Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Cold Front Cometh


Cathey from Austin was a laid-back birder (and butterflier) who just enjoyed reveling in whatever she could see, but for this outing she was particularly interested in seeing Sandhill Cranes, as she had come down once before to La Sal del Rey and missed them.  So thanks to Bird’s Eye (a handy little app that ties in with eBird data), I saw where the cranes had been seen three days ago in the Hargill area, so that would be the first stop, with plans to work our way to the La Sal area afterwards.

We got to Hargill Playa right around sunrise, enjoying a couple of Northern Harriers and a Cooper’s Hawk (first of many) coming up Lincoln.  We made the turn onto 1st, avoiding the deep ruts (thankfully it was dry), and since looking into the playa itself was useless due to the high grass, we parked at the gate and scanned the nearby fields for cranes.  Although cold (around 47 degrees), the sky was absolutely blue, and the wind hadn’t picked up yet – just a gorgeous morning!  Tons of blackbirds and grackles were about, along with Barn Swallows swooping through, and at one point a flock of White-faced Ibis powered by in the distance.  But shortly we heard the tell-tale roll of the cranes, but both of us were having trouble trying to pinpoint where it was coming from – from the east or from the west!  Finally we looked up, and there they were, right overhead!  What a show!

Sandhill Cranes

Sunrise in Hargill

Happy Cathey next to "Heppy" after finally seeing her cranes!

Having gotten our target bird right off the bat, I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to see; Roseate Spoonbills would be nice, and checking Bird’s Eye again, wouldn’t you know that they had been seen in the area as well!  We hadn’t seen much in the actual playa except egrets and unidentifiable ducks, but since cranes had also been reported along Bucy Road (would be nice to see some standing), we headed that direction, taking an unmarked east/west road (that, according to Google Maps, is also confusingly called Bucy Road), and we hadn’t gone far before we spotted a flock of geese flying ahead of us!  We jumped out and found one White-fronted leading the crowd, followed by several Snows, and even better, a couple of noticeably smaller Ross’ Geese!  They seemed to be stalled overhead as they battled the north wind, then suddenly made a right turn and the whole bunch headed east right overhead!  Just before we came to the intersection with the “real” Bucy Road, another string of waders flew by in the distance that turned out to be the coveted spoonbills!  Unfortunately Cathey couldn’t get on them before they had blended into the distant sky…

Snow Geese overhead (look hard for the smaller Ross')

Things were anticlimactic after that; my friend Huck had seen Lark Buntings in the area, but with the wind picking up the little birds just didn’t want to come out and be seen.  Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were more resilient, however, and enjoyed perching on the wires, and we got some nice views of White-tailed Kites, including one bird that was hovering and then dropped with his wings held in a “V”!  Trying to avoid running over the big barking dogs at the end of the street (and since the spoonbills were headed east), I suggested running over to Delta Lake County Park, as spoonbills had also been reported there, and it would be a convenient (and only) place to use the restrooms…

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

What a difference from the last time I was here when they were having some kind of youth fun run!  The place was packed then, and today it was absolutely empty, which surprised me on a Saturday!  (Cathey thought the weather scared most of them away… J)  After spotting a flock of White Ibis flying directly overhead, we pulled in the parking area next to FM 88 where a father and son were fishing, so we chatted a bit, but Cathey soon announced that she had a tree that was just full of Monarchs!  Knowing that Queens were the abundant “monarch-like” butterfly down here, I assumed that’s what she meant, but I ended up eating crow (or butterfly J) when I saw she was absolutely right:  the trees were indeed lined with roosting Monarchs!  Neither of us knew what type of trees they were (somewhere someone had told her that when in doubt, it’s probably an acacia, but she had her doubts about these…), but not only did they house several Monarchs, but also a couple pairs of bona fide Queens, and the real surprise:  a little Dusky-blue Groundstreak!  She also taught me something I didn’t know (and answered a question a friend in Harrisburg, who virtually raises Monarchs in her yard, asked):  yes, they do migrate through, and yes, they breed here, but they breed while they’re migrating!  That’s one way to spread around your progeny!

Roosting Monarchs

The similar Queen, which is our default "abundant" monarch-like butter

Dusky-blue Groundstreak

As I suspected, the lake was way too high for any birds (except some egrets way across the way), but we headed on in to the park, took care of things, and checked out the canals and back area as Kiskadee and Vermilion Flycatcher were additional targets.  Heard the former but dipped totally on the latter (again, way too windy), but did manage great looks at a Black-bellied Whistling Duck with a flaming red bill, a couple of Great Blue Herons, a fly-by Red-shouldered Hawk, and several cooperative Killdeer.  While driving through the “back area” I heard the distinctive cheer! of a Pine Siskin flying over – not too surprising in the wake of this cold front!  On the way out we had a distant flock of Neotropic Cormorants, and the biggest surprise:  an Osprey sitting in the field!


Since the places she was planning on visiting in the afternoon and the next day possibly had better potential for spoonbills, we decided to continue on to the La Sal Route in hopes of getting more looks at cranes (and there was still the remote possibility of a spoonbill at the pond at the end of Brushline Road).  Right away on Rio Beef Road we saw several Turkey Vultures and Caracaras working on what looked like the remains of a feral hog, and we again heard a Kiskadee, but he just didn’t want to come out; instead we got several House Wrens, a Mockingbird, some Lincoln’s Sparrows, and a Verdin mad at us (although the latter didn’t wanna show, either… L).  A little further down the road a Bewick’s Wren was singing, and with a little coaxing he did come out and put on a great show!  (A Ladder-backed Woodpecker and another Verdin were content to just call…)  More Scissor-tailed Flycatchers lined the fence along Ken Baker Road, and the shrikes refused to turn around and give us breast looks lest their feathers get ruffled by the north wind!  Cathey, who is an electrical engineer, explained to me what they were probably doing with the new power lines along Ken Baker (which they had been installing the last time I had gone down that road)!

This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is showing a little of his red "wingpit"!

"What're YOU lookin' at?!"

Meanwhile, a closer bird poses on the sunny side of the car!
Birds were truly sparse heading up Brushline; we managed a Lark Sparrow on a wire, but we couldn’t even kick up any White-tailed Hawks (although we did spot a couple of Harris’)!  The pond had some Mottled Ducks, a couple of Greater Yellowlegs, and a whole mob of Least Sandpipers, but that was about it, so we blasted back to SR 186 seeing as we had to get home by noon.  On the way home we talked about parrots, and how you really have to go to a roost or staging area to guarantee them; otherwise it’s pot luck.  But upon getting home, the show wasn’t over; we had just hugged goodbye and I was getting into the car when a huge mob of Green Parakeets came out and started whirling around the trees just a block south of us!  Cathey was thrilled; I left her to wander down and enjoy the show while I headed home; we ended up with a modest 55 for the morning.

Bird List:

  Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
  Greater White-fronted Goose          
  Snow Goose                           
  Ross's Goose                         
  Mottled Duck                         
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                  
  Great Blue Heron                     
  Great Egret                          
  White Ibis                           
  White-faced Ibis                     
  Roseate Spoonbill                    
  Turkey Vulture                       
  White-tailed Kite                    
  Northern Harrier                     
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  Harris's Hawk                        
  Red-shouldered Hawk                  
  Red-tailed Hawk                      
  Sandhill Crane                       
  Greater Yellowlegs                   
  Least Sandpiper                      
  Rock Pigeon                           
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Green Parakeet                       
  Eastern Phoebe                       
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  Horned Lark                          
  Barn Swallow                         
  House Wren                           
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Orange-crowned Warbler               
  Common Yellowthroat                  
  Lark Sparrow                          
  Lincoln's Sparrow                    
  Red-winged Blackbird                 
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Pine Siskin                          
  House Sparrow                        


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Bug Day


I had originally planned on doing a Cameron County Big Day this day, but then got to thinking that it might be a little late in the month to catch migrants, so decided at the last minute to do a Bug Day, seeing as October and November are prime months for odes and butterflies!  So shooting to get to Bentsen Rio Grande SP by 8:00, I took off around 7:30, and after checking in starting perusing the gardens and the canals for odes, seeing as it was still a little too early for butterflies (they need the sun to be shining to get the nectar flowing from the flowers).  It was actually more birdy to start, with Chachalacas running hither, thither, and yon, Green Jays yakking from the trees, and an Altamira Oriole whistling happily from across the canal.  The canal is where I ended up spending most of my time, as that can be a great place to find odes, and indeed picked up a few things: a pair of Common Green Darners in tandem and ovipositing in the water, a pair of Black Setwings doing the same (only they weren’t in tandem:  the female was ovipositing by dipping her tail repeatedly in the water, while her hubby hovered over her), and Black Saddlebags patrolling the area. 

Early morning Laviana White Skipper in Bentsen's garden

Common Green Darner

Black Setwing

Canal along the levee

By the time I was done with that the sun was shining on the flowers, so I did a repeat run, mainly in the gardens in the entrance walkway:  a female Black Setwing posed nicely but posed some ID issues until I got some help from the Ode Man himself, Dennis Paulson!  A Straw-colored Sylph finally perched and allowed a mediocre photograph, and some of the butterflies that allowed their pictures to be taken included Whirlabout, Snout, Soldier, White-patched Skipper, Phaon Crescent, and White Peacock.  A Red-bordered Metalmark was not cooperative at all, however… L

Female Black Setwing

Whirlabout male (two dorsal views and a ventral view)

American Snout

White-patched Skipper

Phaon Crescent

Straw-colored Sylph

White Peacock

Next stop was the National Butterfly Center, which is easy to spend all day at (and indeed I planned on spending the rest of the day there, but my body wouldn’t let me L)!  Even before you set foot in the Visitor’s Center there are butterfly bushes out front which are usually covered in Queens, but this day I was able to find a couple of Monarchs in with them!  The little grass skippers were also all over, with more Whirlabouts, plus Southern Skipperling, and Fiery and Celia’s Roadside Skippers.  In the ode department, was pleased to shoot a nappy Checkered Setwing, and a subdued Eastern Amberwing.

Checkered Setwing

Eastern Amberwing

Queen (compare to the Soldier posted above)


Southern Skipperling

Yet another White-patched Skipper

Fiery Skipper

Celia's Roadside Skipper

After checking in I headed to the Sunken Gardens, a rather new area where many rarities have shown up but consists mostly of good butterfly-friendly bushes in a more open area.  They also have a new bird blind overlooking a creek-like water feature, and since it didn’t look like they had food out for the birds, I went ahead and checked the “creek” for odes; about the only thing I could kick up was a female damsel of some kind that even the experts took the Fifth on (many species are plain brown, and that’s all there is…)!  On the other hand, the bushes were full of butters, the most interesting ones to me being an Olive-clouded Skipper and several Giant Whites, both South Texas specialties!  From big to little I enjoyed Giant and Pipevine Swallowtails, more Queens, Gulf and Mexican Fritillaries, a Painted Lady, Great Southern White (that I thought was a Florida White at first until the pictures revealed the tell-tail black in the wingtip veins), Southern Dogface, Large Orange, Cloudless, and Lyside Sulphurs, Dorantes and Brown Longtails, Long-tailed, White Checkered, and Eufala Skippers, and a female Sachem.  A couple of colorful moths showed up:  the tube-like Ailantha Webworm Moth, and the un-mothlike Texas Wasp Moth!  In the ode department added a Slough Amberwing (the other expected amberwing in South Texas), and a very green Thornbush Dasher!  Interestingly ran into another one of those “Yellow-sided Wood-borer Beetles”, and a Short-winged Katydid tried to blend in with the bush!

Olive-clouded Skipper

Slough Amberwing

Dorantes Longtail

Eufala Skipper

Painted Lady

Texas Wasp Moth

Long-tailed Skipper

White Checkered Skipper

Southern Dogface

Mystery female pond damsel that even the experts wouldn't touch... 

Giant Swallowtail

Brown Longtail

Female Sachem

Thornbush Dasher

Gulf Fritillary

Short-winged Katydid (it's hard to see, but the antennae go clear off to the left!)

Lyside Sulphur

This rare in-flight shot shows the dorsal pattern

Giant White

From this angle, this Great Southern White looks entirely white, so I mistook it for a Florida White at first...

...but this shot shows how the black of the forewing tips bleeds in along the veins (also, the blue antenna clubs are diagnostic)

Ailantha Webworm Moth

A Glaucous Cracker had been reported along the Hackberry Trail, so I took that to the “old gardens”, but only found Tawny Emperors that were coming in to the bait logs.  The old gardens are more wooded with a bird-feeding station, and although the feeding had died down, the Chachalacas were running all over the place here as well, along with more Green Jays and even a Cardinal that came in to see what was going on!  Checked the screech owl box for the owl, but saw that it had been overrun by a thick cluster of Africanized bees!  The best find here, however, was a Mexican Scarlettail, a dragonfly that has so recently settled into the Valley that it’s not even in the books yet (except as an addendum)!  Butters here were pretty much the same as up at the Sunken Gardens except for a brief showing of both Julia and Zebra Heliconians, and the signature Mexican Bluewing that finally showed!  A female Red-tailed Pennant posed (I thought she may have been a female scarlettail, but again Dennis came to the rescue J)!  Alas, couldn’t kick up the reported Mercurial Skipper, either, another mega-rarity.

Two views of a Mexican Scarlettail, a recent arrival to the Valley!

Julia Heliconian

Beat-up Tawny Emperor

Female Red-tailed Pennant doing "The Obelisk" (it's their way of "panting"...)

Screech Owl box taken over by bees

Curious Cardinal

Headed back to the VC for snacks and a drink (and to cool off), but couldn’t help taking another run through the Sunken Gardens on the way, this time picking up a very fresh Purple-washed Skipper (where you could actually see the purple sheen) and a tiny Lantana Scrub Hairstreak trying to hide!  Drove back down to the old gardens and poked around some more, but the only new thing I could kick up was actually an Indomitable Melipotes moth in the conservatory!  I had honestly planned on spending the whole day there, but at 2:30 it was already 92 degrees and my feet and back had had it, so decided to reluctantly throw in the towel. 

Purple-washed Skipper

Lantana Scrub Hairstreak

Indomitable Melipotes

Below are two separate lists for the bugs:


Pipevine Swallowtail
Giant Swallowtail
Great Southern White
Giant White
Southern Dogface
Cloudless Sulphur
Large Orange Sulphur
Lyside Sulphur
Little Yellow
Sleepy Orange
Gray Hairstreak
Mallow Scrub Hairstreak
Lantana Scrub Haistreak
Ceraunus Blue
Fatal (probably) Metalmark
Red-bordered Metalmark
American Snout
Gulf Fritillary
Julia Heloconian
Zebra Heliconian
Mexican Fritillary
Bordered Patch
Phaon Crescent
Painted Lady
Red Admiral
White Peacock
Mexican Bluewing
Tawny Emperor
Long-tailed Skipper
Dorantes Longtail
Brown Longtail
White-patched Skipper
Mournful (probably) Duskywing
White Checkered Skipper
Tropical Checkered Skipper
Laviana White Skipper
Julia’s Skipper
Clouded Skipper
Southern Skipperling
Fiery Skipper
Southern Broken Dash
Common Mellana
Celia’s Roadside Skipper
Eufala Skipper
Olive-clouded Skipper
Purple-washed Skipper



Pond Damsel sp.
Common Green Darner
Red-tailed Pennant
Checkered Setwing
Black Setwing
Straw-colored Sylph
Thornbush Dasher
Roseate Skimmer
Wandering Glider
Slough Amerwing
Eastern Amberwing
Mexican Scarlettail
Black Saddlebags

13 SPECIES (would probably been more had I had a real ode-hunter with me J)