Sunday, May 5, 2013

Texas 2013

   A trip to south Texas has always been a dream of mine. With species like Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, and Aplamado Falcon, the Lower Rio Grande Valley should be on everybody's birding bucket list. I finally got the opportunity this year and booked my ticket for the first week of May, hitting the tail end of spring migration.
            After some serious planning for a few months the day came and I left Boston 7:40am. A few connecting flights later I landed in Austin 12:40pm and was picked up by a brand new birder who had no idea what she was in for... my mother. However, always up for an adventure and willing to help a child, she accompanied me on the trip.
            The game plan was to drive strait to the Valley, to look for roosting Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots in McAllen then a jam packed week of birding including Estero Llano, Sabal Palm, Laguna Atascosa, Bentsen NWR, Santa Ana NWR, Salineno, and Falcon SP. Right off the plane our first bird, Great-tailed Grackle, which would become one of the more annoying on the trip, greeted us with its popping, hissing, singing call. Once we found our car, we were on the way and I was excited as we headed south. A five hour drive later I had picked up Crested Caracara (lifer) and seen many many Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (a bird I had only seen once before far away from its normal range). 

Crested Caracara
Once we checked into our hotel we headed to McAllen to try and find the roosting Parrots. Though after a thorough search all we had to show for it was many more GTGR and a large flock of Chimney Swifts. As the Sun was setting I caught my second lifer, a Black-bellied whistling Duck, as it flew over the car.
            Day two entailed a full day trip to Estero Llano, a beautiful park that has nesting Common Parauques and Altamira Oriole. We arrived just as the sun was coming up to some of the park staff doing a big sit by the Visitor Center. While chatting with them the life birds sky rocketed as we got Fulvous
Whistling Duck , Roseate Spoonbill , Green Kingfisher , Black-crested Titmouse , Inca Dove, Buff-bellied
Hummingbird , and the incredible Green Jay!!

Black-crested Titmouse
Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Green Jay

Great Kiskadee

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
          We continued to bird the park picking up lifers here and there when we found where the Common Pauraque's were nesting and a walk around search yielded nothing. However, on our second lap a small branch on a log turned into our bird. Whistling for my mom, unfortunately, ended up startling the bird and flew in a less obvious spot but still visible behind a tree. This bird’s camouflage is like nothing I have ever witnessed before, as you really needed to pick out the shape of a bird in the midst of the leaves.
Common Pauraque
             We walked back to the visitor center and got word that the fallout of the previous week was still lingering on South Padre Island. So we decide to hit the tropical zone of Estero and then head out to SPI. Glad we did too, as we found Nesting Altamira Oriole, and Clay-colored Thrush, and our one and only Cerulean Warbler! But, the fallout couldn't wait any longer and we drove the hour to SPI. On arrival we walked up to the convention center and were told "be prepared, there are a lot of birds up there"...I wasn't... The birds VASTLY outnumbered the humans watching them as I saw trees full of Baltimore Orioles, Tennessee Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Dickcissles. I walked past the bush full of Buntings, the tree filled with blackbirds (yellow-headed, red winged, bronzed cowbirds, and brown headed cowbirds), and passed the entire wall of Tennessee Warblers when I came to a wonderful woman named Scarlet feeding meal worms to warblers. As she beckoned me over she pointed out a SWAINSON'S WARBLER who was nipping up meal worms that she threw! Along with this a Kentucky Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler both joined in the meal. If only I hadn't seen that swainson's the next bird would have taken the cake, as a male Painted Bunting hopped out into the open. This bird is as if God couldn't decide what colors to use so He decided to us all of them, with blues, greens, yellows and reds it really stood out.
Birds Enjoying Jam
The Wall of Birds

Indigo Buntings

Prothonotary Warbler

Swainson's Warbler

Hooded Warbler

               After being slightly overwhelmed we decided to walk the boardwalk into the marsh in search for a Purple Gallinule. Striking out on this bird we walked back and a woman urgently hurried us over to see a Least Bittern out in the open not two feet from the edge of the walk. He meandered his way through the reeds and finally skulked back out of view but the photos were taken and the experience was memorable.
Least Bittern
              As the sun set on our first day we headed back to our hotel high on all the incredible birds we had seen, but planning the next day’s events carefully. I had gotten an email saying not only had the Groove-billed Ani's returned to Sabal Palm (our next stop) but a Masked Duck had arrived as well! I went to bed antsy to get up and bird.

The next morning was quite foggy as we pulled into Sabal Palm and as one of the staff (oddly enough Scarlet’s son Seth) stocked the feeders he told us about what we might see and what had been seen. He talked about the Duck and Ani's and the resident Crimson-collared Grosbeak that had been there for a number of months. To my surprise he threw out a name I wasn't expecting and said there had been two Swallow-tailed Kites in the area possibly looking to nest! After watching the Crimson-collard Grosbeak fend off other orioles from "her" apples we headed out into the park.
Groove-billed Ani and "her" Apple
First try for the Masked Duck yielded nothing, but another birder whom we had met earlier said the kites were down the board walk just a ways. So we walked down and turning the corner, through the fog we saw two kites perched atop a dead snag. The size of these birds threw me off as the only kites I had previously seen were Mississippi and being our smallest kite were not good representations of the family. These birds were almost the size of eagles, standing 22" tall and a wingspan of 51"!
Swallow-tailed Kite
Finishing the boardwalk and doubling back gave us no Ani or duck, but another Green Kingfisher and some great looks at Sora and Nesting Least Grebes.
Least Grebe and His Angry Eyes
Once back at the blind we met up with Seth again who was looking for the duck but had no luck still so we decided to do another loop around the boardwalk in hopes of better photos of the kites. Unfortunately they had gone but our walk had given the Masked Duck enough time to come out and show himself. Walking back into the blind, Seth quietly pointed out the bird as it was across the pond in some shallow reeds. A female, she had two dark broad stripes across her face similar to a Ruddy Duck.
Masked Duck
We watched her for some time, sleeping, diving, and preening and waited to get our final target for this spot, the Ani. Seth had left the blind and was talking with his friend when a large black bird with a long tail and bounding flight flew in front of us. Once I had my binoculars up I had to hold my volume and not shot "ANI!" The bird perched for a few minutes and gave us a great looks before it disappeared back into the woodland out of site. With a bill more like a parrot and a tail long like a Cuckoo, graceful was not a word I would use to describe it.
Groove-billed Ani
We continued to bird Saba Palm for an hour or so but after we got some intel from Seth and his friend we headed out to Laguna Atascosa where we hoped for White-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Kite, Long-billed Curlew, and MAYBE Northern Bobwhite. But first we followed a tip from Seth about old port Isabel rd., which hopefully had nesting Aplamado Falcon and Cassin's Sparrow. On arrival to the small dirt road we quickly located the nest box, but no falcon was in site. Scanning the horizon in a broad loop turned up nothing either, until I had returned to the nest box and a falcon had materialized on the palm next to it! Once the bird was in my scope there was no mistaking this beautiful falcon, dark colored body with creamy legs and a bold white chest and head contrasted by his dark eye line and crown this bird looked like a peregrine with drag makeup on. Not wanting to leave but having more birding to do we picked up Cassin's Sparrow and then headed to Laguna where we got the White-tailed Hawk and long billed curlew but missed out White-tailed Kite. We decided to take the long loop out and search for Northern Bobwhite hopefully crossing the road, but as illusive and secretive as this species can be I didn't have high hopes. Until mom sprang into action and pointed out a small group of birds "what are those?" she asked and before I lifted my binoculars I muttered "doves I think" but quickly changed as I focused in on a small family group of Bobwhite! Ecstatic I got a few shots off and we continued on ending Laguna on a high note.
Loggerhead Shrike
Northern Bobwhite
Bummed about missing the parrots the day before Seth had told us they also roost in Brownsville and so as the sun was setting we headed to the park where they might be. Our first right turn we could hear them squawking and the evening ended with Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, and the non ABA countable but still beautiful Yellow-headed Parrot.
Red-crowned Parrot

Red-crowned Parrot

            Wednesday was Bentsen and Santa Ana to look for Anhinga, Northern-beardless Tyranullet, and Ringed Kingfisher (which had been seen at Sabal Palm and Estero Llano but we missed). Pulling into Bentsen was slightly confusing as it is a park with paved roads that you cannot drive on. Once we figured that out we walked along the roads to get to the birding trails and headed out to the first blind where Tyranullets had been heard, no luck. With the morning waning and our opening to hear this species (and ultimately see it) becoming less likely by the minute we went to the Kiskadee blind where for a brief moment we thought we heard two notes of this birds descending song, but it didn't return. Taking a break in the Kiskadee blind provided us some great looks at previously seen birds and a moment to reflect, until once again from outside the blind we heard the "Peeh peeh peeh" of the tyranullet, but this time much closer. Quickly out of the blind we searched the thick trees for any sign of movement and then the "peeh peeh peeh" right behind us! The tyranullet flitted about happily singing his song, his small crest poking up as he went. Happy, we headed out and told others of our find.
Northern-beardless Tyranulet
After some lunch we tried Santa Ana for what had become somewhat of a tough bird, Ringed Kingfisher, and avoiding the incoming middle school group we searched canals and ponds with no luck. We eventually came walking down a thicket when again mom whispered "what’s that?" bringing my binos to my eyes I realized she had picked out a Mourning Warbler foraging through the undergrowth! Being a hard bird to find I congratulated her as we worked out the field marks together. The next ponds again provided us with no Kingfisher but finally a brief showing of White-tailed Kite as it swooped down then up over the tree line. Becoming hot and discouraged we decided to head out kingfisherless and try to Estero Llano for the evening as there had been Ringed-kingfishers there before but as the sun set on our third day of birding and we had no Kingfisher (except Green which decided to become quite prevalent).
Thursday was my most feared day as it was going to be the only time I could try for Muscovy Duck and Red-billed Pigeon and unlike all my other birds these bird were ONLY visible at first light as they were supposed to fly down the Rio Grande, at this one spot, just once. If I blinked I was worried about missing them. So, waking up at 4:00am and driving an hour and a half we pulled into Salineno just before the first glimmers of light came up. Quietly I waited and listened with hopes of getting forewarned of an oncoming duck as it flapped down the Rio.  More light brought out the Goatsuckers (or made them visible to us) as they hawked insects off the water. Another passion of mine started getting in the way as large fish chased smaller ones through the water and thoughts of them on a fly rod got my mind side tracked, but back to focusing I waited. Until, finally a large dark shape came cruising down the river. Bins up, and large white wing spots cinched the ID. "MUSCOVY!" I shouted to my mom as it flew by. Elated that I was able to get this bird my mind then shifted to my next task, one down, one to go and Red-billed Pigeon was my target. As the sun started showing its face the fish and other birds became more active. As they sang and flitted about it was hard to keep focus on the empty river. Soon streams of terns were showing up followed closely by herons leaving roosts to hunt for the day. After a while a second car pulled in and inquired if I had seen anything, regrettably I told him that the duck had already flown and it would be hard to get him later in the day, but he waited with me for a while in hopes of a pigeon. The sun almost above the tree line and resigned to failure I gave myself 10 more minutes until I would call it and admit defeat, Five minutes later something caught my eye flying just above the river. The grey bird with red hue to his head was unmistakable and just like that Red-billed Pigeon was mine.
From there we walked the banks of the Rio Grande continuing to hear our next target Audubon's Oriole across on the far side of the bank but (mostly likely due to immigration reform) he never wanted to come into the US. Pulling out of Salineno we were told that Scaled Quail would be best located on the "old dump road" between Salineno and Falcon SP. This by far was the sketchiest place we went. Though we didn't find a Scaled Quail we did locate, large rutted out roads, sharp rusting objects, much trash, and what appeared to be a rotting dog left over from a fight. Dump road actually appeared to be the dump itself and other than another Bobwhite that gave me a start, no birds were found. A tip led us to Falcon State Park, as there had been Scaled Quail at the feeders there.  This too proved to be uneventful and became even painful as another pair of birders had seen the quails run into a bush not 20’ away from us.  Having left Falcon with significant daylight left we headed back to Bentsen to try for our Ringed Kingfisher again. But a second fruitless search of both there and another location (Anzalduas Park) provided nothing.  We decided to call it a day and head back to our hotel to pack our things as a second storm front was forecasted and we decided to stay on SPI this time in hopes for some migrants.
Arriving with just enough daylight I spent the last hour or so with Scarlet chatting and feeding mealworms to birds (I now have a “fed bird” list). Once she found out I needed a Worm-eating Warbler she was on a mission. We scoured the grounds for this elusive little bird and finally ended up back where we started warblerless (other than the hordes we were still feeding) the light thinning Scarlet and I continued to talk when a was suddenly distracted by a flit behind her. Up popped the worm-eating and I not only got to see my life bird, but was able to feed him as well! I can now confidently say that Worm-eating Warblers do in fact eat worms. Thanking Scarlet for a lovely evening I went back to the hotel and slept soundly.
Black-necked Stilt
            Our final day began with birding the island in very windy conditions. Although no new life birds were found that morning spending it surrounded by gorgeous little colorful birds was definitely worth it.  Our last target bird was Golden-cheeked warbler up in the hill country just west of San Antonio, but first we made one final stop at a new location for that Ringed Kingfisher. An hour or so later, we left the valley empty handed, but, as a wise woman once told me “everyone one needs a nemesis bird”.  So we drove north, arriving at Fredrich Wilderness Park at 6pm with an hour to find one last life bird. Upon arrival I was startled by the vast difference in habitat. Where we had been in desert or jungle we now were in high juniper-oak forests. Hiking up into the trail system we used the kiosk map to locate what we thought was a juniper specific trail (later realized wasn’t a trail at all) and hiked along a fence listening and looking. The trail ended in a clearing and it was silent. Until high in a juniper came the buzzy song of a Golden-cheeked Warbler! We watched him flit about in the top of the tree for a while until he had enough and flew off. Walking back to the car I relished in the ending of the trip. Finding a Texas specialty species at sunset all alone and away from crowds was a great way to finish and incredible week. From Fredrich we went to stay with a friend for the evening and caught the first plane out in the morning.
Golden-cheeked Warbler
            I ended the trip with 56 life birds, 28 species of warbler, and a trip list of 199 species! In the end it turned out to be a better trip than I could ever have planned and if anyone ever has a chance to do it I would absolutely highly recommend it. I would like to also thank a few people who were kind and incredibly helpful. Steve, Seth, Scarlet and Huck, thank you so much for all your help and I hope to come back and get that Ringed Kingfisher someday!
Total Species List:
1.   Eared Grebe
2.   Pied-billed Grebe
3.   Least Grebe
4.   Brown Pelican
5.   Neotropic Cormorant
6.   Anhinga
7.   Least Bittern
8.   Great Blue Heron
9.   Great Egret
10.   Snowy Egret
11.   Reddish Egret
12.   Tri-colored Heron
13.   Little Blue Heron
14.   Cattle Egret
15.   Green Heron
16.   Black-crowned Night Heron
17.   Yellow-crowned Night Heron
18.   White Ibis
19.   White-faced Ibis
20.   Roseate Spoonbill
21.   Black-bellied Whistling Duck
22.   Fulvous Whistling Duck
23.   Muscovy Duck
24.   Mottled Duck
25.   Northern Pintail
26.   American Wigeon
27.   Northern Shoveler
28.   Blue-winged Teal
29.   Green-winged Teal
30.   Redhead
31.   Masked Duck
32.   Ruddy Duck
33.   Turky Vulture
34.   Black Vulture
35.   White-tailed Kite
36.   Mississippi Kite
37.   Scissor-tailed Kite
38.   Coopers Hawk
39.   Harris’s Hawk
40.   Gray Hawk
41.   Red-shouldered Hawk
42.   Swainson’s Hawk
43.   White-tailed Hawk
44.   Red-tailed Hawk
45.   Osprey
46.   Crested Caracara
47.   Aplomado Falcon
48.   Northern Bobwhite
49.   Wild Turkey
50.   Common Gallinule
51.   American Coot
52.   Clapper Rail
53.   Sora
54.   Black-bellied Plover
55.   Semipalmated Plover
56.   Snowy Plover
57.   Wilson’s Plover
58.   Killdeer
59.   American Avocet
60.   Black-necked Stilt
61.   Lesser Yellowlegs
62.   Willet
63.   Spotted Sandpiper
64.   Whimbrel
65.   Long-billed Curlew
66.   Marbled Godwit
67.   Ruddy Turnstone
68.   Sanderling
69.   Dunlin
70.   Pectoral Sandpiper
71.   Baird’s Sandpiper
72.   Semipalmated Sandpiper
73.   Least Sandpiper
74.   Stilt Sandpiper
75.   Long-billed Dowitcher
76.   Wilson’s Phalarope
77.   Franklin’s Gull
78.   Laughing Gull
79.   Caspian Tern
80.   Royal Tern
81.   Sandwich Tern
82.   Common Tern
83.   Forster’s Tern
84.   Least Tern
85.   Black Tern
86.   Black Skimmer
87.   Mourning Dove
88.   White-winged Dove
89.   Eurasian-collard Dove
90.   White-tipped Dove
91.   Inca Dove
92.   Common Ground Dove
93.   Rock Pigeon
94.   Red-billed Pigeon
95.   Red-crowned Parrot
96.   Yellow-headed Parrot
97.   Green Parakeet
98.   Yellow-billed Cuckoo
99.   Groove-billed Ani
100.Greater Roadrunner
101.Eastern Screech Owl
102.Common Paraque
103. Common Nighthawk
104.Lesser Nighthawk
105.Chimney Swift
106. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
107.Ruby-throated Hummingbird
108.Belted Kingfisher
109.Green Kingfisher
110.Golden-fronted Woodpecker
111.Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
112.Ladder-backed Woodpecker
113. Northern-beardless Tyranulett
114. Eastern Wood-Pewee
115.Least Flycatcher
116.Great-crested Flycatcher
117. Brown-crested Flycatcher
118.Tropical Kingbird
119.Couch’s Kingbird
120.Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
121.Great Kiskadee
122.Loggerhead Shrike
123.Philadelphia Vireo
124.White-eyed Vireo
125.Blue-headed Vireo
126.Green Jay
127.Chihuahuan Raven
128.Purple Martin
129.Northern Rough-winged Swallow
130.Bank Swallow
131.Barn Swallow
132.Cliff Swallow
133.Black-crested Titmouse
134.Carolina Chickadee
135.Carolina Wren
136.Bewick’s Wren
137.Marsh Wren
138.Clay-colored Thrush
140.Swainson’s Thrush
141.Gray-cheeked Thrush
142.Gray Catbird
143.Northern Mockingbird
144.Long-billed Thrasher
145.European Starling
146.Northern Parula
147.Orange-crowned Warbler
148.Tennessee Warbler
149.Blue-winged Warbler
150.Nashville Warbler
151.Yellow Warbler
152.Chestnut-sided Warbler
153.Magnolia Warbler
154.Cape May Warbler
155.Cerulean Warbler
156.Blackburnian Warbler
157.Black-throated Green Warbler
158.Golden-cheeked Warbler
159.Bay-breasted Warbler
160.Blackpoll Warbler
161.Worm-eating Warbler
162.Prothonotary Warbler
163.Black-and-white Warbler
164.American Redstart
165.Swainson’s Warbler
167.Northern Waterthrush
168.Kentucky Warbler
169.Mourning Warbler
170.Common Yellowthroat
171.Canada Warbler
172.Hooded Warbler
173.Yellow-breasted Chat
174.Summer Tanager
175.Western Tanager
176.Scarlet Tanager
177.Northern Cardinal
178.Crimson-collared Grosbeak
179.Rose-breasted Grosbeak
180.Blue Grosbeak
181.Indigo Bunting
182.Painted Bunting
184.Olive Sparrow
185.Cassin’s Sparrow
186.Chipping Sparrow
187.Lincon’s Sparrow
188.Eastern Meadowlark
190.Brown-headed Cowbird
191.Bronzed Cowbird
192.Yellow-headed Blackbird
193.Great-tailed Grackle
194.Baltimore Oriole
195.Hooded Oriole
196.Orchard Oriole
197.Altamira Oriole
198.Lesser Goldfinch
199.House Sparrow