Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Texas birds, and a tale of woe

I was updating that last post with a different pic of the SBDO and I got a little carried away adding photos, so I went ahead and chopped that one off and am moving on to another potential lifer/mystery bird:Okay, here goes: DUNLIN? I thought I had a Dunlin last year at SPI, especially when the tour group leader ID'd a Willet as a Dunlin. But this one feels like a real Dunlin; I even looked at the silhouettes in the back of The Shorebird Guide (TSG) and hit right on it. The bill is what is telling me it's a Dunlin, along with his size. Coloration helps, but the size, the shape, the length of the tail feathers in relation to the body (what's that called again? rear projection or something?) are bigger factors, I'm sure. I really wish I'd taken TSG with me to Texas, but I had so much other stuff to carry that I had only my Sibley. I saw these birds while standing on the sandflats past the Convention Center, where you can drive your car right onto the beach (bayside) and the sand is flat and hard, like Daytona must've been when they started racing cars down there.

Anyway -- I felt shaky about the terns and the gulls, but this one I feel pretty sure about.

Now to the tale of woe that was our fruitless (and falcon-less) search for the Aplomado Falcon.

Mary and I went down to the Valley with a certainty that we were going to see the APFA; after all, I'd been tracking the ABA Rare Bird Alerts daily for like a month before the trip, and the APFA appeared almost daily and always in the same spot. How could we miss? We'd go down, get on "Old Port Isabel Road," and there the bird would be, circling around majestically in the air or perhaps perched on a cactus in some photogenic fashion.

We had Mary's iPhone with us and had locked in the GPS coordinates given on the RBA so we were all set; we went to South Padre Island first, then on our way back from the beach we took the turnoff.

First of all, without the GPS telling us where to go, we'd never have found this "Old Port Isabel Road." It's a dirt road with no marking signs at all. So we drove on this crappy dirt road full of trenched-out areas and treacherous holes, glad the entire way that we were driving a rental car. We finally got to the GPS spot indicated on every single report of the APFA, got out of the car, and looked to the skies.

And looked to the cactus.

And looked to the brush.

You get the idea.

You must understand that we haven't lived in the Valley for a long time; I'd forgotten just how huge a landscape can be when it's flat as a pancake and covered in low brush, mesquite trees, and cactus. You can drive for miles and it all looks exactly the same, mile after mile after mile. So we stayed there for about an hour or so, peering around at the empty sky and the endless coastal brush country to no avail.

We did see about a million Loggerhead Shrikes:
So that was something.

"Well," we thought, "we can come back tomorrow, and maybe we'll ask someone in the meantime for a little more, uh, direction."

We went the next morning to Estero Llano Grande SP where we met the actual guy who'd posted a bunch of those RBAs on the APFAs in the previous month! He works there at Estero Llano! So we ask him, and he gives us what sounds like can't-miss-it! directions which Mary claims at the time to understand (she lived in the Valley as an adult, whereas I never went back after leaving for college). She's been all over the place down there; we find we'd been on the right road but we just weren't looking in the right place! There's a nest, don't you know, and it's right on top of this 7- or 8-foot hack tower (WTF?), and it's about as far from the road as those cattails over there across this lake, okay?


And, he goes on to say, not only can you get Aplomados out there, you can also practically trip over all the Cassin's Sparrows fluttering about! All you have to do is get on the dirt road, go to a big clump of cactus--can't miss it!--and play your BirdJam Cassin's Sparrow calls. They will just about fly into your car, there's so many of them! Can't miss it!

So. By this point, the guy's got us so worked up that all other thoughts -- of White-throated Thrushes, of Rufous-backed Robins, both of which were very close to where we actually were at that very moment but we didn't see the W-T Thrush when we looked earlier and the Rufous-backed was in some butterfly park nearby; of exact distances to drive or maybe a landmark or a distinctive tree or SOMETHING TANGIBLE -- were driven right out of our heads.

We had Aplomado Falcon Fever with Acute Cassin's Sparrow Syndrome.

We were gonna see these birds and nothing was going to stop us this time! We were gonna get two birds with one crappy dirt road! We couldn't miss!

So we drive halfway across the Valley again, this time getting to the road from the other end of it, from a highway with which Mary is more familiar. Can't miss! We know where we're going! We're just gonna look for that hack tower, by golly! Then we're gonna trip over some Cassin's Sparrows and see some more Aplomados! It'll be better than a David Attenborough Life of Birds moment, dammit!


So we get to this road that Mary knows, and there's construction. We have to detour around the construction, and somehow I take a wrong turn... and yet we still get to the axle-breaking crappy dirt road that is Old Port Isabel Road! Our APFA Fever is at like 106! We're on the road and we're going slowly, slowly, slowly this time, eyes peeled for this hack tower, cameras at the ready, bins strained to their limits!

And we look.

And we look some more.

And we see a lovely Curve-billed Thrasher:Hmmm, look at all the cactus here. Let's play the Cassin's call!

Nothing. The thrasher just looks at us.

We drive on. We see the lovely Pyrrhuloxia framed by the rustic barbed-wire fencing that is soooo Texas:Scenic.

We looked for at least an hour for this "hack tower," but we never found it. We realized that probably the guy had his spotting scope with him so seeing this 7-foot tower was easy, but with just our bins we saw nothing.

"My scope! My kingdom for a scope!"

We also played that Cassin's Sparrow call almost non-stop and got nothing more than a little Lincoln's Sparrow who, I could almost swear, said something like, "I think the fever's broken now. You can go home."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Texas lifers -- quickie post

So just to get these birds on the blog --

Here are the lifers from Texas:Pyrrhuloxia

White-tipped Dove

White-tailed Hawk (photo by Mary)

Eurasian Collared Dove

Clay-colored Thrush

Black-vented Oriole

Wilson's Snipe

Green Kingfisher

UPDATE--that other photo was a Willet, but here is one that I'm 99.9% sure is the Short-billed Dowitcher--the one in the middle:
Short-billed Dowitcher

How's that one feel? I should've known the other one was a Willet by the thickness of its bill; I usually look for that weird nostril but didn't see it on that photo, and was just anxious to get a better picture than this lame one. Assuming this was a SBDO, which a few other people on the boardwalk agreed with me that it was, this was Lifer #300, which inspired a little photo:the SBDO is in the background, as is the alligator previously seen on this blog.

I didn't get a snapshot of the Clapper Rail, sad to say. I did get some mystery bird photos, though -- you've seen some terns and gulls, but here's a warbler:I wish I'd gotten a better photo. I thought at first that it was (what else, down there?) an Orange-crowned Warbler, but I don't think so. Perhaps it's "probably just a butter-butt," were this Cape May. But I just couldn't figure it out. UPDATE: John is thinking OCWA, and I really think he's right. There is some weird dark coloring on the throat there, but I think that was just the wind in his feathers.

I also took this photo of what I think is a Louisiana Waterthrush:what do you think? UPDATE: Yay, John thinks it's a Louisiana Waterthrush too! Boo, though, it's not a lifer. I have yet to see a Northern Waterthrush, despite the fact that I live UP NORTH.

UPDATE even more! More mystery birds, with my tentative IDs now that I've finally unpacked my copy of The Shorebird Guide -- an AWESOME book with a capital AWE -- to go along with my Sibley and my Crossley Guide (more AWE):

Get a load of this little guy:the best damned shot of the bunch and OF COURSE it came out blurry!
Okay. I was feeling "sparrow" here, given the general size, shape, and coloring, but I just don't think so. Note the bold yellow supralorals, which I'd only seen on White-throateds before this. But this is no WTSP. Then I thought (read: prayed) it might be a Seaside Sparrow! Right place, right time, yellow supraloral! But the ones I've seen online just look a lot more drab, like this one and their beaks are longer. I've gone through the finches and buntings with no luck. Look at those crazy huge pink feet, by the way. What is this bird? It's probably something super-simple. I'm always a beginning birder, you know?

Tune in next time for more mystery birds as well as the thrilling yet heart-breaking tale of The Hunt for the Aplomado Falcon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Well, I'm STILL going through my Texas photos, culling and cropping and labeling, but today I heard about some big action at the Centre Furnace Duck Pond:
Goldeneyes! Beautiful little Goldeneyes! Lifer! Somehow I was expecting them to be bigger, or darker, or more distinctive. But they were kinda plain and little. But still beautiful! You know how I love my ducks!

I also saw some other good birds, though I apologize for the poor photo quality -- the batteries on my camera were dying and the gray skies didn't provide any light:
Lesser Scaup, about 20 of them

a beautiful Horned Grebe

some little Ruddy Ducks

a Canvasback hiding his head

and some Buffleheads.

The Duck Pond never ceases to amaze me in its ability to draw crazy-good waterfowl. This pond is right near the university, alongside a busy College Ave. between PSU and the local mall. Still, we get great ducks and other birds all the time. It's a real treat to have a spot for birding right in town near work.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ensuring I'm right

I told you in my previous post that I had to make sure on some IDs I did out in the field by examining my photographs and field guides (including my new Crossley ID Guide, which is AWESOME! -- more on that later!). This is the post in which I'll ask you smarter birders to confirm my IDs to ensure I'm right and not counting lifers where there aren't any.

1. Sandwich Tern
Here, between the dancing Herring Gull and the bowing Royal Tern, I saw the black legs and feet, black bill, and shaggy erect crest. Unfortunately, this is a from-behind shot. But aren't that gull and ROYT cute doing their little jig? What do you think? Sandwich Tern?

2. Gull-billed Tern
Here, you can see that black cap going all the way down the back of the neck and the thick black bill, but why are his legs orange?
Something tells me this isn't a Gull-billed Tern. Now that I zoom in on the bill, it seems to be light-colored at the base and dark at the tip. Is this a Common Tern?

3. Franklin's Gull
Here, I saw the red bill and white eye arcs and the black hood that doesn't come around in an even line on the nape. Still, it's not a great pic.

Here's another:I can kinda see the white spots on the tail here too -- is this really a Franklin's, or is a Laughing Gull fooling me?

I have a bunch more shorebirds, but let's take it in small doses. Here, for your enjoyment, are some little adventure shots:an Indigo Blue snake found at Estero Llano Grande

the longhorn cow I named Hornrietta, who got kinda excited and started swinging her horns around when I fed her some grass. I took a step back. And then another step.

Finally, the armadillo we saw!

Texas: warm, Pennsylvania: cold

Home from Texas and only now getting some time to say hello and show you some of the sights from the trip. I STILL haven't finished finalizing my checklists from the individual places and entering them into eBird, mostly because I still haven't finished looking at photos and confirming my IDs (and figuring out what the hell I saw, in some cases). I do, however, have some good stuff to show you.

We'll start off with some lifers that I was lucky enough to see.

Bentsen-RGV State Park was boasting some pretty impressive potential lifers in the days leading up to the trip, but I saw only these:The Black-vented Oriole was very cooperative, coming to the Ebony Grove feeder station several times during the hour I watched for him. Still, this was the best photo I got; I didn't want to get any closer than the benches they had for watching, even though some people were practically shoving their giant lenses up his black vent. I chose to take the birder high road and settled only for this blurry but sure-ID photo. Neat bird; wish some of the splajillion Altamira Orioles I'd seen had been other Black-venteds, but I guess this guy was the only one brave enough to cross the Rio Grande.

I saw this bird and immediately thought: why is that robin so plain and brown?Clay-colored Thrush (or Robin, as they were calling him at the visitor center)! There were groups of up to seven of these at a time in various places in the park, which made photo ops a little easier.

Look at my sister Mary's great photo of a beautiful White-tailed Hawk:ID'd this one with some neat people we met at several places we visited.

And, because no post on the RGV would be complete without an Altamira:

Got really great looks at a Curve-billed Thrasher too, a great addition to my lifebird photo collection:

I mentioned the buntings earlier; here's all we saw:Several people were watching two little molty birds, hoping to make them into Lazuli or Blue Buntings, but no such luck. I'm pretty sure this bird above and the bird below are both Indigo Buntings coming into their breeding plumage.
I'm looking in particular at the beaks as well as the molt patterns they displayed, comparing them to young/non-breeding Lazulis and Blues. Again, I'm pretty certain these are just Indigos. But they're still cute as buttons!

Back to another lifer:This little fatty is a White-tipped Dove, apparently so named because the tail feathers have white tips (which can only be seen in flight). These guys are total lurkers, sneaking out of the greenery, grabbing some seed, and heading back under cover. Note the bluish sheen to his neck feathers -- very pretty!

I got much better looks at Olive Sparrows this time around too:
as well as this photo of what I am fairly certain is a female Anna's Hummingbird:Does anyone care to comment and/or confirm? It was questioned by eBird, so I sent this snapshot I got just before she fled for whereabouts unknown. But I'd heard there'd been an Anna's in the garden by the Visitors' Center, and I'm pretty sure this is it.

Tomorrow (or at some later date!), I'll continue my tales of Texas -- in which I meet an armadillo, feed a Longhorn some grass, and chase a bunny. Oh, and see a bunch more birds!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Brief check-in from Texas

Well, bloggy pals, I'm exhausted. Happy, but exhausted!

I'll give full details later, but here are the highlights:

--didn't see the White-throated Thrush or the Blue Bunting but did see the Green Kingfisher and the Black-vented Oriole

--didn't see the Aplomado Falcon but did see the White-tailed Hawk

--didn't see any Lazuli Buntings but saw a bunch of Pyrrhuloxias

--did hit (and exceed) 300 but haven't even tallied up all the lists to see how many birds and lifers we saw

Each night, we'd get back to the hotel and just fall asleep! We're in Kingsville now at my brother's, and we're trying to decide whether to hit Kaufer-Hubert or Aransas on our way home to San Antonio.

Gotta get up and eat breakfast now with my brother and niece; at some point (tonight? tomorrow?) I'll process the photos, make my crops, and get some updates up.

Just know that we saw a whole lot of birds, missed a few birds, and had a great time.
See ya later, alligator!

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Texas Day 1

We made it! We're in the Rio Grande Valley, in a little hotel in Weslaco. We had quite the trip here, getting a lifer almost right off the bat:
"Whatchoo talkin' about, Willis?"

Pyrrhuloxia! You won't believe it: we're driving down Highway 281 south of San Antonio, figuring we'd see more stuff on the smaller road rather than the interstate. So we're in a tiny little village called Whitsett, doing about 55, and Mary screams, "Stop! Wait! I saw something!" So I stand on the brakes and whip the car around (that one was for you, Mary), and in this person's yard are at least six Pyrrhuloxias, just flying around like sparrows and twittering their heads off. WOW!

With one lifer under our belts, we pressed on. We saw another little flock of them later, along with several meadowlarks (Western? they were standing along the side of the highway, as Westerns are described doing, but who knows--we were going pretty fast), TONS of TUVUs and BLVUs, American Kestrels, and Crested Caracaras, a couple of Red-tailed and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and one Harris' Hawk and one Greater Roadrunner. A nice, nice trip down. There was a flock of swallows flying around one of the RTHAs but I couldn't ID them -- possibly Cliff?

Anyway, we checked into the hotel and ate at Fat Daddy's (you HAVE to eat there if you come down here -- BBQ, Chicken-fried Steak, etc. DELISH! Then we went for a quick look at the visitor center pond at Estero Llano Grande State Park.

We had quite an eyeful, including this cute little lifer:
Is this just the cutest thing you've ever seen in your life? WILSON'S SNIPE! Lifer number 2 for the trip, and we haven't even really gotten going yet! This guy just sat there, posing for the few of us late-dayers there at the visitor center.

Look at these beauties:

We also got some Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, though they were obscured by cattails:

Over at the hummingbird feeders, I got a much better photograph of the Buff-bellied Hummingbird:A perfect addition to my lifebird photo collection.

There were so many Green- and Blue-winged Teals, Ring-necked Ducks, and Northern Shovelers that I couldn't count them all. Here's a nice group photo:
Someone mentioned to me that there was a hybrid Cinnamon x Blue-winged Teal to be seen, and maybe this guy to the right is him:But who knows. He never pulled his head up. He did look rather cinnamon-y all over, but I couldn't tell.

Anyway, it was late and we figured we'd better rest up for tomorrow. Just need to enter my day's numbers in eBird and I'll be out like a light.