Saturday, April 29, 2017

Big Day

This year for the Great Texas Birding Classic my team decided we would attempt a statewide big day. Using eBird records we reverse engineered much of the route used by the eBird team when they set the record for a North America big day.

We had some disadvantages though, one we were just 4 guys and two of them were still working, we just didn't have the time and resources that Team eBird had to prep. We also were locked into a day due to schedules and had to deal with the weather we were dealt.

We had been having trouble locating all the night birds we wanted to and decided to start in the Choke Canyon area since we new where to find most of what we wanted. We met up on Thursday morning and headed out to Choke Canyon. We got there in time to do some scouting, hoping to locate a Least Grebe that John thought we might be able to find in the dark. At one of our stops we found a couple of Bullock's Orioles for Year Bird 426.

Surf Scoter
McMullen County
The surprise was a water storage pond we checked out though. There was a Pied-billed Grebe, but the lone duck there was a female Surf Scoter for Year Bird 427. This site was a pond about an acre in size with a vinyl liner. We guessed maybe there were snails in the water it could eat.

We met at the car after an unsatisfying 3 hours of sleep to start at 11:30 pm. I had been elected The Time Nazi, my job was to keep us on schedule. It started windy but clear, we saw several shooting stars as we waited for midnight. On site we had a frustrating time finding an Eastern Screech-Owl, but a Barred Owl called to kick things off. Over the next two hours we found Barred, Barn, and Eastern Screech-Owl, along with Chuck-will's Widow, Lesser Nighthawk, and Common Pauraque. Yellow-breasted Chat was the most common night bird we found, their crazy calls and mimicry giving us fits all night long. Without a moon we could not relocate the Surf Scoter, It was now 2 am.

We then made the two hour drive to Uvalde, TX for the end of the night birding and finally picked up Great Horned Owl.

At our dawn chorus site we got investigated by the Border Patrol. Since we didn't appear to be illegal alien smugglers or actual aliens it was a brief encounter, although he strangely asked if we were looking for tarantulas. His two backup units arrived and they moved off to chat and left at a high rate of speed after a few minutes. Securing the border no doubt. It was now about 6:20 am

Park Chalk Bluff was good to us and we left after more than 50 species in less than an hour. We started our journey east stopping for a drive on/drive off Monk Parakeet site in San Antonio. It was now 11:15 am. At a rest stop on I10 we picked up Broad-winged and Cooper's Hawk. I was driving and missed the Mississippi Kites the others where seeing until some passed close and low. Near the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge we found our staked out White-tailed Hawk.

We continued on to the Lake Houston area, picking up woodland species but missing some key things like Pileated Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch. We were also getting being schedule and our route depended on getting to the coast before sunset. It was now 3:30 pm

Blasting down to the coast we started getting our shorebirds on the list. Two spots and we were looking good, and we were making up a little time. Close up Hudsonian Godwits were a highlight of my day. We zoomed into High Island, electing to only to Smith Oaks. A Black-billed Cuckoo was Year Bird 428. In 40 minutes we picked up 18 migrants. It was 6:42 pm. We headed down the coast.

Long-tailed Duck
Photo from 4/10/17
We elected to skip Yatch Basin road and do Tuna Rd. Originally we had planned to do Tuna Rd and try for Seaside and Nelson's Sparrow's singing in the dark. I suggested we do a quick drive by for them now since it was foggy and the wind was blowing gale force at about 32 mph according to the Weather Underground. We found both is a couple of minutes and blasted to the Bolivar Flats. Along the way we made up White-tailed Kite and Osprey we had missed. It was 7:36 pm. Sunset was 7:50 pm but it already felt like twilight due to the light fog and overcast.

Immediately at the Flats we found the lingering Long-tailed Duck, a great bird for the list. We found almost all the expected goodies, finishing with two Red Knots in the fading light. It was about 8:15 pm and the only light was the light from the glow of Galvaston across the bay.

We went to listen for rails. It was tough, wind close to 30 mph. After most of an hour we heard a Black Rail, then a King and a Virginia Rail. Put a fork in us, we were done! It was 10:35 pm.

We didn't do as well as we had hoped but we finished well north of 200 species for the day. The day was about 750 miles and we traveled door to door 1100 miles. We birded for 22.6 hours straight. I had 3 hours of sleep in 36 hours and ended up with a 25.5 hour day. I had only 2 cups of coffee but 3 5-Hour Energy. I think an excellent effort for a new route which we will certainly refine. We triage the whole day as we drive back to pick up our cars, idea for improvements flying fast and furious!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Tail of Two Vireos

It was a busy busy week of birding. Tuesday I started at 3 am with my team the Swarovski Optik Wandering Hawks for the Great Texas Birding Classic Texas Two Stop tournament.  We would bird Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge for day one and Estero Llano Grande for Day Two. We started the day in Sugar Land to get in one car at 3 am and ended in Harligen via Anahuac NWR after a day of birding at 11:30 pm. We then rose at 4 am to be at Estero Llano Grande with time for night birds. We ended the second day at 7:30 pm in Corpus Christi. I netted 10 new ones bringing me to 407 species

After the two step I was speaking and leading tours at the Birdiest Festival in America in Corpus Christi, TX. I did two bird days and picked up on a major fall out event on Sunday to bring me to 418 species for the year.

While at the festival John Berner alerted me that a Black-whiskered Vireo had been found at Lafitte's Cove in Galveston, This was a badly needed review species but the earliest I could leave would be Sunday around 2 pm since I had talk to give Sunday. Later that night I got another message that a Yellow-green Vireo was found at Sabine Woods.

There were no updates on the Black-whiskered Vireo by the end of my talk so I birded very productively in Corpus Christi. On the way home I found out the bird had been seen all day. It seemed to me that previous Black-whiskered Vireo had usually stuck around for 2-3 days so I decided to try for it in the morning. There were not reports one way or the other for the Yellow-green Vireo.

Black-whiskered Vireo
I made it to Lafitte's Cove by 7:45 am and began the search. While crossing the board walk I could hear a Prairie Warbler singing for Year Bird 419. A nice start. During the festival I kept mostly incidental checklists because of the way a big day with a group works and decided I needed to so some complete ones so I make a circle saying hello to many friends there. On my circle I found Bay-breasted Warbler for Year Bird 420,

We spread out looking when my friend David Hanson called me over and told me he just had it. We soon located it. Black-whisked Vireo was Year Bird 421.

Bay-breasted Warbler
It was still early so I decided to check out Corps Woods and then head over to the Bolivar Flats looking for a White-rumped Sandpiper. Corps Woods was pretty good, but nothing new. I was about to head for the ferry but then I got a message from Steve Mayes that he had just found the Yellow-green Vireo at Sabine Woods.

I was on the way, It was 11:30 am now and my GPS Overloards said I would arrive about 1:45 pm. I hurried.

Once there I found Steve and got details on where the bird was seen. I began my vigil, circling the area over and over like a pilgrim making a religious quest. At first I wasn't seeing any vireos then I found a couple of  Red-eyed Vireos.

I chatted up everyone I met, let them know what I was looking for. Surprisingly most were far more interested in a Cape May Warbler that was being reported. I found a report that the vireo hand been seen about an hour before I got there.

I decided I would leave at 4 pm and return tomorrow if I missed the bird today. I expended my search, then there was some excitement, someone found it but lost it. We keep searching and I decided to check the mulberry tree where it had been seen earlier. While I was scanning one of the birders I chatted up came and found me and let me know it was at the drip. I shot off to the drip and was able to get a brief but solid view, but alas no picture. Still Yellow-green Vireo was Year Bird 422. I checked the time it was 3:50 as I headed to the car, wondering how many people had seen both Black-whiskered Vireo and Yellow-green Vireo on the same day in Texas?

Monday, April 17, 2017

One Good Tern

On Saturday April 15 three Sooty Terns were located in Rockport, TX. I was busy on Sunday, but left bright and early at 4 am for Rockport. I stopped to gas up at the Buc-ees in Wharton and who should be at the pump next to me but Shepdawg himself. We were of course both headed to the same place.

Sooty Tern Rockport Beach
Sooty Tern
Rockport Beach
I managed to beat ShepDawg by a couple of minutes and we divided up the search for the tern. It was rainy and windy. After about 30 minutes I found it, Sooty Tern for Year Bird 388. Not bad and it wasn't even 8 am yet.

Northern Waterthrush
Headed over to Port Aransas and started at Paradise Pond first. Walking in I heard the flatulent call of a Dickcissel for Year Bird 389.  Close behind it a Cerulean Warbler came down to say good morning for Year Bird 390. A Northern Waterthrush walked at our feet for Year Bird 391.

At the end of the bird walk was a large flock of Indigo Buntings in all their glory. Right in the middle was a Painted Bunting for Year Bird 392.

Blackpoll Warbler
I headed over to the Birding Center to see what was happening there. A Blackpoll Warbler was Year Bird 393. While there at the Birding Center I heard from Arman Moreno a female frigate bird was hanging out at the Aransas Wetlands Park around the corner.

It took but a moment at the Wetlands Park to locate the female Magnificent Frigatebird for Year Bird 394. The place was hoping with shorebirds but no new birds there.

Before I left the island I headed back over to Paradise Pond to see if anything new was showing up. I was getting the impression more birds were showing up at the Birding Center.

Sure enough there were some new birds, first a Tennessee Warbler for Year Bird 395 and then a Warbling Vireo for Year Bird 396.

My route home took me by the Demo Garden and Pond in Rockport. I decided a quick pass through was in order. Not a single warbler was present, but I did find an Olive-sided Flycatcher over the Pond for Year Bird 397.

I called it an early afternoon. I had to make the 190 mile drive home and get some rest, tomorrow was my first Birding Classic event and I had to meet my team at 3 am!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

With a Little Help from my Friends

Iceland Gull
I've been nursing a tire that was loosing air for a week and I had a 1 pm appointment to get it fixed. A front was passing through with what seemed like good timing to ground some migrants so I took my backpack with me to go look for migrants at Quintana when it was fixed. It would only take 15 minutes or so right?

All was going well. My car was in the bay by 1:15, I should be out of here by 1:30 I thought to myself. Then a text message came in from Julie Ann Brown, Executive Director of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, Kevin Karlson wanted her to pass on to me that he had just found an Iceland Gull at the Bolivar Flats. Awesome I can be on my way in about 15 minutes I thought.

Rain on the Galveston
Right as I was thinking it should be ready, the tech came and found me to show me how the tire couldn't be patched, the hole was too close to the sidewall. I picked a tire out to replace it and they promised to expedite it since I had a bird to see. It began to pour, like inch an hour rain. I began to worry about how drivable the beach would be.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity of waiting I was off. It was still raining buckets. Rain on the causeway, rain as I boarded the ferry.

I checked weather as the ferry made 12 mph across the Bolivar Road according to my GPS. It was raining lighter now and it looked like most has moved off shore.

American Avocets on the beach
The beach was ok to drive on. I guess the weather had the birds all bunched up, everything was along the beach including numbers of very snazzy looking American Avocets.

At the flats itself I just took my scope and binos, no phone, no camera since it was still raining lightly. I had to walk out a pretty good ways before I found any gulls. Then there it was, a snow white second cycle Iceland Gull for Year Bird 377. I studied it and made notes with the scope for a TBRC report.

Crud though, it really was close enough for a picture. I headed back to the car to get the camera going over what I had with me to protect the camera. All I could come up with was the wrapper for the case of water I had in the back, it would have to do.

The plastic covered the camera well enough. When I made it back out to the bird I got a few shots pulling the plastic back. I decided to move closer. I let loose of the plastic and then the wind took it. I gave chase but it got away from me, I felt very guilty for that. To make up for it I pick up as much trash as I could on the way back to the car, hoping a net loss of trash would balance the karma.

I wasn't able to get very close to the bird though because of a tongue of water between us. Every bird in the group seemed calm. Oh well, it was warm enough and my shoes would dry and I headed across. Eventually making it calf deep and getting some decent shots while the birds ignored the wet footed dodo with the camera. As I emerged from the water it dawned on me that my rubber boots were in the car.

My phone was loaded with messages when I got back to the car. All told five people had contacted me to let me know about the bird. Friends like this is what it takes for a Big Year!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Fools

Hooded Oriole at Park Chalk Bluff
My team has a big day planned for the Great Texas Birding Classic. This is a statewide big day and a new route so we have to do a fair amount of scouting. That's great for me because we need to do that in the Uvalde area.

We need a lot of night scouting so we left the hotel with just a few hours of sleep at 12:30 looking for night birds. We actually found Eastern Screech-Owl at our first stop and I thought we were going to have an interesting night. Not a cloud in the sky and a meteor shower going on. We saw at least 10 at the first stop.

We could find Eastern Screech-owls easily it seemed, but for the next 2 hours we couldn't find anything else. We did find a Common Poorwill finally but no other birds.

It was a long boring not really. Finally after 6 hours we hit dawn chorus. The world woke up with a cacophony of birds. We easily picked out the wacky calls of a Yellow-breasted Chat for Year Bird 362. 

At the next stop I picked up Bell's Vireo for Year Bird 363. We moved on to a few other stakeouts that didn't pan out. At another stop we picked up Gray Vireo for Year Bird 364. A Scott's Oriole made a pass over the road for Year Bird 365.

We were all lined up on a calling vireo and snazzy Black-capped Vireo gave us great views for Year Bird 366.

A couple of more stop and right alone the river I picked up Yellow-throated Vireo for Year Bird 367.  That made four new new vireo in a single day!

We moved on to Park Chalk Bluff and it was good. An amazing about of south Texas birds right on the edge of the Texas Hill County. Before we left I picked up Summer Tanager for Year Bird 368.

We ran the first half of our route and finished the day with about 160 species. I made it home about 9 pm. I think I went about 40 hours on two and a half hours of sleep. Not bad, but on game day we will need to add a hundred to that. The birds might be there with migration in full swing and finishing on the coast. Stay tuned!