Monday, September 18, 2017

Sacahuistale Flats

9/16/17 

            Willacy County is one of the most under-birded counties in the LRGV, but there are some great places to explore; one of my favorites is Sacahuistale Flats, a road-birding route that basically follows SR 186 eastward from Raymondville towards Port Mansfield (PM).  The Flats themselves are about halfway to PM, but I like to start my route just past FM 1420, as some of the more “wild” ag fields (i.e., away from peoples’ homes) provide a different habitat that can have some nice birds for the trip.  On the way to the start of the route just before sunrise, I was honestly afraid I was gonna nail one of the dozens of southbound Barn Swallows swooping low across the road!  Thankfully I didn’t, but at the first stop, there was a constant flow of them; I think the final total was well over 200 (and I probably undercounted)!  The palm trees along this portion of the route often have Hooded Orioles, but today I would interestingly get them further east, in the thornscrub (guess they’re on the move, too, along with the Baltimores)!  Was pleased to not only hear Upland Sandpipers, but a pair flew by giving great looks!  Other “ag specialists” added along this stretch included Long-billed Curlew and Horned Lark.  Also managed my first-of-season Kestrel hunting from a wire.

One of the ag fields along SR 186

Eurasian Collared Dove, a common rural bird

            Once out of the ag fields you enter typical Tamaulipan Thorn Scrub habitat.  To my knowledge, all the land you drive through right into PM is privately-owned ranch land, but birding from the road is of course permissible.  Be careful, though, and be sure to pull way over:  the Weekend Warriors heading out to PM with their boats don’t dilly dally, as the speed limit along here is 75!  You’re also not too far south of the King Ranch, and diligent birders have found Ferruginous Pygmy Owl along here!  The only “King Ranch Specialty” that I encounter with any frequency out here is Audubon’s Oriole, and this day I had two birds sadly singing (along with a very happy-sounding Altamira on a power pole)!  The poles are also great places to look for White-tailed and Harris’ Hawks, along with Crested Caracaras.  A nice surprise was a young Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a power line!


Scene along the road

Immature Red-shouldered Hawk

Hiding Altamira Oriole

Typical thornscrub habitat

Harris' Hawk (not the band on his leg)


            About nine miles past 1420 is a little creek with a couple of primitive parking areas; this time a couple of fishermen had already staked the place out, so I didn’t check it, but with the freshwater vegetation it can be a good place to look for herons, kingfishers, Yellowthroats, Spotted Sandpipers, Anhingas, and, in winter, Swamp Sparrows.  Today the wires were lined with migrating Purple Martins!

Mesquite savannah near the creek

Purple Martins

Further east, you start getting into mesquite savannah and the coastal plains.  This is the realm of Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows, and I was surprised to hear a couple of the latter still singing (although it was just the sputtering first part, leaving off the bouncing-ball ending)!  Didn’t hear any Cassin’s Sparrows this trip, but did pick up a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks.  Bobwhites can be calling from the distance all along this route, even in the ag fields!

Botteri's Sparrow country!

White-tailed Hawk

Crested Caracara


            I wrap up my survey just before entering Port Mansfield, making it a nice 13-mile route.  In PM, there are three places we local birders generally check:  the first is the new Laguna Point Rec Area, a great place to look for shorebirds and other water birds.  I say “new” only in the sense that they’ve greatly improved the entrance road and have built new piers, observation decks, trails, and even a restroom!  Before all the improvements the place could often be a muddy death trap (or it seemed like it, anyway), but it was still great for birds – a lot of us got our life Purple Sandpiper out there one year!  On today’s outing there was nothing out of the ordinary, but a scan from the end overlook added a ton of young Least Terns to the list, in addition to a single Common Tern, lots of Laughing Gulls, and a few shorebirds.  A good trail (and even an interpretive sign) heads out to the water, and from there I was able to get a closer look at the shorebirds:  mostly Western Sandpipers, but also a few Leasts, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers.  On the way out I wasn't fast enough with the camera to catch what was probably a Mexican Racer slithering across the road, but unfortunately a Texas Rat Snake wasn't so fortunate...

White-tailed Deer with a serious rack chilling out at Port Mansfield!

View from the end of the trail at Laguna Point Rec Area, showing the end parking lot

Deceased Texas Rat Snake

Detail of the head pattern

            The next two places are mentioned on the Texas Wildlife Viewing Map:  Fred Stone County Park and the Port Mansfield Nature Trail.  The parking area for the county park is usually too overrun with people to be worthwhile, so I just drive right up to the fence at the end of the road and check out the wetland.  Sometimes there’s not much of a wetland to check, but today there was a little puddle of water that had a ton of Black-bellied Plovers, Royal and Caspian Terns, and Long-billed Curlews!  (One of the curlews even fed close to the road in the grass!)  The Nature Trail is often too hot to house many birds (at least this time of year), but this day at least managed to add a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a couple of Black Vultures to the day list!  This can be a good place to pick up Wild Turkey, and on other occasions I’ve gotten some good butterflies (such as Tropical Buckeye) and migrants (such as Yellow-throated and Bay-breasted Warblers), but today the stars of the show were the White-tailed Deer asking for handouts…

Loggerhead Shrike

Long-billed Curlew

Deer in velvet

Bambi

Photo bomb... (check out Bambi's tongue)

Portraits of Mom


Dad

A Rock Pigeon squeaks in as the last bird of the day!
Bird List:

  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Brown Pelican                        
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Black Vulture                        
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Harris's Hawk                        
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Red-shouldered Hawk                  
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  Black-bellied Plover                 
  Semipalmated Plover                  
  Killdeer                             
  Willet                               
  Upland Sandpiper                      
  Long-billed Curlew                   
  Ruddy Turnstone                      
  Sanderling                           
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Western Sandpiper                    
  Short-billed Dowitcher                
  Laughing Gull                        
  Ring-billed Gull                     
  Least Tern                           
  Caspian Tern                         
  Common Tern                          
  Forster's Tern                       
  Royal Tern                           
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  Common Ground-Dove                   
  White-tipped Dove                    
  Greater Roadrunner                   
  Ruby-throated Hummingbird            
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Brown-crested Flycatcher             
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Couch's Kingbird                      
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                            
  Horned Lark                          
  Northern Rough-winged Swallow        
  Purple Martin                        
  Bank Swallow                         
  Barn Swallow                         
  Cave Swallow                         
  Verdin                               
  Cactus Wren                          
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Yellow Warbler                       
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Botteri's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Dickcissel                           
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Hooded Oriole                         
  Altamira Oriole                      
  Audubon's Oriole                     
  Baltimore Oriole                     
  House Sparrow                        

74 SPECIES

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Survey and a Rarity Chase

9/9/17 

September’s survey of Laguna Seca Road was lovely, although there were some dicey spots on the dirt portions of the road after Friday’s rains!  The usual suspects were about (Pyrrhuloxias, Bobwhite, and rattling Roadrunners), but alas, the streak was broken when no Fuertes’ Red-tailed Hawk showed up! L  (I did spot a big buteo on one of the giant power towers along the right-of-way, but he was too far away with his back to me to allow positive ID…)  Early on a nice male Bullock’s Oriole shot into a bush beside the road, but the big show consisted of several migrating Baltimore Orioles – September is their big fall migration month here, and they can show up most anywhere!  Regular raptors like Caracaras and White-tailed Hawks showed up on the poles, and flyover Upland Sandpipers and Long-billed Curlews were closer to the ag fields.  On paved Laguna Seca, a group of five Turkeys showed up (this is a good area to look for them), and there were so many Loggerhead Shrikes along the route that eBird actually flagged them!  As with most open areas, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were in good numbers, and at one stop one was keeping company with a noisy Kiskadee!  Swallows were out the yin yang – mostly Barns, but also a few Caves, Cliffs, and Banks thrown in, along with a couple of Purple Martins that shared their power lines with a bunch of Barnies!  A couple of stops yielded a good number of Cattle Egrets with their attendant cows, J  and during a discreet stop a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher decided to show, along with an unidentifiable empid!

Savannah scene along the road

Crested Caracara

Take-off!

Immature bird

Scenes along paved and unpaved portions of zig-zaggy Laguna Seca Road


Odd cloud formation

Fleeing and non-fleeing Scissor-tailed Flycatchers


A couple of female Barn Swallows take a breather (the one on the right is probably blinking)

This could be a young Barn, as the tail is rather short (both males and youngsters have orange breasts)

Mouthing off at a bird landing off-camera...

Females have whitish underparts (giving me the evil eye below...)


One of the two Purple Martins sharing the wire

Loggerhead Shrike

Beat-up Great Kiskadee

Lazy Palm Ranch Road
  
I had told my friend Joyce that, after the survey, I’d probably go look for the vagrant Red-necked Phalarope that Dan Jones found at Sugarhouse Pond, so I headed over there, picking up a Swainson’s Hawk on the way.  She met me there and we scanned through hundreds of shorebirds trying to find that one little Redneck!  The light was perfect, and several other birds came quite close to the shoreline where we were standing, so we got good comparative looks at all three small peeps, lots of Stilt Sandpipers, and snappy-looking Avocets a little further out.  A single Roseate Spoonbill added some color while a long line of brown ducks (probably Blue-winged Teal) were further out.  Picked out a bug-eyed Least Grebe while scanning, and way out there were lots and lots of Wilson’s Phalaropes; normally, when they’re a little closer, a Red-necked is pretty easy to pick out, as they’re noticeably smaller and more distinctly marked than the paler Wilson’s, but at that distance (especially with the heat waves starting to kick in), it was practically a lost cause.  Thankfully the reported Ruddy Turnstones, which are rare in Hidalgo County, came wheeling in and gave us decent looks!

Joyce scours the shorebirds for the lost Red-necked Phalarope

One of many Stilt Sandpipers feeding close by

The unusually long bill of this Western Sandpiper indicates that it's probably a female

I initially ID'd this bird as a Semipalmated, but structurally it looks a little lanky; feedback welcome!

I felt comfortable calling this one a juvenile Semipalmated based on the scaly back and the little quivering call notes it was making, which I've only heard in recordings of Semipals.


View of Sugarhouse Pond and mass of birds

Two of the six reported juvenile Ruddy Turnstones


American Avocets


With Stilt Sandpipers behind

After awhile the heat started getting to us, so we called it quits and headed back home.  Bird List:

  Blue-winged Teal
  Wild Turkey                     
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Least Grebe                          
  Cattle Egret                         
  Roseate Spoonbill                    
  Black Vulture                        
  Turkey Vulture                       
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Swainson's Hawk                      
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  American Avocet                      
  Killdeer                             
  Upland Sandpiper                     
  Long-billed Curlew                   
  Ruddy Turnstone                      
  Stilt Sandpiper                      
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Semipalmated Sandpiper               
  Western Sandpiper                    
  Long-billed Dowitcher                
  Wilson's Phalarope                   
  Black Tern                           
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                             
  Common Ground-Dove                   
  Greater Roadrunner                   
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  Eastern Wood-Pewee                    
  Brown-crested Flycatcher             
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                            
  Horned Lark                          
  Purple Martin                        
  Bank Swallow                         
  Barn Swallow                         
  Cliff Swallow                        
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  Verdin                               
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Cactus Wren                          
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Yellow Warbler                       
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Lark Sparrow                         
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Pyrrhuloxia                           
  Dickcissel                           
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bullock's Oriole                     
  Baltimore Oriole                     
  Lesser Goldfinch                      
  House Sparrow                        

65 SPECIES