Monday, July 15, 2013

High school reunion birding: Part 4, wrap-up

After the big dinner-dance on Saturday night, there was only one more reunion-related event to attend: the memorial walk on the beach, which featured big photographs of our classmates who've passed. It was a cool idea, well executed. Sadly, AB and I were a little late AND we went to the wrong spot so we missed most of the people who came, but we did see the photographs and some friends, and AB got to dip her toes into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time ever.

As we walked onto the beach on the Schlitterbahn boardwalk to get to the walk, however, we lucked out yet again:

A beautiful Magnificent Frigatebird! Lifer 402! It was getting crazy now; my giddiness was almost out of control. I had not expected to see one of these birds this far south; all the eBird sightings were farther north, but we got lucky AND I got photos! That silhouette (cloud cover = terrible backlit photo) is unmistakeable. So cool!

So after some farewells to the good old friends I'd been lucky enough to see again this weekend, AB and I went to the sand flats north of the Convention Center, a great staging area for lots of shorebirds back in the winters I've gone to Texas. As usual, the Valley delivered.

Here's a Caspian Tern somehow managing to gulp down a huge fish he'd just caught in the Laguna Madre -- apologies for the low-light low-quality images:

Check out my catch!

Okay, I'm ready for this... I'm so ready for this....

Oh. My. God. It's like I just swallowed a pillow. 
Please, digestion, PLEASE begin now.

Also found among the many Caspians were these two (I think?) Black Terns:
I'm guessing that's an adult molting out of breeding plumage on the left, while the one on the right seems to be hanging onto his cool outfit, per description in Kaufman.

Lots of Wilson's Plovers were being cute and giving us the stink-eye:

And the Least Terns were practically dive-bombing us and screaming at us. We were at least 25 yards away from where several of them were sitting on the sand, but I'm guessing that was still too close so we backed off.
GET LOST. Beat it. Scram. I mean it. Boys, GET 'EM.
We left!

We hit the Birding and Nature Center once again, hoping to get pics of the Least Bittern -- which I showed you last post, pathetic though they were! -- and we also saw the regulars:

Tricolored Heron in full regalia

Snowy Egret, just after snagging a tasty morsel

 a terrible but ID-quality photo of some Cattle Egrets, 
birds I grew up calling "cowbirds" because they were 
always hanging around the cows

Pied-billed Grebe, apparently not so common here in 
the summer; this was the only grebe we saw the whole trip -- 
no Least Grebes, so no temptation to scoop one up and put
it in my pocket! I was sad AB didn't get to see one of those.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck baby butts

I'm guessing this is a Mexican Ground Squirrel, a common sight in South Texas:
His (her?) markings aren't as impressive as the images online, but I can't find any other similar mammal match for the area.

And, as always happens when I go to the Island, I just HAD to try for the Aplomado Falcon. Longtime readers of this bloggy KNOW my tales of woe, my years of frustration and getting stuck in the mud and arguing with my sister (oh wait, I spared you that story)... and yet, I couldn't NOT go for it, you know?

AB and I looked. And looked. And looked at TUVUs, at seagulls. At cactus. At the non-muddy road. No Aplomado. No nothing.

Again, I assert that, like the Unicorn, the Aplomado Falcon is a mythical beast, and all sightings of him are merely the rantings of those who could use a stint in the booby-hatch.

I also engaged in my other usual Texas activity -- trying to make a common bird into something exotic, because it's TEXAS, dangit! -- . This trip's entry:

Try as I might to make these youngsters into Cassin's or even Botteri's Sparrows (which have been reported in this area, Old Port Isabel Hwy) , I'm guessing from the size, shape, and beak that they are baby House Sparrows. Any input? You can be honest. I refuse to devote any more time to it!

We had several Swainson's Hawks:
Western awesomeness.

At this point, it was Sunday evening, and I had one more potential lifer to chase: Red-crowned Parrot, seen near a Baptist church right in Harlingen. We'd tried on Thursday night but hadn't seen anything, but this time we doodled until right at sunset. I took AB to see the Iwo Jima memorial, and while we were out on the loop we saw this:
I can't begin to tell you the emotions that went through me when I saw this sign. It was just so amazing to me. See, when I was a kid, growing up in the Valley, the worst insult you could hurl at someone was "faggot." (It still IS in many places, I realize.) I didn't even know what the word meant, but I began to see a few limp-wristed guys in the movies or on TV that everyone laughed at as girly guys to be laughed at; I didn't even connect the whole "gay" thing with anything sexual; I was that naive. I was raised by pretty strict parents who took us to church every week, and I didn't know a lot about the world. I won't bore you with the details, but I didn't figure things out until I was well into my adulthood, and there was a LOT of angst during that process -- a LOT of angst and heartbreak and drama. Coming out was tough for me; the time I grew up, in the place I grew up, this kind of stuff just wasn't discussed

So... to see this sign, an official state sign, in Harlingen -- well, I gotta tell you. I almost cried when I saw it. And to have my fiancee by my side... well, it was just pretty special.

After that, only a lifer would do! So we went out and got us one:

Now remember, I told you it was around sunset -- so the lighting was bad. I tried a flash and that helped, though I doubt the parrots enjoyed it much.

They were so raucous and loud! It was so great! I was now at a ridiculous (for me) 403 lifebirds. Life was good. We could leave Texas now.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

High school reunion birding - Part 3

Our trip to Texas seemed to flash by in an instant, though it didn't feel that way sometimes when the sun was burning down on our little heads. Still, as with every trip, the clock started out by going at its regular pace and then sped up as Monday (departure time 1pm) approached.

At this point, I needed two more birds to hit 400 and we hadn't yet gone to South Padre Island. The SPI Birding and Nature Center never fails to disappoint; I knew we'd see some great birds.

There were five Marbled Godwits (a number eBird questioned, but I had all five in my sights at one point) hanging out in the shallows of the Laguna Madre, along with this American Avocet:

This was a neat bird, as I'd never seen one in breeding plumage. Beautiful!

That's when we started hearing a distinctive sound and this guy appeared:

Clapper Rail! Number 399! I had a video of him calling that somehow I deleted, dangit. Oh well.

We moved on, and we saw a flash of color -- LEAST BITTERN! I would not get good photos of this bird on this day or the next, but we definitely saw him! It's like every time he appeared, we saw him clearly, both with and without bins, but I never got my camera up in time. He was nothing like the LEBI in that Matthew Daw video (in which the LEBI is upstaged by a Rufous-necked Wood Rail, the photobombing of the century), who posed cooperatively down in New Mexico.

Here is the best I got when we came back the next morning:

What, you can't see him? Okay -- I understand. Here he is:
See him there? He's moving left to right. In the next shot, he's almost vanished into that black gap in the cattails:

That's his little bum there, circled. Difficult to photograph, but oh-so-easy to ID with those crazy distinctive colors. 

NUMBER 400! I was so giddy that AB was just laughing at me; I was SO glad she was there for this accomplishment. On all of my previous big birding trips AB has stayed behind (to preserve her sanity, quite honestly), so she's missed a lot of the big moments. This time, she was right beside me -- and it was perfect.

She was such a trooper, dealing with the heat and the bugs and the almost-constant bird fixation, but at times she had a lot of fun. She fell in love with the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and who can blame her?

They were everywhere: perched on a phone wire in town (awkward!), flying overhead, hanging out with their buds:

One of the neatest things was seeing all the babies. Here's a Mottled Duck and three of her ducklings:

I wish that cattail leaf hadn't blocked the adult's eye. We also saw this Black-bellied Whistling Duck family:
Look at those crazy markings! Hard to believe they'll grow up to look like their parents, but they will!

Not only would I get 400 at SPI, but I'd start on my way to (gulp!) 500 with this Least Tern:
I love that little black tip. These terns were flying all around at the birding and nature center, but I got this pic the next morning on the sand flats next to the Convention Center. So there we were, me with my 401 birds, when we had to leave to get to the big dinner/dance on the Island for the reunion.

What would Sunday and Monday bring? Stay tuned for the final part of our Reunion Birding trip story!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

High school reunion birding Part 2

There's nothing like the prospect of having to pack the whole house to motivate me to do OTHER things. Things like blogging, sleeping, getting a root canal... anything to avoid the packing!

So here we go on Part 2 of our reunion/birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley. We stayed at a hotel in Harlingen so we'd be centrally located between the farthest west point, Bentsen RGV State Park, and South Padre Island. This turned out to be a good tactic, though I bet staying on the Island probably rocked really effing hard. Still, after spending a hot morning at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and then having breakfast at a place where I had to stumble through ordering food in probably the worst Spanish that waitress had heard since the snowbirds were around last winter, we decided to brave the heat and hit my favorite winter birding place, Estero Llano Grande State Park.

The heat was already stifling, but a good application of Deep Woods Off kept the bugs to a minimum. There were very few birds, probably due to the fact that all the ponds had been drained for summer maintenance. Still, we saw a few Black-necked Stilts, a yellowlegs of some sort (felt like Greater), a zillion Purple Martins, and this lizard:
He was gettin' some air on his parts, I think.

After not seeing much, other than Great-tailed Grackles, we headed back out of the park. As we drew up to the sidewalk behind the visitor center, a short snake wriggled off the sidewalk and into the bushes. I was able to get this shot of his patterning:
Texas Ribbon Snake, maybe? He was probably two feet long, kinda fat (at least an inch across his girth, so over an inch in diameter). So I don't know.

Three lifers, and it wasn't even lunchtime! Throughout the trip, we saw so many butterflies that it got a little ridiculous. Here are a couple of highlights; click to embiggen!

I haven't even had time to ID them. The second one looks like a very pale version of a Hackberry Emperor, but I wouldn't even know where to start on the IDs.

AB was really the eyes of this trip, spotting the morning's Groove-billed Ani in characteristic fashion: "What's that big black bird out there? It's probably nothing." Previous AB chestnuts include, 
  • "Is that just a plastic bag out there in that tree?" (Bald Eagle)
  •  "See that white thing out there? Probably just a plastic bag." (Snowy Egret)
She's got great eyes, even when she's knirding. She also spotted the Northern Beardless-Tyranulet that morning. I love birding with her because she'll just be walking along and then she'll see some tiny molecule or something and it will turn out to be a great bird!

The next day, we headed out early for Bentsen RGV State Park in Mission, hometown of Tom Landry.

Bentsen is one of those birding hotspots that I've only visited once before; it's so far west (about an hour an a half from Harlingen) and so huge that I have a tough time appreciating it as much as I should. That morning, we braved the 100-degree temps and high humidity to chase after the Yellow-billed Cuckoo that had been seen there recently, as well as any other treats we might find.

First thing off, we saw another Groove-billed Ani and this time I was able to get a snap:

Not a very good snap, but a snap nonetheless! It was a bit overcast and those pesky twigs pulled the autofocus right onto them. So annoying.

One of the coolest things we saw was this courting display from a male Bronzed Cowbird to a rather disinterested female:
This dance was elaborate: He fluffed and vibrated his wings and walked back and forth in front of herr. He then pulled out all the stops and flew up about a foot-and-a-half off the ground and hovered there for at least six or seven seconds! I was so amazed that I didn't even get a photo; I wish I'd gotten video. He came back down, did another little pirouette or two, and then the lady LEFT. AB offered that she might be beckoning him to follow her to someplace more private, given the gawking humans standing there (at a respectful distance, mind you!), but she flew one way and he flew off in another direction.

Love is so hard. Sigh. Thank goodness I didn't have to perform such a difficult dance to get AB. I did, however, bring her a gift of a worm or two. (Kidding!)

After getting lost on the trails and walking about a mile more than we had to, observing almost NO BIRDS most of that way, we finally figured out our way back. We saw a bird blind along the way and though none of the feeders were filled, we entered for a few moments of precious shade.

Lo and behold! As if by magic, the object of our search appeared!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo! LIFER! He posed so courteously for me, though I didn't get to hear his keeyo! call at all. Still -- LIFER! What a beautiful bird. Look at those huge soulful eyes!

We were now so close to 400 I could almost taste it! I needed just two more birds!

And speaking of those two more birds: Although we saw no Gray Hawk or Lesser Nighthawks, both of which had been seen regularly at the park, we did get a lifer and photos out of Bentsen. It was just too hot to explore the whole park, especially after our missed left turn at Albuquerque, so we headed home for a swim in a sun-heated, bathtub-temperature pool at the hotel.

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which I hit 400 birds and AB dips her toes in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

High school reunion birding! Part 1

For the first time ever, I attended my high school reunion this year--30 years! That wasn't the only first: it was also the first time I'd gone to Texas during the hot months since about ten years ago. I usually go in February or March. Further, it was the first time I'd seen many of these people since graduation day back in May of 1983.

This year, though, I had the time and the opportunity to do some warm-season birding in the Rio Grande Valley, AND see some old friends -- WIN-WIN! Plus, AB had never been to the Valley (only to San Antonio), so this was a chance to show her where I grew up, went to school, lived, etc. -- my formative years. She was a great sport, never once complaining about the hundred-degree heat, the super-high humidity, or the non-stop birding and reunion-ing.

So on to the memories and the birds!

Here I am with drama peeps Laura and Lisa Beth (from right), and that's band pal Hoss there in the background on the left:
 LB, Laura, and I logged many an hour doing children's theatre, UIL speech competitions, and general mayhem-causing in our classes together. I hadn't seen either of them since my days back at Taylor Trade Publishing in Dallas, circa 2000, and we had a great time catching up.

Here I am with the HHS Cardinal and college roommate Chris, who somehow managed to look BETTER than she did back when were young and strong! How DOES she do it? We had met senior year, and most of our memories were from our time at Texas A&I University in Kingsville; whoo-ee, did we do some drinkin' back then! We repeated some of that said drinkin' this weekend!

Also in attendance were old band buddies Freddy:

and Roger:
 both of whom were super-cool drummers! (I was a nerd and played clarinet.)

Dinner, dancing, and bad karaoke ensued and, thanks to Chris' stuffing the ballot box, I placed in the karaoke contest despite my not having actually performed! Woo-hoo! The MC, former drill team standout Elena, came over to organizer Melissa (who happened to be standing near me) and was totally confused by the fact that I had taken second place! "Did she even sing????" Melissa looked at me, and I was busted -- Elena said there was no way I was getting the prize money, which I of course deferred to the actual second-place winner. However, she agreed to announce the fact that I'd gotten enough votes for second, which made the whole thing hilarious -- especially to a couple of semi-drunk old college roommies! I am the champion, my friend!

So in between a couple of reunion night activities and a memorial walk for classmates who'd passed away, we managed to get in quite a bit of birding. OHMIGOD it was hot! We arrived Thursday afternoon and began birding Friday morning at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a place I'd only been once before with sister Mary a few years ago. We got lucky: as we searched for birds, a Wood Stork flew over!

Yes, that blur is the Wood Stork -- but check out the tack-sharp focus on the tree branch there. Yeah, that.

I also managed to ID a Northern Beardless-Tyranulet, horribly backlit, by his sweet little call:
I upped the contrast and highlighting on this to a ridiculous degree so you could see the bird; it was like a FAVOR to you, wasn't it?

Then, while we looked out over this little marshy (or it would be if they'd had any rain lately) area, we saw a Groove-billed Ani!
He was here! I had enough time to focus on him with my bins, ID him by his enormous schnozz, and then watch him fly away while I grabbed at my camera. Sigh. But I would get more chances at the photo; just wait and see!

Also had the usual South Texas specialties like this Plain Chachalaca with youngling:
That baby was the cutest little thing, hiding under Mama's (or Daddy's?) protective tail all the time. We would see several baby PLCHs, as well as other young birds. Is there anything cuter than baby birds?

So the lifer count had stood at 394 after my Big Bend trip; now, after a couple hours at SANWR, the total had risen to 397. Exciting! Stay tuned for more hot-weather birding!