23 March 2016

South Texas!

I just returned from a Field Guides tour to south Texas where we spent 10 days showing lots of amazing birds to amazing people!  Thanks to Chris Benesh, the main guide, for letting me tag along and help when I could.

Keep in mind that I took LOTS of photos and so the following ~50 photos will have minimal story-telling behind them!  Let's get started....

What better way to start a tour than with a boat ride out to Aransas NWR to watch the endangered WHOOPING CRANES??  What a crowd-pleaser!  Here is one with a crab (their main diet):
Did you know that if you lined up all the bird species in the US, this one would look down at every single one of them?  Yep, this is our tallest-standing bird species in North America.  Thankfully they've come back from the brink of extinction (their numbers were as low as 20 birds at one point!) and can be viewed on their wintering grounds in south Texas.

The boat trip had loads of other eye-candy too.  Here's an AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER with some morning light to illuminate the bright orange bill:
They may be abundant but in nice light, it's hard not to appreciate the beauty of LAUGHING GULLS:
One of the biggest surprises on the boat trip was this APLOMADO FALCON that buzzed by!
This uncommon falcon species is now countable according to ABA rules (like it or not).  Also, this was Chris's first sighting of this species from this boat trip in nearly 30 years of guiding in TX.

You may know that I'm quite partial to Ammodramus sparrows and so this SEASIDE SPARROW was a personal highlight on the boat trip.  We saw several and also got to hear the raspy songs lifting from the coastal veg:
Anyway, although the boat trip was a mere 3.5 hours, we racked up a pretty nice list (checklist here).

The now-famous Lions/Shelley Park in Refugio was a new destination for this itinerary.  We spun north to add trip birds like AMERICAN CROW, CAROLINA CHICKADEE, and more popular things like this GREEN KINGFISHER:
The BARRED OWLS at this park are definitely stunners too!
This park has also been hosting some rarities this winter like this GREATER PEWEE that continues to be findable:
However, we were NOT expecting to relocate this FLAME-COLORED TANAGER!  This rarity hadn't been seen there in 2 months... and we were the lucky ones to manage to confirm that it was still there!
We just couldn't believe our luck!  Although this turned out to be the rarest bird of the trip (for Texas, that is), it was a long-time ABA nemesis of mine as well.  And as some of you know, I distribute Reese's peanut butter cups when lifers happen!  The bird put on a real show too; we managed to put it in the scope and watch it to our heart's content:
Down closer to Brownsville, we stopped at another spot for nice scope views of more APLOMADO FALCONS:
We also visited a few places that were loaded with waterfowl for easy viewing and studying.  Here's a drake BLUE-WINGED TEAL looking sharp:
In continuing with the duck theme, this GREEN-WINGED TEAL was also very photogenic.  Check out the difference in bill size between the two teal species.
This RUDDY DUCK was one of the stars of the show because, as you have to admit, it certainly is more boldly-colored than the LEAST BITTERN we also found at this spot!
Our group was lucky to have some time devoted to birding at the King Ranch!  Oh, did I mention that this ranch literally is the size of Rhode Island?  And yes, the main target eventually showed itself, the rare FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL!
The King Ranch remains the most reliable spot to look for this little specialty.  This was also a long-standing nemesis of mine so I couldn't be more thrilled to finally lay eyes on one!  Lifer #2; time for Cory to distribute Reese's peanut butter cups to everyone!  

The above owl wasn't the only owl we saw that day.  We also snagged this BARN OWL:
It was a warm day too and lots of butterflies were flying.  I stopped for a quick picture of this PHAON CRESCENT:
Another target was SPRAGUE'S PIPIT which we eventually found slinking through the grass.  This inconspicuous species blends in quite well with the grass that it stalks around in:
 We ended the day in Brownsville at a park where hundreds of parrots come into roost every night.  Included in the raucous groups are RED-CROWNED PARROTS which are ABA countable:
There were also several RED-LORED PARROTS which are not ABA countable as of yet.  These were readily picked out by the yellow in the cheeks (they also sound different):
Laguna Atascosa is always a popular destination for birders and the morning we spent there reminded us why.  It was loaded with colorful birds like HOODED and ALTAMIRA ORIOLES and numerous GREEN JAYS:
There were CEDAR WAXWINGS around too which was flagged in eBird (a surprise to me) so I snapped a crummy documentation pic:
However, the main target at Laguna Atascosa was a rare and inconspicuous wanderer from the south.  There had been a long-staying Code 3 CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAK there and, after only a few minutes, we were able to hear it giving its distinctive call note.  We tracked it around until eventually we all got looks (although it seemed pretty camera shy when I had my camera ready):
The grosbeak was an excellent bird to get for everyone though; we really were doing quite well with rarities thus far!

So, naturally, let's bird the dump.  Although the Brownsville dump no longer has the rare crows from the south, it's still worth a look!  Here you can see oodles of LAUGHING GULLS, a few bigger gulls (we had a LBBG nearby, for example), and a CRESTED CARACARA playing king of the hill:
I hadn't seen a BOBCAT before in Texas (although that's not saying much; I have horrible luck with cats).  We lucked out though when Chris spotted this guy cruising around the Tropical Zone at Estero Llano Grande State Park:

Moving to a new location, most birders that have spent time in southern Texas have gone to see the roosting GREEN PARAKEETS in McAllen.  We did and were relieved to find them reliable and noisy as ever.  This species has been countable in the ABA area for some time now:
An important stop on our tour was at Frontera Audubon Center.  This hotspot has hosted a long-staying BLUE BUNTING this winter and we were keen to try our luck at it.  However, this bird is notoriously skulky and can sometimes make birders wait for hours upon hours to see it.

However, after Chris heard it calling, he called people over and most of us got good looks at it!  Interestingly, the bird even sang a phrase or two!  There were a few people that missed it though and so we continued to watch for it.  Maybe an hour or so later, I was lucky to bump into the bird in a different area and we were all able to watch it foraging in the leaf litter.  My pictures aren't great but you get the idea:

This Code 3 rarity was yet another hole on my ABA list that I was thrilled to fill (Reese's anyone?).  I had tried for this species in previous years at Laguna Atascosa but it wasn't until 2016 that I eventually caught up to one.

A stop at Santa Ana NWR scored us a couple of new species for the trip such as TROPICAL KINGBIRD, WILSON'S SNIPE, another FULVOUS WHISTLING-DUCK, as well as this neat butterfly called a BROWN LONGTAIL:
I also enjoyed digiscoping this GREAT KISKADEE with my phone:
We also saw this WHITE-STRIPED LONGTAIL which was a lifer butterfly for me.  However, the picture is NOT great!
One of the highlights at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park was this singing TROPICAL PARULA that put on a spectacular show just outside the headquarters buildings.  After having missed this species at other spots, finding this one later in the trip was completely ace:
This is another Code 3 species that can be hard to pin down when you want to.  Although they will sometimes breed at the King Ranch (and other spots in TX), this was only the second one I'd ever seen in the ABA.  Note the dark face and lack of white around the eye.  Here it is again midflight:
Moving on up the valley to Zapata, one afternoon was filled with ominous skies!
After the storms came through that night, we were left with windy and cool conditions.  Regardless, one of the most productive stops on this tour was at Salineño, a small town on the banks of the Rio Grande River.  Although things were chilly (a first for me at this spot!), it was a very successful visit.  For example, things got interesting when this RED-BILLED PIGEON ripped past!
This Texas specialty is a tough target to nail down sometimes (I think I had seen them fewer than 5x before).  An hour or two after the first sighting, 2 more ripped past going the other direction.  Whew, another major target down!

A nice feature at Salineño now is the resident WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATERS that have set up camp just up the riverbank.  It didn't take long at all to find 3 of them flying around and perching up.  Here's a female:
This is another Code 3 specialty found only in southern Texas.  In fact, this was only my 5th time seeing this species in the US despite many previous trips. 

The feeders at Salineño lived up to their reputation as being a hoppin' place!  All you have to do is sit down and wait for the feeders to become alive with a variety of interesting species.  Included in the mix were several NORTHERN BOBWHITE:
One of my favorites are always the black-and-yellow AUDUBON'S ORIOLES that are reliable there:
Texas is the only state in which you can hope to see this species here in the US.  Here's another look:
 Most people would agree that the ALTAMIRA ORIOLES weren't too shabby looking either:
Some of the common species also displayed quite well including this LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER:
Just up the road from Salineño is the Chapeño Road.  We snagged a few more desert species there including CASSIN'S SPARROWS and this BLACK-THROATED SPARROW:
It should be worth mentioning how common but cool the CRESTED CARACARAS are that frequent the area.  Interestingly, this species is actually more closely related to falcons than other hawks (and yet it behaves much like a vulture).
A bonus species that wasn't on my radar was LARK BUNTING.  Chris spotted these as we zoomed past.  I'm glad they're comfortable sitting on razor wire because I sure wouldn't be!
Nearby, this LARK SPARROW was one of many that flushed from the roadside to perch up and give us the evil eye.  Handsome birds though!
After the trip was all said and done, we enjoyed more than 220 species of birds, lots of neat habitats, sights, and people!

Anyway, that's a wrap.  Good night, Dallas:

10 March 2016

Cleaning Kelp

As I alluded to earlier, we eluded western NY state and found ourselves back in northeastern Missouri.  However, on the way through, we stopped in Akron to try for the Code 4 Kelp Gull yet again.  We're no strangers to this routine!  In fact, this was our 9th attempt for this long-staying rarity.  However, unlike most long-staying rarities, this bird almost never followed any routine that made it chaseable (hence us missing it 8 times!).  In fact, it hadn't been seen for a while before this and, from the looks of it, people weren't trying for it as often.  We figured maybe these circumstances would help us break the curse!

We arrived at Springfield Lake that afternoon but the gulls had already started streaming in.  It didn't take long to find several GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULLS floating among the Herring and Ring-billed gulls.  Shortly after, we found a LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL as well.  With this many gulls coming into roost, things were looking good!  It was then that Ashley said there was a bird I needed to look at.  I found it in my scope and studied it for a while... but I wasn't sure if the mantle was dark enough.  But then she said how it was right next to a GBBG... and the bird I was studying certainly wasn't!  Whaaaatt??  I zoomed over to the CORRECT bird and was immediately blown away by the darkness of the mantle and the size of the bird.  Short story shorter... she had found our long-awaited KELP GULL!  I hurriedly snapped a couple of digiscoped photos but they were all pretty crappy.  Here is my best hope:
You can see a couple of things in this photo including the jet-black mantle that matches the darkness of the primaries (darker than any LBBG should show).  You can also see the size relative to the surrounding HERGs, it's about the same size (it's certainly no GBBG).  You can see the clean white head as well.  Although it's not great proof, it certainly was a straightforward study through the scopes as it swam next to both GBBG and LBBG.

We eventually had to call it a night but we certainly wanted to come back the next morning to see if we could study it some more, hopefully in flight.  However, we couldn't find it when we arrived the next morning.  Instead, we were left to count the GBBGs present and take photos of them instead.  Because GBBGs are not common in those parts and these sightings were flagged in eBird, I took this digiscoped shot showing 5 adult GBBGs in the same view:
So with that, we looked around and figured it was time to leave (and never to return?).  All these visits to this particular hotspot actually has given us a nice list; Ashley is ranked #5 all-time!  We didn't sit around to reminisce though; we climbed back into our packed car and drove 9 hours westward.

So after 8 tries for this horrid, winged spawn of satan... we finally were successful!  Maybe it's not such an evil bird after all?  You can see our checklist from that previous night here.  This was my first new ABA bird since Egyptian Goose late last year... so it's nice to have a rarity replace that nastiness on my blog sidebar!

02 March 2016

Looking up (and looking up)

Ash and I continue to hold the fort down here in western New York State.  Although the species diversity in these here hills is rather paltry during the winter, things are looking up due to a recent warming trend.  Because of this, we too are looking up (literally).

The woods are void of snow, the rivers have long been clear of ice, and ponds and lakes are slowly but surely starting to open up along their edges.

Additionally, the recent warmer temps have a few things on the move.  We're noticing more waterfowl moving in on the heels of the receding ice, a few more raptors are migrating through, and a few species of early passerines have returned.

Starting with raptors, we spotted this NORTHERN HARRIER riding on strong southerly winds a few days ago.  This species is rather uncommon in winter and I suspect this particular one is a recent returnee.  It's also only the 2nd report of this species in Allegany County in 2016:
As one might expect, we are pleased to find that Old Man Winter is losing his grip on Cuba Lake.  This particular hotspot, arguably the best birding locale in the county, is starting to thaw revealing muddy edges.  On a recent circuit, Ash and I found these two GREEN-WINGED TEAL drakes chillin' like villains:
Although they weren't flagged as rare, this is the first February record of GWTE from Allegany, Cattaraugus, or Steuben counties in eBird.

We returned to Cuba Lake today and found an even more impressive indication of the changing seasons.  There were 65 TUNDRA SWANS milling about in the north arm of the lake!
Although a few TUSWs wouldn't be that rare here in the winter, assuming they could find water, it's certainly unusual to see this many at once.  In fact, this flock of 65 is the 2nd-largest flock ever reported in eBird for Allegany County. 

Other recent waterfowl arrivals at Cuba Lake include a female COMMON GOLDENEYE, an AMERICAN BLACK DUCK, and a few MALLARDS (perhaps some of which managed to overwinter).  We've also seen a few BUFFLEHEAD and HOODED MERGANSERS on the Genesee River which, given the early stage of migration, is a downright party in these parts.  

Expected here at this time of year, we've seen the spring arrival of several common species that will nest locally.  Among these are RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS, some of which we've seen at our own feeders.  We've also seen numerous COMMON GRACKLES and AMERICAN ROBINS milling about today, both of which weren't around until recently.

When the gray skies part and blue skies are revealed, it's not a bad landscape!  Well, assuming you're not looking at the crumbling infrastructure of a past-prime town.  Here's a view of the Genesee River from a local hiking/biking path that we birded a couple of days ago:
However, I think the fresh air was more rewarding than our checklist (seen here).  It was very quiet indeed!

We'll be leaving this landscape soon and heading back to the Midwest.  Hmm, should we try for the gull a 9th and 10th time???  Stay tuned.