Thursday, April 26, 2012

Heading Out West

This year I'm breaking with tradition and going to Big Bend instead of High Island for a long weekend of birding. Me and my friend, Brad, are leaving after work to the Trans- Pecos region with lots of target birds on the itinerary.

First stop is Uvalde for a Rufous-capped Warbler at Chalk Bluff Park. The rare bird has been seen over the last few days singing near a boat ramp in tall brush. We'll try to catch a glimpse of this attractive yellow/red passerine this evening. If we don't get him today, we'll try again on our way back on Monday.

Next, we'll do some birding in Marathon and head to the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. We plan to camp out in the mountains in Boot Springs, the prestigious location for the Colima Warbler, a warbler that only make its way into the U.S. via the high elevations of the Chisos Mountains. While we're up there at night we will listen for nocturnal birds such as Flammulated Owl and Mexican Whip-Poor-Will.

We also plan to visit Christmas Mountain Oasis for some special birds that I haven't picked up on my life list, yet - Varied Bunting and Elf Owl. Fortunately, Carolyn Ohl who keeps this amazing place alive in the desert, just located an owl nest yesterday, so there's a good chance for some good looks at one of the smallest owls in the world.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hoo... you lookin' at?

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Last Saturday I found this little fella at the San Miguelito Ranch near Raymondville, TX. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls have been very scarce in South Texas and are now only found reliably in a handful of birding hotspots on the coastal plains.

Grana and I each paid $30 to take a tour of the ranch with some visitors from Massachusetts to get this rare owl. Our tour guide, Carson, picked us up at the gate and took us to the ranch house where he said at least a pair of owls were nesting.

We had a hard time finding the owl at first. Carson thought it would be easy to find, but we ended up searching the back yard for a good 30 minutes before Carson spotted the tiny owl. If it wasn't for Carson, we probably would have missed the owl.
Our guide looking up at the owl.
We got good looks at the owl, but Carson said that the other owl that was missing usually allow approach within 5 yards! Wow, guess I'll have to come back to see that sometime. This special owl can also be found in Arizona, but aside from that it's typically only found in South Texas. How amazing it must be to own a ranch where this unique species nests.

The owl can also be found on the King Ranch nature tours, but I'm not sure if you'd be able to get as close as we did.

Other than the owl, we saw several Hooded Orioles.

And we made a run down to Estero Llano Grande State Park for another nocturnal bird - Common Pauraque. It was a little difficult to find, but last year I found a pair by Alligator Lake, so I knew where to look. I found this one in virtually the same spot.
Common Pauraque

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Tale of the Yellow Rail

Seeing a Yellow Rail up close and personal is a dream for a lot of birders. Just getting a quick look flying over marshy grassland is nearly impossible. That's why birders from around the country come to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge just to catch a glimpse of the elusive rail during the annual Yellow Rail Walks. I was more than fortunate to get about a 5 minute-look at one of the most secretive birds in North America.
Yellow Rail at Anahuac NWR - Samuel Taylor©
It all started bright an early on Sunday morning after a late night drive from Corpus Christi to Beaumont. We were going on about 4 hours of sleep and a cup of coffee when we strapped on our rain boots, doused ourselves in mosquito repellent and joined more than a dozen birders to tromp through mud and sharp marsh grass to look for the prized bird.

Our leader David Sarkozi has been doing these walks for more than 20 years. He gave a short orientation and explained just exactly what we were getting ourselves into. He pulled out a long rope with milk jugs filled with some material that made them rattle and explained that we needed to march through the grass in a tight formation behind the line. The idea was to flush the rails, which would usually be content waiting out the oncoming traffic or just walking right by Rail Walkers in the knee-high grass.

 The morning was unsuccessful for Yellow Rail, but we did get a few Soras.
Sora after being flushed.
It wasn't until the afternoon when we tried again that we got exactly what we wanted. After about 20 minutes of fruitless walking, Arman caught a glimpse of something flying into the grass behind me. We turned our attention to the area and dragged the line across the grass. Nothing... So we tried one more time and out popped a Yellow Rail.

David instructed us to quickly form a circle around the area where it had dropped down. We thought the rail would come up out of the grass but instead it walked right by one of the other birders and out of the circle.

Amazingly, we got another chance and flushed the rail once more. This time we formed a tighter circle and didn't leave much room for him to walk out. Instead, he allowed us to get some good footage of his yellow-gold plummage.

Thanks to David Sarkozi for the lifetime experience at Anahuac. We had a blast and got to see something that most birders only hope to see. The rare sighting was well worth tromping through the mud, muck and mosquitos.
Left to Right: Daria and Marcin Kotjka; Arman Moreno; Me

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Surfs Up!

Surfbird - Packery Channel Samuel Taylor©

It's one thing to see a rare bird, but it's another to see it living up to its name (well sort of...). We spent the last day of March getting incredible views of the rare shorebird at the North Jetty of Packery Channel while surfers were waiting for a wave in the background.

The surfers were probably wondering what the heck the guys with binoculars and large cameras were paying so much attention to. We even got some stares from coast guard officials patrolling the channel.

The Surfbird hung out with some Ruddy Turnstones. (Or maybe I should say Turn"stoners"...)

The Surbird only stuck around for a few more days when the weather changed. Hopefully it's on its way to its breeding grounds in Alaska.
Surfbird - Samuel Taylor©

Monday, April 2, 2012

Texas Coast Trip Made to Order

"I'll take a Surfbird Sandwich with a side of migrants, please. Oh and can I have the Yellow Rail Delight for dessert?"

If I was ordering this weekend's birding trip off a menu, that's pretty much how it would go.

Once again, a whirlwind birding trip did not disappoint.

In Corpus Christi, our eyes feasted on long looks at a rare shorebird that has graced the Texas Coast less than a dozen times since birders started keeping records in Texas. Our craving for migrants led us to dozens of Upland Sandpipers; about 10 species of warblers, including the beautiful Prairie Warbler; some spicy nightjars, including Chuck-Wills-Widow and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will; and a first helping of songbirds like Summer Tanager and Warbling Vireo.

A late night run from Corpus Christi to Beaumont was well-worth the fast-food like pace when we experienced very rare, long looks at the elusive Yellow Rail.

At the end of the trip, our lists were full and our appetite for a successful kickoff to migration was satisfied. I'll be posting photos, videos and more about the trip in the next coming days, so stay tuned...