Friday, December 29, 2017

End Game

The year was winding down and opportunity was slipping away. I had to make a final push and see what I could do.

With really only one totally free day left for me in the year I headed to Galveston. Of the none review birds left on my list two would be possible in Galveston. My plan was to hit East Beach then cross over to the Bolivar Peninsula and head around the bay checking all the gull spots for something unusual.

Brown Booby
Texas City Dike
I decided to start my day at the Texas City Dike since it can be a good gull spot and is best early. It was just after sunrise and almost right away I found a Brown Booby! It appeared to have an injured wing. I called the Texas City Animal Control and they said they would come pick it up. About 30 minutes later the Animal Control Officer arrived and she and I looked for it but it had disappeared. I hope that means the bird wasn't really injured.

I got to East Beach about 10 am. Lots of gulls there and a lot of large gulls. The lyrics of the popular birding song "I like big gulls and I can not lie" ran through my head. I scanned through them and found nothing unusual. I noticed lots of ships on the move in the channel and some had good size gull flocks behind them. On the Freeport CBC seawatch we have occasionally have had a jaeger come in with a ship in bound. A ship was making its way inbound many be once every 20 minutes. I see maybe 1 ship a year on the Freeport CBC so a couple of hours here could equal a decade of the seawatch in potential activity. I headed to the end of the seawall where I could have a good view of the channel.

I set up at the Fort San Jacinto Historic Point as the historic marker there call it. It turns out its a very good seawatch spot. The channel comes pretty close to the point and you get a pretty good view with the scope of the passing ship's gull flocks. I see a lot of dark first year Herring Gulls, more than I saw roosting on East Beach and Boddecker Rd telling me I was at least seeing different gulls. It wasn't too long before a Lesser Black-backed Gull made an appearance. Lots more Herring Gulls.

After a couple of hours I saw a small gull in a flock and the dark underwings jumped out at me. I could see the I could make out a small cap and an ear spot, and most importantly no white triangle on the wings. This had to be a Little Gull, Year Bird 503.

Parasitic Jaeger
Left of the Buoy
I figured my good luck for the day was used up, that's two really good birds in a day. Off in the distance I could see another ship inbound. I decided to stay until it passed. As the inbound ship passed another ship outbound two flocks merged. A very dark bird jumped out at me. It was ring-billed gull size and darker then any juvenile Herring Gull. It had a lighter belly and a more narrow tail than the gulls. I could only make this bird into one thing, Parasitic Jaeger and Year Bird 504. I tried a photo, but its just a dark dot way out there.

Two more days left in the year for me. Who knows what could turn up. It would take some fancy footwork on my part to get to some birds now. I have left only two non-review species left on the table. If I get something else this year, its going to be a great bird.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Man from Uncle

I got some teaser photos while I was getting a tire repaired of a Black-legged Kittiwake I still needed. It was in an exclusive marina. Not just anyone could get in. Bummer is all I could say. I thought maybe sometime this week I could go to public areas near by and hope the bird comes by.

If you've followed my big year you know sometimes the shadowy Secret Underground Birders (SUB) reach out to help me with my big year. SUB is not always in the main stream (They are very upset with adding Hawaii to the ABA list I hear), but they have a soft spot for listers.

I get a call from the Man from Gulls (I'll call him the G-man) in SUB. He knew of my need for a Kittiwake and it just so happens that his Uncle was the Commodore at this marina and he could get us in. I had 45 minutes to get to the location though.

When the phone rang I was about to leave the house to help my wife at her company install a server at her company. I should say my VERY understanding wife who I love VERY much and begged off to go chase another bird (she is very relieved that there are only 12 days left in the year).

Black-legged Kittiwake
I made to the rendezvous with the G-man. The Commodore escorted us to the Marina leading the way in a Cadillac the color of the deep blue sea. The guard at the gate jumped with a snappy salute and allowed us entry when the Commodore approached.

We where in. The Commodore left us to our search and went on to attend to the multiple tasks always awaiting a Commodore of his status. We picked a starting point and started looking at gulls. Not too many around, mostly Brown Pelicans.

Way off on a piling a lone gull sat. I put binoculars on it and I thought maybe. The G-man put more fire power on it with his scope and confirmed this was our target. Black-legged Kittiwake was Year Bird 502.  The bird was amazingly tame. I got pretty close without the bird seeming the least bit alarmed. Photo's all around!

Tomorrow morning the server gets installed. Anymore birds to chase will have to wait until at least Friday

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Just too Easy

Violet-crowned Hummingbird
Sanderson, TX
Just about 4 pm yesterday  Lee Hoy sent me a message that there was a Violet-crowned Hummingbird in his yard in Sanderson, TX. Lee also graciously offered me use of his guest house. I started the logistic calculations in my head. If I leave at 4 am I can be there at noon, that woukd give be all afternoon too find it. I'll have to skip the San Bernard CBC (I would definitely miss the gumbo). Yes that would work.

I got to bed early but for some reason I woke up early at 1:30 am. I tossed and turned for an hour before I decided too leave early for Sanderson. An hour head start and I made the 479 mile drive in great time and pulled into Lee's driveway about 10:30 am. I grabbed my camera and binoculars and made a quick pitstop (I drank a lot of coffee on the way!).

As I came back outside I heard and saw a large hummingbird with amazingly loud wingbeats fly over my head and land in the mesquite tree over my head. I got glass on it. All white below, thick red bill with a black tip. Violet-crowned Hummingbird was Year Bird 501! This is one was just too easy.

I realized I could make it home before too late and still make the CBC tomorrow! I hung around till noon and headed for home, but not before snagging a picture of the red T-rex on main street Sanderson. I was just recently reading the not only was it possible that T-rex was a feathered dinosaur, it almost certainly was feathered, could it be counted as 502?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

500 Gold at the end of the Rainbow

I got word late Saturday afternoon that Shepdawg had found a Golden-crowned Sparrow at Lake Palo Duro. Lake Palo Duro! I was just there three days ago! Lake Palo Duro 676 miles from my house and ten and half hours drive.

The next morning I got a positive report at 8 am of the bird, actually two birds. Last night I thought Tuesday would be my first chance to chase it. Now I started to formulate a faster plan. If I gave up going to a beer dinner (serious business a beer dinner) and left around midday and spent the night in Pampa I could get a reasonable night sleep and get to the sight close to sunrise on Monday morning.

I got out of town about 12:45 pm a little later than I wanted but still ok. Other than getting rerouted to a surface street in Fort Worth because I missed an exit because of the sun glare I made the 600 mile drive without incident and made the hotel in Pampa a little after 10 pm.

With a sunrise of 7:45 am I was able to get breakfast at the hotel and get on the road for sunrise. Just me and school buses on the road as the sun peaked over the horizon. I have to admit, the panhandle does grow on you after a time.

I pulled into the park by the lake right after sunrise at 7:45 am. The hill where the sparrows were being seen was still in shadow. I had set my GPS to the exact spot Shepdawg had found it. I drove up and saw it was a small line of trees with a log pile behind it. A few small trees lead back into a small ravine.

I had been listening to the call notes in prep for this for a couple of hundred miles. To my ears the call of a Golden-crowned Sparrow sounds much like a Savannah Sparrow and the White-crowned is more of a "plink" and the Golden-crowned a "seeeep". When I got out of the car I will swear I heard that call. The only birds I located was a small group of Dark-eyed Juncos.

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Lake Palo Duro
I watched the sun sweep across the hill in the space of a few seconds. Sparrows started popping up now. A group moved down to the lake shore and I followed. White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrow. A fair number of American Tree Sparrows. Boy this is the place for for American Tree Sparrow this year.

I worked flocks up the hill and back down. The tumbleweeds slowing my roll, sometimes chest high. I worried that I would have to consider a heard only bird.

After about 35 minutes a bird perched up and I could see it was a chunky bird with no white supercillium. I got glass on it and it turned toward me and I could see the golden crown! Golden Crowned Sparrow was Year Bird 500! Now that's a milestone. I hit 400 species for the year on April 26. It took 229 days for the next 100 birds.

I followed the bird around for a few minutes getting pictures. At one point I thought I had three birds in view at one. Now looking at my pictures I'm not so sure. I'm reasonably certain I was photographing this bird and could hear that "seeep" call note off to my right. All my certain pictures are off the initial bird though so I don't know how many were actually present.

Northern Shrike
Lipcomb County
This chase was 1,410 miles for me. Here's the funny part, Another Golden-crowned Sparrow was found at Warbler Woods near San Antonio, just about 200 miles away. It would have been easier, but I have to admit, 33 hours to the panhandle and back makes a much better story and it's hard to get tired of American Tree Sparrows, Northern Shrikes, and Rough-legged Hawks.

I planned to stop by Lake Marvin and prospect for Trumpeter Swan, but Joe Fischer was there that day ahead of me and had no swans so I headed south via US83 and birded a little in the four counties I still had not been in for the Panhandle, picking up a Northern Shrike outside of Canadian.

Aud the Dinosaur 
You do see some interesting things driving across Texas, like Aud, the Canadian Dinosaur. If it was at least a theropod I might find a way to count it as 501, but alas Aud is a Sauropod and likely cold blooded and unfeathered unlike theropods.

I'm still pushing my count, there are a little more than two weeks left in the year and Christmas counts start this week. I could certainly pick up a few more rarities and I still have three realistic non-review species, Parasitic Jaeger, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Little Gull. A big year is not over until January 1!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Almost there.

Lapland Longspur
Year Bird 499
Bob Friedrichs and I continued our panhandle trip last week. On Wednesday morning we found our first group of longspurs. As it turned out my target wasn't too hard, I was soon able to tick Lapland Longspur as Year Bird 499. I took lots of in flight photos and got some ok flight photos for documentation.

Northern Shrike
Lake Palo Duro.
Bob needed some birds for the year in Texas so we headed up to Lake Palo Duro for Northern Shrike and American Tree Sparrow. I'd never been to Lake Palo Duro and big water is always interesting in the Panhandle. When we got there almost the first bird we found was Northern Shrike. We spent a few minutes letting it make its rounds while we waited for a photo opportunity.

We continued and checked a line of brushy trees and sound a found a flock of American Tree Sparrows. These birds were not this easy back in January when I was chasing them!

Our plan was to work our way up to Texline and bird Thompson Grove in the morning. one the way Bob wanted to check a site where a few weeks ago Rusty Blackbirds has been found. We pulled up and the site was pretty dead. A few juncos and a pair of Great Horned Owls present. I lectured on how Rusty Blackbirds wouldn't stay in a site like this. Then I heard a squeaky call and three Rusty Blackbirds popped up in view. Amazing. a few miles way at a similar site we found another dozen Rusties.

American Tree Sparrow
Thompson Grove
The next day we made the Thompson Grove east of Texline in Dallam county at sunrise. The car thermometer read 8 degrees. Once the sun warmed things up sparrows got active. American Tree Sparrow was easily the most common. We figured more than 20 birds present. Oh and another Northern Shrike.

Heading back into Dalhart we saw and estimated 50 Common Ravens. We saw several groups up to eight. I'm kicking myself now. I wonder of these ravens are part of the montane invasion. Could there have been a Black-billed Magpie out there waiting to be found? We looked as we drove but made no active search. I feel like that was a mistake.

Making tracks we made Lake Arrowhead near Wichita Falls with enough light to look for a Red-necked Grebe. Not much grebe action on the lake, but Bonaparte's Gulls were present in numbers. From a park on the east side of the lake I saw a small gull that seemed to have dark underwings and no white triangle. Bob could not locate the bird though when he looked. It was getting dark and the bird was distant. We raced to the dam hoping the bird was heading that way but we found only more Bonoparte's. Did I find a Little Gull? it would be bird 500 for the year. I replayed what I saw over and over in my head. I looked a videos of Little Gull in flight with Bonoparte's. I would need to think on this one.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I would drive 1200 miles...

Last week Bob Friedrichs and I planned a trip to the Texas Panhandle to look for longspurs. I still need Lapland Longspur for the year and Bob need all the other panhandle ones and a few other specialties of the panhandle. Of course a Green-breasted Mango showed up Saturday afternoon at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen.

Since the bird was being seen Sunday and the site was open special for it on Monday we changed plans slightly. We would leave two hours earlier and try to get to Quinta Mazatlan by 9 am. That meant I would leave my house by 3 am and meet Bob at 5 am in Palacios.

That part of the plan worked. We made it to the site by 9:15 am. Of course Bill Sain informed me as soon as we got there that the bird was seen at 8:30 am briefly. It looked like from the reports from the day before that the bird came in about every 60-90 minutes. No reason to panic yet. We settled in for a good old fashion stakeout. There was a good crowd there and lot of friends I knew so it was a party.

Green-breasted Mango
Quinta Mazatlan
At about 10 am someone said "there it is" The crowd went wild, well quietly wild. It did sound like a presidential press conference with cameras. Green-breasted Mango was Year Bird 497. It hung around for 5 minutes and was gone. Time to fly, Pampa our destination was 11 hours away. We were on the highway by 10:25 am I noted.

About the time we got almost to Alice, TX about 100 miles north Eric Carpenter sent me a message asking if I had heard about the Tundra Swans at the Fort Worth Nature Center. A little back and forth with Eric and some discussion between Bob and I on logistics and we decided to divert to Fort Worth for the night. We couldn't make it before closing but could be there when they opened at 8 am Tuesday morning.

On the way to Fort Worth I got a report from Eric Clum that a kayaker spooked the birds deep into the marsh. No one relocated them before closing. We could only cross our fingers and hope for the best.

By the time we got to our hotel I had covered 880 miles. Bob drove 760 of those. As we settled in Bob checked his eBird alerts and saw that there was a Pacific Loon at Lake Benbrook. That wasn't far and we could check it at sunrise and still make the Nature Center in good time.

We got to the lake nice and early and started scanning around the dam area where it was seen. No loons at all. We had basically decided to move and check around the point when Bob saw something he wanted to get a better look at. Sure enough, there was the Pacific Loon for a Year Bird for Bob. We headed for the Nature Center, just 19 minutes on our eBird checklist.

Tundra Swans
Fort Worth Nature Center
We made it to the Nature Center by 8:30 am. We birded for the swans for about 60 minutes when I got a text message from Bill Edwards that he had the swans. We hurried over to Bill's location and there they were feeding calmly in the marsh. Tundra Swan was Year Bird 498. Time to fly. We hoped to make it in range of longspurs before it got dark.

We made it to Lake McClellan with about 20 minutes of light. No luck on the longspurs reported there, but we did pick up some Mountain Bluebirds for a new Texas bird for Bob.

We made our hotel in Pampa about 6 pm. We have covered 1250 miles since I left my house Monday at 3 am. Tomorrow we're going to find some longspurs!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Luck of the Irish

I am part Irish, my grandmother's maiden name was O'leary from Chicago afterall. I'm due some good luck. I had planned to stay home Tuesday morning but running through my email I saw an eBird alert from my friend John at Sabine Woods that he had a late Eastern Whip-poor-will the day before. I can't pass up a make up opportunity so close to home and jumped in the car and headed out.

Between Winnie and Port Arthur it started to rain pretty hard, hard enough that I considered pulling over. Driving about 50 MPH I surfed on. Then right in front of me a dumpy, rounded winged no tail bird with a long bill flew across the road. I guess ponding water flushed it. American Woodcock was now Year Bird 495! I'll take good luck when I can.

I got to Sabine Woods a little after 9 am since its close to two hours from my house. As I was gathering up my gear John pulled up and said "I thought I might see you here". Indeed, my last chance for this bird for sure.

Late Broad-winged Hawk at Sabine Woods
We check the area where where he had the bird the day before. No luck. Then a bird calling confused me, it seemed so out of place. I asked "am I hearing a Great Kiskadee?" John  confirmed one had been present since July and was being at least heard regularly on the adjacent property. Pretty cool and a new county bird for me.

We kept looking. Hermit Thrushes and Golden-crowned Kinglets being very vocal. We flushed a nightjar, but the size and all dark shape clearly showed it to be a Chuck's-will-widow. John remarked that could be the latest Chuck's record for Sabine Woods.

We looped the place, covering a mile by eBird. No luck. John had to leave and I was alone and decided to make another pass through the southwest corner. This time a small nightjar flushed from a chest high branch. I got a glimpse of pale tail corners. I got a five second look at it perched and it had a gray crown. Then it was gone. Now that was lucky, a late Eastern Whip-poor-will as Year Bird 496! add in the woodcock and this been a great day!

So that leaves just Tundra Swan, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Gull, and Lapland Longspur as realistic Non-review birds left. Greg Cook has been up in the Panhandle finding what seems like a lot of Lapland Longspurs so that's a good possibility to chase next. So little time left, but the year is not over until January 1st.

Epilogue - so Thanksgiving evening I was sitting in the backyard enjoying the mild evening with the family and low and behold an American Woodcock flies over. Crazy how that happens