Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 Texas Big Year Ends With 410 Species

I spent 2012 searching fields, forests, mountains, lakes, beaches and bird reports online to find as many birds as I could for my Texas Big Year. After travelling thousands of miles and experiencing dozens of weekend warrior adventures, I ended the year with 410 species. The last bird for my 2012 list was the Fork-tailed Flycatcher (lifer), a megararity that showed up near McKinney Falls State Park in Austin.

Sticking a fork in my Big Year

Ali and I joined dozens of birders to see it on Dec. 22. It was hanging out with a few Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in a field not too far from a taco stand (I love all the random places where rare birds show up).

This year has been special and I have countless memories with friends and family. There are many great stories to share. I thank everyone who helped me along the way and praise God for all the blessings and freedom to put a year like this in the books.

While I won't be doing another Big Year for 2013, I will be setting my sights on a larger goal to see 700 life birds in North America by the time I turn 50. I'll be turning 31 in a few weeks, so there's plenty of time. However, life gets busy and I know I won't be able to have too many years like I did in 2012. So it's best to set a realistic goal and readjust if I find I can surpass it before then.

For 2013, my birding resolution is to see 15 lifers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Scoter Trifecta Leads to 400 Birds in Texas for 2012

I chased. I saw. I reached 400. That's been the story of the year for my birding pursuits this year. On Saturday, without realizing it, I reached 400 birds for the year when I added 3 scoter species and Hooded Merganser at Mitchell Lake.

I thought it was ironic that after all the chasing of rare birds I've done this year, I ended up reaching 400 at home. I had a trip planned, which didn't happen, and I'm glad that was the case because I would have missed this great opportunity to see 400 with my grandmother who got me into birding in the first place.

On Saturday, we joined the crowd of birders who came to see the triple rarity spectacle at the world birding center site. The scoters remained way out from the shoreline in a raft of Lesser Scaups, so I didn't get any good photos.

My goal for the year has been to see/hear 400 birds in Texas in one year. I have been keeping records on eBird, but I got behind. I didn't find out I had reached my goal until I updated my records yesterday.

I'm very happy to be at 400 and I hope to see more this year to try to stay in the Top 10 birders on eBird. That would be just icing on the cake. For now, I'm basking in the moment and glad to have reached my goal, especially since I had the same goal last year and fell short.

It's just another thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season. God has given me a lot. I'm reminded that I'm blessed beyond measure. It's easy to take life for granted, including our natural abilities to see, hear and think up strategies to achieve what we set out to do. I give God glory for all these things because he's given me all that I enjoy, especially family and friends.

I give a special thanks to my beautiful wife, Ali, and my family and friends for celebrating and supporting me along the way. (And being patient with me when I did some crazy birding.) Thanks for cheering me on!

Monday, October 29, 2012

West Coast Bird Makes Itself at Home in West Texas

It’s a long way from its home on the west coast. For now, a Varied Thrush is making itself at home at Christmas Mountain Oasis. It’s a mystery how the bird, which likely came from the Pacific Northwest, ended up in the Chihuahuan Desert. Imagine Carolyn Ohl-Johnson’s surprise when she saw this beautiful thrush hanging around her bird sanctuary. She’s worked hard to keep her oasis alive during tough years of drought, so it’s nice to see some reward for all her efforts.

My grandmother (Grana) and I traveled to the oasis last Friday, but we were not completely sure we would get to see the thrush. A cold front blew in the night before and Carolyn was not sure if the bird would stick around. Sometimes when there’s a significant weather change, birds will move with the weather. We experienced some momentary suspense when Carolyn reported on Texbirds that the thrush had not been seen all morning. We were just 30 minutes from the oasis when I read the post and we prepared ourselves for the worst – traveling hundreds of mile only to miss the target bird but a matter of hours.

Glad we did not miss it. Shortly after arriving at the oasis, I spotted the thrush near a water feature. When Carolyn arrived and I told her that I’d seen the thrush, she rushed back up to her house to alert birders that it was still around.

The thrush was tough to photograph, but very easy on the eyes with its blue and red plumage. Grana had missed the bird during her summer trip to Oregon last year, so it was a great moment for both of us.

The next day we ended our trip traveling through the Davis Mountains to Balmorhea Lake. We hoped to see a Sabine’s Gull and a Golden Eagle at the Lake, but unfortunately we missed both. But we really could not complain. Seeing Varied Thrush in Texas is not something everyone gets to do. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Good Things Happen When East Meets West

View from Pilot Road
This past weekend I travelled with Marcin, Daria and Arman to the Upper Texas Coast (UTC) to find some rarities and wintering birds. Fall migration was still in full swing with warblers still gracing the coastal woodlands. Red-breasted nuthatches, which are difficult to find most years, were everywhere. Nuthatches have been moving from their traditional wintering ground in the Northeast to Texas because of a cone crop failure. We saw at least 10 Red-breasted nuthatches on the trip. When a species invades a certain area because of depleted food source, the phenomenon is called an irruption.

And then there were the western species that we got to see, including the Greater Pewee, a flycatcher that is typically only seen in New Mexico and Arizona. Somehow this pewee made it all the way to Bear Creek Park in the suburbs of Houston.
Greater Pewee

The pewee, which had been reported the last few weeks, was difficult to find. At first we searched for well over an hour. I made the mistake of leaving the group to search for the bird in a different section of woods and missed Marcin’s initial sighting of the Texas rarity. I sweated out another 30 minutes before Marcin relocated the bird. I was very relieved that I didn’t miss out on this rarity.

Later that afternoon we went to Lafitte’s Cove and witnessed another Western species, the Red-naped Sapsucker. Last year these woodpeckers started showing up in odd places throughout Texas. It looks like this western species is once again making its presence known in East Texas.  While we were at Lafitte’s Cove, we got a call from veteran birder Derek Muschalek who alerted us about a Cassin’s Kingbird, yet another western species, at Galveston Island State Park. That evening we relocated the bird and got a rush of Warbler activity. Within a 30 minute period we added several species to our trip and year lists.

I was excited to find a Yellow-throated Warbler, which brought my year list well past the 380 mark for Texas. Arman was happy to get a Blue-headed Vireo, which he had missed last winter. We also caught a glimpse of warblers roosting.
Magnolia Warbler at roost.
The following day I added some other great birds to my year list, including Clapper Rail and Nelson’s Sparrow (lifer) on Pilot Road in Sabine Pass. We also saw several Barn Owls at Sabine Wood’s. On our way to Galveston toward the end of the trip, we saw more than 10 Magnificent Frigatebirds.

In a way, the trip was bittersweet because it was Marcin and Daria’s last trip to the UTC before they return to their native homeland of Poland. Texas has become their home and it will be hard to say goodbye. Becoming friends with Marcin and Daria has been a blessing. For as much as we have valued chasing rare birds together, it has been even more enjoyable getting to know my friends from Eastern Europe. This just goes to show that good thing happen when East meets West.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Birding the Guads is Tough, But Worth It!

(BELATED) Along the Texas-New Mexico border, the Guadalupe Mountains tower over the Chihuahan Desert like giant sentinels. The pine tree forests and cooler climate are a stark contrast to the desert scrub below. There's lots of mystery in the mountains and the bird life is promising, but you have to make it there first.

Clark's Grebe
Brad and I had been talking about the mountains for several months. We planned to hike the Tejas Trail to Pine Top campground and stay two nights. Our main objective was to spend all day on Sunday hiking the Bowl Trail, which hosts target species such as Stellar's Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch and Grace's Warbler. Birds like these are located in only a handful of places in Texas where the habitat is just right for nesting.

Before traveling to the Guads, we stayed overnight at Balmorhea Lake and enjoyed a front row view to Clark's and Western Grebes. The chicks and juveniles were noisy. We even caught a glimpse of a chick catching a ride on its parent's back.

Western Grebe
Later in the afternoon we checked out Frijole Ranch, which was virtually quiet, but we managed to find some Violet Green Swallows and a Western Tanager behind Manzanita Spring. Another surprise really caught us off guard - a Black-tailed Rattlesnake! The rattler had just eaten dinner and wasn't warning us of its presence. It was probably for scared of us than we were of it. Glad Brad saw it before we got any closer. Brad wanted to put a sign up to warn anyone walking in the same area, but when he returned with a paper sign, the rattler had already vanished into the grass. Creepy...


Later that afternoon we made our way up the Tejas trail toward the towering peaks with more than 20 pounds of water and provisions for backcountry camping. The evening was nice and cool, but the approaching darkness caused us to rethink a 4-mile hike. After walking about a mile, Brad asked if I wanted to keep going and said we could get an early start the next day. But one thing I can't stand is doing something hard all over again when I don't have to, so, with a mix of stubbornness and determination, I told him I wanted to press on.

We slowly made our way up the trail. Brad is definitely more used to hiking and I'm only a casual hiker, so the loose rocks on the trail and the increasing darkness played a bigger toll on me. I took frequent breaks and Brad patiently obliged. But I had a mix of stubbornness and determination that helped me keep going one... step... at a time.

At about 9:30 p.m., we were near the end, but we had to turn on our head lamps to navigate the narrow, rocky trail in the darkness. I don't recommend night hiking for anyone because the darkness is very discouraging. Around 10:30 p.m., I became too tired and discouraged to go one and I admitted that I couldn't go on. Brad encouraged me and said we were literally just around the corner from the end. I was skeptical and decided to take a long break before moving on.

Brad went ahead to scout out the rest of the way and returned not even 10 minutes later to say we were only about 100 yards away. I couldn't believe the summit was just around the corner. This gave me a little encouragement but I was still exhausted.

What happened next was humbling and thought-provoking. Brad had left his bag at the top and grabbed my bag to carry it the rest of the way. My pride told me to not accept the help, but my spirit told me otherwise. I needed to learn this lesson: Sometimes we need help from others even when we're almost to where we want to be. Life is not just about us doing/accomplishing things on our own. As I've learned at my church, we are created for community and need each other. "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help the other up." (Proverbs 4:9-10) Thanks Brad for the help to get up.


There is a lot of mystery in the Guadalupe Mountains. Brad and I weren't sure what we would find in the Bowl, but we knew it would be rewarding. The all-day hike produced wonderful looks at some of our target birds, including Pygmy Nuthatch, Grace's Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker and several others. We were happy to find two Cordilleran flycatchers calling in a deep wooded area. I have seen this species in Colorado, but this was my first for Texas.

One of the main highlights toward the end of our hike was a male Calliope Hummingbird (lifer). The tiny hummer was resting on a shrub in Bear Canyon.

We missed a few target birds on the trip such as Flammulated Owl, but with all the birds we got to see, we couldn't complain. I think any trip to the Guadalupe Mountains will be fruitful and well worth the rigorous hike up the tallest mountain range in Texas.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Black-tailed Godwit - First Record for Texas

Chasing a rare bird is an exciting experience, but imagine travelling to see a bird that has never been seen in Texas. That's exactly what happened last weekend when I went to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge on the Upper Texas Coast to see a Black-tailed Godwit that had been hanging out on a little pond for about three weeks.
Black-tailed Godwits are usually found in Asia, Africa and Europe. They rarely show up in North America, but occasionally are found on Alaska's Aleutian Islands. There's no telling how the rare shorebird ended up on the Upper Texas Coast, but if you've been keeping track of my blog, you're well aware that Texas is a hotspot for rarities.

Ron Weeks, a birder in the area discovered the rare shorebird hanging out with some of its relatives - Hudsonian Godwits. These Godwit species are similar in appearance, but the Black-tailed Godwit can be distinguished from the Hudsonian by the snow-white color under the wings as seen in the photos below.

Although the shorebird was far away and difficult to photograph due to the location, I was content getting distant views of this historic bird for Texas.

After getting a long look at the Godwit, I birded more of the refuge and found some Short-billed Dowitchers and Wood Storks.

Brazoria NWR
 I also decided to visit one of my favorite state parks, Brazos Bend State Park, where I found some Purple Gallinules and Anhingas.
Brazos Bend State Park

Purple Gallinule
And I had some close encouters with a few alligators...

This park is incredible for photography and it's so scenic with moss hanging off oak trees and lakes decorated with large lily pads. I recommend this park to anyone who wants to experience a true adventure.

Board Walk on 40 Acre Lake
Anhinga sunning on 40 Acre Lake

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 3 & 4: Hawks, an Oasis and Some Good Life Birds

I got busy over the last few weeks and it's a little dated now, but I figured I would go ahead and sum up last month's trip to West Texas.

Brad and I spent our last full day in Big Bend birding Dug Out Wells, Rio Grande Village and Christmas Mountain Oasis.

Dug Out Wells and Rio Grande Village did not disappoint. At Dug Out Wells, we found a Gray Flycatcher hawking insects in the desert and we picked up some good year birds, including Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Rio Grande Village was a hot spot for hawks. I finally added Common Black-Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk to my life list. Zone-tailed Hawk was a true nemesis bird that I tried to find all last year. Brad spotted my life bird soaring above the horizon near the Rio Grande.

On two previous trips to Big Bend, I never made it to Rio Grande Village to see Common Black-Hawks, which nest in a protected area.

This time I made a point to make the special trip to see the hawks. A pair of hawks were nest building at the time, so it was very easy to find these majestic raptors.

The hawk below is carrying a branch to its nest. I imagine by now the parents are attending to chicks.
Common Black-Hawk
Christmas Mountain Oasis was fantastic. Carolyn-Ohl Johnson greeted us at her bird sanctuary and showed us great hospitality. She even was kind enough to let me borrow her 100-400 L-Series lens to get some closer shots of the birds below.
Green-tailed Towhee
Scaled Quail
Lucifer Hummingbird
The highlight of the evening was watching male and female Elf Owls in action at dusk. The female Elf Owl peeked out of her nest hole several times while waiting for the male.

Elf Owl (Female)
Then, the male Elf Owl showed up. I love the angry look of these miniature owls. It reminds me of the Angry Birds game.
Elf Owl (Male)
Brad and I spent the last part of our trip attempting to find some rare birds - Hermit Warbler and Rufous-capped Warbler, but we dipped (didn't find) on both birds. However, I picked up one last lifer on the Chisos Basin Nature Trail - Hepatic Tanager. At first, I thought it was just a Summer Tanager, a common summer resident. But upon further inspection, Brad pointed out that it was indeed a Hepatic. The two tanagers are superficially similar in appearance, but upon further inspection, you can distinguish the two.

Check out the comparison of the two species below. Can you tell which is Hepatic and which is Summer?