Sunday, September 10, 2017

Strike Two!

Saturday after noon John B texted me and asked if I was interested in chasing the Sabine's Gull at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio. I hard learned of the bird too late to chase it on Saturday and was planning a Sunday chase anyway, so I suggested I pick him up at 5 am Sunday morning.

Pretty uneventful drive and we pulled in right at 8 am opening time. As soon as I walked up on the porch of the visitor center a gentleman who knew me said to me "it was hear until 6 pm last night" Funny how my presence is always linked to a bird.

Lesser Scaup
Salt Lake Guadalupe County
We headed out and watched the lake for a long time, enjoying the company of many birders. Sabine's Gull seems to be a 3 day bird pretty often. After about 5 hours of scanning for the gull we had to call it a dip.  Strike two on Sabine's Gull. This appeared to be a one day wonder that we missed. Back to Houston and better luck next time.

We stopped at Salt Lake in Guadalupe County on the way home. This lake is always worth a quick check I think. It was really full and had only a few birds. Up by the dam though there was a Lesser Scaup for the days most unusual bird I think. I'll take it as a consolation prize.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Well, the rain exploded with a mighty crash

Well, the rain exploded with a mighty crash
As we fell into the sun
And the first one said to the second one there
I hope you're having fun - Paul McCartney

Well Harvey was fun here in Houston, really fun. At first things weren't too bad. Sunday morning we woke to feet of water in the street and it kept coming up, only starting to recede on Wednesday. We were flooded in.  Food was running out. Beer was getting low and we were completely out of bacon for god's sake. In the mean time I kept hearing reports of birds I needed, Bridled Tern, Sabine's Gull, etc. from around the state. Really fun.

Thursday morning we could get out even though there was water in the street still, but now only as high as the rim of my tire. It was sunny and the cabin fever of being cooped up for 4 days with 4 adults, 2 teenagers, 3 dogs, and 3 cats was wearing on me. About 9:30 I saw a report of a Long-tailed Jaeger at Hornsby Bend in Austin. Then I saw a report of that one of the pair of Red-necked Phalaropes at Mitchell Lake was thought to be a Red Phalarope. Got to Go

I went shopping with my wife to replenish the pantry and made it out on the road about 12:30 pm. things where a mess in Houston still and there was only one open route to I10 for me and it cost me an hour travel time. Once on I10 travel was much easier. I finally made it to Hornsby Bend about 4:20 pm. I started looking in the pond I thought it was last seen in, The only birds I saw were a pare of Black-necked Stilts.

Long-tailed Jaeger Austin TX
I talked to someone who said she had recently seen it on the long pond. I started around the pond. At first there was nothing. Then at the end I saw a bird and got glass on it. yes! Long-tailed Jaeger makes Big Year Bird 481, and its a life bird to boot! That brings me to 540 species in Texas.

I heard a report that the Sabine's Gull that had been seen earlier in week at Lake Travis might have been seen that morning so I decided to give it a try until dark. Boy Austin rush hour traffic is fun. Oh and the post hurricane Harvey gas panic was setting in big time. I figured I had plenty of gas to make it to San Antonio that night, but when I spotted a station with a short line I decided to fill up. Turned out that was a good call. It was the last gas I saw until I got back to Houston, Every station I saw after I headed to San Antonio until I got back to Houston the next evening was out of gas. Of course the station closest to my house was still pumping gas.

I made it the park where the gull had been seen. I spent about 90 minutes looking until the sun set with no luck. Only seven species too. I headed to San Antonio, every station I passed seemed have bagged pumps now.

I made it to Mitchell Lake about opening time the next morning. Ran into some folks I know from Austin and we all spent a long vigil looking for the Phalarope. I called it an official dip after 4 hours, It turns out the consensus on this bird was that it really wasn't a Red Phalarope after all! I did manger 36 species and many new county birds though. Time to make the trek home.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

No Bueno

I left Houston at 7 am headed for Big Bend National Park. The idea was to look for a White-eyed Hummingbird that was reported the week before near Boot Springs. I was chaining this trip on to the Davis Mountains Preserve open weekend. Since I was going to do a lot of camping I decided to stay in the Chisos Mountain Lodge and get a solid night’s sleep before leaving at first light for Boot Springs.

The Chisos Mountains were as green as I’ve ever seen them. I had about 3 hours before sunset so I decided to bird Pine Canyon. I headed down the Glenn Springs road and it was in great shape. A couple of miles down I turned on to the Pine Canyon Road and it was also in good shape. I soon passed the PC1 campsite and had about 2.5 miles to the trail head. Right before PC2 I found a steep slope with some large holes near the top but they weren’t very deep. Without a thought, I started up and near the top I started to slip.

I backed down and put it in low gear and tried again. Still I slipped. I back down and got a running start. Nope, I wasn’t going to make it up this hill. I just need about 2 more feet too. No Bueno.
No choice and backed down. I had to back about a quarter of a mile to PC1 before I could turn around. Disappointed I headed for Dugout Wells.

At Dugout Wells I got out and could see a fair number of birds moving about. As I was gearing up I heard footsteps. About a half dozen javalina came out of the desert and headed down to the wells. I decided to give them plenty of room and bird the outside edge until they moved on. I pished and a thrasher popped up. I took a second look at what I assumed was going to be a Curve-billed Thrasher. No, it was a Crissal Thrasher. I flashed back to November of 1995 on my first trip to Big Bend National Park when I got my life Crissal Thrasher maybe a dozen steps from here. Wow almost 22 years ago. I think this is the first time I’ve had a Crissal here since then too.

I walked around the far end of the wells pishing and a small gray bird flew into a bush right in front of me. Elf Owl! I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had as good a look at one. I tallied 15 species in about 30 minutes and decided to call it a day. Up early it will be a full day of birding!

Mexican Jay
Up early I headed up the trail as soon as it was light enough to see. What a difference not hiking with a 45 pound pack, this was easy going compared to my last trip where I camped up this trail. Lots of wildflowers. Birds were the usual suspects, Mexican Jays and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers where everywhere. I took longer than expected birding my way through Juniper Flats and Boulder Meadow, but by 8:20 I was starting up the switchback 1.3 miles down the trail and 600 feet higher than I started at.

There are 21 switchbacks over a mile and a half where you climb about 1000 feet to the top of the Pinnacles. It took me a little less than two hours to make it to the top. Not too bad, I made it up 1600 feet and three miles in less than 3 hours.

Right at the top I heard my first Broad-tailed Hummingbird trill. Almost as soon as I got up the Pinnacles I stopped seeing Black-chinned and started seeing Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. I hurried on to Boot Springs to find this Whited-eared Hummingbird.

Hummingbirds became more numerous along the Boot Springs Trail. At one point I had a really green backed selaphorous hummingbird that I counted as an Allen's Hummingbird. I was up to 4 hummingbird species

I made it to the springs itself feeling good. I was walking across a flat area, just a little fine gravel under my feet when I heard a pop and felt a sharp pain from my knee and went down. I thought to myself "crap that hurt a lot". then I thought "crap, I'm 4.5 miles from the car". No Bueno.

I limped my way to the White-eared Hummingbird spot and found a nice rock to eat my lunch on and rest my knee. I had been there about 30 minutes when i started to hear voices, weird voices, coming from the direction of the south rim on the trail. A few minutes later a 20 something woman by herself appears and was really embarrassed. She had been camping and was heading down and was talking loudly in weird accents she explained to scare mountain lions. I replied in my best over done French accent "Oui! zee Mountain Lion particularly diz like the taste of zee Freeencch!" She grinned and headed down the trail.

I hung out at the spot as long as I could, no luck, I started down the hill early since I figured it was going to take a long time to get down. Back at the spot of my injury a pair of Blue-throated Hummingbirds dueled for my fifth hummingbird species of the day.

My knee was really hurting and I found a decent walking stick in the stream bed and trimmed the end a little. I don't like breaking the rules on collecting but figured under the circumstances I was making a minimal impact.

I can usually make the trip down in about two hours, this time it took over 4 hours. Surprisingly it was the passage through the Juniper Flats that hurt the worst.

In Alpine I found some compression tape and wrapped my knee well and that helped a lot.

The next morning I headed to the the Nature Conservancy's Davis Mountains Preserve hoping to relocated a Buff-breasted Flycatcher that was reported a month earlier. After finding a route that didn't pass through the high water in the creek I made it to the site and spent an extended time there looking with no luck. No Bueno.

There were no uncommon birds there at the time. I decided the next morning to head for Dog Canyon at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 2.5 hours later I got as far as the turn off near Carlsbad NM and found the road to Dog Canyon closed due to a wash out. No Bueno

I headed back to Frijole Ranch to try my luck. It was pretty slow around the ranch house and I decided to try the Smith Springs Trail. Slow going on the trail with my bad knee. Almost to the springs I found a female Lazuli Bunting for Big Year Bird 479. I was getting pretty worried about that bird and felt relieved to get something for this trip. 

Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
I needed to get off my knee for a bit and I headed back before making it to the springs proper. I sit for a bit catching up on my liquids. I start up the draw working my way slowly up hill. There are birds around. I keep working further and further up the hill and draw. I'm so far back I can now see into Bear Canyon a bit. Finally I hear something. Across the draw are a pair of Juniper Titmice for Big Year Bird 480. Whew I think I made six tries for this bird this year.

Heading back to the car, I'm literally only about 10 feet from the car and there is a rattlesnake in the path. Mind you I've been walking about prime rattlesnake county for the last several hours and I find one in the parking lot! I walk around it and head for Fort Stockton to cool off. Oh and rest my knee.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


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
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.


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.