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.