Firmin and Marie had their Labor Day Weekend plans all set up in San Antonio, but when Hurricane Harvey got in the way, they decided to come to the Valley to bird! J They had visited the Valley many times before, but always in the winter, so this would be a new experience. I try to convince birders that there’s always something to see in the Valley, no matter what time of year – it’s just that this time of year you need to make sure you do your birding during the coolest parts of the day! We kind of threw that out the window, however, as our first destination was South Padre Island, where the Gulf breeze usually keeps things tolerable! When Harvey made landfall the week before, he totally missed the Valley (except for a couple of inches of rain in Cameron County), but he ended up pushing dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds inland all along the coast; we even got one in inland Hidalgo County that Dan Jones found (see previous blog for that adventure)! So we were hoping there would be some interesting birds still hanging around the Island.
Alas, we dipped on the frigatebird (although fellow guide Justin LeClaire did glimpse one that day), but the Flats were incredible: perfectly dry right up to the water’s edge (which usually isn’t the case), and instead of most of the birds being hunkered in one or two large groups, there were birds scattered all over – our initial plan to skim the shoreline so that Firmin could get some pictures ended up being kind of a zig zag, as we’d see a pretty Black-bellied Plover over there and swing over, then some more Piping Plovers or Least Terns in another spot, and circle around for those! We ended up logging all the expected plovers, with lots of Piping, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied (including a heard-only Killdeer), and most of the expected tern species (I think the only one we missed was Caspian, which we picked up at the Convention Centre)! Reddish Egrets of both morphs were performing their dances, and we had a great selection of shorebirds; Justin and Stephanie were doing Piping Plover surveys (I apparently photographed one he missed J) and told us of a “special shorebird” around the corner! He finally spilled the beans when I whined that, now that the pressure was on J, I’d probably overlook the thing! But I needn’t have worried: it’s hard to overlook a Red Knot that stands out like a giant amongst all the smaller Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers! (Actually, we had one hanging with some lazing dowitchers, and even with them he looked huge!) Other “special” shorebirds included several Marbled Godwits, a pair of American Oystercatchers, and a Ruddy Turnstone still in brilliant breeding plumage! In some of the isolated puddles we had a Black-necked Stilt and a couple of Greater Yellowlegs looking for breakfast, and on the way out a regal Osprey posed on a wire!
Molting Black-bellied Plover
Piping Plover #55A makes a run for it!
(This is the bird Justin and Stephanie apparently missed...)
The similar Semipalmated Plover
Here are the two together: Piping (above) is the color of dry sand, and the Semipalmated (below) is the color of wet sand!
This guy apparently never got his "bling"!
Marbled Godwits (above and below)
Short-billed Dowitchers (above and below)
Greater Yellowlegs (above and below)
Dancing Reddish Egret (doing the Tango below...)
Two similar and potentially confusing terns: the non-breeding Forster's (behind) is easy with his black ear patch, but the Common Tern (in front) is more problematic, as both species are black-capped in breeding plumage. The pale bill tip, darker primaries, and short tail are all good clues for Common.
Another look at the Common Tern
Non-breeding Commons are also pretty straight-forward: the black encompasses the nape, and they have a dark carpal bar which the Forster's lacks.
A Red Knot seemingly dwarfs some lazing dowitchers!
You can see a few of his red belly feathers retained! (above and below)
One Black Skimmer plays the "Dead Skimmer Routine" to the hilt, while his friend shows how razor-thin those bills really are!
Ruddy Turnstone (above and below)
Wilson's Plover shows how big his bill is compared to other small plovers (above and below)!
Osprey (above and below)
We had a hard time tearing ourselves away from that spot, but the Centre beckoned, and although quiet, we did pick up a few migrants: several Yellow Warblers, a couple of Wilson’s, and a brilliant male American Redstart were the highlights. Several flycatchers came in; the only ones I could positively ID were a friendly Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (who peeped for good measure) and an Eastern Wood Pewee, but what I thought was an Alder Flycatcher at first (due to a sharp call note and the relative lack of an eye ring) I reneged on later after scrutinizing the pictures and wrote it off as another pewee, which can also utter a sharp pik call. A rest at the gazebo at the base of the water feature yielded a cooperative Northern Waterthrush, and a short walk on the boardwalk (still hoping for that frigate) yielded Mottled Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, and heard-only Clapper Rails and Least Bitterns. The “east pond” had the usual Roseate Spoonbills and over-summering Blue-winged Teal.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (above and below)
Here's that "Alder Flycatcher" I was having doubts about; thoughts?
Northern Waterthrush (above and below)
After chilling out under the blind at the end of the boardwalk we had lunch at Daddy’s (which was fabulous; I had the crawfish etouffee, and they even had frog legs!!), then headed over to Sheepshead, which was a new spot for them. But we were shocked: there were dead trees lying all over, and the north side had been all but cleared out!! After posting the pictures on Facebook the mystery was solved post-haste: they were clearing out the non-native plants with plans to plant native plants and put in more water features. But that didn’t stop the birds any: another Northern Waterthrush bobbed along the water on the south side (which was untouched as far as I could tell), along with a Wilson’s Warbler, and a handful of Baltimore Orioles came in to the water feature on the north side while we sat in the shade of the kiosk! We were also visited by an Eastern Kingbird, and upon reflection Firmin felt he had a female Painted Bunting while Marie and I were focused on something else! But the best bird was a young male Vermilion Flycatcher, very rare on the Island any time of year (definitely was a first for my “Island List”)!
The lot on the north side of Sheepshead
Young male Vermilion Flycatcher
Loggerhead Shrike (above and below)
Hot Eastern Kingbird
Talk of sod farms led me to consider Weaver Road, but due to time constraints we decided to make a stop at Tiocano Lake on the way home. No King Rails sounded off, but we did pick up some nice birds for the day, including Avocets, Stilt Sandpipers, a heard-only Pectoral Sandpiper, Common Gallinules, and a Wood Stork that unfortunately only I saw before he took off… L A nice consolation prize was a family of Groove-billed Anis along the road! A huge thunderstorm was to the west, and even though it was heading southwest according to the radar, we figured it would be best to be prudent and start back home! That storm was indeed south of the freeway, but we ended up driving through quite the gully-washer on the way to their hotel!
Wound up with a modest 83 species for the day. Bird List:
Black-bellied Whistling-DuckMottled Duck
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron