Monday, November 13, 2017

Hook Me Up

View from the tower
I'm running out of birds. I started the week with just seven non-review species that I have realistic chances of getting. I need a bunch of review species to pop up in these last six weeks of the year. For those who don't know what I mean by a review species lets review. From the Texas Bird Record Committee Bylaws "In general, the Review List will consist of species that have occurred within Texas and adjacent ocean four or fewer times per year in each of the ten years immediately preceding revision of the Review List. By majority vote of quorum at a meeting, the Committee may, as it sees fit, add other species to the Review List, such as those whose identification is difficult."

If my math is correct there are 488 species on the non review list. These are the birds known to occur in Texas and don't meet the criteria above. It means those are the birds that with a little luck you should be able to get and should expect to get. So far four have slipped by me and I don't think I have a chance to make up.

In the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) the top of the list is Hook-billed Kite. I have already put in about 3 half days looking. Hook-billed Kite is regular but unpredictable in the RGV and you either have to get luckyor just put in the time and pay your dues for it.

Friday morning I had about an hour on the Santa An NWR Observation tower with when conditions got rainy and foggy enough that I figured no raptor in its right mind would be up and about. I came down from the tower and got word a few minutes later of the Tamaulipas Crows at the Brownsville Landfill.

Saturday morning I was back with no luck, Better weather but not great weather. A local school group joined me on the tower led by the ranger. Fascinating to see how excited they were to have a view of Mexico. Some confessed to having never seen Mexico. Most confessed to having never seen the existing border wall. It was good to be reminded how lucky I am to get to see so much of Texas.  Too soon I had to head for the festival.

Green Jay
Estero Llano Grande SP
It was foggy again and I started the day at Estero Llano Grande State Park nearby waiting for the weather to improve. Just the usual suspects but a great place to while away the time. Weather improved and I headed for Santa Ana NWR making it to the tower a few minutes after 9 am. Plenty of festival folks about to keep me company. It actually got sunny and I had a fair number of raptors up and about. Plenty of distant raptors to study. Cooper's Hawk, Northern Harrier, and White-tailed Hawk. Harris Hawks have kinda paddle shaped wings and I got hopeful on several distant Harris Hawks until their distinctive white rump showed.

I had been alone about an hour and I would have to leave soon. A distant rapture soared. I got the scope in it. No white on the rump ruling out Harrier and Harris Hawk. Broad paddle shaped wings eliminated accipiters and harrier, Rounded wings eliminate most buteos, especially the White-tailed Hawks that had been around. Add in the pointy looking head, the forward thrust of the wings beyond the head and it really adds up to one thing. Hook-billed Kite was Year Bird 493. Another bird that I can only feel a great sense of relief to get
Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival Field Trip
Santa Ana NWR
So now there are six non-review species left for me in the state. Tundra Swan, American Woodcock, Pomarine Jaeger, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Gull, and Lapland Longspur are what's left on the plate for me. Call me if you find them!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

To the Dump, to Dump, to the dump dump dump...

Tamaulipas Crow
Brownsville Landfill
The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen has a habit of turning up some rare birds. There was no doubt in my mind its where I needed to be this week.

Sunday before the festival got going on Wednesday a pair of Tamaulipas Crows were found on South Padre Island. By the time I made it to Harlingen on Wednesday the pair had been sighted twice more on the mainland, always miles apart but each time closer to the Brownsville Landfill. The Dump as birders affectionately call it was until the 1990's the only reliable spot to see these crows. But they disappeared from there and haven't been there for more than a decade.

Wednesday I drove slowly around the neighborhood they were last seen in. For some reason the Foghat song "Slow Ride" got into my head only with new lyrics "Crow ride, They ain't easy..." No luck on the crows.

Aplomado Falcon
Old Port Isabel Road
Thursday morning before the festival and went back out. After my crow ride through the neighborhood I cruised a bit down the Old Port Isabel Road. This is the classic spot to see Aplomado Falcon. This never happens to me, but today a pair of Aplomado Falcons perched on the fence right next to road and I had my camera ready. I soaked up as many shots and they would tolerate. No crows and it was time too head to the festival.

Since there had been no reports on Thursday of the the crows I decided to spend some time looking for Hook-billed Kite at Santa Ana NWR. I was the only one there at sunrise, not  a car to be seen. I was on the tower shortly after 7 am. Weather continued to degrade, getting foggier and wetter. Spooky no one around yet, not even border patrol. After an hour and slowly wetter and wetter conditions I called it quits. I headed to Estero Llano Grande SP to kill some time under cover on the deck.

Dump Selfie
As I was pulling in to the parking lot I got a message that the crows were at the Brownsville Landfill. Crow Ride, Take it Easy (the the speed that is). To the Dump, the dump, to the dump, dump, dump! I made it to the Dump about 10:15 am. The birds had disappeared a few minutes before I had arrived. I decide it was a party and hung out with 50 if my newest closest crow fan friends. The crowd slowly dwindled and after 2.5 hours it was just two of us there.

Getting close to the 3 hours mark Jesse Huth showed up to make it three.  I commented to Jesse his fresh eyes would help. Jesse had not been there 10 minutes when he said "Is that it on the fence" Sure enough, there on the fence was one of the Tamaulipas Crows for Year Bird 492. A second popped up into view. We got the word out and we waited for folks to return. After an hour I handed the crow baton to someone else and headed to the festival.

Alert readers may note that this should be year bird 293, but I'm showing 292. Too many questions are coming up on the Costa's Hummingbird and I just don't feel good about having it on the list, so I'm dropping my count by one. With some luck another will show up.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Here Chickie chickie chickie

Attwater's Greater Prairie-Chicken
Greater Prairie-chicken is one of the weirder birds you can count in Texas. In 2014 the ABA checklist committee decided that Greater Prairie-Chickens at the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge are countable. So this is a gimme bird, sorta.

There are two ways to see this bird. One is to drive the newly expended tour loop at the refuge and hope to get lucky. The new loop is very good, but eBird shows you have about a 10% chance of seeing a prairie-chicken on the loop. I've made about 7 trips this year with no luck. My last trip through in October someone reported one about an hour after I was there.

The other way to see one is to sign up for the tour the refuge gives the first Saturday of the month. You have a much better chance of seeing a chicken on this tour. There were two tours left this year and I was able to get on the November tour. Its not a sure thing but your odds are much greater than 10%

I got in about midnight from my trip to the panhandle. The tour meets at 7:45 am so I got less than 6 hours of sleep after I got back from my panhandle trip. On way my car started making a loud dragging noise. I pulled over and investigated. On my way home from Canyon an 18-wheeler threw some tread in front of me and I hit it. I didn't think any harm had been done, but now I could see it had damaged a plastic guard under the front of my car. It seemed mostly intact but had come loose and was dragging. I pulled it off and threw it in the hatchback hoping I could reattach it later.

On the tour I ended up in the back of the van. A big year doesn't require a spectacular view, just an identifiable view so no problem.

The tour is really not a birding tour although the tour does try and find Prairie-Chickens. It is more about the effort to restore and preserve the native prairie there. What you get to see is pretty spectacular if you have an eye for prairie. The new expanded tour loop is good, but this is even better.

We had been going a while and a hawk was called a Red-tailed and flew close. I realized the was wrong the large white wing patches proved it was a Ferruginous Hawk, a new county bird for me.

We continued. Finally the we spied my target. Out the front windshield was a lone Greater Prairie-Chicken for Year Bird 492. I got some poor shots out from the back. At this point they are all good!

After the tour I headed home, ready for a long nap! Next week is the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and with some luck I can get a few more birds there

Friday, November 3, 2017

You Win Some, You Lose Some

A member of the Tribe forwarded a report of a Varied Thrush in Canyon, TX that was found by Ray Matlack. Ray is the director of Texas Wild, He was looking out the back door right as he had to go give a class lecture and saw the thrush and was able to get a few shots of a male Varied Thrush. How cool is that?

Red-breasted Nuthatch
As luck would have it, I had been introduced to Ray just a few weeks ago by a mutual Facebook friend. I reached out to Ray and he extended me an invitation to camp out in his back yard and look for the thrush. Of course this was the last game of the World Series and I  had to cut my evening short and get some sleep, still I dozed with the TV on and actually woke up in time to see the last out of the game and see the Astro's win.

Up at 3:30 am and in the car by 3:45 I was on the road to Canyon, 635 miles the GPS said. I topped off the tank and grabbed a burrito at Buc-ee's in Madisonville. Until the sunrise somewhere navigating around the Metroplex I was cursing the Astros, feeling the lack of sleep. After the sunrise I felt better.

West of Fort Worth I  started to move through counties I had never birded before and started racking up some new county birds as I drove. Wichita, Wilbarger, Hardeman, Childress, Hall, and Donley all new counties for me to pass through in the daylight and I added some ticks to my Century Club totals. The Century Club and SirusXM radio are what keep me alert on a big year drives.

I arrived about 2 pm and Ray showed me the lay out. I pulled up a chair and settled in for a wait. Not much activity, I only tallied 5 species by 5 pm. I was beat and arranged with Ray to return in the hopefully more active morning. I drove around the neighborhood trying not to look suspicious as I peeped into everyone's yard with no success. I headed to my room and fell asleep early.

Sunrise was 8.04 am so I could sleep in to 7 am. I felt woefully out of shape as the college regional crossfit games were in town and the the breakfast room at the hotel was filled with super fit college kids.

Back at Ray's after a quick drive around the neighborhood again I settled in. Things were pretty slow until recess at the Elementary School across the street. When the wild indians came out to play it pushed a lot of robins into Ray's yard. No thrush yet though.

Red-tailed Hawk, Hall County
I tried playing some Varied Thrush calls. One time when it stopped I heard what sounded like a response, but only one. I tried again and there it was again! I thought it might be about to come in. I tried again and I realized one of the teachers across the street has a whistle that sound remarkably like a Varied Thrush, waa, waa, waaaaa.

I called it quits about noon and bid Ray good bye and thanked him for the opportunity. You win some and  you lose some. I told Ray if it was a guarantee you'd get the bird every time it wouldn't be so much fun to chase.

It was a long drive home, but I had a date with an Attwater's Prairie-Chicken to keep tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What was that?

It's crunch time, I need a few more than 30 species to break the record. Notable birds I still need are Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers. Purple Sandpiper is a reasonable review species to go prospecting for so part of my end game is walking the rock jetties near me looking for Purple Sandpipers and I can also be alert to the possibility of Wanderling Tattler and Surfbird. Long shots for sure but the more time in "rockpiper" habitat the better the odds. Both are also decent places to look for jaegers.

I walked both of the Brazoria County jetties, Surfside and Quintana on Monday, covering a total of 1.4 miles of jetty. Nothing but the usual suspects. On Tuesday I hit East Beach in Galveston where a Pomarine Jaeger spent a few months in 2016. Nothing out of the ordinary there, although there are a few Jaeger reports from here this year.

On to the North Jetty on the Bolivar Peninsula. This jetty is almost 5 miles long, but a cut in the jetty at about the 2 mile mark limits how far out you can walk. Fun fact about the jetty: General Henry Martyn Robert, the author of Robert's Rules of Order was the original engineer for the jetties 1895.

Nelson's Sparrow
I started out on the jetty with visions of making it to the cut. I'd guess I've never been more than about a half mile out on this jetty. I passed the last fisherman at about that distance. Close to where the marsh grass meets the jetty I found lots and lots of Nelson's Sparrows. A fair number of Seaside Sparrows too.

I kept going past the 1 mile mark. I made it out 1.6 miles and noticed the weather was turning and I didn't want to get caught way out on the jetty. Making it to the cut would have to wait for another day.

Mystery Bird
Bolivar Flats/North Jetty.
I saw a bird way out on the Bolivar Flats that looked very dark and it wasn't hanging with the other gulls. I watched it for a bit and saw it get back up. Much darker than any gull and a bit smaller than a Herring Gull. It got up again and looked like it was heading closer. I readied the camera and tried to keep glass on it. I looked hard for the white flashes in the primaries I expect from a Jaeger, nothing. It looked as close as it would come and I tried for some photos but they are poor, I did note a paler mantel and darker primaries. At first nothing added up in my mind.

The bird flew out into the Bolivar Roads and was gone. I now wonder, could this have been a juvenile Heermann's Gull? the colors and the size are about right. My best photo seems to show a pale base to the bill. What do you think?

Distant with a large gull
Herring or perhaps a Lesser Black-backed Gull

In flight

In flight closer, not sure the pale colors in the primary
are real

Sunday, October 29, 2017

An Evening with Mr. H

As we were settling in for the night in Fort Stockton, Bob Friedrichs and I got word that Mr. H high up in the Davis Mountains had an Evening Grosbeak at his bunker. First thing in the morning I sent Mr. H a note asking if we might visit the bunker and catch a glimpse of this beauty. Mr. H answered quickly that he had not seen it yet today.

Evening Grosbeak
Davis Mountains
We headed out to Imperial Reservoir since Bob had never been. Its about 20 minutes north of Fort Stockton and has had a number of good birds over the years. There is not really any direct access anymore though, the caretaker doesn't appear to be on site anymore, but you can scope a lot of lake from the gate and any big water in west Texas is worth checking out. We would be off grid while there unfortunately.

At the lake we tallied 30 species in 40 minutes, the best birds being a distant Willet and a first for me in west Texas Bald Eagle.

Right as we had gone off grid Mr. H responded telling us the Grosbeak was back. We got the message on the way back into town 45 minutes later and we immediately headed to the bunker. It was 140 miles to the Davis Mountains and we would make it about 11:30 am.

Right after we left Fort Stockton Mr. H went silent. We went silent too, most everyone was silent! ATT was offline and neither Bob nor I had a working connection.  It turned out ATT was out in the whole region and we didn't have service until we got almost to Ozona that day on the way home, We had to hope the situation stayed the same at The Bunker. As a backup I extracted the GPS coordinates from a photo I took at The Bunker and plugged them into the GPS.

We made it almost to The Bunker when the car would not make it a steep hill, right as we passed a 4x4 only sign. The GPS said only 0.2 miles to The Bunker. We parked and started to walk. A flock of Red Crossbills flew over as we huffed and puffed up the steep mountain with our flat land lungs.

We made it about 11:35 and Mr. H greeted us in Duck Dynasty camo. I get the impression Mr. H wears a lot of camo around The Bunker for security reasons.

Mr. H bid us to take a seat and be quite, this bird was skittish. Mr. H left us to make coffee and we watched. A male Rivoli's Hummingbird kept catching my eye.

We had been on watch only about 10 minutes when Bob called out in an excited whisper "There it is!" It came out on to the platform feeder, Evening Grosbeak was Year Bird 491!. There is something about these "diversion" birds when you change plans and go back for a bird that makes them more exciting, more satisfying.

Bob and I raised cameras at the same time. Curse you Alessandro Volta! my camera battery was dead! I had 4 charged ones in my pack, back at the car. Fortunately Bob popped the battery from his camera out and loaned it to me so I could get a few shots of my own.

Headed back it was cash only until we got to Ozona. It seems all credit card processing depends on ATT out west. One wag waved his phone at the woman behind the counter as we grabbed a bite to eat saying "My Verizon phone works just fine". I was so happy for him, he still had to pay cash like me.

It was a long drive home, we covered about 880 miles that day by my reckoning, The Grosbeak made it bearable.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

At Any Costa's

Costa's Hummingbird, El Paso, TX
Bob Friedrichs and I were up bright and early and headed to the hummer house, making it there at 7:45 am. Hummingbirds were active and we watched multiple Anna's Hummingbirds chasing around. We divided up searching Bob taking the backyard and myself in the front.

Not very long after we got there a smaller bird made an appearance just as Bob came back to the front yard. This looked like the bird we had seen photos of, smaller, darker headed, looked like it had a bolder collar than any of the Anna's we had seen. It was having a bad hair day too, it showed a very unruly crown. It flew down inside the tree and perched deep inside. We struggled for a good photo. The Anna's were bullies and chased it several times. From the chasing birds we saw some garnet red flashes of color, not the purple of a Costa's. We couldn't be sure in the chase what bird we were seeing though.

This continued for some time. Bob decided to stake out the back feeder hoping for a Broad-billed Hummingbird that had been reported coming to that feeder. I staked out another feeder that the Costa's was reported to favor.

Our mystery bird made a few appearances at this feeder, but from my angle was hard to see. I never saw the gorget color. Bob returned from the backyard and this time he caught a glimpse of purple he thought. It was looking better and better for this bird. Still we weren't sure. Bothering us was the tail looked long in the photos too.

No one had really seen the bird for 7 days now. It had not been identified right away when it was photographed and no one had been able to look for it since. Compounding the problem was the original photo showed the bird in heavy molt and it would be expected to change a lot in a week. Our bird had more feathers in the gorget, but that's to be expected.

We called it a day after 3 hours and headed out to prospect for more birds. We circulated the best photo to our Hummingbird Guru and he confirmed Costa's Hummingbird for Year Bird 490. He also thought the tail looked ok since males have longer tails. Unlike a lot of year birds at this point I feel more relief than elation, this one was a struggle.

We hit some spots in El Paso County prospecting with nothing all that uncommon being found. At a dairy feedlot on Hudspeth County right next to the highway we found about a hundred Yellow-headed blackbirds mixed in with the thousands of Brewer's Blackbirds.

Probably a hyper-marked Herring Gull
Lake Balmorhea 
We made it to Lake Balmorhea with time for some gulling before it got dark. It was windy now and the lake churned like the ocean. We found some gulls though and it took little time to identify Ring-billed and Franklin's Gulls.

We moved around the lake. An interesting gull flew at us and Bob jumped out to photograph it. On the water I spotted another gull that looked interesting. It had a very strong scapular pattern. I circulated some photos. A few who felt California Gull, and more that liked Herring Gull. Gulls can be a challenge and some defy easy answers.

Remember that gull in flight that Bob was photographing? Later reviewing the photographs, it was a California Gull. With gulls shoot first and ask questions later is often good advise.

We headed into Fort Stockton and got one of the last rooms in town. We celebrated with pizza and beer. We got word of a great bird we had to figure out if we could get in the morning.