Saturday, January 28, 2012

Brown Jay Birthday

Today, I got an early birthday gift when I visited the Salineno feeding station. Me, Ali and a small crowd of birders had to wait about an hour and a half in the chilly morning, but the Brown Jay finally emerged from the South Texas brush around 10 a.m.
It gave us quite a show as it bounded back and forth from limb to limb and at one point scared off the orioles, Green Jays and a host of other birds. (I think they mistook it for a Sharp-shinned hawk that had been hanging around earlier.) Fortunately, it stuck around long enough for me to run back to the car for Ali who had left the feeders to escape the cold. We rushed back and were happy to see it still feeding. About 10 minutes later, it lifted off with its massive wing span and flew out of sight.

Another highlight was seeing the Hooded, Altamira and Audubon's orioles all feeding near each other. I was able to get all three in one snapshot!

All together it was a very memorable way to celebrate my 30th Birthday. Thanks to everyone who manages this great birding spot and keeps the feeders filled to attract so many great birds!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day 2: Estero Llano, Sabal Palm

Estero Llano Grande State Park Headquarters

 The next day it was overcast, drizzly and windy, so I wasn't sure how good the birding would be. The combination must have been enough to keep the Rose-throated Becard I was searching for at Estero Llano Grande State Park deep in the thick, tropical forest. However, the birding was great. There were quite a few raptors around, including a Cooper's Hawk that showed up at a feeding station. The hawk stalked a Chachalaca by jumping on the ground and walking through tall grass that surrounded the feeders. I caught some of it on video. You can hear the Chachalaca in the background.

I think it eventually caught the Chachalaca because shortly after the Cooper's disappeared in the grass, I heard a loud shriek.

Later in the day I found a Nothern Harrier who had just come across what looked like a dead American Coot. I don't think it caught and killed the coot, but probably was being opportunistic. It loyally guarded its meal the whole time I watched.

Northern Harrier claiming an American Coot for lunch.
 I spent most of the morning walking around the Tropical Zone. Altamira Orioles, Green Jay, a variety of hummingbirds and several common species made appearances along the way. But the prize find for me was my 400th lifer - a Black-throated Gray Warbler! I spotted a female at the top of an Oak Tree, but unfortunately it didn't stick around for pictures. Guess I'll have to find a more cooperative one, probably in West Texas.

I intently looked for the Rose-throated Becard, but it didn't show, so I decided to head to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville where a Dusky-capped Flycatcher had been reported in the morning. I'd never been to the sanctuary, so when I saw what looked like the border wall and a border patrol agent parked on the road leading to the sanctuary, I wondered if I'd end up in Mexico if I kept driving. When I called the sanctuary, they reassured me the sanctuary was just down the road, so I kept driving.

Male Anna's Hummingbird
Sure enough I made it to the sanctuary and started my search. The wind picked up significantly and the bird wasn't calling. I spent about 2 hours looking and decided to take a consolation prize, a male Anna's Hummingbird that had been wintering at the sanctuary. This was a good year bird for me, considering I didn't find one for my list last year.
 I tried one last time for the flycatcher, but didn't find him. It was getting dark, so I decided to call it quits since I had a 4-hour drive ahead of me back to San Antonio.

Even though I didn't find all the rarities I set out for, the two-day trip to the valley was a great success. I met my goal with plenty of time to spare. Perhaps I'll pad my list even more when I head to Salineno next week for the Brown Jay!

And now for a few more photos of my trip....

Green Jays

Plain Chachalaca

Long-billed Thrasher

Cooper's Hawk

Green Jay

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Weekend Trip to LRGV Nets Rarities, South Texas Specialties

Altamira Oriole: Not a rare bird,
but a good South Texas Specialty.

This past weekend I went down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) in search of some rarities. A Golden-crowned Warbler had been reported almost daily since mid-December in Weslaco at Frontera Audubon Thicket. A Black-legged Kittiwake was hanging around a jetty at South Padre Island. And several other Mexican vagrants were hiding out in state parks and sancturies.

I set out to find as many as I could in the process of getting bird #400 for my life list. I had 5 birds to go and wanted to see #400 before my 30th birthday on Jan. 29.

On the way to Harligen, I stopped off on a county road that goes through Atascosa County. Marcin gave me a tip a few weeks ago about a Short-eared owl that had been hanging around a field. It took me until dusk to find it swooping low over the field. It looked graceful and mysterious gliding through the twilight as it searched for a meal. One life bird down, four to go.

I stayed overnight in Harligen and started the next day at Frontera Audubon Thicket. It was cloudy, but my hopes were high that I would find the rare warbler. It took me only about 15 minutes to find him, but it took me nearly 2 hours to get photos of the little bugger.

Golden-crowned Warbler hides in the thicket
The Golden-crowned Warbler easily eluded me and a host of birders. At first, his yellow belly was easy to spot in the underbrush, but when he turned his greenish-gray back to us, he disappeared. He camouflaged himself from the camera shutters as he darted around for bugs and worms, only standing still to eat his catch or take a quick look around. 

Apparently, there have been less than 10 accepted records of the warbler in Texas. Most sightings have been in the RGV. This was a first sighting for me, so I had 3 lifers to go.
While I was at the Thicket, I met Blake and Holly Wright, two birders who are doing a photographic Big Year. They not only have to see the bird, but take a picture of it as well. The warbler had eluded them on their first trip to the Valley at the start of the year, so they were relieved to get it on this trip. I ran into them later that morning at Quinta Mazatlan where they had been looking for the Tropical Parula. I was after this bird as well since it would be lifer #398.
They were leaving when I arrived and said they hadn't seen the parula. I wasn't sure if I would be able to find it either, but I decided to give it a try. I searched the gardens and the feeding stations for about an hour. After getting a little more information from the front desk, I checked out a feeding station on the North Trail. After about 10 minutes, a small multi-colored warbler with an olive patch on his back flew down onto a feeder to feast on a sliced orange. The Tropical Parula didn't stay long, but it was there long enought to get satisfying looks and a few mediocre photos.

Tropical Parula
I called Blake and Holly, but they were halfway to Brownsville. Later that afternoon, I bumped into them again when I went to South Padre Island for the Black-legged Kittiwake. This was the easiest rare bird I've chased. It didn't seemed bothered by the dozens of fishermen and kids playing nearby. Glad the kittiwake didn't mind the trio of birders staring at it and snapping photos. 
Black-legged Kittiwake: Life Bird # 399.
I ended the day with my new friends at the SPI Birding Center. We perused the board walk and snapped photos of herons, egrets, spoonbills and a variety of other shorebirds and ducks. A great way to end the day. Only 1 lifer to go and I'd reach #400.
South Padre Island Birding Center

Roseate Spoonbill
Little Blue Heron

Pied-billed Grebe


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Central Texas Birders Round Up a Lewis's in Junction

On a clear, crisp Saturday morning, Marcin and I headed out to Junction, TX. to chase after a Lewis's Woodpecker. Rhandy Helton, who frequently provides birders with good reports of sightings for his hometown, found the green-backed, rosy-faced bird at the local rodeo grounds.

The woodpecker is an irregular winter visitor to the western two-thirds of the state with most of them being reported from the Trans-Pecos. The bird would be a lifer for Marcin, and I had never seen it in Texas, so it would be worth the 2-hour drive to add him the the list. We also thought we'd have a good chance to see Mountain Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds, which had also been reported. (These are also rare sightings for Central Texas.)
When we got to the rodeo grounds, we quickly joined another birder from Austin and made our way down the dusty path to an overlook on the banks of the South Llano River. We followed Rhandy's advice to scan a line of tall Pecan Trees on the opposite bank. A brief look produced red-shafted and yellow-shafted Northern Flickers (The subspecies are not often seen together, so it was a great start.)

After about 5 minutes, I got a gut-feeling about one of the Pecan Trees. When I took a glimpse and saw a dark figure in full sun slowly moving alongside a bare branch, I knew I had him. I could barely make out any colors, but his darkish figure stood out among the neighboring Flickers. I called over to Marcin and the other birder and we watched as the Lewis's slowly moved into sunlight just enough for us to make out his rosy face. Within minutes, the woodpecker began performing his aerial acrobatics, gracefully hovering with his large wing span and darting back and forth from trunk to trunk.                             


Soon we had some other birders join us for the show. Marcin and I desperately tried snapping some photos, but knew we were well out of range with our lenses. Gil Eckerich and Tom Dove were better armed with their photographic arsenal, but the woodpecker wasn't very cooperative. He frequently disappeared into the branches and often stayed in the shadows.

The bird even teased us when he came across the river and landed in a nearby corral where we thought we could round him up for some prized photos. But when we finally got into position after moving through a series of gates and corrals, ol' Lewis wouldn't have it and he headed back across the river. So much for a blue-ribbon photo op!

Marcin and I decided to settle for mediocre photos when we came across about a dozen Mountain Bluebirds. We chased the group for more than an hour and got some satisfying photos of the sky-blue males. 

It was a rare treat to not only see the Mountain Bluebirds, but the other two species later that afternoon (Eastern and Western Bluebirds). It was the first time Marcin and I had seen a trifecta of bluebirds in one day. 
We also spent some time at South Llano River State Park and birded  the Agarita Bird Blind. We had a cornucopia of birds, including Pines Siskins, Fox Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia and more.
All together we saw more than 40 species of birds in Junction, but we won't soon forget the main attraction that had Central Texas Birders scrambling through dusty corrals and cactus just to get a photo.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Snowy Owl Chase Kicks Off 2012

I decided to start the year off in a special way by going beyond Texas borders to chase a Snowy Owl that had been reported for the past 3 weeks in Northern Oklahoma. I was about 4 hours south of the owl visiting family for the New Year in Denton, TX.

On about 4 hours of sleep, I woke up around 7 a.m. on Jan. 1 and headed toward the little town of Marland, OK. When I got off of Hwy. 77, I had to depend on my odometer to get me to the correct field where the sighting had been reported on Ebird. (Guess I need to replace the power cable to my GPS.)

I scoped the field from two different angles for about an hour with no luck. (However, I did get my lifer Smith's Longspur while waiting.) Fortunately, some local birders showed up and started looking as well. After a few minutes of searching, the group decided to scour some of the neighboring fields. Terry Mitchell, who had been keeping track of the owl for the past few days, took down my number to call me if he found it.

Surprisingly, it didn't take Terry very long to find him. About an hour later he found the little white speck about 300 yards out in one of the fields where it had first been reported several weeks ago.

Where's Snowy?
 The owl stood motionless with its back toward us. "Are you sure it's not just a salt lick," one of the birders joked. But sure enough it turned its head and looked at us with those golden eyes. I probably spent about 2 hours soaking it all in and trying to digiscope with the aid of one of the birder's heavy duty scopes.

My first attempt at digiscoping. A point-and-shoot might have worked better.

I had better luck at a different angle without digiscoping, but the photo doesn't do the owl justice. At least it's something.

Snowy Owl

What a gift to kick off 2012 with a snowy! Thanks to Terry and the other Oklahoma birders for helping out an eager Texan get this special bird. The experience will be hard to top this year, but I'm up for the challenge.