Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Storked!

So Tuesday evening at almost 6 pm I was sitting down to dinner when by friend David Hanson called. There was no mistaking the excitement in his voice. He went in to a explanation of where he was, a location I knew very well. In my mind I thought "he's about to say Jabiru". Sure enough, David and is wife Jan had found a Jabiru near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. I told him I was on my way. I started a rapid windup around the house, getting the word out, quickly double checking my gear. My wife Donna asked don't you have time to to sit and eat your dinner. No I answered! I was out the door in about 10 minutes.

I made it to the site about 7:30 pm along with about 10 other people. Lots of Wood Storks around. Unfortunately the Jabiru had not been relocated. By the time it was dark more than 20 people were on site. No Jabiru, most of us would be back at sunrise.

Back at 6:40 am for the sunrise. Lots of folks already there, maybe 20 already. People get bored keeping vigil and several decide to check other areas. It gets down to just a few at the original site.

Jabiru in Chambers County, TX
Jabiru!
About 8:30 we get word it was seen briefly north about a half mile dropping into an old crawfish pond. The bird is no longer visible though, but we know where it is.  I spread the word and the flash mob returns.

As luck would have it David Hanson knows the adjacent land owner and he agrees to take David and I in and we check if we can see it from the other side of the property. We have no luck though.

As we are returning we get word its popped up and has been seen again. We rush over. Several people got to see it again but its behind a levee again. We assemble. Large birds like Great Blue Herons and more Wood Storks are dropping in and we know the hidden pond must have a bunch of birds. Folks who know about my big year ask me if I feel depressed or nervous that I've missed it so far. I reply no, its early and we know right where the bird is, I'm going to get this one!

Soon we note a tractor coming down the levee mowing. Its will surely flush most of the birds in the pond. We watch it move closer for 5 minutes, everyone getting ready. I advise folks to pre-focus cameras and binoculars. Excitement builds as the tractor gets closer and closer, a train of Cattle Egrets behind it.

Birds erupt, Wood Storks everywhere, then some one calls "there it is!" I see it, it dwarfs even the Great Blue Herons, Jabiru is Year Bird 478! and county bird 314. It soars around for most of an hour. By 11:30 I am the last person to leave the site.

I offer to show Armand Moreno and friends my best spots in Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge for Black Rail. I ask if everyone knows what a Black Rail calls sounds like. They don't and I play the call for them, low volume being careful not to broadcast it as we stand on the road. I play the ki ki do call once and the growl call once. I'm amazed to hear the growl call coming from the ditch next to us!. We stand there for the next 30 minutes and hear the call spontaneously every 5 minutes or so. Its in 10 inch high Spartina patens grass and true to its enigma status we never see even the grass move even though we aren't 10 feet from it staring at the spot we are hearing it from. What a great day, Jabiru and Black Rail.




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Day at the Beach

Late in the afternoon on Tuesday at post went out on the Texas Chase Birds group on Facebook that a pair of Elegant Terns had been found on North Padre Island just north of the Padre Island National Seashore. Unfortunately it was just too late in the day to get there before dark, I would have to make the a try in the mourning.

Elegant Tern, North Padre Island
Up at 2 am, out of the house at 2:30 am. Between stops for gas, coffee, and tacos I pull onto the beach about 15 minutes before sunrise at 6:30 am. Its plenty of light to bird and start my search. By 8 am I've covered about 6.5 miles of beach pretty thoroughly. Not a lot of terns but lots of good birds. I saw several banded Piping Plovers.

Joel and Vicki Simon joined me and we entered the Seashore itself and checked all we could, covering about 1.75 miles of beach with no luck, but the but the numbers of terns was increasing.

Banded Piping Plover
By 10 am we're back driving the original stretch of beach. A small group of terns has gathered at the coordinates where the birds were originally found. Just to make life interesting there is an old RV parked there. The occupant seems to be a 70 plus year old guy in a Speedo about 2 sizes too small. Remember folks, crack kills!

By the time I finish that pass I'm ready for a break and go grab some lunch. I return and drive the beach some more, watching the flock at the original location for about an hour. Speedo guy seems to want to always be in my field of view I'm afraid though.

Its about 3 pm and I decided its not looking good since I've seen no positive reports all day. I turn towards home. At about 4:30 pm I've just passed Refugio northbound and have just let my wife Donna know I should be home about 7 pm. Dan Jones calls me and lets me know he just found the bird. Change of plans! I turn around at the next crossover and check my ETA to the site, 6 pm.

Marbled Godwits
A bit of traffic in Corpus Christi costs me a few minutes but I make 6 pm back on the beach. The tide is a lot further out now and there are more birds around. I decided to just drive directly back to the spot Dan reported the bird and not waste a lot of time checking 5.5 miles of beach.

I run into Joe Fischer and we combine forces. No bird at Dan's spot but we can see a lot of white birds south down the beach and we decide to go it on foot, It take us about 30 minutes but about 1.25 miles into the national seashore we find a single Elegant Tern for Year Bird 477! Don't you just love it when plan B comes together.

Joe and I grab a bite at my third Whataburger stop of the day and celebrate. I hit the road and make it home about midnight. I've been up 22 hours. I've driven about 45 miles on the beach and 750 miles over all. About 18 of the 22 hours was behind the wheel. It was a great day!

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Guads Part 2

John and I went to sleep about 11 pm with Mexican Whip-poor-wills calling sporadically. During the night we woke to a screaming sound echoing off the hillsides. It was loud. I thought to myself, "Hope it doesn't go for our packs in John's tent. I hope my tent is far enough from Johns if it does!"  and a few minutes later I heard something moving through the bushes. It was later we listened to some recordings of females mountain lions calling and realized. I wonder if I was hearing the mountain lion pass by.

Up at dawn it took little time to break camp. It wasn't even really sunrise and we took advantage of the dawn chorus around us. The stunning call of Hermit Thrushes were all around us. Down the trail a bit a broad-tailed hummer trilled by. Several Cordilleran Flycatchers call, responding to our owl whistles and toots. A pair of Stellar's Jays danced in a dead pine.

John stopped me and said in a whisper "owl!" something was calling back. We called back to it and it was giving the rhythm-less rapid tooting of a Northern Saw-whet Owl! It came in closer and we crossed the wash. I saw something flit in a tree and then it was calling further away, alas no visual.

View from the Tejas Trail
At the Juniper Trail and Tejas Trail junction we hear a faint once a second tooting that suggested a Northern Pygmy-Owl. We called and it moved closer and got more rapid, then stopped. Did we just hear a Northern Pygmy-Owl? We had no visual. Then it started again, further off. We had a corundum on our hands. Some chipmunks and squirrel are known to call very similar to a Northern Pygmy-Owl. We never saw this bird, but it seemed to move around. We consulted folks who spend more time in these mountains than we have spent and decided we couldn't count it, still intriguing.

We hear another Red Crossbill. We also have our only warbler of the our time in the mountains, a single Audubon's Warbler. In the 1.5 miles from the Juniper Trail to the Bowl Trail on the Tejas Trail we have all the same birds we had on hiking the other side of the loop that is closer to 4 miles. Definitely the most productive trail we had in the Mountains, better habitat to my eye.

A bit further down the trail we heard a weird call and John asked "what's that!" this never happens with John, that I know a call he doesn't, Montezuma's Quail on the hill side across from us.

A Canyon Towhee explores
Now comes the fun part, the hike down. Its 3.7 miles down to the parking lot from the Bowl Trail. We cover the distance in 2.5 hours. I was down to less than 2 liters of water when we started down from the eight liters I had brought up. With about three quarters of a mile to go I run out of water. We make the parking lot in another 30 minutes and we drop our packs and enjoy close to a half gallon of water each. Nectar of the gods at that time. A Canyon Towhee explores the backseat of John's car as we catch up on our hydration.

We head over to Frijole Ranch trying for Juniper Titmouse. We ended up chatting with a volunteer for some time, but managed close to two hours of searching for the Titmouse, No luck, I guess I will be back again for a fifth visit to the Guadalupe Mountains this year.

We head into Fort Stockton for a hot meal, a cold beer, and a bed with air conditioning.

Epilogue

Poison Oak around my eye,
can shave because of the rash
on my face either.
John spotted what he thought was poison oak in the Bowl. I wasn't so sure. We had no problems while there. We were cleaning up with baby wipes, which do a remarkable job of getting grime off you with little weight in your back and no water. I think that protected us from any exposure we had to it. We arrived home on Tuesday evening feeling fine. I got around to stowing all my gear on Thursday afternoon. Lots of hot and sweaty jobs around the house and I didn't shower for hours. Bad plan. We must have had some exposure to poison oak in the Bowl because I woke up with it on my neck, arms, and worse face on Friday morning. I think it was on the outside of my backpack and I got exposed from the residue as I emptied it. At first it wasn't that bad. Then it started swelling around my eye. By late Monday morning I looked in the mirror and I had accumulated pocket of fluid under my eye the size of a golf ball. I'm a birder and don't mess around with my eyes I was in the doctors exam room in 90 minutes. A steroid shot, a Benedryl shot, two sets of tablets, an ointment, and EXPENSIVE eye drops and 5 days later and mostly recovered. Oh driving after a Benedryl injection is a hoot. Watch out for poison oak or ivy in the Guads!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Guads Part 1

After hearing reports of Flammulated Owl in the Guadalupe Mountains the first week of June I hatched a plan to try for them. Things came up and I was unable to go until July 8, more than a month after the last report. John O'Brien was able to go with me and we left Saturday morning at 5 am headed west.

It was an uneventful drive, picking up some county birds as we made our way 667 miles from my home in Houston to the Pine Springs Visitor Center. After getting our back country permit for the Tejas Camp Ground we found a campsite in Pine Springs that night and since it was getting late in the day we decided to see of it was possible to find Spotted Owl in the Devil's Hall Canyon by hiking to the trail closure and hopefully hearing them call at dusk.

Devils Hall
We left at 4:10 pm for the 2 mile hike in. It took a fair amount of time since you're walking in a rough wash most of the way.  We made it to the marker that says the trail is closed beyond this point about an hour before sunset. We settled in to wait. It was birdy and we had some of the usual suspects up close and personal using a nice puddle there. Western Wood-Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Lesser Goldfinch at least gave us something to look at.

Finally began to get darker. Both John and I heard something up the canyon, perhaps in the side canyon that's up beyond the closed sign. We heard it again, it sounded like a "hoot" too me. I did my best Spotted Owl imitation. No response. For the next half hour we would hear something very faint and I would try my call. Finally we heard a call clear enough we were satisfied, Spotted Owl became Year Bird 473.

Mule Deer Trail Markers
Picking our way out in by the light of our headlamps we would hear the occasional Common Poorwill calling. Once we got onto the flats headed out the moon was up like a spotlight. Near the end of the trail I thought to myself those are weird reflective trail markers up ahead, then they got up and ran off, mule deer in my headlamp.

Up at first light the next morning we tried for Juniper Titmouse at the Frijole Ranch site, Two hours and no titmouse. Juniper titmouse is starting to bum be out, its my 4th trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and no titmouse yet.

Time to hit the trail. Both John and I have 50 pound packs carrying 2 gallons of water each. Its 3.7 miles to the Bowl Trail head and we gain about 2,500 feet. We make pretty good time but I drink more water than I anticipated, just under a gallon, but we make the Bowl Trail in 4.5 hours, not bad I think.

John O'Brien and myself in the Bowl
We decided to take the long way to Tejas, which wasn't the best idea in retrospect. We followed the Bowl Trail to the Juniper Trail and circled around to the Tejas Camp site. that made for about 8 miles that day with backs on our backs. Near the Bowl and Juniper Trail junction we found a nice group of bird. Then I heard a Band-tailed Pigeon for Year Bird 474. A short time later John pointed out a calling Red Crossbill for Year Bird 475. Both of those birds felt really good to get, both are birds I felt like I should have had already.

Making my tent work with
no poles
We made it to the camp a little after 7 pm and dried off and set up camp. The night before both my tent pole both broke in the tent while it was set up and I was unable to use them this time. I came up with a support by using a rope that John had brought. It wasn't pretty but would work for the night.

We decided to nap until 9:30 pm and go owling. At 9:30 we had not gone 20 steps down the trail before we heard a Flammulated Owl calling, Year Bird 476! We decided we where hearing two different birds calling. I managed a poor recording.

We worked the Tejas Trail back to the Juniper Trail. We hoped for Northern Saw-whet Owl but only managed a couple of Mexican Whip-poor-wills and another Flammulated Owl. It was after 11 pm time to hit the hay and try again in the morning.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Que CARA CARA


Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
King Ranch Norias Division
Headed south to the land of the Crested Caracara. First stop the always super productive King Ranch. I met Tom Langschied the Nature Tour Coordinator at the Norias Gate at 8 am after the 4 hour drive from Houston. I was a little early and so got checked out by the Border Patrol while I was waiting. I have no idea how many times I've been checked by the Border Patrol or how many checkpoints I've been through, but I must be on a watch list by now.

Altamira/Audubon's Oriole Hybrid
The main target was of course the abundant Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls they have there. It didn't take too long to locate a pair of owls and make Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl Year Bird 470. We toured a lot more of the ranch. I don't know of another place where you can find so many specialty birds in one place.


During the morning we heard Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. We saw Hooded, Altamira, and Audubon's Orioles.We also saw an interesting Altamira/Audubon's hybrid. Can't count it but still an interesting bird. We also had great looks at Tropical Parula, Botteri's Sparrow, and Groove-billed Ani. Its a very special place for birders.

After a great morning birding I headed further south in search of Muscovy Duck. There seemed to be a Crested Caracara every half miles as I cut across the South Texas Brushlands. I made it to the picnic area just north of San Ignacio. From this overlook you can see close to 2 miles of the Rio Grande. Its an excellent look out for birds in the river. I spent two and a half hours there that evening with no luck on the duck.
Tropical Parula
Norias Division King Ranch

View of the Rio Grande from the picnic area.

Back in the morning I posted myself on the high point. Lots of bird activity on the river, but mostly grackles. They seemed to fly back and forth across the river endlessly. Wait, there it is, a large black colored duck with white wing patches flies from the Mexican side to the US side. The look is brief but Muscovy Duck is Year Bird 471. I wait about a half hour more hoping for better look but pack it in at about 10 am.

American Kestrel
Webb County
My plan was to hit some spots where Wood Stork had been seen recently on the way home. No luck with the wood storks but I did find what appeared to be a breeding group of American Kestrels in Webb County North of Larado on US 59. That what county birding does, it makes you look at every bird and sometimes you find something interesting. No luck between Laredo and Houston on Wood Storks, but its still early from these to disperse from breeding in Mexico.

I'm counting the days to Pelagic Season. If you're interested in the Texas Pelagic Trips, check out the website  http://texaspelagics.com/ We still need more signups for the first trip to go!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hummer, Hummer, Owl

Lucifer Hummingbird
After a windy night in Big Bend Rio Grande Village I woke to still and both Western Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls calling. It didn't take me long to strike camp and get on the road. I headed to Carolyn Ohl's Christmas Mountain Oasis. I rolled into the CMO about 9:30 am and the Hummer Show was on in full force. It took only moments to get on a Lucifer Hummingbird for Year Bird 467. The CMO is an amazing place and I lingered enjoying the hummers, Varied Buntings and Scaled Quail.

Finally I headed to my next stop. One of the western members of the Secret Underground Birders (SUB), call him Mr. H had invited to to his bunker high in the Davis Mountains to maybe get a rare owl. Driving from the CMO to Alpine I saw a B1 Bomber flow low over the highway heading east and had to think to myself, "What has the president done now" and "I hope I make it to Mr. H's Bunker in time"

Magnificent Hummingbird
I met up with Mr. H and he had me load up my gear into his survival vehicle and we headed high up into the mountains, checking our mirrors frequently to make sure we weren't followed.

Owl thirty would not happen for a long time and we chatted bird things and rare hummingbirds. Before too long a Magnificent Hummingbird made and appearance for Year Bird 468.

Soon we where being serenaded by Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Common Poorwills.

We headed up the hill in the fading light. When we got to the right spot by Mr. H's reckoning we had to wait until it was full dark. Finally  Mr. H was satisfied with the darkness. Using an old cassette tape he played the called. No answer. We waited a few minutes. Mr. H played it again. There it was faint and moving in closer! Northern Saw-whet Owl for Year Bird 469. Extra special because this was a lifer too. We moved around and re-positioned a coupled of times and finally got eyes on it.

Because we could we tried for Flammulated and Spotted Owl with not luck. Doesn't hurt to try!

Northern Saw-whet Owl
What a trip, 1,515 miles. 10.5 miles of hiking. I ended up with twelve new birds for the year and one lifer. My goal was to get 500 species by Memorial Day. I'm going to fall short of that by 31 species. I knew that would be a stretch, but goal that make you stretch are what's needed.

I may be able with some luck to pick up one or two species in early June, but that will be very lucky. I have only 28 none review species left! The next big push of birds will be in July when the Summer Pelagic Season starts.

Click here for my need list. I would really love to hear about a Lazuli Bunting or a Eastern Whip-poor-will I could get to in time. If you find one text or Facebook message me if you can!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Boot

My original plan was to head for Big Bend National Park last week, but the Crown Mountain Fire closed the trails in the Chisos Mountains and access to one of the two species you must get in Big Bend National Park. In Texas Mexican Jay is only present the Chisos Mountains, but they are resident. Colima Warbler is the other and they are present from maybe early April through August. Of course, you want them singing so May is the ideal time to go to Big Bend for a big year.

I left Houston Monday morning at 2 am headed west. I made good time and got to Panther Junction by 12:30 pm. As I was coming into the park there were warnings of full camp grounds, but I had no problem getting a site in Boot Canyon. My goal was to spend the night in Boot Canyon to maximize my chances at a Flammulated Owl.


Mexican Jay
First things first, I wanted to check out the water treatment plant for Blue-throated Hummingbirds. I headed down the service road and almost right away I had a troop of Mexican Jays for Year Bird 458. Hepatic Tanagers and Western Wood-Pewees were abundant. At the plant itself a beautiful Varied Bunting sang in the open for Year Bird 459. I found the tobacco plants where the Blue-throated Hummers where supposed to be. Not much activity, a Black-chinned Hummingbird was a good sign though. After waiting a while a Black-headed Grosbeak popped up and I did a few Western Screech-Owl toots to see if I could get it a little closer for a photo. Like rocket out of nowhere as make Blue-throated Hummingbird jetted in for Year Bird 460.

Ok time to get up the hill. It was three o’clock now and I got saddled up so to speak for my big hike. I got all loaded up and got about 200 feet down the trail and realized I didn’t have my permit on me, back to the car to get it. I then got about 300 feet down the trail and realized I forgot my flashlight and headlamp. Back again to the car for it. Ok this start was for real.

Varied Bunting
I made the Juniper Flats in good time, 50 minutes by my app for the first mile. Lots of Acrom Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays to entertain me while I pushed on with 40-50 pounds more than I was used to on my back. Two miles down and I was keeping under an hour per mile. I started into the switchbacks on the Pinnacles Trail. There are 21 switchbacks on the trail. Somewhere I got confused and wasn’t sure if my count was correct. On switchback 16 I head a call I was looking for, then a warbler landed in the tree in front of me. Colima Warbler sang for me for Year Bird 461.

Colima Warbler
Turns out my count was correct and at switch back 21 I topped the Pinnacles Trail at 3.8 miles and 6947 feet above sea level, and elevation change of 1600 feet from the parking lot. I stopped worrying about having to stop before I got there. I made good tome on the next mile was in Boot Canyon before I knew it. The spring and stream were flowing strong enough to hear.

By the time I made it to my site I had covered 5.25 miles in 4.5 hours. I felt pretty good about that, I even made the last mile in 30 minutes. It was now after 7:30 pm and I got right on pitching my tent and getting things in order since I was bushed, up since 1:45 and that hike and all. About 8 pm I was sitting on a log and realized I was hearing a familiar call. I checked a reference on my app and no doubt about it the long plaintive hweeew call I was hearing and so familiar with from Belize was a Dusky-capped Flycatcher for Year Bird 462. I had seen reports of one being heard on and off in the area. I finished my sandwich and it was still calling. Dang It, I guess I was going to have to try and get a photo or record it. Of course, by the time I got my gear together and made my legs work again it stopped.

Even though it wasn’t quite dark yet I crawled into my tent about 8:30 pm and listen to a podcast while I let my legs try and recover from the day. I was starting to doze about 9 pm as twilight was starting to fade and suddenly I could hear at least five of them calling. Mexican Whip-poor-will was Year Bird 463. The whips called all night long, they even seem to get a bit hoarse close to dawn.

An all-night serenade by Mexican Whip-poor-wills is nice, but the whole idea of camping was to get a shot at a Flammulated Owl. I woke at least a half dozen times during the night and listened with no luck on a Flammulated Owl.

Painted Redstart
I rose at 5:45 to whips still calling and got the tent packed and ready to break camp. A Plumbeous Vireo started calling over my head. I had the pack on my the time the sun was up and I realized I had been listening to warbler call nearby for about 5 minutes. I doubled check against my app and yes, Painted Redstart was Year Bird 464. After a few minutes it moved into a position I could even photograph it.

I only had one target left in the Chisos, Band-tailed Pigeon. I hung out until 8 am with no luck and started down. I did manage some good shots of Colima Warbler too. There were perhaps as many as eight present between by campsite and ranger cabin at the springs. I started down. On the Pinnacles switchbacks I had several more Colima Warblers. A little more than half way down I ran in John Yochum and Huck Hutchings from the RGV.

I made it down by 10:40 and enjoyed a cup of coffee from the Basin Store and sat in the shade enjoying the feel of no pack on my back. After my coffee I went to ask the ranger if the road might be open to Cottonwood Campground. It had been closed due to wash outs from the flash floods on Sunday and the daily report also said it was closed. I should ask when it might open I thought. The ranger was on the phone and I could hear the conversation “the daily report says its closed, but you’re saying its open now? All the way to Santa Elena Canyon? Just the overlook?” That sounds very promising. When she got off the phone she confirmed the road was now open to Cottonwood. Lucy’s Warbler here I come!

Lucy's Warbler
On my way I just let the call loop on my phone to tune my ears up. By the time I got there it was 12:30. I ate a sandwich and then started birding. I had not walked 100 yards and I heard it calling. At campsite 13 I found it above my head, Lucy’s Warbler was Year Bird 465. Not bad for almost 1 pm.

I headed over to Rio Grande Village for the end of the day and get a much-desired shower. I set up camp quickly and before my shower I scouted for Common Black-Hawk. No luck. The shower revitalized me and I took another look for the hawk. The wind was howling now no luck. Then I realized a bird I took for a Turkey Vulture wasn’t a Turkey Vulture. It circled in the wind over my head and zipped off down to the river. Common Black-Hawk was Year Bird 466.

With the wind still gusting to 20 mph I crawled into my tent, dreaming of what good birds I could find tomorrow.