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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2015

S.U.B. Comes Through Again

I've spoken about the shadowy organization known as the Secret Underground Birders or S.U.B. S.U.B. has its secrets but sometimes they share them when the mood strikes them.

I received a text message on Wednesday from a member of S.U.B. S.U.B. had information on a Red-throated Loon on private property in a very exclusive area. We were given the information to find the bird but we would have to go alone. If we were questioned we were to give the phase "We're here to find the Dancing Bees"

My wife Donna was able to make the trip with me. We made the drive in the early mourning light with no problem. The route to the site was every bit as tortuous as my S.U.B. warned, but by 10 am we were on site.

Red-throated Loon keeping an eye on me
At first I couldn't find the bird. Then I saw it! Red-throated Loon was Year Bird 474! The loon was keeping a low profile though. It kept its head down but you can see in the pictures it kept an eye on us.

We had not yet been discovered and decided to retreat as quietly as we had come in. We got out without incident.

On the way home I decided to check out some promising spots for Sprague's Pipit. While searching in the fields I spotted several Wilson's Snipe feeding in a wet area. A Western Meadowlark sang its song nearby. I don't think I've ever heard a Western Meadowlark singing this late. While watching the snipe I heard a bird flying over going squeet squeet. Sprague's Pipit was Year Bird 475! 475 is another of those milestone numbers that feels good to make. 500 seems in reach now. Time to put my nose to the grind stone.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hoo-hoo-hoo Are You?

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, ISO 1600 F4 1/50 sec hand held
taken after the sun had just set.
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was still on my hit list. This fierce but easily overlooked small tropical owl has a pretty wide distribution in south Texas, but is a super low density bird. There aren't many sure thing sites for this bird.

I know where to get it but had not set it up yet. My friend Tom Langschied from the King Ranch came riding in like a knight in shining armor with an offer of an owl on the King Ranch.

We set up the time to get the owl late on Sunday afternoon while I was on the way home from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

Regretting the now hour early sunset since daylight savings time ended last weekend we arrived at the Norias Division Gate about 5 pm in the very low in the sky sunlight.

The ranch tours for the festival had found owls everyday so Barbara our guide had a bead in where to find one. As we walked to the site a not too distance Great Horned Owl gave a Hoo-hoo-hoooo call. I remarked that didn't sound good, small owls don't like big owls. Barbara assured me that wasn't going to be a problem.

We walked and I whistled for the pygmy-owl. I was having trouble with a scratchy throat so Barbara reverted to a recording. We walked and listened hearing at first just Northern Bobwhite.

Then we hard what we thought was a tentative response of a distant pygmy-owl. We moved a little closer and an owl started calling close behind us in the opposite direction. Score! Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is Year Bird 473!  I'm sure I was grinning ear to ear.

We had to work a bit to get good looks at this Inca Dove sized owl. It was getting dark, but could I get a picture? I cranked the setting on the camera to the most sensitive, ISO 1600, aperture priority F4. manual focus at 1/50 of a second. Hand held. After several tries I did manage a usable portrait of the owl. It's not going to make the cover of Birding Magazine, but it will make for a great memory.

Icing on the cake, two more owls started calling across the road from this guy for a total of 3 Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls!

Special thanks to Tom Langschied of the King Ranch for making this happen. If you want to see this Owl, the King Ranch Nature Tours are the way to go.

Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System

Friday's Field Trip for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) was to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Santa Ana has been described as "a jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System". I visited Santa Ana back on my very first visit to the Rio Grande Valley more than 20 years ago. It seems like fewer and fewer birders are going there now and I think my own visits bear that out. I think its been at least 5 years since I've personally been back to Santa Ana.

Maybe one reason is I don't think the birding has been as good there as it used to be. Like most of the RGV Santa Ana is getting drier and the ebony and cedar elm trees that used to make the birding so good there are giving way to a more xeric or drier landscape dominated by mesquite trees. Heavier use of the water in the Rio Grande, less rain and a more managed flow of water in the river just mean the annual seasonal flooding doesn't happen anymore, only occasional catastrophic flooding happens now.

Couple that with tighter and tighter budgets  and the Fish and Wildlife Service has trouble maintaining the wetlands there. You may have the water rights to fill the wetlands, but if you don't have the budget to operate the equipment and the pumps then they can't be maintained.

A jewel is dying a death of a thousand cuts, but don't count it out, there are still plenty of good birds here.

Our RGVBF group was large do we divided into two groups. Actually I divided them by the handy way they stood in the parking lot with the crosswalk dividing them. Try to get consensus with forty plus people and your just creating a time sink. These people are here to see birds and I wanted to get them on the trail to do that.

Off we went. It was foggy and quiet, just the sound of Great Kiskadees calling and the occasional contact call of an Olive Sparrow. We weren't getting on anything. Finally as we got to a  currently mostly empty impoundment we got a few things. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Green Jays, Long-billed Thrasher. At the impoundment we got the scopes on a pair of Harris Hawks that were calling.

At the second overlook we started down the trail. One of the trip participants point out a bird soaring over. I got on it and of course it was tail on to me at first. Then I saw the wide banded tail, the barred pattern of the paddle-shaped primaries and I got excited, then the pinched look of the wings to at the body clinched it. Hook-billed Kite was Year Bird 472! Whew I was sweating that one, Hook-billed Kite is getting hard to get in the RGV these days. Unfortunately no picture because I wasn't carrying a camera. I personally don't like to carry a camera when leading a trip because it distracts me from my primary job of helping everyone have a good trip.

What I was carrying was a pair of Mavan B.1 8x42 binoculars that Mavan loaned me to try out. From the start my impression of them was very positive. They were crisp edge to edge of the field of view. I wear eyeglasses and the eye relief was good for me. I figured 18-19 mm using them and the specs turned out to be 18.6 mm. At 29.125 oz. in weight they compare well with something like the Swarovski 8x42 EL series (28 oz.)

They just felt good in my hands too. They feel sturdy. The rubber armor feels thick. the focus knob is big and is deeply knurled metal. That field good in my hands too.

I kept asking myself what was different feeling about these than one of the major brand high end binoculars and I hand to say nothing. Nothing felt off, nothing seems like it was missing. In the end I can't say wanted a pair or Swarovski, Lieca, Zeiss. etc more. I felt like I was using one of those elite brands. Now for the best part, at $900 list these come in at about half the price of those elite brands.

I can see myself using these as my primary binocular easily. Mavan is a new company, but the quality impression these optics gave me do allow me to recommend giving these optics a look. If I were to meet you on the trail and I were to give you the birder binocular eye dip to check out what you were carrying I would think you were a serious birder for carrying these.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

It's a Bird? it's a Whale? No its some more trash

ShepDawg on the bow
stiffing out the next
year bird
I was already signed up as leader for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival when I was asked if I would be "willing" to be a guide for the pelagic trip scheduled for Monday. Oh I guess I could. Actually I was doing cartwheels in my head because this was an incredible opportunity to get.

Because this was only a twelve hour trip and daylight savings time has ended we left the dock at sunrise and headed out into the open gulf into rising sun.

At 7:30 and only about 8 miles out we find a big flock of gulls and we pulled most of them in with chum. A couple of Franklin's Gulls where pulled out of the crowd of Laughing Gulls. Suddenly a shout goes out "Sabine's Gull"

Sabine's Gull
It takes me several minutes to get on it, But Sabine's Gull becomes Year Bird 471. About 30 minutes later we get our first of many Common Terns. We chug on. Ninety minutes later at the 30 mile mark we get our first pelagic bird, Masked Booby.

Magnificent Frigatebird
Just a few minutes and miles later we meet a shrimp boat that has 2 Magnificent Frigatebirds in the rigging and they pose for good photos. We continue on getting nothing but more Common Terns. The conditions were great, the Gulf is smooth, the best conditions we had all season. Bird are well dispersed though and we aren't picking up new stuff.

Audubon's Shearwater
Finally about 3:15 later and now 58 miles offshore we get a Shearwater. At first there is much excitement because its thought this bird is a Manx Shearwater. We go to the instant replay on cameras and no joy. Most show this bird as dark undertail coverts instead of the expected white ones of a Manx. It turns into an Audubon's Shearwater.

In about another 30 minutes we head cross back onto the Continental Shelf and begin the long trek back to South Padre Island.

We encountered a lot of trash in the water. Most agree this is a lot more than expected. Likely its all stuff blown out and stirred up by the recent storm passages. Cups, large soda bottles, a bucket here and there, foam blocks, a balloon, even a sprayer.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins surf in the wake
We continue in and at one point a really large pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins rush in to surf with us for a bit. There were at least 20 of them all around the boat.

One new species was what I was expecting for a new year bird, but I was expecting Parasitic Jeager, not Sabine's Gull. I was thinking that the migration of Sabine's Gull was about over and it was pretty unlikely to find. I'll take it though!