Thursday, September 8, 2016

Guiding the Guide

9/6/16

Bird Fairs are a great way to meet new friends, and Keith and Audrey did exactly that at the British Bird Fair when they met Ian Saville, co-owner of Wrybill Birding Tours of New Zealand!  (His company's claim to fame was rediscovering the New Zealand Storm-Petrel after being written off as extinct for over 100 years!)  "Sav" and his wife were coming to the States anyway, so they decided to take a swing down to the LRGV and fill in some gaps in his North American list!

Sav's "want list" was pretty straight forward, targeting the common "Valley specialties", so we started pre-dawn at Bentsen where several things were tantalizingly calling but not wanting to show themselves:  Couch's Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and even Green Jays played hide-and-seek until the sun broke over the horizon and gave us some light!  Dickcissels earned the name "Dotcissels" as they flew overhead giving their "brat" calls!  Chachalacas were a bit more cooperative (especially a family that was right overhead as we started out), but unfortunately one of the best targets, a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, called once in the distance and then never called again.  A Gray Hawk posed briefly (twice) on a dead tree, and at the Resaca we heard Least Bitterns and got barely passable views of his first Kiskadee, but it was rather quiet.  When a pair of Clay-colored Thrushes shot through and I calmly pointed them out, he nearly fainted - he didn't realize that they're pretty much a "backyard bird" now! 

We headed back via the Kiskadee Trail (where an Olive Sparrow miraculously hopped out onto the trail) and Acacia Loop (hoping for another shot at the Gray Hawk), and I was frankly feeling disappointed at the lack of cooperative birds when I heard some Groove-billed Anis a bit past our turnoff, so we headed down the loop a little, and before long a whole family group gave crippling looks!  (Unfortunately I had left my camera in the car...)  The bird action actually picked up a bit on the way back to the parking lot, with a Roadrunner that came out onto the road in response to my coo, a magnificent Ringed Kingfisher flying right overhead, Cave Swallows at the bridge (I heard a distant Black Phoebe but he didn't need that one J), and finally a Buff-bellied Hummingbird in the gardens!  While we were waiting for the hummingbird to show up, an Upland Sandpiper called overhead, sending Sav running around the corner to try and spot it, which he did!  We also had a tree full of orioles which included three species:  Baltimore, Hooded, and Orchard!

When I asked him the day before if he was "into" butterflies, he said he was, so I figured a visit to the National Butterfly Center was in order:  not only do they have feeders where more of his target species would probably appear, but a report of not one, but TWO Mercurial Skippers had ME chomping at the bit to at least try for them!  We flushed a Bobwhite heading down to the "old gardens", but we didn't spend a whole lot of time carefully "grooming" the jasmine tree where one of the rare skippers had shown up as birds were the priority.  I did point out some common things like Fiery Skipper, Giant Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary, and Brown Longtail, but the Clavipes Sphinx took the prize!  Snouts were all over the place, and he mentioned that most every car and truck coming down the highway from Galveston was stopping to clean their windshields of the hapless little buggers!  The feeders came through for us, with lots of Green Jays, a cooperative White-tipped Dove, a couple of Black-crested Titmice shooting in and out, and finally a young Altamira Oriole allowing a brief view.

Clavipes Sphinx

From there the plan was to head to Anzalduas County Park via the levee road, but as we poked down Old Military Highway Sav suddenly knocked on my dashboard - I thought he was warning me about the state trooper parked on the side ahead of us, but he had seen TWO Ringed Kingfishers perched on the wire in front of us - he was just so excited he couldn't get it out! J We actually had another Gray Hawk along the levee (that didn't stay put) and unsuccessfully tried to lure out a Long-billed Thrasher, but did get some nice looks at migrating Eastern Kingbirds.  When we got to the park we discovered it was closed due to storm damage!  It was still cool to show him the Rio Grande and Mexico across the way, however...

That actually worked out for the best, as that allowed us to continue on to Quinta Mazatl├ín, where despite the heat we could somewhat escape within the trails!  More Chachalacas greeted us, and a thrush-like "chup" got us onto a motionless but beat-up Clay-colored Thrush!  The Green Parakeets were long gone from the new trail, but we got plenty of Inca Doves, and just before the visitor's center we came across a Guava Skipper that I insisted he "needed" for his butterfly list! J Near the feeders we heard a hawk calling overhead, so I ran out into the open to try and spot it, and initially found a Mississippi Kite WAY up there, but that certainly wasn't what was calling!  Sav spotted it - a nice Swainson's Hawk!  No specialty odes were at the pond, but on the way back to the main road Sav spotted his life Canada Warbler, along with a Black-and-white doing its "nuthatch" thing!

"Sav" in the Quinta Mazatlán parking lot

Clay-colored Thrush

Guava Skipper

Near the pond

Dropped him off for "siesta" after that, and at 5:00 his wife Jody joined us for a trip to Estero Llano Grande State Park!  But first, a stop at the Progresso Silos was in order, as Bronzed Cowbird was another target bird!  Bagged that one easily enough (along with tons of House Sparrows), then headed up to Estero.  The saying, "Estero Never Disappoints" was sure evident this afternoon, as the light was just perfect for viewing waterbirds in Ibis Pond, and in short order we got his target Least Grebes, along with both yellowlegs, dowitchers, stilts, Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinules, and a posing Black-bellied Whistling Duck!  Swallows were all over:  mostly Banks, but also a few Barns and Roughwings, and Sav spotted a Tree.  A few minutes at the hummingbird feeders got another Buff-bellied, along with a young male Ruby-throated showing just a couple of red feathers!

Jody and Sav at Estero

Least Grebes

Ibis Pond

Common Gallinule

Shy Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Young male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Heading over to Alligator Lake, we checked out Dowitcher Pond quickly but only found a family of Black-bellied Whistlers.  Grebe Marsh had a Spotted Sandpiper, and what I thought was another one turned out to be a Solitary Sandpiper!  After the turnoff we found two Yellow-crowned Night Herons, and at the new overlook there Sav spotted his Green Kingfisher!  The Pauraque hunt was next, and I was sweating a little as he wasn't in his usual spot right next to the trail, but after going around to the "back" trail, I miraculously spotted him in a position where great looks were had by all!  (Sometimes he'll sit facing you all hunkered down in some roots...)  We didn't think much could beat that, but the screech owl box had not one, but TWO little Eastern Screech Owls peeking out of the hole!  I told Sav to put this one "in the bank", as they may split it in the future! 

Solitary Sandpiper

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Pauraque

"McCall's" Screech Owl twins

No Alligators at the overlook (or much else for that matter), so we headed back to the parking lot, where Sav decided to give the parrot roost a try after all!  A young Harris' Hawk sat on a pole on the way out, but it was getting pretty late (and we did have nighthawks of unknown species batting overhead), so cruising through the suburbs of Weslaco proved fruitless (except for a low-flying Chimney Swift), so we decided to call it a day.  My list was 88 (and Sav saw a couple I didn't), so our combined list was probably well over 90 for the day (right along with the temperature)!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Blue-winged Teal                     
  Plain Chachalaca                     
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Least Grebe                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Least Bittern                        
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Little Blue Heron                    
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Green Heron                          
  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron           
  Black Vulture                        
  Mississippi Kite                     
  Harris's Hawk                        
  Gray Hawk                            
  Swainson's Hawk                      
  Common Gallinule                      
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  Killdeer                             
  Spotted Sandpiper                    
  Solitary Sandpiper                   
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Lesser Yellowlegs                    
  Upland Sandpiper                     
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Long-billed Dowitcher                
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  Common Ground-Dove                   
  White-tipped Dove                    
  Yellow-billed Cuckoo                 
  Greater Roadrunner                   
  Groove-billed Ani                    
  Eastern Screech-Owl                  
  Common Pauraque                      
  Chimney Swift                        
  Ruby-throated Hummingbird            
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Ringed Kingfisher                    
  Green Kingfisher                     
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet        
  Eastern Wood-Pewee                   
  Black Phoebe                         
  Great Crested Flycatcher             
  Brown-crested Flycatcher             
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Couch's Kingbird                     
  Eastern Kingbird                     
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                            
  Northern Rough-winged Swallow        
  Bank Swallow                         
  Barn Swallow                         
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  Verdin                               
  Carolina Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Clay-colored Thrush                  
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  Black-and-white Warbler              
  Yellow Warbler                        
  Canada Warbler                       
  Olive Sparrow                        
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Dickcissel                           
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Orchard Oriole                       
  Hooded Oriole                        
  Altamira Oriole                      
  Baltimore Oriole                     
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                        

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Birder Patrol Trip to Boca Chica

8/27/16

About a dozen people gathered to take a cruise down Boca Chica Boulevard for some coastal plain and beach specialties!  Norma led the way out of Stripes on Ruben Torres, but at the road construction we lost the two lead cars, and Pat and I followed by Alan and Baceliza ended up following a pickup going east and eventually down a little dirt road called Medford that had a great little wetland that was stuffed with stuff, including a Wood Stork!  Someone got on the horn and had the other two cars come over, and as it turned out, this was the little spot that Alicia had wanted us to stop at on the way!  Several kinds of herons and shorebirds fed, including all three common peeps, lots of juvenile Common Gallinules, a young Gull-billed Tern, and our only Wilson's Phalaropes of the day!  In the songbird department we had Loggerhead Shrike, Tropical Kingbird, a Curve-billed Thrasher, and a singing Carolina Wren, while a Ringed Kingfisher flew overhead

Waders along Medford Road

Great Egrets, Wood Stork, and Great Blue Herons

Gang trying to see the birds through the fence...

On we went, and I encouraged Norma to lead again as she and Alicia are the better spotters! :-)  We stopped at the hacking station just past the Border Patrol checkpoint, but unfortunately had no Aplomado Falcons; in fact, it was rather quiet at that stop.

So on we went to the viewing platform in the National Wildlife Refuge, where quite a few things were singing but very little showed themselves:  Botteri's Sparrows, a Roadrunner, White-eyed Vireos, Bewick's Wrens, and Verdin were all present but uncooperative.  An empid of some kind did pop up, but we couldn't tell which at that distance (except that it wasn't a Yellow-bellied).

Heading down the dirt road we had a large flock of White-faced Ibis fly overhead, plus lots of Eastern Meadowlarks flushing.  Both Barn and Cliff Swallows fed low over a little marsh, and an Upland Sandpiper flew overhead unseen.  Turning the corner into the thornscrub, I drove around the next corner to take a "break" where a Roadrunner was standing in the middle of the road and a family of Groove-billed Anis flew across!  Heading back to the gang Norma put out her hand to indicate that they had something, and as I walked up, they thought they had a Yellow-green Vireo!  Most of us never saw the bird, but they felt confident about the ID based on what they saw.  A couple of Yellow Warblers showed up across the road, and a sharp pit alerted us to the presence of an Alder Flycatcher, which soon popped up for all to see!  Thankfully another family of anis crossed the road, so everyone got to see them.  On the way out a beautiful Eastern Kingbird posed, and a White-tailed Hawk flew by in the distance.

Eastern Kingbird (also below)


From there we headed to "Dan's Road," but not before stopping for a load of shorebirds (in the sun of course), where we managed to pick out a couple of Snowy Plovers along with a Semipalmated, several dowitchers, some Reddish Egrets, and a couple of Horned Larks.  Heading down Dan's Road to the river we picked up a squealing Royal Tern and a Neotropic Cormorant for the day along with a Spotted Sandpiper, and since Dan had reported Seaside Sparrows last month down the "bad" part of the road (which at the moment actually looked pretty good), we decided to brave it and head down!  There was quite the hump to get over at one point, and we marveled later at the fact that Marilyn was able to get her Toyota Sierra over it, but we discovered later that she had found another route in... ;-)  We found the mangroves, but no sparrows; I think we had a Long-billed Curlew in here, and Pat spotted a nighthawk snoozing on a branch while Norma spotted a female Belted Kingfisher that the rest of us missed, but that was about it.

"Dan's Road"

The gang looks for Seaside Sparrows

Bumping back out we finally made it down to the beach, where only Pat and I in "Heppy" (my new Forrster) and Alan and Baceliza followed almost down to the mouth of the river (some had to go home, and Norma and her crew wanted to look for sea beans).  It was actually quite productive, with lots of Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Piping Plovers, a couple of Wilson's, and the real prize - four American Oystercatchers!  On the way back we scared up a Ghost Crab that was a big hit, along with a couple of juvenile Least Terns. 

Wilson's Plover

American Oystercatchers

Ghost Crab

Photo op...

Piping Plover

Black-bellied Plover

We called it a day after that, having much better looks at all the Harris' Hawks we had passed on the way down!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Blue-winged Teal                      
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Wood Stork                           
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Brown Pelican                        
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Little Blue Heron                    
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Reddish Egret                        
  White Ibis                           
  White-faced Ibis                      
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Harris's Hawk                        
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Common Gallinule                     
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  American Oystercatcher               
  Black-bellied Plover                 
  Snowy Plover                         
  Wilson's Plover                      
  Semipalmated Plover                  
  Piping Plover                        
  Killdeer                              
  Spotted Sandpiper                    
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Willet                               
  Lesser Yellowlegs                     
  Upland Sandpiper                     
  Long-billed Curlew                   
  Ruddy Turnstone                      
  Sanderling                           
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Semipalmated Sandpiper               
  Western Sandpiper                    
  Short-billed Dowitcher               
  Wilson's Phalarope                   
  Laughing Gull                        
  Ring-billed Gull                     
  Least Tern                           
  Gull-billed Tern                     
  Royal Tern                           
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  Mourning Dove                        
  Common Ground-Dove                    
  Yellow-billed Cuckoo                 
  Greater Roadrunner                   
  Groove-billed Ani                    
  Common Nighthawk                      
  Ringed Kingfisher 
  [Belted Kingfisher]                   
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Crested Caracara                     
  Alder Flycatcher                     
  Brown-crested Flycatcher             
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Eastern Kingbird                     
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo 
  [Yellow-green Vireo]                    
  Horned Lark                          
  Barn Swallow                         
  Cliff Swallow                         
  Verdin                               
  Carolina Wren                        
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Yellow Warbler                        
  Botteri's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Blue Grosbeak                        
  Dickcissel                           
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                        

84 Species

Friday, August 19, 2016

Where to Find Butterflies in the LRGV


The Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) isn’t just a hotbed of unique birds for the United States, but for butterflies (and other critters) as well!  Just as birders flock to the Valley in hopes of seeing lifers and rarities, the same holds true for butterfly watchers who come in search of Mexican butterflies that reach the northern limits of their range here in south Texas, but also in hopes of that rare stray that may wander across the border!

Good butterflying is possible any time of year in the Valley, but normally the best time is October and November, with January and February generally being the poorest.  This year the butterflying was particularly good in July, after we had gotten significant rainfall in June.  Relatively large numbers of otherwise rare species (like Banded Peacock and Polydamus Swallowtail) were showing up, and no less than three Erato Heliconians (normally a mega-rarity) showed up simultaneously at different locations!  Even now in mid-August (with 100-degree temperatures and no rain to speak of), good butterflies are still showing up.

Banded Peacock, Bentsen Rio Grande SP

Polydamus Swallowtail, Estero Llano Grande SP

Erato Heliconian, Bentsen Rio Grande SP

There are many excellent places to look for butterflies, my favorite being the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission:  the gardens and native habitats are extensive, and the new “experimental gardens” in the “back yard” of the visitor center are attracting some great butterflies!  Just recently we found Zilpa and White-striped Longtails, Coyote Cloudywing, Mangrove Buckeye, Dingy Purplewing, Many-banded Daggerwing, and Guatemalan Cracker among the more common Mexican Bluewings, Tawny Emperors, and ever-present Queens and large sulphurs! 

Coyote Cloudywing, NBC

Dingy Purplewing, NBC

Guatemalan Cracker, NBC

Zilpa Longtail, NBC

Large Orange Sulphur, Falcon SP

Many-banded Daggerwing, NBC

Mexican Bluewing, NBC

Queen, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands

Tawny Emperor, NBC

Tropical Buckeye, NBC

White-striped Longtail, NBC

Nearby Bentsen Rio Grande State Park also has extensive butterfly gardens, not only near the visitor’s center but also at the Nature Center and near Kingfisher Overlook.  Over the years Bentsen has hosted many rarities including Four-eyed Sailor, Ornythion Swallowtail, and Common Banner.  Rare hairstreaks have included White and Yojoa Scrub, Marius, Strophius, and even a super-rare Aquamarine!  Many butterfliers will check out the plantings along Bentsen Palm Drive near Retama Village; on one visit with friends we found a rare Ruddy Hairstreak!

Common Banner, Bentsen SP

Four-eyed Sailor, Bentsen SP

Marius Hairstreak, Bentsen SP

Ornythion Swallowtail, Bentsen

Ruddy Hairstreak, Bentsen Palm Drive

White Scrub Hairstreak, Bentsen SP

If you want to head out to Starr County looking for Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater, the butterfly garden at Falcon State Park is worth checking:  some butterflies that prefer a drier climate may be easier to find here, like Nysa Roadside Skipper and Desert Checkered Skipper.  Although they could potentially show up anywhere, I’ve had several “one and onlies” at this garden, including Curve-winged Metalmark, Lacey’s Scrub-Hairstreak, and Green-backed Rubyeye.

Desert Checkered Skipper, Falcon SP

Green-backed Rubyeye, Falcon SP

Nysa Roadside Skipper, Falcon SP

The coastal areas host a handful of species not normally seen inland:  Resaca de la Palma State Park is famous for its Blue Metalmarks, Band-celled Sisters, Orange-barred Sulphurs, and Boisduval’s Yellows!  The Xami Hairstreak favors low-lying succulents that can be found along Old Port Isabel Road and Boca Chica Boulevard, and the Sabal Palm Sanctuary also has a butterfly garden where you might find Double-dotted and Obscure Skippers.  Definite Patch has been found at the Palo Alto State Historic Site, and the gardens near the visitor center at Laguna Atascosa can also have Blue Metalmarks, along with more widespread species.

Band-celled Sister, Bentsen SP

Blue Metalmark, Resaca de la Palma SP

Boisduval's Yellow, Resaca de la Palma SP

Double-dotted Skipper, Sabal Palm Sanctuary

Obscure Skipper, South Padre Island

Orange-barred Sulphur, Resaca de la Palma SP

Other good butterfly spots that I enjoy frequenting include the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, where I once had an Erato Heliconian, but also more expected specialties like Julia Heliconian and Cyna Blue.  Further north, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a great little place with extensive gardens and can be a good place to find the knock-out Guava Skipper.  In Weslaco, both Estero Llano Grande State Park and Frontera Audubon Thicket have excellent butterfly gardens; rarities that have shown up at Estero include Mexican Silverspot and Dark Kite Swallowtail.  Frontera is famous for being a rare bird trap, but strays such as Tailed Aguna and the uncommon Teleus Longtail have shown up here.

Cyna Blue, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse

Guava Skipper, Estero Llano Grande SP

Julia Heliconian, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse

Mexican Silverspot, Estero Llano Grande SP

Tailed Aguna, Frontera Audubon Thicket

Some of the other birding hotspots are also good for butters, but require a little more walking; these areas include Santa Ana NWR and the Yturrias Tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR (although I would encourage taking a buddy if exploring this area, as it is remote). The garden at 101 South 7th Place is part of Alamo Inn B&B Gears and Tours; it has 107 species of butterflies and counting, including specialties such as Polydamas Swallowtail and Theona Checkerspot.  We even had a super-rare Orion Cecropia show up!

Theona Checkerspot, Falcon SP

Wherever you choose to search for butterflies, never forget to appreciate even the common, widespread, and beautiful lepidoptera that call the LRGV their home!