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.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Three Strikes and I'm Out!

Friday morning I decided to run around East Galveston Bay and see what I could find for early migrants and maybe a lingering bird.

I started at Anahuac NWR and Spring was in the air. I hadn't been there in about three weeks and most of the trees are leafing out and the mix has changed a lot. Fewer Common Gallinules, more Little Blue Herons. I did have a small flock of Snow Geese and a few Greater White-fronted Goose flocks. I was hoping for a Green Heron, American Bittern, or a Purple Gallinule. No luck though.

I headed around the bat and planned to work the Bolivar Peninsula for maybe an early Pectoral Sandpiper or a Little Gull. I started at Rollover Pass. Plenty of birds, Lots of Marbled Godwits but no Whimbrel mixed in. On the gulf side there were thousands upon thousands of Lesser Scaup migrating north. In about ten minutes I estimated about 10,000 passed be. It was an almost continuous line of birds flying by maybe a half mile out. One of the coolest things I've seen.

I was hunting for Little Gull and my strategy was to scan as many groups of Bonaparte's Gulls as I could. Plenty here at Rollover pass too but no Little Gull. I did find a Least Tern for Year Bird 315.

One of the best places on the Upper Texas Coast to find Bonaparte's Gulls is to watch the barge trains in the Inter-coastal Canal. Groups of Bonaparte's Gulls follow the push boats in good numbers. I drove to the end of Yatch Basin Road and didn't have to wait long for a barge to come by. Perhaps 40 Bonaparte's Gulls behind this one, but no Little Gull.

Since there were no barges in sight the moment I decided to move on. I headed a few miles down the road to Tuna Road. This road is poorly maintains because there is nothing at the end but its got some old asphalt and lots of oiled gravel and is usually not a problem to travel. There was a big pothole and I took it slow and had no problem going though.

At the end I watched two more barges pass with their flocks of Bonaparte's Gull. No Little Gull. That's the trouble with finding rare birds, they are actually rare.

Stuck on Tuna Road!
Time to move on. I headed back down the road not too worried about that big pothole. I did take it slow again and but not as cautiously and likely much more centered. Trouble as the car ground to a stop, wheels spinning. I tried rocking out at first thinking its just a little mud, but it wouldn't move, I had zero traction. I got out and determined that I was high centered. From the look of the front wheels they maybe were not even been touching bottom.

I keep up a AAA membership and was more amused than anything at this point. I called and a wrecker was on the way I figured I'd be out in no time.

While I waited watched more barge trains. Lots more Bonaparte's Gull. Mixed in with the Forster's Terns I did find a basic plumage Black Tern for Year Bird 316. Got to make lemonade when you can.

The wrecker took about 45 minutes to arrive. I was amused by all the Clapper Rails calling while he back up, seemingly responding the the beeping off his truck in reverse. He eyed the deep muddy water I was in and asked if I have the tow hook for the car. I thought you're the wrecker driver you should come with the gear to do this. He explained that many cars come with a large eye-bolt that screws into the front bumper for situations like this. We looked and checked the manual my car didn't have one but I found the point where you attach it.

This driver didn't want to try anything else, said I didn't have the right equipment and left me there.  I called AAA back and they said they would get another driver since this guy never did anything didn't even investigate what he could do.

About 20 minutes later AAA called back and said the told to the driver and because he said it was impossible to get the car out in his opinion there was nothing they could do but send a commercial recovery service and I would have to pay out of pocket. I said lets hold off on that.

I called a nearby dealer and asked if there was a service they could send that had the tow hook. They recommended Nissan Road Assistance. I called and because my car was just a few months old the warranty still covered a pull out, no charge for the service!

A few minutes later I got a text with the ETA of a wrecker. I called to make sure they knew the situation and sent the driver some pictures. The driver said "I don''t see a problem getting you out". Excellent news.

A few minutes later I get a call from Nissan saying the driver cancelled. Well crap! The Nissan supervisor said she was looking for another service.

In the mean time I started looking for a place to get a tow hook and located one at dealership. I figured if I got the hook any wrecker could pull me out. I found one and my lovely wife got ready yo get it and bring it to me. She going to have to brave the entire Gulf Freeway to get it to me, Did I mention how much I love her?

A few minutes later a pickup truck came down the road. By now I'd been there about 3 and half hours with no traffic on the road. The driver asked if I was stuck. I said you bet but its going to take a wrecker to get me out. He said I have a wrecker, and it was only 10 minutes away.

I called Nissan and asked if they could contract with this guy since he was onsite and said he could do it. They said since he wasn't on the list they couldn't but I could pay out of pocket and submit it for reimbursement, but reimbursement wasn't a sure thing. While talking to Nissan I got another text message that a wrecker was on the way. I decided I would go with the wrecker onsite that knew the situation and not wait the hour plus it would take to find out they might not think they could do it.

My new favorite wrecker driver went and got his wrecker. He had a plan too. He had a flatbed wrecker  and he lowered the bed to the ground and attached a pulley at the ground and put the cable through it so it would be parallel to the ground. He crawled in the muddy water and found a safe point to attach the hooks and stationed me to watch and make sure he wasn't damaging my bumper. With the car in neutral he slowly inch by inch winched me out. In about 5 minutes I was solid ground just really muddy for my troubles. It took three tries but I was out!

The muddy waters hid a really deep hole. about 3 inches from my tire I could stand and the water didn't cover my boot. Next to the tire it was over my LaCrosse boots. I am definitely ordering a tow hook for my car, seems like a very good investment. I did get two new year birds today. If you never get stuck you're not birding hard enough!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Late to the Party

Rough-legged Hawk
Sherman County
Whew, I've been birding hard. After El Paso we swung through the Panhandle getting almost everything we wanted except the Long-eared Owl and Lapland Longspur. Back for a few days and headed to Refugio and bagged the Golden-crowned Warbler for Year Bird 307. A few days later I ticked Henslow's Sparrow with John Mariani's help for Year Bird 309. Henslow's was an important bird for me since I missed it in 2015.

Then on February 11 I went to Belize for two weeks. Sure it was fun and I did see 248 species of birds, but none of them added to my big year. Three days after I arrived in Belize I saw the news of the Long-eared Owls at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, TX. Long-eared Owls are early migrants north and I thought it would be a miracle if they stuck around for at least 10 more days.

Over the next 10 days there were updates and the birds were there every day. I began to think it was possible. I finally was able to go and try for these birds on March 1st.

I rose at 1:30 am to make the 390 mile drive to the park from Houston. I was feeling the fatigue of birding sunrise to sunset in Belize and driving the van everyday I realized. I make a lot of coffee stops along the way. These delays slowly built up though.

I made it to the park by 8:15 am though. At the headquarters I was greeted with "Good Morning" and I responded, "Good Morning, I've come for your owls!" The staff smiled and let me know the birds had been in the tree by the flag pole the day before.

I parked and kept my distance from the tree scanning carefully. I had tried for the Long-eared Owls at Hueco Tanks State Park with no luck in a similar situation. There the park host told us he had been photographing them everyday until they flew off and he was mystified why they weren't there for us. I didn't want flush these birds so I stayed between 50 and 40 feet out from the tree.

Long-eared Owl
Lake Arrowhead State Park
I circled about have the tree and then I was making eye contact with a Long-eared Owl for Year Bird 311. I felt invigorated after the long drive and it was only 8:30 am.

I tooled around the park ticking of county birds for a bit then decided I should chase a few things in the DFW area. I could see using Birdseye that Rusty Blackbird had been seen at the Village Creek Drying Beds in Arlington in the last few days and that a Little Gull had been seen the day before at White Rock Lake in Dallas. Time to fly.

I made to Village Creek in good time and from past experience knew the place to look for Rusty Blackbird would be the woods on the entrance to the beds. I parked and started looking. I walked up and down the road a few times listening and looking at everything. On my fourth pass in about 30 minutes I heard a squeaky call and saw three blackbirds with rusty backs fly across the road. Rusty Blackbird was Year Bird 312. Time to fly!

When I arrived at White Rock Lake I could see a lot of birds on the spillway. That was a good sign. Most were Ring-billed Gulls and a couple of Herring Gulls. Once in a while I would find a Bonaparte's Gull mixed in but no Little Gull. Bonaparte's Gulls where flying close periodically and I started scanning the lake for the distinct dark underwings of a Little Gull in flight.

While scanning a pair of Purple Martin's made for Year Bird 313. Way over due actually, I expected  to get Purple Martin in early February actually.

Bonaparte's Gull
White Rock Lake
I could see larger numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls across the lake and decided to head that way, reasoning a Little Gull might hang out with them. I found good numbers resting on the water, While scanning across the scattered gulls I found a pair of Barn Swallows for Year Bird 314. Alas it was getting late and I had a lot of miles to cover I decided the Little Gulls wasn't going to get ticked today. I think this day marked the end of Winter birding and from now on I'm Spring birding. Four new year birds is a pretty good day though.