Friday, June 8, 2018

Goin' With the Flow


Clayton, a journalist with Texas Highways, wanted to write an article about the Valley, found our hotel, and booked a room and a guide (me)! J  Neither she nor her photographer Kenny were birders, but their purpose was to do a “go with the flow” type of trip to the Valley (no GPS, and no technology – just reading the maps the old fashioned way J), and seeing Santa Ana was high on their list.  So we took off very early this morning to beat the heat!

We even beat the automatic gate going in J, but as I warned them, we’d probably hear a lot more than we’d see this time of year!  So I tried to point out what I was hearing:  White-winged and White-tipped Doves, Clay-colored Thrushes, and Olive Sparrows were amongst the early-morning songsters, and as we got out of the car a Chachalaca posed on a tree (which was also big on Clayton’s “wish list”), but didn’t stay around for a scope view…  

It was just after sunrise when we got there, so Kenny wanted to try and get some early morning shots in an open area, so we headed to Pintail Lakes first.  It was a beautiful morning and was actually quite pleasant to start; going over the levee we had a pair of Roseate Spoonbills fly past, and once out in the open and by the lakes a pair of Mottled Ducks greeted us first off (but again, didn’t stick around for scope views), and an adult and immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron posed on some dead branches.  A pretty Black-bellied Whistling Duck sat out in the lake, so we scoped him while Kenny took pictures of us enjoying the duck! J  

On the Pintail Lakes Trail

Clayton and Kenny

A Common Ground Dove sang and then darted past, but then I heard a Ringed Kingfisher call, so we hightailed it down to the last lake (also to get the sun to our backs) and were greeted with lots more night herons!  Each lake is numbered (and I keep forgetting which is which L), but the lake we ended up at had lots of Pied-billed Grebes on the nest, trumpeting Least Grebes, both Neotropic Cormorants and an Anhinga drying their wings, and Black-necked Stilts flying overhead!  Both Tropical Kingbird and Great Kiskadee gave us scope looks, and before long I heard a Blue Grosbeak singing – and there he was, right on top!  What a looker!  

Yellow-crowned Night Heron on the trail...

...and on the wood!
The kingfisher was in a tree along the trail, but obscured by branches, and as we tried to get closer he took off, but thankfully landed on a branch across the pond which was actually in great light!  So everyone got scope looks at him before he took off and showed off his lovely chestnut underparts!  Both Great Egrets and a Great Blue Heron flew in; Clayton relayed a story where one seemed to follow them all the way down the Guadalupe River on a boat trip!  I heard an ani, but never could spot him, telling my charges that he looks kinda like a grackle with a big schnozz!

Clayton enjoying scope views of the Ringed Kingfisher

We headed back after that, enjoying a pair of Blue-winged Teal that had joined the Mottled Ducks and a female Marl Pennant (until told otherwise) watching us from a stem!  Some Lesser Goldfinches fed in some sunflowers along the main trail, and taking the cutoff trail back to the tour road bagged us a pair of Altamira Orioles!  Up on the road a Beardless Tyrannulet called loud and clear, but as per usual wouldn’t let us get a look… L  We were on our way to the Willow Lakes connector trail and enjoying a Yellow-billed Cuckoo when the Rare Bird Alert went off on my phone:  a Mexican Violetear (which had initially shown up the day before at Quinta Mazatlan) had reappeared!  When I told them how rare this bird was (a life bird for me, definitely) and suggested they may want to write about chasing a rarity as part of the “birding culture” (plus the fact that the mansion itself has such a great history), they were very game!  So we double-timed it back to the car and headed to Quinta Mazatlan!

Female Marl Pennant

Kenny getting some photo ops

We found a spot in the almost-full parking lot, and right away the Chachalacas were doing their thing right there in the lot, spreading the morning news!  A Clay-colored Thrush zipped in while a Curve-billed Thrasher fed on the ground, but we quickly headed in, checked in, then found the clearing behind the amphitheater where the bird had been hanging out.  My friend Pat and I had zipped over the previous day and dipped (Keith gave his blessing to take a long lunch hour J), but we saw old friends, and practically the same crowd was back today!  The bird wasn’t visible when we walked up, but we gave it about 15 minutes before exploring the rest of the place, and in good journalist fashion, Clayton “interviewed” Mary G., Lizee C., and I think even Simon K. a little!  I had explained that this bird was a recent “split”:  what used to be known as Green Violetear – ranging from Mexico down into South America – was now the Mexican Violetear (for the birds in Mexico down to Honduras) and Lesser Violetear (everything south of there).  I wasn’t sure what the split was based on, so Mary gave us a rundown on the subtle differences in plumage and vocalizations.  In the meantime we enjoyed a little female Black-chinned Hummer that came in, and a family of Chachalacas that came right out on the road!  

After a while the group broke up while we waited out the 15 minutes, hearing a Hooded Oriole sing and a cowbird rattle (Clayton didn’t think very highly of their parasitic habits)!  After said 15 minutes I took my charges on a stroll around the main trail, where we had more closeup looks at Chachalacas, a family of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and a baby Curve-billed Thrasher being chased by an adult!  Clayton enjoyed the animal statutes (in case you didn’t see the real thing J).  We were just coming out of the Ebony Grove where I had been showing them the Green Parakeet nesting trees area when another alert came over my phone – the bird was back!  So we zipped back over there (along with everyone else who had gotten the alert) and again, the bird was gone by the time we got there… L  But this time he didn’t stay away long: I think both Mary and Lizee announced at once that they had the bird, and this time he posed just beautifully!  I eventually got the scope on him, and Clayton was just delighted with this sparkling little guy!  Even Kenny was able to get a digiscoped picture (which he immediately posted on Facebook J)! 

Clayton enjoying the statuary

A young Ladder-backed Woodpecker entertains us with its acrobatics!

Back at the watch site, Lizee, Mary, and Simon enjoy the vagrant Mexican Violetear (below)!

After that Clayton and Kenny explored the old mansion while the rest of us continued to enjoy the violetear, then eventually called it a day.  We had a modest 60 species for the morning, but you couldn’t beat the quality!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Mottled Duck                         
  Blue-winged Teal                     
  Plain Chachalaca                     
  Least Grebe                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron           
  Roseate Spoonbill                    
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Common Gallinule                     
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                     
  Mourning Dove                        
  Common Ground-Dove                   
  White-tipped Dove                    
  Yellow-billed Cuckoo                 
  Groove-billed Ani                    
  Chimney Swift                         
  Mexican Violetear                    
  Black-chinned Hummingbird            
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Ringed Kingfisher                    
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet        
  Brown-crested Flycatcher             
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Couch's Kingbird                     
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                            
  Purple Martin                        
  Bank Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  Carolina Wren                         
  Clay-colored Thrush                  
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Common Yellowthroat                   
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Blue Grosbeak                        
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Brown-headed Cowbird                 
  Hooded Oriole                        
  Altamira Oriole                      
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                        


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Surveying McAllen Nature Center & Edinburg Scenic Wetlands


I had been wanting to “survey” the resurrected McAllen Nature Center for a while, and finally was able to get over there last Saturday!  When I first visited the place in 2006 (when I still lived in San Diego), I definitely got a “creepy” feeling, and come to find out the place was a hangout for drug dealers and other nefarious sorts, and eventually the park was closed.  After I moved to Texas, the area was threatened to be turned into a tennis court, but thankfully the citizens voted to keep the acreage as a nature park and restore it to its previous beauty.  The “new and improved” McAllen Nature Center is now a beautiful and safe place to bird, with many volunteers manning the entrance and the park during the day (and a patrol at night, I understand), with butterfly gardens, feeder areas (stocked during the winter), and good trails through the thornscrub.  A fence now separates the nature center from the larger city park next door, so that also helps in keeping out the riff-raff.  Near this fence is a nice little patch of marshy reeds; while I had no water birds there Saturday, the Cave Swallows were obviously nesting under the culvert as they came out in droves!

Wetland near the center

But I’m getting ahead of myself:  they technically open at eight, but I left Alamo at seven with plans to bird the area outside the parking lot (also fenced off) until they opened.  There’s a canal running parallel to the entrance road, and in here I had a Yellow-crowned Night Heron and a female Green Kingfisher!  The crew actually showed up early, so I wheeled in, parked, and headed down to the sign-in trailer; this road is bordered by tall woodland and on past trips was great for migrants.  After signing in (the park is free) I ran into Ernest, one of the naturalists there, who told me to be on the alert for “their” House Finches!  After that went and sat for five at a picnic table under a huge ebony (I think) and watched the Purple Martins playing around their apartments (along with a couple of House Sparrows).  A Clay-colored Thrush also apparently had a nest nearby as I watched it shoot past with nesting material!

Female Green Kingfisher

Clay-colored Thrush

Purple Martins (female on left below)

After that I headed into the thornscrub maze, where more “babies” showed themselves:  Curve-billed Thrashers were especially curious, and as I kept to the right, I came upon a “new” area that circled a more open patch of thornscrub where a Chachalaca came up to look at me curiously!  It was in this more open stuff that I heard a Blue Grosbeak as well.  Back in the thicker stuff a Long-billed Thrasher sat up top and sang, and it was fun to watch the White-tipped Doves strutting across the floor and cooing at one another as well.  One White-eyed Vireo finally showed himself, and a Common Ground Dove was at one cul-de-sac.  Even though there’s quite a bit of Cactus here, I was surprised to hear a Cactus Wren singing and scolding, as I expect them in areas where the cactus isn’t quite so isolated!  Out the other side and near the park fence, a Hooded Oriole “wheeped” from a palm tree.  One young man excitedly pointed to the area where he had seen a “Black Mambo”, and although it was long gone I assured him that what he had probably seen was a harmless Indigo Snake!

"Baby" Curve-billed Thrasher (note the fleshy gape mark)

White-tipped Dove

In mid-coo...

Another baby Curve-billed Thrasher, not quite as spotty as the other one

Long-billed Thrasher in full song

Circling back around, the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds liked the little butterfly garden, where not much was flying yet except a Brown Longtail and White Peacock.  There’s a trail up a hill that was new since my last visit, so I crawled up, hearing Ernest’s House Finch singing away in the palm at the top!  By the time I got up there he flew off with his mate, but it was basically a nice overlook with several benches to rest on.  Back down at the bottom, a Black-chinned Hummingbird sat briefly in a twig before I checked out another trail that went south towards the city park and emptied close to the aforementioned wetland with the reeds.

Best guess is a female/young Blue-ringed Dancer

White Peacock

From there I headed up to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, fully planning on surveying both the north and south sections, but by the time I got there it was so hot that I decided to stick with the north pond!  (I at least heard a Black-necked Stilt coming from the south pond, and had a Black-bellied Whistling Duck fly overhead…)  Despite the heat there were some nice birds; I made a loop around the perimeter and enjoyed the “tame” pair of Long-billed Thrashers bopping along the trail, then spotted a couple of Chachalacas deep in the scrub!  Along the “Forest Trail” a Groove-billed Ani flopped across the trail and gave me the looking over, then showed up again near the pond with some grackles!  A Green Heron was hiding close to the shoreline, while the east side of the pond was lined with the usual Neotropic Cormorants and Great and Snowy Egrets.  While sitting at the deck Ken Wilson wandered by and announced he had a Guava Skipper back on the tenaza!  (I couldn’t find the little bugger, though… L)  So continuing on to the next overlook, there seemed to be a little more action when all of a sudden a big mob of cormorants came in and started feeding, shortly joined by a White Pelican (which should be long gone by now, I would think)!  Down by the spillway a Forster’s Tern, plus two Gull-billed Terns, were batting around as well.

Lingering White Pelican

Decided to walk down the inner trail paralleling the canal and sat at the colorful children’s blind for a while; except for a bubbly White-eyed Vireo, it was deathly quiet until I pished, and then a female American Redstart popped up!  She definitely was supposed to be gone by now!  As I got up to leave a Green Kingfisher rattled from the canal.

Called it quits after that, but still took a quick look at the big pond at the east end of Doolittle Park where a few families were feeding the domestic ducks; another White Pelican was on the shore, but nothing else “wild” to add to the list.

Here are the eBird lists, first from McAllen Nature Center, and then from Edinburg Scenic Wetlands:

McAllen Nature Center (LTC 065), Hidalgo, Texas, US Jun 2, 2018 7:23 AM - 9:36 AM
Protocol: Traveling
2.085 mile(s)
Comments:     Start:  81 degrees, mostly sunny, breezy
36 species

Plain Chachalaca  7
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron  2
Inca Dove  3
Common Ground-Dove  2
White-tipped Dove  5
White-winged Dove  18
Mourning Dove  7
Black-chinned Hummingbird  1
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  2
Green Kingfisher  1
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  11
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  4
Brown-crested Flycatcher  5
Great Kiskadee  4
Tropical Kingbird  3
Couch's Kingbird  7
White-eyed Vireo  2
Purple Martin  16
Cave Swallow  12
Black-crested Titmouse  4
Cactus Wren  2
Clay-colored Thrush  2
Curve-billed Thrasher  6
Long-billed Thrasher  2
Northern Mockingbird  19
European Starling  4
Olive Sparrow  5
Northern Cardinal  10
Blue Grosbeak  1
Hooded Oriole  1
Bronzed Cowbird  1
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
Great-tailed Grackle  9
House Finch  2     Known location; male singing bubbly, finch song before flying off with mate.
Lesser Goldfinch  9
House Sparrow  11

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands WBC (LTC 061), Hidalgo, Texas, US Jun 2, 2018 10:00 AM - 11:35 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.184 mile(s)
Comments:     Start: 88 degrees, mostly sunny, breezy
35 species (+2 other taxa)

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  1
Muscovy Duck (Domestic type)  7
Mallard (Domestic type)  11
Plain Chachalaca  2
Neotropic Cormorant  52
American White Pelican  2
Great Egret  4
Snowy Egret  19
Green Heron  1
Turkey Vulture  1
Black-necked Stilt  1
Killdeer  1
Gull-billed Tern  2
Forster's Tern  1
Eurasian Collared-Dove  1
White-tipped Dove  1
White-winged Dove  1
Mourning Dove  2
Groove-billed Ani  1
Chimney Swift  1
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  4
Green Kingfisher  1
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  2
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  1
Great Kiskadee  2
Couch's Kingbird  2
White-eyed Vireo  3
Purple Martin  6
Curve-billed Thrasher  1
Long-billed Thrasher  3
Northern Mockingbird  4
American Redstart  1     Female type:  pale below, a little darker above, with pale orange patch in wings and tail
Olive Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  6
Great-tailed Grackle  14
Lesser Goldfinch  3
House Sparrow  13

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Birder Patrol's Wild Vireo Chase


The original plan for the monthly Bird Patrol trip was Port Mansfield, but in the meantime a rare Black-whiskered Vireo (BWVI) showed up at the South Padre Island Convention Centre!  Discussion amongst the core members was had, as the vireo had shown up early in the week and the trip wasn’t until Saturday – would it stick around?  History with Texas BWVIs suggested it wouldn’t, but the majority voted for South Padre anyway (there’s always something to see there regardless), and as it turned out, that was the better choice as the biggest fishing tournament of the year was to take place in Port Mansfield that day!

So meeting at the Jack-in-the-Box on Ed Carey in Harlingen, our group consisted of myself, Norma Friedrich, Sue Griffin and her hubby Billy Snider, Marilyn Vincent, Alicia Cavazos, and Linda DeRosiers (the latter two who met us there).  The bird hadn’t been reported since Wednesday, so we knew  we were taking a chance, and as we arrived we could tell right away that the place was gonna be pretty dead; about all that were around were grackles and mockingbirds (although I thought I heard an oriole at one point).  I mentioned that the BWVIs I had seen in Florida were almost always associated with mangroves, so we decided to head out there before it got too hot.

The Birder Patrol checking the back side

We definitely had more action there, although it was all of the waterbird kind (except for the Common Nighthawk batting around):  in the little flat to the north, we found a pair of Wilson’s Plovers along with two adorable babies!  A few Black-bellied Plovers and a Willet were also hanging around along with a few White Ibis, but nothing but blackbirds were in the mangroves.  Out on the pier we had a Pied-billed Grebe and a pair of Neotropic Cormorants, and Alicia spotted some Brown Pelicans way out there, but we ended up sitting under the shelter and schmoozing quite a bit! J  On the way back we tried to pick out what was in the “east pond” (always tough when you’re looking into the sun) and were entertained by several baby Black-necked Stilts, and adult White-rumped Sandpipers being chased by the parent stilts!  Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Reddish Egret, Common Gallinule, Great Blue and Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and a cackling Least Bittern were also added to the list (Billy was the only one to actually see the bittern, though).

Wilson's Plover

Neotropic Cormorant

Black-necked Stilt

Norma and Linda pose while Alicia checks out the plovers...

Baby Black-necked Stilt

With its reflection

Do I hear any "awwww"s yet??

Check out those legs!

After that Norma, Alicia, and Linda had to leave, so the rest of us piled in Marilyn’s van and headed to The Flats in order to give our feet a rest!  The birds weren’t as numerous as they normally are, but we added Royal, Caspian, Sandwich, and Least Terns to the list, as well as a dancing white morph Reddish Egret and a couple of Sanderlings.  After searching in vain for more plovers, we headed over to the Birding Center to use the restrooms and get a book Sue was looking for as a gift.  In the meantime we began chatting with Javi Gonzales, the staff naturalist (who inadvertently got interviewed by the Valley Morning Star while manning the front desk, so everyone was complimenting him on the article) and Stephanie Bilodeau, who was about ready to give a talk on the conservation of coastal birds, so we stayed and listened, but not before taking a peek out back into the wetlands and enjoying a pair of Black-bellied Whistling and Mottled Ducks in great light! J  She shared how her organization (the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program) is monitoring the nesting birds that are dependent upon coastal habitat (especially the local Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers), and it was very informative (and the baby plovers provided a cuteness overdose… J)!

Royal Terns on The Flats

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at the Birding Center

Mottled Duck (with his "muddy duck" mate below)

From there we decided to go to the gang’s favorite lunch place, El Papa’s in Port Isabel (and witnessing the traffic coming onto SPI we realized we were leaving just in time), for their fried shrimp fix, and it was a delightful little place!  After lunch we headed down SR 48 to the famous boat ramp, picking up several Chihuahuan Ravens on the way, but alas, there were no oystercatchers about, although we did have a very cooperative Ruddy Turnstone and enjoyed several Black Skimmers sailing around!  Heading back into Port Isabel I think I was the only one to see the Harris’ Hawk on the pole…

Ruddy Turnstone

Showing the streaks on the cap

Snowy Egret

We were going to head back to Ed Carey from there, but while traveling along SR 100 I asked the gang if they knew where this Laguna Vista Nature Park was, as every time I’d try to find it I’d get lost! L  They had, but couldn’t remember how to get there, so we went on a “wild park chase”, first turning north on Mesquite from SR 100, but then realizing we were gonna hit the main drag before finding a park, we made a left on Taylor, and where it T’d with Palm, there it was in front of us (and to the left a little)!  But as we pulled in the caliche lot, Billy saw the paved parking lot across the way and said, “That’s where we parked!”  So from there we headed straight up Palm to Broadway (the road I had originally turned onto from FM 510 where I was told to “turn left after the library and before the church”), hung a left, and continued on Broadway, thinking that would swing around and take us there!  Well, I quickly realized that was the mistake I had originally made wandering around that neighborhood and not being able to find it, so we turned around, tried hanging a right on unmarked Fresno, then another right where it T’d on Palo Blanco, and there it was!  This is a spot that has gotten rave reviews that I always wanted to take our guests to, but could never find it, and I was so happy and thankful to Marilyn for being willing to take this detour!  (Then we had to plot the course going backwards:  after making the turn past the library, you take the second left – Palo Blanco – and just go to the end!)

From there we decided to explore some more and took Ted Hunt north to the newly renovated General Brandt Road; we stopped at a sorghum field to see if any Dickcissels were singing, but it was dead quiet in almost 100-degree temps!  We added Loggerhead Shrike on the way up, but we could find no hawks, and the resacas were bone dry.  So taking the detour around Rio Hondo, we made a brief stop at Lantana Lake on Sam Houston, where we added Avocet, Stilt Sandpiper, and a lovely Wilson’s Phalarope to the list.

Finally made it back to the JITB after a wonderful day of birding; even though the species list was scanty (compared to what you usually get after an outing to SPI), the fellowship was great!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Mottled Duck                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Brown Pelican                        
  Least Bittern                        
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                           
  Snowy Egret                          
  Reddish Egret                        
  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron           
  White Ibis                           
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Harris's Hawk                         
  Common Gallinule                     
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  American Avocet                      
  Black-bellied Plover                 
  Wilson's Plover                      
  Lesser Yellowlegs                    
  Ruddy Turnstone                      
  Stilt Sandpiper                      
  White-rumped Sandpiper               
  Short-billed Dowitcher               
  Wilson's Phalarope                   
  Laughing Gull                        
  Least Tern                           
  Caspian Tern                         
  Royal Tern                            
  Sandwich Tern                        
  Black Skimmer                        
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  Mourning Dove                        
  Common Nighthawk                      
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Crested Caracara                     
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  Chihuahuan Raven                     
  Purple Martin                        
  Barn Swallow                         
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  Common Yellowthroat                  
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  House Sparrow