Friday, February 26, 2010

My last Texas birding weekend

My big brother (my only brother) Ricardo is here for the weekend so we can celebrate his 50th birthday. Pretty hard to believe that old turd is half a century old! Tomorrow, we're going to see his son Victor play in a band competition; he's only in 8th grade but he's in the high school drum corps! That musical talent runs in the family, you know.

Anyway, it's my last weekend here in Texas before I leave Tuesday for Pennsylvania, so sister Mary is coming down and we're going to bird some places in the San Antonio area, hoping to see what would be a really early-returning Golden-cheeked Warbler. I don't want to leave here without seeing one, but then again, I won't put off my trip to wait for one either. It's tough, but I'm ready to get back to Penna and see my gal AB again.

I'm hoping to go to a few different places, take advantage of the spring-like weather we've been having, and catch some early migrants. The local birds have been singing and winging their little hearts out, and it seems like spring is already coming to South Texas. Let's hope we see a few cool species.

As always, I'll bring along the camera and get snaps of whatever cool birds we see.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A hike in Government Canyon

My big sister Raquel, her daughter Lilia (my junior birder), and I went to Government Canyon State Natural Area west of San Antonio. We didn't see too many birds, but we did see some interesting things:
a beautiful flower I'd never seen before, Phlox drummondii (identified thanks to this site)

a little daisy-like flower I couldn't find in the purple or white flower listings but which came in both purple and white varieties

a flower I couldn't find in the white flower listings but which looks like lantana

a poor little barrel cactus who chose a rough life by growing right on the hiking path

a Red Admiral

the bone-dry creek bed -- surprising, given all the rain we've had lately

dinosaur footprint, or dinosaur rude hand gesture? You decide.

Probably the coolest thing that happened all day was when I suggested to Lil that maybe we should pish to attract some birds. She began pishing softly, and wouldn't you know, a little House Wren, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet all showed up? I was so proud of her budding abilities as a birder!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Introspective retrospective

Today during my lunchbreak at work, I was showing my RGV pics to a coworker; she lost interest pretty quickly (bless her, I'm sure it was like watching your Aunt Mabel's summer vacation slide show circa 1971) and I started digging waaaaay back into my archives.

I flipped through old pictures from the Marsh House: my garden, the marsh itself, the mountains on the edge of Penns Valley, birds at my feeder. I began to get really sad; I started to feel like maybe it was dumb to go back to those days, or even want to go back to those days. They were hard days sometimes! And I just wanted to leave there!

But then I began to think about it in a different way: those pictures from back then had a certain magic for me.Everywhere, there was magic.

The marsh had magic (along with a lot of purple loosestrife).There's no place like that anywhere here in Texas; even the beach (my favorite place in Texas) isn't as magical to me as that beautiful countryside out there in Central Pennsylvania. Remember when I discovered my "secret" place, the Coburn Rail Trail?Magical spot.

Remember Kline Road?Magical.

Even my garden.Magical spot.*sigh*

Upon further reflection, though, I began to feel it was a good thing that I was going back into those old photos, old posts. It reminded me of how beautiful it is in Pennsylvania and how much I loved being outside in that magical crystal-clear air. By the end of my time in PA, I had pretty much soured on the place; I was so ready to move to California. After everything that had happened with my relationship and my life, my crappy mood led me to feel like I just needed to be elsewhere, like I didn't belong there because I'd only gone there because of Kat.

But now, looking back after everything else that's happened, after I've gotten way way way more changes of scenery than I'd ever wanted in my whole life ever!, I feel like I can look at Central PA with fresh eyes. California was incredible. But I'm not in California, and I doubt I'll be able to go back there. Texas has its pretty places and its amazing birds, but nothing I've seen here has the magic of discovery and beauty that I found in PA.

Maybe it's the lack of pines to keep the place green.

Maybe it's how everything here is so spiny and prickly and poisonous and shrivelled and thirsty-looking.

Maybe it's the lack of snow to turn a country road into a study in blues.

I've found no cool shady green spot under a canopy of dancing maple leaveswith the ground soft and moist and covered in springy green moss soft as a pillow.

I've seen no tufts of fog clinging to the mountainsides, catching the rising sun's rays and and looking like pink and orange cotton candy.

YES, I remember the snow shoveling. I remember being so cold that I just didn't want to move. I remember walking in the dirty slush on the sidewalks, my jeans getting all wet and heavy. I remember the lack of Mexican food!

Besides, without snow, would this picture be as cool?

But I also remember the cool spring and summer nights, filled with the ringing cries of peepers, the low twangs of bullfrogs, and the persistent oh-ka-lees of the Red-winged Blackbirds.I remember driving up a mountain road to gaze out onto a rolling hilly valley, green with young cornstalks and soybean plants. I remember hillsides strewn with the multi-colored confetti of autumn's changing leaves.

Yup, I think my little emotional trip down Memory Lane was a good idea. It made getting back to work a little difficult, as it was hard to focus on debit cards and duplicate charges and customer documents and such. But I think it was a good idea to remember how much fun I've had keeping this blog.

And maybe the next time I live in Pennsylvania, which might be sooner rather than later, I will remember that even if it's cold and hard and shovely, it's also magical and green and birdy.Maybe next time, I won't over-romanticize or under-romanticize it; I'll just look at it with more realistic eyes. I'll take the good with the bad. Certain people won't be there anymore, people like Matty (CA) or my bff Gretchen (DE), but then again, certain people will be there--like AB.So look out, Keystone State. Don't be surprised if a newly appreciative expatriot Texan wanders back your way someday soon.

Note: all these pictures originally appeared on this blog in previous posts.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Final thoughts on the Rio Grande Valley trip

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mary Starboard

Who would've thought you could go, fifteen years later, to the very place you grew up and see an entirely different place? I finally got to see the Rio Grande Valley last weekend not as a kid bored out of her mind and thinking she lived on an earthly Tattoine, but as a birder, grown up and in love with nature. I loved the outdoors as a kid, but I was somehow harder then; I never thought of nature as something we could or would destroy. Cities were where everything happened, or so I thought, and all I wanted to do was get out of the Valley and see the world. My childhood playing with frogs and toads, getting bitten by a lizard, being chased and scared by an owl--I figured when I grew up I would live in a big city and go shopping and work and just buy stuff like grownups did. It never entered my mind that I could grow old and learn to appreciate nature in a completely different way, not as just a place to play but as a classroom, a sanctuary, a church.

Being back in the Valley was fascinating; much had changed, but much remained the same. People still had shack-like houses along the highway with "yards" full of junk, there was still too much emphasis on development and "progress," and there were not nearly enough young people out there enjoying the natural world. I guess they were all in the malls and outlet shops. We didn't see one child in any of those birding areas, not one. There was a group of late teens taking a guided walk at SANWR, and a couple of giggly teen girls at Estero Llano, but they were barely engaged in the beauty around them. Like a typical oldster, I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and say, "Appreciate this! Believe me, you'll want to remember it for the rest of your life!" But they continued on their way and so did we.

Right after that, we saw and heard that Swainson's Hawk. What a moment it was, standing there listening to the Birdjam, both of us smiling from ear to ear when we heard that call, and we knew.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Mary the bird photographer/videographer

Mary's helping out with our Raptor Road post, adding quite a bit of photography that I didn't get. She carries a Canon Powershot something-or-other with like a gillion times zoom and stuff, plus a video camera (JVC maybe?). Here's some of her fine work:
Harris's Hawk! I never would've thought I'd see these! Beautiful dark chocolate with a rufous front edging on their wings. And those yellow legs and feet really stand out; note that he's standing on one foot like he stubbed a toe or something. We saw this raptor and the next on Hwy 77 in the King Ranch between Raymondville and Sarita. It was getting darker and with the cloud cover, photo conditions were not optimal. But check out that white underside--that's actually a white band that wraps around on the rump too. At first glance, when we saw one swooping over us in Harlingen before we left to come home, I saw that white rump and guessed Northern Harrier, though I thought it must be a dark morph. Then we saw this guy and stopped for photos, and I checked the guide--Harris's Hawk is beautiful!

We also saw what I'm guessing is a very wind-blown Red-tailed Hawk:I think somebody ran out of hair gel.

We also saw, near the Santa Ana NWP, what I think was a Gray Hawk--it was certainly unlike anything I'd seen before: so light-colored, a light gray all over, with a black tail. They call the Northern Harrier "the gray ghost," but if I really did see a Gray Hawk (which I'm 99.99% sure I did), THAT raptor is the true gray ghost. Amazing bird.

And check this out!
Okay, not a raptor--we're done with those. These are the Western Meadowlarks that Young Mary ID'd all on her own while I napped for a bit in the middle of the King Ranch near Sarita. The really look like Easterns, but according to the guide, whereas Easterns hang out in singles or pairs in meadows away from everything, Westerns are more gregarious, gathering in flocks on the roadside. That's exactly where we found these, a group of probably 15-20 individuals, right by the highway, chillin' and havin' some grub. I think this individual is kinda pigeon-toed, no?

Meanwhile, back to the Valley for more of Mary's coverage of the weekend:

She got a much better pic than I of this Tropical Kingbird. These guys were EVERYWHERE at Estero Llano.

And look, sparrow enthusiasts:
Her photo of the Savannah Sparrow, save for the impeding branches, is like a field guide shot, right down to the yellow eyebrow streak. Nice!

And you want whistling ducks?
She was able to zoom right into the personal space of this Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Look at him giving her the hairy eyeball.

And here's some video from Young Mary. Here, Mary and I discuss sparrows:

That "somebody" turned out to be the freakin' Song Sparrow. Hmph.

And here, finally, is the Great Egret fishing video! This is awesome:

Poor guy! I like the way he has to wash off his beak a couple of times; that dumb big fat fish left a foul taste in his mouth, which is no doubt why he dropped him.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Rio Grande Valley, Birding Day 2--finally!--Report 1

Our second day of birding looked like it might get off to a rocky start after we had to leave our motel on the Island on Saturday night after a total SNAFU occurred. Seems the clerk who checked us in on Friday night "forgot" to inform us that because we checked in after 11pm, we were considered "high risk" and our reservation for the two nights was no longer valid. We left Saturday morning and didn't get back to the hotel until about 7:30, at which point our door card no longer worked! The "manager" (a young girl of maybe 19? 20? WTF?) told us she was about to put all our belongings into Lost and Found and just write us off as a no-show! They'd only billed us for Friday night (Mary didn't notice; it was late and we were tired), and they were basically gonna kick us out and take our stuff if we hadn't gotten back when we did! We got so upset that we just left and drove inland, staying at a much nicer hotel near the Santa Ana NWR. So really, it all worked out--but it made for some tense moments. Still--Mary, now we know: Motel 6 on the island is OUT!

Oh, I'm sorry--was that indiscreet? Oh well. Let that be a warning to you.

Moving on. So Day 2 started out sunny and cold, and we drove the short distance to SANWR. We were just parking when I saw and heard Green Jays! Once again, a lifer as the first bird in the place! Of course, I had also spilled my coffee all over Mary's lap when I made the turn onto the road, so she missed the Green Jays while she changed in the car... oops.

Still, right when you get to the main entrance, there's a feeder. That day, there were Green Jays and Red-winged Blackbirds going nutty on suet and birdseed:

There's no difficulty IDing a Green Jay, that's for sure! Lifer #1 for the day!

We then took the Pintail Lake trail to the left. I heard very little birdsong, so I tried pishing to see if I could get some response. Here's what responded:Um yeah, that's an Altamira Oriole, Lifer #2 for the day! He stayed way high in the trees, though. But again--there's no mistaking this guy for any other bird!

We heard so many other birds, man--pishing is AWESOME. I'm amazed at how many different birds respond to it. I am thinking of getting that Pete Dunne book/CD on pishing to improve my technique!

We moved on toward the lake and saw Lifer #3 for the day, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks! And not just one, like with the Fulvous; oh no:These guys were in a big group, hanging out, each standing on one long pink leg. Once again, however, Northern Shovelers were also hanging out (they are everywhere down here, like Mallards up north), along with some Green-winged Teals. What a place this is!

We worked the grassy areas around the lake, and Mary thought she saw a greenish-olive flash going into the grass/reeds, but we couldn't pish him out. Olive Sparrow? Perhaps. But we headed on, and we saw the woodpecker I'd wanted to see!

This bird posed for me, showing his back and his sides so I could make sure he was a Ladder-backed WP, Lifer #4 of the morning--and we'd been out there maybe an hour, tops! I tell ya: bird someplace crazy-new and filled with different birds than you're used to. There's nothing like it for testing your ID skills and adding so much more to the excitement of building a lifelist!

We heard a bubbly call near the Ladder-backed, and I saw what I ID'd as a House Wren. Just then, a guide walked by with a small group; he asked if we'd seen the Sedge Wren. I freaked for a minute but said, "no, I think it's a House Wren." Sure enough--House Wren. We never saw another wren that day, but some others did. That would've been a prize!

He told us to head for a spot back behind the lake to find Ringed and Green Kingfishers, so we headed that way. Along the path, look who showed up:This Vermillion Flycatcher was farther along in getting his brilliant red plumage for the spring than that one we'd seen at Estero Llano. He's beautiful! I wish my pics did him justice.

So we were in the general area that we were supposed to see to get the kingfishers, and we did keep hearing them, but we never saw any. I'd seen one on the road, perched on a wire near Laguna Vista, but Mary'd missed it. We never saw any here though. That's when we heard it: the high-pitched cry of a raptor. I expressed some surprise to Mary because I've never actually heard a raptor cry while flying, and I ran to a clearing to look up, just in time to see a buteo shape and a red breast and then lighter red on the belly. He called probably 7-8 times, thrilling us to the bone, with his high-pitched singular cry that kinda faded down a little at the end. He then disappeared, flying off toward Mexico. I probably saw him for a total of two seconds. So I pulled out my BirdJam (thanks, Jay!) and listened to each hawk sound:
Hawk, Broad-winged: nope, too shrill and it doesn't go down at the end.
Hawk, Cooper's: definitely not. These guys sound like a weird duck!
Hawk, Ferruginous: close, but not it. Not long enough, too shrill.
Hawk, Red-shouldered: this was a singular scream, with several seconds between each.
Hawk, Red-tailed: nope. Too shrill at the beginning, and just not IT.
Hawk, Sharp-shinned: like a raptor-chicken. Nope.
Hawk, Swainson's: HOLY CRAP. This was it. Mary and I simultaneously knew. We'd heard, and I'd seen, a Swainson's Hawk. There was no mistaking the cry; this was it. Besides, I'd seen it on every checklist for the Lower Rio Grande Valley, so I figured, "gotcha!"

Later on, though, Mary met up with that guide in the gift shop and mentioned the Swainson's. He wigged and started asking questions. I came over and answered as honestly as I could about my level of experience, my BirdJam, my quick sighting, everything. He told us that it would've been a rare sight at that time to see a Swainson's; they migrate over, but it wasn't the right time, and no one else had reported seeing one. He apparently enters the eBird reports for the place, so I kinda messed with his idea of what was possible that day. I understood his reasoning about not putting it on any of the reports; I mean, I'm one birder, and I'm no raptor expert (Susan, if only you'd been there!), but Mary and I both knew we'd heard the Swainson's. And that's all I could tell him, was that we were both 100% sure we'd heard it, and I was about 90% sure of the sighting when I looked at his field guide. I know what I saw; I just wish I'd moved fast enough for a photo. Still--I feel extremely strong about the Swainson's. He must've been migrating early or something. It was weird, feeling like I had to justify the sighting, talking to someone about my "experience level" and what I saw and exactly where I was and all that. It was kinda pressure-y! I just wish I'd had a photo for the guy to see. Oh well. I just feel like I know what I saw and heard!

After that, we didn't see many lifers; it turned colder and wetter, and we got hungry. A quick montage:
The Rio Grande! (which is actually not so grande; it's like Penns Creek!)

I didn't know Spanish moss grew here!

a cool rope bridge between observation towers. There were two shorter ones and a really tall one. I only climbed a shorter one and then crossed the bridge to the other one. The problem? Look at this:Scary! I felt like I was gonna fall off with every step!

the view from the top

the plains of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

a crazy Plain Chachalaca--like a rowdy noisy Bluejay's rowdy noisy big fat uncle

You know, I could've sworn I got a picture of the next lifer, a Long-billed Thrasher that we'd heard was in a particular spot, but I can't find the pic. Dangit! His bill was really long, but he kinda looked like a Brown Thrasher only not, somehow. Some birder I am!

Near the exit from the park, drizzle falling and gray cloud cover making shutter speed too slow, we saw him:
An Olive Sparrow! It's hard to see the olive-green here, but check the tail--it's pretty easy to see there. What a crazy little bird; he was almost at our feet, flitting around on the ground. Then he was gone.

By this time, it was getting late in the afternoon and the sun was completely obscured by a thick cloud cover. We headed for home, full of birds and photos and videos, and feeling like we'd been through a great if hard trip together, me and Young Mary.

Next post: raptor road!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

UPDATED! Rio Grande Valley, Birding Day 1, Report 3: Sparrow School!

Thanks to comments confirming IDs, I can now add some to this post. Thanks, John, Felicia, and Elizabeth!

I don't know if I've mentioned it, but for a while during my time at the Marsh House, I got really into sparrows. I was reading Mike McDowell's blog on a daily basis, soaking up every bit of knowledge I could on the various sparrows I saw on the marsh and at my feeders. I racked up a pretty impressive yardlist of sparrows, with Chipping, Field, White-crowned, White-throated, Swamp, Fox, Song, and American Tree sparrows all making regular appearances.

It's been a while since I was studying sparrows intensively, however, as it's been a while since I left the Marsh House. Besides, I'm now waaaaay farther south than Pennsylvania, so some of those sparrows that were so familiar to me up there don't even come down this far (I'm talking to you, Fox and Tree sparrows). So I'm hoping you'll all help me out with this new crop of sparrows, all seen at Estero Llano Grande State Park. I'll just put up the photos and my best guesses, and you guys can just set me right with your bird-braininess. (I meant that as a compliment!)
Late in the day, Estero Llano Grande State Park

First, I'll list the species that can be found in the RGV at this time of year; no sense talking myself into thinking I'm seeing a Baird's Sparrow or something when they don't even come down here. I'm at least realistic enough to check the range maps first! This list was compiled from RTP's Field Guide to the Birds of Texas and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (which I really like because it has the range maps right next to the descriptions and illustrations of the birds). Here's our list of choices:
Nelson's Sharp-tailed
Seaside (we were about five miles north of the Rio Grande River and about thirty miles inland)
Song (though this is too far south, according to Ntl Geo guide)

Here we go!

1. Please just tell me these aren't female Red-winged Blackbirds. I thought so at first, but these birds looked too dark to me.UPDATE: They are indeed lady RWBL. I should've gone with the first instinct instead of trying to overthink it.

And is it just me, or do they have the two-color bill (pink on bottom, black on top) of the... no, this is certainly not an American Tree Sparrow. Never mind. I'll just be quiet now.

On the chance that you'll see more than I did in the "group" photos I took of these birds, here's an uncropped shot to make huge and look at (because I know you've got nothing better to do than geek out over sparrows!)--
Are these just lady RWBL or what? I've seen those before, but these looked different somehow. Now I'm starting to think I'm a fool. I know what the problem is, though: I saw the list the rangers were keeping at the first big observation deck; they had Lincoln's, Savannah, Swamp, and even American Pipits--you name it. Now I'm trying to make every brown streaky bird into something exotic!

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

2. Moving on! UPDATE! Song Sparrow!

Look at that bird; couldn't you just scream Clay-colored Sparrow!? Okay, maybe not. I found it interesting that he sat on his haunches like that the whole time I watched him. Is he a juvenile? At this time of year? I wouldn't put it past those booger house sparrows to be breeding in the winter, you know.

3. Look at this little bird:Song Sparrow? But where's his hatpin spot?
UPDATE--Savannah Sparrow--John pointed out the pink bill and short tail. Nice! I'd heard them before and seen them from a distance, but now I feel like I'll know them right off. I hope.
I know you're saying, "didn't you get a picture of his back?" Yes, I did! I wish these birds had sung a little bit--NONE of them were singing when I watched them. That sure would've helped.
How are you feeling about this one?

4. The one with the long flat forehead:
It's the Lincoln's, isn't it?! Yeah, just kidding. It can't be. But what the heck is it? UPDATE! I had suspected a Pipit, especially because that weird head shape didn't match any sparrows. I knew they'd seen American Pipits from that big observation deck across the pond, so I should've known. Don't know that I'll count this as a lifer, however, as I was not able to make the ID myself. I even took the Lincoln's Sparrow off the lifer update list to the right, because I didn't have a pic and I couldn't for the life of me remember which bird it was. So the American Pipit remains a potential lifer for me, but having this photo to study will make my next sighting a good one!

5. Finally, what I thought was a sparrow but is a Yellow-rumped Warbler, I think:
I see the hint of the yellow on his sides and on his rump (though it may just be a pixel-illusion), and his warbler beak. It's a YRWA, isn't it? UPDATE: John and Elizabeth confirmed that it's a YRWA. He looks so smooth, though, don't you think? Almost phoebe-ish in his shapeliness. Usually they look like little blurs flitting through the trees, but this guy stopped and posed for me. America's Top Yellow-rumped Model!

I sure hope you sparrow buffs show me some love and help me with these. At this point, I don't even want them for the lifelist--if I can't ID them with surety even after staring at their photos, I don't feel like they belong on the list. I learned a lot about shorebirds by studying photos and noticing general types and shapes. Sparrows just seem to defeat me sometimes. I like the easy ones--Fox, Field ID'd by his call, Chipping, Tree -- those are gimmes. Too many times I've stared at the same streaky-breasted head-stripy birds and been lost.

I know some people are "naturals" at remembering bird songs or field marks. I have trouble remembering my phone number. I may not be a natural, and my list may be meager after four years of effort--but, as they say, it is what it is. I am what a am: a beginning birder.