King Ranch rare ducks
The world famous King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas has been a birding mecca for as long as I've been a birder. Long before I began travelling to see birds, I knew the name "King Ranch" as one of those revered American birding meccas, reknowned for some incredible specialty birds including Audubon's Orioles, Tropical Parula, and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls among others!
The ranch is enormous (>800,000 acres) and is split into different units which offer different habitats and species diversity, so every trip to the ranch doesn't target the same species. Not surprisingly in today's litigious society, the only way to access the ranch is through one of their excellent guided tours (offered regularly on most days of the week) or through a pre-arranged custom tour.
I'd just rolled into Port Aransas and heard that birders were seeing numbers of the incredibly rare Masked Duck on the King Ranch about an hour away. This species is common to Mexico and throughout Central America, but almost never seen here in the United States. I knew I would be tied up every other day of my trip working the Whooping Crane Festival, so my only chance of seeing these birds was to get out there on that day. Being last minute, I knew it was a long shot at best, but still I hoped there might be someone going out in the evening to see the birds.
On my very first, exciting visit to the King Ranch years ago, I was met by an extremely knowledgeable and talented guide, Tom Langscheid. Tom was instrumental in establishing the current nature tour programs on the ranch since their inception back in the 1980's. Since that early meeting, Tom has given up as the head of the tour program, although he still guides on occasion at the Ranch. I've also since had opportunities to guide different bird trips alongside him and even meet his family. So I was real excited to discover Tom was heading out to the ranch, and had no idea I was in for a very special bonus! I (along with two other friends, Tom and Ben) had the rare opportunity to join Tom and his talented young son David Langscheid, for a bit of late evening birding on the ranch, which would hopefully also lead to seeing these rare ducks!
Tom, as always, was wonderful to drive along with. His passion for the ranch and the wildlife it supports hasn't seemed to fade at all. A born tour guide, he regaled us with interesting historic facts about history of the ranch and the area as we drove along. His son David, was every bit engaging though, pointing out the various species of raptors (including Crested Caracara, Harris', Red-tailed, and White-tailed Hawks) and offering wonderful natural history information and anecdotes as we drove toward our main quarry! They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and David is a chip off the old block! Remember the name folks, If young David Langscheid remains interested in nature I fully suspect we'll see him on TV some day soon.
Before long, we drove past a tiny watering hole/pond on the left side of the van, and I was able to clearly see two distinctly flat-headed ducks with multiple stripes on their face with my naked eye before we even stopped! The birds were easily viewed on the pond which was ~50 feet across and completely devoid of floating vegetation. This was a real treat and the birds were new birds for both of my friends as well as young David. Once I realized this, I stopped my digiscoping and hoisted David up for a look through the scope. It was an amazing evening with great fortune, beautiful weather, good birds, and even better company! David, I hope we get to bird together soon buddy. I think I enjoyed birding with you even more than seeing these REALLY cool ducks!
The highest count of Masked Ducks was 8 individuals seen recently. I was tickled to ONLY see two on our short visit! For those interested in seeing these birds or for visiting the INCREDIBLE King Ranch to view other wildlife, or to learn more about the rich history of the place (something I highly recommend everyone interested in birds and wildlife do), visit their website for more or call the visitor's center @ (361) 592-8055.