Monday, October 26, 2015

You Mean Their Habitat isn't Trailer Parks?

Ponds and Swales at San Luis Pass
I've been tormented by reports in eBird for the last month of Red-necked Phalarope. I've been looking in the usual places you expect to find red-necks; trailer parks, ice houses, NASCAR tracks, etc. I looked for the field marks; mullet haircuts, dually trucks with mudflaps that say "Back Off!". No luck.

Today about 1 pm Howard Smith called and said he had one at San Luis Pass at the west end of Galveston Island. I wrapped up my day at work a few minutes after 3 pm and headed home to gear up. I was on the way to Galveston by 3:45 pm. The GPS showed my ETA to be 5:15 pm. I was able to shave a few minutes off and got there by 5:05 pm.

Howard was more than generous to meet me and show me where he has found it. He told me he and Dennis Shepler had looked for it that afternoon with no luck. I thought it likely was there and I had a chance to find it. Positive vibes you know.

The edge of the dunes and the low area behind them had ponds all the way to the pass itself. We started hiking. No luck. At about 6 pm Howard had to call it a day and I continues on. Positive vibes. I made it to the pass with nice wet shoes from flooding them getting to some good looking ponds with only a half dozen coots to show for my effort. I started back but continued to recheck the ponds. That bird was here somewhere. Boy it was a long trip back to the car, close to 2 miles according to Howard. The sun was setting and so where my chances at finding this bird.

Red-necked Phalarope, San Luis Pass, Galveston Island
Howard has told me when he found the bird he new it was a phalarope right away because it was by itself. As I was approaching the beach access. I saw a bird in the original pond that Howard had found it in wading in belly deep. What this it? Damn it was dark and hard to see. I worked by way up to it and it was amazingly unperturbed. Yes! Red-necked Phalarope was Year Bird 470! Of course my camera battery was almost dead, so close to dead it wouldn't auto focus. I wanted a photo though. Manual focus, aperture priority at F4, ISO 1600 and I could get the exposure. Oh and hand hold a 300 mm lens. I took deep breaths and held them as I took as many shots as possible. A couple even turned out ok. This bird was a camera hog, it even walked out of the water a few time about 50 feet in front of me. After about 200 shots of the bird I turned to a blazing sunset and headed home with one of the most satisfying chases yet.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Third Time is the Charm

I had written this bird off. Its a very rare fall migrant in Texas. Its not easy in the Spring, but I figured I would get it. South winds during its Spring window had made that a dip though.

I had been alerted to birds in the fall at the Texas Ornithological Society Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Twice I've made trips this fall looking for this bird with no luck.

John H had put me on his group distribution when he found something unusual at Sabine Woods. Today late morning I got a text message that one was there! Some quick back and forth and it turns out Dennis had found it and it seemed to be hanging around. Positively Positive vibes! There really was no decision to make  Am I doing a big year or not? I am doing a big year and I needed to go! I spend an aggravating 15 minutes getting the OK to take the afternoon off and I headed home to change and grab my gear at 11:43 am, 132 miles to go.

At 2:04 pm I walked in the gate at Sabine Woods. John was still there and he offered to take me to where he had last seen the bird. An Eastern Phoebe popped up while we made our way to the site. Nothing was moving though where the bird was.

We start to search. I find a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. Then my first of season Golden-crowned Kinglet. Since its getting close to Halloween the male American Redstart seemed appropriate. A couple of Barn Owls peered down at me from the top of the trees. A Black-and-white Warbler always makes me smile to see.

Cape May Warbler checks us out by Nina Rach
Dennis, Nina, and Sue arrived back to the scene of the crime and we compared notes. We were looking in the right place. The additional three pairs of eyes will sure help. We kept looking.

John found a Blue-headed Vireo and while trying to get on it I saw a bird move right. Wait, that's not a vireo!, that's it! Cape May Warbler is Year Bird 469.

I have to say I felt a huge sense of relief getting this bird. That makes 47 warblers for the year. I'm only missing MacGillivray's and Red-faced warblers for non review species warblers. The door is quickly closing on those birds. To be honest I think Golden-crowned Warbler in the Rio Grande Valley might be my best chance for an additional warbler this year. You know the Rio Grande Birding Festival is coming up in less than two weeks and it just so happens I'm going to be there for the whole week! I love it when a plan comes together.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Birding Through the Keyholes

Saturday afternoon I was lazily laying on the couch when my friend John calls and asks "Do you want a Yellow Rail?" I say "do you have one?" He explains they are cutting rice on the Nelson's Farm tract of the Katy Prairie Conservancy and they have had several today. Taking advantage of the opportunity I head out and get there with about an hour and a half of light left.

When I arrive the combines are at the far end of the field but getting closer. We watch and they seem to be playing chicken right in front of us. The two combines work the front row by the road, getting closer and closer. Suddenly one bird after the other flushed, One Sora, two, Sora, three Sora, finally ten Soras total few by us and across the road, but no Yellow Rail.

The combines worked their way back to the far corner of the field and stopped for the day. I decided to return early in the morning for another shot.

Sharp Rd by Nelson's Farm
Nelson's Farm rice field
I arrived at 8 am. For about a half hour I'm alone. Just me and the local group of Crested Caracaras. A couple of House Wrens sing, and a Wilson's Snipe flies out of the field and over my head. A Northern Harrier works the field, twisting anf turning and dropping in every so often. I wonder if I could identify a Yellow Rail if it emerged with one. A Common Ground-Dove passes overhead. A Broad-winged Hawk soars over I guess getting ready to head out for the day. Then some acquaintances from Lago Vista roll up asking If I know where they Yellow Rails are being seen. I tell them right here. We chat a while longer then. Dennis and Sue show up. Dennis is doing a big year also and we see a lot of each other.

Combine stalking Yellow Rails
About 9 am a truck pulls into the field and a couple of guys get out and work on the combines. We see them driving around with the hood of the truck up. Not a good sign. After a while we see then leave and head down the road. A very bad sign indeed. Dennis says he believes in positive vibes now after the Rufous-capped Warbler and says they will be back.

The Tribe waits, taking the high ground
The Tribe waits some more, Entertaining ourselves with stores of birding adventures and ideas for future adventures. The Tribe is here to see birds and finding birds they will. The Tribe spreads out some.

At about 10:45 a truck returns to the field. A couple of guys work around the combine. I ask, am I hearing a plane? No its the red combine running. Then there is exhaust smoke and the green combine is running. A few more minutes and the combines enter the field. We're in business! We reach out to The Tribe members who have left to return and train optics on the combines

Yellow Rail in flight by Nina Rach
Birding is like birding through keyholes though. We follow up and down the hedge row; grabbing a few minutes few then running to the next keyhole. A Sora flushes. A good sign. Another bird flushes. Dennis and I exclaim together "That's a Yellow Rail!" Positive vibes work again! Yellow Rail becomes Year Bird 468.

Yellow Rail had me sweating. Of all of the tough birds in Texas this is one you would expect I would get. To think David Sarkozi reduced to chasing rice combines to get a Yellow Rail!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Positive Vibes

On Monday September 28, 2015 word came out that a Rufous-capped Warbler had been found at Lost Maples State Natural Area. Good news, bad news. Bad news, I couldn't chase it until Saturday. Good news is Rufous-capped Warblers usually stick around for a while.

Thursday I got a text message that a Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher had been found at Sabine Woods. Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers never seem to stick around for long. It took me a couple of hours to reach my boss and get permission to take off that afternoon. I managed to get there about 2:30 pm. Three hours of searching and I had to call this a swing and a miss, dipped on the flycatcher.

All week I got eBird alerts that the bird was still there. Each one made me feel a little relieved and a little anxious. I don't mind driving alone but company is nice too. I invited John Berner along and we made plans to leave early Saturday morning.

The Tribe Awaits the Arrival
I picked John up and we were outside the Grand Parkway of Houston headed west by 4:30 am. Catching up on birding stories and the drive went fast, we arrived at Lost Maples about 8:30 am. We checked in and got some directions to the site to confirm the information we got on line and headed to the site.

We got there and it really was just off the parking lot. As soon as we arrived we saw The Tribe spread out along the trail on vigil waiting. There are a lot of birders in Texas, but The Tribe that chases birds isn't that big. I knew 75% of those there. That's really one of the great parts of a chase like this; you get to see a lot of friends and catch up.

All of the reports this week seems to indicate the bird wasn't seen until about 9:30 am. I've seen a good number of Rufous-capped Warblers in the tropics. The do seem to like the sun. The canyon we were in you could see wouldn't get sun until at least 9:30.

9:30 came around the area the bird was being seen in got lively with the usual suspects. No warbler yet. More catching up with stories among The Tribe. At about 10:30 Dennis mentioned that he was thinking this bird was going to be a no show. I argued this bird had been seen every day since Sunday, there was no reason to think yesterday was the last day. Don't go messing things up with negative vibes Dennis.

Rufous-capped Warbler
Lost Maples State Natural Area
A couple of minutes later I heard a chip note. I told Dennis there was a bird right in front of us. We got on it and simultaneously both Dennis and I called out "Here it is!" Not 30 feet in front of us was the Rufous-capped Warbler as Year Bird 467. See Dennis, it just takes Positive Vibes (and the new lucky green shirt I got on my birthday on Tuesday!)

The whole Tribe got good looks at the bird. A gentleman and his daughter came up and got the impression that they has just missed it. No No! the Positive Vibes are still working, its right there a couple of feet up the trail!

John had a couple year birds he was after. He got the Clay-colored Sparrow at the feeders during the vigil. We spent some time watching the sky for Zone-tailed Hawk. After about 40 minutes we headed out towards home. We decided to head back to Houston via US90 and headed south reasoning that would give us the most time to look for Zone-tailed Hawk.

All the way vulture after vulture is checked. "Pin head", "red head", "no head" were our comments. Positive Vibe, keep working the Positive Vibes.

Right as we came into Sabinal another dark bird flew over the road. Wait, that bird is flapping, not soaring. It has a fully feathered head. It has a banded tail! It's a Zone-tailed Hawk! Positive Vibes, it just takes Positive Vibes!