Saturday, August 27, 2016

Birder Patrol Trip to Boca Chica


About a dozen people gathered to take a cruise down Boca Chica Boulevard for some coastal plain and beach specialties!  Norma led the way out of Stripes on Ruben Torres, but at the road construction we lost the two lead cars, and Pat and I followed by Alan and Baceliza ended up following a pickup going east and eventually down a little dirt road called Medford that had a great little wetland that was stuffed with stuff, including a Wood Stork!  Someone got on the horn and had the other two cars come over, and as it turned out, this was the little spot that Alicia had wanted us to stop at on the way!  Several kinds of herons and shorebirds fed, including all three common peeps, lots of juvenile Common Gallinules, a young Gull-billed Tern, and our only Wilson's Phalaropes of the day!  In the songbird department we had Loggerhead Shrike, Tropical Kingbird, a Curve-billed Thrasher, and a singing Carolina Wren, while a Ringed Kingfisher flew overhead

Waders along Medford Road

Great Egrets, Wood Stork, and Great Blue Herons

Gang trying to see the birds through the fence...

On we went, and I encouraged Norma to lead again as she and Alicia are the better spotters! :-)  We stopped at the hacking station just past the Border Patrol checkpoint, but unfortunately had no Aplomado Falcons; in fact, it was rather quiet at that stop.

So on we went to the viewing platform in the National Wildlife Refuge, where quite a few things were singing but very little showed themselves:  Botteri's Sparrows, a Roadrunner, White-eyed Vireos, Bewick's Wrens, and Verdin were all present but uncooperative.  An empid of some kind did pop up, but we couldn't tell which at that distance (except that it wasn't a Yellow-bellied).

Heading down the dirt road we had a large flock of White-faced Ibis fly overhead, plus lots of Eastern Meadowlarks flushing.  Both Barn and Cliff Swallows fed low over a little marsh, and an Upland Sandpiper flew overhead unseen.  Turning the corner into the thornscrub, I drove around the next corner to take a "break" where a Roadrunner was standing in the middle of the road and a family of Groove-billed Anis flew across!  Heading back to the gang Norma put out her hand to indicate that they had something, and as I walked up, they thought they had a Yellow-green Vireo!  Most of us never saw the bird, but they felt confident about the ID based on what they saw.  A couple of Yellow Warblers showed up across the road, and a sharp pit alerted us to the presence of an Alder Flycatcher, which soon popped up for all to see!  Thankfully another family of anis crossed the road, so everyone got to see them.  On the way out a beautiful Eastern Kingbird posed, and a White-tailed Hawk flew by in the distance.

Eastern Kingbird (also below)

From there we headed to "Dan's Road," but not before stopping for a load of shorebirds (in the sun of course), where we managed to pick out a couple of Snowy Plovers along with a Semipalmated, several dowitchers, some Reddish Egrets, and a couple of Horned Larks.  Heading down Dan's Road to the river we picked up a squealing Royal Tern and a Neotropic Cormorant for the day along with a Spotted Sandpiper, and since Dan had reported Seaside Sparrows last month down the "bad" part of the road (which at the moment actually looked pretty good), we decided to brave it and head down!  There was quite the hump to get over at one point, and we marveled later at the fact that Marilyn was able to get her Toyota Sierra over it, but we discovered later that she had found another route in... ;-)  We found the mangroves, but no sparrows; I think we had a Long-billed Curlew in here, and Pat spotted a nighthawk snoozing on a branch while Norma spotted a female Belted Kingfisher that the rest of us missed, but that was about it.

"Dan's Road"

The gang looks for Seaside Sparrows

Bumping back out we finally made it down to the beach, where only Pat and I in "Heppy" (my new Forrster) and Alan and Baceliza followed almost down to the mouth of the river (some had to go home, and Norma and her crew wanted to look for sea beans).  It was actually quite productive, with lots of Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Piping Plovers, a couple of Wilson's, and the real prize - four American Oystercatchers!  On the way back we scared up a Ghost Crab that was a big hit, along with a couple of juvenile Least Terns. 

Wilson's Plover

American Oystercatchers

Ghost Crab

Photo op...

Piping Plover

Black-bellied Plover

We called it a day after that, having much better looks at all the Harris' Hawks we had passed on the way down!  Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Blue-winged Teal                      
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Pied-billed Grebe                    
  Wood Stork                           
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Brown Pelican                        
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  Snowy Egret                          
  Little Blue Heron                    
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Reddish Egret                        
  White Ibis                           
  White-faced Ibis                      
  Turkey Vulture                       
  Harris's Hawk                        
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Common Gallinule                     
  American Coot                        
  Black-necked Stilt                   
  American Oystercatcher               
  Black-bellied Plover                 
  Snowy Plover                         
  Wilson's Plover                      
  Semipalmated Plover                  
  Piping Plover                        
  Spotted Sandpiper                    
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Lesser Yellowlegs                     
  Upland Sandpiper                     
  Long-billed Curlew                   
  Ruddy Turnstone                      
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Semipalmated Sandpiper               
  Western Sandpiper                    
  Short-billed Dowitcher               
  Wilson's Phalarope                   
  Laughing Gull                        
  Ring-billed Gull                     
  Least Tern                           
  Gull-billed Tern                     
  Royal Tern                           
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  Mourning Dove                        
  Common Ground-Dove                    
  Yellow-billed Cuckoo                 
  Greater Roadrunner                   
  Groove-billed Ani                    
  Common Nighthawk                      
  Ringed Kingfisher 
  [Belted Kingfisher]                   
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Crested Caracara                     
  Alder Flycatcher                     
  Brown-crested Flycatcher             
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Eastern Kingbird                     
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo 
  [Yellow-green Vireo]                    
  Horned Lark                          
  Barn Swallow                         
  Cliff Swallow                         
  Carolina Wren                        
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Curve-billed Thrasher                
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Yellow Warbler                        
  Botteri's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Blue Grosbeak                        
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                        

84 Species

Friday, August 19, 2016

Where to Find Butterflies in the LRGV

The Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) isn’t just a hotbed of unique birds for the United States, but for butterflies (and other critters) as well!  Just as birders flock to the Valley in hopes of seeing lifers and rarities, the same holds true for butterfly watchers who come in search of Mexican butterflies that reach the northern limits of their range here in south Texas, but also in hopes of that rare stray that may wander across the border!

Good butterflying is possible any time of year in the Valley, but normally the best time is October and November, with January and February generally being the poorest.  This year the butterflying was particularly good in July, after we had gotten significant rainfall in June.  Relatively large numbers of otherwise rare species (like Banded Peacock and Polydamus Swallowtail) were showing up, and no less than three Erato Heliconians (normally a mega-rarity) showed up simultaneously at different locations!  Even now in mid-August (with 100-degree temperatures and no rain to speak of), good butterflies are still showing up.

Banded Peacock, Bentsen Rio Grande SP

Polydamus Swallowtail, Estero Llano Grande SP

Erato Heliconian, Bentsen Rio Grande SP

There are many excellent places to look for butterflies, my favorite being the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission:  the gardens and native habitats are extensive, and the new “experimental gardens” in the “back yard” of the visitor center are attracting some great butterflies!  Just recently we found Zilpa and White-striped Longtails, Coyote Cloudywing, Mangrove Buckeye, Dingy Purplewing, Many-banded Daggerwing, and Guatemalan Cracker among the more common Mexican Bluewings, Tawny Emperors, and ever-present Queens and large sulphurs! 

Coyote Cloudywing, NBC

Dingy Purplewing, NBC

Guatemalan Cracker, NBC

Zilpa Longtail, NBC

Large Orange Sulphur, Falcon SP

Many-banded Daggerwing, NBC

Mexican Bluewing, NBC

Queen, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands

Tawny Emperor, NBC

Tropical Buckeye, NBC

White-striped Longtail, NBC

Nearby Bentsen Rio Grande State Park also has extensive butterfly gardens, not only near the visitor’s center but also at the Nature Center and near Kingfisher Overlook.  Over the years Bentsen has hosted many rarities including Four-eyed Sailor, Ornythion Swallowtail, and Common Banner.  Rare hairstreaks have included White and Yojoa Scrub, Marius, Strophius, and even a super-rare Aquamarine!  Many butterfliers will check out the plantings along Bentsen Palm Drive near Retama Village; on one visit with friends we found a rare Ruddy Hairstreak!

Common Banner, Bentsen SP

Four-eyed Sailor, Bentsen SP

Marius Hairstreak, Bentsen SP

Ornythion Swallowtail, Bentsen

Ruddy Hairstreak, Bentsen Palm Drive

White Scrub Hairstreak, Bentsen SP

If you want to head out to Starr County looking for Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater, the butterfly garden at Falcon State Park is worth checking:  some butterflies that prefer a drier climate may be easier to find here, like Nysa Roadside Skipper and Desert Checkered Skipper.  Although they could potentially show up anywhere, I’ve had several “one and onlies” at this garden, including Curve-winged Metalmark, Lacey’s Scrub-Hairstreak, and Green-backed Rubyeye.

Desert Checkered Skipper, Falcon SP

Green-backed Rubyeye, Falcon SP

Nysa Roadside Skipper, Falcon SP

The coastal areas host a handful of species not normally seen inland:  Resaca de la Palma State Park is famous for its Blue Metalmarks, Band-celled Sisters, Orange-barred Sulphurs, and Boisduval’s Yellows!  The Xami Hairstreak favors low-lying succulents that can be found along Old Port Isabel Road and Boca Chica Boulevard, and the Sabal Palm Sanctuary also has a butterfly garden where you might find Double-dotted and Obscure Skippers.  Definite Patch has been found at the Palo Alto State Historic Site, and the gardens near the visitor center at Laguna Atascosa can also have Blue Metalmarks, along with more widespread species.

Band-celled Sister, Bentsen SP

Blue Metalmark, Resaca de la Palma SP

Boisduval's Yellow, Resaca de la Palma SP

Double-dotted Skipper, Sabal Palm Sanctuary

Obscure Skipper, South Padre Island

Orange-barred Sulphur, Resaca de la Palma SP

Other good butterfly spots that I enjoy frequenting include the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, where I once had an Erato Heliconian, but also more expected specialties like Julia Heliconian and Cyna Blue.  Further north, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a great little place with extensive gardens and can be a good place to find the knock-out Guava Skipper.  In Weslaco, both Estero Llano Grande State Park and Frontera Audubon Thicket have excellent butterfly gardens; rarities that have shown up at Estero include Mexican Silverspot and Dark Kite Swallowtail.  Frontera is famous for being a rare bird trap, but strays such as Tailed Aguna and the uncommon Teleus Longtail have shown up here.

Cyna Blue, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse

Guava Skipper, Estero Llano Grande SP

Julia Heliconian, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse

Mexican Silverspot, Estero Llano Grande SP

Tailed Aguna, Frontera Audubon Thicket

Some of the other birding hotspots are also good for butters, but require a little more walking; these areas include Santa Ana NWR and the Yturrias Tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR (although I would encourage taking a buddy if exploring this area, as it is remote). The garden at 101 South 7th Place is part of Alamo Inn B&B Gears and Tours; it has 107 species of butterflies and counting, including specialties such as Polydamas Swallowtail and Theona Checkerspot.  We even had a super-rare Orion Cecropia show up!

Theona Checkerspot, Falcon SP

Wherever you choose to search for butterflies, never forget to appreciate even the common, widespread, and beautiful lepidoptera that call the LRGV their home!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Back to the Butterfly Center


Despite the lack of rain, good butterflies were still being seen at the National Butterfly Center (NBC), so decided to head on over with hopes of at least picking up one particular bug that I had never seen in the US before.  Stopped at Bentsen State Park first around 7:00 just to wander (it was really too early for butterflies, but you never know what you might kick up), and had a very nice look at an Olive Sparrow and a Three-striped Dasher in the garden area.

Three-striped Dasher

Olive Sparrow

The NBC was opening at 8:00 lately, so I headed over there at eight where it was still overcast, but that made the temperature more tolerable!  Once through the visitor's center and out in the back garden (found out it was officially called the "experimental garden"), the most interesting bug was either a Clavipes or Titan Sphinx Moth, one of the group known as "hummingbird moths" because of their similarity in behavior!  I shortly ran into John and Nancy, a couple of butterfliers who were staying at the Alamo Inn, who pointed out a Coyote Cloudywing they had found!  I mentioned that I had heard about a "blind", and they pointed it out over by the new water feature, where there was a Turkey poking around!  The blind was certainly new since I had been there last, so I headed over and joined another photographer for about 15 minutes, during which time female Orchard Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks, a Cardinal, some Painted Buntings of all plumages, and a female Yellow Warbler came in!

Young Blue Grosbeak

Female Yellow Warbler

Painted Bunting

Young Painted Bunting


After that wandered back over to the garden where J&N were, and this one bush was just full of interesting leps!  Up on the terrace I had a White-striped Longtail who was missing his tails, but down at this other bush (and Nancy knew all the names - I've forgotten them already :-P) we had a beat-up Zilpa Longtail, plus this really fancy bug that seemed to be showing a lot of white on the hindwing; we all mused whether it was a rare Crescent-striped Longtail, but looking at the pictures later proved it to be another Zilpa (still nothing to sneeze at), as it sported the dark triangle in the forewing that the Crescent-striped doesn't have.  Another longtail proved to be a nice Long-tailed Skipper.

White-striped Longtail without his tails

Zilpa Longtail

Long-tailed Skipper

After that I wanted to hike the trail in search of the rare forest butters, so J&N came along, and before long this large lep batted up to the underside of a large limb overhead - it was the coveted Many-banded Daggerwing!!  (That was the one I was looking for... :-) )  We couldn't kick up any of the crackers, so once at the "old gardens" J&N headed off to the "desert garden" to look for Desert Checkered Skippers while I continued along the trail next to the ditch, where a nice Zebra Heliconian fluttered along.  Before long a little brown bug batted in and landed on the tree trunk right in front of me - Dingy Purplewing!  I called it out and before long J&N came running, as that was one they wanted to see!  We did run into some fighting crackers over by the screech owl box (in which was the screech owl), but they never settled down to ID to species.

Many-banded Daggerwing (he's facing towards the southeast...)

John and Nancy shooting the Dingy Purplewing

Said Dingy Purplewing

Disgruntled-looking Eastern Screech Owl

From there we kept leapfrogging as I systematically checked the trails, picking up several Band-winged Dragonlets and lots of what looked like Blue-fronted Dancers.  We both commented on how many Soldiers we were seeing, as I usually only see one or two but we ran into a tree that had several!  They had seen a Two-barred Flasher behind the restrooms, but I only found large sulphurs and a Pale-banded Crescent.  In the parking area they found a Bordered Patch, but we both descended upon a little grass skipper that stumped us both:  it superficially looked like a Dun Skipper as it was dark with unmarked hindwings, but it appeared to have a lot of gold scaling, so it could have been something more common that was just beat-up; am still waiting on some more knowledgeable feedback on that one!

Band-winged Dragonlet

Pale-banded Crescent


Mystery grass skipper

Mystery grass skipper

Said my goodbyes to J&N and headed back to the VC via the Walking Trail, picking up many Tawny Emperors, Mexican Bluewings, and Tropical Leafwings on the bait logs, and a single Mestra over the canal.  Once back at the Experimental Gardens J&N caught up with me and said they had the Guatemalan Cracker back at the beginning of the Walking Trail!  It was getting close to noon and I really didn't feel up to walking all the way back there!  So we circled the bushes again, this time kicking up a dark brown butter with golden forewing bands that turned out to be a Tropical Buckeye!  We saw a "regular" one on the path later on...  Nancy was enthralled with the Pipevine Swallowtails batting around!  After logging a Gray Hairstreak and a cute White-patched Skipper I called it a day...

Common Mestra

Tropical Leafwing (handy that part of his hindwing was chomped so you can see the rusty dorsal side)

Tropical Buckeye

Gray Hairstreak

White-patched Skipper
Lep list:

Pipevine Swallowtail
Giant Swallowtail
Cloudless Sulphur
Large Orange Sulphur
Lyside Sulphur
Little Yellow
Gray Hairstreak
Ceraunus Blue
American Snout
Gulf Fritillary
Julia Heliconian
Zebra Heliconian
Variegated Fritillary
Pale-banded Crescent
Phaon Crescent
Common Buckeye
Tropical Buckeye
White Peacock
Common Mestra
Mexican Bluewing
Many-banded Daggerwing
Dingy Purplewing
Tropical Leafwing
Tawny Emperor
White-striped Longtail
Zilpa Longtail
Long-tailed Skipper
Brown Longtail
Coyote Cloudywing
White-patched Skipper
Tropical Checkered Skipper
Turk's-cap White Skipper
Julia's Skipper
Clouded Skipper
Fiery Skipper
Common Mellana
Celia's Roadside Skipper
Eufala Skipper