Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Race to the Finish, the Last Day of the GTBC

Last Day of the Great Texas Birding Classic for us. We're starting at the Lawrence Wood Picnic Area in the Davis Mountains before dawn looking to pick up our last night birds. We make it there well before dawn and sort out who can do the best imitation of a Western Screech-Owl. I've never really tried doing one before but I do find I can do the bouncing ball song pwep pwep pwep pwep pwepwepwepepep reasonably well. We spread out a little and soon it sounds like a chorus of Western Screech-Owls with speech impediments as we all try.

I'm on the end of the line and one calls off to my right and so I get to claim I called it up! We soon all get on it. Western Screech-Owl as Year Bird 429. We are also listening to several Mexican Whip-poor-wills calling around. We were surprised to hear them, but its good to know this easy to reach spot has them. Suddenly David and I booth exclaim  "Common Poorwill!" A Common Poorwill calls a couple of times for Year bird 430. Unfortunately Clay missed it.

Next its my turn to try and miss a bird. Clay and David are both saying they are hearing a turkey gobble.  I'm straining and just not hearing anything. Finally it pops out of the background for me and Wild Turkey is Year Bird 431. After I can hear it its the loudest thing calling.

The passerines are really waking up now. Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Tanager, and Chipping Sparrow are calling. We also pick out Dusky Flycatcher for Year Bird 432. At first we hear and then are able to put glass on Grace's Warbler for Year bird 433.

The change is plans did allow us to stop at my favorite
spot in Fort Davis, the Stone Village Market to grab breakfast
It rained most of the night and we had some plans that just made impossible. Unpaved roads were just not drivable even in the mighty stealth Tahoe. We decided we'd have to abandon that plan and continue on our route.

Onward we pressed, we had to end our day in Amarillo, 528 miles away!

Next stop is Lake Balmorhea. Its a mud-hole too, worse than my January trip here was (see Where the Rubber Doesn't Meet the Road). Mud means time to us, since we have to walk and not drive. We do pick up the birds we need here though, Western, Clark's and Eared Grebes. We also pick up Cinnamon Teal and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

A Red-necked Phalarope had been reported here and we find a funny looking Wilson's Phalarope. I'm convinced this is the bird that was reported several times as a Red-necked. Red-necked Phalarope is one of the "near review species" that has just come off the list. These birds get over reported because well there is no review on them. They are still rare, just not unexpected anymore!

Meanwhile back at the Great Texas Birding Classic we head for the Van Horn Cemetery and pick up Gambel's Quail but dip on Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

On we race to the Guadalupe Mountains. I've never actually made the drive up Texas 54 before and its as pretty a drive as I've seen in West Texas. I find myself staring at the mountain tops and wondering what birds are there up there? How often does anyone get to look in these privately held highlands? We make the drive passing less than a dozen cars in 60 miles, I love it out here.

We start at the Frijole Ranch at Guadalupe Mountains. The wind is wicked but we do get a few things. We are surprised by a House Wren we still need, and Violet-Green Swallow is Year Bird 434. We all get on a Lillian's Eastern Meadowlark as an escrow bird if that split ever happens

McKittrick Canyon
We move on to McKittrick Canyon. We only have about 2 hours to spend here and so we hike fast. We pick up some empids, Dusky and Willow Flycatcher. We hear Lazuli Bunting calling for Year Bird 435. A very loud plane passes overhead that makes us look up and we get a Golden Eagle, thanks to the american military I'm guessing. We make it to the Pratt Cabin and find a calling Mountain Chickadee.

We blast back down the trail and on the hill side we "follow" with our ears a calling warbler that I conclude is a Virginia's Warbler for Year Bird 436.

Back at the car we jump in headed for the last long drive of the day and zip through New Mexico to Lubbock racing the setting sun. Because the team ended in Amarillo last year with great success Clay favored this route. My gut feeling is El Paso would be a better end point. Most of the same birds are present plus some others we don't have a chance at in Lubbock. It's also two hours closer and so we have two more hours to bird! That could translate into more time in the Guads or more time to chase things in El Paso.

We start working our network for info on Lubbock. One thing about Lubbock is I know more people there to canvass for information. I recall a Smyer Playa is a reliable location for pheasant but the local peeps tell me the road isn't accessible because of the rain. We are assured that geese should be present in most parks though.

As we pass back into Texas eagle eyed David spots a Prairie Dog town with several Burrowing Owls. We make a U-turn and find almost a dozen for a nice pick up.

Burrowing Owl in Lubbock
In Lubbock we head to Lake 6 Park and wow! Lubbock got a lot of rain and the high water has moved the geese around. We do find Cackling Goose though, but try as we might we can't find a Canada! While searching we pick up our last bird of the Classic, Yellow-headed Blackbird.

We're loosing light and have to call it a day and head for Amarillo.During the The Great Texas Birding Classic I picked up 49 species in this 6 day run! I'm keeping our total for the trip under wraps until after the Great Texas Birding Classic, but its north of 300 species by a lot. We traveled about 2700 miles by ground and then flew home.

I wonder if this format might actually be a good way to do a big year. I find about 420 species reported in eBird for the month of May. Say you could rely on finding 75% of those in a week. Now assume you do this three times in the year Winter, Spring, and Fall. That should get you to most of the species present in Texas in a given year with only 21 days of birding. While the road trips would be long, lets say 3000 miles each, that's still less than 10,000 miles of birding. It would also be cost effective to rent a car and not put the miles on your personal vehicle. Most big years come in at 25,000-30,000 miles at least and 50,000 miles is what I would expect for a real record year, With those 21 days of birding getting most of the birds out of the way, you could concentrate on chasing rarities and the few you still need. Something to think about, especially for an end game for the year.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Up, Then Down, Then Up Again

Big Bend Selfie, Myself, David Simpson, and Clay
We are up at 3 am and on our way up the mountain at 3:15 am. The plan is to be at Boot Springs for dawn chorus. We have about 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the 4.5 miles and climb about 1,300 feet. We’re hoping for some night birds on the way up the mountain. There was rain most of the night but it had stopped by 3 am as predicted and the trail presents no problem other than its dark, steep, and rocky. Hiking with a headlamp feels like walking through a tunnel. Since the plan is to be gone only about 6 hours we take just the minimum, water, snacks, and Cliff Bar’s for breakfast.

It’s completely overcast, we can’t see any stars or the moon. We hear nothing for the first 2.5 miles and 90 minutes. At the top of switch back 19 (did I mention there are 21 switch backs on the trail?) David and I hear a Mexican Whip-poor-will give a couple of calls for Year Bird 414 and then go quiet. Clay missed it unfortunately. After those calls it stays silent though. We finish the switch backs and cross below the Pinnacles and catch our breath. We see the edge of the clouds moving across the sky revealing stars as they go. In a few minutes the moon is out and the Mexican Whip-poor-Will’s start calling all around us. We can hear dozens. The trail levels out and we make quick time to Boot Springs and get there about 6:30 am.

For the first few minutes we only hear the whips. Some other birds are waking in though. We pick out Hammond’s Flycatcher for Year Bird 415, Cordilleran Flycatcher for Year Bird 416, Hutton’s Vireo for Year Bird 417, and Plumbeous Vireo for Year Bird 418. Nice but not the bird we came for. We heard a Western Tanager calling, and then one that sounded exactly like a Flame-colored Tanager. Unfortunately hybrid as well as pure Flame-colored Tanager have been reported here and we never see this bird.

We soon have a hummingbird zipping around with a district trill, Broad-tailed Hummingbird for Year Bird 419. Another giant bruiser of a hummingbird perches in view, Blue-throated Hummingbird for Year Bird 420.

"The Boot" Big Bend National Park
Finally we hear a Colima Warbler for year bird 421. A few minutes later I get some really good looks at this life bird. We spend a few more minutes at Boot Springs but since we have a long way to go today we headed down the mountain.

Right past the boot we hear a horse “hu whoo, hu whoo” call that at first I take for Great Horned Owl. Then we realize we’re hearing a calling Band-tailed Pigeon for Year Bird 422.

We keep an eye out for the Short-tailed Hawks that has been reported from the Pinnacles Trail. It turns out they had last been reported on May 10 and it was now May 12. Oh well we got the Northern Pygmy-Owl.

Almost at the bottom of the switch backs we get a glimpse of a thrush. We chase it down a couple of short switch backs and it turns out to be a Hermit Thrush, a thrush I had lost hope of getting in the Classic.

We get out of the Basin quickly once we get of the trail and head for Cottonwood Campground. The 45 MPH speed limit of the park it feels like a very long drive to Cottonwood, but we get there is good time. The curvy nature of the road make is hard to start at 45 MPG for very long anyway.

Even though it’s getting late in the morning Cottonwood is birdy and full of birders too. One helpful birder gets us on a roosting Great Horned owl that we were missing still for the Classic. Lots of kingbirds and we soon pick out Cassin’s Kingbird for Year Bird 423.  We start working the brush line at the edge of the campground and pick up Lucy’s Warbler for Year Bird 424.

All our target birds for Big Bend National Park are behind us so we head out. Our next stop is Carolyn Ohl’s Oasis in the Christmas Mountains. This is my first visit here even though I've tried to come a couple of times before but couldn't make it because of timing. Even though the Big Bend Country is as green as I've ever seen it the oasis stands out as a dark green lush spot in the hills. A few minutes after we get there Carolyn offers to take us to the favorite perch of a Lucifer Hummingbird up the arroyo a bit. A couple of minutes later he is there as promised on the perch, Lucifer Hummingbird as Year Bird 425.

We spend a few more minutes looking for MacGillivay’s Warbler under the shade of the oasis. We get great looks at Varied Bunting for Year Bird 426.

It would be easy to linger here for hours, but we have miles to go today. We push on to the Davis Mountains. On the drive in to Alpine from the south I watch the GPS and I’m struck by the altitude of the road, for a good distance it’s higher than most of the scenic loop in the Davis Mountains. I wonder why there isn't more birding on this road.

On to the mountains. We’re still missing Black-chinned Sparrow and we use the Birdseye App on my phone and see one reported recently from a picnic area right by the McDonald Observatory. We head there and not one minute out of the car we hear one singing. Birdseye comes through again.

Montezuma Quail at the Davis Mountain's State Park
We head on to Davis Mountains State Park hoping to snag a few goodies there before the sun sets. We head straight to the bird blind and as we approach a woman sticks her head out the door and in a loud stage whisper says “He’s here right now!”  Oh yes you most annoying of nemesis birds we know who she was talking about. Montezuma’s Quail poses for pictures as Year Bird 427.

There is a second bird blind at Davis Mountains State Park by the interpretive center. We go check that out and its hopping. A vireo comes in and it proves to be a Cassin’s Vireo for Year Bird 428.

We to the campground hoping to find a Western Screech-Owl that was reported the week before. We sit down to wait for sundown but the wind has really picked up. After about a 15 minute wait we decided to call it a day and try again tomorrow. Tomorrow is the last day and we have a long way to go!

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Great Texas Birding Classic Gets Real

We had been nursing a tire that was losing air since Corpus Christi. Unfortunately the Fix-a-flat we put in it gave up and we now had a flat tire. It was still early, about 6:30 am and we started making calls and figuring out where to get a flat tire fixed in Junction, TX

After Rolling Around in the Mud
Changing a Tire
After three grown men went in three directions we figured out where all the tools were and how to get the tire out. I’ve always been kind of a dive right and get done and damn getting dirty kind of guy. So I was soon wallowing in the “road gravy”, or the mud from Old Port Isabel Road that had washed off the Tahoe overnight in the rain. Yeah it rained overnight again.

We got the tire changed in good time and headed down the road to get the tire repaired since we didn’t want to head to Big Bend National Park sans a spare tire. We found the tire repair place right as they opened at 7 am.

We watched as the tire was repaired and then the technician brought over to us what was in the tire. It was the business last half inch of a knife blade! It appears that at one of our stops in Corpus Christi someone jabbed a knife into the tread of our tire and broke it off in the tire! Was this the work of SUB? (Secret Underground Birders). I thought I was on good terms with SUB since the Silver-backed-Wup-De-Do incident? Did we cross some line and run a-fowl of the Golden Crescent Chapter of SUB?

Whoever did this all jokes aside it hard come to any conclusion other than it was intentional. I mean knifes just don’t break off in your tires on their own. No matter it was SUB or one of our competitors, the Great Texas Birding Classic just got very real and we always had one eye in the rear view mirror. It made us drive kind of funny too.

On to South Llano River State Park. We picked up a few birds on the way in we needed, lots of Black-chinned Hummingbirds around the feeders at the headquarters. We headed over to the bird blind and Holly Reinhard, formerly the Naturalist at Lake Casa Blanca State Park and now stationed here at South Llano River State Park, waved us over. She had read my Facebook post from the night before and was going to help us find out target species on the morning bird walk.

First stop is the bird blind. Not 30 seconds after we get there a Black-capped Vireo starts “dive bathing” in the birdbath for Year Bird 402; flying back and forth splashing into the water. Really the best looks I’ve ever had at this often hard to see species.

No time to linger though we head out at a fast pace looking for Golden-cheeked Warbler near the deer blinds. On the way we note Bell’s Vireo’s singing for Year Bird 403. As soon as we make it to the area we hear singing Golden-cheeked Warblers for Year Bird 404.

Birding on the Edge!
Fort Lancaster Overlook
We spend some times searching for Wild Turkey with no luck, so though we have to head out, lots of miles to cover today before we rest.

We head out west on I10. It’s a good 120 miles to our nest stop. The Fort Lancaster Overlook and Sheffield Rest Area. We have light rain all the way. We get the and there is construction at the bottom of the bottom of the hill and guess where all the workers spend their break in their running diesel trucks! The drone and rattle of the diesel engines makes it hard to hear. Finally we are able to hear our target bird, Gray Vireo for year bird 405.

Hail in Big Bend National Park
We push on to Big Bend National Park. We’ve been passing through light rain all the way and on the way to Persimmon Gap just after we enter the park we run into very heavy rain, I’m alert looking for a flash flood. Clay is driving and soon has to pull to a stop because the heavy accumulation of hail on the road. On the side if the road is an honest to goodness flash flood and along the sides is a buildup of close to a foot of hail.  Very cool to see but not so good for the birding. After this we never saw temperatures in West Texas over 70 degrees either.

We pull into the parking lot at Panther Junction to make a few phone calls since we have service and cell service is spotty to none existent in the park. Right in front of us a Scott’s Oriole perches up on a yucca stalk for Year Bird 406.

Common Black-Hawk, Rio Grande Village
Big Bend National Park
We head down to Rio Grande Village in search of the nesting Common Black-Hawks there. It takes no effort at all to locate presumably the male perched in a tree. Common Black-Hawk is Year Bird 407. After the hawk poses for many pictures we answer the eternal question “What would you do for a Klondike Bar” with ice cream from the Rio Grande Village Store.  We fortify ourselves for our next task, Pine Canyon.

On the drive up to the Pine Canyon Trail Head we spot our first Western Tanager for Year Bird 408. Not long after we start up the trail we get a Hepatic Tanager for Year Bird 409. We also start to get Mexican Jay’s for Year Bird 410. Western Wood-Pewees are there for Year Bird 411 Our true quarry awaits though. We make it to the designated spot where our goal has been seen and heard recently.  Of course we are all reminding ourselves of what the call sounds likes like by playing it very quietly on our phones. You can’t hear it 3 feet away but if you’re standing close you think you’re hearing our target in the distance.  Many false alarms caused by this. We each try our hand at imitating it but with little luck at first.

On the Trail to Pine Canyon
We spread out a little to give ourselves a better chance at hearing it. I try to whistle the single “toot” version of the call of our target and hear something up the canyon and above all my partners. After checking with each that they aren't doing it we can confirm yes! Northern Pygmy-Owl for Year Bird 412 and a life bird to boot! This is also a big milestone in my big year, it marks passing my total for last year. I whistle a little more and the owl seems to be moving in closer as we hope for a look and picture but it never gets that close. Northern Pygmy-Owl often gives a double toot version of its call, “toot-toot toot-toot” this owl is mixing it up now though, give a 1-2-1 version of the call; “toot toot-toot toot toot-toot toot toot-toot” not something on any recording I have. We decide not to harass this bird anymore though and leave it be, dozen must have been here by now since it was discovered whistling and maybe playing recordings for it. I imagine this owl is now thinking “there sure are a lot of guys in this canyon, why aren't there any chicks?”

Anyway its getting late and we head up to the Chisos Basin Lodge to check in for the night. We check in and find out that the restaurant closed just 3 minutes before we get there! No ordering pizza here either! Luckily they let us have soup and salad bar, and a sandwich so we are good to go. This is my first time to stay in the Chisos Basin Lodge and I have to say I like the 1930’s Roosevelt cabin we are in. The floor is native limestone and its worn smooth by who knows how many feet that have walked it in the last 75 years. I imagine how remote and wild it would have felt in the 40’s and 50’s. And now we have WiFi here.

One more task for this day, we seek Common Poorwill and Elf Owl. It’s totally cloudy and raining a bit again. We head over to the sewage pond to listen for both night birds before we sleep. Not a good night for it I’m afraid. I don’t hold out much hope to tell the truth.  Nothing calls at first, but then not far away Elf Owl calls for Year Bird 413. We could stand out here in the rain for who knows how long waiting for a crazy poorwill to call, but we decided sleep is more important now, we plan to make Boot Springs before sunrise and its almost 2000 feet higher up the mountain!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Trill is Gone, The Great Texas Birding Classic Part 1

This year I landed a spot on the Swarovski Optik Highway Hawks Team for the Great Texas Birding Classic. Clay Taylor picked me up at about 9:45 pm and we headed out to get some supplies to start the six day great Texas Birding Classic Statewide Tournament. We stopped to pick up some supplies and got something to eat before picking up David Simpson right at midnight. We stuffed his bags in the car and we were off.

We headed to Jasper, TX to start in the Boykin Springs area before dawn. We got there about 3:30 am and decided we had time for a 90 minute nap. After about an hour I couldn’t sleep anymore. We had the windows up to keep the mosquitoes out and three grown men breathing in a closed space really raises the humidity in the vehicle.

I got out of the car and Chuck’s Will’s-Widows were calling all around. In the distance a barred owl called. No Eastern Wipe-poor-will though. Soon the Yellow-breasted Chats started up or as I’ve started to call them Tourette’s Warblers for the goofy repertoire of sounds that they make.

Soon it was time to head to the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Hole”. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers get up and leave their roost hole a few minutes after sunrise. It’s usually about 10 minutes after sunrise because they like to sleep in. This makes them unique for big days in that they do something on a reliable schedule. We got there a few minutes early and immediately ticked off Bachman’s Sparrow trilling and the squeaky toy call of the Brown-headed Nuthatches. Without much of a wait we had the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and we were off on the race for warblers and down to the coast.

Winding our way through my route we picked up Black-and-white Warbler. While chasing a singing Prairie Warbler an adult Bald Eagle buzzed over chased by crows. We heard many singing Hooded Warblers. A bit further down the road we picked up Swainson’s Warbler calling. At another roadside stop we picked up a calling Acadian Flycatcher and then a bonus bird called. We heard the sharp “Peech” call of a Hairy woodpecker and then we located the bird for a rare visual during the classic.

We pushed on to the state park. On the way in to the park we picked up Prothonotary Warbler and Northern Parula. Swallow-tailed Kite and Purple Gallinule showed up right on time too. Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos were also located without much of a fuss.

Now for the race to the coast. On the way to Beaumont we saw a crow on the wire that looked smaller. We pulled the car under it and immediately heard it give the croaky ”cahrr” call of a Fish Crow.

We passed some good shorebird spots and picked up a few. A crawfish farm held a good cache of ducks, some very late ones like Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck.

Pushing on to High Island we found the steady south winds have cleaned out the woods. We did however find a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Boy Scout Woods for Year Bird 387.

We headed on to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and worked our way down to the Black Rail spot. Quickly we found A Least Bittern, King Rail, and Clapper Rail. Fulvous Whistling-Duck was easy. At the Black Rail spot we had Seaside Sparrow and Sedge Wren singing. After a couple of minutes the Black Rail started making its peculiar “kik-kik-kik-do” call. For some reason the Anahuac Black Rails throw in an extra syllable in their calls.

We had been checking every dark ibis for Glossy Ibis and one of the last one we saw was finally checked out as Glossy Ibis.

We decided to call it a day finally at about 8:30 pm with about 170 species. We had all been up in the neighborhood of 36 hours with just that short nap. Sleep came fast and since we didn't need to do night birds we could get what proved to be our longest night of sleep of the next 5 days, close to 7 hours!

We started out at 7 am chasing shorebirds. The first few fields we check that were good the week before proved to be close to dry now and didn’t have much, nothing new anyway. We pushed on and headed towards the last honey hole I had for shorebirds. Eureka! Finally we found a good number of shorebirds and we racked up 9 species in a few minutes including our only Hudsonian Godwits of the Classic.

Of course because I was on the Swarovski Optiks team Clay had me use the Swarovski EL 8.5 by 42 binoculars. the close focus on these were an impressive 4.9 feet and I could actually focus on my own shoes. The were very bright too. I could get used to these.

Off again and we worked our way down the Bolivar Peninsula, picking up a few birds as we went, but the south winds keep up the relentless pressure and everywhere the tide was way up and the woods lots where empty. The Bolivar Flats were as empty as I've ever seen them. We did pick up Barn Owl in the nest box there and Piping and Wilson’s Plover.

Across the ferry we headed. We decided to check Apfel Park in Galveston since we were there. As luck would have it a Houston Audubon Intern there put us on Snowy Plovers. Also a small group of late Red Knots was a lucky find there.

Time to make tracks. We did pretty well on the breeding east Texas Warblers, really only missing Ovenbird and Kentucky Warbler. We were not doing too well on picking up migrants in the migrant traps on the coast though. Wind, the relentless power that was pushing them over our heads. Time to head down to the central coast.  Three hours later found us at the Port Aransas Birding Center where we did well on ducks and picked up Tennessee Warbler and American Redstart. Next we hit Paradise Pond and got Yellow Warbler and Northern Waterthrush. This was excruciating, picking up warblers 1 or 2 at time.

Next was Charlie’s Pasture where we did have Belted Kingfisher. Down Mustang Island we went returning to the mainland via Packery Channel. We decided to make a run for the sod fields at Robstown hoping for a Buff-breasted Sandpiper or American Golden-plover.

Monk Parakeet
in Corpus Christi
On the way to the sod fields we stopped at a site for Monk Parakeet and scored that right away. The sod fields unfortunately held only Killdeers and Mourning Doves. Since we were only a short distance from Hazel Bazemore Park we decided to make a quick try for the resident Green Kingfishers there with no luck. We did however turn up Lesser Nighthawk for Year Bird 388 and as we were leaving a Common Pauraque called for Year Bird 389. Fighting the wind all day had us whipped and we called it a night, grabbing some dinner and hitting the hay early because we needed to be in Brownsville for sunrise.

Up and on the road by 4:30 am to make our parrot site at the University of Texas at Brownsville by 7 am. I volunteered to drive and my partners thoughtfully rested all the way dreaming of that birds we would find when the sun came up. In Harlingen I woke them for a Whataburger taquito stop and we all felt more awake now with some food in our stomachs and fresh coffee.

At the University it was still dark. Lesser Nighthawks entertained us while we waited for the parrots and parakeets to wake up. The wait wasn't long and we soon had Red-crowned Parrot for Year Bird 390 and Green Parakeet.

We had a lot of miles to cover today and headed out fast for Old Port Isabel Road. Almost as soon as we turned on the road we heard our target Cassin’s Sparrows. The early birder gets the falcon and we found Mrs. Aplomado Falcon still on the nest for Year Bird 391. I was very afraid we would have trouble because of the wind but we didn’t really have to work too hard to find Botteri’s Sparrow for Year Bird 392.  Our plan was to drive the Old Port Isabel Road through to head over to South Padre Island. Several miles down the road though it turned into a mud hole even our mighty stealth Tahoe couldn't handle. No time to waste we turned around and backtracked and went another route to South Padre Island (SPI), somehow actually getting there on schedule.

The SPI Convention Center was slow but we still managed to pick up Marbled Godwit (basically our last chance for it) and four more warblers, Chestnuts-sided, Magnolia, Blackpoll, and Wilson’s warbler. This was our last chance to pick up migrating warblers in any numbers. Last week a lot of the migrant warblers were singing in the migrant traps, but this week alas, the Trill Was Gone! We barely had more than 20 species of warblers.

No time to dwell on it. We hit the road headed for Estero Llano Grande State Park. We quickly bagged several of the Rio Grande Valley specialties but Green Kingfisher and Belted Kingfisher eluded us. We did find Ash-throated Flycatcher for Year Bird 393.

Next stop Anzulduas County Park. It took very little time to locate a singing Tropical Parula here. Another good bird here was an easy to see Black Phoebe. Gray Hawk was not to be found though. We also found Western Kingbird for Year Bird 394.

We had got a tip on where to find a Least Grebe and we headed to what we though was the spot, but no Least Grebe there. We did pick up Groove-billed Ani for Year Bird 395. Least Grebe turned out to be a big miss for us this year.

Still very windy we hit Bentsen State Park. I suggested that we rent bicycles and it turned out to be an excellent idea and we zoomed through the park picking up target birds at record speed. Roadrunners and Plain Chachalaca were numerous. A long overdue bird, Olive-sided Flycatcher was Year Bird 396.

We headed up river to the Upper Valley. Always expected on this drive is Chihuahua Raven, but curse the wind, we had none. A stop at the Roma Bluffs netted nothing but a couple of nasty stings from wasps on my hand from an unseen nest of wasps on the handrail.

At Salineno things picked up. After some time Audubon’s Oriole was seen by all of us. Gray Hawk soared back and forth across the Rio Grande for Year Bird 397. I got a brief look at a Hooded Oriole for Year Bird 398.

Driving the Dump Road we started to get more brush country birds, Cactus Wren and Scaled Quail. I was surprised at the number of Northern Bobwhite we saw and heard. A flash of orange and white wing patches perched up for us and Bullock’s Oriole was Year Bird 399. Almost immediately a couple of large dark doves flew over, Red-billed Pigeon as Year Bird 400! That proved to be a very satisfying milestone to hit.

On to San Ignacio we had very little trouble finding White-collared Seedeaters, and shortly after that Brown-crested Flycatcher for Year Bird 401. While doing a my Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl call a Groove-billed Ani popped up and gave us what for with some whining whistles. While I was trying to record it a couple of Border Patrol Agents approached us. They politely stood back when they saw what I was doing and waited until we approached them to make any noise. They didn’t want to disturb our birding they explained. We made some small talk and we went on our way. That’s always been my experience with Border Patrol. They are very polite to birders in my experience and even though they are armed to the teeth with semi-automatic long guns, they usually do as much as they can to be none threatening at least to those of us they perceive as US citizens.

On to Laredo we pressed. I was concerned about the raven we missed and decided to make it up by cruising by the landfill in Laredo, immediately we spotted a Chihuahua Raven. We still had enough light and decided to make a try for Green Kingfisher at Zacate Creek. Right as the light was fading we found this little green jewel to finish off our kingfishers.

We pressed on to Junction, TX for the night. We originally thought we could stop along the road and try for Elf Owl but thanks to the oil and gas boom in South Texas the rumble of the trucks just made that impossible.

We pulled into Junction, TX about 11:30 pm and went to sleep dreaming of Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos at the midpoint of the Great Texas Birding Classic.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The TOS Meeting in Winnie

This weekend was the Texas Ornithological Society in Winnie, TX on the upper Texas Coast. I was set to lead field trips for two days in Chambers County. My home birding turf so to speak. There are a good handful of birds to find for the year so there was lots of potential.

I spent all day Thursday scouting for my field trips. I drove a little more than 100 miles in Chamber's County on the dusty county roads looking for rice fields with shorebirds. I had very little luck though only finding two places with birds. It seemed that because its been very wet lately many farmers either got their rice in early and the field was in the dry stage and the rice was getting high, or they were still trying to get them worked and flooded.

I found very good numbers of shorebirds in the fields that I did find, but nothing new for the year. The Hudsonian Godwit with my name on it didn't seem to be out there.

Bright and early Friday morning I lead my field trip to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. I decided to take the field trip right to the spot I had heard Black Rails at recently. Almost as soon as I got out of the car I heard one rail give a few distant "kik-ke-doo" calls but I might have been the only one to hear there. We wait at bit and eventually one rail started to call again and all heard it. I think this was the 4th time this year I've heard Black Rails, go figure, feast or famine.

A Common Nighthawk snoozes
in the Jackson Prairie Woodlot
I lead the group through the places I new so well, Crab Corner, Deep Marsh, Jackson Prairie. We picked up lots of good birds, Sedge Wren, Seaside Sparrow, Purple Gallinule, King Rail, Clapper Rail, and Least Bittern.

After lunch we headed over to the Skillerrn Unit and while the woods held little the water actually had some shorebirds and we got good looks at Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, and best of all White-rumped Sandpiper.

After that I decided to go check a spot I was told had Hudsonian Godwit the day before. On the way there I noticed a field that was just being flooded that had been dry the day before. I got out and checked it and it was just loaded with birds, Hundreds of Dunlin and at least several hundred Semipalmated Plovers. Really more Semipalmated Plover than I had ever seen in on spot. I counted 12 species of shorebirds. Then a Peregrine Falcon chased a large flock of phalaropes up and rearranged the birds.

As the birds were settling down I saw a group of large shorebirds with distinctive white rumps setting in and tower over the dowitchers. Hudsonian Godwit was Year Bird 386.

Bobolinks had been reported on the way to Robbin's Park on Smith Point. One of my fellow field trip leaders heard a Bobolinks there today and they have been reported there several times in the last week. I made the drive down and looked for some time but with no luck. I was planning on taking my field trip to this location again tomorrow so maybe better luck next time.

The next morning we left early for a Chambers County big day. Every time I head out like this the day hold the promise of something exciting. I was once asked "do you expect to see something rare every time you go out?" I have to answer yes, that's why I go out!

Lesser Yellowlegs in the Rice Fields
The day was going well, we were getting the target species at each stop. Finally we were headed down to Smith Point again.

We get there and I check the field the Bobolinks were reported in and nothing. I head down the road a little and I get a call on the radio from one of the field trip participants that had lagged behind. Bobolink! It wasn't quit a "bat turn" but it was close as I made a fast U-turn back. Of course the bird disappeared into the grass before I got back. We decided to play a bit of a Bobolink call and it popped up almost right away. Bobolink was Year Bird 387. While we were admiring it suddenly the rest of the flock of about 50 birds flew up closer and serenaded us with their chorus of toy robot calls.

We finished the field trip in high spirits hitting Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge and the rice fields for shore birds and finished the day with 115 species. A very good day of birding in one of the most productive counties in Texas.

Next week is the Great Texas Birding Classic statewide tournament, stay tuned for that craziness!