimatic though.  We simply walked out on a small boardwalk and looked down into a small drying pool where a rather pathetic looking little alligator was sitting and waiting for rain; not what you’d expect your first alligator encounter to be.
The rest of the day was spent hiking around in dried up indigo habitat.  This is one of those times I wish I would have stopped looking for snakes and spent some time photographing birds.  The photo blind at Lugana offered many opportunities for getting great shots of Green Jays.  I admittedly have a problem here but at least hiking around in that dried up habitat did net me a Long-billed Thrasher.
      At this point Brian and Ryan were ready to head north for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge but I pouted and whined until they agreed to one more morning back at Santa Ana looking for herps.  We stayed at a border hotel that night where they don’t even ask for a name much less an ID and it only cost us thirty three bucks.  I wish they were all like that. 
      We arrived at Santa Ana early the next morning while it was still much too cold for any herp activity.  This allowed us to leave the dogs in the car and get some hiking in just for the sake of hiking.  About a mile down the trail I decided I should have brought a jacket along and turned back while Brian and Ryan went on ahead.  Not long after I turned back I was greeted by a group of Collared Peccary crossing the trail.  This was a treat and the first time I’d ever gotten to see these little pigs in the wild.  When I got back to the visitor center I was just in time to see my first, unbelievably bright, Altamira Orioles.  They had come down out of the tree tops to feed on the many halves of oranges and grape fruits the refuge personnel put out in the mornings.  I spent the rest of the cool part of the morning birding and managed to find myself another life bird, an Olive Sparrow.
      It was quite a bit later when I met up with my companions again.  The morning had warmed up considerably so we headed back into the refuge to check out some Indigo Snake spots that a refuge personnel had turned me onto.  As usual, no snakes were found but we all got a look at just how much illegal alien traffic is crossing the Rio Grande.  We were bushwhacking along the river when it occurred to us that all the trails worn into the bank combined with all the discarded clothes, the black trash bags, and the deflated inner tubes were from aliens.  The sheer amount of all this trash along with all the worn trails can only indicate that there is a very large amount of illegal traffic coming through Santa Ana Refuge. 
      Our next major destination was Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where we hoped to get a glimpse of the rare Whooping Cranes.  Along the way we made one more stop in the valley at the Valley Nature Center.  My cheapskate friends decided it wasn’t worth it and refrained from paying the three dollar entrance fee so they saved three bucks and waited in the car with the dogs.  I on the other hand paid my three bucks and enjoyed a great indoor education center, a walk through a beautiful six acre native garden, and the satisfaction of netting three more life listers at only one dollar a piece.  The Red-Crowned Parrot has been showing up in increasing numbers in the valley for the past fourteen years and lucky for me one of these birds was roosted at the nature center during my visit.  My other life bird was hard to miss while it was dive bombing me.  A big Buff-bellied Hummingbird was pretty upset that I was walking around its feeders and made sure I knew it.  My third lifer was this Gulf Coast Toad that I found while discretely turning a Rail Road Tie in the garden.

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      After a bit of gloating on my part towards my cheap friends, we hit the road north for Aransas.  Along the way I had to come to terms with leaving Indigo and Speckled Racer country empty handed.  I dealt with it the only way I knew how; I started planning my next trip.
      That night we camped at Goose Island State Park just south of Aransas. It seemed like a nice park but, in reality, we didn’t see much of it.  We arrived late and departed early but not before stopping to see an old tree named Big Tree.  Big Tree is very old and very significant but I’m not sure how old or how significant.  When Brian gets off his butt and sends it to me I’ll post a photo of us standing by it here.

(Big Tree Photo)

 
      At the visitor center we received some information on where to find the Whooping Cranes and what I hoped was a Burrowing Owl.  We pretty much made a b-line for the spot but upon arriving, our Burrowing Owl turned out to be a Barn Owl.  I guess the lady at the visitor center misunderstood me, they both start with a B and they are both owls.  Oh well, this was a lifer for Ryan and you’ll never here me complain too much about seeing a Barn Owl.  Our Whooping Cranes were there as well but were so far off they were little more than white dots on the horizon to the naked eye and not much more through binoculars.  We did get to see them though and were happy for it.  After the cranes we took a drive around the auto tour loop which didn’t present any wildlife to us at all.  But, after we came full circle and were approaching the Whooping Crane spot again we came to a van stopped in the middle of the road with a bunch of boy scouts surrounding an adult.  This could only have meant one thing, snake!  Well, it could have meant something ells I guess but I knew it was a snake.  Sure enough the leader had a “kingsnake” that was really a Texas Rat Snake by the tail.  He had picked up crossing the road in front of the van.  He was a nice guy and graciously let us take the snake for some photos.

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      After our photo session Ryan and I did some hiking while Brian caught up on some sleep in the car.  One of the trails we hiked started near a fresh water lagoon where this American Alligator was hanging out.

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      Then, not too far down the trail we came across this little Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake out on the crawl.  I’m still kicking myself for not taking the time to get a better photo of this snake, who knows when or if I’ll ever see another one.

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      At this point, it was all over for Ryan and me.  Brian had requested one whole day for his selfish interests; so we headed for Louisiana to tour hurricane damage.  I guess we just weren’t thinking but we had planned on camping at a coastal state park if we made it by ten p.m.; and if not, we’d look for a cheap room.  Well we didn’t make it by ten but it didn’t matter any how because the park was of coarse closed due to hurricane damage.  Needless to say, every motel within a hundred miles of the coast was full up to the hilt.  We kept trying anyhow and eventually found a motel where a little Cajun lady took pity on us because “it looked like we had been on the road a while”.  She said she had a room that someone had just checked out of and if we didn’t mind waiting she’d get it cleaned up for us. 
      After a good nights sleep we headed south.  Along the way we stopped off to photograph this alligator basking along a road side ditch.  This was just one of many seen along our tour.

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      At first the damage didn’t seem all that bad; just a lot of downed limbs, a few downed trees, and the occasional patched up roof but the further south we got the worse things got.  I honestly wasn’t prepared for the amount of damage we saw, and mind you, this was after almost five months of clean up.  Basically everything was destroyed! Very few houses still stood and those that did were gutted from the storm surge.  There were boats on dry land, cars and homes in the water, debris literally everywhere, oil slicks on the water from the refineries, destroyed gravesites, even decomposing cattle. This went on a long ways down the coast.  After our tour I was glad Brian had suggested it, I had never seen the effects of a hurricane and found it very interesting if not shocking.  In case your wondering, not having wide angle lens deterred me from even trying to get damage photos, sorry. 

      That’s it.  Nothing to do from here but drive home and go back to work. Maybe next winter south Texas will be a bit damper and I can try again.

I owe a big thanks to a few people who offered advice from their experiences in this region and helped me out a great deal on this trip:

 

Scott Wahlberg
Wayne Brekhus
Mike Rochford
Eitan Grunwald
Mike Pingleton
 
Thanks Guys
 

Total Herp Species: 12 (10 Lifers)

 

American Alligator

Red-eared Slider

Mediterranean Gecko

Blue Spiny Lizard

Rose-bellied Lizard

Four-lined Skink

Southwestern Rat Snake

Texas Rat Snake

Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake

Gulf Coast Toad

Great Plains Narrow-mouthed Toad

Rio Grande Leopard Frog

                                                                                            

Total Bird Species: 101 (25 Lifers)                                                                

 

Greater White-fronted Goose

Snow Goose

Canada Goose

Gadwal

American Wigeon

Mallard

Mottled Duck (lifer)

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Canvasback

Redhead

Lesser Scaup

Plain Chachalaca (lifer)

Wild Turkey

Northern Bobwhite

Least Grebe (lifer)

Pied-billed Grebe

American White Pelican

Brown Pelican

Neotropic Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Anhinga

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Little Blue Heron

Tricolored Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Roseate Spoonbill

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

White-tailed Kite

Northern Harrier

Harris’s Hawk (lifer)

Red-shouldered Hawk

White-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Crested Caracara

American Kestrel

Aplomado Falcon (lifer)

Peregrine Falcon

Clapper Rail (lifer)

Common Moorhen

American Coot

Sandhill Crane (lifer)

Whooping Crane (lifer)

Killdeer

Black-necked Stilt

Greater Yellowlegs

Least Sandpiper

Long-billed Dowitcher (lifer)

Common Snipe

Mourning Dove

Inca Dove

White-tipped Dove (lifer)

Red-crowned Parrot (lifer)

Groove-billed Ani (lifer)

Barn Owl

Great Horned Owl

Buff-bellied Hummingbird (lifer)

Ringed Kingfisher (lifer)

Belted Kingfisher

Green Kingfisher (lifer)

Golden-fronted Woodpecker (lifer)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker (lifer)

Eastern Phoebe

Vermilion Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee (lifer)

Couch’s Kingbird (lifer)

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue-headed Vireo

Green Jay (lifer)

Chihuahuan Raven (lifer)

Tree Swallow

Black-crested Titmouse (lifer)

Carolina Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Long-billed Thrasher (lifer)

European Starling

Orange-crowned Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

American Redstart

Ovenbird

Common Yellowthroat

Olive Sparrow (lifer)

Savannah Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

Northern Cardinal

Red-winged Blackbird

Eastern Meadowlark

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Altamira Oriole (lifer)

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow