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.

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