Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hummer, Hummer, Owl

Lucifer Hummingbird
After a windy night in Big Bend Rio Grande Village I woke to still and both Western Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls calling. It didn't take me long to strike camp and get on the road. I headed to Carolyn Ohl's Christmas Mountain Oasis. I rolled into the CMO about 9:30 am and the Hummer Show was on in full force. It took only moments to get on a Lucifer Hummingbird for Year Bird 467. The CMO is an amazing place and I lingered enjoying the hummers, Varied Buntings and Scaled Quail.

Finally I headed to my next stop. One of the western members of the Secret Underground Birders (SUB), call him Mr. H had invited to to his bunker high in the Davis Mountains to maybe get a rare owl. Driving from the CMO to Alpine I saw a B1 Bomber flow low over the highway heading east and had to think to myself, "What has the president done now" and "I hope I make it to Mr. H's Bunker in time"

Magnificent Hummingbird
I met up with Mr. H and he had me load up my gear into his survival vehicle and we headed high up into the mountains, checking our mirrors frequently to make sure we weren't followed.

Owl thirty would not happen for a long time and we chatted bird things and rare hummingbirds. Before too long a Magnificent Hummingbird made and appearance for Year Bird 468.

Soon we where being serenaded by Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Common Poorwills.

We headed up the hill in the fading light. When we got to the right spot by Mr. H's reckoning we had to wait until it was full dark. Finally  Mr. H was satisfied with the darkness. Using an old cassette tape he played the called. No answer. We waited a few minutes. Mr. H played it again. There it was faint and moving in closer! Northern Saw-whet Owl for Year Bird 469. Extra special because this was a lifer too. We moved around and re-positioned a coupled of times and finally got eyes on it.

Because we could we tried for Flammulated and Spotted Owl with not luck. Doesn't hurt to try!

Northern Saw-whet Owl
What a trip, 1,515 miles. 10.5 miles of hiking. I ended up with twelve new birds for the year and one lifer. My goal was to get 500 species by Memorial Day. I'm going to fall short of that by 31 species. I knew that would be a stretch, but goal that make you stretch are what's needed.

I may be able with some luck to pick up one or two species in early June, but that will be very lucky. I have only 28 none review species left! The next big push of birds will be in July when the Summer Pelagic Season starts.

Click here for my need list. I would really love to hear about a Lazuli Bunting or a Eastern Whip-poor-will I could get to in time. If you find one text or Facebook message me if you can!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Boot

My original plan was to head for Big Bend National Park last week, but the Crown Mountain Fire closed the trails in the Chisos Mountains and access to one of the two species you must get in Big Bend National Park. In Texas Mexican Jay is only present the Chisos Mountains, but they are resident. Colima Warbler is the other and they are present from maybe early April through August. Of course, you want them singing so May is the ideal time to go to Big Bend for a big year.

I left Houston Monday morning at 2 am headed west. I made good time and got to Panther Junction by 12:30 pm. As I was coming into the park there were warnings of full camp grounds, but I had no problem getting a site in Boot Canyon. My goal was to spend the night in Boot Canyon to maximize my chances at a Flammulated Owl.

Mexican Jay
First things first, I wanted to check out the water treatment plant for Blue-throated Hummingbirds. I headed down the service road and almost right away I had a troop of Mexican Jays for Year Bird 458. Hepatic Tanagers and Western Wood-Pewees were abundant. At the plant itself a beautiful Varied Bunting sang in the open for Year Bird 459. I found the tobacco plants where the Blue-throated Hummers where supposed to be. Not much activity, a Black-chinned Hummingbird was a good sign though. After waiting a while a Black-headed Grosbeak popped up and I did a few Western Screech-Owl toots to see if I could get it a little closer for a photo. Like rocket out of nowhere as make Blue-throated Hummingbird jetted in for Year Bird 460.

Ok time to get up the hill. It was three o’clock now and I got saddled up so to speak for my big hike. I got all loaded up and got about 200 feet down the trail and realized I didn’t have my permit on me, back to the car to get it. I then got about 300 feet down the trail and realized I forgot my flashlight and headlamp. Back again to the car for it. Ok this start was for real.

Varied Bunting
I made the Juniper Flats in good time, 50 minutes by my app for the first mile. Lots of Acrom Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays to entertain me while I pushed on with 40-50 pounds more than I was used to on my back. Two miles down and I was keeping under an hour per mile. I started into the switchbacks on the Pinnacles Trail. There are 21 switchbacks on the trail. Somewhere I got confused and wasn’t sure if my count was correct. On switchback 16 I head a call I was looking for, then a warbler landed in the tree in front of me. Colima Warbler sang for me for Year Bird 461.

Colima Warbler
Turns out my count was correct and at switch back 21 I topped the Pinnacles Trail at 3.8 miles and 6947 feet above sea level, and elevation change of 1600 feet from the parking lot. I stopped worrying about having to stop before I got there. I made good tome on the next mile was in Boot Canyon before I knew it. The spring and stream were flowing strong enough to hear.

By the time I made it to my site I had covered 5.25 miles in 4.5 hours. I felt pretty good about that, I even made the last mile in 30 minutes. It was now after 7:30 pm and I got right on pitching my tent and getting things in order since I was bushed, up since 1:45 and that hike and all. About 8 pm I was sitting on a log and realized I was hearing a familiar call. I checked a reference on my app and no doubt about it the long plaintive hweeew call I was hearing and so familiar with from Belize was a Dusky-capped Flycatcher for Year Bird 462. I had seen reports of one being heard on and off in the area. I finished my sandwich and it was still calling. Dang It, I guess I was going to have to try and get a photo or record it. Of course, by the time I got my gear together and made my legs work again it stopped.

Even though it wasn’t quite dark yet I crawled into my tent about 8:30 pm and listen to a podcast while I let my legs try and recover from the day. I was starting to doze about 9 pm as twilight was starting to fade and suddenly I could hear at least five of them calling. Mexican Whip-poor-will was Year Bird 463. The whips called all night long, they even seem to get a bit hoarse close to dawn.

An all-night serenade by Mexican Whip-poor-wills is nice, but the whole idea of camping was to get a shot at a Flammulated Owl. I woke at least a half dozen times during the night and listened with no luck on a Flammulated Owl.

Painted Redstart
I rose at 5:45 to whips still calling and got the tent packed and ready to break camp. A Plumbeous Vireo started calling over my head. I had the pack on my the time the sun was up and I realized I had been listening to warbler call nearby for about 5 minutes. I doubled check against my app and yes, Painted Redstart was Year Bird 464. After a few minutes it moved into a position I could even photograph it.

I only had one target left in the Chisos, Band-tailed Pigeon. I hung out until 8 am with no luck and started down. I did manage some good shots of Colima Warbler too. There were perhaps as many as eight present between by campsite and ranger cabin at the springs. I started down. On the Pinnacles switchbacks I had several more Colima Warblers. A little more than half way down I ran in John Yochum and Huck Hutchings from the RGV.

I made it down by 10:40 and enjoyed a cup of coffee from the Basin Store and sat in the shade enjoying the feel of no pack on my back. After my coffee I went to ask the ranger if the road might be open to Cottonwood Campground. It had been closed due to wash outs from the flash floods on Sunday and the daily report also said it was closed. I should ask when it might open I thought. The ranger was on the phone and I could hear the conversation “the daily report says its closed, but you’re saying its open now? All the way to Santa Elena Canyon? Just the overlook?” That sounds very promising. When she got off the phone she confirmed the road was now open to Cottonwood. Lucy’s Warbler here I come!

Lucy's Warbler
On my way I just let the call loop on my phone to tune my ears up. By the time I got there it was 12:30. I ate a sandwich and then started birding. I had not walked 100 yards and I heard it calling. At campsite 13 I found it above my head, Lucy’s Warbler was Year Bird 465. Not bad for almost 1 pm.

I headed over to Rio Grande Village for the end of the day and get a much-desired shower. I set up camp quickly and before my shower I scouted for Common Black-Hawk. No luck. The shower revitalized me and I took another look for the hawk. The wind was howling now no luck. Then I realized a bird I took for a Turkey Vulture wasn’t a Turkey Vulture. It circled in the wind over my head and zipped off down to the river. Common Black-Hawk was Year Bird 466.

With the wind still gusting to 20 mph I crawled into my tent, dreaming of what good birds I could find tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Best Laid Plans

I was supposed to be chasing Colima Warbler in Big Bend,  but the Crown Mountain Fire Sunday closed all of the trails to Boot Canyon and the Basin itself was closed. Stay flexible and make lemonade out of lemons. I headed for the Rio Grande Valley instead.

I still needed Botteri's Sparrow and that couldn't wait for the fall season in the RGV.  My original plan was to head for Old Port Isabel Road and look for it, but on a whim at the last minute decided to try the Palo Alto Battlefield NHP. I had been told by several this was a good site for Botteri's but had never been there.

Botteri's Sparrow
Palo Alto Battlefield NHP
I got out of the car at the overlook parking area and immediately heard a Botteri's singing somewhere. I loaded up with camera, binoculars, and a microphone and headed off to see if I could get closer.

Not far away I say a small bird teed up on a stick. Getting glass on the bird it was indeed a Botteri's Sparrow calling for Year Bird 454. It posed for pictures and I recorded some good audio of it calling, See my eBird checklist here for the recording.

I headed over to South Padre Island hoping for at least one of the three eastern migrant birds I still needed. The South Padre Island Convention Center was hopping when I got there. Literally hopping. It was Thrush-a-polooza and there were Swainson's Thrushes and Wood Thrushes all over the lawn. Warblers were active too, I tallied eight species of warblers. Lots of flycatchers and after staring down several empids my Jedi mind tricks worked and the force was strong in me and one started softly calling peet, peet, peet. letting me finally count Alder Flycatcher as Year Bird 455.

Mourning Warbler
I wasn't seeing any new birds after about an hour here so I headed over to the Valley Land Fund Lots on Sheepshead to see what I could find there. At first not much but grackles. At least a dozen male grackles were enjoying the water and chasing most any other passerine there. For the longest time an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a couple of empids, and a Red-eyed Vireo were it. Finally the grackles moved on and things got more active. I chatted with a couple of other birders that had arrived and we started to tally few more things. I started to get the impression that  birds were arriving too. One of my fellow birds said "What's this little bird" off in the corner of the sanctuary. I got on it and immediately thanked her for Mourning Warbler my Year Bird 456.

I made it back to the mainland and checked in at the Alamo Inn. I've stayed a couple of time now at the always comfortable and welcoming Alamo Inn. I highly recommend this Birder-centric Inn for a birding trip to the RGV.

Green Parakeets
No time to relax yet I still needed to connect with some Green Parakeets. I had missed them on previous trips to the RGV and it bugged me. I wasn't really sweating getting them, but I wanted to get them off the need list. I headed over to 10th and Dove in McAllen the traditional site for them in McAllen. When I arrived at my favorite spot, the fountains outside of the Lowes on 10th, there were at least fifty Green Parakeets squawking for Year Bird 457. Not a bad day, four new Year Birds

Tuesday morning I went looking for Hook-billed Kite. I started at Chihuahua Woods Preserve not far from Bentsen State Park. I'd never been to this site before but Hook-billed Kite nested here in the past and there aren't a lot of visits in eBird so it looked worth checking out. There was a far amount of snail shells on the ground but I didn't see any evidence of live snails, something a bird that eats snails would need. I spent about an hour there and while I had 29 species including Gray Hawk and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, no kites.

Plain Chachalaca
Santa Ana NWR
Before it got too late in the day I headed over to Santa Ana NWR and spent an hour on the tower there. It was windy and cloudy. I had Harris Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, and Mississippi Kite. An immature Broad-winged Hawk with its banded tail like a Hook-billed Kite got me going for a minute, but none of my target kites made an appearance.

I realized why I don't bird Santa Ana much anymore. It makes me sad to see it. I first visited Santa Ana 23 years ago. I'm sure the decline that makes me sad was well underway by them, but in the last 23 years most of the ebony and cedar-elm trees that made Santa Ana a lush place are gone and nothing but their skeletons remains. Those trees need annual flooding that doesn't happen anymore. I actually looked walking the Tower Trail back to the visitor center and saw none of either species. Sad, go see it before its all gone.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Roof of Texas

Western Tanager
The Bowl, I'll call it the Roof of Texas. All but one of the top 10 highest peaks in Texas are in the Guadalupe Mountains. When you reach the top of the Tejas Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park Park you are at 7900 feet and some change. Only Baldy Peak on Mount Livermore is higher than this outside of the Guadalupe Mountains. Most of the tails in The Bowl keeps you above 7800 feet. Its open year round. If you want to bird the High County of Texas this is where you should go.

That said its one of the least explored Hotspots in Texas according to eBird. Just 84 checklists have been turned in and only one eBirder accounts for almost 25% of those checklists. There are finds to be made here. My checklist was the first since March. Grace's Warbler and Audubon's (Yellow-rumped) Warbler are abundant. Hairy Woodpecker is common. Its one of two places to see Steller's Jay and Mountain Chickadee in Texas. Its the only place to see Pygmy Nuthatch. That's why I went.

El Capitan at Dawn
My original plan was too camp at Pine Springs and get an early start. Thirty mile per hour gusts made me wuss out and get a room in Van Horn 60 miles away. Just get up an hour earlier right? I overslept by 90 minutes and barely got on the road before 6:30 am. By the time I got on the trail it was 7:40 am CDT. The Tejas Trail is about 4.25 miles long and climbs a little over 2000 feet from the trail head. My plan was to blast up so I could have the max time at the high elevations.

It took about 1.5 miles to make it into the sunlight. As soon as sunlight hit the sides of the mountain the Black-chinned Sparrows came out. Not soon afterward I had one of those magic moments that happen every couple of years when you're birding. At first two Violet-green Swallows appears. then suddenly a flock of about twenty-five. A sparrow popped up close and I pished to try for a picture. The swallows appears to respond to the pishing and suddenly the whole flock was swirling around me. Those that passed lower than me appeared as emerald steaks. The flock moved off. I pished again and the flock came back. After about five minutes of swirling they vanish, not a swallow in the sky. Magic,

At about 7500 feet on the trail I spotted a hummingbird and it came in closer and I saw it was a Broad-tailed Hummingbird for Year Bird 449. Onward, I had 400 feet to go. Near the top of the trail I got a brief look at a Western Tanager for Year Bird 450.

Selfie at the top of the Trail
7919 Feet
I made it to the Bowl Trail in 3 hours and covered 4.4 miles and climbed 2000 feet. Not bad I thought for a 54 year old who's only exercise is none stop birding. From the overlook near the top of the trail you can get a cell signal and I sent my wife a selfie to let her know I made it safely. Time to find me some birds.

A bit down the trail I heard a few chip notes and tried my Western Pygmy-Owl imitation. The force was strong with my toots today and I had a good flock going in no time. At first I just saw Audubon's Warblers. You know, Audubon's Warbler in breeding plumage is a knock out warbler. Then I noted a few Grace's Warbler's for Year Bird 451. A white-breasted Nuthatch joined the party.

The owl call was working for me and I stuck with that winning strategy. The next flock produced Plumbeous Vireo and a Western Tanager. Then I heard a low pitched noise behind me that I had never heard before. It was a Broad-tailed Humming bird displaying.

A few clocks later I got a few Chipping Sparrows, Then another White-breasted Nuthatch appears. then I heard a pip almost right above me and I found my main target, A Pygmy Nuthatch for Year Bird 452 and it was camera close. Before I brought the camera to bear it was gone. I had only been in the bowl an hour and I had to decide to continue or head back down. I opted to continue.

About 30 minutes later I finally found a Cassin's Vireo for Year Bird 453. By now I was at the junction of the Juniper and Bowl Trails. What to do? In my hast to leave I had not picked up a trail map, Was the Juniper Tail a short cut? it seemed to head the correct direction. I opted to take it,

Plumbeous Vireo
Don't ever do this, don't take a trail in a wilderness area you don't know where it goes. I invested about three-quarters of a mile in this trail and I got to a gap where I could see Guadalupe Peak. The trail was not going in the correct directions. It might double back or it could go much longer. I decided to opt for back tracking the now 2.5 miles the way I came. After looking at the map later I determined it would have worked out fine and I was really about the halfway point. I do think it was better to turn back and not take the risk though.

On the backtrack I ran into a flock of about ten Western Tanager. I've never seen anything like it. I had no idea they were ever social like this. They all joined in to scold my owl whistle alone with a couple more Plumbeos Vireos.

I made time getting back down. Making it to the car by 5:15 pm. 13.25 miles, 9:43 minutes of hiking. 2741 feet of elevation gain. My legs were like noodles. It was a good day. Check the links below for the birds I saw:

My list for the Tejas Trail

My list for the Bowl

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

el Gallo

Lesser Prairie-Chickens on the Lek
Long time followers of my Big Year have heard me speak of S.U.B., the Secret Underground Birders. Think of them as the Men in Black of birding. The members of S.U.B. often have access to information and birds regular birders just don't know about. They sometimes share this information when it suites their purposes, and sometimes I've been a beneficiary of that information. 

After I posted my needs list, el Gallo from the Lower Panhandle chapter of S.U.B. contacted me and said he could hook me up with a Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The fires in the panhandle wiped out my only solid option for chickens. I jumped at the chance and agreed to the conditions.

I meet el Gallo well before sunrise on a quite side street. He instructed me to get in his truck. I jumped in and got settled as we headed out of town, Through the rough burlap sack over my head el Gallo made conversation, apologizing for the secrecy needed. The sack wasn't so bad, but the dust from the sorghum it had recently had in it kept making me sneeze. The forecast was for rain but we felt lucky. On the far west side of the panhandle not far from the New Mexico border we stopped. el Gallo removed the sack and we got out. I looked around trying to get my bearings but one prairie and one pivot irrigation field is much like another and I had really not a clue where I was.

In the darkness over the Grasshopper and Cassin's Sparrows we could here a couple booming. Lesser Prairie Chicken was Big Year Bird 447! This one felt good, a bird I had all but written off. It was a lifer to boot.

We waited until dawn even managing some poor pictures. Back on with the sack and el Gallo took me back to our starting point.

Bullock's Oriole
I headed for Guadalupe Mountain's National Park. My plan was yo try this afternoon for Juniper Titmouse at Frijole Ranch and make the hike to Smith Springs to look for things like Western Tanager and migrants. The drive was uneventful, but a Bullock's Oriole outside of Seminole was a new county bird for me.

After my 200 mile drive I arrived and checked the area for titmouse. No luck. I headed down the trail for Smith Springs, a site I've had never visited. On the way I found an empid. Big head, bold teardrop eye ring, it was looking good. Come on, say something! A nice sharp peek and my suspicion was confirmed. Hammond's Flycatcher was Year Bird 448.

Smith Springs its a stunning site. Make the hike if you can soon. It was slow today, just a Plumbeous Vireo and a Black-heade Grosbeak, buts its has some many good trees it must be good most days. Tomorrow, The Bowl.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

No Guts No Glory

Monday was the start of my first of three west Texas trips in May. I was part of the Swarovski Optik Western Hawks Far West Texas big day team for the Great Texas Birding Classic along with Clay Taylor and Bob Friedrich. I had created a route I thought would be a winning route with plenty of water and habitat diversity.

Townsend's Warbler
Franklin Mountains State Park
On Monday Bob and I did some scouting before meeting Clay in El Paso. We checked out the Balmorhea area and found a Western Wood-Pewee for Year Bird 429 at Balmorhea State Park. We headed into El Paso to pick up Clay at the airport and stashed my car in long term parking and headed out to scout the El Paso area.

At the Franklin's Mountain's State Park we spotted a warbler at the lookout from the car and when we got glass on it, it was Townsend's Warbler for Year Bird 430. A few minutes later we  found an empid we were able to determine was a Willow Flycatcher for Year Bird 431.

At the Crossroad's Pond we found an unexpected Red-necked Phalarope for Year Bird 432. Not a bird I had on my radar, maybe it should have been now that I've looked at the eBird records and see how New Mexico seems regular for them.

Red-necked Phalarope
Our final site to scout for the day was the Rio Bosque Wetland's Park, which is one of the driest placed I've ever birded it turns out. It is a great place for Gambel's Quail though. While scouting to see of there was any water in the impoundments we found a mixed group of warblers and one was a MacGillivray's Warbler for year bird 433. This was a special one because it one of the big misses of my 2015 big year.

We spent the night in Alpine and rose at 3:30 am to leave the hotel by 4:00 am to be birding the Davis Mountains by 5 am. On time it didn't take too long to find a calling Elf Owl calling for Year Bird 434. No Western Screech-Owl yet, no Great  Horned Owl calling like they did over my tent in January here. The milky way blazed so bright at first I thought it was clouds moving in, but really clouds of stars. Several shooting stars flashed by. We tested our optics counting moons around Jupiter. Time to move on though.

It was a few minutes before 6 am now at the Lawrence E Woods picnic area. When we got out of the car a Turkey gobbled somewhere near by. A few minutes of calling and we has several Western Screech-Owls calling for Year Bird 435. As we walked to the other end of the picnic area a turkey roosting in the tree above me cut loose with a loud gobble right above my head causing me to jump, causing Bob and Clay much laughter. As the some light crept into the sky Cassin's Kingbirds started calling for Year Bird 436.

Almost full sunrise and a Gray Flycatcher bursts into full song for Year Bird 437. Things were really starting to get going now, but we really didn't have full sunlight in the picnic area year. We waited 10 minutes later than our scheduled out time to get the sun and we were rewarded with Hepatic Tanager for year bird 438.

We moved on to Davis Mountains State Park and located a Plumbeous Vireo for Year Bird 439. At the feeding stations we found abundant Black-headed Grosbeaks for Year Bird 440.

We headed out to the next stop hoping for a Common Black Hawk the nest site on SH118 outside of Fort Davis. We dipped on the Black Hawk but did get Zone-tailed Hawk for year bird 441.

Behind schedule already we headed for the Balmorhea area and did well boosting out totals up into the 90's already. Now the long hall to the Guadalupe Mountains.

We hit Frijole Ranch and did well on empids, Cordilleran Flycatcher was Year Bird 442 and Dusky Flycatcher was Year Bird 443. We had perhaps as many as 6 Dusky Flycatchers.

Over at the Pine Springs Visitor Center we found a Virginia's Warbler for Year Bird 444. We headed back on the road headed for El Paso. We made good time and picked up some good birds on the Dell City loop. We opted to cut out the Franklin's Mountains State Park stop and we were back on schedule sort off. We decided to take a risk and drove the entrance road to Hueco Tanks State Park and picked up a number or new birds for our Big Day plus White-throated Swift as Year Bird 445.
It takes a lot of guts to drive 2200 miles in west Texas!

Traffic delayed us for a few minutes getting to our next stop, the Crossroads Pond in West El Paso. Good luck was with us and the Red-necked Phalarope was still there and a  Wilson's had joined it. We picked up several more good birds and headed to our last birding stop of the day, Rio Bosque Wetlands.

Not well named the Wetlands are not very wet but still birdy. We stayed there until well after sunset and nabbed many birds for our big day, including Gambel's Quail, Lesser and Common Nighthawk, and Common Gallinule in a ditch.

Heading back home the next day I was pleased. Seventeen new Big Year Birds put a dent in my West Texas Holes. We did very well with our Big Day, turning in an outstanding score I think. The big day lasted 17 hours of birding and 400 miles. Total round trip for me was about 2200 miles. Oh and about a 1000 bugs spilled there guts on my windshield can grill. I'll be back soon.