Monday, April 3, 2017

Birding the Back Roads

3/30/17

Bud and Beverly were “700 Clubbers” who were building up their year lists, and were on a magnificent road trip that included the Valley (to which they had visited many times)!  But Bud had heard about the infamous Old Port Isabel Road (OPIR), and they had indeed tried it once but had to turn back, so seeing the road and the Aplomado Falcon for the year was a high priority!  In the meantime Beverly had gone over their trip list and had a handful of things she really wanted for the year, and American Golden Plover was on the top!  White-tailed Kite was a close second, so the first place we headed to was the Progresso Sod Farms seeing as I had noticed that they had just watered it when we were there on Tuesday.

Heading up the dirt road (and you really have to know where to turn on that thing), there surprisingly wasn’t much except grackles on the west side, but the east side (and thankfully the angle of the sun wasn’t too bad yet) did indeed had a handful of the plovers; “Mission accomplished!” exclaimed Beverly!  Having bagged that bird we cut over on Baker to head to the Progresso Silos, as they said they could use Yellow-headed Blackbird for the trip/year, but I couldn’t believe it:  all the blackbirds were gone and replaced by a ton of pigeons!  We did find a group of cowbirds (both kinds), and picked up Collared Dove for the day, but the consolation prize was a Peregrine Falcon on top of one of the silo towers!

They actually hadn’t seen Green Jay yet, and since Bud was interested overall in some of these back roads I take, I decided to do the Cannon Road Loop next.  Just before the woods were two immature White-tailed Hawks, and going slowly through the woods, we didn’t pick up Green Jay, but we were able to bag Verdin and Bewick’s Wren for the trip.  The best bird along here was a Common Ground Dove that flushed and then perched in the open in perfect light!  Cruising around the ag fields (we didn’t go up on the reservoir) was pretty barren, but we were still hoping for the elusive White-tailed Kite.  Weaver Road also turned out to be pretty lifeless, so since everyone was ready for a break, we headed up Rangerville Road to the freeway and stopped at a convenience store before heading to OPIR.

Common Ground Dove along Cannon Road

Even though we dipped on the Aplomado here, the road was pretty productive:  right at the get-go we had a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens, and at the hacking station stop we picked up three Whimbrel by the road!  We had several singing Cassin’s Sparrows with a few that actually sat up on the fence or cactus, and a Cactus Wren sat up on a yucca and sang (Derek shoulda been with us…)!  Another immature White-tailed Hawk soared very low overhead for great views, a handsome Caracara strutted through a field, and at one point in the road a pair of Horned Larks hopped and ran and flew on ahead of us for quite a while!  At the canal there was a congregation of both Great and Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and a couple of Neotropic Cormorants.  The road was actually in pretty good shape, and we made it to the north end unscathed (but with no falcon), so we continued on to the “Blue Shack” and pulled over.  I saw a falcon further on that was inconclusive from where we were, so we got back on SR 100 and got up even with it before pulling off, and it indeed turned out to be the Aplomado!

Whimbrel along OPIR (above and below)


Crested Caracara

Blooming cactus

Having that in the bank, we headed over to South Padre with the main target being Least Bittern, but also anything coastal for the trip (they weren’t too worried about the latter as they were heading to Corpus the next week).  I told them about The Flats, and they were interested, so thankfully we could get in there (there were whitecaps on Laguna Madre, so I wasn’t sure if the wind had blown the water clear up to the kiosk or not), and there were tons of birds!  Three different gangs had lots of Black Skimmers (that outnumbered the Laughing Gulls, interestingly), plus the three big terns represented.  Shorebirds included the regular Dunlin, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones (I thought I had a distant Piping Plover, but the thing vanished by the time we got over there).

Three Royal Terns plus a Caspian (with the black-tipped red bill) post in front of a group of Black Skimmers

Marbled Godwit

Snoozing Dunlin (you can see them starting to get their black bellies)

Next was the Convention Centre, where we hit the boardwalk first, and right away a group of birders already had the Least Bittern already in a scope!  That was very handy! J  I was distracted by a pair of Brown Anoles "making more anoles" right there on the railing, but another passerby broke up the orgy and I only got the male on film...  The Belted Kingfisher eluded us (I thought I heard it but I think it turned out to be a grackle making noises), but we picked up a lot of day birds like Sora, Redhead, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, and Common Gallinule.  Another birder had a Green Heron on the nest in his scope, so that was cool to see!  The Clapper Rails were still silent (even another birder, who may have been leading the group, mentioned that she hadn’t been hearing them), but from the end of the boardwalk we managed to bag the white morph Reddish Egret for the day, and the Osprey was on that same stump in the mudflats that everyone on Facebook seems to be photographing! J  The garden area was birdless (except for a tame White Ibis), as were the Sheepshead Lots (although a Prothonotary Warbler had just been seen before we walked up), so after perusing Beverly’s “need list” (and seeing that there hadn’t been any recent reports of close-by kites or Anhingas), we decided to head down to the SR 48 Boat Ramp to try for American Oystercatcher for the trip.

Brown Anole (above and below)


Green Heron on the nest

I had heard it was better to visit this place in the afternoon, and they were right:  the lighting was just perfect!  I was just setting up the scope when the oystercatcher flew right by at point blank and landed, giving us great views!  Scanning the rest of the birds gathered there added Herring Gull, Forster’s Tern, and both Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers to the day list, and a high-pitched, harsh kidick kidick announced the presence of my FOS Least Terns!  Beverly was very happy to get that! J

The resident American Oystercatcher pays us a visit!


About that time my friend Pat called and announced that she had a Western Tanager in her yard back in Alamo, so when I asked Beverly if they wanted to try for that, she had an “is the Pope Catholic?” look on her face J so off we went (still looking for White-tailed Kite on the way)!  I called Pat back to let her know we were coming, and by that time my boss Keith had made it down there and saw the bird just before something spooked it! L  We figured it might stick around (Pat said it looked tired), so the time flew on the drive back as Beverly shared their ancestral history (right back to Revolutionary times), and before long we were back in Alamo and poking through Pat’s yard, but all we could scare up were her “pet” Chachalacas.  I offered to take them down Alamo Road for a last-ditch effort at the kite, but they were “all done in” as they say, so we called it quits with a nice round total of 90 species for the day!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Mottled Duck                         
  Blue-winged Teal                     
  Redhead                              
  Plain Chachalaca                      
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Brown Pelican                        
  Least Bittern                        
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Little Blue Heron                    
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Reddish Egret                        
  Cattle Egret                         
  Green Heron                          
  White Ibis                           
  Roseate Spoonbill                    
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Osprey                               
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Sora                                 
  Common Gallinule                      
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  American Oystercatcher               
  Black-bellied Plover                 
  American Golden-Plover               
  Wilson's Plover                       
  Semipalmated Plover                  
  Killdeer                             
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Willet                               
  Lesser Yellowlegs                    
  Whimbrel                             
  Marbled Godwit                       
  Ruddy Turnstone                      
  Sanderling                           
  Dunlin                               
  Short-billed Dowitcher               
  Laughing Gull                        
  Herring Gull                         
  Least Tern                           
  Caspian Tern                         
  Forster's Tern                       
  Royal Tern                           
  Sandwich Tern                        
  Black Skimmer                        
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Common Ground-Dove                   
  White-tipped Dove                     
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Aplomado Falcon                      
  Peregrine Falcon                      
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Couch's Kingbird                     
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Chihuahuan Raven                     
  Horned Lark                          
  Northern Rough-winged Swallow        
  Purple Martin                        
  Barn Swallow                         
  Cliff Swallow                        
  Verdin                               
  House Wren                           
  Carolina Wren                        
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Cactus Wren                          
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Common Yellowthroat                  
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Cassin's Sparrow                     
  Savannah Sparrow                     
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Red-winged Blackbird                  
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Brown-headed Cowbird                 
  House Sparrow                        

90 SPECIES

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Escaping the Michigan Winter

3/29/17

Melanie and Jim, two birders from my home state of Michigan, just wanted a half day of guiding, which was actually nice as it had been unseasonably hot this week!  They were easy-going birders who just wanted to see the local stuff, so rather than spend all morning hiking around one park, I opted to make short stops at a line of hotspots and wind up with a stroll around the Chachalaca Trail at Santa Ana, close to home.

We started at Bentsen right around dawn, but because it was gloriously overcast (my car’s thermometer was already at 78) you really couldn’t tell!  A Kiskadee was the Official Greeter in the parking lot, and as we made our way to the restrooms, a nice Clay-colored Thrush sat out in the open in the butterfly garden area.  On the main road, lots of Couch’s Kingbirds serenaded us, and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker sat up pretty.  As we crossed the canal a harsh crack alerted us to a Ringed Kingfisher flying by, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow in a brush pile was very cooperative, along with a little Orange-crowned Warbler!  We ran into Hawk Watch John who showed us where the Elf Owl had made a home in past years in the telephone pole (looked like a pair of Goldenfronts had taken over).  Up at the Nature Center, the Chachalacas were already at the feeders, and the Green Jays came in to give great looks; even a Ruby-throated Hummer showed off in the Mexican Olive!  On the way back the Cave Swallows were swarming (they even flew under the bridge to give great looks), and both an Altamira and Hooded Oriole called from the tram area; the Altamira was a challenge to see well, but the Hooded came right out for a great comparison view!

From there we crawled down Old Military Highway (including the levee), where a Long-billed Thrasher sat up on the top of a tree, singing away!  A lovely White-tailed Kite sat in a field along the entrance road to Anzalduas, then flew overhead, and coming up to the levee, a Black Phoebe sang from the fence line!  Both species of grebe showed in the little wetland along the entrance road, along with a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that showed off their white wing patches very nicely.  After parking past the entrance shack a Gray Hawk flew right in front of us, giving great views, and once out of the car, I heard a hoarse Chop-chop-chop and sighted a Red-crowned Parrot coming in!  He posed briefly on top of a distant tree, but not long enough for me to get the scope on him before he took off for the “back part”…  Jim and I made a fruitless hike across the field for Sprague’s Pipit, although we did have both species of meadowlark; with everything seemingly migrating early, I couldn’t help wonder if the pipits were gone already.  L

The river was much more productive, with lots of Coots, a couple of Gadwall, some Mottled Ducks, and good comparative view of both flavors of cormorant (the Double-crested even had his double crests)!  Forster’s Terns called in the background, and a Tropical Kingbird tittered on a light post, while a singing Loggerhead Shrike perched on top of a tree.  We stopped at the dam to look at the Cliff Swallow nests and enjoy a Spotted Sandpiper up on the concrete pillar, plus more cormorants behind the dam, along with an Osprey with a big fish! 

Crawling down the center road, I thought I heard a buzzy trill, and turning off the car, sure enough – a parula was singing!  Trouble is, around here at this time of year, it could be either species, so we tracked it down, and it finally came out and gave us enough of a view to see the dark breast band of a Northern Parula, ruling out Tropical!  (Melanie and Jim were ready to give up, saying, “Oh, we’ll see them soon back home!)  A lady Ladder-backed Woodpecker gave us a great view at this stop as well.  We made a quick stop at GranjeƱo to see if we could find any Burrowing Owls; now that you’re not allowed to drive into the floodway, spotting them in the rocks is a lot more difficult, and we certainly didn’t see any this time, so we headed to the Stripes for some refreshment and then headed on to Santa Ana.

Melanie and Jim check out a kingbird at Anzalduas County Park

It was warming up by then, but things were still singing, even though they weren’t visible: their Beardless Tyrannulet called in the distance, and titmice were all over, but nothing wanted to come in and investigate the pishing.  Ran into Rick NirPadded the list with ducks at Willow Lake, along with some Black-necked Stilts and a Greater Yellowlegs that a lady pointed out to us.  A little guy skulking along the ground that Melanie and Jim saw but that I missed sounded like an Olive Sparrow from their description, and sure enough, one tsipped from the stuff!  Coming back around, the Carolina Wren actually showed himself while he sang, and at the feeder area a White-winged Dove flipped his wings while he sang – that was quite the show!  Melanie admitted she was interested in butterflies, so while they weren’t as active as they were in Starr County two days ago, I was able to point out a few things such as White Peacock, Phaon Crescent, and Laviana White Skipper.  The lizards were active as well, with Rose-bellied and Texan Spotted Whiptails being the main showoffs.

Great Kiskadee

Gang of ducks includes (L-R) Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, and Gadwall

We were done for the morning, but for a half day managed to rack up an impressive 75 species!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Gadwall                              
  Mottled Duck                         
  Blue-winged Teal                     
  Northern Shoveler                    
  Plain Chachalaca                     
  Least Grebe                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Double-crested Cormorant             
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Tricolored Heron                      
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Osprey                               
  White-tailed Kite                    
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  Gray Hawk                            
  Common Gallinule                      
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  Killdeer                             
  Spotted Sandpiper                    
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Forster's Tern                       
  Rock Pigeon                          
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  Ruby-throated Hummingbird            
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Ringed Kingfisher                    
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  American Kestrel                     
  Red-crowned Parrot                   
  Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet        
  Black Phoebe                          
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Couch's Kingbird                     
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                      
  Green Jay                            
  Horned Lark                          
  Northern Rough-winged Swallow        
  Tree Swallow                         
  Cliff Swallow                        
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  House Wren                           
  Carolina Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Clay-colored Thrush                  
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Orange-crowned Warbler               
  Common Yellowthroat                  
  Northern Parula                      
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Savannah Sparrow                      
  Lincoln's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Western Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                  
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Brown-headed Cowbird                 
  Hooded Oriole                        
  Altamira Oriole                      
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                         

75 SPECIES

Lessons Learned

3/28/17

This day was a little more challenging, only because I was feeling like it was becoming “one of those days…” L  Derek and Helen wanted to go somewhere local, and there was the potential of a handful of specialties they still needed, so we headed to Estero Llano Grande bright and early.  It was so early in fact, that we briefly tossed around the option of cruising the neighborhood for early-rising parrots, but then nixed that idea in favor of getting the early morning “bush birds” as Derek called them, so we headed on in.  Couch’s Kingbirds greeted up first off, along with a cooperative Ladder-backed Woodpecker on a dead tree.  An Inca Dove sang, and we finally got a look as he moved to a wire!  We eventually made it down to the feeders where Doug had just replenished them, so I had virtually guaranteed that they’d get their White-tipped Dove there!  We flushed them when we approached (Lesson #1: try to get that first look before approaching the feeder), but I wasn’t too worried because they “always come back.”  Well.  After 15 minutes of waiting, they were cooing all around us but never came back to the feeders!  (The Chachalacas were pretty friendly, though…)

Okay.  The Beardless Tyrannulet was calling, so we decided to chase that.  The memory of that thing leading David and Chuck and I around and around and around the Tropical Zone by the nose was still fresh in my mind, so I tackled this task with apprehension, but thankfully the little guy actually showed himself!  Unfortunately Derek and Helen couldn’t get on him before he fled, but he gave us a second chance down the road when he perched and called right out in the open near the top of a spindly tree!  I was trying to point him out to the guys and wasn’t succeeding, so trying to get the scope on ‘im, that’s when my tripod decided to malfunction and I couldn’t get the thing to line up properly!  Of course the bird flew, and I was ready to cry!  (Lesson #2 – sometimes you need to forget the scope and just keep trying to get the people on the bird!)  But we had a nice consolation prize in the form of a pair of Red-crowned Parrots that sat nicely in the sun and then flew off, giving their diagnostic Cleo-chop-chop calls!

We finally gave up on that and headed out to the deck, where we at least had some nice comparative studies of Stilt Sandpipers and dowitchers!  The dark ibis hanging there was of the expected White-faced variety, and by getting on the boardwalk we got marvelous looks at the pretty ducks and a Least Grebe.  Heading out to the Pauraque spot, we enjoyed the turtles at Dowitcher Pond and several more Least Grebes at Grebe Marsh, along with a Belted Kingfisher that came rattling in and almost landed on a dead tree in the middle of the pond until he saw us and veered off!  (Boy, those things are skittish…)  At the turnoff, I was thankful I had learned my lesson about not virtually guaranteeing anything, because the night heron mob had all but disappeared!  We were able to pull out an adult Black-crowned and a subadult Yellow-crowned, but the rest were youngsters (although it was kinda cool to have three kinds of egrets in the same tree)!  One of the night herons actually morphed into a pretty Green Heron!

Adult Roseate Spoonbill

A younger bird:  notice the lack of red on the wings and the white head.
White-faced Ibis shows his pink face and red eye.

  
Thankfully the Pauraque was still in his preferred spot (and he even rocked a little to prove he wasn’t stuffed J), but the Screech Owl was a no-show, and the overlook was pretty empty except for Big Mama Alligator.  Derek was curious about the shorebirds at the far end of Dowitcher Pond, so we headed over there and took the boardwalk, picking up some pretty Avocets, a few Lesser Yellowlegs, and a Sora by doing so.  On the way through the grasslands a Caracara flew overhead, and using the cutoff trail to the TZ bagged us a Swainson’s Hawk!

Pauraque at his post

Big Mama Alligator

Avocet in breeding plumage

Both non-breeding (left) and breeding plumages

Non-breeding plumage in front

The White-tipped Doves never came back, and the tyrannulet led us on another merry chase (along with the Green Jays that again just gave fleeting views), so we were pretty shot by the time we left Estero (we were even too tired to try and pin down the calling Summer Tanager on the way out)!  But I was hopeful that the feeders at Frontera Audubon would have the doves, and thankfully they came through for us in spades!  But that was the extent of the feeder birds (aside from Chachalacas and a single White-winged Dove); a friendly Fox Squirrel came up to say hello, and a White-eyed Vireo sang unseen.  Another couple wanted desperately to see a Clay-colored Thrush, and as providence would have it, we happened to hear (but not see) one on the way out, and happened to run into the same couple in time to tell them!

Derek was interested in checking out the Progresso Sod Farms for shorebirds seeing as it was close, so we headed over, and actually saw more American Golden Plovers there than we had seen Saturday on the Birder Patrol trip!  The Long-billed Curlew was there, and further down a smaller shorebird was in with the plovers, but it was too far away to ID.  Randy (a volunteer at Santa Ana) rolled up behind us (mainly to assuage our fears that this big ol’ truck might be full of bad guys J) and reported that he had had Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers there before, but just not today…

Headed over to Santa Ana after that, where after a picnic lunch at the Entrance Pond (and an outstanding look at an adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron), we pulled up to find Randy back on the job with the tram just about to leave!  Helen was very interested in that, so we encouraged her to hop on (Randy’s wife Lorna was driving it) while Derek and I made the trek out to Pintail Lake for shorebirds.  Little did we know that the water level was actually higher than it was the last time he was there!  We had nice looks at the regular ducks and waders (especially spoonbills and ibis), and a pod of Pied-billed Grebes was new for the day, but it was pretty daggum hot out there, so we headed on back before too long (Lesson #3:  hike in the morning, and road-bird in the afternoon!)  I heard a very distant Gray Hawk at the levee, and we enjoyed the breeze at the canal, then ran into Huck at the VC guiding a couple of folks; they had just gotten back from Starr County and did have the pigeons!!  I was glad they were still around but bummed that we missed them yesterday!  (Derek said he’d drive back out there for a Roadrunner, but not a pigeon… J)

Lunch break at the entrance pond

We talk Helen into taking the tram tour!

A panting Tricolored Heron hides in the deadwood

Helen and the gang arrived shortly after that and raved about the tram tour, as they talk about the history of the place as well, not just the wildlife, so I think she talked Derek into taking it on one of their days (as they have three more to go – and the report of a Bobcat on the early tram got his attention, I think J)!  But we were really shot after that, so called it a day, logging ten more than yesterday at 81!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Mottled Duck                          
  Blue-winged Teal                     
  Cinnamon Teal                        
  Northern Shoveler                    
  Green-winged Teal                    
  Plain Chachalaca                     
  Least Grebe                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Double-crested Cormorant             
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Cattle Egret                         
  Green Heron                          
  Black-crowned Night-Heron            
  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron           
  White Ibis                           
  White-faced Ibis                      
  Roseate Spoonbill                    
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Gray Hawk                            
  Swainson's Hawk                      
  Sora                                 
  Common Gallinule                      
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  American Avocet                      
  American Golden-Plover               
  Killdeer                             
  Spotted Sandpiper                     
  Lesser Yellowlegs                    
  Long-billed Curlew                   
  Stilt Sandpiper                      
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Long-billed Dowitcher                
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  White-tipped Dove                    
  Common Pauraque                      
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Belted Kingfisher                    
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  Red-crowned Parrot                   
  Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet        
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Couch's Kingbird                     
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                             
  Purple Martin                        
  Bank Swallow                         
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  House Wren                           
  Carolina Wren                         
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Clay-colored Thrush                  
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Orange-crowned Warbler               
  Common Yellowthroat                  
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Savannah Sparrow                     
  Summer Tanager                       
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                        

81 SPECIES