Monday, August 19, 2019

Return to Costa Rica!

Last month (13-27 July) I returned to Costa Rica for vacation, scouting out two new lodges:  Savegre (which is high in the Talamanca Mountains) and Talari Mountain Lodge (which is nestled on the Pacific slope near San Isidro).  You can read all about it (plus see pictures and hear recordings) by clicking here!

To whet your appetite, here are some reps from each place I visited:

Collared Redstart (Savegre)

Red Cracker (Talari Mountain Lodge)

Rufous-capped Warbler (Hotel Bougainvillea)

"Pacific" Sara Heliconian (Los Cusingos)

Violet Sabrewing (Bosque del Tolomuco)

Volcano Junco (Irazu)


Monday, July 8, 2019

One Missed Target, but Lots of Gifts!

7/6/19 – Mini Big Day

Today’s goal was to get the Elf Owl under my belt for the year, since I surprisingly missed it during the Hidalgo Big Day in April, so I headed out to Bentsen SP planning to arrive an hour before dawn.  What I wasn’t prepared for was all the cars in the parking lot at 5:45!!  Shortly a pair of headlamps came bobbing towards me – turned out to be a running club whose members were getting their run in before the sun came up, seeing as it was already 80 degrees out! 

Headed towards the entrance, picking up Pauraques right away, and once at the Nature Center I encountered a presumed family of “McCall’s” Screech Owls all trilling away, but what intrigued me was the fact that one of them was doing the descending whinny that’s typical of more northern screech owls, and apparently “un-uttered” by McCall’s!  (Unfortunately I wasn’t on the ball enough to get a recording… L)  Alas, there was nary a bark or chuckle from an Elf Owl L (or even a Great Horned for that matter), so headed on down to the resaca to see the dawn in.  It wasn’t nearly as “noisy” as in April, of course;  a distant Altamira Oriole sang its happy song, and as it got light enough to see a Ringed Kingfisher sailed overhead giving its flight call.  White-winged, White-tipped, and Mourning Doves all added to the morning chorus, and on the way back to the parking lot had some nice additions, the most special of which was a baby Groove-billed Ani with Momma/Daddy close beside!  A Gray Hawk whistled from somewhere, and on the road near the bench I usually rest at was a presumed family of Green Jays bouncing around and getting something – have no idea what – when a Long-billed Thrasher came running out to join the party!  At the canal a mob of young Cave Swallows lined the overhead wires, and a scruffy-looking Black Phoebe sang and showed.  A couple of Olive Sparrows poked along on the path through the butterfly garden on the way to the parking lot.  

La Parida Blanco Resaca at dawn

Mommy/Daddy Groove-billed Ani

Since it was going to be too hot to do a “formal” survey of Bentsen, I had decided to do a “mini Big Day” by following the route I normally do for a bona fide Big Day, and just quit at noon.  So the next “stop” was actually a drive down Old Military Highway, and this time by taking the real road (instead of taking that dirt road that parallels the canal) I bagged the Eastern Meadowlark!  The Blue Grosbeak was still in his same spot across from the old Walking Trail near the National Butterfly Center, and by stopping again up on the paved portion of the levee, I was pleasantly surprised to turn around and see an unperturbed Harris’ Hawk sitting on a power pole!  Even though the gate to the caliche levee was open, there are signs making it crystal clear that it’s now a restricted area (sadly, as that was a terrific birding road, but I certainly understand their reasonings), so I took the “new” Military Highway to Conway and then down to the accessible part of the levee by Chimney Park.  I made a brief stop before hitting Conway, as there’s still some good habitat along here, and picked up a couple of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers for the list.  

Harris' Hawk in the sun

Habitat along "New" Military HIghway

Rio Grande from the levee

After birding the rest of the levee, adding only a line of Purple Martins, I headed to Anzalduas.  A stop at the “fishing corner” produced another Ringed Kingfisher, and heard a Beardless Tyrannulet calling near the levee.  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew into a tree near the boat ramp, and I thought I heard a House Finch but after stopping I didn’t hear any more “finchy” sounds, so I let that one go.  A Bronzed Cowbird was talking to himself as he strutted through the grass, and on the way to the dam a Killdeer crossed the road and acted like it was getting ready to either do a distraction display or settle on a nest!  Easily added the nesting Cliff Swallows at the dam with another Black Phoebe on the barbed wire, and on the way out a Clay-colored Thrush was singing away!  The biggest surprise was a Bobwhite calling as I exited the park!  And although already on the list, it was fun to see tons of Purple Martins staging on the wires in GranjeƱo like grackles do in the city!

Anzalduas and the Rio Grande from the entrance levee

Bronzed Cowbird

Quinta Mazatlan was next, where the faithful Curve-billed Thrasher showed in the parking lot.  The trails were rather sparse except for a Giant Swallowtail that was floating around, but the only butter to pose for pictures was a Snout…  Just past the turnoff to the Ebony Grove a family of Chachalacas posed at my feet while Green Parakeets went screeching overhead!  

American Snout

Plain Chachalacas (above and below)


Headed north to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands after that, where I checked out the South Pond first; there I found tons of croaking Neotropic Cormorants and egrets (both “Greg and Sneg”), some Black-necked Stilts, and a few Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  The north side was pretty productive, with Buff-bellied Hummers blasting about; I ran into a young guy with a big camera who had just seen a Green Kingfisher (I missed that one) but was hoping for a Ringed.  In the North Pond were lots more egrets along with both Green and Yellow-crowned Night Herons (the latter was pretty close to the trail), and the spillway had a couple of Black-crowned Nighties.  I was surprised to see an Osprey sitting across the way this time of year, but eBird liked it!  Besides fighting Mockingbirds the most interesting thing in the gardens themselves was a flighty Julia Heliconian.  


Neotropic Cormorants; notice how the one on the left apparently hears his "name being called" and waddles over to the adult who's croaking!

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Rather than go all the way up to La Sal del Rey (which is normally the next stop on a Big Day route), I decided to do Wallace Road, which not only was closer but has some good wetland habitat.  That turned out to be a great decision: in the ag fields added Horned Lark and Dickcissels, and in the thornscrub added Western Kingbirds, Lark Sparrows, Painted Buntings, Common Ground Doves, and had many more Blue Grosbeaks!  Surprisingly, I had no raptors except a Turkey Vulture, but the wetlands were superb:  the biggest surprise was a mob of Wood Storks (looked to be mostly youngsters), along with a few White Ibis and a couple of Anhingas (that I didn’t notice until I was processing the pictures J)!  Baby grebes were vocalizing, but I couldn’t spot anything except a pair of Mottled Ducks and a Common Gallinule; thankfully a Pied-billed “sang”, so I could at least log that one!  In the back one of the western ponds was a handful of Roseate Spoonbills, always fun to get inland!

East side wetland - sometimes these can be bone dry!

West side wetland

Wood Storks (with a couple of Great Egrets)

  
That pretty much took me up to noon, so I called it quits and headed home with 78 species for the morning; no year birds, but the quality couldn’t be beat!  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Mottled Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Northern Bobwhite
Pied-billed Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Inca Dove
Common Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Groove-billed Ani
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Common Pauraque
Chimney Swift
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Common Gallinule
Black-necked Stilt
Killdeer
Wood Stork
Neotropic Cormorant
Anhinga
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Harris's Hawk
Gray Hawk
Eastern Screech-Owl
Ringed Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Green Parakeet
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Black Phoebe
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Tropical Kingbird
Couch's Kingbird
Western Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Green Jay
Horned Lark
Purple Martin
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow
Black-crested Titmouse
Verdin
Clay-colored Thrush
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Lesser Goldfinch
Olive Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Eastern Meadowlark
Altamira Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Cardinal
Blue Grosbeak
Painted Bunting
Dickcissel
House Sparrow

Friday, July 5, 2019

Holiday Surprise

7/5/19

My friend Pat called me at work this morning reporting that she thought she had a Florida White in her yard, which is a somewhat expected but rare butterfly in the Valley!  Since she lives only a block away I fetched my camera and bins and tootled down there, and sure enough, there was the not-so-little guy feeding on the ground!  She (Pat) was very excited as this was not only a yard butter (her whole yard is designated a bird and butterfly sanctuary) but a life butter as well!  As for me, I think it was only the second one I've ever seen here; according to the Butterflies of America website, they range from Peru north through Central America, the Caribbean, and south Florida and Texas, straying rarely north as far as Nebraska.  This was an immaculate male; the female will show some black on the wing.

Male Florida White - note the immaculate white wings (except for the leading edge of the forewing), yellowish base of the forewing, and pale antenna clubs (the similar and much more common Great Southern White would have turquoise clubs, plus black wingtips that bleed in to the veins).

Here's a female Florida White photographed at Lamanai Outpost Lodge in Belize - note the black wingtips that show a solid pattern.

Here's a Great Southern White, where you can see the turquoise clubs and see how the black bleeds into the veins on the wing edges.





Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Push for the Century Mark

6/29/19 

By the time June rolls around, adding year birds to your list (unless you take a road trip elsewhere in the state) can be tough, so that’s when you resort to at least building up your month list!  J  I couldn’t stand the thought of closing out the month with under 100 species recorded, so a report of a Brown Booby near the Boca Chica jetties (plus the fact that I was hurting on coastal birds – even the Boca Chica survey only added a handful) sent me to South Padre Island, where said jetties are a little easier to get to!  My friend Pat was game, so we started out pre-dawn, and by going by way of the toll road, that took us by the SR48 boat ramp, so she suggested we stop before the sun got high enough over the horizon to cause a viewing problem!  That turned out to be a productive stop, adding both Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers to the list (she saw a Wilson’s, but I didn’t sweat that one having picked it up along Boca Chica), plus the only Roseate Spoonbills of the day flying by! A lone Caracara sat across the way while a Chihuahuan Raven glided by.   The usual contingent of Laughing Gulls and regular terns (including some Forster’s) loafed, and an Eastern Meadowlark sang while we scanned.  Alas, we couldn’t spot an Oystercatcher (normally this is a reliable place for them) so we headed on to the Island.

We went straight to Isla Blanca Park, taking only a quick look into the little bay view area we usually stop at as the place was packed with vehicles already (added Black Terns in the process)!  Continuing to the jetties, we parked and headed down, enjoying the Great Blue Herons nesting on the towers in the channel, and scanning the jetties added some Least Terns fluttering around.  It looked as though there was a little tent city across the way on the north end of Boca Chica Beach, but try as we might, we couldn’t find anything even resembling a booby (although Pat picked out a Ruddy Turnstone on the rocks).  The end of our jetty was packed with fisher-people, however (it was rather amusing looking at the mob through the bins and about all you could see was fishing poles sticking every which way like pins in a pincushion), and we were fascinated by this huge ship being guided into the channel by two pilot boats!

Great Blue Heron

Base of the jetty looking west

Jetty looking east with the monster ship on its way in

Finally giving up on the booby (I didn’t hold out a lot of hope, frankly, but a trip to the Island is always fun regardless) we headed to The Flats, where about the only shorebirds we could pick up were a few Willets and a family of Black-necked Stilts, including some juveniles with crisp buffy feather-edging!  A handful of the regular terns were out there as well, but wrapping that up quickly we pulled into the Convention Centre, where we ran into a worker who told us that there was a fishing tournament going on – that explained the pincushion! J  Pat opted to relax in the shade and watch the now quiet gardens while I checked out the boardwalk:  the East Pond was pretty devoid of bird life except for the nesting stilts, but heading down the north leg to the pier, a Red-winged Blackbird seemed upset with my presence as he danced along the railing, a young Great Blue Heron stood motionless, and Common Nighthawks were batting overhead in broad daylight!  I rested for five under the shelter, hoping a frigatebird might sail by, but it was pretty quiet.  On the way back a Green Heron had replaced the Great Blue, and a Snowy Egret was on a dead stump seemingly fascinated with a leafy branch in the water!  Checking out the other leg I at least heard a Least Bittern cackle, while a Common Gallinule briefly showed, with an unseen chick calling nearby.


Juvie Black-necked Stilt (above and below) - note the crisp feather edging!


Sandwich Terns

Royal Terns

Both together (note the size difference)

Young Great Blue Heron

Young Green Heron

Snowy Egret fascinated by a branch in the water



Pat had picked up a couple of squabbling Brown-crested Flycatchers while I was out, but that was about it for the songbirds.  We bypassed the Birding Center and went straight to Sheepshead, only because one year I had a young Golden-cheeked Warbler show up in the middle of summer, so you never know!  This time I don’t think we had anything but grackles and Collared Doves, so we continued on to the Port Isabel Reservoir (PIR).  First we made a quick visit to the golf course village next door to the PIR, as this was a spot Michael Marsden had cottoned us onto one fall.  Way in the back was another mudflat, but the birds were way out there, and with the heat waves we really couldn’t pick up anything.  So on to PIR, and again Pat opted to stay in the car with the AC running while I checked the place out:  there were several Reddish Egrets out there (mostly white morphs) and some Killdeer and lots of cormorants, but no new shorebirds. L

White morph Reddish Egret

So we headed home after that, picking up a pair of Harris’ Hawks along SR100, and while stopping at the Stripes at Laguna Vista we picked up a handful of Valley songbirds for the day list!  We ended up with a modest 54 species for the morning (the Lesser Nighthawk was singing pre-dawn at my apartment), but the trip was a success in that it got me over 100 for the month (108 to be exact)! J  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Mottled Duck
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Inca Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Lesser Nighthawk
Common Nighthawk
Common Gallinule
Black-necked Stilt
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Killdeer
Ruddy Turnstone
Willet
Laughing Gull
Least Tern
Caspian Tern
Black Tern
Forster's Tern
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Neotropic Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret
Green Heron
Roseate Spoonbill
Turkey Vulture
Harris's Hawk
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
Great Kiskadee
Tropical Kingbird
Couch's Kingbird
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Chihuahuan Raven
Purple Martin
Verdin
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Olive Sparrow
Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Surprise Year Bird

6/15/19 – Boca Chica NWR

As migration grinds to a halt and the temperatures start to rise, the prospect of finding new year birds also slows down:  my year needs list according to eBird was pretty much limited to hitting Bentsen pre-dawn for the Elf Owl I missed during my Hidalgo County Birdathon, or the feral parrots at Oliveira Park in Brownsville, which requires one to be there a little before sunset.  Neither of those options really appealed to me, so I finally decided to do a road-birding route that would include some coastal areas, so I chose Boca Chica Boulevard, which is a route that starts past the Border Patrol checkpoint on SR4, and includes as many of the little side roads that you can explore all the way down to the beach (and even to the mouth of the Rio Grande if the beach is drivable)! 

Much of the habitat along this road is coastal savannah and some thornscrub; the first stop is across the way from the famous Brownsville Dump, so you can at least add Turkey Vultures and Laughing Gulls here, but try as I might, I couldn’t find the Aplomado Falcon nesting platform that used to be there, so it may have been either destroyed or removed.  But that early the Common Nighthawks were calling, and picked up the normal open country birds:  Eastern Meadowlarks were in high numbers, as were Mockingbirds, Bobwhites, Mourning Doves, and even Willets defending their territories (and if they ever split the Willets, only the Eastern breeds here, so that makes it easy)!  The lack of a shoulder precludes regular half-mile stops, but where you can pull over, and where there’s good patches of thornscrub, Olive Sparrows, White-eyed Vireos, and Cardinals also went “over the top”.  In the open areas both Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows were singing (plus a single Lark Sparrow), and at one stop I had a singing Blue Grosbeak.  Many Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were flying around, but I was pleased as punch to see a pair of Fulvous Whistling Ducks fly over the road!

Typical habitat along the Boca Chica Route


There are a few roads that are worth exploring; Gavito Ranch Road is one I don’t usually explore, but I have gone down it while guiding (as it’s one of the few spots where you can get off the main highway and into the refuge habitat), but this time I didn’t get far as the road was mired in mud!  But it was good for Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-tipped Dove, and Long-billed Thrashers.  (While I didn’t pick it up this time, during last year’s RGV Bird Festival we picked up a Groove-billed Ani along here, much to the delight of our group!)

Nope - not this time!

The next good road to explore is Palmito Hill Road, as it’s a nice, wide dirt road that goes through great coastal savannah habitat and some thornscrub.  While it’s great for the sparrows, I was shocked (given the great cactus patches) that not one Cactus Wren showed up!  (Had lots of Bewick’s, though, along with Curve-billed Thrashers…)  Harris’ and White-tailed Hawks can be seen here, but this day a pretty Crested Caracara landed out in the field right next to the car!  Making the “square” added more woodland things like Brown-crested Flycatchers and Verdins, plus a pair of Black-crested Titmice going into their nest hole in a utility pole!  The road basically ends at a “residential” area where you need to turn around, but as I headed back out, I couldn’t believe my ears:  a Yellow-green Vireo was singing!!  I hopped out to at least get a recording, and I did see the little guy dart across the road at one point (the wind was picking up, so although it sounded like he was right there, I couldn’t spot him to save my life)!  Needless to say he went out on the Rare Bird Alert, and by the time the day was over two of my friends had headed over and bagged him for their own year lists – what a blessing (and I had no hope of nabbing any year birds that day)!

Habitat along the start of Palmito Hill Road



Crested Caracara

South side of Palmito Hill Road

Black-crested Titmouse


Everything after that was gravy; before heading down Quicksilver I checked the succulent plants for the restricted Xami Hairstreak, and got a Western Pygmy Blue instead!  Heading on down Quicksilver to the Rio Grande only added a flyover Caspian Tern, and a few stops closer to the flats added some herons, a few Horned Larks, and a skimming Black Skimmer!  This was also my first look at the giant Space-X complex, which hadn’t been built since the last time I was down there; one of my stops was just before the complex, where I first heard, and then found a Wilson’s Plover!  I had checked the tide tables, and the good news was that the tide would be going out by the time I got to the beach, but the bad news was that the wind was so bad and the waves so high that the beach was basically undrivable (except for those brave souls who wanted to risk running over something and ruining their tires…), so I just took a quick look down the beach both ways and over the Gulf, only adding Brown Pelicans and more Laughing Gulls to the list.  

Continuing on...

Another (closed) road into the NWR

Western Pygmy Blue

Odd mud tower made by some insect



Black Skimmer Skimming

Wilson's Plover

Boca Chica Beach

Called it quits after that with a modest 53 species for the morning, but that vireo made the whole trip worthwhile!  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Northern Bobwhite
Common Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Common Nighthawk
Wilson's Plover
Willet
Laughing Gull
Caspian Tern
Black Skimmer
Brown Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret
Turkey Vulture
Harris's Hawk
White-tailed Hawk
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo
Horned Lark
Black-crested Titmouse
Verdin
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Botteri's Sparrow
Cassin's Sparrow
Olive Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Eastern Meadowlark
Hooded Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Northern Cardinal
Blue Grosbeak