Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fourteen Hours Before the Mast

First Light Twenty Miles Offshore
Saturday was the second of the extended sixteen hour pelagic trips for the year. Well almost sixteen hours. Due to the maintenance schedule for the boat the trip was reduced to fourteen hours. That did let us sleep an hour later and we left the dock at 5 am.

Pomarine Jaeger
At about 7 am we got our first bird of the day, a Royal Tern about 30 miles offshore. About 30 minutes later we found a couple of tropical terns. Suddenly out of nowhere a jaeger appeared with afterburners on giving chase to the terns. A difference of opinion on the identification was resolved with photos. Pomarine Jaeger was made Year Bird 461.

The expedition motored on. At about 8:30 we had our first Audubon's Shearwater. A few minute later we identified a couple of Sooty Terns and a Magnificent Frigatebird. Things started to really get hopping for a pelagic trip, Fifteen minutes later we found our first Leach's Storm-Petrals. This was the Leach's Storm-Petrel trip to beat all Leach's Storm-Petrel, we had more than a hundred Storm-Petrels this trip, most of the Leach's

Masked Bobbies en Mass!
The next surprise was a squadron of four Masked Bobbies in formation flying by. No one I talked to on the trip has ever seen that many Masked Bobbies together in Texas.

The morning was a parade of more Storm-Petrels and Audubon Shearwaters. In the distance we saw a large group of birds. Then we saw splashing. Tuna, a large school feeding on bait fish and Audubon's Shearwaters were streaming in by the dozen literally.

Great and Cory's Shearwater together.
A couple or Cory's Shearwaters were present. Suddenly someone called "Great Shearwater!" Unmistakable, it sat right in the middle of the flock, Great Shearwater was Year Bird 462. It was starting to feel like a Shearwater big days.

It was an amazing day on the water for pelagic birds. I counted ten pelagic birds for the day and really fleshed out my year list with pelagics. This was my fourth offshore trip this year (two out of state, two in Texas) and using the transdermal scopolamine patch is really building my confidence with doing pelagic trips. I was very apprehensive of pelagic trips because I've gotten very sick in the past, I'm looking forward to my next trip now.

Leach's Storm-Petrel
The next day we decided to get going early and speculate for shorebirds in the coastal bend. We were moving along and just about to Rivera heading north when I got a call that a Hermit Warbler had been found at the South Padre Island Convention Center. A Big Year has to take advantage of opportunity when it happens. I pulled over, checked the GPS. 120 miles back to South Padre Island. On the way we were.

Hermit Warbler
I made good time and made it back to South Padre Island by 11:15 am. Luckily for me birders were still on the bird and I bagged it in just 2-3 minutes. Hermit Warbler goes down as Year Bird 463.

A quick lunch and back on the road. Our little 240 mile detour worked out and I got home right at 8 pm. The weekend worked out to right at 1000 miles. Next up, labor day weekend!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hail Mary Pass

Wednesday afternoon I noticed about 2:30 pm a new alert for a Year Bird from in my inbox. This week has been frustrating, report after report of migrants I can't chase, Canada Warbler and Mourning Warbler mostly. Sprinkle in few exotics like Scaly-breasted Munia and you have my week so far.

A Big Year is all about taking advantage of opportunity, and you make opportunity by keeping abreast of what's being seen where. So I checked the email again. What! Red Phalarope! At a public location! In the next half hour I secured the needed permissions, wife, boss, in that order, to chase the bird.

I spent the afternoon watching picture after picture posted of the bird on Facebook. At least the bird is being seen easily.

I wasn't ready to get up when the alarm sounded at 3 am. Still I was out of the house and headed north by 3:30 am. It was an uneventful drive to Dallas.

Red Phalarope, White Rock Lake, Dallas
"Mirror Mirror in the Lake Who's
the prettiest phalarope of all?"
With just 8 miles to go on the GPS traffic came to a halt in Dallas morning rush hour. At 7:42 am with 6 miles on the GPS Chris Runk called telling me they had the bird staked out. Could traffic move any slower?

I got there and Chris point "There's your bird". Red Phalarope for Year Bird 457! This was a badly needed review species too. I'm way behind in the number of review species I need for the year, this makes 11 and I figure I need 22.

A few minutes later Dennis Shepler called. He had an Eastern Whip-poor-will at Sabine Woods in Port Arthur. Lets see, its about 350 miles from White Rock Lake. Then Dennis sends a message that there was a Canada Warbler there to. A Big Year is about finding opportunity and taking advantage of it. Those birds should be refindale if I get there today. Time to roll! Wheels up and I was southbound by 9 am.

About half way there Dennis called again, John Whittle had heard what he thought was a Mourning Warbler. That's three species I need for the year.

The drive went smoothly and five and half hours later I pulled up to Sabine Woods at 2:30 pm. As I walked in the gate an Ovenbird greeted me. I took that as a good omen.

In the car I reviewed the chip notes of a Mourning Warbler. I walked to the first T intersection of the trail and I thought the phone has started playing in my pocket. I took it out, nope it was locked. I located the bird, Yes! Mourning Warbler was Year Bird 458!

Organic mosquito repellent.
Sometimes birding isn't pretty.
I checked the drip real fast and realized, that unlike Sunday, Sabine Woods was not mosquito free. I headed back to the car while chasing a Great Crested Flycatcher down the trail. I put on long sleeves and because the mosquitoes would not leave my ears alone, a bandanna to cover my face. I looked like a train robber.

I started working the western side if the Woods. Right away I spooked a Chucks-will's-widow. I started moving as quietly as I could. A couple of empids showed themselves and a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos.

Then I spooked another nightjar. I didn't get a good look. I relocated it and this time as it flew out of sight I could see it was much smaller and it had big white tail corners! Eastern Whip-poor-will was Year Bird 459! I really had though this was a bird I wasn't going to get this year.

I worked my way to the far west end of the woods. Right in the southwest corner of the woods I completed the hat trick - Canada Warbler for Year Bird 460! What a difference four days make on my luck.

I had a few minutes before I had to head home. I checked the one part of the woods I hadn't checked while a Broad-winged Hawk circled overhead. Nothing new so I decide to call this epic chase day closed. By the time I got home I had driven 700 miles! Dennis had thrown me a Hail Mary pass and somehow I drove to the end zone and caught it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Striking Out

I had some time Sunday afternoon and checking Birdseye I saw two target species I needed had been reported at Sabine Woods in Jefferson County. I finished up some chores around the house and headed out getting to Sabine Woods at about 3:30 pm.

The woods were deserted. No people at all, no flies, and no mosquitoes! It was just me, the rabbits and the armadillos. The armadillos seemed to be everywhere, rooting around in the leaf litter like some miniature dinosaurs and for the most part ignored me.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Sabine Woods
Almost right away I found an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Rounding the first corner of the trail I found four Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. I had many Gnatcatchers this day. A larger bird in the in the flock caught my eye, a female American Redstart, my best "eBird" bird of the day.

At the drip I saw a streak of yellow that turned out to be a brilliant Yellow Warbler. A larger bird moved through the willows, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

All day long Great-tailed Grackles moved like black clad ninjas through the trees stalking the plague of cicadas, I would see a black flash like a swift moving shadow dart forward. A cicada would scream but it would be cut short. I don't think I heard a peep from any grackle all day.

My most hoped for target was an Eastern Whip-poor-will that was found the day before. I checked all the pines trees in the area where it was report with no luck. In fact the whole day I would continually scan every horizontal branch for whips with no success.

Unidentified Empidonax Flycatcher
I worked all of the woods. It proved to be a flycatcher day. Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and several empidonax flycatchers. One was surely a Yellow-bellied. One was likely a "Traill's Flycatcher, but would not call to reveal its true identity. Another defied my attempts to identify it even though it posed for photos.

I circled the woods most thoroughly hoping for my other target, Canada Warbler. Flycatchers and gnatcatchers but no more warblers.

I managed 2.7 miles of walking in the woods, but none of my targets. This was basically my first total strike out where I didn't get anything I was chasing! It had to happen sooner or later.

Next Week, my second Texas Pelagic Trip of the year!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Bowl

Tejas Trail Panorama
There it was, the last big birding hike I had never done. The Bowl, a reputed Shangi-La of hard to find montane species in Texas. Trouble is getting there. The Bowl is 2,300 - 2,500 feet above the Pine Springs Campground depending on which National Park Service webpage you land on. There are two routes to get there. You can take the 2 mile mostly straight up route through Bear Canyon (see my attempt at that route in January) or the kinder, gentler route of the Tejas Trail. Finding a good estimate of the distance is hard, but average estimates are 3.1 miles with plenty of switchbacks. We were two guys in their 50's who don't get enough exercise, We opted for the Tejas Trail.

We were a little lazy and started out about 6:30 am  mountain time on the trail. The trail is good enough that you could do a lot of it in the dark if you wanted. I took a GPS reading as we left and it showed the elevation as 5,811 feet. That's about 400 feet higher that the Chisos Basin in Big Bend.

6,500 feet on the Tejas Trail looking
back at Pine Springs Campground
The Tejas Trail is pretty open and its all creosote and sotol with and occasional madron or juniper tree. We tallied 14 species on the trail, all expected open semi-desert species. At 6500 feet it felt like we were getting close. Actually we were just getting into the switchbacks.

Over all the trail isn't bad, I don't think the hike is as hard as the Boot Springs Trail in Big Bend. The views are much more spectacular too because you can see so far.

Halfway up the Tejas Trail, note the trail in
front we still had to go, 6,965 feet
We rounded a ridge feeling like we really were about there and saw how much trail was in front of us. At 6,965 feet at 9:40 am we really were at about the halfway mark.

Selfie at the top of the trail
We chugged along making the rest of the trail in about 90 minutes. As we climbed on to the plateau that is The Bowl habitat we suddenly were in pines and oak trees. I took a GPS reading, 7,899 feet. Emory Peak in Big Bend is 7,825 feet and Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains is 8,375 feet. We were still well below Guadalupe Peak at 8,751, but we were now birding the "Roof of Texas" (eBird checklist for the Tejas Trail)

Down to business, the reason we made this trek was to find Pygmy Nuthatch. We started working our way to the Bowl Loop proper through pines and oaks. White-breasted Nuthatches seemed to be everywhere. Lots and lots of Bushtits. Dave spied a yellow warbler that turned out to be an immature Wilson's Warbler. The next mixed flock yielded Townsend's Warbler for Year Bird 454.

On the Bowl Loop proper we heard some high pitched nuthatches off trail. Like a bloodhound on the trail I went after them, Dave followed. Finally Dave spotted one at the top of a dead pine. Pygmy Nuthatch was Year Bird 455. (ebird checklist for The Bowl)

We finished the loop, 4.7 miles according to one website I consulted. As we were about to start our decent the outflow from a thunderstorm reached us, the wind picking up and dropping the temperature at least 10 degrees in a flash. That was good because we didn't have a lot of water left. Speaking of water, while we passed only a few people on the trail, it seemed I was the only one who didn't have a Camelbak hydration pack on. It looked really convenient to just sip from a tube instead of getting a bottle out every time. I think I'm going to get something like the Camelbak Rim Runner 22 for my next long hot hike.

We made it down to camp in less than 2 hours. Actually I found the scramble down more treacherous than the trip up just because of all the loose rock and gravel. The camp was wet but everything dried in a short time in the West Texas low humidity.

Black-throated Gray Warbler stares me
down at the Frijole Ranch, GMNP
We slept in the next morning all the way to 7 am! After striking camp we headed over to the Frijole Ranch to make another try at Juniper Titmouse. We worked the area for 45 minutes with not a whole lot moving. The gully right by the ranch house proved again to be the hot spot. We decided to check it again before leaving and Dave pulled a new one for me out of the ether, Black-throated Gray Warbler for Year Bird 456. (eBird checklist for Frijole Ranch)

So I dipped on the Juniper Titmouse. I will have to make it up when I try to make up Sagebrush Sparrow. Once winter gets here. Winter is going to be crazy. I've now birded Guadalupe Mountains National Park three times this year and I see a forth time in my future.

We discussed diverting to Granger Lake to search for the Sabine's Gull reported there but the reports appeared that it had already moved on, so we headed home while I plotted the end of year route through west Texas that seems inevitable.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

White-eared Hummingbird

Sunrise at the Windmill Campsite
TNC Davis Mountains Preserve
Ugh, dawn broke with a gorgeous sunrise while I tried to work the kinks out of my body from sleeping the the car all night. Grabbing a quick breakfast and striking camp we made it to the trail head at the last gate before the sun was above the horizon.

The dawn chorus was good for this late season. Canyon Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, and House Wren called. Not a quarter mile down the trail I found Gray Flycatcher for Year Bird 452. Chipping Sparrows seemed always present along the Madera Canyon Road.

We passed several big stands of Standing Cypress, Ipomopsis rubra. Each stand had several hummingbirds defending it, many Rufous Hummingbirds showing who was large and in charge. I've spent a fair amount of time in the field in Texas and in the tropics and I've never seen such concentrated hummingbirds in the wild.

We started up the Tobe Canyon Trail. We stayed alert for a Short-tailed Hawk that was reported the day before. Not far up the trail a buteo perched well toward the summit of Mount Livermore caught our eye. We did all we could turn it into a Short-tailed hawk, but alas it was a Red-tailed Hawk.

Another stand of Standing Cypress had another charm of hummingbirds, but just more Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds. We pushed on.

White-eared Hummingbird
TNC Davis Mountains Preserve
Almost to the Tobe Canyon Spring we ran into Greg Page. Greg showed us the White-eared Hummingbird's favorite perch. We chatted for about 10 minutes waiting for some action, The sun had not yet made it to the bottom of of the canyon. Right behind the perch was another stand of Standing Cypress, very promising.

Suddenly there it was, White-eared Hummingbird Year Bird 453! The White-eared seemed to be doing battle with a Rufous Hummingbird and seemed to be coming out on top.

We headed down the mountain to the car. Still very birdy but nothing new or noteworthy.

We headed back wanting to get a start for the Guadalupe Mountains and find me a tarp to cover my tent in case of more rain.

Back at the McIvor Visitor Center we stopped to chat with Joe Fischer. A "Lillian's" Meadowlark called nearby for an escrow bird. Lillian's is a subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark with a distinctive call and is often named as a good candidate for a split. Its endemic to the Trans-Pecos and Northern Mexico.

Zone-tailed Hawk
TNC Davis Mountains Preserve
Joe also mentioned an easy Common Black Hawk near by and offered to take us to it. It was close and in a few minutes we were on it. We took picture, listen to the calling birds and I even recorded it. Turns out later when we checked all of this out great documentation, the Common Black Hawk turned in to the much more common black hawk of the southwest, Zone-tailed Hawk!

At an auto parts store in Van Horn, Tx I found the classic blue tarp and some rope. Once at the Pine Springs Camp Ground at Guadalupe Mountains National Park I fashioned it into a what all of use from Houston now recognize as the "Ike" roof. It rained on us that night again and it kept me perfectly dry. I was thinking the 's' in West Texas wasn't needed, this was turning into Wet Texas.

Once we had the camp set up we headed over to the Frijole Ranch to search for Juniper Titmouse. Things were hopping at the old homestead, even yielding a gorgeous pair of Lazuli Buntings. Sadly no Juniper Titmouse today, but there will be another chance for the Titmouse. Tomorrow is another day.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Go West Young Man

Day one of my west Texas trip started well, as well as it can with only 4 hours of sleep. We started at 6 am at Ozona, with tacos from the Laredo Taco Company at the local Stripes store. Not as good as some I’ve had. Anyway we headed for our first stop, the Fort Lancaster Overlook on TX-290. We got there right at sunrise. The usual suspects including Gray Video were calling.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird
at the TNC Feeders
We headed on to Lake Balmorhea. My hope was for Sabine’s Gull and Red-necked Phalarope. No gulls at all and no phalaropes either. We did get a very uncommon Least Bittern though. Seven species of shorebirds and 25 species. We were burning daylight and headed in to Fort Davis.

We made the Davis Mountains Preserve at about 1 pm and started checking out the hummingbird feeders there. We managed five species of hummingbirds, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Lucifer, Calliope, and Ruby-throated.

Pine Mountain Trail
Rich Koesteke offered to a take a group into Elbow Canyon to look for a Slate-throated Redstart he had found there back in June. Yes it’s a long time, but its good birding and a Big Year is all about taking advantage of opportunities. We headed up the trail to Pine Mountain. Did I mention it’s a very steep trail? On the way up the mountain a flock of heart attach birds(aka Montezuma Quail) flushed from our feet. We then spent a good ten minutes waiting out a heavy shower under some oaks. What is with me and rain in west Texas? Every trip this year has been rain and mud! After a good climb Rich announced we were going to try something he had never done. We were going over the lip and drop into Elbow Canyon bushwacking our way in. We crashed our way down to the site near the springs where the Redstart was found in June.

The canyon was about as birdy a place as I've seen in the Davis Mountains. We did find a Painted Redstart, but no Slate-throated RedStart. An adult green-backed Selasphorus hummingbird buzzed us, Allen's Hummingbird for Year Bird 450.  A few minute later a noisy visitor flew in over our head and announced its presence. Stellar's Jay for Year Bird 451.

No Fly!
It was getting late and we headed down to set up camp. We made it to our camp site I discovered I brought a tent with no rain fly! I thought, well if it doesn't rain I'm ok. Then it started to rain again.

We went to bed in a light shower and I ended up sleeping in the jeep for a very uncomfortable night. Twisting and turning trying to get comfortable I went to sleep dreaming of White-eared Hummingbirds and other goodies in Tobe Canyon.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Clyde the Calliope

Clyde the Calliope Hummingbird
Back in January a Calliope Hummingbird showed up at a home in New Braunfels, TX. I'm the compiler of the New Braunfels Christmas Bird Count and I was hoping that I could get this bird during the count. Clyde's landlord though was afraid of chasing him off and wanted to let him settle in before allowing visitors. We communicated all winter and we couldn't match up opportunities to see Clyde before he left for the breeding grounds in mid March.

I figured this was going to be one of those make up birds where I had to chase a bird early this winter or find one in West Texas in the late summer or early fall. I noticed a few reports from the Davis Mountains and was thinking it would be a target for the open house weekend next at the Nature Conservancy's Davis Mountains Preserve.

Black-chinned Hummingbird
At the end of July I saw on my eBird alerts that Clyde was back! Saturday looked like an excellent weekend for me to make a run for Clyde and I reached out to Clyde's host and she said come on down and early morning was best.

Clyde the
Calliope Hummingbird
I got there a few minutes after 7 am and Lorna greeted me and we settled in to wait for Clyde. I'm used to long waits at steakouts like this. Not today though, Clyde popped in immediately, not 30 seconds after I sat down. Clever Clyde the Calliope Hummingbird was Year Bird 449.  We chatted and I took several pictures of Clyde over the next couple of hours. At least five Black-chinned Hummingbirds battled around the yard also.

One the way back too Houston I decided to stop at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge and look for Grasshopper Sparrow. One had been reported here a few days before. I let Birdseye guide me since it links to my iPhone navigation. The navigation too me off at an exit on I10 that I wasn't expecting but I like exploring back roads and decided to see where it took me.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit
That's the trouble though with the Birdseye navigation. It tries to take you to the coordinates of the eBird hotspot.  In the case of Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR the hotspot is located in the middle of about 10,000 acres. It took me in from the north end of the refuge. I realized the roads I was on were some county roads I'd head about where Prairie Chickens have been seen. Beautiful habitat. No Prairie Chickens, but I did see a Black-tailed Jackrabbit, something I don't think I've seen east of I35 before. Many coveys of Northern Bobwhite testified to the quality of the refuge habit and the green spring.

Too soon the road dead ended at a refuge gate. It looks like some of the old county roads have been closed by the refuge. I back tracked and entered the refuge from the south. Things turned about 180 degrees from the north end of the refuge. I don't think I've ever seen the APCNWR this dead! Just very few birds. Alas no Grasshopper Sparrow, no sparrows at all actually. I expected perhaps Lark Sparrow at least.

Grasshopper Sparrow will have to wait for another day, but I'll be back. Those county roads through the refuge on the north are some sweet looking birding roads.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Wood Stork Brazoria NWR
A photojournalist friend of mine invited me along on an assignment on west Galveston Island. I thought this would be a great chance to look for a Wood Stork since we could pass through a fair amount of good Wood Stork habitat.

We set out at 6:30 am and made it to Galveston Island State Park by 7:30. It was reasonably birdy, Mostly the usual suspects though. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo showed off, seemed to be using the bacarrus along the canal on the north side of the park. The beach was pretty birdy too considering the number of people there.

No Wood Storks though. We decided to head home via San Luis Pass and the Blue Water Highway. This is one of the prettiest beach roads in Texas I think. No Wood Storks though, but lots of birds.

We hit Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge next. Wood Stork had been reported from the day before according to Birdseye.

We pulled onto the Olney Pond loop. First pond full of birds, Lots of early migrant shorebirds, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, lots of Yellowlegs. Out from a clump of reeds walks a tall white birds. Bingo! Wood Stork for Year Bird 448! We finished the loop, tallying up maybe another 10 Wood Storks. Finally a bird that's been bugging me is off the list.