Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Varied is the Spice of Life

Varied Thrush, National Butterfly Center, Mission TX 11/7/18
Varied Thrush
I was all set to head for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in twenty for hours. I planned to bird some counties on the way. At 12:45 pm I saw a report of a Varied Thrush at the National Butterfly Center in Mission. I decided to stay with my original plan and head for Goliad County but would check and see if the Thrush was relocated.

I left Houston about 7:15 am after a quick run to the post office. About 120 miles down the road I saw a report that the thrush was seen again. Recalculating... I plotted a course for the National Butterfly Center, ETA 1:15 pm.

I get there and there are only 2 people there. That's actually a good sign. If no one was seeing the bird there would be people stacked up waiting, especially with lot of birders in the valley for the festival.

A few birders wonder up, they saw it just before I go there. It's disappointing to just miss it but its still a good sign.

Huck Hutchen's showed up and we are chatting. I notice a couple who had been there photographing something. I keep chatting even though I think "I should go see what they are photographing".

They motion us over and "I think it was just here, but it flew behind the bush" They showed us photos and yes that was it. Arg!!!! Its about 2 pm.

We keep a watch, Huck watching the water feature, I keep a watch where its been seen twice in the last half hour. Huck says several times "Come on David find this bird"

At 2:30 a bird flies in from behind me and lands in a tree pretty high. That's it! Anti-Big Year Bird 10 and Texas bird 554! I call everyone over and blast away with the camera. I manage only 100 shots in the two minutes it was there before it drops from sight.

I hang out hoping for another chance for more photos. More birds have gathered over the next hour with the bird not making an appearance. I leave at 3:30 wishing all of them luck.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Blue and Purple

Purple Sandpiper Point Comfort, TX
Purple Sandpiper
Point Comfort, TX
On Thursday February 15 I was scheduled to give my talk on the Monotypic Families of Birds at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen. A Blue Bunting was found there on December 30 and since Quinta Mazatlan is was not open the next day I didn't get to chase it for my Big Year. It was still present and now it counts for my Anti-Big Year.

I got there early for my talk and joined a half dozen people on watch for the bunting. I ran into an old friend and we were chatting it up; catching up for a good 40 minutes. My friend had to leave and I moved back over to the main crowd and a couple asked me "Did you see it? it was just here". Doh! maybe tomorrow.

I did my talk and it went well. I got back to Quinta Mazatlan the next morning and there was a couple and third guy there waiting on the bird. After a bit the third guy excused himself to got find a restroom. A large group of Red-winged Blackbirds came in and were noisily chowing down. Suddenly the male of the couple jumped up and started clapping, making all the Red-wings fly off and of course absolutely everything else. I snapped at them "Don't Do That! you scare off everything when you do!" We sat in silence for a bit. The the other guy came back (he was traveling with the couple). The Red-winged Blackbirds drifted back in. Now the guy jumps up clapping! I blew up! I think I might have actually been yelling a little when I said "Don't do that, you're going to ruin it for everyone!" He tried to explain the blackbirds would eat all the seed. I told him the blackbirds and bunting had been existing together for 60 days, The blackbirds weren't going to bother the bunting. In fact the bunting likely uses the blackbirds as an early warning system. If the blackbirds flush, likely nothing is coming out of cover. The woman growled to me "Who died and left you boss"

I almost answered "David Daulphin! that's who" My mentor and great friend David passed away a few years ago, but I could just imagine how he would have reacted to these folks. I have no doubt he would have gone to the office and asked that they be escorted out. I once sat next to him when he told the County Judge from Jefferson County to leave Chambers County and leave the good people of Chambers County alone at a Fish and Wildlife Service open comments meeting. Ah fond memories. I held my tongue, realizing anything else would likely lower my odds of getting this bird.

A Coopers Hawk slashed through at waist height. It got really quit now.

About an hour late I got to call out there it is! It was standing under some bushes, sun making it light up bright blue in places. Blue Bunting was Anti-Big Year Birds #3  I tried to get others on it. Not many did. The clapping threesome didn't I know.

I relocate it from another angle, only really able to see the tail as it perched in the bushes. It disappeared before others could get on it. I tried to relocate it for another 20 minutes before I decided to head out and look for county birds on the way home.

Right as I almost got to Refugio I saw a post that Bob Friedrichs had found a Purple Sandpiper in Point Comfort on the edge of the old causeway. I called Bob right away and found out her was headed back there for pictures and would likely beat me by a few minutes. I rerouted south from Refugio on 774 and was only 44 minutes away according to my trusty GPS.

Bob called me back as I was coming into Port Lavaca to tell me he was back on the bird. I got there in less than 10 minutes. The bird was really close too. I grabbed by camera to shoot some pics and my battery was dead! Still Purple Sandpiper was Anti-Big Year Bird #4. I pulled away and put a fresh battery in the camera and shot close to 300 pics of the bird.

Two review species on the same day 240 miles apart, that's a good day!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


On February 2 my friend John O'Brien text me an asked if I was up for a chase for a bird I had already seen. John wanted to chase the Snowy Owl in Odessa, then look for Sagebrush Sparrow. I know the best spot for Sagebrush Sparrow in the state I told John. After getting the go ahead from my ever indulgent wife Donna we set 3 am as the time to leave.

John picked me up at 3 am and we trekked across Texas for the second time less than 10 days for me. We made Odessa before noon and we logged the Snowy Owl at 11:51 into eBird. We jumped on the road setting a course to Dell City and Williams Road, the best place I know for Sagebrush Sparrow.

We passed through Winkler County a new one for me, county 208. I was a little disappointed we didn't get to go through Wink, the boyhood home of Roy Orbison.

By 4 pm CST we were on the Dell City loop, Along the east west portion of the road (FM1576) you can find Sagebrush Sparrow without much trouble and we found at least 7, getting John a technical lifer. He had seen Sage Sparrow before the split and certainly both Bell's and Sagebrush, but had never noted on a list the subspecies so has never counter Sagebrush Sparrow until now. It took us 13 hours and 723 miles but we got both target species. We spent the night in Fort Stockton making our total day 923 miles.

The next morning we birded Imperial Reservoir (from the gate) where there was an impressive amount of waterfowl. We also hit the Fort Stockton Waste Water Treatment Ponds and headed east towards home. John was willing to indulge me in passing through Schleicher County to make 209 counties for me but just 9 species on our drive through.

Elegant Trogon
New Braunfels, TX
Stopping in Junction for a bite to eat on the way home I find the report of the Elegant Trogon in New Braunfels. It came through the Facebook Group "What's this Bird" and was a week old sighting. I told John we could make that diversion and it wouldn't actually cost that much time. We decided though not to press our luck with arrival times we had promised since the bird had not been confirmed recently. It turns out the bird was relocated that evening and we could have likely seen it.

I grew up in New Braunfels and started birding right in Panther Canyon where the Trogon was found. I was in town the day it was found for my dad's birthday. I woke up that day less than a quarter mile from that bird!

Lots of good reports on Monday so I headed for New Braunfels. I called my mom and said "surprise! my next rare bird chase is in New Braunfels and I would be visiting again. I left for New Braunfels Tuesday morning at about 7 am and pulled into Landa Park at 10:30 am.

Lots of folks I know on vigil at the chase site. I find Dennis Cooke and Dan Jones, the two birders I spied across the freeway to locate the Snowy Owl in Odessa. The nature of the birds I will be chasing this Anti-Big Year make me think this won't be the last time I run into these guys at a stakeout.

We spread out on the trail. At 12:21 Dennis calls me that he has the bird and I relay it to Dan and we all converge down the tail on the bird. I get to spend close to 40 minutes watching it feed and getting many photos Elegant Trogon is Anti-Big Year Bird #2 and Texas Bird 548.

I bid everyone good-bye and head to my parents house. Using GPS coordinates from my photos I measure the distance as 1024 feet from my boyhood bed room!

I end my adventures that day with watching the Falcon Heavy test launch of the Tesla Roadster and Starman into space. Its been a pretty darn good day!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Anti Big Year

Ok, chasing birds is more than addicting for me. I can't do a Big Year every year, the marriage and wallet just can't take it. So 2018 will be an Anti-Big Year, I will try and get as many birds that I can that I did not get in 2018. I left only three non-review species on the table in 2017; Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Bridled Tern, and Red-faced Warbler. Other than those it will be review species only for chasing.

The Storm-Petrel and Tern are covered by an early Pelagic, that might have to be a Tuna fishing trip. Red-faced Warbler is my Texas nemesis. Its the only non-review species I've not seen in Texas. The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds lists the spring migration dates for it as April 20 - May 16, and the fall window is July 23 - September 15. The two best sites to check for the Red-faced Warbler are the Chisos Mountains and the Davis Mountains. The Davis Mountains Preserve doesn't have a spring open day that works for that window, but the fall open house does. So my plan is a trip to camp in Boot Springs in the spring. and maybe a second in the fall in conjunction with the Davis Mountains Preserved Open Weekend August 10-12, 2018. Hopefully this year I won't tear up my knee.

Snowy Owl, Odessa, TX
Snowy Owl Odessa, TX
January 23, 2018 a Snowy Owl hit eBird in Odessa. Pictures and everything, definitely a good bird. The report was a week old though so I waited with a half formed plan in my mind. The next morning I got word via Facebook that the bird was good, about 9:45 am. I text my wife that it was a good bird and she replied "what's the plan?" I replied that I should be on the road by noon, overnight in Odessa, get the bird in the morning and home for dinner the next day. Her response is it won't take you that long to get on the road. No it won't! I did a quick calculation and I could perhaps make it before dark. Booked a room in Odessa, a change of cloths and grabbed the birding bag. On the road at 10:28 ETA exactly sundown.

My GPS overlords routed be through Austin. Austin at 1 pm is not a go fast zone. I lost time and my ETA was now well after sundown. Have to make up some time. In Llano I gassed up quickly. This was a new route for me so I picked up birds in several new counties as I made my best time possible.

El Gallo from the High Plains branch of the Secret Underground Birders (S.U.B.) messaged me that he was on the way too and we arranged to meet up. Richard Hermosillo also messaged me that he was on the way. They of course beat me by hours and kept urging me to hurry up. I was going as fast as I felt safe. Counties clicked by, McCulloch, Concho, Tom Green, Coke, Sterling, Glasscock, and finally Ector and the outskirts of Odessa. So close but the sun was on the horizon. Richard and El Gallo where still trying to stay on the bird, but it flew and they where searching for it.

Snowy Owl, Odessa, TX
Snowy Owl at night, Odessa, TX
Totally dark now I met up with El Gallo, we decided to make a quick look around and call it a night. I pulled into the church parking lot where the bird was seen originally. Richard called me that he had found it perched on top of a restaurant. El Gallo and I raced over. There she was perched on the peak of the building. Snowy Owl Anti-Big Year Bird #1! It was also my 547th Texas Bird. We watched it hunt for a while and eventually I manager a poor but recognizable picture pushing my camera to its limits.

El Gallo and I decided to split a room for the night. I already had reservations that suited El Gallo, cheap! We had dinner and a couple of beers and headed for the hotel. We picked up my car and I got to the hotel well after El Gallo. I guess my first clue that it was a dump was the price. Hotels in the Permian Basin are expensive, like $300 a night for a Best Western. This place was less than $80 but a national chain at least. My second clue was El Gallo was able to check in as me using a credit card with his name on it. My third clue was the woman in the lobby who was complaining the toilet in her room had no seat and the the two people at the front desk were mystified why that was a problem.

I headed up the stairs because the elevator was out of order. covered in mud from work boots I guess. The room was everything the clues suggested it would be, Old tired bed linens, conduit and wires hanging from the ceiling, inept water damage repairs. Oh well I was tired and the bed at least seemed clean.

Cactus Wrens, Crane County
The next morning I got out early and found the owl again by finding the birders. From where I saw it last night I could see two birders with scopes looking at it across the highway back by the church. I hurried over and captured some good images. I racked up a few Ector County birds for my county list and started the trek home, This time the GPS overlords suggested a route south to I10 and down through several new counties for me. The birding was fun and I managed a few good photos and pushed the number of counties I've recorded birds in to 205 counties.

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?