Friday, May 31, 2019

Birding a New Continent


We received a last-minute call from a family of Swedes wanting to come down and do some birding upon recommendation from a local friend of theirs, so this morning we headed to Estero Llano Grande State Park!  Adrian, a student at UT Austin, had built up his Texas list pretty well in the short time he had lived here, but his folks (Joakim and Elizabeth) had never been to North America before, much less the States, so everything was new!  (His sister Nova was along for the ride… J)  It turns out they knew Kalle Sjolund, a guy who had taken me birding around Stockholm when our choir did a tour there in 2003!  Small world, indeed!

We started off with a bang bagging the local Lesser Nighthawks batting around the Inn, and aside from the computerized climate control in their rented Jeep acting up on the way over there, we arrived without incident!  Adrian volunteered to carry my scope (and my back was supremely grateful by the end of the walk J), so we poked along the Tropical Zone trying to zero in on one bird at a time:  a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers gave a very brief view near the Green Jay Trail, but the Couch’s Kingbird was much more cooperative.  Diligent searching by Joakim paid off trying to track down a close-sounding Carolina Wren, and the Brown-crested Flycatchers finally allowed some decent views.  An Inca Dove and a Clay-colored Thrush kept luring us back to the park host area; the former gave a great look at its display on a wire, but the latter was less cooperative until Adrian (I think) finally spotted him on the ground near the drip!  A Chachalaca showed well (Joakim’s comment that it reminded him of a turaco made sense once I watched the thing fly), and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo let loose and actually showed himself near the picnic table feeders!  I didn’t really expect anything at said feeders since feeding had stopped for the season, but Joakim spotted the coveted Green Jay on one of the dead trees!  Unfortunately Elizabeth missed it, but thankfully another popped up in plain sight along the Kingbird Trail!  A titmouse finally gave us some looks that weren’t against the sky, and Adrian spotted an ani in a tree, which eventually flopped to the other side of the trail and gave better looks, while the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds only gave brief views as they chased the flycatchers around.  The White-tipped Doves sang left and right but never showed themselves until Adrian spotted one bobbing along in one of the old hookup sites!

Adrian and his mom look for the elusive Carolina Wren

Purple Martin

Displaying Inca Dove

Adrian, Joakim, Nova, and Elizabeth in the Tropical Zone


Joakim shoots a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (below)!

Brown-crested Flycatcher

From there we headed to the visitor center, and I was shocked:  the last time I had been there, Ibis Pond was filled to the brim, but this time it was bone dry!! L  I entered the office with, “What happened?!”  The poor gal behind the counter replied that it was just the normal summertime evaporation, and I was really concerned we were gonna dip on some good water birds, but all was not lost:  Avocet Pond on the other side of the boardwalk was filled with Great and Snowy Egrets, plus several Roseate Spoonbills!  After using the facilities I went to find the guys, who were back in the office with my scope, and they had recruited the services of Ranger Jose to tighten up my wobbly tripod – my hero once again! J

Spoonbills and egrets in Avocet Pond

Jose fixes my ailing tripod

We headed towards Alligator Lake, hearing Yellowthroats but not being able to coax them out…  A pair of Kiskadees put on a great show (a lifer for Adrian but ironically not for Joakim and Elizabeth, as they had seen plenty in Paraguay), and Dowitcher Pond had the big party going on, with at least 20 Snowy Egrets squabbling, plus more spoonbills, adult and pie-bald Little Blue Herons, a handful of White Ibis, and a Tricolored Heron to top it all off!  The only shorebirds around were Black-necked Stilts and Killdeer, and several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks joined the party (again ironically, Fulvous would not have been a life bird for Joakim and Elizabeth having gotten them in Africa)!  A Common Ground Dove showed well at the bridge, and Grebe Marsh had an immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron (the adult must have been hiding as the two of them took off, squawking away)!  We looked in vain for Least Bitterns at Alligator Lake, and even more in vain for the Pauraques (although this time of year they’re always tough).  After enjoying the Green Herons at the overlook we started the Pauraque hunt again; Ranger Javier and another lady ranger came by with two trams about then (they were hosting some special needs kids) and after dropping them off at the overlook he came back to help us look, but to no avail.  But in the process of looking the guys found something almost as good:  a momma Olive Sparrow feeding its full-grown baby right out in the open!  A Bewick’s Wren was singing right overhead as well, so as the guys continued Pauraque-hunting I tried to help Elizabeth get on this bird, which ended up giving us only a brief look before wagging its tail at us and taking off…

Party at Dowitcher Pond

Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbills

Snowy Egret mob

Close up of a Snowy Egret

Subadult Little Blue Heron

Great Kiskadee portraits

Even the widespread Mourning Dove was exciting for them!

Texan Crescent (token butter)

Joakim makes sure that we see all the birds on the sign!

The heat was finally starting to take its toll, so we dragged ourselves back to the VC, raided the ice cream cooler J, and discussed plans for the afternoon while enjoying a flyby Caracara:  since the National Butterfly Center still feeds its birds even in summer, we agreed to head over there for the 1:30 feeding in hopes of closer looks at our specialty birds that we got just brief looks at here (plus a chance at the Altamira Oriole, and a real longshot at the vagrant Rose-throated Becard)!  So after a lunch break I joined the guys (the girls bugged out for the afternoon) and we headed over, picking up several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on Military Highway!

When we checked in the guy on duty told us about their Gray Hawk nest, so that’s the first place we went, and got to see the cute, fluffy babies!  On the way back we spotted the coveted Altamira Oriole just west of the Sunken Gardens, and a male Bronzed Cowbird looked ready to do The Helicopter for a couple of lady cowbirds, but ended up running away instead…  We then headed down to the bird feeding area where we spent almost an hour, and after a few false starts most of the chow hounds got used to us and came in for great looks:  the grackles were of course fearless and billing at each other, followed by the mob of White-winged Doves, but the ultra-shy White-tipped Dove finally came out and eventually even landed on the log in front of us!  The Green Jay came in and caused a lot of excitement, and even another Olive Sparrow was spotted skulking along the edge.  Even a Red-winged Blackbird was exciting, but better still was the Altamira Oriole that came in to the oranges!  The Chachalacas weren’t as bold, but they at least came in for views.  A Hooded Oriole wheeped overhead but never showed himself…

The guys settle in for the show!

The Green Jay is at the top of the hit list!

"Man, it's hot out!"

A refreshing bit of orange takes care of that!

An Altamira Oriole comes in and dares anyone to touch HIS orange!

The Chachalaca stayed in the shadows

A White-tipped Dove tentatively sneaks out from behind the water feature...

...and eventually sits right in front of us!

The guys were intrigued by all the Tawny Emperors hanging out on the bait log next to us, so since we had seen pretty much everything at the feeders, I offered to take them butter-hunting, seeing as they were also interested in leps.  There actually wasn’t much action in that category, but we at least got fleeting looks at Giant and Black Swallowtails (the latter actually landed and sunned a bit up on the Hackberry Trail), Zebra Heliconian, and a flyover Crimson Patch!  The Large Orange and Lyside Sulphurs were around as well; I was hoping for the signature Mexican Bluewing, but it didn’t happen… L  (Neither did the becard, actually…)  Adrian spotted one of the baby Altamira Orioles we were warned were back there, and on the way back the guys did get a brief look at the White-eyed Vireo, and we of course had to say hello to Spike the Tortoise, but unlike past visits he opted out of running over for a handout and stayed in his nice cool shelter! J

Spanworm Moth (best guess, anyway...)

Female Black Swallowtail
I didn’t realize you could drive into the “back 40”, but the guy encouraged us to photograph the map they had on display and head on back!  At the levee I heard a Black Phoebe, so Joakim pulled over and we all piled out, finally finding the little guy in a stick!  Heading on, I was thrilled, as I had never been back to this area, and the guys were interested in seeing the Rio Grande (so they could work on their Mexican lists J)!  The habitat was gorgeous (I definitely plan on road-birding that again), and the overlook at the Rio Grande was stupendous (much prettier than Anzalduas, which was where I was planning on taking them to see the river)!  We managed to add Green Heron, White-winged Dove, Purple Martin, Cave Swallow, Great-tailed Grackle, and a singing Olive Sparrow to their Mexican list!  (The Black Vulture that circled over never made it out of US air space…)

Red-tailed Pennant

View from the levee

Back 40 habitat

Rio Grande from the overlook

We really needed to head home after that, but the guys were happy, and their day wasn’t over yet, as Keith was gonna take them parrot hunting that evening!  For the day we logged a modest 57 species, which wasn’t bad considering the heat…  (And the good news was that their AC started working again!)  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Rock Pigeon
Inca Dove
Common Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Groove-billed Ani
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Common Gallinule
Black-necked Stilt
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Gray Hawk
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
Black Phoebe
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
White-eyed Vireo
Green Jay
Purple Martin
Cave Swallow
Black-crested Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren
Clay-colored Thrush
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Lesser Goldfinch
Olive Sparrow
Hooded Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Cardinal
House Sparrow

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