Friday, February 26, 2021

A Year Later...

 2/25/21 

Mom Erica and son Jacob were my first guidees since the COVID lockdowns, and they came all the way from Chicago to escape the cold and get Jacob some special birds!  (Ironically, they had to postpone their trip a week, not because of COVID restrictions but because of how badly Texas got clobbered by Winter Storm Uri! L)  But thankfully now the weather here in the Valley was light years apart from what it had been just a week earlier (with record freezes and power outages), so we ended up having a wonderful day!

We started at Estero Llano Grande State Park, where a singing Long-billed Thrasher greeted us along the entrance walkway!  Chachalacas practically sat in our lap on the way to the deck (they probably thought we were the ones with the food J), and the usual contingent of ducks graced Ibis Pond.  Right away Jacob spotted a flyover Caracara, and two Little Blue Herons next to a Tricolored made for a nice comparison.  A dark ibis that flew in looked suspiciously like a Glossy rather than the expected White-faced, with its dark eye, gray face, and a tiny white border along the top of the facial skin (we’ll let the reviewers decide J).  In the distance we were able to pick out some Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, and a single Spotted as our shorebird reps, while a string of White Pelicans sailed by over the horizon.  A Harris’ Hawk flew in and perched on one of the shepherd’s hooks, and Erica noticed he was banded – Bill Clark would want to know about that one!  Mexican Duck had also been reported, so when a “Mottled” Duck with wide white borders to the speculum wheeled in with other Mottleds, I figured we had our bird!  Only closer inspection of the photos and video is making me wonder if it was actually a Mottled/Mallard mix, as there were some curly feathers on the top of the tail, and it did have the apparently diagnostic dark gape mark of the Mottled.  Oh, well!

Two Little Blue Herons (left) compared with a Tricolored Heron (right)

Little Blue Herons

Mystery Plegadis ibis that feedback so far is being called a White-faced/Glossy hybrid based on subtleties in the color of the white stripe bordering the bare face.


Harris' Hawk

Mexican Duck, or a possible Mallard/Mottled hybrid

We went out on the boardwalk a little to hopefully scare up some rails; no luck there, but we did manage to pin down a Cinnamon Teal in Avocet Pond along with the other teal!  Continuing on towards Alligator Lake, a male Yellowthroat finally came out for Jacob, and a Swamp Sparrow peeped but never showed…  We added a nice pair of Gadwall at Dowitcher Pond amongst the other ducks, and a female Ruddy Duck gave a passable view.  Jacob spotted his life Sora at our feet, and Erica got a brief view, but I never did spot it (not surprisingly)!  A handful of Caspian Terns flew over on the way to Grebe Marsh, which was rather quiet, but the night heron show at Alligator Lake made up for it, along with a cooperative Anhinga!  A Verdin miraculously came out of hiding and gave great views, but we tried in vain to spot a tittering Tropical Kingbird on the other side of the canal.  The Pauraque and Screech Owls were no shows, but a flyover Roseate Spoonbill made Jacob’s day!

The hard freeze made Grebe Marsh look like a woodland pond from up north!

Jacob and Erica on the way to Alligator Lake

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Anhinga

Erica shooting one of the cooperative night herons

I had heard some avocets calling from the actual Estero Llano Grande, so we headed up to the levee where we found at least two large groups of them!  We also added a pair of Pintail, but the real prize was a pair of White-tailed Kites floating by and landing in a tree!  After that we headed back to the VC by way of Curlew Pond, where we had good looks at both Least and Pied-billed Grebes. 

American Avocets

White-tailed Kite

Least Grebe

After taking care of necessities we headed back to the Tropical Zone, where we slowly crept through the Green Jay Trail in hopes of finding the female Elegant Trogon that was wintering there.  We didn’t kick up anything (except a Rosebelly Lizard that Jacob found), but Erica commented on how pretty the gurgling Purple Martins sounded! 

Jacob on the Green Jay Trail

Rosebelly Lizard

We then headed over to the park hosts’ feeders, where all the action was!  The Audubon’s Oriole apparently hadn’t been seen in a while, but the female Hooded Oriole showed up right away, even before we got the chairs out! [Update:  after scrutinizing the pictures I'm beginning to wonder if the bird was actually a female Orchard - I'm waiting for feedback from the experts!] Jacob’s most-wanted bird there was the Altamira Oriole, and they didn’t disappoint:  first two green-backed youngsters came in, and before long the black-backed adult worked his way down to the oranges, whistling all the way!  There were also some feeders behind us, and Erica got us on a brilliant Yellow-throated Warbler that was raiding the jelly jar just feet away from us! Titmice and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers came in frequently, along with Orange-crowned Warblers (including a really dull one).  A Green Jay made a very brief appearance, after which we decided to try another feeder where we could hopefully get better looks!

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Female Hooded or Orchard Oriole; Orchard tends to be more olive-looking with stronger wing bars, whereas Hooded tends to have a more orange-yellow hue.




Yellow-throated Warbler

The easy-to-identify Altamira Oriole!

We took the long way around to the Indigo Blind, where a Carolina Wren sang enticingly in front of our faces but never showed… L  (The Black-and-white Warbler was only too happy to investigate, however…)  In the blind itself, it was quiet to start, but a shining Buff-bellied Hummingbird came to check out the feeders while the Red-winged Blackbirds mobbed the trays.  An American Robin (usually rare here in the Valley, but all over the place this winter) hopped around looking for goodies, and eventually a Green Jay came in and gave brief looks!  When more folks came in we decided to head over to the “Picnic Table Feeders”, but not before first checking for the other Pauraque that had been more cooperative at the foot of the trail.  Lo and behold, after a lot of looking, we finally found him (and even then it took a bit of doing to get Erica on him J)!

Female American Robin


Pauraque

Close-up of the face

As usual, it took a few minutes for the birds to get used to us after we sat, but eventually we had more Altamira Orioles, Cardinals, and a Green Jay all within the same binocular view!  A Long-billed Thrasher kept darting in and out, and while Kiskadees were yelling, they never really showed themselves.  Just before we left an Olive Sparrow zipped in and gave shy views!  On the way out we checked the “white shack” for another Screech Owl, but he wasn’t there, either…  I had been hearing Inca Doves but we couldn’t pin one down before heading to the car for lunch at the corner Stripes!

Young Altamira Orioles

A Painted Bunting had shown up at Dan Jones’ yard, so he beckoned up to swing on by!  Erica and Jacob had already seen their Black-bellied Whistling Duck Mob in Harlingen, so I didn’t think I could impress them with the mob at Dan’s, but as they wheeled around and around (the ducks, not the Joneses J), it turned out to be quite the show!  Thankfully we were able to find the one Fulvous Whistling Duck in there that Jacob needed!  A few Neotropic Cormorants flopped around, but nothing else came in while we waited (the wind was really starting to pick up then).

Moon Lake with duck mob

After Erica and Dan chatted about the effect of the freeze on our crops et al, we headed on over to the Silos, where they were also duly wowed by the blackbird/cowbird carpet, and we were able to find two female Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the mix!  A quick swing around the new housing development that was the old Progresso Sod Farms bagged our Long-billed Curlews along with a couple of Cattle Egrets and a Loggerhead Shrike, but the Mountain Bluebirds and Say’s Phoebe had apparently found other hunting grounds…  We were able to find the Burrowing Owl in “his” standpipe on the way to Anzalduas, so that was fun!

Blackbird mob at the Progresso Grain Silos

Can you pick out the female Yellow-headed Blackbird?

Long-billed Curlew

Burrowing Owl

Anzalduas County Park had been closed for months, so I was thrilled to find out it had re-opened!  We did the Pipit March first, but it was so windy we just couldn’t kick any up, although we did see a few Western Meadowlarks, and lots of Turkey Vultures with their token Black Vulture!  A quick look at the river added lots of Coots, a Great Egret, and an Osprey.

Jacob and Erica try to kick up a Sprague's Pipit...

From there we slowly cruised, and at the intersection by the “government area”, three birds swooped up to a small tree that turned out to be Eastern Bluebirds!  I was very happy to see them as I had missed them here for several years in a row, it seemed!  I quickly got over to the shoulder, however, as I joked about how inevitably something good would show up at this corner, I’d stop dead in the middle of the road to film it (with no one in sight, it seemed), and out of nowhere the Constable would show up and “slap my hand”! J  And sure enough, he did show up out of nowhere, but I was safely off the road and we just waved at each other! J

As we turned the corner a beautiful Osprey was perched in a tree, so we swung around to where the light was better for pictures (and got a Kestrel at the same time).  As we approached the dam I talked a little about the flooding from Hurricane Alex in 2010 and how the spillway (where we were hunting pipits) was designed to divert the flood waters away from the populated areas, and also expressed my doubts as to whether the returning Rock Wren would want to play ball with this wind, but we gave it a shot, anyway.  While strolling along the rip rap I spotted some Cave Swallows overhead, but after a while I heard the diagnostic pt-CHEE call!  Erica and Jacob were behind me (as was the wren), and they immediately spotted the bird, playing on the rocks, and just putting on a great show!  It was as though God were saying, “Don’t tell Me what’s impossible!” J

Osprey

The Rock Wren has returned to his winter haunts in the rip rap!



After that we just cruised the rest of the roads, picking up an Eastern Phoebe on a wire, but no Black.  We decided to call it a day after that, but the day wasn’t over, as on the way out along the spillway we spotted Jacob’s life Redhead!  All in all, we ended up with 96 species, despite the horrific wind, and Jacob wound up with over 30 lifers!  Bird list:


Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Gadwall
Mexican Duck (maybe…)
Mottled Duck
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Redhead
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Least Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Inca Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Pauraque
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Sora
Common Gallinule
American Coot
American Avocet
Killdeer
Long-billed Curlew
Least Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Spotted Sandpiper
Caspian Tern
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis (or possibly a hybrid)
Roseate Spoonbill
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
White-tailed Kite
Harris's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Burrowing Owl
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Eastern Phoebe
Great Kiskadee
Tropical Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Loggerhead Shrike
Green Jay
Black-crested Titmouse
Verdin
Purple Martin
Cave Swallow
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Rock Wren
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Carolina Wren
European Starling
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
House Sparrow
Olive Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Hooded Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Black-and-white Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Northern Cardinal

Friday, March 27, 2020

Restrictions Apply

3/26/20 

With our normally busy spring guiding season having gone bye-bye with the travel restrictions set in place as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Birder Patroller Deb was moved to help out and actually hired me to help her with vocalizations!  J  So since Elf Owls had returned to Bentsen (and Whippoorwills were possible), we decided to head into the park an hour before dawn and hear what we could hear!  Thankfully the predicted wind advisory was not to materialize until noon, so it was quite pleasant, with a clear, star-studded sky.  But things were very quiet to start: we did pick up a distant Great Horned Owl (that we eventually got closer to), and a Cardinal was the first songbird to start tuning up.  Ironically it was when the sky started lightening in the east that the Pauraques started sounding off, and at one point we actually spotted one on the road behind us, doing “knee bends” like a Rock Wren, then periodically jumping up to snatch a bug!  The “McCall’s” Screech Owls were softly trilling, and thankfully a pair started calling close to the road so Deb could hear them!

Sadly, that was it for the night birds; the normal players (particularly Couch’s Kingbirds and Mockingbirds) brought the morning to life, and a Long-billed Thrasher started fussing right next to us, giving off all three common call notes (the smack, the duit, and the faaaaaa!)!  A Clay-colored Thrush called, but was a little too distant for Deb to pick out amongst the rising cacophony. 

Instead of “waiting in the dawn” at the resaca as I do on my Birdathons, we continued on and did the loop through Acacia Circle.  We heard a Beardless Tyrannulet do its dear dear dear song near the restrooms, sounding like we were right on top of him, but could we find him??  Of course not!  We finally gave up and continued on, when Deb spotted the Gray Hawk in a tree which was undoubtedly the same one we had heard whistling!  A White-tailed Kite sailed overhead, but in the gloom Deb couldn’t see any detail. 

Once in the loop we spotted a Bronzed Cowbird on the wire and a White-winged Dove in a dead tree.  We then took the Kiskadee Trail back to the resaca, where we found the trail’s namesake on the nest (there were two nests, in fact)!  They had a little spat when one of them tried to bring in some nesting material while the other was still sitting on said nest…  A Verdin was chinking brightly (but refused to come out as usual), and heading over to the resaca an Upland Sandpiper called overhead!  We logged a pair of Pied-billed Grebes and a distant Anhinga; Deb spotted a Great Blue Heron go past, and a Great Egret also flew over the road at one point.  

White-winged Dove

 It was shortly after that as we were headed out (and I was trying to video a singing Cardinal) that one of the rangers pulled up and informed us that they were closing the park! L  Hidalgo County had just issued their own “shelter in place” order the night before, but according to the order (of which I had a copy in my pocket with pertinent lines highlighted), one could still travel to parks and outdoor areas (in or out of Hidalgo County) to “recreate”, so long as you abided by the “Social Distancing Guidelines” (Deb and I had done our part by driving separately…)!  The ranger (who was very nice and really seemed pained to have to break this news to us) said this was a state-wide thing from Texas Parks & Wildlife, so we (along with several other people we passed who were also biking or walking their dogs) were horrified at the prospect that our beloved state parks were now off limits!  (Hold that thought…)



Video grab of a Cardinal

So we continued on, picking up a trio of Chachalacas and a lonely White-tipped Dove at the Nature Center area (they all seemed to be saying, “Where’s our breakfast??” as feeding had discontinued earlier in the month), and somewhere in here I heard a Roadrunner cooing amongst the similar-sounding doves!  Cave Swallows wheeled over the canal area while a single Barn sat on the wire, and the Black Phoebe actually sat up high in a tree near headquarters!  A buzzy “Zoo-zee-zoozoo-zee!” betrayed a Black-throated Green Warbler, who refused to come out…  We went to check the bathrooms (which were closed), logging a singing House Wren and Inca Dove on the way.

Chachalaca finding something else to eat besides oranges...

Barn Swallow

I was in dire need of said bathroom, so we agreed to meet at the El Tigre near the freeway.  While I was taking care of things (and grabbing a package of Ramen noodles that I haven’t been able to find anywhere J) Deb called Estero Llano Grande, where Ranger Javier assured her that “the wetlands awaited”! J  Apparently the decision to close was on a park-by-park basis (the Bentsen ranger told us that Resaca de la Palma had also closed), and I blessed Javier a million times over for keeping Estero open!  Once we got there we headed straight into the Tropical Zone (after enjoying a Long-billed Thrasher in the parking lot that was serenading us), but the migrant show that was so prevalent on Sunday seemed to have had dissipated, as the only warbler we encountered was the ubiquitous Orange-crowned. 

As we strolled, an Olive Sparrow sang his bright bouncing-ball song, and a Myiarchus flycatcher gave a fleeting glimpse, which could have been the reported Great Crested, but we never saw it again (and never heard it call L).  The Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were chattering around that exotic cactus they love, and an accipiter that blasted over revealed his identity as a Cooper’s when he started calling!  Over by the Indigo Blind a female Hooded Oriole wheeped (and got chased off by another), then I tried to remember exactly where Ben had showed me the Great Horned Owl nest!  We ran into a gal named Tracy who had worked with Deb at the RGV Birding Festival, and she pointed the nest out to us, this time with Momma in it!  While we were chatting a Ruby-crowned Kinglet actually sang a little of its bubbly song!

Tracy points out the Great Horned Owl nest (below) to Deb


From there we headed to the drip by way of the butterfly garden, where a Carolina Wren was sitting up and calling in plain sight, but unfortunately Deb couldn’t get on him before he ducked down… L  We gave the two drips about 15 minutes each, where someone had placed some grapefruit that a couple of Mexican Bluewings were taking advantage of!  Eventually a Green Jay and Orange-crowned Warbler came in to the “Pauraque Hall” drip, while only a White-tipped Dove came in to the “Picnic Table” drip.  Black-crested Titmice came to the tray feeder occasionally, and somewhere in here Deb spotted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird!  A Purple Martin wheeled overhead, and a young Altamira Oriole was working on sewing up the ever-present nest on the wire (even if it only consisted of a few strands J)!  The adult came blasting over before we ran into “SalineƱo Mike” and started chatting about the voluminous number of Red-billed Pigeons that were reported along the Seedeater Trail!

Carolina Wren

"Nuts - missed that one!"

Mexican Bluewing

He made it to the grapefruit!

A young Altamira Oriole practices weaving a nest from the wire


Continuing to the Park Host Area, we logged a bunch of Mourning Doves (MODOs to the jaded) and spotted a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers running around on the floor!  From there we decided to check out “Mary’s Drip” at the start of the Green Jay Trail (so called because she was the one to cotton me onto that one J), but since the bench was in the sun and it was currently inactive, we decided to go to the deck and finish the morning there.

We had the usual players in Ibis Pond:  Least Grebes, Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Mottled Ducks, and tons of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks – a whole herd was resting under the “feeder tree” next to the building like so many lazing cows on a hot day!  A Common Gallinule was poking around some lily pads that looked great for Purple (which would have gotten a lot of people excited), and another White-tailed Kite sailed by amongst the Turkey Vultures!  More Purple Martins wheeled around (expected since their martin house was just out of sight), and Deb looked in vain for Vermilion Flycatchers …

Deb on deck

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks



Finding a bit of shade...

The back trail from the Tropical Zone to the VC

We called it a day, but not before watching a little White-eyed Vireo quivering his wings right next to us in the parking lot!  We finished with a modest 61 species for the morning.  Bird list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Mottled Duck
Plain Chachalaca
Least Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Inca Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Common Pauraque
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Common Gallinule
Killdeer
Upland Sandpiper
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Cooper's Hawk
Gray Hawk
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Black Phoebe
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Green Jay
Black-crested Titmouse
Verdin
Purple Martin
Barn Swallow
Cave Swallow
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
House Wren
Carolina Wren
European Starling
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
Clay-colored Thrush
House Sparrow
Lesser Goldfinch
Olive Sparrow
Hooded Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Orange-crowned Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Northern Cardinal