Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Collecting Friday Birds


Last Friday I took visiting birder Barry from Kirkland, Washington (who had been birding on his own the whole week before) up to the La Sal del Rey area to look for sparrow-type things (and he really wanted to see a Pyrrhuloxia, too).  Turns out he keeps up a blog as well, so he very kindly allowed me to post it here, giving me a bit of a reprieve!  (He sends these out to friends and family, hence the occasional reference to past posts...)  I may put in an "Editor's Note" here and there to clarify things... :-) 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Today was an excellent day of birding, and a very long one.  I had hired a bird guide for the day, and she picked me up at 9 this morning.  I got back here to my room at 7 PM, so it was a ten hour birding day for me today.  It was somewhat overcast this morning, which held the heat down.  It got up into the low 80’s by the end of the afternoon, but I did pretty well with the heat.  Our plan today was to be in the car most of the time, with frequent stops to get out and listen and look for birds.  My guide, Mary Beth, is excellent at hearing and recognizing bird calls, and she heard about twice as many birds as I counted.  That is, two times as many species – probably ten times as many individual birds or more.

We headed north out of McAllen into the boonies and started our day along Brushline Road.  Here is a picture of one part of Brushline Road, to give an idea of the habitat we were in.

It was very dry for the most part.  To finish setting the scene, here is my guide, Mary Beth.

One of the birds I had wanted to see was PYRRHULOXIA, a relative of cardinals.  We saw them a number of times, and this was the best picture I got a [male] Pyrrhuloxia.

I had only seen that species 2 or maybe 3 times before, and I’m sure I saw more today than all the ones I had ever seen previously. 

We saw a lot of Crested Caracaras today, and here is a picture of one that posed for us.

I didn’t need it for Friday because I had seen them a week ago over near Brownsville, but I think they are a handsome bird, so I like getting pictures of them.  [Ed. note:  Barry keeps "day birds" lists in order to keep the game interesting!]  Here is another Crested Caracara that we saw later in a field.

So, there you have the front view and the back view of Crested Caracara.

We saw dozens of Mourning Doves, and I needed that one for Friday.  We heard and saw HOUSE WREN several times, which I liked, but I never got a picture.  As a reminder, when I show a species in ALL CAPS, it means it is the first time I’ve seen that species this year.

A bird I have struggled with has been White-eyed Vireo.  I recorded it twice, but I really wanted a better look.  We never saw one today, but Mary Beth heard them a number of times, and one time I heard it sing very clearly, several times.  It is a distinctive enough song that I counted it as a heard only bird today.  We also heard CACTUS WRENS several times, and one time I heard one very clearly, several times.  It is a distinctive song that I know, so that one went onto my year list as “heard only”.

At one stop we heard and saw three SANDHILL CRANES flying over the road.  I wish I had been able to get a picture, but I’m using my old 30X zoom camera and I’m not used to it, so it takes me a long time to get ready to take a picture.  I missed my broken 50X zoom camera today.  When I get home, a new camera is high on my list.

Another bird I really wanted to see was White-tailed Hawk.  I had only seen that species three times before today, and we saw them several times today.  Here is a picture of one overhead. 

Mary Beth heard thrashers at various stops, and I saw both Long-billed Thrasher and Curve-billed Thrasher before the day was over, both excellent Friday birds.  We had Lark Sparrow several times and a couple of American White Pelicans flew around ahead of us and gave us good views.  At a pond Mary Beth spotted a Greater Yellowlegs, so that one went on my Friday list.  On our way back, by that same pond, I spotted my first HERMIT THRUSH of the year, and got this picture of it.

I think the blurry line down through the picture to the left of center was due to the wire in a fence, way out of focus.  Either that or it was a branch.

We saw a GREATER ROADRUNNER run across the road ahead of us, thus fulfilling its name.  Another of the species I had especially wanted to see was BLACK VULTURE, and finally we got onto a group of 4 or 5 of them.  I got one mediocre picture of one overhead, good enough to identify the species, anyway.

We saw WILD TURKEYS three separate times – two groups of about a dozen and one smaller group of 3 or 4.  Here are some of the Wild Turkeys.

We saw Loggerhead Shrikes 3 or 4 times, and here are the two best pictures I got, front and back.

I missed my broken 50X zoom camera today, but this old one did a satisfactory job as a backup.

Mary Beth had heard of a report of a flycatcher out on one of the roads we were on, and it is uncommon to rare out here.  We actually found it and got pictures of the SAY’S PHOEBE.

We had a group of Western Meadowlarks at one or two points, and I needed that one for Friday.  We also had a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK give us a good close flight view, but there wasn’t time for a picture before it was gone.

We saw and heard Yellow-rumped Warblers a number of times, and Mary Beth heard a Couch’s Kingbird at one point, and eventually we were able to entice it to fly in closer and I got an excellent look at it.  We also saw a couple of Common Ground-Doves at one point, so that one went onto my Friday list, too.

So, that was most of our long day of birding.  It was about 5:15 by then, and we needed to head for the parakeet roost, so I could get an almost-lifer.

At the McAllen parakeet roost we got there just in time to see the GREEN PARAKEETS lining the wires near the intersection where they were supposed to be.  There must have been 5 or 6 dozen of them, and more nearby.  The light was poor by then, and we were looking up into the sky at a distance, because the wires they were on were high ones, but I took some pictures.  The pictures are pretty crappy, but at least they show this almost-lifer that I only saw once before, and that was a quick fly-by.  Here are my best two pictures of Green Parakeet in the fading light.

Those two were kind of cozying up to each other, and I thought it was cute.

In addition to the parakeets that were gathering for their nightly roost together, there were thousands of Great-tailed Grackles congregating in the area.  Here is one small part of the Grackles gathering on the wires.

There were at least ten times that many around the area, and they made quite a racket, as they call very loudly.  Here is a closer view of that telephone pole in the middle of the picture above.

It was getting dark by then, so we headed back.  The birding wasn’t over yet, though.  As we waited at stop lights in the heavy rush hour traffic, I saw several Bronzed Cowbirds on the wires with the grackles.  That was an excellent one for my Friday list, and my last bird of the day.

So, it was an outstanding day of birding, and I saw much, much more than what I would have seen on my own today.  It was also nice to have company all day, after nine days of birding alone and talking to almost no one.

I added 24 birds to my Friday list, to bring it to 131, which puts it way ahead of all the other days.  A whopping 11 of those birds were new for my year list, too, to bring me to 220 for the year.  If you’ll remember, yesterday I barely eked out one new year-bird, by a fluke at the end of the day (the Northern Rough-winged Swallows), and today Mary Beth was able to show me 11 more.  Outstanding.  For my BAD bird today, I’m going to take Olive Sparrow.  I didn’t mention that one before because it wasn’t a Friday bird – I had seen one briefly last Friday at Sabal Palms Sanctuary.  Today I got great, though brief, looks at two of them, so I’m taking it as my BAD bird today.

It was a long day, and I probably overlooked something here, but it’s late, and I want to get this out tonight.  Tomorrow I fly home from San Antonio, and it is a four hour drive to get to the airport from here.  The flight doesn’t leave until 6:40 PM, so I have all day, but I’m sure the time will fly by.  I’ll have to get all packed up in the morning, and I want to at least make a token effort to get a new year-bird tomorrow.  As it turns out, Mary Beth was able to tell me where a parakeet that I have only seen once before nests [Monk Parakeets], and I plan to stop by that area tomorrow morning on my way out of town, and maybe I can get that one for my new year-bird tomorrow.  If not, then tomorrow will almost certainly be the day my streak ends.  [Ed. note:  he got them! :-)]

Whatever happens with the silly streak, tomorrow I head for home after an excellent trip, and it will be very good to be home, as always after a trip, no matter how long.

MB here again:  Here's the EBird checklist for the La Sal del Rey portion:

Gadwall  9
Mottled Duck  4
Northern Shoveler  4
Northern Bobwhite  1
Wild Turkey  24     Three different groups along the route; first group had half-grown youngsters (pictures didn't turn out).
American White Pelican  2
Great Egret  1
Snowy Egret  1
Black Vulture  8
Turkey Vulture  22
Harris's Hawk  1
White-tailed Hawk  3
Red-shouldered Hawk  1
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Sandhill Crane  3
Greater Yellowlegs  1
Mourning Dove  49
Greater Roadrunner  1
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  8
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  7
Crested Caracara  11
American Kestrel  5
Eastern Phoebe  3
Say's Phoebe  1     Gray back, cinnamon below, fat black tail when flopping around, darker cap.  Photos to follow.
Great Kiskadee  4
Couch's Kingbird  1
Loggerhead Shrike  3
White-eyed Vireo  6
Green Jay  14
Black-crested Titmouse  9
Verdin  8
House Wren  5
Bewick's Wren  13
Cactus Wren  2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Hermit Thrush  1
Long-billed Thrasher  7
Northern Mockingbird  15
European Starling  3
Orange-crowned Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler  6
Olive Sparrow  5
Lark Sparrow  4
White-crowned Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  9
Pyrrhuloxia  11
Northern Cardinal/Pyrrhuloxia  7
Eastern Meadowlark  1
Great-tailed Grackle  25
blackbird sp.  1000     Probably some Brewer's in there; at the Rio Beef Feedlots.  Too far away to ID.
House Sparrow  3

...and the checklist for the South Brushline Road portion:

Turkey Vulture  9
White-tailed Hawk  1
Common Ground-Dove  2
Mourning Dove  10
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  1
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  1
Crested Caracara  4
American Kestrel  2
Great Kiskadee  4
Loggerhead Shrike  1
House Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Curve-billed Thrasher  2
Yellow-rumped Warbler  2
Lark Sparrow  12
Vesper Sparrow  5
Savannah Sparrow  5
Western Meadowlark  6
Western/Eastern Meadowlark  1

Thursday, January 26, 2017

When the Birds Are VERY Cooperative!


Well, if yesterday was a Day of Disappointments, today was definitely a Day of Delights, as we had a list of specific target birds and we managed to find all of them! J  Since the becard was still being seen at Estero first thing in the morning, we decided to head there first and work backwards.  We headed straight in to the Tropical Zone once we got there, hearing Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in the distance and stopping briefly to enjoy a Kiskadee family at the top of a dead tree, only to discover that a pair of Clay-colored Thrushes was also playing tag amongst them! First target out of the way!

Clay-colored Thrush

The Screech Owl wasn’t showing, so we meandered down to Pauraque Hall, where except for chirping Orange-crowned Warblers it was rather quiet.  Since they had seen a female becard in Arizona before, seeing this male was only a “nice to get” bird, so we agreed to give it 15 minutes as we wandered around the area and checked the trees.  And right about the time my timer went off, Steve announced that he had the bird!  Thankfully Marion saw the bird as well, but I couldn’t get on it before it flew (at least saw that), so we left the bird with the group that had just shown up in hopes that they could refind it!  On the way out we enjoyed an Altamira Oriole and another obliging Clay-colored Thrush.

Steve and Marion scour the Tropical Zone for the Rose-throated Becard

A beautiful Altamira Oriole shows off!

I couldn’t find the Pauraque that had been on the corner when I had Gary and sons with me last November, so we headed to Alligator Lake, dutifully padding the list with the ducks in Ibis Pond.  Dowitcher Pond was in terrible light, so about the only thing we added passing that was a bobbing Spotted Sandpiper.  A brief going-over of Grebe Marsh added a herd of Least Grebes and more ducks to the list (no toothy alligator this time), and turning the corner we added a ton of Yellow-crowned Night Herons with a token Black-crowned.  A White-tailed Kite hovering overhead was an added bonus!  Thankfully the Pauraque pair was right where we left them, and Steve and Marion got great looks at this cryptic bird!

Obligatory Pauraque photo...

Sleepy Yellow-crowned Night Heron

On the way back we exchanged pleasantries with the morning bird walk, then spent a few minutes at the VC feeders to see if a White-tipped Dove would come back (Marion had seen one there earlier), and thankfully one made a brief appearance back in the bush, while Chachalacas raided the oranges, a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers chased each other, and a Buff-bellied Hummer put on a great show for a lot of happy folks! 

Chachalaca raiding the oranges

Since we had bagged the thrush and dove already, we opted to head straight to McAllen Nature Center for the Audubon’s Oriole. After parking a Pyrrhuloxia popped up, which was a nice bird for an urban area!  On the way to the check-in station I heard Green Parakeets first on one side of the road and then the other, but we never spotted them.  After checking in we headed straight for the feeder area where the oriole had been showing up (and where a Birdathon was taking place, joined a little later by fellow butterflier Ken) and took our spots on the picnic table.  One of the first birds to come in was the famous leucistic female Cardinal (first clue was that she was lacking the sooty face), followed by a Long-billed Thrasher that hung out near the drip, while Green Jays made repeated appearances.  Once again, just before my timer went off, the Audubon’s Oriole came tearing in, and eventually made his way over to the seed (!) feeder and proceeded to stuff his face!  What a beauty!  A nice White-tipped Dove decided to come out into the open just before we left as well!

Leucistic female Cardinal

Audubon's Oriole stuffing his face

A more dignified pose...

Next stop was Anzalduas for the Sprague’s Pipit, and on the way we happened to see a White-tailed Hawk with what looked like snake in his talons circling overhead!  Once at the park I played the Sprague’s call note for them, and warned them that the birds were flushing nicely but not landing where you could see them, and that was the case today; we thought we had one surrounded, and I was convinced he had actually crawled off somewhere, when he suddenly burst from the grasses!  Marion got a great look at the tail pattern of a bird that popped up in front of her, but that’s about the best look we could promise at that point.  After using the restrooms (and picking up the obligatory Black Phoebe) we circled around and found a “Mexican” Duck that definitely had a bit of “Northern” Mallard in him, as he had a white tail and a green gloss to the top of the head!

"Sprague's Pipit Field" at Anzalduas Park

After pretty much bagging everything they really needed, we opted to get lunch at Stripes and then head to Bentsen to chill at the feeders!  Marion was interested in having the butters pointed out, so at the VC we found several White Peacocks (I never really realized they had blue bodies until she pointed that out!) and a Common Mestra fluttering around, but after I sent them to the Gatehouse Feeders while I used the restroom, after coming out I stumbled across this little orange and black butterfly that looked kind of like an Elf, a very rare butterfly from Mexico!  I managed a shot of the ventral and left a message with Mike Rickard, one of our local butterfly experts, and then went to find my charges.  We were hoping an Olive Sparrow would come in to the trip, but one never came, and we just enjoyed more Green Jays and the ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbirds.

White Peacock

Mystery lep whose identity will be revealed later (don't wanna spoil the punchline...) 

After a while we decided to walk to Kiskadee Blind (hitched a ride with the tram part of the way), where there was a little more action: Altamira Orioles, more jays, and even a “Myrtle” Warbler came in, along with a brilliant Mexican Bluewing!  When things slowed down we decided to walk over to the Green Jay Blind, and on the way over I was telling them about our vagrant Red-naped Sapsucker that had visited for several winters in a row, when suddenly a sapsucker popped up!  She turned out to be a female Yellow-bellied (which was nicer to see for a pair of Californians J)!  At the Resaca the dock at the island was lined with Neotropic Cormorants, and Steve spotted a Tricolored Heron over there as well.  Like the Kiskadee Blind, the Green Jay Blind was pretty active when we got there with lots of jays and an immature Altamira, but then it quieted down, so we started back, planning on hitching another ride with the tram should we run into it.  We did see a tram, and it happened to be Ranger Roy leading the afternoon tram tour (consisting of two people), so we hopped on and joined them for a bit.  He swung up to Kingfisher Overlook where we did indeed find a Green Kingfisher, but I then noticed Mike himself over at the butterfly gardens with his wife Ginny and fellow butterflier Jan Dauphin, so I rushed over to show him my picture.  He confirmed what I was afraid of – that it was actually a day-flying moth of some kind, so I determined to do a little research once I got home.  When I got back to the group and told Roy about it, he said, “Oh, yeah, that orange thing’s been fluttering around there for a while!” :-/

Male Cardinal blends in with the bird feeder! 
 Curious Yellow-rumped Warbler

Here you can see where they got their nickname "Butterbutt"!

Immature Altamira Oriole

Green Jay

Joining the bird walk at Kingfisher Overlook

I needed to get Steve and Marion to the airport so they could pick up their rental car, so we headed back to the parking lot and eventually back to McAllen, where we kissed goodbye (after plotting the map to the parakeet staging areas on 10th) and went our separate ways.  And the little moth turned out to be an Orange Satyr Moth – quite a beauty!

Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  “Mexican” Duck                                                      
  Mottled Duck                         
  Blue-winged Teal                     
  Cinnamon Teal                        
  Northern Shoveler                    
  Northern Pintail                     
  Green-winged Teal                    
  Ring-necked Duck                     
  Plain Chachalaca                     
  Least Grebe                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Great Egret                           
  Snowy Egret                          
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Black-crowned Night-Heron            
  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron           
  Turkey Vulture                       
  White-tailed Kite                    
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  American Coot                        
  Spotted Sandpiper                     
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  White-tipped Dove                    
  Common Pauraque                      
  Archilochus Hummingbird            
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Green Kingfisher                     
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker             
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                      
  Green Parakeet                       
  Black Phoebe                         
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Rose-throated Becard                 
  Green Jay                            
  Tree Swallow                          
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  House Wren                           
  Carolina Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                 
  Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 
  Clay-colored Thrush                  
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  American Pipit                       
  Sprague's Pipit                      
  Black-and-white Warbler              
  Orange-crowned Warbler               
  Yellow-rumped Warbler                
  Savannah Sparrow                     
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Western Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Altamira Oriole                       
  Audubon's Oriole                     
  House Sparrow                        


When the Birds are Uncooperative...


Well, you can’t have it go your way all the time, and we learned that truth big time today on my third trip to Laredo to see the Amazon Kingfisher, only this time she was a no-show.  Steve and Marion had flown in all the way from California and were hoping she’d still be around (and she was indeed reported two days ago), but she was either hiding up the tributary or had flown the joint (plus we were the only birders there today, so it could be that people are just no longer looking for her).  We started off the day with the requisite grackle/cowbird mob in Alamo, then had several handsome Caracaras on the way to Laredo, in addition to some Harris’ Hawks and one “Fuertes’” Red-tailed Hawk (which led to a discussion about Hollywood using Redtail calls for Bald Eagles… J)!  Marion spotted a Merlin as we passed Kestrel after Kestrel, along with shrikes and a Green Jay I never saw as I was focused on driving!

After stocking up on snacks and chicken legs at a Stripes just outside Laredo, we made it to Dos/Tres Laredos Park (this time without getting lost J) and pulled into a shady spot under the Railroad Bridge.  Unlike the time with Howard and Pat, the Amazon was nowhere to be seen, although we had a pair of Black Phoebes, Neotropic Cormorants, an Osprey, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Black-crowned Night Heron in the vicinity.  We decided to walk the edge of the river, and a “green type” kingfisher did pop up that got us all excited, but alas, she had white spots in the wings (plus we saw her mate nearby).  A Ringed Kingfisher flew overhead calling that was almost ignored while we were initially trying to get the scope on this Amazon wannabe!  A House Finch flew over that I heard but Marion saw, and commented on how dark it looked; I confirmed that the birds we get are probably the redder Mexican birds.

Spotted Sandpiper along a little ditch

We wandered back to the car, picking up a young Green Heron and Couch’s Kingbird for the day, then decided to take a short walk down the nice caliche road that Pat and I had taken in hopes of kicking up some seedeaters.  A Verdin actually gave pretty good views, and the regular winter visitors fed busily in the tamarisks, but there was nothing unusual amongst them.  In the cane, I did hear the whistle of a seedeater, but it never did want to come out (didn’t even call again), so that was rather disappointing (the only thing that seemed upset at our pishing was a male Cardinal).

The "trail" off Eagle Pass Road

Young Green Heron

Waiting forlornly for the Amazon to show up...

We dragged ourselves back to the car and munched on chicken, and after some discussion decided to take a look at Zecate Creek, even though the chances of the bird being there this time of day (based only on previous reports) were slim, but Griffin’s report of the seedeaters from the trail there moved us onward.  This time we did get turned around trying to find the place J, and part of the problem was that some prankster had turned the street signs at the very intersection we were supposed to turn!  But we eventually got there and first scanned the creek, picking up a pair of Spotted Sandpipers, but that was about it.  We found Griffin’s trail, which was actually very scenic and pleasant:  you were bordered on the right by picturesque limestone rocks, and bordered on the left by woodland, with the cane stands closer to the river!  Being the time of day it was (and 91 degrees out L) we really didn’t get much out of that trail except some good exercise and a kettle of vultures that included a Cooper’s Hawk making dives at them once in a while, but a female Filagree Skimmer closer to the water was very exciting!

Zecate Creek

Marion and Steve scan for the Amazon...

 We find a cryptic female Filagree Skimmer instead!

Scenic trail along the Rio Grande

We reluctantly headed home after that, drowning our sorrows (or at least mine, anyway) with a F’Real!  I was surprised we made it up to 51 species for the day (54 including the three additional ones Marion and Steve saw)!  Bird List:

  “Mexican Duck”                                          
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Green Heron                          
  Black-crowned Night-Heron            
  Black Vulture                        
  Turkey Vulture                        
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  Harris's Hawk                        
  Red-tailed Hawk                      
  American Coot                        
  Spotted Sandpiper                     
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  Ringed Kingfisher                    
  Green Kingfisher                      
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Black Phoebe                         
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Couch's Kingbird                     
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Chihuahuan Raven                     
  Northern Rough-winged Swallow        
  Cave Swallow                         
  House Wren                            
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Orange-crowned Warbler               
  Common Yellowthroat                   
  Yellow-rumped Warbler                
  White-collared Seedeater             
  Lincoln's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Western Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                  
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  House Finch                          
  House Sparrow