Friday, November 17, 2017

Texas Dreamin' for Two Californians

11/15/17 

Ara and Don were two birders from California who were just excited about whatever they could see, and had already explored Santa Ana and Estero Llano Grande on their own the day before I took them out, but they had mentioned that they were curious about Bentsen SP, so I thought heading over there the back way might be prudent (to avoid rush hour traffic) and we could hit some birding hotspots on the way!

Monk Parakeet was new for them, so our first stop was the little community of Hidalgo.  We were on our way to the traditional nest site on 5th and Gardenia when we didn’t get very far after turning off Bridge:  there was one right on the wire!  So we all piled out and enjoyed him, and then parked in a city building’s parking lot to go chase a tittering Tropical Kingbird!  During that foray we saw more parakeets, a Kiskadee, some Collared and Mourning Doves, and a cooperative Orange-crowned Warbler (which begged the obvious question, “Where’s the orange crown??” J)!  After viewing the (apparently) unoccupied nests on 5th, we headed towards Anzalduas County Park, but not before picking up a nice Bronzed Cowbird on a wire!

Sleepy Collared Doves

Ara checks out one of the Monk Parakeet nests in Hidalgo

Monk Parakeet

Rolling down the entrance road to Anzalduas we encountered a friendly (!) American Kestrel and enjoyed looking north into Mexico from the levee!  This time of year, the first thing usually on most everyone’s agenda is getting the Sprague’s Pipit, so after playing the flight call so they’d know what to listen for, we dutifully trudged across the field, and sure enough, we shortly flushed a dumpy, buffy little bird that said Pike!, and although he didn’t land where we could get scope views, he did circle around several times and gave all of us great looks, including of his white outer tail feathers!  A buffy bird on the ground gave us an adrenalin rush until we realized it was a Savannah Sparrow J, but even he was uncharacteristically cooperative for scope views!  Western Meadowlarks also flocked around, giving their wheep calls.

Savannah Sparrow

American Kestrel

But the excitement wasn’t over yet: as we made the circle (backwards from how I usually do it), we added Black Phoebe at the restroom, and I heard a Beardless Tyrannulet that we never were able to pin down.  Cave Swallows jabbered overhead, several brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers showed off, but the real prize was a pair of Ringed Kingfishers having a spat and giving great views!  We were rolling towards the 4-way stop when I thought I heard warblers in the grove, so we pulled over and headed in, when a pale raptor blasted in:  a Gray Hawk!  (We were kind of expecting him as the Constable told us he was hanging out in this area…)  But one of the guys noticed a second dark raptor in the same tree, and as we zoomed in on him (the light wasn’t the greatest), I strongly suspected Zone-tailed Hawk!  We circled around to try to get a better view, and at that point he took off with his prey, showing his Turkey Vulture-like wing pattern and banded tail very nicely!  Unfortunately after he landed he lost his footing on his lunch, which turned out to be a pigeon (and we all commented that he had plenty of food around if that was the case)!  We retreated so he could retrieve his prize, as he was looking longingly down at it …  During all this Don spotted a distant White-tailed Kite, but Ara was too intent on the Zonie… J  On the way out I did hear a House Finch singing, but forgot to enter it into EBird as it doesn’t come up on their “expected” list (although it’s very expected there at Anzalduas J)!

Vermilion Flycatcher

Ara after shooting the flycatcher (white circle)

Checking out the trees

Zone-tailed Hawk with lunch

After he dropped it...

"Thanks a heap, guys!"


 From there we cruised down the levee towards Bentsen, which turned out to be rather quiet except for a small flock of “cormorants” that morphed into Greater White-fronted Geese!  Close to Chimney Park some glistening spots turned out to be a ballet of circling White Pelicans!  An Osprey flew at us over the canal, then suddenly dove into the water and came up with a big fish, right next to the car!  Where you cross the canal and turn off the levee to head towards Bentsen, Don (I think it was) spotted a “bright orange bird” on top of the telephone pole, and sure enough, there was the coveted Altamira Oriole!  (Weird place for one… J)

At Bentsen we had nice looks at the Green Jays and Chachalacas coming in to the feeders, but no Clay-colored Thrush showed up, which was really what we were hoping for (a Long-billed Thrasher was a nice consolation prize).  While we were watching, the volunteer on duty said, “I hope you’re not bothered by snakes over your head!”  Turns out a little Rat Snake had just had lunch and was contentedly snuggled in a crack in the wall over the light! 


Rat Snake hiding behind the light (check out that eyeball!)

The rest of him...

They were up for hiking down to the Resaca, during which we saw a couple of Javelina cross the road!  When the tram came by we bummed a ride down to Kiskadee Blind, which was disappointingly dead:  after 15 minutes of patient waiting a single Green Jay decided to come in right as my timer went off!  The guys were up to checking out the Resaca, so we poked over there, picking up a nice flock of White Pelicans floating to the west (probably the same flock we saw circling over the levee on the way there)!

Checking out the Acacia Loop


It was heating up and we were starting to drag, so we agreed on a road-birding excursion for the rest of the afternoon.  “Sparrow Road” was the closest, but thanks to several unmarked intersections and a map that wasn’t clear (my opinion, of course J), we ended up on a dead end dirt road, but the good news was that we bagged a female Pyrrhuloxia in the process!  We backtracked and found FM 2221 and headed west and then north on dirt Jara Chinas, what local birders dub “Sparrow Road” as, in the winter, the open scrubby habitat and ag fields can be a hotbed for sparrows!  But the best sighting along the south leg wasn’t even a bird: Ara spotted a Gray Fox curled up on a thick horizontal trunk!  We were all thrilled – although somewhat commonly seen in our native California, it was the first Gray Fox I had ever seen in Texas!  He was super cooperative for pictures, and from that point on the road was renamed “Fox Sparrow Road”! J

Gray Fox

Things were rather anticlimactic after that; we did have a nice White-tailed Hawk fly low overhead, and another little mammal, a Mexican Ground Squirrel, crawled up the bank and sat up cute-like!  Several Loggerhead Shrikes posed, and one had proudly impaled a Bird Grasshopper on a barbed wire fence (he eventually grabbed it and went elsewhere)!  Another non-avian phenomena was the “snowstorm” of Snouts along the road (along with other butterflies)!  Along 14 Mile Road we got great looks at a Cassin’s Sparrow, and not-so-great looks (due to the angle of the light) at a couple of Black-throated Sparrows and a Bewick’s Wren.  A nice family of Bobwhite revealed themselves on a utility road, and we dutifully scanned for Mountain Plovers, but only found Killdeer and Lark Sparrows instead.  When it was time to head back to Alamo we blasted up the rest of Jara China, and the guys got to see why I called this stretch of barren land Horned Lark Heaven as flock after flock crossed the road in front of us!  The presence of multiple wind turbines prompted much environmental dialogue during the slow times! J  A young Caracara in the field just south of FM 490 was a fitting end to the day.

A few of the numerous Snouts along the road

Mexican Ground Squirrel

One of many Loggerhead Shrikes

This one perches proudly next to his lunch!

Apparently not liking the way we're eyeing his prize, he shimmies over to it...

...and decides to take it elsewhere!


Lark Sparrow

Young Crested Caracara

Bird List:

  Greater White-fronted Goose
  Plain Chachalaca                    
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                 
  American White Pelican            
  Great Egret                         
  Snowy Egret                          
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Osprey                               
  White-tailed Kite                    
  Sharp-shinned Hawk                   
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  Harris's Hawk                        
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Gray Hawk                            
  Zone-tailed Hawk                     
  Red-tailed Hawk                      
  American Coot                       
  Killdeer                             
  Spotted Sandpiper                    
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Ringed Kingfisher                    
  Belted Kingfisher                    
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Monk Parakeet                        
  Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet        
  Black Phoebe                        
  Eastern Phoebe                       
  Vermilion Flycatcher                 
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                            
  Horned Lark                          
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  Verdin                               
  House Wren                           
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Sprague's Pipit                      
  Orange-crowned Warbler              
  Cassin's Sparrow                     
  Lark Sparrow                         
  Black-throated Sparrow               
  Savannah Sparrow                     
  Lincoln's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Pyrrhuloxia                          
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Western Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Altamira Oriole                      
  House Finch                          
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                          

72 SPECIES

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review - Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America (by Stephen A. Shunk)

Note:  Photos below are NOT from the book - they're my own, just for the sake of including pictures!  Those in the book are MUCH better!!!

Woodpeckers have always caught the human fancy, and there are even birders out there whose sole goal in their birding life is to see every species of woodpecker that they can!  And for woodpecker-lovers in North America, Shunk’s seminal work on this family is a must-have.  Chock full of beautiful photographs, informative charts, and exhaustive species accounts, this is a book that you’ll come back to again and again for reference.

The book opens with general information about the family:  anatomy, feather structure, behavior, and ecology.  The detailed species accounts cover distribution, habitat, detection (which covers vocalizations and drumming), identification (which also covers aberrant plumages and hybridization), behavior, and conservation, along with some interesting factoids about each species.  It’s not necessarily a book you’ll want to read from cover to cover (as it’s primarily a reference book), but I did so, and discovered some interesting things I never knew about woodpeckers:

·         In general, woodpeckers are a keystone organism, providing cavities for other animals, and hummingbirds have even been known to follow sapsuckers in migration to feed on their sap holes! 

·         Fires are important to their survival, and many species are specialists when it comes to burned-out forests!

Here are some interesting nuggets about some of the species covered:

·         The Red-headed Woodpecker nests on golf courses (and I can certainly attest to this as the highlight of accompanying my father on his golf games was to see the “redheads”)!  And although intra-species aggression is not uncommon, Red-headeds will even bully a Pileated Woodpecker!

Red-headed Woodpecker (Tulsa, OK)

·         The Acorn Woodpecker also makes sap wells like a sapsucker, and the Anna’s Hummingbird will visit their sap wells only when the coast is clear!

Acorn Woodpecker (Cleveland NF, CA)

·         Gila Woodpeckers have been known to bang on windows if the feeders haven’t been filled yet!

Gila Woodpecker (San Pedro Riparian Area, AZ)

·         In the early 20th century, the powers that be were considering lifting federal protection of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker due to the damage they were causing to telephone poles, until it was discovered that Ladderbacks were the culprits!

Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Bentsen Rio Grande SP, TX)

·         The Red-bellied Woodpecker has been observed both feeding the fledglings of other birds and eating their nestlings and eggs!  And even though other woodpeckers are in zoo collections, apparently this is the only species to have successfully bred in captivity.

·         Unmated male Williamson’s Sapsuckers will play stepdad to kids whose father abandons them before fledgling!

·         The Red-naped Sapsucker is apparently the only sapsucker that is monogamous, and they’ve been observed feeding their kids bone fragments!

Red-naped Sapsucker (Rocky Mountain NP, CO)

·         The Downy Woodpecker is also monogamous, and may escort his wife away from the scene before a fight with an intruder!

Female Downy Woodpecker (Merritt Island NWR, FL)

·         The Hairy Woodpecker will tap in order to find a resonant tunnel, signaling the presence of beetle larvae!  It will also use its wings to catch dropped food!

Female Hairy Woodpecker (Lassen NP, CA)

·         The Arizona Woodpecker is considered the rarest North American woodpecker, even more so than the Red-cockaded!  (Perhaps this is due to its limited range?)

Arizona Woodpecker (Miller Canyon, AZ)

·         The Northern Flicker eats more ants than any North American bird, and also tends to have more than its fair share of deformed bills!  This could be due to lack of “trimming” by feeding by excavation.

"Red-shafted" race of the Northern Flicker (San Pedro NF, AZ)

·         And last but not least:  both pronunciations of “Pileated” are correct!

This is a book that every woodpecker-lover will want in their library, one that the professional and layman alike will enjoy, both for the wealth of information therein and the photographic “eye candy”!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Cold Front Cometh

10/28/17 

Cathey from Austin was a laid-back birder (and butterflier) who just enjoyed reveling in whatever she could see, but for this outing she was particularly interested in seeing Sandhill Cranes, as she had come down once before to La Sal del Rey and missed them.  So thanks to Bird’s Eye (a handy little app that ties in with eBird data), I saw where the cranes had been seen three days ago in the Hargill area, so that would be the first stop, with plans to work our way to the La Sal area afterwards.

We got to Hargill Playa right around sunrise, enjoying a couple of Northern Harriers and a Cooper’s Hawk (first of many) coming up Lincoln.  We made the turn onto 1st, avoiding the deep ruts (thankfully it was dry), and since looking into the playa itself was useless due to the high grass, we parked at the gate and scanned the nearby fields for cranes.  Although cold (around 47 degrees), the sky was absolutely blue, and the wind hadn’t picked up yet – just a gorgeous morning!  Tons of blackbirds and grackles were about, along with Barn Swallows swooping through, and at one point a flock of White-faced Ibis powered by in the distance.  But shortly we heard the tell-tale roll of the cranes, but both of us were having trouble trying to pinpoint where it was coming from – from the east or from the west!  Finally we looked up, and there they were, right overhead!  What a show!

Sandhill Cranes

Sunrise in Hargill

Happy Cathey next to "Heppy" after finally seeing her cranes!

Having gotten our target bird right off the bat, I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to see; Roseate Spoonbills would be nice, and checking Bird’s Eye again, wouldn’t you know that they had been seen in the area as well!  We hadn’t seen much in the actual playa except egrets and unidentifiable ducks, but since cranes had also been reported along Bucy Road (would be nice to see some standing), we headed that direction, taking an unmarked east/west road (that, according to Google Maps, is also confusingly called Bucy Road), and we hadn’t gone far before we spotted a flock of geese flying ahead of us!  We jumped out and found one White-fronted leading the crowd, followed by several Snows, and even better, a couple of noticeably smaller Ross’ Geese!  They seemed to be stalled overhead as they battled the north wind, then suddenly made a right turn and the whole bunch headed east right overhead!  Just before we came to the intersection with the “real” Bucy Road, another string of waders flew by in the distance that turned out to be the coveted spoonbills!  Unfortunately Cathey couldn’t get on them before they had blended into the distant sky…

Snow Geese overhead (look hard for the smaller Ross')

Things were anticlimactic after that; my friend Huck had seen Lark Buntings in the area, but with the wind picking up the little birds just didn’t want to come out and be seen.  Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were more resilient, however, and enjoyed perching on the wires, and we got some nice views of White-tailed Kites, including one bird that was hovering and then dropped with his wings held in a “V”!  Trying to avoid running over the big barking dogs at the end of the street (and since the spoonbills were headed east), I suggested running over to Delta Lake County Park, as spoonbills had also been reported there, and it would be a convenient (and only) place to use the restrooms…

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

What a difference from the last time I was here when they were having some kind of youth fun run!  The place was packed then, and today it was absolutely empty, which surprised me on a Saturday!  (Cathey thought the weather scared most of them away… J)  After spotting a flock of White Ibis flying directly overhead, we pulled in the parking area next to FM 88 where a father and son were fishing, so we chatted a bit, but Cathey soon announced that she had a tree that was just full of Monarchs!  Knowing that Queens were the abundant “monarch-like” butterfly down here, I assumed that’s what she meant, but I ended up eating crow (or butterfly J) when I saw she was absolutely right:  the trees were indeed lined with roosting Monarchs!  Neither of us knew what type of trees they were (somewhere someone had told her that when in doubt, it’s probably an acacia, but she had her doubts about these…), but not only did they house several Monarchs, but also a couple pairs of bona fide Queens, and the real surprise:  a little Dusky-blue Groundstreak!  She also taught me something I didn’t know (and answered a question a friend in Harrisburg, who virtually raises Monarchs in her yard, asked):  yes, they do migrate through, and yes, they breed here, but they breed while they’re migrating!  That’s one way to spread around your progeny!

Roosting Monarchs


The similar Queen, which is our default "abundant" monarch-like butter

Dusky-blue Groundstreak

As I suspected, the lake was way too high for any birds (except some egrets way across the way), but we headed on in to the park, took care of things, and checked out the canals and back area as Kiskadee and Vermilion Flycatcher were additional targets.  Heard the former but dipped totally on the latter (again, way too windy), but did manage great looks at a Black-bellied Whistling Duck with a flaming red bill, a couple of Great Blue Herons, a fly-by Red-shouldered Hawk, and several cooperative Killdeer.  While driving through the “back area” I heard the distinctive cheer! of a Pine Siskin flying over – not too surprising in the wake of this cold front!  On the way out we had a distant flock of Neotropic Cormorants, and the biggest surprise:  an Osprey sitting in the field!

Killdeer

Since the places she was planning on visiting in the afternoon and the next day possibly had better potential for spoonbills, we decided to continue on to the La Sal Route in hopes of getting more looks at cranes (and there was still the remote possibility of a spoonbill at the pond at the end of Brushline Road).  Right away on Rio Beef Road we saw several Turkey Vultures and Caracaras working on what looked like the remains of a feral hog, and we again heard a Kiskadee, but he just didn’t want to come out; instead we got several House Wrens, a Mockingbird, some Lincoln’s Sparrows, and a Verdin mad at us (although the latter didn’t wanna show, either… L).  A little further down the road a Bewick’s Wren was singing, and with a little coaxing he did come out and put on a great show!  (A Ladder-backed Woodpecker and another Verdin were content to just call…)  More Scissor-tailed Flycatchers lined the fence along Ken Baker Road, and the shrikes refused to turn around and give us breast looks lest their feathers get ruffled by the north wind!  Cathey, who is an electrical engineer, explained to me what they were probably doing with the new power lines along Ken Baker (which they had been installing the last time I had gone down that road)!

This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is showing a little of his red "wingpit"!

"What're YOU lookin' at?!"

Meanwhile, a closer bird poses on the sunny side of the car!
  
Birds were truly sparse heading up Brushline; we managed a Lark Sparrow on a wire, but we couldn’t even kick up any White-tailed Hawks (although we did spot a couple of Harris’)!  The pond had some Mottled Ducks, a couple of Greater Yellowlegs, and a whole mob of Least Sandpipers, but that was about it, so we blasted back to SR 186 seeing as we had to get home by noon.  On the way home we talked about parrots, and how you really have to go to a roost or staging area to guarantee them; otherwise it’s pot luck.  But upon getting home, the show wasn’t over; we had just hugged goodbye and I was getting into the car when a huge mob of Green Parakeets came out and started whirling around the trees just a block south of us!  Cathey was thrilled; I left her to wander down and enjoy the show while I headed home; we ended up with a modest 55 for the morning.

Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Greater White-fronted Goose          
  Snow Goose                           
  Ross's Goose                         
  Mottled Duck                         
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  White Ibis                           
  White-faced Ibis                     
  Roseate Spoonbill                    
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Osprey                               
  White-tailed Kite                    
  Northern Harrier                     
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  Harris's Hawk                        
  Red-shouldered Hawk                  
  Red-tailed Hawk                      
  Sandhill Crane                       
  Killdeer                             
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Rock Pigeon                           
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Green Parakeet                       
  Eastern Phoebe                       
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  Horned Lark                          
  Barn Swallow                         
  Verdin                               
  House Wren                           
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Orange-crowned Warbler               
  Common Yellowthroat                  
  Lark Sparrow                          
  Lincoln's Sparrow                    
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Pine Siskin                          
  House Sparrow                        

55 SPECIES