Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cut Short

The Texas birding community seems to be holding its breath waiting for the big push of migrants to start. Nothing rare reported around the state this week and while reports from the coast were slim I decided to hit the coast and do my usual Upper Texas Coast thing.

I started out at Cedar Hill Park in Chambers County. This not heavily birded park is usually good to me. Since it would be new year bird I was hoping for a Prothonotary warbler.  As soon as I get out of the car I hear a Northen Parula singing up a storm on territory. At least four Red-bellied Woodpeckers are also calling around me.

I quickly located a three note call,  "Rheet Rheet Rheet" That sounded completely unfamiliar to me. It was loud and close and I was quickly able to locate it. I was surprised that it was a Tufted Titmouse! This was clearly a territorial declaring call and nothing like the classic "Peter Peter Peter" call. A while back I got a small inexpensive microphone for just such an occasion for my iPhone, a Shenggu SG-108. It's not a fancy microphone but it adds a bit of reach to an iPhone's recording capability. I dug it out of my pack and was able to get decent recording. Later checking the archive site Xeno-Canto.org I did found a recording from Wisconsin that sounded similar.  Check out the recording of this bird:


While checking the lake shore for the Prothonotary Warbler I came there for I did hear the "chek chek" call of a bird I hadn't expected to get this late, Winter Wren for Year Bird 312. I also heard and saw another Tufted Titmouse doing the weird "Rheet Rheet Rheet" call.

No luck on the Prothonotary so I decided to continue my search. for migrants and headed for Anahuac NWR. As soon as I got the cart started I had a low tire pressure warning. Dang it, 10 day old brand new tires too! I assumed at that point that it might have been a mounting problem and I found a gas station with the rarest thing in Texas - Free Air! Aired up I continued on my way.

Right outside of Anhuac NWR I has my first of season Scissor-tailed Flycatcher fly across the road for Year Bird 313. Almost immediately a pair of Upland Sandpipers followed for Year Bird 314.

My plan was to see what I could dig out Anahuac NWR, then head for High Island and at least get my season patch. I birded about 2 hours there and when I got back in the car, oh no! the tire pressure warning was on again. This time I looked and sure enough, I found a big nail in the tire.

I figured I better play it safe and limped back home and right to the tire place to get it repaired. My day ended up getting cut short by a couple of hours, but there is next week always!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Has Sprung!

This week started with the news of the Costa's Hummingbird I had chased on January 25 isn't a Costa's Hummingbird, but likely a hybrid and now has molted into something that much more resembles as Black-chinned Hummingbird. So I drop in species back down to 299.

I had Friday off work and decided this would be a good day to make what I call "The Loop". The Loop is the close to 200 mile loop through Galveston, down the Bolivar Peninsula, through High Island, Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge and back to Houston via I10. There is a lot of good birding on The Loop.

Pacific Loon was reported last weekend at Offit's Bayou and 61st in Galveston so I started there. When I got there the only loon visible was a Common Loon. It was foggy though. The fog looked like might lift soon so I hung out and played with my Digiscope adapter. After about 20 minutes I looked out and I could suddenly see many more loons. A few minutes of scanning and I found one with a district gray nape. Pacific Loon for Year Bird 300! As the fog lifted I was able to count about 70 loons on the water.

Since I was close I headed over to Corp's Woods. Not a lot going on here, but from deep from inside the thicket by the water I hear a Louisiana Waterthrush call for Year Bird 301.

I crossed the ferry intending to head for the Bolivar Flats. As I was driving off the ferry I realized I still needed Nelson's Sparrow and I made the quick turn on to Frenchtown Road to look for them in one of the traditional spots.

At the bend in the road is a large stand of Smooth Cordgrass marsh, the habitat that's preferred by the sparrows on the Bolivar Peninsula. I parked and pished and immediately a Nelson's Sparrow popped up for Year Bird 302.


The Boliver Flats Shorebird Sanctuary in the fog.

On to the Bolivar Flats. On the drive down the beach I found some Semipalmated Sandpipers for Year Bird 303.

Wilson's Plover, Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary
Out on the flats I didn't have to go very far before I found Wilson's Plover for Year Bird 304. While I was watching a pair of Wilson's Plover joust on the beach a group of larger plovers dropped in. At first I just assumed they were Black-bellied Plovers. Looking at them though they looked too warm colored, not the cool gray color of Black-bellied Plovers. I was getting suspicious these were something unusual for the flats when they took off and I could see they did not have dark axillaries, or they did not have dark "wing-pits" like a Black-bellied Plover. These were American Golden-Plovers for Year Bird 305.

I moved on down the peninsula to Yatch Basin Road. I still needed Whimbrel and this is always a good spot for them and I had heard from a woman I chatted with at the Flats that she had had them there. I scanned but found nothing but Willets from the road. At the end of the road a small flock of Cliff Swallows were swarming around for Year Bird 306.

The end of Yacht Basin Road has always been my go to spot for Black Terns. I can usually find them following the barges in the inter-coastal canal. Yatch Basin didn't let me down today and following the first badge that came by was a pair of Black Terns for Year Bird 307,


Bay side of Rollover Pass, Gilchrist, TX

Checking the Gulf side of Rollover Pass for scoters I did see several flocks of Blue-winged Teal flying north up the coast, but no scoters. A couple of Northern Gannets were flying as close as I've ever seen them here.

Back on the bay side of the pass there were good numbers of gulls, terns and shorebirds. It didn't seem to take any effort at all to pick out 29 species in the span of 45 minutes. In quick order I found Baird's Sandpiper for Year Bird 308, Least Tern for Year Bird 309, and Whimbrel for Year Bird 310. 

The day was getting on and I need to move on. I decided to try for a Black-throated Gray Warbler that was found during the Christmas Count and still being seen occasionally at High Island. It had been reported as recently as 5 days ago so I thought I had a chance. What I didn't have was a lot of time. I look for about 30 minutes without really any migrants being seen. I decided I would head back home when I heard a familiar call I had not heard yet this season and quickly located an
Eastern Kingbird for Year Bird 311.

Time had run out for me this day but it was a very good day. I tallied 12 Year Birds the most I'd had in a day in many weeks. Spring was definitely in the air!

I played more with my Carson HookUpz universal Smart Phone Digiscoping Adaptor. My results vary but over all I'm impressed with this gadget, it lets me get some distant documentation shots I would never get with my 300mm lens and Cannon SLR. The two shots below were taken to today with my Bushnell Elite 20-60 80mm spotting scope.  The first imagine is with me zooming in on my iPhone 5C to eliminate the vignetting and the second is with no zoom on the iPhone. The iPhone tends to over expose a bit and I've corrected the level some in Photoshop. Not award winning, but certainly plenty good for documentation,

Forster;s Tern Zoomed in taken with
Carson's HookUpz Adapter

Forster;s Tern taken with 
Carson's HookUpz Adapter


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The end of a Season

Sunday I tried to finish up some birds I needed from the winter season. I headed to Chambers county because my prospects using the eBird target species feature looked best there. This feature allows you to put in a county, and a month range and you get a list of highest probabilty birds for the county for your list. You can use Life, or Year, and County, State, US, ABA, and world lists. The probability is based with how many times that species has shown up on a list in the range you specified. The one fault I have with it is for example two years ago there were a pair of Tundra Swans. A lot of people entered lists for those birds. They still show as 1.6% of the check lists for the county for March! It would be better if a species falls off the list if it hasn't been reported in some reasonable time period.

Anyway with several targets in mind I went hunting. My first stop was White Memorial Park. I was hoping for a Winter Wren. I worked along the edge of Turtle Bayou while I looked through the usual suspects, Kinglets, Chickadee's and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Suddenly in profile I saw a bird I wasn't even thinking about but had been worried about, Brown Creeper became Year Bird 296. Almost right away I saw a Northern Parula for Year Bird 297.

I worked the park for another 30 minutes with no luck on the Winter Wren. I headed to Anahuac NWR.  Right away when I pulled up some volunteer friends came in from birding and I quizzed them on my target list. Palm warbler had just been seen in the Jackson Prairie Woodlot. I head down to try my luck. Shortly I was able to locate a Palm Warbler for Year Bird 298.

This little spot is magic and I worked it completely. A Black-and-white Warbler was present for an early migrant. Working my way to the south end. I heard the distinct "thwack" calls of a Brown Thrasher for year bird 299.

A scan of the Deep Marsh Unit did not give me my last inland duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck. Lots of other ducks though, An American Bittern flushed right in front of me. Go figure, it would have been a year bird yesterday.

Right as I turned on to the Shoveler Pond Loop I heard the familiar "Wooohooooo" of a Fulvous Whistling-Duck for Year Bird 300. I got a look of it as it drove into the bull rush. Its a one way loop, and I was just starting the 2.5 miles. I worked it as hard as I could but only came up with 26 species total. Time to head home.Next weekend is calling me already!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Pays to Be Lucky

I started the day in Brazoria County looking for an Aplomado Falcon I got a tip on. The ABA recently voted to make the Texas coastal population countable so I need to get this bird. I found the spot were it was seen on Wednesday and set up to watch for a while.

Not a lot was happening. After about 30 minutes I thought I heard a Black Rail call, but it only called once. As I listened I noticed a distant Mockingbird was doing a Black Rail call. Interesting. I have a lot of experience with Mockingbirds doing Black Rail calls at Anahuac NWR. They usually start doing the call about this time in the spring and I've always assumed that it coincides with the start of Black Rails calling. I've always speculated that they start imitating a call that they are hearing. In otherword, when then Mockingbirds are imitating Black Rails, the Black rails have started calling for the year

The Black Rail was calling from
right there!
I didn't think the call I heard was a Mockingbird, it came from a different direction. After about 10 minutes I heard it again. I walked across the road to where I was hearing it. Yes! its started calling again, this time multiple times and it wasn't far away. Black Rail was down as Year Bird 294! Some days it pays better to be lucky than to be good.

I spent sometime attempting to get a recording of it since it wasn't far away. The voice memo app on the iPhone actually does an amazing job. I was able to get a couple of good clear recordings of the bird for documentation. I was amazed that there were no Texas recordings of Black Rail on Xeno-Canto.org.


Tricolored Heron using Carson HookUpz and
and Bushnell Elite Scope
After spending 90 minutes at the site I decided to move on and look for some other needed birds in the area.  Since I was actually inside Brazoria NWR I decided to check out the Big Slough Auto Tour and see if perhaps I could find either a Fulvous Whistling-Duck or an American Bittern. Things were kinda slow but I got a chance to play with my new toy,  my Carson HookUpz Universal Smart Phone Optics Digiscoping Adapter. This clever gadget allows me to use my iPhone 5c for digiscoping without taking it out of its Otterbox case. Its not brand specific and will work with just about any smart phone up to about iPhone 6 size (it won't work with the 6 plus). It will also attach to my binoculars. I took a few shots of a Tricolored Heron with very nice results. I'm going to play with it some more and then post a full review. So far I'm very pleased though.

I tried to head over to Surfside and Crab Road again and make another try for Nelson's Sparrow. As soon as I got off the bridge realized something was up. I was right on the route for the St, Patrick's Day parade! Curse me Luck! I decided a hasty retreat from this mess was in order and I headed to Quintana since I was close.

White-eyed Vireo, Quintana TX
Quintana was mostly quite with not much going on. A Field Sparrow was kinda of a surprise for the sanctuary there, and a White-eyed Vireo cooperated for a picture. A Cooper;s Hawk flew into the sanctuary and since that shut things down I decided to leave.

On to San Bernard NWR to try again for the Fulvous Whistling-Ducks and American Bittern. It was getting late I decided to just to the Moccasin Pond Loop and exit via Rail Pond. Ducks are really thinning out fast this year, No Fulvous, but this American Bittern posed for Year Bird 295,

So now the race is on, what winter birds can I get before they all fly north for the summer? My next big milestone is not 300, but 366, my total last year. After that its the race to the finish! The next hundred shouldn't be too hard because spring migration is about to start!

American Bittern Year Bird 295, San Bernard NWR

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Window of Opportunity

Panorama from the near end of the Jetty
The weather report for today was not good. Rain was predicted to start about 10 am and continue the rest of the day. I didn't have a big window to bird in and since today was the start of Daylight Savings Time the sun would "rise" and hour later. Sunrise was about 7:45 am, so I was looking at about two and a half hours of birding light before rain shut me down.

I decided the most bang for my time was to hit the Quintana Jetty and do my Freeport CBC Jetty Watch thing. I would have a good shot at some needed winter season target birds.

Sunrise over the Surfside Jetty
When I got there right at sunrise the usual large flock of gulls that seems like a permanent thing at the base of the jetty was absent. I was hoping that wasn't an omen! Conditions were much better than promised and I made it to the end of jetty in short order.

So the scanning begins. Basically the strategy for this is you set the scope up to scan the horizon over and over. What you're hoping for is to see one of the flying cigars we call Northern Gannets or some small stiff winged ducks you can ID.

One of the best parts of spending time on this jetty is this is one of the best places I know to see Bonaparte's Gulls. Today was no exception and I always had at least 10 in view.

While watching the gulls I realized I was watching a couple of Common Terns for Year Bird 290. Not far behind the Common Terns a couple of Sandwich Terns for Year Bird 291.

Bonaparte's Gull, Quintana Jetty, Texas
Bonaparte's Gull
Ok back to scanning the horizon. Back and forth. Wait! there closer than I expected skimming the surface. At first I thought it was a pelican, but no Northern Gannet for Year Bird 292.

Ok, decision time, should I stay for a while longer hoping for a scoter? Or cut and run looks for something else, like Nelson's Sparrow on Crab Street in Surfside. I decide to be greedy and try for both.

Finally I see some ducks flying down the beach outside the surf line. I see white wing patches,  could this be White-winged Scoter? At first I think so, they are very dark all over, not gray backed like scaup. At first I make the call, White-winged Scoter. But mulling it over I just don't feel right about it. I decide not to count it. I want to feel like my list is clean and the view I got just doesn't feel definitive.

Sanderling
Sanderling
Tic-toc, I can see the storm clouds gathering in the north, literally. I decided to head in and make a run for the sparrows. This jetty is just too good a place to photograph shorebirds and I have to take a few shots.

Drops are starting to fall on me as get to the car. I make the quick drive over to Crab Street, but as I get out of the car to start working for the sparrows, it opens up, no joy, today isn't the day for a Nelson's Sparrow.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Looking for Needles in the Haystacks

Decided my best move today would be to chase the Ruff located at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday even though it wasn't located yesterday. Since the landfill that overlooks Ash Lake in Baytown would be active today I should have a good chance at some gulls I need there also.

Is this just a Herring Gull?
(digiscoped without any cropping)
I started out at Thompson's Bait Camp. This boat ramp and bate camp for some reason has been quit the gull hot spot. Even though there were a good number of gulls to looks through, there was nothing unusual. I did get perhaps my best ever digiscope image though using just my scope and phone of a gull I don't much know what to call, although the odds are it is just a Herring Gull. With some practice and a cooperative bird I'm starting to get pretty results with my iPhone and Bushnell Elite spotting scope.

On to main concentration of gulls. When I got to Ash Lake I could see thousand of gulls up in the landfill, but not much on the water. I was scanning the few gulls I could see up close and heard a call that didn't sound at all familiar, "ktlr-teee", and saw two black birds flying over. It occurred to me that I should check the call against a hunch. Yes! Rusty Blackbird when I least expect it for Year Bird 284.

Even though the dump is a quarter of mile away (.26 by Google Earth actually) with the air as still and clear as it was today I realized I was able to easily make out even Laughing Gulls over on the landfill hill. I started scanning and while looking at a group of Herring Gulls all together I see a big white gull land!
Digiscope Glaucous Gull from .26 miles away!
Glaucous Gull for Year Bird 285. I tried a digiscope photo, but at a quarter of a mile away it tough to make out!.

Was considering leaving but a group of birders showed up and misery love company. I had been thinking add no Lesser Black-backed Gulls, then they group immediately finds one. Also a good look at a Thayer's Gull also.

On to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. On the entrance road I stopped and walked a good looking patch of Bushy Bluestem Grass. I love it when a plan comes together and I was able to walk up a Le Conte's Sparrow for Year Bird 286.

While chatting up the volunteers at the Visitor Information Station I realized I was listening to  Barn Swallows flying around for Year Birds 287.

No reports of the rough but I'm hear. I head over to the site and I have to say to myself, wow, there are a lot of shore birds here. I start picking through them. Lots of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs keeps it promising. Lots of Pectoral Sandpipers too. I pretty quickly find some Stilt Sandpipers for Year Birds 288.

After about 90 minutes of looking I spy a shorebird mixed in with the Pectoral Sandpipers. It has a potbelly look.  Its gray compared to the Pec's. It has the proper large scale pattern. Its scapulars are standing up when it feeds unlike the Pectorals and Lesser Yelllowlegs so I know its not the wind. With some study I can see legs are a much darker shade of yellow than the yellowlegs. Ruff becomes Year Bird 289!

I think I made a pretty solid day of it and ticked a few birds that have been bugging me. Weather looks bad tomorrow but will try a few hours in the morning before it gets really back. Wish me luck!

Catbird at Anahuac NWR?

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Little Break in the Weather

Sunday it was rainy and foggy, I didn't think I would get out to look for much. Finally about 3 pm the weather broke and it stopped raining. I only had about an hour of free time by then so I headed down to my local retention pond, the eBird hotspot Houston- Brunswick Lakes. Its just the retention pond at the end of my street, but since I moved in a little over 2 years ago there have been 137 species seen at this pond.

As I was leaving the house I could see a pretty good sized flock of gulls over pond. When I got there there were a couple of hundred gulls  loafing there. I started picking through them counting them, Lots of Laughing Gulls, but also Ring-billed Gulls and a good number of Herring Gulls. Actually the large number of Herrings I think might indicate these gulls are part of the contingent from a large landfill on Almeda Road about 5 miles away.

Digiscope Image of Lesser Black-backed Gull  at Brunswick Lakes, Houston TX
Digiscope Image of Lesser Black-backed Gull
at Brunswick Lakes, Houston TX
I've been expecting Bonoparte's Gull here for some time but not today. About 3 quarters of the way through the flock I spotted an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull for my 5th gull species here. I even managed to get a pretty good digiscope image. Not a year bird, but one that makes me feel like I found something special. I've craving a Glaucous Gull at this site too sometime soon!

I could see a good number of shorebirds way out. I hiked over to the other side where the light is better and I could get much closer. Most are Least Sandpipers, but there are good numbers of Greater Yellowlegs and a few Lesser Yellowlegs. There is a Willet for some extra variety. I spot a small group in deeper water. They are clearly larger than Least Sandpipers or even Western Sandpipers. Lets see I run down the marks. medium length fairly thick bill. a pot belly shape. yellow legs. nice scalloped pattern on the back, and to clinch it, a dense fine streaking on the beast sharply demarked from the belly. Pectoral Sandpiper for Year Bird 283!

That wrapped up my weekend with four new year birds, but I've got to step up the pace in March, I need to break 300 really quick now, I'm no longer the leader in Texas on eBird, and I am actually almost 20 behind. I think that gap will close quickly because its mostly early migrants being found I can make up quickly. I just need to get some of the rare gulls that are around ASAP before they leave for the season., I think next weekend is a gulling weekend.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Back in the Saddle Again

I had to take two weekends off the chase to lead a trip to Belize. I know, but someone has to do it! Since Whooping Crane has been reported regularly on the Lamar Peninsula near the Big Tree I decided to tick off this as a drive by while the getting was good. It's already Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo time in Houston and its time to get back in the Saddle of this Big Year.

Whooping Crane becomes the worlds
largest feeder bird
Got on the road Saturday morning by 5:30 am and in spite of the ugly rainy weather made it to the site by 8:30 am. It took me 8 minutes to locate a pair of Whooping cranes for Year Bird 280. Crazy one of the rarest birds in the world is a feeder bird. This pair was at a deer feeder and I noticed several other back yards with deer feeders set up.  Seriously people are baiting in Whooping Cranes it appears to me with corn!  I understand the desire to have them nearby as a kind of trophy, but should we allow them to become the worlds largest "pigs with wings"?

Year Need List from Birdseye
Year Need List from Birdseye
So it was only 8:45 am. I had just figured out you could configure the smartphone app Birdseye to show a state big year. Its pretty straight forward to set up. Once done it now shows me what I need for the year in Texas that has been reported to eBird out to a range of 50 miles. I saw immediately that the Little Gull was last reported at Port Aransas 8 days ago and there were some other targets in Port Aransas so I headed over to the Port A jetty.

I drove up to the gull flock at the base of the jetty by 9:30 am. Right in front of me an SUV disgorged a little 2 year old girl dressed all in pink and her mom then instructed her to run through the flock of gulls and skimmers multiple times while she took pictures. Cute, hopefully the gulls landed a few "good ones" on her. A least the flock seemed to settle right back down when she stopped. Over the next two hours I saw at least 5 dog walkers and 2 groups of teenagers do about the same thing. The gulls settled down right away every time though. I do wish I wouldn't end up in jail if I showed the offenders what its like for the gulls if I chased them around the beach in my car for a few minutes. Picture my dark blue Nissan Juke and the theme to Benny Hill for a few minutes.

Bonoparte's Gull, Port Aransas Jetty
Bonoparte's Gull, Port Aransas Jetty
So 2 hours standing one the beach scanning the remarkable number of Bonoparte's Gulls there did not yield a Little Gull. Did it mention it was raining too? This is what big years are made of, sticking things like this out though. I did figure out that its pretty easy to see the underwing color of a small gull though with a scope once you get in the grove of looking. A useful technique for finding Little Gull for sure.

I headed over to the Port Aransas Nature Preserve at Charlie's Pasture, or just Charlie's Pasture for short. I know many people love Paradise Pond and the Birding Center on Port A, but to me the real gem of birding in Port A is Charlie's Pasture. The access to the flats the more than mile long boardwalk give is just the best in Texas I think. A remarkable 265 species have been reported to eBird here. As soon as I started out on the boardwalk about a half dozen Purple Martins were flying around for Year Bird 281.
Panoramic view of the boardwalk at Charlie's Pasture
Panoramic view of the boardwalk at Charlie's Pasture
The weather kept getting worse, but finally at about a mile out on the boardwalk I found a couple of Snowy Plovers for Year Bird 282. No luck on my other target, Wilson's Plover. A Peregrine Falcon appears out on the flats though with a duck though, I must have just missed him take it. In an hour in the rain I found 40 species at Charlie's Pasture. By the time I left it was obvious more Purple Martins where arriving with more than twenty males swarming around. Spring has Sprung!

Digiscope image of a pink breasted Laughing Gull
Digiscope image of a pink breasted Laughing Gull
I headed back over to the jetty to see of the Little Gull has shown up with no luck. I did get a digiscope image of a VERY pink breasted Laughing Gull though. There were several of these pink breasted birds present and all showed their wing tips to me and all where Laughing Gulls. I've never actually seen any Laughing Gulls this pink before. I suspect these are the what is getting reported as Franklin's here though.

Alas time ran out without a Little Gull and I had to head back to Houston to get ready to go to the Rodeo Cookoff with my wife. Still a three year bird day is a good day.