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: