Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Final Push

Crimson-collared Grosbeak at Frontera Audubon, Weslaco TX
photo by Tripp Davenport
Shepdawg suggested that I just go for 500 in my eBird list for the year since that's what everyone is looking at. I couldn't get into Frontera Audubon until 8 am and Olivera Park in Brownsville has a couple if species of parrots there I could use to do that. I check eBird and in the last couple of days it shows Yellow-headed, Red-lored, and White-fronted Parrots there. I have 497 species in eBird because I have Lilac-crowned Parrot and Egyptian Goose on my list. I haven't not listed non countable exotics this year, but I didn't go out of my way to see any either.

Sunrise was at 7:16 in Brownsville. Parrots don't wait around long after sunrise in my experience so I needed to be there early and see if  could find where they were roosting and be ready. I timed my arrival for 6:30 am.

I looked and looked and found no parrots roosting. Finally about 7:20 I heard a squawk and headed for the playground. I spotted what I counted as 6 Red-crowned Parrots in a tree. I started scanning other trees in the area. Suddenly the tree with the Red-crowned Parrots erupted and about 150 Red-crowned Parrot came out. Where the heck where they in the tree?

A few seconds later from another tree three Yellow-headed Parrot flew out. I then found a group of 4 more birds perched in where I could see them, Cool, Red-lored Parrots! That would make 499 in eBird.I headed for Frontera Audubon.

There were already a few people on the trail when I got to Frontera Audubon. I headed for the last sighting of the grosbeak. As I turned on the trail I heard it! Then a yellow-green streak with a black face flew across the trail. That was it! Crimson-collared Grosbeak was Year Bird 496!

I heard excited voices up the trail and one woman was on it. I tried over the next 30 minutes for a picture and while I saw it well briefly one more time I didn't get a picture of my own.

It was early, just a few minutes after 9 am. I hatched a plan to go out in a Blaze of Glory. I dumped requests for help on social media and email and headed for Bear Creek Park in Houston. There had been Purple Finches there earlier this month. My plan was to get a group of people searching the park and crowd sourcing the last bird of the year.

I got word as I was leaving that there was a report of Amazon Kingfisher at the resaca on FM100 where it was found a couple of years ago. I decided it would only cost me 30 minutes to check it out. No luck though, not a single kingfisher there.

Headed north to Houston traffic was heavy. I had a long wait at the Sarita Border Patrol checkpoint. I wondered if I was getting flagged for the number of checkpoints I've been through this year.

I made it to Bear Creek Park about 4 pm. I did manager to muster a several birders to help look and while it was pretty active, there was no Purple Finch found that day. I ended the year with 496 ABA /countable birds in Texas and 500 in eBird. I had traveled 3,272 miles this week in Texas and 29,642 in Texas this year. I did 11% of my miles in the last week! Time for some downtime I have 48 hours until my next Christmas Bird Count!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Slick

Bufflehead
I woke to not too many options on my plate for new birds in Alpine, TX. I gave Baird's Sparrow a solid effort and have to agree with The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds that it is rare to very rare, There just weren't a lot of solid birds left to go for. I could count the number of non-review species on one hand that might be in the state still I needed. Parasitc Jeager (2 reports in the last month),  Dusky-capped Flycatcher (no reports), Henslow's Sparrow (no reports), Baird's Sparrow (no reports), and Purple Finch (several reports). Nothing was very chase-able though.

My initial plan for the day was to check Lake Balmorhea for a rare gull or a Red-throated Loon, then check Imperial Reservoir for the same birds then head back to Houston and chase a Purple Finch the next day. Slim pickings.

Shepdawg and I decided to split up and he would take the dam and I would take the marshy end. Lots of Ring-billed Gulls around for a good omen I thought. A Buffehead hung close to shore and there were a lot of small grebes, another good omen.

Slick, real slick
Heavy equipment was using the levee at the West end of the lake to get to an oil project so it was really rough but I thought passable.  I made it to the north end and bad the turn. Then it got slick, I was spinning. I started working my way back to the levee. It was slow going but I made a little progress and got the car turned around. Two guys helped me push but soon it was no go. I was just spinning, but not dug in.

Good thing I renewed by AAA membership before I left Houston. I called and they said one hour. I let Shepdawg know what was going on and he decided since I had help on the way and there was really nothing he could do for me or even safely get to me he would head on to check Del Rio again for the Rufous-backed Robin. I bid him safe travels and he was off.

Eared Grebes
Ah well I could be stuck in worse places. There was a large flock of Eared Grebes that seemed to ignore me completely. A few Bonoparte's Gulls showed up. A small flock of Snow Geese landed for a new county bird for me.

After an hour AAA called back and they said they had someone on the way and wrecker would be here in 60-70 minutes. I wryly said cheerily "I'll be right here waiting".  Its funny really. I made 363 days with out getting stuck and I have been on some really bad roads and finally on day 364 I get stuck.

About 45 minutes later I see the wrecker heading my way. The driver gets out and walks my way. I meet him half way. He's afraid his truck will get stuck. Hey AAA, why did you send a wrecker service to get someone out of the mud who's truck won't get there?

The driver decided that maybe its dried up  enough in 2 hours that maybe if he just pushes I get going. He gets behind me and it works. We get both vehicles out and I sign the ticket and I'm on my way. I tried to get up to speed to get the mud out. Trouble was I had pounds of mud stuck inside the tires making it very unbalanced.

I got word that the Crimson-collared Grosbeak was being seen this morning. It was only 11:30 am now. Time to make a decision. I should go for the bird in the hand, the grosbeak. Wells up! its only 620 miles to Weslaco! I can be there by 10 pm! Wheels up! I was headed south.

There's your problem
I realized the mud was still a problem before I even got to I10. The mud had my tires so unbalanced that I couldn't drive more than 50 mph. I pulled over and was able to get some mud out with a stick (there aren't many sticks in Balmorhea its turns out, I really had to look for one). A little better, but I was not able to go more than 60 mph. I decided to limp in to Fort Stockton and look for a car wash with a pressure hose and clean it out.

Turns out there is no such thing in Fort Stockton, so I went through a drive through car wash. Better but still a problem.I pulled into the truck stop and found another stick and got about two pounds of dirt out of two tires. Much better I can do the speed limit, 80 mph here, and I'm off.

Its a long drive but I make it to Weslaco by 9:30 pm and I get some rest dreaming of finding five more species somehow tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Snow Day

Waffles aren't Texas shaped
in New Mexico!
I woke up to the parking lot of the Roadway Inn at White's City NM half full still with snow and the rest mostly black ice. While I enjoyed the novelty of a non-Texas shaped waffle I chatted up the motel staff and found I wasn't going to get to Dog Canyon where I expected to get Juniper Titmouse. Ok I would just have to dig one out at Frijole Ranch.

Juniper Titmouse
I hit the road in the fog, which mysteriously lifted at the Texas border. In no time I was at Frijole Ranch. I worked the area back along the wash that leads back to Bear Canyon. At first it was really quite. After about 30 minutes I heard some Spotted Towhee's mewing. I started doing my best Western Screech-Owl imitation and it started to get hopping. I could see finve Spotted Towhee's at once and a few Canyon Towhees. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined them. A flash of blue as a couple of Western Scrub-Jays joined the party. A pair of gray streaks zoomed in and then one perched in the open for a good look. Juniper Titmouse clocks in as Year Bird 494.

I feel better after, I felt this incredible sense of relief getting this bird since I've actually looked for it 3-4 times this year.  I heard what sounded like American Robins by the old ranch house and decided they should be checked for Varied Thrush before I left the site. The springs and ranch house had not a single bird, but I found a large flock of robins almost to Manzanita Springs. No Varied Thrush. Time to go.

Sagebrush Sparrow
I headed down the road to the dunes near Dell City where a good number of Sagebrush Sparrows had been seen this year. Almost to Dell City I see a Crissal Thrasher perched up and did a U-turn to try and photograph it. It moved off too far to photograph, but I heard several sparrow chips. On a whim I played some Sagebrush Sparrow song. Like a jet one flew in and perched for photos. Sagebrush Sparrow was Year Bird 495.


TX54 looking North to
El Capitan
Now I had to decide what to do next. I could head into the Devil's Hall and see if I could find a Spotted Owl. I hadn't head that anyone has been successful at finding a Spotted Owl there this year though so that was a long short. I decided to see if Shepdawg was still in the area and headed back to Marfa for another try at Baird's. I meet up with Shepdawg we head back down FM2810. We find few sparrows today and travel a lot further down the road, making 20 miles.

An American Kestrel finishes dinner
We see some cool things. A couple of Prairie Falcons. Three Red-tailed Hawks are soaring in the wind off a ridge next to the road. An American Kestrel finishes up what I presume was the only Baird's Sparrow in this parts. Our phones go off. Another Crimson-collared Grosbeak has been found in the Rio Grande Valley. Tempting but so far away. Tomorrow I'll have to make some decisions on my final moves.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Headed West

A Gray Hawk soars over San Felipe Creek in Del Rio
At first light I headed for the site of the Rufous-backed Robin in Del Rio. The bird was not found during the state wide blender of Sunday's winds. I had my fingers crossed that it was still there.

I arrived on site and Shepdawg was already there along with several others. Lots of activity though. There were several Kiskadees chasing around. A large group of Chihuahuan Ravens chased over head. Good numbers of Ring-billed Gulls streamed over head. A Gray Hawk screamed and soared over. No Rufous-backed Robin yet.

Two city officials came by, Shepdawg thought that one identified himself as the City Manager, I heard the other say he was from the Parks and Recreation Department. Shepdawg and myself took the opportunity to enthusiastically endorse the birding ecotourism potential of Del Rio. The city is developing a parks system along San Felipe Creek. With Gray Hawk and White-collared Seedeaters resident it is worth a stop for many birders. Its not too hard to imagine another mega-rarity like Mottled Owl, Spot-breasted Wren, or Blue-gray Tanager showing up in Del Rio (hey I dream big when I dream of rarities!). More observers would help make that happen and Del Rio is in such an interesting place geographically. There must be a few Rufous-capped Warblers there somewhere. And its one the way to Big Bend.

About 11 am I decided to call this an official dip and headed west. My original plan was to head straight for White's City NM and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It sounded like the roads where not in good shape from the glizzard that roared through though (Winter Storm Goliath I think the weather channel called it), I had in-laws stuck on I10 near Van Horn for 12 hours my wife texted me. I decided to tag alone with Shepdawg and look for Baird's Sparrow near Marfa.

Anna's Hummingbird, Judge Roy Bean
Visitor's Center
Speaking of interesting places, Lee Hoy recently became the supervisor at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor's Center and since I was going to pass through I stopped to say hello and to bask in the glory of his Anna's Hummingbirds. Lee has had hummingbird feeders up just a few weeks and already has a pair of Anna's. Lee has plans to make the cactus garden there more bird friendly and I can't wait. I got my life Scott's Oriole here. You can literally see Cerro el Colorado 50 miles away in Mexico and its about a mile high. I just know I'm going to be chasing something from there in the not too distant future.

Wolf Camp Hills near Marathon
Westward Ho! outside of Marathon we see the mountains covered in snow for the first time. Wow! is all I can say. I've seen the western mountains a lot this year, but never like this. We stop for pictures.

Our goal is to bird FM2810 out of Marfa and we pull onto the road about 3 pm and start working it for Baird's Sparrow. I've never been on this road and in its present state its stunning. We find plenty off sparrows just not our target. One gets me excited but Shepdawg convinces me its a Grasshopper Sparrow. We go until almost sunset. The snow is disappearing fast and I decide to make the drive to White's City, NM and bird the Guadalupe Mountains in the morning.

FM2810 West of Marfa
Snow Bunting?
My route takes me through Valantine and Van Horn. Van Horn is a little bit crazy when I stop to gas up. I head north on TX54 to Pine Springs. After I leave town I don't see another car for more than 60 miles. I try not to imagine how long I might be out there if I have a problem. I pass only 4 cars in total for about 80 miles.

Surprisingly there is no snow I can see until I get with in a half mile of the motel. I pull into the parking lot and its piled up more than a foot deep. The poor guy behind the desk is one of only two staffers there and looks tired but is very helpful. He even helps break the ice seal on my room door when it won't open. Unlike last night this room is nice and warm and I get some rest for tomorrow, dreaming of Juniper Titmouse and Sagebrush Sparrow.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Headed South

While I was in North Central Texas the Golden-crowned Warbler in Refugio was relocated. So at sunrise I was at Lions/Shelley Park looking and listening. It wasn't really very birdy. The wind was kicking up; part of the system that was going to dump a blizzard on my west Texas plans. Some of the usual suspects where there. An Audubon's Oriole that was calling was a good one. Shepdawg was there by then. We both needed this bird.

I started to hear the distinct dry chatter that was the Golden-crowned Warbler. Over the next 30-40 minutes I kept hearing it and I could not locate the bird in the thicket. I continually compared it to recordings of Golden-crowned and Wilson's Warblers and I was sure I was hearing Golden-crowned Warbler now. I'm going to count it, the Big Year Clock is ticking, Golden-crowned Warbler is going down as Year Bird 493. 

About 9:30 I headed for an appointment with a Crimson-collared Grosbeak that was found at a residence in Alamo, TX. I made it there about 1 pm. It was small place and the wind was blowing a gale. It felt like pretropical storm like. A small group was there and we filed into the small back yard looking. The wind made it hard. After about 30 minutes of looking we called it a dip and I headed for Del Rio.

It's about 350 miles to Del Rio from Alamo and I pulled into my motel about 9:30 pm, having traveled about 725 miles that day from Houston. I was ready to get some rest! I get my gear into the room and hear the smoke detector chirping. I call the desk and I get a battery and change the battery. Problem solved.

The bed is right by the a/c unit and I can feel the now 35 degree and 30 mpg wind blowing through the unit. No problem I turn on the heat. No heat, I turn it up to 80 degrees. No heat. Since everything is run by a computer processor these day I unplug it and count to 10 and plug it back in seeing if that will solve the problem. No heat.

I call the desk and tell them I have no heat. She asks me to cycle the power and I tell her I've already done that. She says she will give me another room. As I am grabbing my jacket to go back down to the office I feel heat. Problem solved and I cancel the room change.

Well, I wake at midnight cold. There is only a little heat coming out and its not warming the room up. I'm dead tired and don't want to move. I double the blanket up and can make the night. Back to sleep.

At 4:40 am the smoke detector goes off for about 3 seconds. I can't find anything wrong, I go back to my chilly sleep. 5:17 am the smoke detector goes off for 3 seconds again. I still can't find a problem. I manager to get a few more minutes sleep until I get up at 6 am. I don't feel well rested for this day.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Trifecta

Today was the start of the race to the finish. I hit the road at 2 am headed for Lake Tawakoni. A party had permission to bird the fields below the Lake Tawakoni Dam for Smith's Longspurs. This site is the classic site in Texas for Smith's Longspurs. In 1999 it was closed to the public though. This is the only time birders get into this site. It is possible to get the Longspurs from the county road next to the site though.

I was to meet the part at 7:30 am. I made good time and arrived about 6:50 am. I stood outside the vehicle ticking off county birds as it started to get light. A couple of woodcocks twittered for a very good county bird. Suddenly I heard a couple of dry rattles that sounded like Longspurs. None of the apps on my phone though had anything but the song of the Smith's Longspur. When Greg got there he had the flight call though and played it for me. That was it! Smith's Longspur was Year Bird 490.

We headed in to the Dam. We found a small group of Bonaparte's Gulls flying by. One was different though. Headed away we saw the bold black M pattern and black tail band. Greg made the call before I could. Black-legged Kittiwake was Year Bird 491.

We walked the fields and while we heard a couple more Smith's Longspurs in flight we only had those few birds.

Tundra Swan in Red River County
I headed north to a pond in Red River County not very far from Detroit, TX where a Tundra Swan was found a couple of days ago. The road was not good going in and I feared high centering but I made it to thee pond safely. I scanned as soon as I got close the pond. Oh No I saw many duck decoys out. The red building in the middle of the pond appeared to be to be a duck blind too. If someone had been hunting this pond there is no way the swan would have stuck around. I got out of the car and scanned with binoculars. Nothing, no swan was visible. I had a bad feeling. I got the scope out and decided to give it a good scan. Suddenly it was right in the middle! Tundra Swan was Year Bird 492. 

Tomorrow I head sound for the review species goodies!




Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seawatch

Today was the Freeport CBC. For twenty years now I've been on the end of the jetty on Quintana Island. I've seen some cool stuff from here. Northern Gannet is almost a sure thing. Generally we get some type of scoter. About every other year I manage a Black Scoter. Black Scoter that is the last scoter I need this year.

I arrive at the jetty at 7 am and quickly scan the large flock of gulls at the base. Nothing but the usual suspects, but I did locate three Franklin's Gulls for a very good bird for the CBC. I make the hike to the end of the jetty, just over a half mile.

I get set up for the morning. Not very long after I get there I spy a couple of Northern Gannets. The conditions are very good for gannets and I anticipate a good number today. That didn't turn out to be the case, These where the only two gannets of the morning. About a half hour later Janet, one of the veterans of the jetty joins me.

Common Tern
There were lots of Forster's Tern working near the end of the jetty. One catches my eye and the dark carpel bar confirms it, A Common Tern is working near by. Eventually two more join it and the three seem always present for the four hours I'm there.

About 9 am ducks start moving. A group of three fly north not very far out. I get a scope on them and yes its my target! Black Scoter is Year Bird 488.

A White-winged Dove hangs
with the Turnstones
More ducks, Redheads, Lesser Scuap, and Northern Pintails. On the very end of the jetty there is an odd site, a White-winged Dove hangs out with the Ruddy Turnstones. We keep looking, you never know what will show up here.

I spot a large bird moving towards us. I ask Janet, is this an Osprey? It finally banks and we see its a large gull. The wing are dark, the head is very white. The tail is white with a dark band. It dwarfs a double crested cormorant it lands near. Janet snaps a picture. Through the scope I can see it has a very large stout bill.

We discuss the identification and we can only reach one conclusion. Great Black-backed Gull becomes Year Bird 489. I write it up for the count. That picture that Janet took becomes the topic of hot discussion. Some feel it doesn't eliminate Lesser Black-backed Gull. The photo get circulated to some other experts and Lesser Black-backed Gull is eliminated and the bird is accepted as a Great Black-backed Gull.

One of the many photogenic Ruddy Turnstones on the Jetty
Ten days left in the year and I need eleven more species. I will have to average more than one species a day to reach my goal. Its going to be tough. At the start of the year I figured I'd need 22 review species to reach 500. The Great Black-backed Gull makes fourteen review species. If I had 22 at this point I would be sitting at 497 and I think 500 would be easy. I have my fingers crossed for a flurry of rarities from CBC's.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Blown Away

118 not far from the McDonald Observatory
Sun was supposed to return for Sunday morning. Trouble was there was a high wind advisory, with gusts to 50 mph possible.Yikes! that's not the conditions you need to find sparrows.

Time to take a deep breath and do what needs to be done. I was here, its a 650 mile drive for a return trip in the next two weeks, so I headed out.

When I got out on the road in the Davis Mountains I noted that it had snowed a little overnight. I stopped briefly at the Lawrence E Woods Picnic Area and it was actually snowing a little still. Except for a flyover Red-tailed Hawk and a noisy group of four Acorn Woodpeckers not a bird was moving in the wind. On to the first sparrow stop.

Acorn Woodpecker
Out in the wind and a dusting of snow I went. At the first stop I walked about a half mile in the grass. This was one of the sites I might have had a Baird's Sparrow back in January and is a site that has hosted them historically. No a single bird was seen. It was fun kicking up clouds of fine powdery snow as I stomped looking for something,

Nope, not Baird's Sparrow
On to the next spot. I had been by here yesterday too. This site is about a mile south of 188 on 166. As I made the turn onto 166 I noticed that there was a lot more good looking grass habitat closer to the intersection where the fence was set back further from the road. I pulled over to check this out. Almost immediately a Red-shafted Northern Flicker flew by working through the scub in a very odd place for a flicker.

A bit further I started to hear some sparrow chip notes that didn't sound familiar. I got out my phone and played Baird's chip notes. Sounded identical. The bird was even responding to it. It was just a couple of feet in front of me in the grass. I was getting excited. Finally it flushed and perched were I could see it well. Queue the disappointing music, WAH wah wah... It turned out to be a Black-throated Sparrow. More walking. Something made me look over my shoulder and I saw a pair of javelinas walk casually across the road.

Black-throated Sparrow
More walking. Surprise! I flush a pair of Montezuma's Quail. That's the trouble with a big year, once you have a good bird like Montezuma's Quail its a trash bird. Time is wasting, time to move on to Sagebrush Sparrow.

I get to Balmorhea cemetery. Its windy, really windy. I see a Say's Phoebe that tries to stay on the fence wire but keeps loosing its grip and spends most of its time on the ground. I hear some chip notes and they sound a lot like the chip notes of Sagebrush Sparrow! Queue the disappointing music, WAH wah wah... It turned out to be a Black-throated Sparrow. At least I can find a sparrow in this wind. I spent an hour looking without success. I find White-crowned and more Black-throated Sparrows. Its late and I have miles to go.

Say's Phoebe tries to hang on at the
Balmorhea Cemetery
It's been years since I've heard a report from Imperial Reservoir in Pecos County north of Fort Stockton. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. I remember in the 90's hearing a lot of reports of good birds from here though. I figured it was worth a quick visit. I was surprised at the size of the reservoir, I know now its about 1500 acres in size. There is some kind of entry office, but since I didn't have but a few minutes I just scoped from the side of the road. The wind was howling! The water was covered with white caps and birds would disappear between the swells. The water was incredibly clear. I could see the feet of the thousands of coots dangling in the water and I could see grebes swimming under water. There were a lot of birds though. I think I could spend hours here sorting through them. Coots dominated but I saw lots of Redheads also and a few grebes. I sure there were many more species, but no quick and easy Red-necked Grebe.

Imperial Reservior
Wind and time were not on my side today and too soon I had to make the 655 mile drive home. Next week should be interesting because Christmas Bird Counts start.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

With a Little Help from my Friends

Broad-billed Hummingbird
I got a message on December 4th that there was a Broad-billed Hummngbird in the Davis Mountains. First it was going to get banded and then hopefully it would stick around. It wasn't seen on the 5th, but it reappeared in the 6th. ShepDawg got it on the 6th. Now I had to wait all week before I had a chance to try for it.

Balmorhea Cemetery
My plan was to head out after work, spend the night in Junction and get an early start and get to the area at sunrise. That went pretty good and I had some time so I decided to make a quick try for Sagebrush Sparrow at the Balmorhea Cemetery. I spent abut 20 minutes there and no Sagebrush Sparrow.

I will try again tomorrow. On to the main event. I headed to the residence of the hummer and as soon as I walked into the yard I saw it at the feeder. When chasing the Golden-crowned Warbler I mentioned my fantasy of a chase where I just walk up to it. This was the dream come true. I got the bird within 1 minute of getting there. Broad-billed Hummingbird was Year Bird 486. I spent the next 10 minutes getting some good pictures then I headed out to the Nature Conservancy's Davis Mountains Preserve to take advantage of the open day.

Western Bluebird
Locke Gap,
TNC Davis Mountains Preserve
I consulted with the volunteers there and they suggested the Locke Gap Road as a good option. I was on the trail by 10:30 am, not bad. At first it was very quite. The found the first of several flocks of Western Bluebirds. Dark-eyed Juncos were numerous. I got all the way to Locke Gap and it was a great view. I headed back. I heard a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. While looking for it I found a group of Acorn Woodpeckers. Then a Flicker joined the party. Then I spotted a dark woodpecker with a white wing patch that had white stripes on the face instead of the light front and throat of an Acron Woodpecker. Williamson's Sapsucker was Year Bird 487. I finished the four mile hike with 25 species including Mountain Chickadee.

I tried next for Baird's Sparrow. I had two historic sites for Baird's and they turn out to be the two sites I suspect I had Baird's back in January. I walked a couple of miles of grass on the side of the road. I flushed Cactus Wrens out of the grass several times, but not a single sparrow for my effort.

Front rolling over the Davis Mountains
I decided to make a run for Balmorhea and see what was on the lake. I was racing the front coming in. Behind me it was looking ugly. I was cruising along at 60 mpg what I thought was the speed limit just north of Fort Davis when I passed a trooper thinking nothing of it. He turned on the overheads immediately and I had no doubt he meant me since there was no one else in sight. I pulled over and he informed me I was doing 62 in a 55. He looked at the camera and binoculars an asked if I was out taking pictures. I told him the story of my big year and showed him the pictures of the Broad-billed Hummingbird. He asked me if I'd seen Montezuma's Quail and I told I had but not this trip. He had been looking for them and had never seen them. I gave him some tips on where to see them. Oh and he decided to give me a warning. Positive vibes! By then though it was clear I wouldn't beat the rain to Balmorhea and I headed into Alpine. Tomorrow is going to be a very windy day!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Consolation Prize


Lions/Shelley Park Trails with the bird location marked
Got back home Saturday night after my unsuccessful chase of the Black-legged Kittiwake and saw that a Golden-crowned Warbler has been found in Lions/Shelley Park in Refugio. Now that's a chase in a pretty convenient location. This park has always been good to me. I always seem to find a good selection of the RGV species here. Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and Green Kingfisher are present. It was also hosting a Greater Pewee, although that wasn't a bird I needed still.

Greater Pewee
I got there and someone had thoughtfully marked the trail map with the location the Golden-crowned warbler was found. Right at the trail-head the Greater Pewee was calling up a storm. I felt so callous walking away from such a good bird, although I did take a few pictures. I was on a mission with a bird to find.

I always have this fantasy of spending 5 minutes on a chase and then getting back on the road. That's happened to me exactly never times. I rounded the corner to find two or three people already there. Over the next hour the tribe grew to about 20 people milling around hoping for this bird. What made it harder is about 3 Wilson's Warblers were working the area so we kept hearing and seeing them and riding the rarity roller-coaster. We also continued to hear the Greater Pewee calling. Interesting to think these birds share range and habitat.

A couple of times different members of the tribe thought they heard the call notes of the Golden-crowned Warbler, but no one saw anything. After five hours I had to make a decision. Should I maintain the vigil waiting for this bird, or should I go after a White-winged Scoter in San Antonio? San Antonio is on the way back to Houston sorta isn't it?

I decided to go for the Scoter. I set the GPS for Mitchell Lake Audubon Center and the GPS Overlords sent me north on a mission. I arrived a mere two hours later. I quickly got directions to where the scoters were being seen and headed off. It didn't take me long to locate the site and I could see there were a lot of diving ducks present, Ruddy Ducks, Canvasbacks, Redheads, and Lesser Scaup. Then I located two scaup and was studying them when a car pulled up and a couple wanted to tell me that a bobcat was just on the trail watching me. Of course I couldn't relocate the scaup when they departed.

I looked up from the scope and there was a bobcat just about a 100 feet away. Ok I'll snap a few pictures. Bobcats are always cool in they seem to have the attitude "ok everyone just be cool. I'm going to walk slowly away and no one will get hurt, especially me". This one looks like a very healthy specimen,

Ok back to the ducks. I finally was able to find the scaup, they were hanging out with their Redhead friends. A bit of study and yes, White-winged Scoter was year bird 485. Not a Golden-crowned Warbler, but it counts the same and it does save me a lot of time watching for one from a jetty somewhere.

I decided to make towards home. It was another 500 mile day for me and about 900 miles for the weekend. The pace is going to have to pick up to manage 15 more birds before the end of the year. Where I could find those birds occupied my mind for the next 3 hours until I got home.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Greater Prairie-Chicken and Dip

Up Close and Personal with a
Greater (Attwater's) Prairie-Chicken
Originally I hadn't planned on chasing either Apolmado Falcon or Greater Prairie-Chicken this year because I thought neither was countable in Texas. I did a some research and it turns out the ABA voted to count them in 2014 so they were on the list.

Aplomado Falcon was actually easy. Its a drive up bird basically in Cameron County so I was good to go on that bird. I think I have five sightings this year. I found out about the countability of Greater Prairie-Chicken after the Prairie-chicken Festival in Eagle Lake. That would have been the easiest way to get one. I heard about some county roads on the north end of the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge where some lucky birders had seen chickens. I made a dozen trips down that load every time I passed that way without luck, although its such beautiful habitat is was always a pleasure to make the trip.

Then in October I heard that the refuge has a once a month tour into the closed area of the refuge where the chickens were. Its by reservations only and limited numbers. I was busy for the November tour. Last week I finally remembered to call during business hours about the December tour. Full! but they put me and my wife Donna on the wait list and told me to call back Friday and see if a slot had opened up. I of course forgot (yes I have a job and I actually don't think about birding 24/7). I decided to show up anyway and see if I got lucky.

Was running a little later than I wanted to Saturday mourning but we made it on time. The staff decided to take a second vehicle driven by one of the refuge volunteers and we made it on to the tour! It is sometimes is better to be lucky than good!

We drove by some of the hacking cages with nothing around. There were plenty of the usual suspect, White-crowned Sparrow, Ibis, Northern Harriers, Crested Caracara. The tour is worth it because this IS the last really virgin coastal prairie left n Texas. The rains were good this year and the habitat is in short spectacular.

A Very Impressive Buck Wandered By
Then the lead van stopped next to a burn area. It was coming up nice and green, I was surprised to see liatris in bloom. Then some movement caught my eye. I got glass on it. Greater Prairie-Chicken was Year Bird 484! Kinda of a zoo bird moment though, seeing two birds in the grass far ahead.

Then the magic started. More and more birds started too come out of the tall grass. Someone said they counted eight, then the number was twelve, then twenty-four, then thirty-five, and more kept coming. And the birds just kept coming closer. 

A few birds flew in front of us. The guide mentioned that it was his first ever prairie-chicken in flight. A bird walked up to the van in front of us. Then one flew and landed what looked to be right in front of the van. I was wrong we later learned, it landed on the hood of the van! 

Still the birds kept coming closer. About ten were with in 100 feet. We could hear the cooing contact calls of the birds. Magic. Just amazing. We sat and watched for at least 45 minutes while about half of the wild population of Greater Prairie-Chickens left in Texas ignored us and well acted like Prairie-Chickens. Eventually birds came so close I could only take portraits of the birds with my Canon 300mm lens.

No rest rest for the weary though. By 10 am we were headed for the Granger Lake dam to look for the Black-legged Kittiwake that had been found last weekend. Trouble was the bird had not been seen in a couple of days. Still I thought mid-week few birders would be out looking for it. Might not have been reported because no one had been there to observe it.

We made it to the dam overlook a few minutes past noon, but decided to go find a rest room before settling in for the wait. There were 4-5 birders there when we drove by. When we got back there was no one there! That messes with your mind, did we just miss it? I set the scope up and scanned. There was not a gull in sight on the lake. 

I alternated scanning the lake and scanning eBird via Bird'seye on my phone. No reports via eBird. and no Kittiwake on the lake. I did eventually find about 10 Ring-billed Gulls and a Forster's Tern but no Kittiwake. After a couple of hours we decided to throw the towel in and head home. Tomorrow will be another day and another chase.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Slipping in a Winter Wonderland

Ferruginous Hawk Potter County
One chance. One chance is all I'm going to get at the heart of Panhandle. Its now or never for some of these species I'm afraid. If I don't find them today it could mean a mad last minute dash to find them at the end of December when I could be chasing something else.

I get out of Lubbock a little later than I planned but was half way to Amarillo before the sunrose. I27 is fine, totally clear of ice. South of Amarillo my GPS Overlords instruct me to exit and take the loop around Amarillo and head up to 136. There is ice but a clear lane through the ice. The temperature on the car says 27. I take 136 north from Amarillo and things aren't very nice. There is a rut in the ice, but I'm still driving on some ice. I take it slow and easy, There really is no one on the road.

Before I leave Potter County I see a buteo on a pole right by the road up ahead. There is no one in sight and I can see at least a half mile in each direction. I stop carefully right in the middle of the road. Its another beautiful Ferruginous Hawk.

I head to Fritch Fortress first at Lake Meredith. This site has had both American Tree Sparrow and Northern Shrike. The GPS Overlords take me through the neighborhood and I see a pickup do a 360 in the road in front of me before getting traction and rutting his way out of someone's front yard. I take it really slow and easy. Five miles an hour and make it to the road into Fritch Fortress without incident.

Icy road at Fritch Fortress
I can see where someone tried to get in and slide off the road on the slope and took out the car counter. I decide to walk in and park in a safe spot and head out. It's still 27 degrees.

I worked in an ice factory in high school and walked on a lot of ice. I was good at it. This ice is at a 10 degree slope though. and its tough going. I walk in the icy grass where I can. At times I find myself sliding across the ice like I'm skating and have no choice but to ride it out to an open patch.

Its birdy. Lots of White-crowned Sparrow, some Savannahs, a pair of  very handsome Lincoln's Sparrows. I hear some unfamiliar chip notes. Unfamiliar is good, very good. I find the bird. Nice rufous cap, thin rufous eyeline and two white wingbars! American Tree Sparrow is Year Bird 480.


American Goldfinch
I walk the whole hill. No waterfowl on the lake, no gulls, no eagles. In a big patch of sunflowers I find a mixed flock of finches. Lots of House and American Goldfinches, but no Purple Finches.

In another flock of American Goldfinches I find my first of season Pine Siskins. I love the Ziiiiipppppp call. No Shrike though.

I head over to Cedar Canyon, This is a traditional spot for American Tree Sparrow, but Northern Shrike has been found here too. Lots of sparrows and another American Tree Sparrow. No Shrike though

Ok back on the road. I feel like its not a good idea to head to Texline like I originally planned. Might mean giving up Northern Shrike though but it would be foolish I think. Positive vibes though, don't count a dip until the days is over. I check Bird'sEye and I see a Rough-legged Hawk in the right direction reported 5 days ago. I head south picking up 207 out of Borger headed for CR16 north of Panhandle The road is pretty good and I make time. I get to CR16 and like much of the Panhandle its a rutted muddy mess. Not this road.

I decided to bird my way back, the road is good and who knows whats on the next telephone pole. I find some paved roads to work down off of 207. Sparrows, Kestrels, and some Red-tailed Hawks. Near Claude I find a Peregrine Falcon on a pole. That's a pretty good record for Armstrong
County, eBird only shows 3 others.

Out on the plains of the Panhandle
I come to a big playa that's got a lot of open water. I keep hoping for something like a Eurasian Wigeon or a Brant s o I get out and scan. Lots of Northern Pintails and the first Lesser Scaup of the trip. As I scan a bird on bare stick on the edge of the playa catches my eye. I tick of the marks. Narrow black face mask, larger bill, little throat to breast contrast. Northern Shrike is Year Bird 481. Dig those positive vibes.

Back on the road. Its a frozen winter wonderland. I didn't realize it but the road drops through Palo Duro Canyon. Spectacular is all I can say. Not a bit of ice in the canyon, I'm guessing the lower elevation is the reason. As I climb out of the canyon the frozen landscape returns.

In Briscoe County I see a dark hawk up ahead. I slow to check it out. Lots of dark western Red-tailed Hawks around. A bit of study and Yes, its a Rough-legged Hawk for Year Bird 482. Those positive vibes are humming now. I try for a picture but after chasing it down the road what I feel is getting to be too much I leave the bird be.

Its getting late and I'd rather not be on unfamiliar roads that could have ice in the dark so I start to cut over to I27. I see a Short-eared owl on a fence post. A bit further down the road I see another hunting. Then a third owl. Something seemed off though. The night before over beers Fat Tony warned me to make myself familiar with the difference between Long-eared Owl and Short-eared Owl in flight. He warned that they were very similar in flight. I had done that but was still digesting it. This bird bugged me and it took me close to a mile to decided to turn around and go back.

At first I couldn't find it. Lots of harriers hunting, I could see three at one time. I saw them drop into the grass a couple of time. All of a sudden it was there, it must have been down in the grass. The darker belly, even color of the back and tail, this was it! Long-eared Owl for Year Bird 483. Probably roosting in the trees on the hill.

What a day, I didn't think I was going to sweep all my targets for the day! I have to figure out what I can look for tomorrow for the half day I have left.









Saturday, November 28, 2015

Slip Sliding Away

I'd been planning to head for the Texas Panhandle for a couple of weeks. I had been making queries of locals and bought my ticket. The plan was to fly up the day after Thanksgiving and return on the Monday after. So on Monday before there is a tropical storm in the Pacific. Oh, and its remnants are going to move across the panhandle on Friday and crash into a cold front and turn into freezing rain.

Thanksgiving evening I check and the forecast is for the roads in Lubbock to remain open until the evening then it should warm up enough to get out late Saturday morning. The prediction is for the it stay clear and ice free to the south. Plan B, maybe I could get to the Guadalupe Mountains and look for Juniper Titmouse if it was clear to the south.

I left Houston uneventfully. I got a call from Fat Tony (aka Anthony Hewetson) that things were getting bad fast as I waited for my connection in DFW. My flight was here though no problem, I even saw the crew go on-board. When it got time to board the gate agent started to announce the boarding then was stopped in mid-sentence by her radio and she changed the announcement to a delayed boarding. With out missing a beat she thought out loud on the microphone and said "Oh that's no good the pilots just deplaned". But the flight had not been officially cancelled.

It didn't take too long to get the official word that the flight was cancelled. About 100 people headed to the kiosk to re-book. I got in line and on a whim just called the airline customer service number and re-booked in about 5 minutes while the first person in line about 100 people in front of me was still trying get seats. I even got a premium seat upgrade for free.

The weather got a little better and I got to Lubbock and defrosted an icy car and got snug in my room with some takeout and a six pack of Stone IPA. Trouble was the ice was building to the south and not so much to the northwest. I watched and the pattern stayed that way all evening and even at 6 am it was still the same. No Guads for me.

Smyer Playa
I decided to head to the north west and do what I could do. I made a list of sites and loaded them into my GPS and headed west to Smyer Playa to look for Ring-necked Pheasant. The roads were fine until I got there, highways completely clear, other paved roads had ruts through the ice so it wasn’t a problem getting there. The road to Smyer Playa was a slick mess. I was fishtailing in the mud for about a half mile. I got part way down to the playa and saw ice on the road and decided to park and walk the rest of the way. No luck on pheasants.

I headed to a site in Parmer County where that has been a Rough-legged Hawk was reported a few days ago. It was a 55 miles cross country but that’s where the birds are. Not a mile down the road I spotted by first bueteo of the trip. It was a long way off and I had to get the scope out. A few minutes of study and Yes, Ferruginous Hawk for Year Bird 477. That made me feel a little better.

It must have been really cold last night,  I see several mostly frozen small ponds. On one there is a very confused looking Killdeer slipping as he/she walks.

Bonaparte's Gull, Lamb County
First County Record?
I bit further down the same road I found another playa, but this one was not frozen and had a bunch of ducks. No real variety but then I noticed a small gull. I tried to make it into a Little Gull, but the dark primaries made it all Bonaparte's Gull, According to Fat Tony its likely a first county record. There are no other records in eBird nor Jim Peterson's TexasBirdImages.org

A very frozen CR27 in
Parmer County
North I press, across the frozen Texas Tundra. I finally make it to Highway 60 and County Road 27 in Parmer County. Nope, no way am I going down that road. Its solid ice and snow, and I bet mud underneath. Rough-legged Hawk is going to have to wait.

I decide to head back to Smyer and get a second chance at Pheasant. The GPS puts me there a bit before sunset and I do what my computer overlords suggest and head south on FM1172. A mile down the road I see a flock of birds out in the snowy agricultural field I'm sure are Longspurs. Of course there is a truck behind me now. I can;t just whip over in these conditions and have to go about a half mile down the road to let him pass safely and turn around. I make it back and at first I can't find them, but then they take off and I can see the distinctive tails, McCown's LongSpur is Year Bird 478.  

Mud Slicks and Icicles
I make it back to Smyer Playa and park well back from the bad spots and walk down the road. Lots of White-crowned Sparrows calling. In the fading light I hear it calling. Ring-necked Pheasant is Year Bird 479. Just in time too, my tires are so slick from the mud I almost slide in to the ditch but ease out safely and head back to Lubbock.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Deja Vu All Over Again

Sable Palm Sanctuary
The most tropical feeling
place in Texas
Last week at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival an empidonax flycatcher was found at the Sable Palm Sanctuary that was identified as Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I didn't have much time to chase it at the festival and the sense I got was that it wasn't likely to be accepted. Momentum for it built during the week and it looked promising to be accepted. So after chasing a Red-throated Loon in central Texas yesterday I found myself south bound headed back to the Rio Grande Valley at 3 am. Technically less than a week since I left there last Sunday afternoon. Heck it's only 360 miles from my house to the sanctuary.

Sable Palm Sanctuary is behind the
border wall
Making good time I was on the trail looking for the bird by 9 am. Some others there and the staff there on site assured me I couldn't miss the bird. Don't say that and jinx me please! I took off thinking I knew where I was going. Of course I went the wrong way and ended up on the wrong side of the resaca.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher
I backtracked and as I approached the right location I could hear the kelseewii call that should be diagnostic for the bird. It called 2-3 times and never made another peep. I quickly found a flycatcher. Bah, not it, that's an Eastern Phoebe. Walking slow and watching low as I had been instructed I started the search. This could take a while. Wait there's an empid! Yellowish, check; eye-ring elongated at the rear, check; short primary projection, check! Combined with the call I heard and I think I can safely call Pacific-slope Flycatcher Year Bird 476. By photos look green, but in the field this bird looked really yellow. I had to take photos on manual focus because of the tangle it was in, but thankfully I was able to get some nice sharp photos. At one point it flew up close in front of me too close for my lens to focus on. After about 15 minutes it disappeared into the tangle.

Heading out I met some other birders and offered to help find the bird. It played hide and with us for an hour before it made an appearance in the open and some got to see it.

Benton Basham and myself
On my way to the car I got to meet one of the legends of birding in the United States, Benton Basham who in 1971 became the first membership chair of the then brand new American Birding Association. In 1983 he was the first to break 700 with a 711 North American Big Year. A feat only 12 people have done to date.

Another shot of the flycatcher