Finishing April in Washington

After Texas and before heading off to Massachusetts, I wanted to catch up on some birding in Washington – a little ahead of the busy month of May but able to watch some early migration and chase after some rarities close to home.  My first foray was back to some favored places in Kittitas County and beyond with Frank Caruso and for some of the time with Deb Essman.  Before joining Deb, Frank and I picked up Rufous Hummingbirds at the Hyak feeders on Snoqualmie Pass and then found some First of Year birds (FOY’s) at Bullfrog Pond including Red Naped Sapsucker and Cassin’s Finch.

After checking in on the Great Horned Owl that was nesting across from Deb’s House and finding two fluffy owlets, Deb joined us and we first visited a known nesting site for Bank Swallows and even though it was quite early, we found 5 Swallows flying about – no nests yet.  We doubled checked to see the dark chest bands to be sure they were not Northern Rough Winged Swallows.  Frank and I had not yet seen any Swainson’s Hawks and that was our next “find”.

Great Horned Owl with Owlets

Great Horned Owl and Owlets

 

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk Flight

We did not find much in the Whiskey Dick area above the corrals off Vantage Road but did have a quick look at a FOY Brewer’s Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrows as we had had there earlier this year.  Just as we were leaving two Prairie Falcons flew over.  We also heard Sandhill Cranes somewhere off in the distance.  Not much at Recreation Road either – Rock Wren only and no Canyon Wrens.  Frank and I continued on to Frenchman’s Coulee after Deb had to leave and found our FOY White Throated Swifts.  I did not even attempt a photo of these ultra-fast fliers.  We then went Southeast to the County Line Ponds on Highway 26 and picked up FOY American Avocets and Black Necked Stilts.

Black Necked Stilts

Black Necked Stilts

We had been looking for a Loggerhead Shrike all day without success.  Somehow even zooming along at 60 MPH, we finally saw one on a post and a quick U-turn got a photo.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

One last stop on the long way home resulted in a very fun time with the American Dipper nest under the Teanaway River Bridge.  We watched in fascination as first one parent and then the other would catch food in the river, pause briefly at a riverside rock near the bridge and then fly up and deliver the food to the two babies.  It was non-stop for the whole time we were there.

American Dipper with Food Ready to Go and then Delivery to the Babies at Nest

Dipper1  Dipper at Nest

A couple of days later, I made a quick visit to Yost Park and with Frank had our FOY Black Throated Gray Warblers.  Too high up and uncooperative for photos, but I am sure I will get some later.  I tried several places looking for newly arrived migrants like Wilson’s or Yellow Warblers without success.  At Wylie Slough where I had Yellow Warblers at this time in year’s past, I did find my FOY Lesser Yellowlegs for Washington. On the way home, I stopped at Maxine Reid’s place on Tulalip Bay and got a distant view of a couple of Purple Martins coming to her gourds.  Maxine had shared that they had arrived a couple of days earlier. With the exception of the Dippers, I had seen all of these birds in Texas two weeks earlier – that’s how migration works.

On April 24th, the ABC Club in Tacoma was having a program that I wanted to attend as much to see friends there as to see the program.  As a good way to avoid traffic on the trip down, I decided to chase some of the new birds that had been reported there in the previous few days at places I had not visited before as my Pierce County birding had been very limited.  My first stop was the Puyallup Fish Hatchery.  I was hoping to see a Wilson’s Warbler as one had been seen two days earlier and also figured it a good spot for a Yellow Warbler or other migrant.  I batted only .500 as I found a Wilson’s but not a Yellow.  Still a fun place and I expect it can be very productive.

My next stop was Chambers Lake – another new spot.  I almost blew it.  My GPS took me to the location which turned out to be on the Joint Base Lewis McChord property.  I knew you need a pass to be on the property but I thought I would run into a gate that would either deny me access or would allow me to get a pass.  No gates were encountered so I kept on going and made it to the Lake where I got my FOY Chipping Sparrow.  I later learned from Bruce LaBar that I still needed a pass and might have been in trouble if patrols had come around.  I need to attend to that detail for any future visits.

One last stop was the Mountain View Cemetery where Bruce and Ed Pullen had reported a House Wren.  Even though Bruce provided excellent directions, I couldn’t match landmarks and was uncertain if I was in the right location.  Slowly it started looking familiar as I realized I had been to the same location three years earlier also looking for a House Wren.  I had found it then and finally found it again this day – another Washington FOY that I had seen earlier in Texas.

The program was Dave Slager talking mostly about Crows and the question of whether there really is such a thing as a Northwestern Crow as a separate species.  It was fascinating to learn of the work that has gone into the examination of this question and the question of speciation in general.   For the time being the two species both exist but I think the clock is ticking and a determination will be made to lump them into a single species.  Much better than the program was a very fun dinner with Bruce and Ed beforehand.  Outstanding birders and outstanding people – they make it fun to be part of the community.

The next day I made a quick visit to Homeacres Road in Snohomish County for a quite rare Black Necked Stilt that had been found by David Poortinga and was then relocated by a number of local birders.  A distant view only, but a new bird for the County.  I later stopped at Pine Ridge Park hoping to find some FOY Pacific Slope Flycatchers that Frank had seen earlier that day.  I found a couple of Pac Slopes but the real prize was the friendliest Pileated Woodpecker I have ever seen.  It flew onto a log on the ground literally five feet from me.  It paid me no attention as it drilled on that log and then on some low trees nearby.  VERY photo friendly.  I could choose any of a dozen good photos but will go with this one.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated head

I wanted to do one more long foray into Eastern Washington before heading off to Boston.  Ann Marie Wood and Steve Pink were game and we left very early – revisiting some of the territory Frank and I had covered the previous week but adding Para Ponds and a Burrowing Owl site on Lemaster Road following in part the success of an Audubon trip the previous weekend.  In beautiful weather with no wind we had a wonderful long trip to Kittitas, Grant and Adams Counties today.

We started with 20 plus Rufous Hummingbirds at the Hyak feeders.  Our next stop was at Bullfrog Pond where highlights were Red Naped Sapsucker, Western Bluebird, Chipping Sparrow, Mountain Chickadee and a probable Warbling Vireo.
At the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, we had a gorgeous male Rufous Hummingbird posing for us, numerous Pygmy Nuthatches and three FOY Nashville Warblers.  I had hoped for a Nashville but they had just begun to appear in Washington so were definitely not expected.
Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird1
Pygmy Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
On our way to the County Line ponds on Highway 26, we had several Western Kingbirds.  This species had just begun showing up in Washington and like the Nashville Warbler, it was on our “hoped for but not expected” list for the trip.  At the County Line Ponds we had Black Necked Stilts and American Avocets plus some Least Sandpipers and 5 duck species.
Western Kingbird
Western Kingbird1
American Avocet
American Avocet1
After more Western Kingbirds, we made it to Para Ponds starting with 200 Cliff Swallows at nests.  We had four species of Blackbirds including outstanding looks at a dozen plus Tricolored Blackbirds and 20 plus Yellow Headed Blackbirds.  These two species actually outnumbered the Red Winged and Brewers Blackbirds – something that never happens.  We also had lots of Ruddy Ducks, 4 Cinnamon Teal and 2 Redheads, plus White Pelicans and Great Egrets. Also 2 Virginia Rails, and more Black Necked Stilts and Avocets.  We all agreed that this was our best experience ever at this sometimes hot and sometimes not location.  The views of the Tricolored Blackbirds were perhaps our best ever and it was my best photo of one.
Cliff Swallows at Nest
Cliff Swallows at Nests
Yellow Headed Blackbird
Yellow Headed Blackbird Yellow Headed Blackbird Flight1
Tricolored Blackbird FOY
Tricolored Blackbird
In Washington, the Tricolored Blackbird with its dull red and white shoulder epaulets compared to the yellow and larger and brighter red ones on the Red Winged Blackbird are found only in a few places and are often missed.  Para Ponds is maybe the most reliable spot to find them but are missed there as well.  Another good field mark compared to the ubiquitous Red Winged Blackbird is the thinner bill.
Red Winged Blackbird for Comparison
Red Winged Blackbird
It was then on to Lemaster Road where we had some Horned Larks and thanks to Steve’s good eyes, we quickly found a Burrowing Owl at its burrow surprisingly close to the road.  These owls have nested in this area for many years now but can be difficult to find.  Often they are in their burrows and are invisible on the surface.  If you know the exact location of the burrow this becomes a waiting game, but they change their burrows and it was at a different spot than last year.   We were lucky to have the owl outside when we arrived.  This was a First of Year for me as I had missed one in Benton County during my January Big Month.
Burrowing Owl at Burrow FOY
Burrowing Owl
We were in great spirits after our good birds at every location and particularly after such great views of our two most important targets for the trip – the Tricolored Blackbirds and the Burrowing Owl.  We decided to head back via Lower Crab Creek Road – a long dirt road that parallels Highway 26 and goes through beautiful country with some ponds, lots of sage and rocky cliffs.  Notable observations included numerous Loggerhead Shrikes, dozens of White Crowned Sparrows, and several Swainson’s Hawks.  But the highlight was when we flushed two Gray Partridge and a Chukar.  Unfortunately the Partridge disappeared but the Chukar posed in full magnificence.  I had seen and photographed both species in the Okanogan in January but they are always a treat and they were new year birds for Ann Marie and Steve.
Chukar
 Chukar2 Chukar1
As I had with Frank, we then made a stop at Frenchman’s Coulee where we found 10 plus White Throated Swifts, a Rock Wren and many Cliff and Violet Green Swallows.  This time I was able to get a photo of the difficult to catch White Throated Swift.  They are in Washington (Eastern) only in the breeding season and purportedly reach over 100 mph in level flight.
White Throated Swift
White Throated Swift1
On the way back, I called Deb Essman to see if she had any information on Long Billed Curlews,  the only target we had missed on our trip.  She had no up to date info but earlier in the day she had found some Least Sandpipers in a small pool of water at the same place we had the Bank Swallows last week.  Shorebirds are extremely hard to come by in Kittitas County so of course we went and we easily found a Cinnamon Teal and 3 Least Sandpipers – a Code 4 species in Kittitas County.  It was a new County bird for all of us.
Least Sandpiper – Code 4 for Kittitas County
Least Sandpiper Kittitas3
We continued west along Highway 10 and found a small pond with Wood Ducks, a Sora and possibly either Nashville or MacGillivray Warblers (too distant to tell).  A quick view of an American Dipper at the Teanaway Bridge ended our day.  All told we had about ninety species and had a great time finding all our main targets except that Long Billed Curlew but compensating with some surprises.  Migration is definitely starting.
I made a last quick trip today before I depart tomorrow.  I needed to be in the University District so I swung by the Union Bay Natural Area and quickly found a pair of  Blue Winged Teal (FOY in Washington) at Shoveler’s Pond.  It was an overcast day and the sky was full of Swallows – mostly Tree, but there were also many Barn Swallows and some Violet Green Swallows.  High in the sky there were also at least a few Vaux’s Swift (FOY in Washington) probably many more.
Birding in Washington is done for the month. Mostly as a result of that Big Month in January I have seen a lot of birds in the State – 261 species so far even though except for January, my goals have primarily involved ABA birds.  I wondered how that compared to observations in years past.  I won’t be back in Washington until May 3, so I checked Ebird for data from the previous five years.  On average over that period I had seen 235 species as of May 3 with the highest number being 272 in 2015.  Proving the impact of migration in May, however, the latest I have ever hit 261 was May 20th last year which was the year I paid the least attention to Washington birds AND on average I have added 56 species in May every year.  Definitely won’t be doing that in Washington this year.
The catch up in April has been fun with some nice birds but the most rewarding experiences have been with friends, shared times and shared stories old and new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On My Own in the Texas Hill Country

Having to be back in Seattle before the Hill Country Extension to VENT’s South Texas Tour would end, after our goodbyes at the Laredo Airport, I headed north on my own.  It was 180 miles from Laredo to where I would be staying the next two nights – The Lodge at Lost Maples and another 8 miles from there to the Lost Maples State Natural Area – my ultimate destination to look for two new ABA Life Birds – the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black Capped Vireo.  I also hoped to photograph a Scott’s Oriole, a bird that had eluded me in Arizona.

Even on two lane country roads, the speed limits in Texas are often 65 to 70 miles per hour and on the Freeways can be as high as 75.  My kind of place for driving at least.  It was not long before I was literally the only car on the road and there were stretches of 30 miles or more where I did not see another car – in any direction.  With a few stops for lunch, provisioning and birds – the same that had been seen all through the tour but I had to be sure – I made it to my cabin a little after 4 o’clock.  After 10 nights in motel rooms this seemed like luxury and definitely peaceful and charming.  (An aside:  Once again I am beginning the process of online dating and made a few connections before I left for this trip.  Possibly a few moments of the tour would have appealed to some of the women I had communicated with, but probably not many.  I thought immediately that this place would – just a very comfortable and relaxing place.)

My Road

Lodge at Lost Maples Road - Copy

My Cabin

The Cabin

The check-in process was simple.  Open the door and walk in.  The key was waiting for me on the table.  There was zero reception of any kind.  No cell service, no phone, no cable, no TV, not internet, no Wi-Fi and nobody else around.  I put my meager food supplies in the fridge, my suitcase on a table and headed off.  I did not even bother to lock the door.

After the rather flat and boring landscapes of the past ten days, it was nice to be in the rolling hills and forest of the acclaimed Texas Hill Country.  Many people had told me that they loved this area and found it quite beautiful. Being spoiled by Puget Sound, the Olympics, the Cascades and Mount Rainier, I was less enthralled but can certainly imagine it as much lovelier with the colors of fall as the maples changed colors.  Certainly a welcome and comparatively beautiful retreat from the monotony of the south.

I headed to the Lost Maples Natural Area figuring I would at least scope it out for an all out assault the next day.  I arrived just as the visitor center was closing.  A nice quick conversation with one of the staff produced a map and a couple of ideas of where to look for my target birds.  The Golden Cheeked Warbler was not too far away, but the Black Caped Vireo was a long steep hike.  I decided to go to the parking area that began the trail system and to at least look at what was ahead.  When I got there a birder with bins and a small camera was getting into his car.  It turns out that he was a local part time guide and he was doing some scouting for trips the next week.  He was friendly and helpful – as everyone I met in Texas had been.  He was recovering from some leg/hip condition that did not enable him to make the steep climb to the best place for the Vireos but he said that just a short while ago he had the Warbler not too far down the trail.  There was definitely time for a try, so I thanked him and set off.

I have probably written before that while I have fairly good hearing, my processor is terrible.  Often even if I had just had a call or song identified a few minutes earlier, I just cannot sort out what is what.  I listened to my recordings of the calls and songs of the Golden Cheeked Warbler as I started on the trail.  The song was fairly distinct, but the chip note did not sound to me that much different than many others.  At least I knew it chipped.

The trail was easy through somewhat of a ravine with mixed woods on both sides.  Not open, not dense, not high, not low.  Less than 300 yards down the trail, the first bird sound I heard was a high pitched “chip”.  Somehow, I actually processed it immediately as the Golden Winged Warbler.  I quickly gave an imitation of the song and apparently it was good enough as there was a response and I got a quick glimpse of my first ever and quite beautiful Golden Cheeked Warbler.  This was a new ABA Life bird and now I really wanted a photo.  I called again and the warbler responded boldly singing from a number of branches not too high up and often in the open.  Snap, snap, snap – I had my photo – far better than I had ever anticipated and much easier.

Golden Cheeked Warbler Singing

Golden Cheeked Warbler Singing .jpg

There probably was nobody within a mile of me.  Just me and my new best friend the Golden Cheeked Warbler.  I gave out a victory cheer as I was very elated.  The Warbler didn’t mind and posed for another shot.

Golden Cheeked Warbler

Golden Cheeked Warbler

There was no time for the climb to look for the Vireo and ending on a high note is always good so I headed back to my cabin on the lane in the woods.

I had not explored my new home area before taking off earlier.  Now I had a chance to look around a bit.  A bird was sitting on the fence line singing – an Eastern Phoebe – new for the trip and new for the year.   A couple of Cardinals whistled and a Golden Fronted Woodpecker was drumming.  I thought I heard a Woodhouse’s Scrubjay but I could not find it.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

It was getting late and although my meal was not going to be exciting – I enjoyed the solitude and a simple salad with Lemon Pepper chicken.  In anticipation of finding my target birds I had bought a small piece of cake.  I expected it would be eaten the next evening.  Since I had found the Warbler but not yet found the Vireo, I ate only half.

It was blissfully quiet at night.  I went over some of the pictures I had taken during the tour – discarding at least 500.  I had done this most of the previous nights as well and am sure that I had deleted at least 2000 pictures.  I would need to delete many thousand more when I got back home.

As usual I woke up early.  It was so quiet that I could hear some birds from behind the cabin.  One call was the incessant two note call of the Eastern Phoebe, but there was something else far more interesting.  I opened the back door and walked out.  It was a Chuck Will’s Widow – its song repeating its name over and over.  I grabbed my phone and tried to call it in closer with playback but it did not move.  It would have been too dark for a photo anyhow but what a cool experience.

Time to head back to Lost Maples.  This time I got there just as the Visitor Center was opening.  I got a bird list (fancy with photos of the birds seen) and some more advice on getting to the Vireos.  I was also told that the camp host in the first campground had a feeder up and might have some insights and also that the Bird Host for the area was in a trailer down by the maintenance area.  He would not be leading a bird walk that day, but he was very knowledgeable about what was being seen.

As I pulled up to the Bird Host area, the hosts were out restocking peanut butter and seeds into the feeder.  Lee confirmed that the Vireos required a steep hike but he said I might as well go up the East trail as opposed to the directions I had been given at the Visitor Center which would have been an even longer and almost as steep a hike.  He also said that a Scott’s Oriole often visited his feeders and I should check back later.

My get-in-shape and lose some weight program of February/March had been severely challenged by the giant meals twice a day during the tour.  Even though I had tried to scale back, I was sure I had gained at least 5 pounds. Carrying my bins, camera and heavy lens plus the pack with water and food, I was not looking forward to what really was going to be a steep climb – and was warned about as such in the literature and on the map.  It indeed was challenging – quite steep for over a mile, but with several breaks, I handled it better than I thought I might and got “on top” and went to Primitive Camping Area B with great views and lots of habitat that looked good.  I am not sure why it is called a camping area as there are no facilities or campsites.  It did not matter – I had been alone on the trail and was definitely alone on the top.

The Bird Host had reminded me to check out every apparent Turkey Vulture because the somewhat similar appearing (in flight) Zone Tailed Hawks were present.  I must have checked two dozen vultures on the way up.  At the top one indeed turned into a Zone Tailed Hawk.

Zone Tailed Hawk

Zone Tailed Hawk

It was a BIG area and I hiked around for almost an hour looking for the Vireos.  I played songs, call notes and everything I could think of – and had nothing,  It was pretty overcast and still chilly and pretty windy so I hoped that maybe it would just have to warm up.  I then tried another area out of Area B.  A flash of blue caught my eye and then another.  I tracked one bird down and was rewarded with a beautiful singing Blue Grosbeak.  Probably my best picture of one and definitely making up for the poor view and no photo of the single bird we had seen near the end of the tour.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

I admit I was getting a bit worried as the bird activity was pretty light, but I reasoned that I had invested a lot to get up to this area so I had to give Area B another try.  I understood that the Vireos favor a mixture of trees that included Junipers and usually foraged low in the scrub.  I saw a spot I had not checked before that looked good and as I approached I first saw two birds fly in.  I found one and it turned out to be a Field Sparrow, the first I had seen in quite a while, its pink bill an easy and immediately apparent field mark.

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

A few minutes later I heard what I thought was the Vireo’s song and saw two more birds in the same area.  Over the next 10 – 15 minutes I chased the birds from one tree or scrub to another getting only momentary views to confirm the ID as a Black Capped Vireo.  Just as I got my camera on one in a little opening, it was gone.  This happened repeatedly.  It looked to me like the two males were fighting over territory.  Finally one of the birds flew off and the other proclaimed its victory in the territorial dispute by perching and singing in the open – at least briefly.  I got my photos and I was a very happy birder with another ABA Life Bird and photo.

Black Capped Vireo

Black Capped Vireo Singing

Black Capped Vireo1

I don’t know if it was gravity or elation at the success, but the hike back down was sure a lot easier although great care had to be taken on loose gravel and uneven terrain.  Perseverance had paid off and there had been bonuses as well.  I heard and got a quick view of a several Golden Cheeked Warblers on the trail down, but did not even try for photos.  The ones from the day before would be tough to beat.  I got to the parking lot and drove to the feeders by the maintenance area to report back and also hoping to find a Scott’s Oriole.  Lee drove up maybe 5 minutes after I set down on the picnic table to watch the feeders.

I showed him my Vireo shots and he was very pleased as he had not been up there that week and was glad that the birds were present.  He said the Scott’s Oriole had come in a short while after I had left before.  He also said that a Woodhouse’s Scrubjay had been visiting.  Not too long afterwards, he said he was hearing the Scott’s Oriole.  It came in very briefly to the feeder – too quick for a photo and then fortunately perched in a nearby tree.  Finally I got my ABA Life photo.  I had hoped for a photo on this tour/trip but felt it was definitely not a sure thing.  This one was particularly well received because it was the seventh oriole species seen and photographed on this trip joining the Audubon’s, Hooded, Orchard, Baltimore, Altamira, and Bullock’s Orioles.  Earlier this year I had seen and photographed a Streak-Backed Oriole in Arizona and last April I had seen and on April 25th last year I had seen and photographed a Spot Breasted Oriole in Florida.  So within a year I had seen all of the “regularly” occurring orioles in the ABA area.  There is also a Code 5 Black Vented Oriole that resides in Mexico and Central America and has made a very few appearances in Texas and Arizona – maybe some day.

Scott’s Oriole

Scott's Oriole

A few moments later the Woodhouse’s Scrubjay came in to get peanut butter from one of the feeders and stayed just long enough for a photo.  This species came into being when the Western Scrubjay was split into California and Woodhouse’s Scrubjay in 2016.  I had seen only a single Woodhouse’s Scrubjay before – in Colorado in 2016.

Woodhouse’s Scrubjay

Woodhouse's Scrubjay

Lee also told me of another place where the Black Capped Vireos should be much easier to find – South Llano River State Park – out of my way to San Antonio where I would be flying out of the next day, but I had plenty of time.  I had allocated this full day to Lost Maples if needed for the Golden Cheeked Warbler and Black Capped Vireo and maybe even the Scott’s Oriole.  The original plan was to return the following morning for a few hours if necessary in case I had not been successful earlier.  That would still have given me time to get to San Antonio for my 7 pm flight.  Now my plans would change with my great fortune already.  I would drive the area just to enjoy it, get some much needed sleep at the cabin and bird around there leisurely and then try South Llano River SP the next day.  I figured you could never have too many good birds!!

I returned to the Visitor Center and gave them an update on the birds I had seen.  They are very aware of the special appeal of the Black Capped Vireo and Golden Cheeked Warblers and like to have real time info to share with visitors.   Very near the Center I had a small flock of Carolina Chickadees.  These were the first ones for the trip.  It seemed so odd to not have had chickadees previously as they are so common where I live (Black Capped and Chestnut Backed) and elsewhere in the Country.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee .jpg

I drove quite a few roads and stopped for coffee at the Lost Maples General Store.  The first cup was free – and there was free Wi-Fi – super nice folks as well.  Later I found a couple of Eastern Bluebirds on a fence line.  At first I thought they were Lazuli Buntings but a bit too early still.  Back at the Cabin I was treated to a very up close and personal encounter with a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers.  I first noticed the drab female and then the male fluttered in and was absolutely spectacular in great light.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher with Tail Fanned

In the evening, I listened for owls and nighthawks  but heard none.  Same in the morning but again heard the nonstop call of an Eastern Phoebe.  I cleaned the cabin, packed my stuff and headed off to South Llano River State Park which was just over 70 miles away.  The topography at South Llano was very different from Lost Maples.  Much flatter and actually a somewhat lower elevation even without the steep climb at the latter.  There were a number of feeding areas and blinds pretty close to parking at South Llano and I was told that both the Golden Cheeked Warblers and the Black Capped Vireos might be found close to one of the blinds particularly the Agarita Blind.

The blinds were a very short distance from parking and were comfortable.  Great for viewing but not so great for photos as much of the viewing area was behind distorting glass.  Nonetheless, the birds were definitely interested in the feeders and the water drips.  Although the Golden Cheeked Warblers and the Black Capped Vireos were known to come in to the water drips, I saw neither while I was there.  But it was great for sparrows: Lark Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Clay Colored Sparrow (new for the trip), Chipping Sparrow, White Crowned Sparrow (new for the trip), Lincoln’s Sparrow and maybe my favorite sparrow – the Black Throated Sparrow.

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow Llano 2

White Crowned Sparrow

White Crowned Sparrow Llano

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow Close

Black Throated Sparrow

Black Throated Sparrow B

I was joined in the blind by a birder from Australia who lived part of the year in Texas and was familiar with the park.  A somewhat rare Cassin’s Finch had been reported at the park and we were both happy when I spotted it and could point it out to her – contrasting it with the many House Finches that were present.  A bird that I had seen unexpectedly at Lost Maples also came in to the feeders here – a Pine Siskin.  They can be abundant in Western Washington and I somehow incorrectly had them figured as a northern bird.

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch2 - Copy

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

The lady from Australia was mostly interested in finding a Black Capped Vireo and she left the blind before I did.  I gave the blind a few more moments and then went out looking for Vireos and Warblers.  Two flocks of Cedar Waxwings flew over but just like they had on the early part of the tour, they never landed and just kept going.  At least with these I could see their crests and yellow at the tip of their tails.  Not far from the blind I heard a wren like buzz that I was pretty sure was the alarm call of the Black Capped Vireo.  Then I saw at least two males flitting about.  There may also have been another male and a female.  They darted in and out of view so quickly that it was hard to keep track.

Just as at Lost Maples, there seemed to be a territorial battle going on.  I finally got one clear shot for a photo but that was it.  I had called out to the other birder that I had some Vireos and she finally came over.  Each time a Vireo became visible she was unfortunately looking in another direction and by the time she turned to the bird, it flew off.  They were a challenge.  This continued for maybe ten minutes with some moments of silence and then the raspy alarm call again and a quick view.  I finally took off looking for warblers and I am not sure if she ever got on one of the Vireos.

Black Capped Vireo

Black Capped Vireo

These Vireos had been much much easier than at Lost Maples – no more than 200 yards from the parking and absolutely flat ground.  I was only able to find a single Golden Cheeked Warbler – buried in the foliage – but I did not look very hard.  I also found a couple of Yellow Rumped Warblers in full breeding plumage, a Bell’s Vireo and a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher.

To me this park was much less attractive than Lost Maples, but if someone had a primary goal of finding either the Golden Cheeked Warbler or a Black Capped Vireo, I would recommend this place as the far easier location.  It is about the same distance – less than an hour and a half – from San Antonio so easily accessible.

It had been another great birding experience but it was time to go.  I am sure I could have spent more time and found more birds probably even a couple of new species for the trip, but it had been a very full time and I was ready to head home where I had some friends coming in the next day.  I made it to the airport very early and did some more work on photos and thought back on the many fine moments.

Recap and Looking forward

All told during my trip, I had seen 251 species bringing my Texas Life List up to 291 species.  If I had noticed that earlier I would have worked at finding 9  new species to try to get to 300 – I like round numbers.

I had added 5 life birds to my ABA List – Whooping Crane, Tropical Parula, White Collared Seedeater, Golden Cheeked Warbler and Black Capped Vireo.  That list now stands at 712 species.

I had added photos of 17 species to my ABA Photo Life List and now stands at 667.

I had not been thinking about it before the trip, but as I posted my bird lists to Ebird during the trip, I noticed that I had seen quite a few ABA species during the year.  This was in large measure due to the Big Month I did in Washington in January, but there had been some good birds added in California and Arizona in February and March even though those trips were mostly chasing highly targeted rarities.  Texas added another 147 ABA species for the year so that on April 13, I had seen 449 species.

I had and have no intention of doing an ABA Big Year for 2018 or any other year but at least as of that moment, I was #2 on the Ebird list for the year.  After 4 days without any birding, I have already dropped 2 places and that will continue as there will only be limited opportunities to significantly increase the number.  I guess it would be nice to reach 500 by the end of the year, but while the brief moment at the heights was fun, that is not important to me.

There are trips ahead to Boston to see my grandson and hopefully to finally get a photo of a Tufted Titmouse – hopefully in my daughter’s neighborhood.  It is not a birding trip.  Frank Caruso and I are going to North Carolina the first week of June primarily to go on pelagic trips.  There will be new birds there but the focus will be on a few new ABA Lifers and Life Photos especially the pelagic species that are found offshore there.  I may also return to San Diego for another pelagic trip there and if so will consider braving the heat to go to the Salton Sea and hopefully find a Yellow Footed Gull. 

If all goes really well, I could hopefully end the year with maybe 720 or so ABA Life birds and 680-85 ABA photos.  I don’t “need” to hit any of those goals. However, I like setting goals and planning adventures to pursue them, but in the end it is the adventure itself that keeps me going.  There are many birds that I will always remember (aided by my photos and my blog posts) from this trip, but just as much it will be some of the places and the experiences and the people – especially the two great guides Barry Zimmer and Carlos Sanchez from VENT and of course Mr. VENT himself, Victor Emanuel.  Still some birds to see or photograph in Texas so I expect I will be back – but other places to go first.  Hope they are as rewarding.

Dipping at the Dump but Closing Strong

After an amazing day 7 on the VENT South Texas tour, maybe it was inevitable that we would have an off day.  Day 8 started at Santa Ana NWR.  I had great visits there in 1975 and 2013 seeing 78 species including many ABA firsts on the 1975 trip.  On this day we had 34 species of which three were new for the tour – Cliff Swallow, Sharp Shinned Hawk and most importantly the beautiful Altamira Oriole, which was formerly called the Lichtenstein’s Oriole – named after a German ornithologist of the first half of the 19th Century.  The name was changed to Altamira – named after a city in the Tamaulipas State of northern Mexico which is just south of the Texas border.  In the U.S. this oriole is only found in extreme South Texas and is endangered here.

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole Male5

Our next stop was the famous (“infamous”?) Brownsville Dump.  Up until the 1990’s and into the first decade of the 21st Century this was an easy spot to find what was then called the Mexican Crow.  I had seen some there in April 1978 but of course had no photo.  They disappeared from the area until some showed up again in 2017.  Had this not occurred we would not have made this stop, but now they were a much sought after species – now known as the Tamaulipas Crow.  Unfortunately we found none this day despite diligent looking for almost two hours.  There were many Vultures (Black and Turkey), thousands of Laughing Gulls and some other gull species including our first of the trip Lesser Black Backed and Herring Gulls and no crow.  (I got word from a Washington birding friend today that they were at the dump and had crows – oh well.)

Lesser Black Backed Gull

Lesser Black Backed Gull

Much of the rest of the day was traveling to our next birding area in Zapata.  The weather was quite overcast and a trip along Las Palmas Road for “desert” species was essentially birdless.  For the day we barely had 70 species and only five new ones for the tour to get to 215 total.  So not much to write about.  The next day would be better.

On the morning of the 10th we had special access to the Santa Margarita Ranch bluff overlooking the Rio Grande River and looking into Mexico.  We were targeting two very important South Texas specialties the Ringed Kingfisher and the Red Billed Pigeon.  Both were high on my list of photos wanted.  The bluff itself was very cool – a pretty spot maybe a couple hundred feet above the river – and precariously perched so tour members with a problem with heights had to stand far back.  Maybe 30 minutes after we arrived Barry Zimmer announced that there were Red Billed Pigeons out over the river and flying our way.  I snapped a quick picture for the record thinking that would be it.  But we got lucky as the Pigeons perched on a relatively nearby snag just upriver from us – and fortunately on the U.S. side of the river.  Had they been on the Mexico side, they would not have been “countable” in the ABA area because it is the location of the bird and not the birder that is determinative.  The perched Pigeons were a much better photo op even in pretty low quality light.

Red Billed Pigeon

Red Billed Pigeon

Looking at the photo, it is hard to figure out why this species is called the “Red” Billed Pigeon as the bill looks decidedly  yellow.  A very close look shows a tiny bit of red at the very base of the bill.  There must be a better name – but the only thing I cared about was the observation and the Life ABA Photo.

Shortly thereafter Barry called out our other target bird as a Ringed Kingfisher flew by.  The Ringed Kingfisher is quite local along the Rio Grande River and is the largest kingfisher in North America.  It kept going and I was pleased to get some decent flight shots.  Another new ABA Photo.

Ringed Kingfisher in Flight

Ringed Kingfisher Flight1

Somewhat later another or the same Ringed Kingfisher flew by and this time perched below us.  The light had not gotten any better and in fact there were a few raindrops so a difficult photo but one that clearly shows the rufous underparts.

Ringed Kingfisher

Ringed Kingfisher 1

An Osprey had been perched near us the whole time.  I had concentrated on the two specialties but with them now found, I gave this beautiful bird its due and took its picture.  A few seconds later his (or her) mate came by and the two flew off together.

Osprey

Osprey at Margerita

There had been other birds along the river including a mixed flock of various egrets and herons and a pair of Mexican Mallards, another Altamira Oriole and many Neotropic Cormorants.  Now the rain clouds were strengthening and having found our targets, it was time to hike back to the vans.  It had been an exceptionally good visit.

We drove some area roads looking for desert birds.  We had some – but not exceptional views or photo ops except for a very nice Black Tailed Gnatcatcher and killer looks of a Cactus Wren.  The biggest disappointment was that we could hear a close by Scaled Quail (or two) but could not draw it out for a visual.

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher 5

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren 4

We continued north and west towards Laredo with an important stop at San Ygnacio where we were looking for one of the birds that was extremely high on my list of targets – the White Collared Seedeater (later in the year split into Morelet’s Seedeater which we saw and the Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater) which is found only in a very few areas right on the river.  It would be an ABA Life Bird and if photographed, a Life photo.  The San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary was a pretty scruffy looking place – not a lot of maintenance but we were able to find the White Collared Seedeater.  Barry and Carlos had picked up its call pretty quickly but it was very difficult to get a visual.  In fact this was one of the only times during the trip when I was the one to find the bird – seen just briefly by only a couple of us and a terrible photo by me.  So I had the Life Bird and the Life Photo, but I won’t include it here since I got a much better one the next day. A photo I will include is of a Yellow Breasted Chat which responded immediately to the playback and came in for great views.

Yellow Breasted Chat

Yellow Breasted Chat

We had a flyover of another Audubon’s Oriole and our first Black Phoebe of the trip.  Oddly we had another important bird here – a House Finch – the first of the trip.  They are commonplace almost everywhere else but hard to find in South Texas.  We drove some more local roads and had a very quick flyby from a Blue Grosbeak – another new species for the trip.  We also finally got a good look at a Pyrrhuloxia – a bird we had heard but not seen the day before.  We arrived in Laredo – the final hotel stop for the trip and since the tour would end at midday the next day, this was the night for our celebration dinner.  The Blue Grosbeak was the 232nd species seen on the tour – beating last year’s record of 230.

The next morning was a late start with a visit to our last site – the area adjacent to the Rio Grand River just east of the international bridge in Laredo.  Once again we were looking for White Collared Seedeaters.  Barry was shocked to see the devastation of what had been great habitat for this difficult species.  The Border Patrol had cleared out almost all of the appropriate high grass vegetation.  Nevertheless we found a couple of Seedeaters and I was able to get a passable photo.

White Collared Seedeater

White Collared Seedeater

We also had flybys of both Green and Ringed Kingfishers – glad that we had much better looks earlier.  We had seen many Great Kiskadees during our tour but none gave us better views than one at this spot.

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee B

Time to end the tour.  We headed to the airport and as we pulled in there was yet another Scissor Tailed Flycatcher.  We had seen hundreds during the tour and never got tired of this beautiful bird.  Barry requested that everyone close their eyes after seeing this last one – to be sure that it was the last bird seen on the visit.  A fitting end.

A couple of the participants carried on with Barry and Carlos to the Hill Country on a tour extension.  I had to be back in Edmonds before the tour would end so I could not join them and instead rented a car and headed off to the same area on my own.  It had been a great tour – yes a couple of misses but so many great birds including most of those targeted.  I ended the official tour with three ABA Life Birds – Whooping Crane, Tropical Parula and White Collared Seedeater.  I had photos of each of them and new ABA Life photos of 11 others.  South Texas is simply amazing!!

 

More South Texas: Day 6 Was Good and Day 7 Was Off the Charts

We started the morning of April 7th with more Parrots in Weslaco and then visited Estero Llano Grande State Park.  We had 48 species at the latter with several great birds.  We had seen MANY Black Bellied Whistling Ducks in each of the previous days – very nice looking birds.  At the State Park we had our only Fulvous Whistling Ducks for the trip.

Black Bellied Whistling Duck

Black Bellied Whistling Duck B

Fulvous Whistling Duck

Fulvous Whistling Dusk

There were a number of other ducks and most of the waders we saw earlier then we also found another of the South Texas specialties – a Least Grebe.  We had seen several earlier and would see more later, but this was also a good place for another specialty – the Plain Chachalaca.

Least Grebe

Least Grebe

Plain Chachalaca

Plain Chachalaca

This was also the place where we had our highest count – 5 – of Soras and we saw several in the open.  During the course of our trip we saw more than a dozen of these often skulky  and reclusive birds and heard more.  Probably more Soras on this trip than I have had in the rest of my birding life.

Sora

Sora2

Barry knew of a possible special treat – a roosting Common Pauraque.  Another of the goatsuckers/nightjars, Common Pauraques are active insect eaters at dawn and dusk and throughout the night.  They roost in the daytime on the ground in leaf litter – usually in thickets.  We searched the target area for quite a while and then Jeff Poulin spied it in thick cover.  This was a hoped for new photo for me and I felt the odds were low to get one.  But get one I did – one of my favorite birds of the trip.  It is well camouflaged so look hard.

Common Pauraque

Common Pauraque

Another great find and highlight was an Eastern Screech Owl in a nest cavity,  With the help of Barry’s scope, I was able to get a fairly good digiscoped photo – actually better than expected given a very narrow viewing window.  This was also the first place where we found White Tipped Doves – another South Texas specialty – and also Curve Billed Thrashers after seeing several Long Billed Thrashers earlier.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

Curve Billed Thrasher Compared to Long Billed Thrasher (Seen Earlier)

Curve Billed Thrasher 4 long-billed-thrasher-1.jpg

Before lunch we headed over to the Frontera Audubon Center where we added three great new birds: Gray Hawk, Broad Winged Hawk and Green Kingfisher.  I know I took a picture of the briefly seen Gray Hawk but I cannot find it so I include just the other two.

Broad Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk4

Green Kingfisher

Green Kingfisher Phone

After a late lunch we drove around searching for Chihuahan Raven and more importantly hoping for an Aplomado Falcon.  We checked every power pole without success.  We did find a Raven and then went to a nesting platform that had been placed for the falcons.  No luck on the first one but at another one we found first one and then a second Aplomado Falcon.  Quite distant but unmistakable.  I got some photos (ABA firsts) but the best ones were digiscoped through Barry’s scope.  These falcons almost disappeared from Texas due primarily to habitat loss, but an active breeding and restoration program have brought them back to the area.  They are a treasured bird for birders.

Aplomado Falcons

Aplomado Falcons

The really cool part of this observation was that it came at exactly 4:00 pm and was my 400th ABA species for the year.  I certainly like this kind of congruity/synchronicity!!  It was getting harder of course to add new birds because we had seen so many, but we added 14 and now were at 183 for the tour.  The Falcon was the only new ABA Photo for me – but what a great way to end the day.  As you will soon see, the next day was even better.

The weather on the 7th had fairly heavy winds coming from the North.  Barry said this could be great for a “fallout” of migrating birds the next morning and we would head to South Padre Island to find out.  When winds are from the north, the birds are fighting that in their flights and often take refuge in the first land area they find after crossing the Gulf.  Indeed many don’t make and fall to their deaths in the sea. On the way to South Padre we drove one of the Aplomado Falcon roads again and got an even better look as we saw one in flight and then land on a power pole closer than the afternoon before.  Another photo.  What a way to start the day.  It was a good omen.

Aplomado Falcon

Aplomado Falcon Cropped

As we approached the Valley Fund Lands Site, (Also known as “Sheepshead”) we saw a field with a couple dozen Scissor Tailed Flycatchers sitting on the ground – this was exciting and foretold the spectacular day that would follow.  We were not the only birders who had figured it out and many were already there with cameras and binoculars on birds in the small copse of trees.  There is no way I can detail the visit chronologically as there was fluid movement from spot to spot as new birds were found – many in the open affording great views. We spent an hour there and then went to the adjoining Convention Center Property and then returned in the afternoon after lunch.  Birding was great on each visit.  I am not going to try to separate the species seen chronologically or by place.  We had an an amazing combined list of 88 species.

The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center

2P5A6881

Here is what we saw in alphabetical order.  I got photos of most of them and my favorites are included after the list.

South Padre List

Acadian Flycatcher

Acadian Flycatcher

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole 7

Black and White Warbler

black-and-white-warbler-deck.jpg

Black Throated Green Warbler

Black Throated Green Warbler 1

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher Singing

Blue-Winged Warbler (New ABA Photo)

Blue Winged Warbler

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule 7 - Copy

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat2 - Copy

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush 2

Eastern Wood Pewee

Eastern Wood Pewee

Glossy Ibis (Rare at this time and place)

Glossy Ibis Phone

Golden Fronted Woodpecker

golden-fronted-woodpecker-male-copy.jpg

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher 2

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler 3 - Copy

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting - Copy

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler 7

Least Bittern

Least Bittern - Copy

Lesser Nighthawk

Lesser Nighthawk 2

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike 5

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler 2 - Copy

Northern Parula

Northern Parula Warbler

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole Male - Copy

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting - Copy

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler 2 - Copy

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanagerx - Copy

 

Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson's Thrush 3

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

White Eyed Vireo

White Eyed Vireo1r

Worm Eating Warbler

Worm Eating Warbler 2

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Audubon's Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Throated Warbler

Yellow Throated Warbler1

Spending almost all of my time birding in the west, I don’t see major migrations and especially do not see the myriad warblers that are so much a part of birding in the East.  This show in a relatively small and very concentrated area where the trees were relatively low was very exciting to me. I didn’t count but believe there were maybe 100 birders enjoying the show at the two locations.  Maybe more.  All were very engaged and helpful to others sharing this wonderful experience.  The pictures mostly speak for themselves, but I will comment on a few.

The Blue Winged Warbler was an especially appreciated species.  Not only was it on my target list because I had no previous photo, it is really beautiful as a simple splash of yellow with those blue (bluish?) wings.  It popped out against the green of the foliage as it fed to regain its strength to continue its migration.  I was particularly happy to find it “on my own” among the many other birds.  The Acadian Flycatcher was another very pleasing find.  I heard another birder, not from our group, call out “Acadian Flycatcher” and raced over to the area to see it in the open.  It had not been present (or at least noticed) in the morning but was one of the first birds seen after lunch.  It too had been on my target list for new ABA photos – one that I felt had a relatively low probability to be seen let alone be photographed so easily.

Perhaps my favorite bird here was the Worm Eating Warbler.  Also high on my new ABA Photo target list.  It is a very striking bird but it was its behavior that was of such appeal.  It foraged endlessly on the ground in the leaf litter without any regard to the birders.  Granted we were separated by a railing fence, but at times it was so close I could not get my camera to focus.  I had expected at most a distant bird buried in dense cover.

One of the birds was great to see but was a disappointment for what it was not.  Barry called out “Swainson’s Thrush” and had it centered in his scope.   Nancy and Ed Lawler, a delightful couple from Staunton, VA were among our group participants.  They had birded together across the U.S. and in many foreign countries.  For Nancy, her primary “Life List” was birds of the world.  For this trip she really, really hoped for a Swainson’s Warbler.  It had been a nemesis bird for her.  It was unlikely on this trip but possible – especially with our wonderful group of birds this day.  I, too, hoped for a Swainson’s Warbler, a bird I had seen only once over 40 years ago in Maryland.  When I heard Barry’s call out, all I heard was “Swainson’s” and got immediately excited – more for Nancy than for me.  She was nearby and I rushed her to the scope and followed with a look myself and then a quick photo. Uh oh – it was a thrush and not a warbler.  It was my first Swainson’s Thrush for the year and the only one we saw on the trip – a great bird – but how much greater had it been a Swainson’s Warbler.  Sometimes our minds are so preset, we hear and maybe even see only what we want.

Some very quick comments on some of the others seen.  Any photo of a Nighthawk roosting in the open in the day time is special.  I had previous photos of juvenile or female Orchard Orioles, but this brick red male was super.  Louisiana Waterthrush had been on my original hoped for photos list for the trip, but I got one earlier in Arizona so not “as” special.  It was nice to get the Northern Parula so soon after the Tropical Parula from the King Ranch enabling the comparison.  Not a great photo of the Glossy Ibis.  It was discovered by a young birder who was not sure if it was really the very rare Glossy Ibis or the common White Faced Ibis.  Barry got it in his scope and excitedly confirmed it was the former, the only one we would see on the trip and quite uncommon in South Texas.  Finally I really liked the photo of the Golden Fronted Woodpecker.  We probably saw or heard many dozens on the trip, but this was the best look at the name giving “golden front” below the red cap.

All told, we spent almost six hours at South Padre.  It ranked right up there with the best six hours of birding I had ever had.  But it was time to move on.  We found some Baird’s Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers far off in a field at the Superior Turf Farm and then headed to an early dinner as this was the night we were going owling.  Part of the group passed and the rest of us headed to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP.   I had been there almost exactly 40 years ago in April 1978 and then again 5 years ago in April 2013.  On that first visit I had my Lifer Groove Billed Ani – a bird I have not seen since and in 2013, it was the last stop on a day of guided birding with the hopes of finding an Elf Owl. It was this, the smallest of the North American Owls that was our primary target for the evening.

Groove Billed Ani – Hoping for a Photo Someday – This One is from Cornell

Groove Billed Ani from Cornell

We parked and headed into the park at dusk.  A group of birders was already in wait at the “owl pole” not far from the parking lot – a known nesting spot. We hiked right past them and went to an area that Barry knew was good for our owl.  I think it was the keen ears of Carlos Sanchez that first heard the owl’s call.  Then I heard that call and a second one from a different spot.  Barry figured out the probable location and used playback to bring the owl in to us.  Now the call of one was really close.  It had to be in a tree in front of us but where.  Barry and Carlos searched with their spotlights.  Then Ed Lawler said he was on it.  I don’t know how, but he had located the owl mostly in the dark.  Barry and Carlos got spotlights on the tiny owl and I had a great view and then a fine photo.  An adult Elf Owl is barely 6 inches tall.  By comparison the familiar American Robin is about 8.5 inches, and a Great Gray Owl, the largest (by length) of the owls seen in North America is approximately 24 inches.

Elf Owl 

Elf Owl 2

Elf Owl 3

During our visit we heard at least two more Elf Owls and a Great Horned Owl.  We also had wonderful views of a Common Pauraque flying around us and there were Lesser Nighthawks.  It was a superb night bird experience.

Only in Texas could a day start with an Aplomado Falcon and end with an Elf Owl.  Any birder would consider that a fantastic day.  But in between we had that incredible visit to South Padre Island and for me that topped both the Falcon and the Owl.  We had added a remarkable 27 species for the tour list and now stood at 210.  Only in Texas!!

South Texas Continued – The King Ranch and Beyond

I first visited the King Ranch in October 1977.  I have no specific memories and my bird list is incomplete but Ebird tells me that is where I first saw an Audubon’s Oriole, a White Tailed Hawk and a Buff Bellied Hummingbird.  The King Ranch is an enormous holding of 825,000 acres founded in 1853.  Just for perspective, the King Ranch is bigger than the entire State of Rhode Island.  In 1977, I visited the Santa Gertrudis Unit and this time we were visiting the Norias Unit with local guide Jim Sinclair.  There were three special birds we hoped for:  Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Audubon’s Oriole and Tropical Parula.  I had seen the first two but had no photos and the latter would be a Life Bird.  This was an important visit.

Barely onto the ranch we saw our first Wild Turkeys of the trip – including several displaying Toms – quite a show.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey .jpg

And at the buildings, our leader Barry Zimmer pointed out the Tropical Kingbirds that he had predicted we would see there.  These birds are almost indistinguishable from Couch’s Kingbirds which we had already seen and were common throughout our travels.  These birds could be identified as Tropical only by their song – very different from Couch’s.

Tropical Kingbird

Tropical Kingbird

Couch’s Kingbird

Couch's Kingbird 5

Normally a visit to the Ranch first concentrates on the specialty birds before for example driving the fields looking for a Sprague’s Pipit or Northern Bobwhites or other still excellent birds.  This is what Barry expected, but Big Jim (he had to be 6 foot 6 inches) took us out into those fields.  Some of us got looks at the Bobwhites as they ran on the ground in the tire tracks just ahead of us.  I had seen and photographed some in Florida last year with Frank Caruso and Paul Bithorn, but those were the only ones I have seen.  Unfortunately we could not find the Sprague’s Pipits which had been there the past week and would have been a life photo op for me.  Second miss this year as earlier I had missed them in the San Rafael Grasslands in Arizona with Richard Fray.

Northern Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite 1

It was now off into the trees to special spots known to Jim (and to Barry) where we were likely to find our targets.  I may have this out of order because it really seemed like a one-two-three whirlwind, but we were successful on all counts.  The Audubon’s Oriole was the hardest to photograph but was a very striking bird.  It is very similar to Scott’s Oriole which I hoped to see and photograph later.  Both have black heads and yellow bodies, but the Audubon’s Oriole has a yellow green back whereas the Scott’s has a black back.

Audubon’s Oriole

Audubon's Oriole

Next up was the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.  The King Ranch is the go to spot for this extremely rare species.  We got to the right spot, gave a few toots and there it was posing for photos.  A treasured life photo.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl 1

Two down and one to go and it did not take long.  Again at the go to spot, we quickly had a Tropical Parula.  This was a Life Bird, number 2 for the trip.  It was not an easy photo but with Barry’s help I got one that was passable and acceptable.  It is very similar to the very common Northern Parula, a species I had even seen as a super rarity in my home state of Washington.  The Tropical Parula has a black mask and has only a faint rusty band and no black breast band of the Northern Parula.

Tropical Parula and Parula Comparison

Tropical Parula 1

Parula Comparison

Had the day ended then, it would have been a fantastic day but the Ranch gave us two more really good birds – a Green Jay and a very photogenic Vermilion Flycatcher.  Pretty hard to beat a male Vermilion especially when it is doing its flutter display flight.  Wish I had gotten that on video.

Green Jay

Green Jay1

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher King Ranch

After lunch and a little more birding on the Ranch we were off again.  We found an amazing collection of birds at one field that was a bit wetter than the others.  Included were 37 Black Necked Stilts, 3 American Golden Plovers, a Stilt Sandpiper, 48 Pectoral Sandpipers, a dozen Long Billed Dowitchers and an awesome 238 Lesser Yellowlegs (Barry counted each one).  We continued on to McAllen where we would spend the next few nights.  At a roost in town we found numerous Green Parakeets.  I had seen them in Florida but somehow had failed to get a photo – so that oversight was corrected.  We also had both Black Crowned and Yellow Crowned Night Herons and then at a second roost spot had Red Crowned Parrots – a species I had seen in Pasadena California in December last year at a roost site with hundreds of birds.

Green Parakeets

Green Parakeets 1

Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Red Crowned Parrot

Red Crowned Parrot Tail

It had been a great day and again we had both quantity and quality.  The species count for the day was 85 but there were 29 new birds for the trip and we were now up to 169 species seen by the group.

 

 

 

 

Birding Mecca Three – South Texas

There are many great places to bird in the ABA Area but for the sheer number of birds and certainly for specialty birds it is hard to beat South Florida, Southeast Arizona and South Texas.  When I first started serious birding in the 1970’s, I was fortunate to be able to visit each of those locations and had great luck in finding many of the specialty species (and many others) that make each place so inviting.  For the most part, I had not been back to any of those places in the subsequent 35 to 40 years.  I did not keep detailed lists back then and I definitely did not take any photographs.  With the advent of digital photography, taking pictures of birds I have seen has become particularly enjoyable and important to me.  I have  tried to add new species of course, but special attention has been given to getting photos of species seen those many years ago.  How I wish I had done so back then.

Last spring was a great trip to one of those places – South Florida.  As reported in numerous posts on this blog last year (See    ) Frank Caruso and I spent 9 days there birding mostly with Paul Bithorn and taking a trip to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas with the Tropical Audubon Society.  On that trip I had 173 species of which maybe 30 would be considered Florida specialties.  Since many exotics had been added to the ABA list since I last visited in the 1970’s, many were new ABA Life birds (16) and almost all of them plus some others were new ABA Photos (40 altogether).

Swallow Tailed Kite – Favorite Bird of that 2017 Florida Trip

2017-04-27 18.31.28

In August last year and then again in February this year (See   ), I birded in Southeastern Arizona – the first visits in almost 40 years.  As with Florida, I had seen many of the Arizona specialties in earlier visits, but there were new birds as well, and as with Florida, almost all provided new photo opportunities.  All told on the two Arizona trips, I had seen just shy of 200 species of which maybe 50 could be considered specialties although some are seen elsewhere in the ABA area but many winter for example in Arizona.  Only 9 were new ABA Life birds but again over 40 were new ABA photos.

Whiskered Screech Owls – A Favorite Sighting in Arizona in 2017

Whiskered Screech Owls (3)

So that gets us to Texas.  I had been there twice in the 1970’s and then again on a week long trip in 2013.  The 2013 trip produced 150 species including 5 lifers and maybe 25 new photos, so the opportunities for the visit which will be the subject of the remainder of this blog post and probably at least two more were much more limited than the Florida and Arizona visits.  But Texas is an amazing place and as you will see, there were lots of birds – including many really good ones.

My trip started negatively with a missed flight from Dallas to Corpus Christi where I was to meet a tour with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) the next day.  There really was not a good way to get to a hotel and return for the next early morning flight so I spent an essentially sleepless night in the Dallas Airport.  It was fascinating , however, to watch an airport get ready for the next day.  A large crew (also getting no sleep at least at night) attended to each detail of cleaning, restocking, maintenance, etc.  There were dozens of busy (and noisy) people at work.  We take so much for granted – but we should all step back every once and a while and take stock of the details necessary to make our world workable.

Although there were not many good chances for new ABA Life birds on this trip, I had especially high hopes for a very special one – the Whooping Crane.  I had just missed this legendary conservation success story both in the 1970’s and again in 2013.  It was the primary reason to make the trip.  A potential problem though was that South Texas is also legendary for great migration birding and this would not really hit until two weeks after our tour.  This had been the reason I had missed the cranes earlier – they leave just as the migration is getting into full swing.  You can’t have it all.  I was looking forward to the tour and especially to seeing the Cranes.  There also were a dozen or so photo possibilities and when I met our tour leader, Barry Zimmer, and saw him in action, I was confident that if the birds were around, we would see them.  Barry was extraordinary!!

A special treat was that for the first few days, a second “guide” for our group would be Victor Emanuel himself.  Although his focus and primary responsibility had been the business side of the large VENT operation, Victor had been everywhere and seen almost everything.  An incredible resource.  Barry and Victor took us on our first birding trip before dinner on Easter Sunday – a visit to Tule Lake in Corpus Christi.  Nothing extraordinary but we saw 34 species in less than an hour including several Scissor Tailed Flycatchers – real beauties that would be with us almost every day.

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

The next morning we were off to Blucher Park,  It was very windy and not real birdy.  Nothing noteworthy although we had killer looks at a beautiful Long Billed Thrasher.  I did not process it at the time, but upon my return I learned from my friend Melissa Hafting that this is a go to spot for roosting Chuck Will’s Widows and Eastern Whippoorwills, crepuscular or nocturnal insect eaters that are very hard to photograph except at their day roosts.  Both were on my “want” list but we never went looking.

For the remainder of the morning we drove various beaches and waterways and picked up quite a few shorebirds including Piping and Wilson’s Plover plus many waders and terns and some American Pipits.  After lunch we looked hard for Snowy Plovers without success but I got my first new ABA Life Picture bird when we found a pair of Gull Billed Terns.  We also had a very large flock of American Avocets and many Long Billed Dowitchers among the many shorebirds.

Gull Billed Terns (ABA Life Photo)

Gull Billed Terns Calling

It was a very good day for terns as at various times in addition to the Gull Billed Terns, we also had Black, Least, Royal, Caspian, Sandwich, Common and Forster’s Terns – basically all of the ones of South Texas.

Least Tern

Least Tern B

We ended the afternoon at Rockport Beach. There and along the way we continued to find many waders, shorebirds and terns.  There were large numbers of Snowy, Cattle and Great Egrets.  More impressive were the numbers of Tricolored Herons and Reddish Egrets including ones of both the white and dark Morphs.

Reddish Egret – White Morph

Reddish Egret White Morph

 

Although I was very happy to get the Gull Billed Tern photos, it had seemed just like a “regular” day with nothing extraordinary, yet by the end of the day we had seen 105 species for the trip – and barely any passerines and not very many ducks.  Texas is a very birdy place!  The next day was supposed to be our boat trip to see the Whooping Cranes, but the trip was canceled because of high winds.  Each passed day decreased the odds of seeing the Cranes as some had already left for their breeding grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.  I had been down this “late” road before.  No panic but a bit of concern.

Plan B the next morning took us first back to Rockport and then to Goose Island and Aransas National Wildlife Reserve.  After lunch we returned to Goose Island and then to Cavassos Creek in Aransas County.  It indeed was very windy and it was clear that a boat trip would have been miserable if even possible.  Many of the birds were a repeat of the day before but we picked up several passerines, lots of Franklin’s Gulls and due to Barry’s keen eyes a Wilson’s Phalarope among many shore birds in a grassy field.  It was particularly cool to see the pink tinge on the bellies of the Franklin’s Gulls – something I had never noted before.

Pink Bellied Franklin’s Gulls

Pink Franklin's Gull

There was some bad news and some good news.  The bad news was that perhaps due to high water levels and heavy winds we could not find any Seaside Sparrows at a “go to spot”.  This was a much wanted ABA Photo species.  The good news was that although the views were at quite a distance, we found two groups of three Whooping Cranes at Aransas.  It would qualify as a new ABA Life bird and I had a poor “record photo”.  But at least we knew there were cranes around and the weather looked very good for the rescheduled boat ride the next day.   It took several tries and again the birds were far off, but Barry finally found a Boat Tailed Grackle to end the day.  We probably saw many thousand Great Tailed Grackles during the tour, but this was the only Boat Tailed seen.  Our tour list was now at 126 species.

The weather was indeed good the following morning and we were first in line to board the MV Skimmer at the Rockport Harbor for our trip to see Whooping Cranes.  Aransas Bay is amazingly shallow – very different from the Pelagic Boat trips to very deep water out of Westport that I am accustomed to.  We had great views of nesting Purple Martins before we arrived at the dock and of course the omnipresent Great Tailed Grackles and Laughing Gulls surrounded us before the departure.

The Sunrise Greeting Us at the Dock

Sunrise

The MV Skimmer

MV Skimmer

The boat trip was a great success.  Most importantly we saw 22 Whooping Cranes often relatively quite close for decent photos.  Added to the 6 we had seen the day before, our total of 28 represented about 7% of the world’s wild population.  Mostly they were feeding in small groups looking for their favorite meal – Blue Crabs.  The prized photos are of a Crane with crab in bill.  I settled – happily – for them hunting in the shallow water.  Now I had finally seen and photographed the two iconic conservation success stories in American Birding adding the Whooping Cranes to the California Condors I watched at Big Sur last year.

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Crane4

Whooping Crane5

Whooping Crane Head

There were other great birds as well especially the waders as we saw many Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, White and White Faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, Little Blue, Great Blue, Tricolored and Black Crowned Night Herons and my favorite – displaying Reddish Egrets.  Hard to choose photos to include.  Here is a sampler.

Reddish Egret Display

Reddish Egret

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron 7.jpg

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbillb

White Faced Ibis (Juvenile)

White Faced Ibis

White Ibis

 

White Ibis

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

There were 14 shorebird species (including our only American Oystercatcher of the trip), 5 duck species (including our only Redhead), both Neotropic and Double Crested Cormorants and a few others.  Fifty-two species in all.  After this trip our tour had 132 species.  I was very pleased to have seen all of the birds but of course especially the majestic Whooping Cranes.

There was a major disappointment though.  The keen eyes (and sixth sense?) of our leader Barry Zimmer found a single Seaside Sparrow in some grass next to the water.  Despite yeoman efforts by him and Jeff Poulin, one of the tour members who was a great spotter with very sharp eyes, I just could not get on the bird.  I was very down about this – not just missing a bird I much wanted to see and of which I “needed” a photograph – but moreso the recognition yet again at just how poor I am at finding birds in challenging backgrounds.  My eyesight even after surgery is not sharp.  When I bird on my own, it may take a long time, but I generally can dig out the birds – eventually – but it is hard.  Often especially in a group with directions that are unclear or not workable with my eyesight, it just doesn’t work out.  And Barry was as good as there is at helping me and everyone get on birds – a great quality in a leader – and one that all do not have.  The Seaside Sparrow may not have been an easy spot, but I felt bad missing it…a feeling that was overcome with the overall wonderful quality of this boat trip.

After another great and too large seafood lunch at a very fun spot named Snoopy’s,  we visited several spots in the area including another try for a Seaside Sparrow.  No luck yet again, but there was a great consolation prize – a Nelson’s Sparrow – very rare at this time and place.  My photo was good enough to support the ID and Ebird report but embarrassing to include here so I am substituting a photo of one seen at the Tijuana Estuary in California in December – a great find there as well.  I have a trip to North Carolina in June – maybe I will finally photograph the Seaside Sparrow then.  Certainly going to give it my best.

Snoopy’s – This Is a Good Area for Seafood

Snoopy's

Nelson’s Sparrow (from California – not the one seen in Texas)

Nelson's Sparrow 2

We moved on to our next birding area – more inland – and fit in some pre-dinner birding in Sarita, Texas.  Along the way we had two treats – a vacant lot filled with spectacular wildflowers and my first photo opportunity for a photo of a White Tailed Hawk – not a great photo and there would be many more sightings later, but it was an ABA First and I was very pleased to get it.  I will include the better photo in a later blog post.

Wildflowers

Wildflowers

On County Road 12 we came across a field with more than two dozen Upland Sandpipers.  These birds really appeal to me.  I saw my first one at the Dallas Airport in April 2013 and then a super lucky view of a flyover one at Ocean Shores in Washington in September later that year – an extreme rarity there – one of only a few state records.  In 2016 I got my first photo of one in Maine.  I was able to get a decent photo of one this time as well.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

A much “rarer” bird was found on La Parra Avenue.  Eagle eyed Barry spied what appeared to be a Common Grackle which flew into a tree.  I got a great photo and then we found a second one in a ditch a few hundred yards away.  This is one of those disjointed experiences in birding.  One would think that a bird named “Common” Grackle would be just that – common.  And it is – elsewhere.  In fact in many places, it could be called the “Abundant Grackle”.  But this was only the second record of Common Grackle in Kenedy County.  Guess who had the first – Barry Zimmer on the King Ranch last year.  In this same area, we also had the tour’s first Clay Colored Thrush a bird that was quite rare until fairly recently.  It now is showing up regularly in a number of locations.

Clay Colored Thrush

Clay Colored Thrush1.

Common Grackle – Second Kenedy County Record 

Common Grackle1

A day birding can be judged in many ways – the beauty of the place, the quality of the people we are with or run into, the number of birds seen and/or their quality.  This had been an excellent day on all accounts.  Victor Emmanuel had returned to other responsibilities and we had been joined by Carlos Sanchez as our “other” guide.  Carlos was a great spotter and despite his young age has an immense knowledge of birds from all over the world – and many stories to go with them.  He was a terrific addition to the tour.  I personally do not count the scenery of South Texas as being very appealing, but being on the water is always special and the birds sure love it.  It was the birds that made this day so good.  Just under 100 species were seen this day, bringing the tour count so far to 140 so yes mostly repetition – but oh the quality – great looks at many seen previously – but the earlier looks at the Whooping Cranes became completely irrelevant with our wonderful experience from the boat and then the new ones including White Tailed Hawk, Clay Colored Thrush, Nelson’s Sparrow, Common Grackle, Hooded Oriole and Harris’s Hawk.

A wonderful day in South Texas and the next day we would be visiting the famous King Ranch with a chance at some very special birds.  But that is another story – one that will start my next blog post.