30 January 2016


As you have probably heard by now, we were missing our targets... and in epic ways.  Drive to Canada for the Smew?  Missed it.  Try for the Kelp Gull 7x... no luck.  Look around in Florida (twice!) for anis... still no luck.  Drive from NY to MN for the Ivory Gull?  Sure... and you'll miss it by less than 24 hours.

Surely, the method of breaking that curse would involve driving to Texas!  I mean, the list of potential lifers down there was pretty high for us.  Rarities were being seen like Golden-crowned Warbler and Flame-colored Tanager which would both be new ABA birds for us.  Additionally, Tropical Parula has been reliable and that would be new for Ashley.  Then there are the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls that I've yet to catch up with and other rarities like Blue Bunting and Masked Duck that could show up anytime.

So we did just that.  After hanging out in Missouri for a few days recouping from our Minnesotan letdown meltdown, we blasted south (picking up new counties as we fled).  So here we go... best "Brace yourself"

Our first (and main) destination was Lions / Shelley Park in the town of Refugio:

We had high hopes, both the warbler and tanager had been seen recently.  So we got out and started the hunt alongside the hoard of rarity-chasers one might expect.  The only problem with this whole scenario, of course, is that we were doomed.  Somehow, someway, we missed both targets!

Not to panic, though, we had lots of time.  No, actually, you CAN panic now because after trying for these targets for parts of 3 days, we STILL came up empty.  

If there was any consolation prize, it's that we were able to surround ourselves with fun species we weren't going to see in New York or Missouri.  One such example, and actually a really rare bird for Texas, was the long-staying GREATER PEWEE that hangs out by the parking lot: 
When you put in the kind of time we put in at this park, you start to see all sorts of things you'd likely miss if you just breezed through.  A great example of that was when, in our failing, we found a pair of BARRED OWLS.  A photogenic bird, for sure:
Another great bird for Texas in the winter was this LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH, a long-staying bird that we found foraging along the riverbanks of the Mission River.  In fact, this is the first time I've ever seen this species in a winter month in the ABA area:
However, missing both of those ABA targets was on the verge of devastating.  Clearly we needed to avoid chasing birds.

But no, we didn't.

Remember, the parula?  We thought we'd head down to Frontera Audubon where a couple of goodies have been reliable.  Frontera Audubon Sanctuary, an oasis of habitat located in an urban Weslaco neighborhood, has long been a magnet for oddities in the LRGV:

As it turns out, I first visited this spot 12 years ago on my first trip to southern Texas.  It was on that trip that most of the Texas specialties were brand new and eye-opening to me.  On this visit, well, they're still pretty freaking cool!

Here's a GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER, a close relative of the Red-bellied Woodpecker, just hanging out back by the feeders:
See the red cap on the head?  That plumage mark indicates it's a male (females lack that):
From the back, the golden nape is as vivid as ever.  I was interested to find that the upper part of this yellow patch had orangish/reddish overtones:
Another year-round resident species you'll probably see in south Texas that you won't see elsewhere in the ABA area is the LONG-BILLED THRASHER.  Don't ask me why this species got pegged as "long-billed" when plenty of its relatives out west have much longer bills.  Perhaps this species was described first and only in comparison with Brown Thrasher?  Regardless, here's one rootin' around under the feeders:
Another ground-dweller in southern Texas is the OLIVE SPARROW, the only member of the Arremonops genus we have in the ABA area.  Here's one skulking around in the early light:
While we're discussing skulkers at Frontera, I might mention this PAINTED BUNTING that has been seen there this winter.  Although they're rare in Texas in the winter, this particular one has been right at home in the tangles and thick veg near the back feeding station:
Unlike the above skulkers, south Texas is home to a truly raucous species of flycatcher, the bold and widespread GREAT KISKADEE.  In fact, you'll probably hear one before you seen one.  They sound like this:
Their black-and-white head, yellow belly, and rufous back/tail all in one package makes for an attractive bird!
This TURKEY VULTURE was taking a break from sticking its bare head into corpses to say hi to us.  Hi.
If you're enjoying the sunny warmth of the southern US (which we were...some of the time), you may as well share it with some exotic waders.  This WHITE IBIS posed quite regally, quite proud... as if it forgot it was standing in some of its own poo:
South Texas is home to the diminutive GREEN KINGFISHER, a sometimes-tricky and quiet species of slow-moving streams and backwaters.  We caught up to this one but it didn't stick around long enough for me to capture a sharp image of it:
Frontera Audubon is a great place to catch up to another Texas specialty, the BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD.  We saw many but photographed only this one:
Since south Texas is nice, warm, and has plenty of food, several songbird species hang out for the winter before migrating back north to breed in the summer.  We saw several examples of this including a dozen species of warblers.  This particular one was out for a stroll as well; the distinctive OVENBIRD:
Not only warblers tend to stick around somewhere like that, it also hosted a couple of species of vireos including this BLUE-HEADED VIREO that came to us in some early-morning shade:
Even the doves down there are funky.  Take for example, the mega-scaly INCA DOVE that when it sings, sounds vaguely similar to "INC-uh".  Well, ok, maybe not... but it's how I remember it!
If you hear something in south Texas that sounds like velociraptors eviscerating some poor creature in the bushes, it's probably just the PLAIN CHACHALACAS that roam the south Texan jungles.  This one was squaring off with another chachalaca; note the stretched neck and odd posture:
Once upon a time, seeing a CLAY-COLORED THRUSH in south Texas was a big deal.  In recent years, however, this relative of our robin has done well and is now fairly common throughout.  In a given day at Frontera, we would see at least 3-4.  Although they're not as bold out in the open like the American Robin, you can still catch up to them in the thick undergrowth:
By now you've probably figured out that I'm drawing this out.  Did we catch up to anything rare at Frontera?  Well, MOST of the birders swarming the maze of trails were after an elusive and secretive bird endemic to Mexico, the Code 4 CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAK.  And, after birding the park for a couple of days, we eventually caught up to it too:
Although Ashley and I didn't actually need this as a life bird, they're rare enough that seeing another one is always a treat.  My lifer CCGR came at this exact park 12 years ago (on my first trip to southern TX, no less!).

As for the parula, you ask?  You mean the one bird that Ashley actually needed?  Of course, it was a no-show.  In now-normal fashion, we somehow managed to miss the birds we wanted the most.  Sadly, this no longer came as a surprise.

We figured maybe we needed to reset our karma sensor or something and so we bailed and decided to swing down to Santa Ana NWR which sits right on the Mexico border:

Our main reason for this side trip was to see the continuing Code 4 NORTHERN JACANA that has been around there for ages.  After the short hike in, we were relieved to actually find our target for once.  Of course, it was WAY in the distance and we didn't bother bringing a scope... so a horrible photo ensued.  Note the "Nessy" posture only one of my famously-bad photos is capable of showing:
Like before, although this is a rare bird, Ashley and I had already seen one in Arizona 8 years ago.  But hey, we were happy to see another.

Here's a first.  I was driving through Weslaco when Ashley said "Turn around, there was a Gray Hawk on the power lines back there".  Sure enough.  Hmm, kinda cool!
It was a hard decision but we eventually decided against sticking around in Texas hoping for our targets to reappear... if they were even still around; our bad luck was just too powerful.  So, with heavy bins, we tucked Bogens and headed north.  Maybe the Ivory Gull would stick another two days for us to try again?

End of story?  Ehhh... not quite.

It was getting late in the day as we drove north out of the LRGV.  We decided to take a quick detour out to the flat agricultural fields in hopes for SPRAGUE'S PIPIT, a somewhat secretive species we don't get to see too often.  I drove through the area back in 2013 and had half a dozen on one stretch of road... so we went there.  And missed them there.  Oh great, not again!  As we were heading back to the interstate, Ashley caught a glimpse of... plovers in a field?  We weren't sure so we turned around and took another look.  They were LONG-BILLED CURLEWS hunched down distantly in a field with only their heads sticking up.  As we sat there.... squeet squeet!... a pipit flushed nearby giving the easily-recognizable call notes.  Ha!  Victory.

Even though we were heading home without adding any lifers, we looked back and were glad we took the trip.  If nothing else, the great expanse of Texas reminded us that there will always be more reasons to return.

26 January 2016

Oh Duluth, what have you done to me?

Wrapped up somewhere in the whirlwind of travels we've undertook so far this year was the long haul drive to Duluth, Minnesota from New York.  Our goal was simple... we wanted to see the long-staying IVORY GULL which would be a lifer for both Ashley and me.

We arrived at Canal Park but upon exiting the car, we were greeted by -15 temps and windchills dropping to about -25.  Besides all boogers instantly crystalizing in what I was suppose to be breathing through (a red lump of flesh known as a nose), it was a constant battle to stay warm for very long.  And to summarize the 48-hour visit to the frozen north... we missed the target!

That's right, the Code 3 arctic gull was present every day up until the night we arrived... and then it was gone.  Un-freaking-believable!

But, we tried.  We stood there, froze, ran to the car to warm up, got out, froze again, got in the car, got out, got cold, rethought our plan, got in car, etc.  In the midst of all that, I demanded that my last working finger push down on the camera shutter button a few times.

One of the things captured was this ICELAND GULL:
I feel like I should mention, in my old curmudgeon ways, that there is no such species called a Kumlien's Gull.  Nope!  There IS such a thing as a "Kumlien's" race of Iceland Gull though!  Grumble grumble.  Moving on...

In the remaining open water by the park, this GREATER SCAUP was cruising around with some COMMON GOLDENEYE:
Of course, it's flagged in eBird (it's January after all) and so I embedded it in my checklist (the photo, not the bird!)  So gaze upon it in all its beauty!

I will say that Canal Park provided a unique chance to look directly down at AMERICAN BLACK DUCKS:
Or maybe it's a Mottled?

Several birders were trying to stir up some gull activity by chucking bread out to the hardy laridites.  This RING-BILLED GULL, one of only a couple present this late into the winter there, was so shocked by the absence of the Ivory that it gasped and lost its bread:
Or maybe not.

As dusk approached, it was dawning on us that the Ivory was MIA.  We decided to bail for a few hours and drove up to Sax Zim Bog (excuses just to warm up??).

"The bog", more magical than the name implies, was refreshingly familiar to Ashley and I.  When we lived in Iowa, we made several trips up to this famous-for-owls hotspot NW of Duluth and now we were back!  We didn't have any set targets on this particular side-trip, we just wanted to drive around to see what we could.  The first highlight came pretty quickly, a small flock of GRAY JAYS moving through the woods:
Next up, we visited the feeders at the visitor center (which we had never been to, oddly enough).  A large flock of COMMON REDPOLLS was present along with a colorful group of PINE GROSBEAKS.  Here's a male grosbeak on the left with a camera-shy Common Redpoll on the right:
Shortly after, we met a couple of birders down the road who had found a BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER which we were able to enjoy as well.  These denizens of the northern spruce bogs have always been one of my favorites.  The thrill of trying to locate the source of the tap tap-tap tap-tap-tap tap tap-tap in the middle of a cold and quiet northern bog is always something I'll enjoy.

We also found a very distant NORTHERN SHRIKE perched at the tip-top of a tree, as the species habitually does:
However, the #1 bog highlight for us wasn't a bird sighting.  It happened when we looked down a deserted side road and saw a huge GRAY WOLF looking back at us!  Woah!

I lunged into the backseat to find my camera but by the time I emerged with it, the wolf had scampered off.  I tracked down... the tracks; here's mine on the left, the wolf's on the right:
We returned to Canal Park hoping the gull had returned... but it hadn't.  We drowned our sorrows, as one does, at the local Dunkin' Donuts.

The next morning, same story: NO IVORY GULL.  We instead went to go look for the GYRFALCON that had been present in Superior.  Well, we missed that too.  Fantastic!  We're on a roll.

We stopped at the Superior airport and, would you believe, this target actually worked out!  It was, of course, a SNOWY OWL:
I like Snowy Owls.  Who doesn't?!  Although I consider myself decently familiar with them (eBird lists 79 different days that I've seen at least one), it was still nice to see this northern species again!

Speaking of old friends, I also saw Herbert!  
No no no, not that one... this one was looking a bit cold and untalkative:
I call him an "old friend" because I scoped this ship passing by Whitefish Point in 2007 when I worked as a waterbird counter at Whitefish Bird Observatory (and because I was bored out there from time-to-time, I kept a list of ships I saw).

So yeah, anyway, that was our quick trip to Minnesota.

OH!  But this story wouldn't be complete without a very important postscript.  Get this, the Ivory CAME BACK... but of course, we were in Texas or something.  Oops, I just gave away the topic of my next post.  Stay tuned!

P.P.S.  And then the Ivory Gull died... probably.  It was last seen when people were trying to catch it (hmm, I'd leave/die too).

17 January 2016

Florida finality

My earliest eBird records from the Sunshine State came in April of 1996.  I was 12.  Back then, in my naive ways, I viewed Florida as a true tropical paradise with completely unsurpassed birding.  Going to Florida was a BIG DEAL for me back then.  The palm trees you start seeing around the state line with Georgia?  I mean... mind blown.

I mention this because just a week or two ago, on our second trip to Florida within the past month, I visited Merritt Island NWR on the east shore of Florida, the very same place where my Florida birding experience began.  In fact, we even drove the same auto-tour loop that I was driven around when I was just starting out as a youngster.

There's something remarkable about revisiting a place like that 20 years later.  Even though my memories from that early visit are vague, there's nothing vague about seeing many of the same species right outside my minuscule rental car window in 2016.

That auto-tour loop provided me many new birds 20 years ago... things like AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN, GLOSSY IBIS, and WHITE IBIS were being viewed by me for the first time.  I'd never see my "first" White Ibis again.

Fast forward to the recent visit, it's no surprise that we saw many of the same characters.  Here's a TRICOLORED HERON in full evening light:
It was kind of special seeing this abundant species here... it turns out that my lifer Tricolored Heron was seen at this very same location on that day 20 years ago.  Maybe that lifer was in the bright light, like above, or maybe it was tucked in a bush, like below:
Not as showy but probably just as interesting a species, we saw this WILSON'S SNIPE sitting motionless, banking on its dull plumage to keep it hidden:
A lot more noticeable was this small group of HOODED MERGANSERS keeping an eye on the auto tour vehicles creeping around:
Believe it or not, my lifer AMERICAN COOT came 20 years ago in Florida as well.  This photo shows you... well, a lot of coots:
The ANHINGA (a name from the Brazilian Tupi language meaning "devil bird" or "snake bird") is a familiar sight in the south:
But did you know that Anhingas lack external nares (nostrils)?  Look again.  It's true, and they only breathe through their epiglottis.

BLUE-WINGED TEAL were abundant as we made our way around the auto-tour loop.  I can't complain about the light either; they simply glowed:
Because we were in "wandering mode", we also ventured farther south on this latest trip.  One such stop was at the Everglades National Park... cuz... why not?

On the way in, at the "flycatcher corner" right outside the park boundary, things were hopping with activity.  It hosted a couple of species that many people don't associate much with the eastern US.  One such example were the two WESTERN KINGBIRDS hanging out there on the power lines:
Also present, and not quite as uncommon in south Florida in the winter, was a SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER or two.  Any day with these graceful flyers should be a good day:
We didn't stop there though.  If we're all the way in south Florida, why not venture down into the Florida Keys?  We did just that.  Here's a view on a cloudy and rainy day at Bahia Honda State Park:
The wind and rain really did hamper our efforts though.  Even these SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHERS and WILLET at Bahia Honda were looking rather unimpressed with the weather:
Remember, if it's a WILLET that's wintering here in the US, it's almost certainly the "Western" subspecies (Tringa semipalmata inornata).  The Willets that breed on the East Coast are a pretty different beast (and they don't winter in the US).

This bird wasn't on the ABA checklist when I started out birding.  It's a COMMON MYNA, a now-common established exotic found in Florida.  Some exotics in Florida aren't super easy to find... but this isn't one of them.  This one was strutting about a gas station in Florida City, picking at smooshed trash:
All this driving lately has definitely translated into many more county lists!  Keeping tabs of all the birds in drive-through counties is both a) overwhelming on long drives and b) kind of labor intensive with the prep.  However, I'm happy to just so that I can see my paths across the country taking shape.  Here's a cut-and-paste version of my latest eBird county totals:
You can see now two different paths to Florida from NY; one through OH, TN, KY and another through SC, NC, VA, and WV.  I also can see more counties in Wisconsin from a SE --> NW sweep we did through the state lately.  Additionally, I'm seeing more shades around NE Ohio and Duluth.  As of yesterday, I now have lists for 676 counties/parishes/census areas/boroughs in the US and 10 in Canada (totaling 686 in all of the ABA area via eBird).

I mentioned Duluth.  Welcome to the subject of my next blog post.  Stay tuned...

15 January 2016

A smile in Carlyle

Skipping forward a little bit in time, I thought I'd share some pictures from a chase Ashley and I undertook a couple of days ago.  The place?  Carlyle Lake in Illinois (an hour east of St. Louis):

The target?  A BLACK-TAILED GULL (Code 4) was found on the 11th.  This medium-sized gull belongs in East Asia, however, and sightings in the middle of this country are quite rare but not unheard of (my first BTGU came in 2007 in Iowa).

Once we arrived, it was a bit daunting seeing the multitude of Ring-billed Gulls swirling below the dam.  Thousands upon thousands of gulls were in the air.  And we were supposed to find a different gull mixed in with THAT?!

However, with some patience, the bird was eventually spotted making passes along the east side of the spillway.  We hoofed it over and were rewarded with some crippling looks in the late-afternoon light:
When it banked, the broad black tail band stood out like you wouldn't believe:
Also, note the relatively dark mantle which stood out next to the paler mantles of Ring-billed Gulls:
I'd say the mantle reminded me of the shade of a Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Here's another look:
Also note the lack of white in the primaries:
 Size-wise, I'd say it was just slightly longer-winged than the RBGUs which it swarmed around with.  Granted, that would be difficult to judge from these photos.

The bird repeatedly plunged down right in front of us and came up with fish which it would swallow right away.  Here it is again right after gulping one down:

I'll leave you with this photo.  Behind the bird is the only graffiti I like to see plastered on cement: shadows of gulls: