Friday, October 18, 2019

Extra Eyes!

10/18/19 

This was Warren and Sue’s first trip to Texas (coming from my home state of Michigan J), so all of the Valley specialties would be new, but he had a special love for kingfishers and the White-tailed Hawk!  So since we only had a half day, I figured that Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and relatively close-by Laguna Seca Road would be a good pair!  Katinka came with us, and her young eyes proved invaluable!

We actually arrived at the Wetlands a little before dawn, but amazingly the gate to the gardens was open, so we pulled into the parking lot, logging a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks right away!  Heading in to the dusky butterfly gardens, almost immediately a crack overhead alerted us to a flyover Ringed Kingfisher!  The “chepping” Wilson’s Warbler was almost anticlimactic (he wouldn’t show, anyway L), and a cooperative flock of Orange-crowned Warblers moved through the trees.  A Chachalaca that hopped up on an empty tray feeder was a hit, and a Long-billed Thrasher did his duit call, thankfully popping up so that Sue and Warren could get a look!  Green Jays were bouncing through the trees as well, making funny noises as they went, but wouldn’t let us get much of a look…  Olive Sparrows lisped unseen, and an Indigo Bunting pinked from deep in the stuff.  

Katinka readies her new camera while Sue and Warren watch!

We slowly wandered the trails hoping to flush a Pauraque (no such luck), but the early morning light was beautiful, especially along the “Jungle Trail”!  We and eventually made our way to the north pond where all the action was:  a Curve-billed Thrasher gave his rude whistle, and thankfully Warren and Sue were able to spot it!  A Neotropic Cormorant feeding frenzy was in progress (with a couple of Double-crested for good comparison), while we logged Anhinga, several egrets and herons (a young Black-crowned Nightie was a good ID challenge), and a young Common Gallinule.  A pretty Tricolored Heron was a hit, and a single Pied-billed Grebe was down by the spillway.  A Spotted Sandpiper kept acting like he wanted to land at out feet before veering off, and three Belted Kingfishers had a little dogfight.  

Early morning on the Jungle Trail

Checking out the North Pond

Eventually a little Green Kingfisher did fly out over the water and back to shore, but unfortunately Warren missed him, so we headed down towards the canal to see if we could kick him up.  We did manage to spook an adult night heron, but nothing else, so we were headed towards the overlook when Katinka (who was actually retrieving my scope for me J) announced she had the Green Kingfisher!  It was a female, and we all got great looks through the scope!  Heading back, one of the many obstinate Buff-bellied Hummingbirds finally deigned to give us a look; Warren was surprised at how large and dark they were!  We did catch sight of a female Ruby-throated on the way out for comparison.  We heard both Couch’s Kingbird and Kiskadee, but never got on either…

Female Green Kingfisher

Happy with a very productive start to the morning (a kingfisher trifecta is always nice J), we headed up to Laguna Seca Road, going in by way of Miller Road so that the sun would be at a better angle.  The dominant birds along this stretch were dozens of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and while we were stopped to check out a line of tamarisk trees, Katinka and Sue counted at least 30 Scissortails sitting out in the field!  Other wire birds included Lark Sparrows and Kestrels, plus several Loggerhead Shrikes and one meadowlark next to the field.  Pyrrhuloxias were out the yin yang, and Sue was joking about the fact that the bird always seem to fly just when she found the bush it was in! L  A covey of Bobwhite gathered at the side of the road ahead of us, and one by one flew across while their “leader” gave his covey call!  Somewhere during a stop a Broad-winged Hawk was circling with a Turkey Vulture, and we had a Cooper’s bat by at one point.  Several Harriers put in an appearance as well.  On one leg we found ourselves playing Chicken with a huge “Overloaded Truck” (thankfully the lead vehicle made room for us to turn around and take shelter in the driveway we just passed), and there were tons of trucks coming and going further down; it made for quite the dusty road!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Loggerhead Shrike

Our main target here was the White-tailed Hawk, but there were plenty of other goodies; Warren and Sue had visited Southeast Arizona several times (Sue had a sister out there), therefore many of the “back road specialties” were almost yawns to them (except for the Pyrrs J)!  But they had missed Cassin’s Sparrow, so when suspicious titters emanated from the brushy fenceline, we’d try to pull them out, and after several obscured views we finally got one to sit out in the open!  Caracaras were the primary raptor, and several obligingly sat on the power poles as they’re wont to do, and even a pair of Harris’ Hawks did the same, but no Whitetails… L  A Brown-headed Cowbird was keeping a pair of Turkey Vultures company, which led to a discussion about the Kirtland’s Warbler, which is recovering from cowbird predation quite nicely!  A highlight was a Greater Roadrunner perched on a post; it was a life bird for Katinka, as she said they only have the Lesser Roadrunner in her garden!  (I wanna go… J)  She also spotted a kettle, but by the time I could get on it the only thing I could pick out were a couple of Black Vultures.  A pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers showed nicely next to the car, and finally a Golden-fronted latched onto a pole on Warren’s side so he could get a look!  The non-avian highlight along the route was a sunning (and stunning) Giant Swallowtail!

Greater Roadrunner

Giant Swallowtail

Crested Caracara

Laguna Seca Road

We eventually made our way to the south end, where the semi-reliable “Fuertes’” Red-tailed Hawk showed way overhead, but still no Whitetail… L  We had to head home about that time, so we blasted east on FM 490, already planning a trip to La Sal del Rey for Monday, when I heard this soft little voice from the back seat say, “Stop! Stop!”  (I told Katinka that she was gonna hafta learn to yell… J)  I pulled a Uie and crept back to where she had spotted a big, beautiful White-tailed Hawk sitting on a distant wire!  It was too dangerous to get the scope out, but everyone got cracking looks at this beauty!  Katika saved the day again! J

Distant White-tailed Hawk

We wrapped up the outing with a respectable 66 species for the morning!  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Northern Bobwhite
Pied-billed Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Inca Dove
Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Common Gallinule
Spotted Sandpiper
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Harris's Hawk
White-tailed Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ringed Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Eastern Phoebe
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
White-eyed Vireo
Loggerhead Shrike
Green Jay
Verdin
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
House Wren
Bewick's Wren
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
House Sparrow
Lesser Goldfinch
Cassin's Sparrow
Olive Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Eastern Meadowlark
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Orange-crowned Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia
Indigo Bunting

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Frontal Surprise

10/14/19 

Got a knock on my door from our night manager John late Sunday afternoon announcing that the arrival that just checked in wanted guiding the next day, so after a few quick e-mails and a target list, Sandra and I were ready to hit Brushline Road the next morning!  Originally from Brazil and now living in the Hudson Valley with her Irish husband, she had birded many places around the world, but never Texas, so she drove down, hitting the Island and Estero Llano Grande before coming to Alamo, so she had already gotten most of the Valley specialties under her belt.  By this point her “wish list” primarily consisted of back country/western birds, hence the choice of destination this day!

It was a little foggy heading up, but it quickly burned off, and as we slowly cruised up South Brushline (the section south of SR 186) the main players seemed to be Mockingbirds (which would cause a little consternation as the morning wore on J), but a Catbird mewed unseen, and finally a nice pair of Curve-billed Thrashers posed on a dead mesquite!  Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were starting to gather, and amongst them was a lovely female Vermilion Flycatcher!  Lark Sparrows were in good numbers, and looking carefully added a single Clay-colored!  Pyrrhuloxia was high on the list, and Sandra finally spotted a pair next to the road!  By a miracle a Verdin actually came out and perched briefly right on top of a bush at eye level, and my FOS Orange-crowned Warbler popped up as well!  A distant hawk on a pole proved to be her life White-tailed Hawk, and at the “spooky swamp” a young Harris’ Hawk squealed and looked as though he was getting ready to pounce on something!  We heard Horned Larks in the barren fields, and miraculously a single Cassin’s Sparrow jumped up on a stalk!  A couple of handsome Caracaras stood sentry in an open field, and at one stop a pair of Dickcissels flew over, giving their brat call; Sandra could just make out their little pale bodies, but that was good enough to tick!  We were enjoying a pair of Harriers just before we got to 186 when a beautiful dark morph Red-tailed Hawk circled over!  Then, almost at the intersection, Sandra’s life Roadrunner popped into view!  They were almost upstaged by the flock of Pyrrhuloxias feeding on the road next to the berm!

Curve-billed Thrashers (also below)


Lark Sparrow

Female Vermilion Flycatcher (also below)


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (also below)


Loggerhead Shrike

Distant Cassin's Sparrow
  
I decided to cut over to Rio Beef Road and then head directly west on Ken Baker so we’d have the sun to our backs, and am I glad we did:  we stopped to coax a Bewick’s Wren into view when suddenly there was another Roadrunner right next to us (unfortunately behind a lot of branches, making it hard for Sandra to get a shot L)!  We flushed another raptor, and as we got out to look at something else, I heard a Cooper’s Hawk “kekking”, so we figured that’s what it was.  Somewhere in here we had a fussing Long-billed Thrasher sitting out in the open, but at another stop we got out to check some kettling raptors, and in with two Turkey Vultures was this larger, flat-winged brown behemoth with white patchy feathers on his underwing coverts – a young Bald Eagle!!  I couldn’t believe it, as they’re very rare in the Valley (but not unheard of), and this was my first for the area!  (Sandra concurred on the ID, however, as they get Baldies where they are…)  We got distracted by my FOS Sandhill Cranes coming in overhead, but we never could get on the other kettling raptors as they were way up and out by now!


Long-billed Thrasher
  
Sandra on Rio Beef Road

Newly arrived Sandhill Cranes (also below)



We headed down Ken Baker, which was actually pretty quiet (no blackbirds at all), but we did come across another Roadrunner pair by one of the gates!  More Pyrrs were in the brush, and a little further down were some little bodies by the side of the road, and we soon had a covey of Bobwhite literally leaping across the road one by one!  Another target in the bag!  A Cassin’s Sparrow (probably a youngster) was trying out a very half-hearted song, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk batted over at one point.  By the time we got to north Brushline things were quieting down a bit, although Common Ground Doves shot across the road periodically, and a nice Harris’ Hawk sat on a pole.  On the way to the ranch pond we came across a couple of exotic undulates (I thought they were female Blackbuck, but one was obviously a male…), and the pond itself was quite productive:  we picked up both Black-necked Stilts and Avocets, plus a couple of Greater Yellowlegs, a Least Sandpiper, a mob of Killdeer, both Blue-winged Teal and Mottled Ducks, and a few herons, including a Green that Sandra spotted.  A Belted Kingfisher was posing over a Pied-billed Grebe, but the big highlight was another target bird that I wasn’t sure we’d see at all:  about 13 Long-billed Curlews in the field!  That was a real treat! J  But what put the icing on Sandra’s cake was getting out of the car and seeing several Bobwhite right there next to her!  That was hoot!

Roadrunner

Harris' Hawk

Sandra shooting the curlews

We picked up the pace on the way back, hearing Least Flycatchers in stereo, and stopping for a very cooperative and vocal White-tailed Hawk (until I got the video rolling of course L) and made a decision to stop at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands for a shot at the Ringed Kingfisher.  Just past the entrance we sat and rested so Sandra could eat her sandwich, and enjoyed the Chachalacas eating their own lunch at the feeders, plus a Nashville Warbler right overhead!  A White-eyed Vireo serenaded us on the way to the Visitor’s Center, and just before we entered Sandra spotted the “doily” web of a Silver Argiope Orb Weaver! After the gal in the shop told us that the kingfishers were usually seen only in the morning, I wasn’t holding out much hope, especially since they’re so iffy to begin with, but I set up the scope at the deck, and started scanning from right to left as per usual, and guess what – the first thing I laid eyes on was a big fat female Ringed Kingfisher!  (That warranted a shorted version of the Hallelujah ChorusJ)  I jokingly said we could go now (as that was Sandra’s only target there J), but we lingered long enough to enjoy both cormorants species, several species of herons (including four Black-crowned Nighties powering across the lake), a few Anhingas, and even an Osprey!  A Green Kingfisher came shooting at us (it had been sitting near the Ringed), and an Altamira Oriole called from somewhere unseen.  A Buff-bellied Hummingbird buzzed around the Turks Caps enticingly as Sandra tried to get a photo, and a Clay-colored Thrush gave its “ringing” call somewhere in the wooded area, but we never could find it.

White-tailed Hawk (with some down on its nose)

Silver Argiope (commonly called "Doily Spider")

Female Ringed Kingfisher hiding in the shade

It was getting pretty warm by then, but not willing to call it quits quite yet, I suggested we make a run down to Santa Ana to at least try for the Beardless Tyrannulet, which was big on her want list (although she was planning on doing the “big loop” there the next morning), so down we went!  It was really hot by the time we got there, but we dragged ourselves around the Chachalaca Loop; I thought I heard the thing a couple of times, but it never called again.  At the big blind another target, a Sora, called in response to my clapping (that was good enough for the time being, she said), but as we continued on and ran into a feeding flock, I couldn’t believe it:  another target that I really had no hope of seeing was right in front of us – a Yellow-breasted Chat!!  Thankfully Sandra got wonderful looks – in a way that was even better than the tyrannulet!  We also had nice looks at several Texas Spotted Whiptails, a Giant Swallowtail, and the tree snails that the Hook-billed Kites are so fond of.  On the way back to the car we heard a Gray Hawk whistling in the distance.

We called it quits after that with a respectable 84 species for the day!  Bird list:

Blue-winged Teal
Mottled Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Northern Bobwhite
Pied-billed Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Inca Dove
Common Ground Dove
Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Sora
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Killdeer
Long-billed Curlew
Least Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Harris's Hawk
White-tailed Hawk
Gray Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ringed Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Least Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
White-eyed Vireo
Loggerhead Shrike
Green Jay
Black-crested Titmouse
Verdin
Horned Lark
Barn Swallow
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
House Wren
Bewick's Wren
European Starling
Gray Catbird
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
Clay-colored Thrush
House Sparrow
Lesser Goldfinch
Cassin's Sparrow
Olive Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Yellow-breasted Chat
Altamira Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia
Dickcissel

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Just in Time for the Front!

10/12/19 

Amanda and Brandon had never been to the Valley before, so since Amanda had a window of opportunity to slip away from her kindergarten class, they decided to rush down for a long weekend!  Since we only had a half day, the standard destination for a good variety of birds is Estero Llano Grande State Park, and with the first big cold front of the season having come in overnight, I personally was hoping that maybe it brought some good stuff with it!

Thankfully we didn’t have any rain, but the wind and gloom made it a little tough at first:  Couch’s Kingbirds were the first things to actually show themselves (besides a kettle of migrating Turkey Vultures), and White-winged Doves clattered noisily from the trees as we passed by.  The “bitty birds” tended to stay hidden and move fast when they did show:  titmice and gnatcatchers were the main players, but we also had brief looks at Nashville Warblers and a single Black-and-white.  Green Jays and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers finally gave passable views, and a Catbird sat up against the sky, stumping me until it said something (that was Amanda’s guess right away).  A raptor flew by early on that struck me as a Harrier, and continuing on what looked like a Harris’ Hawk flushed, and sure enough, we caught the perp sitting right out in the open for us!  Even though they weren’t stocking the feeders, we decided to sit in the blind for a while, where a couple of Green Jays actually did come in for a peek and gave Brandon some nice photo ops!  The trail behind Ben Basham’s house was overgrown, so we backtracked and took the trail out to the wetlands, pausing to look for the “McCall’s” Screech Owl at the white building (a no-show L).  

Backlit Couch's Kingbird

Amanda and Brandon in the blind

Harris' Hawk

 
Enjoying a Golden-fronted Woodpecker (below)


The wetlands were very productive, however, with several White-faced Ibis and one lone immature White Ibis, several Snowy Egrets and Least Sandpipers, and a couple of Mottled Ducks and Lesser Yellowlegs.  Taking the trail up behind the visitor’s center we had a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at our feet, feeding on the Turk’s Caps, while a Kiskadee flew in and tried to divert our attention!  An Inca Dove was on the tray feeder, and Amanda spotted a Chachalaca deep in the trees!  We needn’t have worried, however, because we shortly saw several on the railing!  Come to find out the Big Sit was going on, and they had spread seed all over the railings and the ground to attract birds that they could log from the circle on the deck!  We apologized for breaking up the party J and said “hi” to the gang (those I knew included Huck, Ranger Javier, and Mary G.), got checked in, then enjoyed more birds from the deck, as the overcast skies made viewing tolerable!  Tons of Blue-winged Teal were around, and a Cooper’s Hawk made a pass through once in a while.  The ibis had moved into their namesake pond, and some subadult Common Gallinules threw Brandon for a loop as they didn’t have their bright red bills yet!  Huck got us on a quartet of Wood Storks sailing over the horizon; unfortunately Amanda missed them, but Brandon did get to see and photograph them, which she said was better as that was a life bird for him (but not her)!

Cattle Egret discovered after the fact...

Amanda and Brandon on the back trail

Plain Chachalaca

Least Grebe

Blue-winged Teal

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Huck had told us that the Screech Owl out by Alligator Lake was in his box, and also where a “backup” Pauraque was in the Tropical Zone in case the standard one didn’t show J, so after stealing a muffin and a couple of ginger snaps that someone had donated to the Big Sitters J we headed out.  Lots of stuff was in Dowitcher Pond, including tons of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, several Least Grebes with a couple of token Pied-bills, and one lonely Coot.  Grebe Marsh was birdless, so we headed on to Alligator Lake where we initially couldn’t find any night herons, but after I told Amanda what to look for on the Pauraque, she actually spotted it!  (Brandon tried to take a selfie with it, but I’m not sure it worked… J)  Unfortunately the owl was another no-show, but I encouraged them to look for the one at Quinta Mazatlan, where they were planning on going later in the day.  From the deck overlooking the lake itself we had a nice male Anhinga (they had never seen one so pretty) and finally an adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron!  Brandon had actually spotted a couple more that were hidden in the brush along the trail, but the Green Kingfisher was a no-show…  (That was another one I told them to look for at SalineƱo when they went…)

Brandon at Dowitcher Pond

Pauraque

Enjoying said Pauraque


Attempting a selfie...

Anhinga

We trudged up to the levee, and that place was hopping:  lots more teal, of course, but also a handful of Shovelers (one male in their crescent-faced eclipse plumage), and several Avocets were a hit!  Long-billed Dowitchers were huddled in little pods, and both Tricolored and Little Blue Herons made a showing amongst the Snowy Egrets.  A couple of Roseate Spoonbills flew by, and down by the trail back to the main part of the park were tons of White Pelicans!  Mary had mentioned that a Blue Grosbeak was calling along the trail behind the Visitor’s Center about the time we came trudging up (but didn’t hear, naturally), so I was glad to hear another one pinking from the waterside vegetation!  The wind finally drove us down the hill…

White Pelicans in the Estero Llano Grande


Interesting cloud formations


A look at Dowitcher Pond from the south end added an immature Little Blue Heron and lots more whistling ducks (we looked hard for Sora, but no banana).  The ibis had migrated over to this pond as well (Mary gave us a great pointer:  don’t worry about trying to pick out a Glossy until November, when the virtually identical immatures have matured)!  Curlew Pond had nothing except a blanket of pretty yellow flowers, so we dragged ourselves onward through the grassland, picking up an Eastern Phoebe somewhere in there.  From the boardwalk we had nice looks at crisp juvenile Least Sandpipers, and at the benches by the restrooms we enjoyed a nice, fresh immature Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Unfortunately while Amanda was “taking care of things,” a non-breeding male Indigo Bunting showed up, as well as a singing Lesser Goldfinch!  She did report seeing the Curve-billed Thrasher that we only heard, however, and I also heard a Hooded Oriole wheep.

Immature Little Blue Heron
 
White-faced Ibis

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  
They were ready to hit the El Dorado after that, so we wrapped up and headed home, with a total of 65 species for the morning.  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Mottled Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Least Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe
Inca Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Pauraque
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Killdeer
Least Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Lesser Yellowlegs
Wood Stork
Anhinga
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Harris's Hawk
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Green Jay
Black-crested Titmouse
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Wren
European Starling
Gray Catbird
Curve-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
House Sparrow
Lesser Goldfinch
Hooded Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Black-and-white Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Cardinal
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting