25 May 2018

December in May

We did something rare... we went to a concert:
The Uptown Theater in Kansas City was hosting one of my favorite bands, The Decemberists.  Although Ashley and I saw them in Minneapolis many years ago, it was fun seeing them again.

Annnnnnd since you know I can't post without something bird-related, I'll admit that we did some county listing while we were on the west side of the state.  We ventured through a couple of new counties which helped to shade in my Missouri eBird map a little:
I'd say we had two main stops where we put effort into birding.  First was Swan Lake NWR in Chariton County.  We tallied 72 species in 2-3 hours which seemed decent enough.  Here's our checklist.  Then up in the NW corner of the state, we spent 2-3 hours at Loess Bluffs NWR in Holt County.  Again, our tally was in the 70s but this time it provided a new state bird for us... our first YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS finally.  It also was hosting some nice shorebird habitat still and we ended up with 10 shorebird species including DUNLIN, STILT SANDPIPER, WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, etc.  Here's our checklist.

Interim in Missou

I'm actually slated to fly to Maine in a few hours... so what better time to throw together a quick blog post!

Although I've spent a lot of my downtime between tours working on various things indoors, we certainly have gotten out here and there.  Sometimes we didn't have to go far to find fun things.  Case in point... I was in the bedroom with the window open when I heard a buzzy song coming from outside... my ears perked up.  I got up, stuck my face right up to the window... heard it again.  Thinking it was worth a better listen, I walked out onto the front porch... there it was again.  Ok, it was time to grab bins/camera, put on my boots, and go find this songster.  I did, next to the driveway.... it was the 1st Ralls County record of CERULEAN WARBLER:
I also got some recordings of him singing and embedded those into the eBird checklist here.  It was pretty cool finding a new species for the county... from the yard.  I'm not too terribly surprised, however; the ravines near here look good to my eye for breeding Ceruleans and I know they breed a short ways to the north in Hannibal.

Not quite as rare on the property (but still certainly uncommon) was this ACADIAN FLYCATCHER we found singing:
This was only the second one I've had on the property.  Again, I'm not surprised; I think they could easily breed in the surrounding forests.

One species that DOES certainly breed on the property is KENTUCKY WARBLER.  Turns out, they're actually the most common warbler we have here (3-4 territories).  Every morning starts with this songster belting out his chanty song outside our window:
Another skulky warbler species we've had in the yard lately, and this one only a migrant here in Missouri, is MOURNING WARBLER.  He didn't want to pose but I captured an image of him anyway:
There is a creekbed, which is usually dry, that borders the property.  This year we've been pleased to welcome a breeding pair of LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSHES!  Although these seem quite quiet by this point of the summer (no need to draw attention if you already have a nest/young, I suppose), I did bump into one of them doing some whisper singing:
A common breeder here is the FIELD SPARROW.  Here's one from the front yard giving me some cute stink-eye:
If given the chance, I always like checking out what butterflies are flying here on the property too.  Here's a LITTLE YELLOW that was darting around a clearing back in the forest:
Yep, it was little and it was yellow.  Well done.

Ok, I DID actually leave the yard at some point.  We birded Mark Twain Lake and had a variety of migrant shorebirds still poking around.  One of them, a SANDERLING, was a fairly uncommon sighting (for me, at least).  It's the larger, paler bird coming in for landing here:
It did a couple of nice flybys too:
You can find the same photos embedded in the eBird checklist as well.

In driving around various country roads, it's not uncommon to find weedy fields and old barns, like this view:
Sometimes the edges have shrubs that attract common species like BLUE GROSBEAKS, ORCHARD ORIOLES, and BELL'S VIREOS.  Here's one of the latter, looking quite wet after a rainy start:
All in all, spring really is a nice time to be in these parts.  The stifling heat hasn't really cranked up yet, you get to enjoy periodic thunderstorms passing through, and a lot of the birds are still in song especially at dawn.  It's downright pleasant.

It turns out that I'm at 205 species in Missouri so far this year.  At this point last year... my 2017 list was also at 205!  I guess it's that time of year!

22 May 2018

Dusty Whirlwindy (AZ)

My most recent travels took me back to the desert southwest.  The big twist to this story is that it WASN'T for work.  Instead, my friend Caleb and I did a whirlwind trip through southern Arizona.  I think it's the first time I've flown somewhere for personal travel in quite a while.

We had a long list of targets but not a lot of time... so it was off to the races pretty quickly after starting in Phoenix.  Of course, the major target of mine was our first miss... the long-staying Streak-backed Oriole in Tucson was no longer long-staying... it was long gone (our checklist).  Oh well, I WILL catch up with one of those in the ABA area someday, somehow.

We stopped in Green Valley; eBird had a seemingly reliable place for HARRIS'S HAWKS.... and it was right!  Checklist and photo:
Farther south, we then spent some time at the Santa Gertrudis Lane area hoping for some of the continuing rarities.  Although we struck out on the Sinaloa Wren and Rufous-backed Robins, we did connect with the continuing THICK-BILLED KINGBIRDS:
It had been a while since I had seen ABERT'S TOWHEES (well, since last July) so I took a pic of one of those too:
... meanwhile, the BRIDLED TITMICE were fairly friendly:
We gave the location about two hours before calling it quits... we had other destinations that were also time sensitive.  Here's our checklist from that stop.

From there, it was out into the wilds towards California Gulch!  Thankfully, the weather was good, navigation was straightforward, and our rental Yukon made easy work of the roads.  Here's proof we made it to the confluence:
This spot is pretty special after nightfall... we had multiple BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJARS singing along with COMMON POORWILL, WESTERN SCREECH-OWL, and ELF OWL.  A LESSER NIGHTHAWK flew over as well.  This one spot yielded 3 nightjar species and 2 owl species!  Here's the checklist with some of our recordings.  From there, it was the long, bumpy, late-night drive back to Nogales.

The next morning, we actually decided to return to Santa Gertrudis Lane to try our hand at the rarities again.  This time, stars aligned and we found the long-staying SINALOA WREN:
This is still a very rare species in the US, and it's still a Code 5 despite showing up in AZ multiple places in recent years.  In fact, this was the first time I had actually SEEN one here (I had heard it before).  It was also a new photo bird.

Our luck continued when we found a couple of the long-staying RUFOUS-BACKED ROBINS as well.  Checklist.  This day was starting out fantastically!  We zoomed over to Patagonia Lake State Park where we pulled out a BOTTERI'S SPARROW on the entrance road (checklist).  We hit a snag within the park though... we couldn't find the Black-capped Gnatcatchers!

We had to boogie out of there and so it was back to Patagonia for lunch and a quick visit to the Patton's Hummingbird Extravaganza (seriously, this place is becoming an amusement park).  We added a VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD and this impressive GOPHER SNAKE:
And then we hit the road headed for Sierra Vista.  A few stops along the way failed to turn up any Chihuahuan Ravens or Cassin's Sparrows but no matter, it was a rough time of day and not much was moving.  We made it to Sierra Vista in time to visit Mary Jo's feeders at Ash Canyon.  Our main target only stuck around for 10 seconds but we were successful in seeing it, a male LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD.

The next morning it was straight up to Carr Canyon and the Reef Townsite campground area.  New birds came fast and furious.  GREATER PEWEE, ARIZONA WOODPECKER, BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHER, etc.  One of the highlights for me was watching this GRACE'S WARBLER hopping around on the ground collecting nesting material:
This was a treat because this relatively poorly-known species usually sticks high to trees where views are harder to get.

We also snagged a nice female OLIVE WARBLER here:
Down the road a bit, we finally hit a jackpot... a stunning RED-FACED WARBLER that put on a great show:
Sticking to our tight schedule though, we needed to make our way towards Portal and so we were off.  Although that drive doesn't take you through any particularly birdy hotspots, we were successful in finding a perched CHIHUAHUAN RAVEN that we were able to study:
On our way into Rodeo, we stopped at the Willow Tank to see if we could find any quail, thrashers, sparrows, or anything else of note.  It was here that we found multiple BENDIRE'S THRASHERS which was clutch.  It was hard to gauge bill length with the bill open though!
But still, you can see the pale base to the lower mandible.

We made our way up to Portal where this familiar (but grand!) vista awaited:
Speaking of grand, we were living it up at the Portal Peak Lodge for the next two nights.  Wooo!  That night, we went up-canyon a bit and heard MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL, ELF OWL, WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL, and FLAMMULATED OWL.  In fact, we heard an Elf Owl just outside of the lodge too.

The next morning, we cruised around the oak forests looking for Montezuma Quail but no luck.  We continued higher up towards East Turkey Creek Junction.  No chickadees there though.  Just beyond the junction, we had nice looks at this target, the BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW:
This nearby BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER was looking sharp too:
Meanwhile, in a nearby treetop, a couple of RED CROSSBILLS posed quietly:
We then went to Rustler Park but it was rather quiet.  There was this butterfly flying around that I was curious about but it never perched at an angle I could get a pic of.  Instead, I had to settle for this blurry flight shot... but it was good enough to confirm it as a MEXICAN YELLOW:
No, it's not a rare species or anything... but it's certainly not one I see in Missouri!

Then it was up and over to Barfoot Park.  Upon arriving, we spotted a female WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER which is always a good bird for the area.  It was flagged in eBird so I attempted to get photographic proof... which ended up being kind of difficult:
Although we were still having trouble finding chickadees, we had no trouble finding lots of tame YELLOW-EYED JUNCOS!
Finally, between Barfoot Junction and Onion Saddle, we found the right flock for scolding.  In came a couple of our key target, the MEXICAN CHICKADEE.  And boy, when they came in, they CAME IN:
It was a good morning at higher elevations and we had little remaining to target and so we returned downhill through Cave Creek Canyon.  The reliable day-roosting WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL was still at the hole (how long has this bird used this cavity?  Going on 3-4 years I believe).
We swung into the Cave Creek Ranch in Portal and saw the continuing LEWIS'S WOODPECKER which was pretty sweet!

We wanted to duck into Bob Rodrigues' yard and check out his feeders, hoping for the continuing Rufous-winged Sparrow that sometimes shows up (we had somehow missed them farther west).  No luck with that sparrow but we saw a wealth of other things like this continuing (and rare) HARRIS'S SPARROW:
It had been a good year for CASSIN'S FINCHES and they were present in town at several spots including Bob's feeders:
But, no luck with the Rufous-winged Sparrow.  However, that evening we worked the Portal-Paradise Road and somehow managed a quick look at a couple of CRISSAL THRASHERS in the wash near town.  That night, we drove some roads below town and ended up with zero snakes but two BARN OWLS.

The next morning, we needed to head straight out of town and so we drove right to Willcox (you HAVE to stop at Willcox if you're in the area, as you know).  Our timing worked out right and we connected with a rarity that had shown up the day before, this LEAST TERN:
It's kinda silly that we just happened to roll up to see it but that's how it goes.  The TROPICAL KINGBIRD was continuing as well.

At this point, we really needed to start making our way to Phoenix as we were both flying out later that day.  A quick call to Tom Johnson and he had a suggestion, via eBird, for Rufous-winged Sparrow.  It was behind a hotel in Benson.  Hmm, so off we went!  We rolled up and after a little exploring... well, it sounded like we were hearing a TENNESSEE WARBLER.... but those are really quite rare in AZ.  Maybe we were imagining it?  We found the bird and it, well, LOOKED like a Tennessee Warbler as well.  Shoot, that's a good bird!
After the dust settled from confirming that... we realized we were hearing our original target, a RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW.  We tracked it down and sure enough, a last clutch target bird had just fallen into place (my pic is rubbish though!):
From there, it was back to Phoenix, a last PB&J sandwich out of the back of our Yukon, a quick car wash to remove the signs of California Gulch, and flights home.  It was a quick trip but we still managed to find most of the targets and tallied about 170-180 species in 5 days of birding.

Now... where was I... back in Missouri, it would seem!

21 May 2018

Big Bend/Hill Country

It's been a month since my last update which, sadly, seems about average.  However, I did do a tour in April though, to Big Bend and the Hill Country of Texas.  I joined Chris Benesh who does that tour every year.  In fact, I did it with Chris in 2016 as well.  You can find more info about this Field Guides tour here.

We start the tour in San Antonio and immediately start driving due west.  It doesn't take long to start seeing SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHERS perched on the the fences and powerlines.  Here's one at a rest area that swooped over, resulting in one of my favorite images:
We spent a morning birding in the town of Del Rio which is, not surprising given the name, right on the Rio Grande.  We had a slew of fun and interesting species (checklist here) including this male PAINTED BUNTING:
This is about as far north in the US that you can find seedeaters.  It's a local species anywhere in the states and so it was a real treat for us to see these so well.

Once in Big Bend National Park, we spend 4 nights at the Chisos Basin Lodge which is a superb spot; it's host to interesting mammals and birds, incredible night skies, and stunning desert vistas.  Sometimes you can see SCOTT'S ORIOLES from the parking lot.  Here's one from down the trail a bit:
We hiked up Blue Creek Canyon on one of our days there.  Here's our group heading there first thing in the morning:
Our main highlight there was finding the rare LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD, a species that's barely reliable anywhere in the US.  Here's our list for that hike.

One of the main reasons birders visit Big Bend National Park is to hope for the COLIMA WARBLER.  In the US, Big Bend is the only place to see it!  Granted, it's a pretty serious hike, about 5 miles up into the mountains (and then another 5 miles if you want to return to the lodge!).  This year, we were again successful in finding this specialty:
The hike, which we spend all day doing, usually yields a variety of species though like BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD and PAINTED REDSTART up in the Boot Springs area (checklist here).  There are often HERMIT THRUSHES around too like this one:
We stayed several days in Big Bend and visited a wide range of the birding spots including the Cottonwood Campground, Rio Grande Village, Sam Nail Ranch, Dugout Wells, etc.  A fairly common species at many of those spots is the bright VERMILION FLYCATCHER:
After Big Bend, we drove north to the Davis Mountains to spend an evening/morning there.  Although we didn't cross paths with any Montezuma Quail, we did have a fun encounter with a pair of ELF OWLS at a nest hole.

Then on to Balmorhea Lake which is always a migrant trap for waterbirds and shorebirds.  This year, our rarest find was this sleeping LAUGHING GULL back and left of the FRANKLIN'S GULL:
This Laughing Gull was the 5th Reeves County record all-time.  Anyway, here's our eBird checklist for this birdy spot.

Then it was on to the Hill Country back to the east.  One of main targets there is found at Lost Maples SNA... the endangered GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER.  We found this one that performed very well for the entire group:
This species of warbler, by the way, is the only species of bird that breeds solely in the state of Texas.

That particular sunny day and abundance of flowers gave way to quite a nice showing of butterflies.  Here's a GULF FRITILLARY on a thistle:
There were also some cool dragonflies around too including this PRONGHORN CLUBTAIL which was new for me:
At Neal's Lodges, which was our home for 3 nights, there is a river that we birded along a couple of times.  When the birding was slow, we managed to find some local damselflies there instead.  Here's a pair of COPPERY DANCERS:
This is a very range-restricted species within the US; it's only found in a small area of south central Texas.  Truth be told, I was pretty clueless about most of these damselflies but thankfully Chris also has an interest in this stuff and kept suggesting I take a look here and there!

We also got to study some parulas at Neal's Lodges.  Here's one we were hopeful was a Tropical Parula:
However, you might see a tiny dot of white under the eye.  Significant?  Well, that little dot tells us that this is actually a hybrid between Northern Parula and Tropical Parula (Northerns have white crescents under the eyes, Tropicals don't.  This was a mix).  Interestingly, Chris recorded and analyzed the songs (which can be VERY similar) and found that the song it was singing was a closer fit to Northern Parula (although it looks more like Tropical).  Anyway, if any of the listing purists are paying attention, you better watch what you count as a Tropical at Neal's Lodges!

Another main target in this part of Texas is the now-NOT-endangered BLACK-CAPPED VIREO.  They can be super skulky but this one eventually popped out for all to see!
We end this tour with a visit to a bat cave near Concan.  The first time I visited here in 2016, I didn't think it would be that impressive.  But, I have to say, this is one of the more spectacular things I've ever watched.  If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.  Basically, you stand near the opening to this cave as dusk approaches.  Then, all of a sudden, thousands upon thousands of BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS start pouring out of the cave:
How can you put this into words?  It's a stream of bats that pour from the cave for multiple hours.  How many bats come out?  About 13... MILLION.  It's jaw-dropping.
And with that, our tour concluded back in San Antonio!  We tallied 200+ species of birds which is mighty decent for staying within Texas.

Anyway, perhaps I'll have time for another post in a day or two before I head off for my next tour.  Stay tuned.