Ever since Barbara had cottoned me onto the fact that you could use eBird to figure out what you still needed for the year, the thought of doing a “clean up chase day” on my last birding day of the year sounded like fun! It also sounded fun to Sue and Billy, so between Christmas and Saturday Sue and I came up with a target list and I plotted a course that hopefully would bag us most of our birds!
We knew another cold front was coming through, but we didn’t count on it being quite so cold and windy! L We made a quick stop at Bentsen (it wasn’t even sunrise yet) and picked up the Black Phoebe pair for the day along with a rattling Buff-bellied Hummingbird, then headed over to the famous levee near the Butterfly Center where the Hook-billed Kites were being fairly regular! Several others were there, including a FWS guy from Maine and a young visiting teen whose non-birder mom was acting as chauffeur to help him get his Valley specialties! We all shot the breeze for the longest time, adding a handful of vocalizing birds (including our only Long-billed Thrashers of the day), when the “birding mom”, who was several yards to our east, said, “What’s that dark bird down there? Is that it?” Everyone scrambled to her position, and sure enough, the dark morph Hook-billed Kite was out in the open but down in a tree (and totally blocked from where the rest of us were)! Cameras went bonkers, and before long he flew up into the “traditional” tree along with another bird, giving everyone wonderful looks! Unfortunately it was still rather gloomy, so the pictures left a lot to be desired…
Waiting for the show...
The Hook-billed Kite shows up down in the brush! (Video grab)
Another bird up in the "regular" tree
Since we were close we made a quick stop at the pond on Inspiration Drive, which was quite productive: we added the only Ring-necked Ducks and Common Gallinules of the day, along with Pied-billed Grebes, Great Blue Herons, and several other ducks. From there we headed to Anzalduas, where the day before a young Ferruginous Hawk was reported (by the same visiting kid) in the field north of the park! So we rolled over and found tons of Red-tailed and White-tailed Hawks, along with Caracaras, but sure enough, one very pale bird turned out to be the Ferrugie! One Caracara got a little too close and the Ferrugie lunged at him, showing off the diagnostic pale pitagials!
Caracara checking out this strange visitor...
These video grabs show the plain patagials (area on the leading edge of the wing), which separate the juvenile Ferruginous Hawk from the pale "Krider's" Hawk
And if you use your imagination, you can see the feathered tarsus on this bird, which also separates it Krider's (also a video grab)
We headed up onto the levee to go into the park, only to discover it was closed (and it wasn’t even New Year’s yet)!! L So since that shot our best chance at Sprague’s Pipit (Pine Siskin was a longshot, as it hadn’t been reported in almost a month), we continued to Granjeño, where Billy and Sue took me up the back road where they and Bill Clark had caught and banded a Harlan’s Hawk! (Bill, who literally wrote the book on North American raptors, had been studying them for over 20 years and was making a strong case for them to be split off again from Red-tailed…) But first we were distracted by an adult Swainson’s Hawk in the field along with several more Whitetails and Caracaras, plus a distant Peregrine perched near the Anzalduas Bridge! Shortly we noticed an all-dark raptor on a pole, and while we didn’t notice it at the time, the pictures revealed that he was indeed banded – we had our bird!
Fuzzy Swainson's Hawk (a few usually spend the winter)
Juvenile Harlan's Hawk (look carefully for the band on his right leg!)
From there we drove up onto the levee for another longshot (the reported Short-eared Owl), but we at least got a pair of distant White-tailed Kites, plus the wintering Burrowing Owl thanks to Billy’s sharp eyes! On the way to Santa Ana we added a few White Pelicans circling over Military Highway, and then made a quick run through Hidalgo to pick up the Monk Parakeets, also picking up the day’s only Caspian Tern overhead (and I think this is also where they got their Curve-billed Thrasher that I missed). Once at the refuge we took the Chachalaca Trail to Willow Lakes, where we ran into another couple who pointed out a feeding flock that included American Goldfinches and a Verdin, but also the coveted Golden-crowned Kinglet (a lifer for Billy and a year bird for Sue), so that was very exciting! The lakes themselves had a good collection of ducks, including three Cinnamon Teal, but alas, not the Wood Duck. Billy thought he had a Say’s Phoebe that morphed into a female Vermilion Flycatcher (that happens a lot J), and a little pod of Least Grebes poured on the cuteness! Sue and I kept track of the Soras and Yellowthroats while Billy chewed the fat with the gentleman (also named Bill)! After parting company we enjoyed a pair of Solitary Sandpipers at the last deck, and several Greater Yellowlegs and a Spotted Sandpiper further along the Tower Trail.
Sue checking the spillway
Meanwhile Billy spots the Burrowing Owl!
We finally headed out to Pintail Lakes, enjoying a friendly pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers on the cutover trail, but the wind was fierce; we braved the trail out to the closest lake, hoping against hope to flush a Sprague’s Pipit or Vesper Sparrow (we did get several American Pipits to pop up), but it wasn’t to be; even the lake was rather uninspiring. So rather than hike all the way out to the last lake we headed back along the tour road, adding a White-tipped Dove beating feet, a calling Carolina Wren, and a family group of Chachalacas making like Roadrunners as they dashed across the road!
Billy and Sue checking out Pintail Lake
We were getting hungry so we decided to go to Nana’s in Weslaco for lunch (which was wonderful – real Mexican according to Billy J), picking up our only Inca Doves of the day. Several targets had been reported at Estero, but it was just too cold and blustery to do any more hiking, so we opted to head up to Sugarhouse Pond for a hopeful Eared Grebe.
Well. The water was high and there was not one bird in the pond (except a distant Great Egret)! So we opted to check out the “1015 Pond” behind Delta Lake, only a huge flock of Long-billed Curlews made us grind to a halt at the “Tri-County Pond” (an intersection literally at the corners of Cameron, Willacy, and Hidalgo Counties)! There were also several more White-tailed Hawks in the fields (I think today definitely broke a personal record)!
Trio of White-tailed Hawks
Somehow I got turned around, but we eventually made it to FM 1015 and up to the pond, only we couldn’t believe it: the pond was being “used” by a huge group of ATVers who were actually getting themselves stuck in the water (whether on purpose or not we had no idea) and being watched by an even bigger crowd of spectactors! This was all on the opposite side of where we were (thankfully), but I didn’t even think that back area was accessible – obviously it is! But so much for logging any special birds…
ATVs playing in the water (with a slew of onlookers)
So from there we headed to Rio Beef Road in hopes of at least a Ross’ Goose for Sue (and I think she said Brewer’s Blackbird was a year bird, too) where we picked up a scolding Bewick’s Wren and Couch’s Kingbird, then checked out the “barren field pond” on Ken Baker Road, which only had Pintail and a couple of Mottled Ducks. We couldn’t find any Brewer’s outside the Rio Beef gate, but heading back onto the main road we had several females on the wires! We had heard Snow Geese while at the gate, and once on the main road someone spotted a distant flock, which miraculously came at us and circled around! Even better was the fact that there were two obviously smaller geese in with them – the Ross’! That happened to be a lifer for Billy as well! The little wet spot there held Black-necked Stilts and a few Avocets; Billy caught sight of some distant cranes, but I missed those…
Female Brewer's Blackbirds
We had to scoot after that, but not before picking up several Harris’ Hawks on the way down Brushline! Between the three of us we logged 91 species for the day!! Bird list:
Snow GooseRoss's Goose
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Northern Rough-winged Swallow