Tuesday, April 11, 2017

With a Little Help from my Friends

Iceland Gull
I've been nursing a tire that was loosing air for a week and I had a 1 pm appointment to get it fixed. A front was passing through with what seemed like good timing to ground some migrants so I took my backpack with me to go look for migrants at Quintana when it was fixed. It would only take 15 minutes or so right?

All was going well. My car was in the bay by 1:15, I should be out of here by 1:30 I thought to myself. Then a text message came in from Julie Ann Brown, Executive Director of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, Kevin Karlson wanted her to pass on to me that he had just found an Iceland Gull at the Bolivar Flats. Awesome I can be on my way in about 15 minutes I thought.

Rain on the Galveston
Right as I was thinking it should be ready, the tech came and found me to show me how the tire couldn't be patched, the hole was too close to the sidewall. I picked a tire out to replace it and they promised to expedite it since I had a bird to see. It began to pour, like inch an hour rain. I began to worry about how drivable the beach would be.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity of waiting I was off. It was still raining buckets. Rain on the causeway, rain as I boarded the ferry.

I checked weather as the ferry made 12 mph across the Bolivar Road according to my GPS. It was raining lighter now and it looked like most has moved off shore.

American Avocets on the beach
The beach was ok to drive on. I guess the weather had the birds all bunched up, everything was along the beach including numbers of very snazzy looking American Avocets.

At the flats itself I just took my scope and binos, no phone, no camera since it was still raining lightly. I had to walk out a pretty good ways before I found any gulls. Then there it was, a snow white second cycle Iceland Gull for Year Bird 377. I studied it and made notes with the scope for a TBRC report.

Crud though, it really was close enough for a picture. I headed back to the car to get the camera going over what I had with me to protect the camera. All I could come up with was the wrapper for the case of water I had in the back, it would have to do.

The plastic covered the camera well enough. When I made it back out to the bird I got a few shots pulling the plastic back. I decided to move closer. I let loose of the plastic and then the wind took it. I gave chase but it got away from me, I felt very guilty for that. To make up for it I pick up as much trash as I could on the way back to the car, hoping a net loss of trash would balance the karma.

I wasn't able to get very close to the bird though because of a tongue of water between us. Every bird in the group seemed calm. Oh well, it was warm enough and my shoes would dry and I headed across. Eventually making it calf deep and getting some decent shots while the birds ignored the wet footed dodo with the camera. As I emerged from the water it dawned on me that my rubber boots were in the car.

My phone was loaded with messages when I got back to the car. All told five people had contacted me to let me know about the bird. Friends like this is what it takes for a Big Year!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Fools

Hooded Oriole at Park Chalk Bluff
My team has a big day planned for the Great Texas Birding Classic. This is a statewide big day and a new route so we have to do a fair amount of scouting. That's great for me because we need to do that in the Uvalde area.

We need a lot of night scouting so we left the hotel with just a few hours of sleep at 12:30 looking for night birds. We actually found Eastern Screech-Owl at our first stop and I thought we were going to have an interesting night. Not a cloud in the sky and a meteor shower going on. We saw at least 10 at the first stop.

We could find Eastern Screech-owls easily it seemed, but for the next 2 hours we couldn't find anything else. We did find a Common Poorwill finally but no other birds.

It was a long boring not really. Finally after 6 hours we hit dawn chorus. The world woke up with a cacophony of birds. We easily picked out the wacky calls of a Yellow-breasted Chat for Year Bird 362. 

At the next stop I picked up Bell's Vireo for Year Bird 363. We moved on to a few other stakeouts that didn't pan out. At another stop we picked up Gray Vireo for Year Bird 364. A Scott's Oriole made a pass over the road for Year Bird 365.

We were all lined up on a calling vireo and snazzy Black-capped Vireo gave us great views for Year Bird 366.

A couple of more stop and right alone the river I picked up Yellow-throated Vireo for Year Bird 367.  That made four new new vireo in a single day!

We moved on to Park Chalk Bluff and it was good. An amazing about of south Texas birds right on the edge of the Texas Hill County. Before we left I picked up Summer Tanager for Year Bird 368.

We ran the first half of our route and finished the day with about 160 species. I made it home about 9 pm. I think I went about 40 hours on two and a half hours of sleep. Not bad, but on game day we will need to add a hundred to that. The birds might be there with migration in full swing and finishing on the coast. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains
On Friday I headed out west to bird the Texas Nature Conservancy's Davis Mountain's Preserve. This preserve is only open to the public a few times a year. This is one of the few places you can get above 7000 feet in Texas and one of the easier hikes to do that.

I spent two days birding with Bill Sain and by myself and added some good birds, Steller's Jay (338), Common Poorwill (339), Montezuma's Quail (340), Clay-colored Sparrow (341), Violet-green Swallow (342), and best of all Cassin's Finch for Year Bird 343.

White-breasted Nuthatch
Davis Mountains
Saturday night over dinner I was looking for some Sunday target birds and saw a report that Golden-cheeked Warbler was as easy as it gets in Friedrich Wilderness Park in San Antonio. That park is right on my way back to Houston. So I made plans to get up at 5 am and make the 359 mile drive and get there late morning. I was slower than anticipated getting on the road and didn't pull out on the highway until 5:40 am. Still at 80 MPH the miles pass quickly.

I pulled up to the park a few minutes before 11 am. I had no idea something listed as a "Wilderness Park" would be so slammed with people. Walkers, runners, hikers, you name it. All seemed to be talking is their loudest voice. One was blasting the Gypsy Kings on a speaker as he ran. I know its called a 'wilderness park" but for Pete's sake its a city park, you don't need a backpack full of gear and snacks in case your blood sugar drops. If you need to walk to loose some weight, you really don't need a snack every mile or two!

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Friedrich Park, San Antonio, TX
Ok enough of my rant. I headed out on the Water Trail and just a few yards down the trail I was by myself for a few minutes and a Golden-cheeked Warbler was calling somewhere over my head for Year Bird 344. I even managed a recording before a noisy group spooked it off unseen.

I finished the trail hearing several more. I could hear one calling near the trail a bit down the main loop. I soon found myself under it and was able to get a picture before a noisy group of trekkers flushed it.

Talking to some birders in the parking lot I found out the Calliope Hummingbird might still be present in New Braunfels. I was able to get permission to try for it in and made the 40 mile drive to New Braunfels.

I gave it 30 minutes and got excited when a hummer landed nearby, but it turned out to be a Black-chinned. While I waited I scanned TEXBIRDS on Facebook and saw the Cape May Warbler was being seen that day in Galveston. This bird has been present most of a week and I didn't think I had a chance for it. I did some calculations and realized I could make the 230 mile drive get to Lafitte's Cove Nature Sanctuary with an hour or two of light left at about 5:40 pm. Time to fly before the bird did.

As I got on the road I put a note on Facebook of my plans and asked if anyone wanted to go stake it out for me. It wasn't too long before Kelly Walker and Richard "Duke" Liebler stepped up to the plate and headed that way. It was about 2:40 pm and I had about 3 hours to go to get Lafitte's Cove.

At 5:15 pm Richard messaged me that it has not been seen since 3 pm but folks were still looking. I didn't think it was likely that the bird had left before sunset and pressed on. By now I had encountered a wreck and construction on I10 and was traveling a combo of US90 and frontage road. I pulled out all the stops and detoured down FM1093 from Wallis to the Westpark toll road. I was able to see my house from the Sam Houston Parkway with about 50 minutes to go.

Cape May Warbler
Lafitte's Cove, Galveston TX
I was almost to Galveston Island passing through Texas City at 5:18 pm when Richard messaged that the bird was now being seen. So close now. A wreck on the causeway slowed me down again. With just 10 minutes to go Richard said about 20 people were looking at it

I pulled into the parking lot at 5:53 pm. I headed over to the site and folks were still on it. After getting some instructions on where to look, Cape May Warbler was Year Bird 345.

Google Maps put my day's chase at 630 miles. By the time I made it home it was 681 miles. My total 3 day road trip was 1537 miles!

My Own Backyard

American Bittern
"you can't see me"
I was talking to Make Scheuerman last week mentioning my trouble finding an American Bittern this year. Mark mentioned that they are abundant at Brazos Bend State Park right now. Since the park is not far from my house I decided to go check it out.

I got a late start and made it to the park by 9 am. Lots of the usual suspects calling. I made my way down to the lake and I hadn't taken 100 steps before I found two American Bitterns for Year Bird 333. I continued down the path and found a total of 4 Bitterns in about a quarter mile.

It was early and I decided to see if there was any action at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary on the coast.

When I got there almost right away I saw a Black-and-white Warbler at the front drip, a very good sign. I made my way around and had a couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chased each other. A Waterthrush zipped by but I couldn't ID it to species.

Louisiana Waterthrush
I made another circle and the Waterthrush zipped out of sight just as I made the bend again. I sat down and waited. After about five minutes the bird came out to the drip. Louisiana Waterthrush was Year Bird 334. This was my 13th warbler of the year and actually only the first migrant, all the other's were wintering birds.

As I was leaving the sanctuary a Northern Parula popped up to add to the migrants, its starting to feel like spring has sprung.

I decided to check out the beach and jetty, that potential Purple Sandpiper isn't going to find itself. Since it was spring break  I was a little afraid of what I would find but the cool temperatures must have kept most away.

At the base of the jetty I did find a few Sandwich Terns for Year Bird 335, another bird I expected to have already. I walked to the end of the jetty and back but found no Purple Sandpiper. I'll be back to look again soon though!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Duck is the New Black

Saturday afternoon I was enjoying a good beer at a new local craft brewery in Houston with my lovely wife Donna when I got a text message from John Berner asking if I was going for the American Black Duck in Dallas. My response was "What Black Duck?"

A few messages later we were set to leave on the chase at 4 am accounting for Daylight Savings Time. We arrived right on time at first light and started scanning the ducks. We did locate the Chiloe Wigeon that's been there although its not countable.

After we had scanned all the ducks at hand we decided to split up, I would head north along the shoreline and John would head south. I got just about to another group of ducks and decided I should check my phone to make sure I could hear it. Of course there was a message from John saying he had the duck and I turned around to head his way. No answer when I called him back or messaged him, strange.

American Black Duck
White Rock Lake, Dallas TX
I was almost to John's last know location when I got a call from someone else. Turns out John's phone died right as he called me. So after viewing the duck himself (priorities right!), he just started walking and asking other birders if they knew me and had my number, and it worked, just a few people and he found someone to call me, lol.

We were soon on the American Black Duck for Year Bird 331. Review Birds like this have been hard to come by this season. I snapped a load of picture, but its a gray bird on a very gray day!

We decided to head over to the spillway and look for the Little Gull that has recently been reported there. There were a decent number of birds on the spillway and best of all a lot of Bonaparte's Gulls. We scanned and watched for better than an hour and no luck. A few Northern Rough-winged Swallows passed over head for Year Bird 332 though.

Bonaparte's Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls on the
White Rock Lake Dam
A Cooper's Hawk buzzed the gulls and most of the Bonaparte's scattered and headed across the lake. John and I decided to circle the lake and see if maybe we could locate the Little Gull.

We looked at a lot of Bonaparte's Gulls but no Little Gull. We decided to check the dam again and alas, still no Little Gull.

Still I'd have to call this "mission accomplished"  with good looks at the American Black Duck. Time to head home.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Down in the Valley

I was giving a program at Quinta Mazatlan May 9 so I headed down early looking for some Texas Rio Grande Valley birds I needed before my evening program. I left the house at 3 am and made it to South Padre Island by 10 am. My thought was I still needed Aplomado Falcon and would check for it on my way to the island and on the way back if needed.

I stopped at my favorite Falcon spot but no falcons, but a couple of Cassin's Sparrows were singing for Year Bird 322. On to the island.

At the Convention Center I found only winter resident passerines and now new shorebirds or terns on the sand. I walked the boardwalk looking for birds there. I found pretty fast a Green Heron for Year Bird 323. More searching hoping for an American Bittern. No luck and decided I was wasting time looking for birds I could see without a road trip, so I headed to the mid-valley.

Oh did I mention it was the first part of spring break on the island? I made the colossal mistake of stopping at Whataburger to grab a bite.  It was packed and I'm sure I was the oldest person in the dining room by a couple if decades! Even worse many weren't Texans so the menu choices had to be explained to each, Not my most time efficient stop.

At Port Isabel Reservoir I found a Wilson's Phalarope for Year Bird 324.

I took my lunch out to scan again for Aplomado Falcon. At the official viewing site I did find a distance pair of Aplomado Falcon's jousting for Year Bird 325. I hurried over to Estero Llano Grande State Park and made it with about 70 minutes to look for a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.

I did find the Rose-throated Becard, but no Tyrannulet. I had a few minutes left in my day and I decided to go check the Progresso Grain Silos. It didn't take long to locate a dozen Yellow-headed Blackbirds for Year Bird 326.

The river at Salineno, TX
The program on my 2015 Big Year went great, it felt like one of the best I've given. After a great night at the Alamo Inn I headed out for the upper Valley. If your in the RGV for a birding trip you can't go wrong with this birder-centric inn. It was my conversation with my Keith the owner that convinced me the upper valley was where I needed to start my day.

At 7:10 am I was on the river at Salineno. As I got out of my car an Ash-throated Flycatcher sand its dawn song for Year Bird 327. I got the scope out started looking for fly-bys on the river.  After about 40 minutes a Groove-billed Ani  popped in and called and posed for year bird 328.

An Indiana birder joined me and a Red-billed Pigeon flew over our heads for Year Bird 329.

At the feeders Altamira Orioles were putting on a show, 3-4 working around us, Green Jay and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers too. Then myself and one of the hosts said together "that's him!" An Audubon's Oriole was singing behind us for Year Bird 330. While I did eventually see him I managed no picture but I did manage to record his song.

Red-billed Pigeon
I headed over to the Starr County Park hoping for a Clay-colored Sparrow. I circled the park with nothing but Lark Sparrows. I was almost back to my car when I heard a Red-billed Pigeon call from an Ebony Tree I approached the three and before I got within 50 feet a pigeon jetted out and left the park. I was walking back to the car and another two came from another Ebony Tree. These landed in trees not far away and one called again. They were easily spooked but I managed a few photos of one and even a recording.

I saw a total of three pigeons in the park and heard a forth off at a distance. They called a few times every 5 minutes or so over the 40 minutes I observed them. If I were looking for Red-billed Pigeon I would pull into the park and stop near the Ebony trees spaced out on your left as you enter the park. Park and listen for the pigeons to call, They seemed to call ever 5 minutes. Once you hear one approach the tree very carefully. Stop about 100 feet away and listen and scan. They pigeons moved in the tree quite a bit so you should be able to find them. With some luck you should be able to see and hear them too.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Plover Palooza

I had kinda written off getting Mountain Plover until the fall, I had missed them in the Granger area and I hadn't seen any reports in a couple of weeks. On Saturday the March 4 Willie Sekula posted a note about finding a good number in Frio County at a sod farm. I decided to try for these birds on Monday.

So at 4 am on Monday March 6 I headed out to make the 260 mile drive to the sod farm. I was almost there and noted another sod farm and stopped to check it out. Not much there, Killdeers, Wilson's Snipe, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Northern Cardinal called across the road. On to the main target.

At the target sod farm at first there didn't seem to be much there, just a pair of Crested Caracara strutting around. Then way back I saw a single medium plover, no ring, soft dun colored back and chest, no obvious supercillium. I was relieved to tick off Mountain Plover as Year Bird 317.

American Golden-Plover
This bird was too far away for a photo though. There was more and closer habitat to check and I wanted to get a photo so I re-positioned myself  and began scanning. No close Mountain Plovers but I found an American Golden-Plover for Year Bird 318.

More scanning and I found Pectoral Sandpipers for Year Bird 319. Not a bad morning, Three new ones by 9 am.

I love trying to run up a county list and I'd never to been to Frio County, but to set a big year record you need to stay focused on the next bird. I decided to check another sod farm not far away that had a recent report of Audubon's Oriole.

On the way I stopped to check a large number of swallows under an overpass, Cliff Swallow was Year Bird 320. Off to the Audubon's Oriole spot.

At the next sod farm the road ran along some brushy land that look good for Audubon's. I imagine it was a singing bird. I listen and scanned the field, finding a couple of Long-billed Curlews for county birds. No oriole. I drove along the road and listen with no luck on orioles for about a half mile.

I decided to check out Crownridge Natural Area on the way home hoping for a Golden-cheeked Warbler since some had been reported in other areas this weekend. Late morning wasn't the best but it seemed birdy still.

Hutton's Vireo shows off his blue legs
I walked and listened, lots of calls but none of the "zrr zoo zeedl zee twip" of a Golden-cheeked Warble. I did hear a "trweer trweer trweer" that didn't ring a bell at the moment. While trying to find the bird a pair came chasing in and landed close by to reveal the mystery call. Hutton's Vireo was Year bird 321.

I've started putting my R0DE VideoMic ME in my pocket to record birds. This mic is designed to clip on your smart phone. It looks a bit like a tribble when it has the fur windscreen on it but its pocket sized. Its not as good as my Sennhieser 10 inch but its usually in my pocket and gets pretty good recordings when paired with the R0DE Mic App. Check out my results with the Hutton's Vireo after a little post processing clean up (300 Hz high pass filter and volume maximized). Now that you can add recordings to your email lists, I've been trying to get as many recordings as possible to contribute to the resource that the media on eBird has become.