Monday, November 30, 2015

Two Couples from Seattle Hunt for Targets

13-14 NOV 15

[Note:  names were changed to protect privacy, but Ed (Ernest) posted his own version of the whole trip, which can be viewed on the next blog, so you're gonna get their real names anyway... :-): ]
            I ran into Brody and crew in Portal, AZ, last August while feeder-watching, and while we were sharing stories I had mentioned that I had just been hired at the Alamo Inn B&B, and that if they were considering coming to south Texas to bird that they should stay with us!  Well, he actually took me up on it J and he and his wife Danielle, along with his friend Ernest and his wife Dee, arrived on the 12th, and we all went birding Friday and Saturday!  The weather forecast had been dismal all week, but miraculously the morning of the 13th the chance of rain up in Salineño went down to 10%, so we decided to head up there first (but not without driving through some pretty good squalls to get there).  Before we left we bagged Tropical Kingbird right across Main Street in the little city park!

            It was good to see Merle and Lois again (the steadfast Winter Texan couple who faithfully stocks the feeders at Salineño), but I was saddened to hear that their loveable dog Jake had died.  But their two Maltese were as cute and friendly as could be (until the couple with the longhair dachshund showed up)!  Audubon’s Oriole was the main target here, and we didn’t have to wait long for him to show up, giving everyone great views!  It took a little longer for his cousin the Altamira Oriole to show up, but eventually the crew got decent looks of many of their targets:  Long-billed Thrasher, Green Jay, White-tipped Dove, Black-crested Titmouse, and even Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Kiskadee were a hit!  An Olive Sparrow showed up briefly, and I think everyone got at least a glimpse of him before he was upstaged by the Hispid Cotton Rat!  Even the lone Bronzed Cowbird was exciting for them!
Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Audubon's Oriole

Green Jay mug shot

Altamira Oriole

Heading to the feeders
            After we had gotten our fill of the feeders we meandered down to the boat ramp, where it was pretty quiet bird-wise but several fishermen had the place staked out (Ernest practiced his Spanish on them J)!  Downriver was a distant cormorant that a scope proved to be a Neotropic, and a couple of Ospreys were patrolling the joint, but the star of the show was a Zone-tailed Hawk that circled overhead!  We poked down the trail a little, but I didn’t realize there had been a fire in there; the place was pretty ravished.  But we did manage to spook a nighthawk that (thanks to Brody’s photo) we were able to pin down as a Lesser, and indeed John Arvin’s checklist shows that they do hang around here until mid November!
Mediocre shot of the Zone-tailed Hawk

Lesser Nighthawk
            Since they already had the typical southwestern species under their belts, we decided to skip Falcon SP and head back to Bentsen (or Anzalduas if it was raining by the time we got there).  We stopped for lunch (where the guys got their life Cave Swallow in the rain) then drove through another cell in Rio Grande City, but by the time we got to Bentsen it was only dripping, and then soon stopped altogether!  But on the way down Bentsen Palm Drive the guys spotted a hawk hunting low in the field, and Brody did a Uie so we could get better views (as the bird had landed); turned out to be a young White-tailed Hawk which gave wonderful scope views!  Two more youngsters were flying around, and soon all three were circling!  A Caracara had also been sitting in the field earlier on.

            Once in the parking lot we went on a sapsucker chase for a few minutes, but seeing as it was getting late I wanted to try and get them on the Eastern Screech Owl Ranger Roy had staked out for the RGV Bird Festival folks, so I had them bird the gardens in search of their Buff-bellied Hummingbird (and the Tropical Parula if it was around) while I checked us in and got our “bands”.  Sure enough, they had found one (the hummingbird, that is)!  We made a cursory check at the canal for Green Kingfisher (nada), then headed to the Gatehouse Feeders where I was hoping a Clay-colored Thrush would come in.  Everyone got killer looks at Chachalacas instead (and more Green Jays of course), but when it became apparent that the tram wasn’t coming any time soon I suggested we walk on down to the Pavilion area.  Some Red-shouldered Hawks were screaming, and shortly thereafter a Gray Hawk joined in.  Once down to the grove, someone thought they heard a Ringed Kingfisher, so we meandered down to Kingfisher Overlook, but there wasn’t anything except another Osprey, I believe.  So we wandered over to the restrooms, and I was warning everyone to approach carefully, only after careful scrutiny we saw that Mr. Owl had flown the coop (and not only was this a lifer for them, but it’s a candidate for a split as well).  So then we floated over to Green Jay Blind where we enjoyed the namesakes trying to avoid being eaten by a Sharp-shinned Hawk patrolling the area (although there was some discussion that it could have been a male Cooper’s as well)! 

            We finally dragged ourselves away and poked back down the road to the visitor’s center, where an Orange-crowned Warbler was showing off.  I directed Brody to take West Military Highway to avoid the freeway construction, and in doing so we had two beautiful White-tailed Kites (and also a nice Harris’ Hawk somewhere along the way)! 

            We made it back safe and sound, deciding to hit Estero Llano Grande the next day, but with continued reports of Hook-billed Kite, Brody greeted me the next morning with the desire to hit Anzalduas first, which sounded great to me!  After we gathered everyone together I asked if they needed Monk Parakeet, which they did, so we took a swing through Hidalgo first.  I was sweating a little, however, as the parakeets weren’t hanging around their nests, but suddenly Brody spotted a small silent group on the wires, and everyone jumped out to get great looks at yet another life bird! J

            From there we headed to Anzalduas, where we found three species of swallows all lined up on the wire over the spillway, and then ran into a gal who was on a couple of the field trips I led for the RGV Bird Fest!  She was looking for Sprague’s Pipits (I told her, and my crew, that here that involved forming a scrimmage line and walking through the field, so they passed on that), but she did say the Greater Pewee was still around, so we thanked her and headed for the river.  As always, my clients were amazed that Mexico was “right there” (to say nothing of the fact that, at this point in the river, you’re actually looking north into Mexico)!  One of the gals spotted a Green Kingfisher sitting across the river on the little “island”, and Dee did hear a distant Ringed Kingfisher, but alas, we never saw the guy.  We worked the trees there for warblers and picked up a Black-throated Green for the day.  I was also able to feign exuberant excitement over a House Finch teed up on a tree (although considered accidental in the Valley, this otherwise widespread species can be reliably found at Anzalduas)!  But the best bird was feeding next to a Great Egret out in the river: a young Reddish Egret dancing away!  (These birds are expected on the coast, but are rare anywhere inland…)
Distant shot of the young Reddish Egret - expected on the coast, but rare inland!

The gang works the trees for warblers

House Finch, considered "accidental" in the Valley, believe it or not!
            Heading over to the pewee spot, we ran into a group of birders who already had the bird, so my gang was able to get another easy lifer!  I was pleased to see a few Eastern Bluebirds sail in, and soon they joined another feeding flock where we were able to pull out both White-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos, a Black-and-white Warbler, a knockout Yellow-throated Warbler, a few Chipping Sparrows, and my personal favorite, an “Audubon’s” Warbler (which is a “junk bird” to Washingtonians, of course)!  Raptors were quite plentiful, and we had a Hookbill false alarm for a minute when what looked like a very fat-winged raptor went sailing away from us and behind the trees!  If it was indeed the same bird that reemerged, it turned out to be a young Harris’ Hawk, but in addition we had a young Broad-winged Hawk, an adult Swainson’s, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a beautiful pearly Gray Hawk that put on a show!  There were lots of vultures of both flavors around, and we ran into my RGV Fest friend again valiantly trying to turn one into a Zonetail!  But a real odd-looking “raptor” flying overhead turned out to be an Anhinga!
The continuing Greater Pewee

Female Vermilion Flycatcher
            Deciding to give up on the Hookbill, we continued on to Estero, where we enjoyed lunch on the deck and the Coots in Ibis Pond.  A couple of young Black-bellied Whistling Ducks had us going for a minute (we were specifically looking for Fulvous), but it was good lesson on key field marks to look for in each species.  Dee was able to get a satisfying look at a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at the feeders, and Danielle enjoyed the Golden-fronted Woodpecker coming in to oranges off the deck!  When we were finally ready to hike, we went straight to Alligator Lake, where we enjoyed views of both night heron species, and thanks to a gentleman who wandered by with his camera, we all got knockout views of the resident Pauraque after he pointed it right out to us!  We then snuck around the back way to see if the resident Eastern Screech Owl was sitting in his hole, but he wasn’t, so it was yet another dip on this coveted species.  The big mama Alligator lazing up on the bank at the overlook somewhat made up for it!

Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

Snoozing Pauraque
            Park host Huck Hutchins had another owl staked out, so we made our way back to the Tropical Zone, but not before climbing up onto the levee to look for the Groove-billed Anis, a bird that normally clears out in the winter but a few always seem to hang around.  I wasn’t sure exactly where on the levee they were, so after enjoying some Avocets and Shovelers in the actual Estero Llano, we headed east, and it wasn’t long before some black things flopped into the bushes!  Anis!!  Shortly they decided to show themselves, and everyone got great looks at their honkin’ noses and eventually heard their squeaky calls!  Miraculously a Verdin finally decided to show himself as well!  Heading back down the levee we added several herons and a couple of Roseate Spoonbills to the list, along with one of the same White-tailed Kites we had seen during the Bird Fest sitting in the same tree!

            Then it was time to find Huck’s owl, but we kept getting waylaid by various ducks, Indigo Buntings, and a variety of sparrows that included Savannah, Field (thankfully Brody got a picture as it was flagged by EBird), and Swamp!  At the boardwalk on Ibis Pond another target bird, the Least Grebe, started trumpeting, and we finally got on a close one and saw his yellow eyes!  Several Soras actually showed themselves, but I didn’t want to keep Huck waiting too long, so we hustled back into the Zone where he had the fluffiest Screech Owl just sitting pretty on his stump!  The crew was thrilled, and I advised them to bank this one (“McCall’s Screech Owl”) in case the rumored split became a reality!  Huck also told us about the Crazy Ant problem, and we were all shocked to see how they had even invaded an electric meter!  A Couch’s Kingbird was “pupping” near the old shuffleboard courts, so that was another target “ticked” off, and Huck showed us another Pauraque (another backup in case I couldn’t find the regulars on a future trip).  More American Robins made themselves known, but alas, no Clay-colored.  Someone did spot another gorgeous Altamira Oriole, but unfortunately another target bird, a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, did one wheeeK! and then shut up…
Female Northern Pintails

Female Indigo Buntings

Enjoying Least Grebes from the boardwalk

"McCall's" Screech Owl
            We were pretty beat after that, so we headed home, but talk about the Green Parakeet Show on 10th Street got everyone excited again, so we headed over there with plans for dinner afterwards!  I advised Ernest just to cruise up 10th with the windows down, and when we heard some, we went careening into the nearest parking lot and got great views of the parakeets staging on the wires (we were especially entertained by those that would hang upside down and preen each other)!  Not only that, but we happened to park under a little oak tree where they eventually all came screeching in, chowing down on acorns!
Snapping the Green Parakeets in urban McAllen!

Playful parakeets


            We had a great celebratory dinner after that at The Blue Onion, then headed back to the Alamo Inn with well over 100 species for the day!


The Birder Patrol Tackles Sparrow Road

We were wondering if we were even gonna have a Birder Patrol outing this month, as the rain threat was up to 70% at one point!  But the threat pretty much went away by Friday, but it was cold and windy (our British visitors – Ken, Sally, and Roger – thought they were back home J)!  For the uninitiated, the Birder Patrol is an organized field trip held the fourth Saturday of every month (except December), the proceeds from which go to support the educational endeavors of the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society.  Our destinations are generally out-of-way-spots that most visiting birders (or even locals) don't explore on their own, and we also take into consideration what rarities have been reported during the month.  This month some Mountain Plovers were reported along Jara Chinas and 14 Mile Road, which is part of the "Sparrow Road Route", a route on the far western edge of Hidalgo County and is famous for (of course) sparrows, plus other "western" type birds. The Brits (who were staying at the Alamo Inn at the time) got wind of the Mountain Plover report and were very interested, so I invited them to come along!  As it turned out, they were the only takers along with a Russian gentleman named Slava and his wife Lori (now living in St. Louis), with Pat Heirs and I leading the group.
After picking the Brits and Pat up at the Alamo Inn we all headed to the Whataburger in La Joya, where Slava and Lori joined us, after which we headed up the road!  Despite the weather we did have a good selection of sparrows (Slava was thrilled to get the Black-throated as it was a life bird, but because he was the tallest of us all he was the only one to actually see it), including a single Lark Bunting that only those of us in the front car got to see (it took off the minute I ID’d it).  We had several Vesper Sparrows, and one Cassin’s sat up on the wires.  Pat stopped at a field where a probable Prairie Falcon scared up the meadowlarks, but it was gone before she could get a good look; she said it was definitely a large falcon and certainly pale enough for a Prairie, so I wouldn’t doubt it!  She also spotted a Say’s Phoebe way across the field, but thankfully another one flopped next to the car a little further up the road. 
L-R:  Ken, Sally, and Pat along Jara Chinas Road (aka "Sparrow Road") with Slava shooting something in the background...
The wind kept most of the stuff down, but we had a tremendous flock of blackbirds block our path for a few minutes, and we had several young White-tailed Hawks put on a show before a nice adult took off for us.  The most numerous raptor was the Caracara, and down a side road a Black Vulture perched on one of the tankers, which was a life bird for Roger (and a new bird for the route for me)!
A moment before, this Red-winged Blackbird flock literally covered the road!
  A little woody patch had a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers, but Slava photographed a Chipping Sparrow that none of us were able to relocate, and Sally got on a Yellow-throated Warbler that was for her eyes only (what else would be black and white with a yellow throat??)!  At the Mountain Plover spot, the place was empty except for meadowlarks and Lark and Vesper Sparrows, but a huge flock of Horned Larks absolutely captivated the Brits (they also have Horned – Shore – Larks, but not in these numbers)!  We were to see more and more of them along the “square”, along with a couple of Long-billed Curlews.  We were hoping for geese in one of the fields but only had two Whitefronts fly over.
Vesper Sparrow in the "Mountain Plover Field"
Once at the north end everyone pretty much went their own way - Slava and Lori to do more photography and the rest of us to head back to Alamo!


Monday, November 23, 2015

The Guys from Seattle

17 NOV 15

            After seeing the wives safely off on Sunday, the guys had agreed to let me take them down Old Port Isabel Road (OPIR), as I convinced them that their low-slung rental was no match for that rutted dirt road!  I was pleased to hear that in the meantime, they had nailed Clay-colored Thrush at Santa Ana, and had even braved the three-hour drive to Choke Canyon SP where they bagged the juvenile Jacana, and picked up their coveted Fulvous Whistling Ducks to boot!  Today’s targets included Aplomado Falcon, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, Least Bittern, and Red-crowned Parrot.

            Temps were pleasant, but the wind was horrendous ahead of the advancing cold front (that had spawned massive tornadoes in the Panhandle, I found out later), and when we arrived at OPIR, I was aghast that we were being passed by numerous tractors, utility trucks, and big rigs!!  The most traffic I had ever had on that road was the occasional pickup!  At the railroad tracks what I thought were distant White Pelicans at first were actually Wood Storks, and a young Reddish Egret posed for pictures (a little more inland than normal, but at least not as inland as the Anzalduas bird)!  Before long we discovered the reason for all the vehicular activity:  apparently a big rig had been deployed to work on one of the high electrical towers, and had gotten bogged down in the muck!

Young Reddish Egret along Old Port Isabel Road
            Once we got past the workers, we picked up a few expected open country birds despite the wind, including Eastern Meadowlark, Long-billed Curlews, and Caracara.  The seasonal wetland was stuffed with birds:  mostly Coots but also Ruddy Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and both species of grebe.  But at the three-mile mark we hit the jackpot:  in the distance we spotted a medium-sized falcon flying up and down and all around, giving great views of his black belly band – Aplomado!!  He was shortly joined by a second bird, and the guys were delighted with how they were interacting with each other!

            Rather than risk running into worse conditions than we had (“Diggory,” my Subaru Outback, had already gone “swimming” twice along the road), we turned around at that point, picking up a very cooperative Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the way out, and headed over to the Highway 48 Boat Ramp to try for the oystercatcher.  We dipped on that, but saw lots of another target bird, the Black Skimmer, resting and flying around!  Brody carefully scrutinized every bird and added several shorebirds and larids to the day list, including a couple of Gull-billed Terns.
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
            Next stop was South Padre Island, and Ernest especially was struck with all the high-rises!  We headed first over to the bayside access just north of the Convention Centre, where the tide was out and the shorebirding was fabulous!  (The Germans came on the wrong weekend; see the very first blog… J)  Right away we got killer looks at many Piping Plovers, including one with several color bands and a flag!  We drove right up to Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and even a single Snowy Plover for comparison!  The “big flock” included both flavors of pelicans, five species of tern (including Common, which is actually uncommon this time of year), more skimmers, and all three expected gulls.  But the highlight was a huge immature Magnificent Frigatebird that came sailing over low; we all agreed that he almost upstaged the Aplomado! J 

Piping Plover - the combination of color bands and flags helps researchers track the individual birds

Western Sandpiper

Just a small portion of the "big flock"

Snowy Plover

Both Brown and White Pelicans

Immature Magnificent Frigatebird

Caspian Tern

Common Tern (rather uncommon this time of year)

A recreationer stirs things up...

Next we headed to the Birding Center (they have the best restrooms J), as I often get an oystercatcher in the back area.  No go this time, but Ernest did spot a Northern Parula near the new water feature!  We decided to work the boardwalks for their Least Bittern, and on the way to Blind #5 (where they had been spotted recently), we spotted the same Alligator as the Germans enjoyed (hadn’t moved), and lots of Mottled Ducks, Common Gallinules, and calling Clapper Rails.  The distant mudflats had two Marbled Godwits, and the guys enjoyed close views of feeding Tricolored and Little Blue Herons; on the way out to one of the bay overlooks a white morph Reddish Egret stood on the railing just inches away!  The pond that can be viewed from both sets of boardwalks (the Convention Centre’s and the Birding Center’s) had a big flock of Redheads, along with some American Wigeon, Pintail, and a couple of Roseate Spoonbills! Ernest got a glimpse of a Least Bittern as it flew from one patch of reeds to the other, but Brody was the one who really needed it for his life list, so we spent some time hanging around that area.  In the meantime we had both Peregrine and Merlin zoom past, making it a four-falcon day (along with numerous Kestrels along the way)!  The guys got their prepared lunches and went back to keep watch while I took care of some business, and on the way back in to the center a strange teep drew my attention to a young Pyrrhuloxia in the little tree next to the sidewalk!  There were some serious rain cells coming our way, so I wanted to warn the guys, but thankfully Brody had finally seen his bittern! J  So we headed back to the center, but not before Ernest spotted mama Alligator and several babies on her back!  That was amazing!

Mottled Duck

Looking for Least Bitterns
Look hard for the baby Alligator on momma's head!
Coots greeting each other

We made one last attempt for the “out back” oystercatcher, adding a Catbird and some Indigo Buntings instead.  A quick look at the mudflats near the KOA campground yielded nothing, so we decided to give the Hwy 48 Boat Ramp one last try before heading to Brownsville.  Still no oystercatcher, but just before we were ready to call it quits, a Franklin’s Gull flew in and joined the Laughings, and with careful scrutiny we found several in the flock!  That was a nice addition!

We felt the cold front hit with a vengeance (and we could see the rain squalls all around us), so we piled in Diggory and headed down to Oliviera Park with the idea that since it was getting dark so early, the parrots might start staging early!  We actually started getting a little concerned, as when we arrived, there wasn’t a squawk to be heard for a long time, until after about 15 minutes I spotted a large flock wheeling around at the other end of the park!  We were undecided about whether to move or not because they’d first come close, then head off again, then act like they were coming back!  They finally sounded like they had landed, so we headed over to where we saw them go down (along with several other birders who wheeled in at about the same time J) and enjoyed them chowing down on some anacua berries!  The guys were ecstatic; despite the failing light they got some passable pictures, and before long the smaller White-fronted Parrots came flying in, their higher and faster chep-chep-chep calls very evident, while the Redfronts gave their distinctive cleo-chop-chop calls along with several other conversational sounds!  We couldn’t find any of the Red-lored, Lilac-crowned, or Yellow-headed Parrots that often hang around, but the guys were happy with the Redcrowns, as those were the “countable” ones!

Red-crowned Parrots chowing down on Anacua berries

We padded the list with one of the feral Muscovies you can always find in Brownsville (they were very close to making 200 for their Texas trip), then had a celebratory dinner that night; I personally ended the day with 94 species, and we probably would have broken 100 had the wind not been so bad and we could have picked up a few more songbirds!  My personal list for the three days of guiding (theirs would be much bigger, of course) was 167!


Monday, November 16, 2015

Mom and Daughter Take a Break from the Butterfly Tour to Bird!

27 OCT 15

[Note:  names are changed to protect identity…]

            We had a mom and daughter team here on a butterfly tour, but they wanted to do a little birding on the side, so I was called in to be their guide!  Mom Bonnie and her husband (who didn’t come on the trip) were experienced birders and had been to the Valley before, but Tara was new, so almost everything was new for her!  So since we wanted to avoid the places they’d be going anyway on their butterfly tour, we first hit Anzalduas County Park (with a quick check at Granjeño for the Burrowing Owl – he wasn’t there, but a Cooper’s Hawk blasted by instead) where Bonnie was amazed at how blue the Rio Grande looked!  (Being able to look right into Mexico like that is always a big hit! J)  A Kestrel greeted us on the entrance road, and crossing the dike we had several shorebirds in the semi-flooded field; most were Killdeer, but we also had a few Least Sandpipers in with them. 
Dike over the floodway heading into Anzalduas County Park
We had barely passed the entrance shack before Tara spotted a “red bird” at the top of a small tree, and sure enough, a lovely Vermillion Flycatcher was flycatching!  I jokingly groused that someone had taken my favorite parking spot by the river (J - the fisher people were in early; in fact, a couple pulled in right behind us asking if we were fishing or birding!  They were relieved that we weren’t taking their favorite fishing spot… J) and pulled out the scope when one of Anzalduas’ signature birds, a Black Phoebe, started flopping around on the wire fence line!  He was joined by a female Vermilion, so we got great looks at these two little aerial acrobats!  There wasn’t much of anything on the river except a Great Blue Heron, so we walked along the edge where a large flock of birds in the big field turned out to be my first Western Meadowlarks of the season!  I heard a Ringed Kingfisher, and sure enough, he rowed by over the river and gave great looks!  We heard some warblers in the trees but could only pull out a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Orange-crowned Warbler (after which came the cracks about how you couldn’t see the orange crown…).  On the way back to the car I was commenting on how glad I was to get the Ringed Kingfisher (not a sure thing by any means) when he wheeled around and gave an encore appearance over our heads!
Anzalduas habitat
Black Phoebe, at the eastern edge of its range here!
            From there we just cruised slowly around the park, making a stop at the “Secret Trail” hidden back by the dam that a friend had told me about.  You could still peek into a small window behind the dam from there; it looked like several Spotted Sandpipers were bouncing along the rocks.  We had a warbler in there that could have been a Nashville, but we just didn’t get a good enough look, but the consolation prize was a nice Couch’s Kingbird that landed over our heads and proceeded to eat a wasp! 
Window into the back area of the dam from the "Secret Trail" (and that's Mexico across the way...)
Continuing the loop, I pointed out a couple of Bronzed Cowbirds to them, and at one stop I heard a House Finch go over and had to explain that these birds are considered accidental in the Valley, even though they’re a “junk bird” everywhere else; Anzalduas is actually one of the more reliable spots to get this bird.  In the distance I heard a Gray Hawk; many heard-only things were just too far away to try to pin down.

            No sign of the Zone-tailed Hawks, so we headed over to Quinta Mazatlan as Tara wanted to see Chachalacas, and there you have to practically kick them out of the way!  Right in the parking lot were several Clay-colored Thrushes, and at the start of the old Birding Trail we heard a Black-and-white Warbler singing!  That was another “want bird” for Tara, so we headed in, trying to pish it out (in the meantime she was asking me what this grating sound was; I said it sounded like a frog of some kind, but as we got closer we discovered it was the domestic ducks next door…).  No luck, even though we got a couple of unseen Wilson’s Warblers to respond.  Over at the new pond, several Red-bordered Pixies were nectaring, which was very exciting, seeing as that’s one of our signature butterflies!  Swinging around the back of the mansion, the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were playing hide and seek, but one finally allowed us to get a good look at the feeders, which we hit just as a field trip was leaving.  In a little alcove a Long-billed Thrasher called and let us get a head look, while several more Clay-colored Thrushes zipped in and out, feeding on the berries that were there (I never thought I’d see the day when I’d say, “Just another [Clay-colored] Thrush!”)!  Sitting at the feeders a lady Golden-fronted Woodpecker was raiding one of the hummingbird feeders, and off to the side a Curve-billed Thrasher gave us great looks while giving his rude whistle!  Some Olive Sparrows called behind us (but wouldn’t show themselves naturally), but on the way out a nice fat Chachalaca walked out onto the trail and strutted his stuff!
Showing a Chachalaca to a school group

Red-bordered Pixie
            Next stop was Edinburg Wetlands, which I had touted as another great butterfly stop.  We headed straight to the South Pond (on the way to which another pair of Ringed Kingfishers flew overhead), which was disappointingly empty except for some Neotropic Cormorants and some egrets.  On the way back, however, Bonnie spotted a Black-and-white Warbler crawling along one of the mesquites!  Tara was able to get a great look (well, we all did, really J), so that was fun!  House Wrens were giving us fits with their varied calls, and somewhere way back in the bushes a Bewick’s Wren gave its zhrink zhrink call. But once out in the open, we saw streams and streams of Turkey Vultures going by, then kettling as they caught a thermal!  (I had heard news from further north that thousands of vultures were headed our way, so I wasn’t too surprised…)  A pair of Ospreys circled overhead, and in the parking lot we saw another thermal with three Swainson’s Hawks in with the TVs!  We saw another Long-billed Thrasher, but again the North Pond didn’t have much except a few egrets, but one of the Ringed Kingfishers had landed along the edge giving great scope views!  Pied-billed Grebes were new for the day, and a Tricolored Heron was nice to see.  Tara spotted a Common Gallinule with its pretty red bill, but I couldn’t even find any Black-bellied Whistlers, which is usually a staple here!
Turkey Vulture kettle
            We had to get back, so we headed down to Alamo with a grand total of 61 species for the morning!

A Film Crew from Germany gets a Taste of Birding and Storm-Chasing!

23-24 OCT 2015

            My first “official” assignment as a guide for Alamo Inn B&B was to accompany a naturalist/TV journalist from Germany named Ina and her videographer Andreas on a quest to find “flocks of birds” for a documentary TV show, spotlighting the Lower Rio Grande Valley as a tourist destination, particularly for birding.  They were here at the invitation of South Texas Nature, an organization that is working to promote nature tourism here in the LRGV to places not only in North America but in Europe as well.  So we were hoping that this German team would be impressed with what the Valley had to offer in the way of nature tourism!

            However, nobody counted on Hurricane Patricia arriving on the scene at the same time! L  They flew in Thursday night, and thankfully the rain that was predicted for Friday stayed away for the most part, so I picked them up around 7:30 Friday morning and headed for Sabal Palm Sanctuary to shoot feeder birds and waterbirds from the blind.

            The lady on duty said the mosquitoes were very “friendly”, so we sprayed up, packed a couple of Off Wipes, and headed to the feeders after doing a couple of takes of Ina and myself coming out of the Rabb House!  I explained that this was one of the last strongholds of the Sabal Palm, which used to occur all along the Rio Grande here in the Valley.  After a few takes of us walking up on the platform, another volunteer arrived with the morning vittles, and before long the Green Jays were attacking the feeders!  A lone White-tipped Dove poked around down below, and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird buzzed around unseen, but chattering up a storm. 
Shooting Green Jays at the feeders


After that we headed to the blind (with several more takes walking in and out of the structure; no wonder “extras” say that acting for TV shows and movies is so tiring!) where several Black-bellied Whistling Duck families swam around (and also came flying in), and Kiskadees flopped around the dead trees.  I was impressed when Ina (a biologist but not a birder) said, “There’s a kingfisher!”  Sure enough, a Green Kingfisher was perching on the same tree as the Kiskadee!  (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, as their Common Kingfisher is about the same size and shape…)  Both Least and Pied-billed Grebes poked around, and both Ina and Andreas were able to get nice views through the scope.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

View from the blind
            What they were really hoping for, however, were huge flocks of birds, which (granted) can be hit or miss, especially this time of year (come back in about a month, and maybe we can find some cranes and geese)!  But we’d do our best, so I thought maybe the famous Highway 48 Boat Ramp would come through (and since it was overcast, the glare of the sun wouldn’t be a problem).  The area’s signature bird (American Oystercatcher) didn’t show, but right away three Black Skimmers went sailing by, yelping as they went!  There was a sizeable flock of Laughing Gulls with a few skimmers on an island to the south, but it was a ways out there.  Ina got a kick out of the fact that the white egret looking for breakfast was actually called a Reddish Egret; I explained that they came in two color morphs!  She also asked if the water was poisonous or polluted, and I shrugged and said I didn’t think so.  “Then why are there so many dead fish?” she asked!  I hadn’t even noticed all the little perished bodies along the shoreline (guess it hadn’t started to stink yet), but I explained that it was due to the “Red Tide”, a type of algae that springs up occasionally and does a number on the fish population.  To my knowledge, though, it doesn’t affect the bird (or the human) population if they eat the fish.
Andreas shoots a distant flock of birds surrounded by victims of the Red Tide...

White morph Reddish Egret
            Nydia (the South Texas Nature rep) wanted to meet up with us at some point, so since it was getting close to lunch time, Ina suggested we call her before heading to South Padre to give her time to meet us somewhere.  Keith wanted me to take them to an “authentic” Tex-Mex place, and Nydia knew just the spot: Manuel’s in Port Isabel!  But first, we had to “do” The Island in hopes of those big flocks, which we would often get on the bayside access beach just north of the Convention Centre.  Well.  We pulled in, and instead of being able to drive out onto a large expanse of hard-packed beach and right up to lots of good birds, the water was practically up to the little entrance shack!  Not a bird to be seen, except for an occasional Laughing Gull getting out of the way of the many wind-surfers!  So since I didn’t want to keep Nydia waiting (she said it would take her awhile to get there, anyway), we headed to the Birding Center, and that was fun; while we didn’t encounter any “flocks”, we did have some nice birds, including calling Clapper Rails, my FOS American Wigeon, and close-up Great Egrets and Little Blue and Tricolored Herons.  But the highlight was this big mama Alligator just lounging on the spit, quietly watching this young Great Blue Heron snoozing nearby, until it decided to take a walk over to where the Alligator was, suddenly noticed it, and jumped and squawked!  After an awkward standoff the heron finally went back to its own spot. 
Snoozing Great Blue Heron...

...and Alligator that was keeping an eye on him!
After a hike on the boardwalk we went up to the top of the tower (which was my first time up there, actually) and got a grand view of the whole area!  I got a kick out of the Rock Pigeon that was following everyone around like a lost puppy, and finally hopped up on the table we were near; I even coaxed the thing to sit on my hand!  Made me wonder if it was someone’s homing pigeon at one time…  I was disappointed that we didn’t at least get them a Roseate Spoonbill or two – that would have been a hit for sure!
Filming the Alligator from the boardwalk

View from the top of the tower

Andreas and the Friendly Pigeon...
            After showing them the water feature that Arroyo Colorado Audubon had just made (and explained the importance of these water features for migrating birds), we headed over to Port Isabel and lunch with Nydia, which was a real treat: Manuel’s was a little hole-in-the-wall northwest of the lighthouse, and the tradition was that you were supposed to write something on the wall if it was your first time there (only problem was that the wall was full J)!  Discovered that one of Ina’s true passions is tree houses (she had just come from Austin where some fabulous ones were on display), so she was very interested in seeing the construction of the tree tower at Santa Ana (which we were planning on visiting Saturday)!

            She was also interested in shooting some cattle on a ranch, so we made a last minute decision to go up to Rio Beef (the only place I know of to see cattle, guaranteed), and Nydia wanted to join us, so Ina rode with her and Andreas came with me.  We made a quick stop at the “Highway 100 Resacas” in hopes of a bunch of shorebirds (nada), so then hopped on the 77 and headed north.  We somehow got separated, but around Sebastian I noticed a bunch of cows and Cattle Egrets right by the frontage road, so I went flying off the freeway and back to where the cows were, and while Andreas dutifully filmed them I called Nydia to tell her where we were, and that we didn’t have to go all the way to Rio Beef – we found some cattle!  When they finally caught up with us, Ina confessed that what she had in mind was a scene with the gate and the buildings and the cattle (someone suggested later that she could have been thinking Texas Longhorns), but sadly that kind of scene involves special arrangements with the ranch; there’s noplace where you can just drive up and shoot a typical “Texas Cattle Ranch” scene. 

            I think Nydia could feel Ina’s disappointment, and since it was getting late, she suggested stopping at Estero Llano Grande State Park (since the sun had actually come out, and “Estero never disappoints” as Nydia said), and that was a great idea, seeing it was right on the way to Alamo!  When we got there the staff was in the process of taking down the decorations for the planned “Spooky Fest”, as Patricia had effectively canceled the event!  But as I pointed out some of the birds to Andreas (just a few coots and grebes at that point; I was hoping the vagrant Purple Gallinule and/or the Jacana would show up for them), Nydia and Ina headed out on the boardwalk and shortly ran into park host Huck Hutchins and his bird walk!  Next thing I knew, Nydia was calling me to report that Huck had seen some Roseate Spoonbills up on the levee!  So we blasted out there, where the spoonbills were nowhere to be found, but there was a huge flock of White Pelicans down the way, and when a red pickup on the other side of the Estero Llano spooked a big portion of them, they lifted off in a glorious pelican ballet!  Thankfully several stayed put, and about that time the blackbirds were flocking as well, so we were all rejoicing that Ina and Andreas finally got their “big flocks” of birds (and you can’t beat White Pelicans for a display of beauty)!  A pair of White-tailed Kites added some excitement, but what should show up on the way back but the spoonbills!  That was the last thing Andreas shot before heading back to the car (it was starting to drip), but while we were blasting over the boardwalk to beat the rain, this dark “chicken” with a white butt popped up out of the marsh – it was the immature Purple Gallinule!  Nydia was thrilled, and when we got back to the deck, this young birding couple from Harlingen had been waiting for an hour for the thing to show, and we flushed it for them! J  In return, they showed us the continuing Jacana, which Ina got to see through their scope!  As we hurried back to the car, I explained that this is exactly one of the big draws of South Texas: birders come not only for the specialty birds we have (of which we saw many), but the vagrants that can show up at any time!
Nydia and Ina hit the boardwalk at Estero Llano Grande

A small part of the White Pelican Ballet!
            The next day was an adventure of a different type: the bulk of the Big Storm was supposed to hit, but by the time I got to Ina’s suite it really wasn’t bad (just dripping), so we decided to try Santa Ana after all so that she could see the tree tower and the canopy walk.  By the time we got there it had actually quit spitting, and we were so engaged in sharing Costa Rica stories that I completely forgot to bring my umbrella!  While it went from nothing to spitting to a light rain by the time we got to the tower, before long the heavens opened and we were drenched!  (Didn’t stop Ina from climbing to the top, though… J)  While huddled under the stairwell they asked if I thought it would let up at all (the rain patterns around here often consist of big dumps with breaks in between), but looking at the radar on my IPhone (yes, I finally entered the 21st century…), we were in the Green Blob (that was covering all of the Valley and parts of Mexico to boot) and a Big Yellow Blob was coming our way, so we made a run for the parking lot!  (I told them at least I didn’t have to take a shower now… J)  We made it home fine, and after they dried their clothes and packed I drove them to the airport in Harlingen, where we went through torrential zero-visibility downpours and saw flooding along the frontage roads in Weslaco of Biblical proportions (we all jumped when the Weather Alert went off on all three of our phones simultaneously)!  Thankfully everyone on the freeway was driving sanely (at least where we were; Keith told me about a jackknifed truck when he was taking another guest to the airport) and we made it there in one piece, and I made it back in one piece!  What a story they’ll have to tell, complete with the largest hurricane on record!