Saturday, July 25, 2015

It Shouldn't Be this Hard

Tuesday word flashed across the Texas birding network that a Collared Plover had returned to the Hargill, TX playa. I guess its assumed this is the same bird as last year that I missed. The trouble is that it is Tuesday and I can't leave for it until Saturday. I had keep my fingers crossed until then.

Friday's reports were positive so at 3 am Saturday morning I left for the 328 mile drive to Hargill. I had some other target birds, Wood Stork and Grasshopper Sparrow. Wood Stork is taunting me daily on my eBird alerts for the year. A few have been reported along my route too, should be easy to pick that up for the year right?

I also am seeing a few reports of Grasshopper Sparrow, which I missed in the winter and would love to pick up. John O'Brien and I were talking driving back from the Valley after the pelagic trip and recalled how he had a lot singing around the dam for Lake Texana after Tropical Storm Francis. Ok that storm was 17 years ago (1998) but if those birds were breeders and the habitat is still the same its not unreasonable to still find them there. So as I left the house my plan was to drive to the Hargill Playa, jump out and view the Collared Plover, jump back into the car and find a Wood Stork somewhere, then head for Lake Texana and get Grasshopper Sparrow. Easy big year trifecta right?

Northern Bobwhite high on a
wire, Kleberg County
I like doing my long drives in the early morning like this. Until the sun gets up you pretty much have the road to yourself which makes it easy on the nerves and less fatiguing. I passed Lake Texana on way down in the dark so that kept me from being tempted to waste time looking for the sparrows on the way down.

I stopped to gas up and get breakfast in Kingsville. By now it was mostly full light but the sun had not risen yet. Whataburger took a while to get my order ready so I had too much time to think. I started playing with the Birdseye on my phone. Why look at that, Wood Storks were reported from Mittag's Pond on CR2300 just last weekend. Why that would take only a few minutes to check. See, too much time to think.

Mittag's Pond on CR2300 in Kleberg County, TX
I got my taquitos and set a course for Mittag's Pond. Its only about 5 minutes off my route. The sun rose as big golden ball while on the way. John O'Brien and I stopped here a couple of weeks ago and it was hopping. It was still hopping, Still a lot of Black Terns too. Also just tons of Northern Bobwhites, some wouldn't even get out of the road as I approached the pond. One sang from a wire. I had 21 species here but no Wood Storks.

On to Hargill Playa. When I arrived there were about 10 cars there and maybe 30 people. Certainly a good sign. I saw Tim Brush and asked him if "IT" was there. He replied that "IT" was moving around a lot and should be easy. Then everyone got in there car and left! Weird, was the bird still there? I got out and approached the 3-4 people still on the levee and inquired. They has just lost sight of the bird. As I was getting my scope set up it was relocated. In a couple of minutes I was viewing Collared Plover for Year Bird 447.

Collared Plover, Hargill, TX
I spent about 90 minutes there watching and trying to digiscope the bird. I got a couple of digiscope shots that you can at least verify what the bird is. The plover kept moving in and out of site. I took some more shots with the Canon camera using my 300mm and 2x multiplier. Shots came out ok, but those turned out to be a Wilson's Plover! Good thing my digiscope shots show the right bird. I had to be careful not to let time get away from me.

I decided on a whim to check the Brooks County Rest Area for the Painted Redstart that has spent a couple of winters there just to see if it might be around. No luck. but I did pick up Hooded Oriole as a county bird for Brooks County.

Checking eBird again I saw there was a recent report from Tule Lake in Corpus Christi if Wood Storks. That was just a few miles off my route so I was on my way again.

Tule Lake was kinda dead, I only managed twelve species while I was there. Certainly no Wood Stork, but I have had it there many times. Wood Stork shouldn't be this hard.

I head for the Palmetto Bend Dam at Lake Texana. Once I exited the highway and got out of Edna thinks started to look kinda good for Grasshopper Sparrow. lots of pastures and some bare ground. The road was too busy to really stop though.

When I got to the dam area, all the grass had just been hayed! Every thing was freshly mowed and baled! I drove a couple of road that looks good nearby, but saw no birds even though I thought I heard a little piece of Grasshopper Sparrow song, but listening it never repeated.

One more stop I decided, the Formosa-Tejano Wetlands. This is a another spot I've had Wood Stork before. Eighteen species but no Wood Stork. Wood Stork shouldn't be this hard. I did find a hen Goldeneye for a pretty unusual summer bird.

I'm not too bummed about the sparrow, but Wood Stork should not be this hard! Of course there were a dozen reports in my inbox when I checked.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Texas Pelagic

This is what I'd been dreading. There is no getting around it. If you want to do a credible Big Year in Texas you have to do a couple of pelagic trips. This year Gary Hodne who organizes the Texas Pelagic trips is trying a couple of 16 hour trips. These trips will get about 8 hours in the pelagic waters verses 4 hours for the 12 hour trips they usually do. I decided to do 2 them, 32 hours in the water for 16 hours of prime pelagic birding. With the 12 hour trips I would have to spend 48 hours on the water for that about of birding. I get motion sick, so to me this is a bargain. That's a 33% reduction in the exposure to seasickness!

You might have noticed I didn't post any updates in June. In June I led two back-to-back field trips to Maine for the Texas Ornithological Society. These trips include two Whales and Puffins trips for a total of 11 hours on the water. I was able to get some Scopolamine patches for the trip and they worked really well for me. I didn't get sick on those trips. I went  into the Texas Pelagic trip feeling much more confident. Still I would do all the right things, eat light, nothing greasy, light on the caffeine, don't drink a lot of liquids at once and get it sloshing in my stomach, and stay on deck so I could see the horizon.

John and I left Houston about 2:30 pm headed for Harlingen the day before. I still needed Wood Stork for the year and figured we would get one soaring somewhere along the trip down. Nope; lots of Swainson's Hawks and a few White-tailed Hawks and Crested Caracara everywhere, but no Wood Storks.

We had to be back at the dock by 8 pm so the boat left at 4 am. That means meeting at 3:30 am, and that means leaving Harlingen at 2:30 am! It was going to be a long day.

The boat pushed off the dock just a few minutes after 4 am. The forecast was good, 2-3 foot seas. A bright cresent moon rose just as we where leaving and as luck would have it we headed out due east into it so there was a good easy to see horizon. I checked our speed using the iPhone app Waze and it showed we were moving at 14 miles per hour. After an hour I was feeling good still and looking forward to the sunrise and actually seeing some birds.

At 6:52 am and 31 miles offshore we saw our first bird of the day, a Royal Tern. A couple of miles later we had 4 Cattle Egrets. Then at 36 miles offshore we get our first pelagic bird, Masked Booby for Year Bird 339.

We see another pair of Masked Boobies following a sport fishing boat. I think this is the last boat we see until we are back on the shelf late in the afternoon. At 46 miles offshore we get our only Cory's Shearwater of the day for Year Bird 440.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, photo by John O'Brien
We motor on. At 8:19 am and now 4 hours into the trip and 52 miles offshore at the edge of the continental shelf we bag Band-rumped Storm-Petrel for Year Bird 441. Right behind it we get Audubon's Shearwater for Year Bird 442.

About 20 minutes later we get a lone Storm-Petrel that looks a little different. After comparing notes and a few photos a consensus is agreed that this is Leach's Storm-Petrel for Year Bird 443.

Our goal is the Camel's Head, a sea-mount almost 90 miles out of South Padre Island and we'll briefly be in Mexican waters. When we get there there is not much happening. The crew sees what they think is a whale breaching. We head for the site and there is indeed a big slick there. We do see a few birds in Mexican waters, Masked Booby, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Audubon's Shearwater went on my Tamaulipas list.

We've reach the half way point of the trip by now and we turn west and start heading back. We have almost 4 hours still in deep water though. At 12:24 pm and just back into Texas water we spot a large flock of terns. Most are all dark revealing them to be juvenile Sooty Terns for Year Bird 444. We are able to pick out a few Bridled Terns for Year Bird 445.

We see a lot of Sooty Terns and good numbers of Audubon's Shearwaters and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels on the way back. At 4:46 pm and 36 miles from South Padre Island we get out last pelagic bird, a mystery Storm-Petrel who's id is still being discussed.

We pulled into the dock just a few minutes before 8 pm. I never got sick, I picked up 7 year birds, and surprisingly I'm really looking forward to my next pelagic trip.

At the time of this post there are still spaces left on the August 8th Pelagic Trip, see if your are interested.