Thursday, November 21, 2013

Back to Texas and Chasing the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, November 3 and 4

I left Craig's house at about 12 noon on November 3 after a great visit and great bird.  I drove to Jennings, a drive of about 2.5 hours.  I stopped in Jennings to pick up some personal care supplies that had run low.  Then I went back to the Thornwell area to look at shorebirds with the remaining light in the day.  I had not mentioned that there were thousands of shorebirds in the area where we were looking for Yellow Rail in Louisiana.  In my first day of birding there in the gloom and rain on Thursday of last week, October 31, I found a flooded old rice field containing 1000 Long-billed Dowitchers as well as some Stilt Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts.  I also saw Black-bellied Plovers and Dunlin in a finely cultivated field near the airstrip at Thornwell on Saturday morning, November 2 before the rail trip.  I wondered what else I might find.  I found a spot that Steve Cardiff had told me about, but found no new shorebirds that I had not seen.

At this point, I was thinking of getting back to San Antonio and going home for the first time in over a month of birding.  There were some financial issues that needed to be checked.  After sunset, I planned to drive to the west edge of Houston to spend the night.  Why you ask?  When I drove through Houston on my way to Louisiana, I noticed that I-10 was a parking lot going west in the evening between 5:00 and 6:30 pm on Wednesday, October 30, a work day.   However, traffic was not overwhelming as I headed east.  Consequently, I expected the same heavy traffic heading east tomorrow morning, Monday, November 4  and there might be local heavy traffic feeding into I-10.  I built in an extra day on my rental vehicle just in case something rare shows up in the Lower Rio Grand Valley (LRGV).  During and after the LRGV Birding Festival which starts Wednesday, November 6, and ends next Tuesday, November 12, good birds get found in the LRGV.  Many people stay to bird after the festival.

As I drove toward Houston, Neil Hayward, fellow Big Year birding buddy, forwarded a post from TexBirds.  A Fork-tailed Flycatcher (FTFL) had been seen today, Sunday, November 3, on Boca Chica Boulevard east of Brownsville.  Thanks Neil.  I had been keeping him informed of my progress in Louisiana.  He included a comment with the Fork-tailed Flycatcher note, "Since  you are on a roll you might be lucky with this one too....."  It was an appropriate comment.  Fork-tailed Flycatcher has the reputation of frequently being a one-day-wonder.  After the first day, you wonder where it has gone.  I had planned to look at Tex Birds in the evening after I arrived at my motel.  Neil's note saved me time.  Eventually, I also received a note about this bird from NARBA, North American Rare Bird Alert.  I stayed the night west of Houston in Katy and left very early for the LRGV--a drive of 5.5 hours.  I had enough time until my rental return to chase the FTFL.  I had put myself in position to be lucky!

I arrived at Massey and Boca Chica Boulevard, where there is a large ball with a yellow smiley face.  The FTFL had been seen on Massey near a bull dozer.  There were no other birders or cars present. I drove this road slowly looking for the FTFL.   Apparently, all the birders had left already.  I sent Mary Gustafson  an e-mail to find out exactly where the bird had been re-found today on Massey.    Massey was not too long.  I drove to the end.  Eventually, another car of birders arrived.  The man was a familiar face, Bill, who I met at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park at the hawk watch tower about a week ago.  He said that the FTFL had been seen on the wires near the house at the south end of Massey at about 10 am.  We split up to search.  It could be anywhere.  I drove back toward Boca Chica Boulevard on Massey and met Bill and his group again and Michael Dupree from the Dallas area.  Michael and his wife were staying on Padre Island until early December, and he was taking advantage of the LRGV Birding Festival and other birding.  Michael and I exchanged cell phone numbers, but then found out that we had very limited coverage, but could text each other.  I continued out to Boca Chica Boulevard and turned right.  I recalled that the bird had been seen down that way first and then ended up on Massey.  There was essentially no traffic on Boca Chica Boulevard.  I found two lady birders and stopped on the road to ask them if they had the bird.  Yes, they had just seen it.  Right then a black pickup pulled up behind me with lights flashing.  I got a good talking to by the police.  It was dangerous to stop on this road and not pull off.  I kept quiet about the fact that their truck was only the second vehicle that I had seen on Boca Chica Boulevard since leaving Brownsville.  Eventually, they allowed me to pull off of the road and park off of the road bed.  They would not allow me to pull off the road while they gave me a lecture.  That seemed dangerous to me on a road supposedly heavily travelled, but what do I know. 

One of the ladies was Shawneen Finnegan, who I met on Attu a long time ago in either 1988 or 1989.  Soon David Irons pulled up.  He and the two ladies had observed the FTFL for quite a while on the wires and feeding with Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in the open fields.  The birds were feeding low in the grass and wildflowers as well as in the cactus plants.  We moved to nearby Richardson Road that goes south off of Boca Chica Boulevard about 3 miles east of Massey.   I texted Michael about the location of the bird.  Soon Michael and Bill and his group joined us.  We were able to see the FTFL at a distance through binoculars and telescopes as it perched on low vegetation near the ground.  I mentioned that the first FTFL that I saw was in upstate New York in November and behaved the same way, feeding near the ground in goldenrod.  Goldenrod has late flowers in upstate New York in November and attracts insects and bees.  David Irons pointed out that Fork-tailed Flycatcher is Tyrannus savanna, a bird of the open country in South America where it breeds.  The FTFL was behaving as it should.  We followed the bird around, getting good distant looks, but I was hoping for a photograph.  More people arrived and got to see the bird but by the time some late-comers arrived, the bird had disappeared.  We kept searching all along Richardson Road.  Finally, the whole flock of about 10-15 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flew up on the power lines.  The Fork-tailed Flycatcher was found in the flock on the wires by a lady whole still needed the bird as a lifer.  Kudus to her!  We all enjoyed the bird and many cameras clicked away.  Finally, I got a closer look and some photos showing the black cap that becomes a curved face patch with the partial white collar on the face near the neck, and dark gray wings, very white under-parts and the black, long scissor-tail which was somewhat short, because this bird is an immature.  There were also light colored edges to the wing coverts giving the impression of wing bars, because this FTFL was an immature.  There was excellent comparison with the much lighter and larger Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  See photos below.
Nine Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, second from
right on lower wire
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers left and right, Fork-tailed Flycatcher in middle
Fork-tailed Flycatcher, black hood, curved to form black mask,
partial white collar, dark gray wings, white under-parts, black forked tail

While I was enjoying the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Mary Gustafson had tried to call me to let me know where to look.  However, I was too busy with the bird to answer!  Thanks, Mary, for trying.  Mary does a great job with the LRGV RBA and a blog of the reports.  Her reports and updates are very helpful to birders coming to the LRGV.

Also while enjoying the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, I finally met Father Tom Pincelli, who previously was the voice of the LRGV RBA, back in the day when there were phone messages left on answering machines to give updates on the rare birds being seen.  He is a legend in the Valley to older birders, at least, and his friends call him Father Bird.  It was a great pleasure to finally meet Father Tom.  I knew of his work in the LRGV with the RBA, especially because I have been a member of the ABA since 1973 and have been around for a while.  I was pleasantly surprised this spring when he commented on my blog.    

Fork-tailed Flycatcher is number 694 + 2 provisional.

A Hook-billed Kite had been reported on e Bird at Resaca De La Palma State Park on Sunday, November 3.  Thanks to birding friend, John Habig for that note!  The Hook-billed Kite was also seen on Saturday, according to the LRGV RBA managed by Mary Gustafson.  I decided to stay in Brownsville and try for several hours in the morning for the Hook-billed Kite at Resaca De La Palma SP.  After that, I will drive to San Antonio to return home.  I had also reserved a spot on the Paulagics pelagic trip out of Cape May, NJ on Sunday, November 10 to try for Manx Shearwater.  I needed to be back in Ohio to be within range of getting to this pelagic trip on time.  I had tried too late to reserve a spot on a pelagic trip out of Massachusetts, Hyannis to the Nantucket Shoals area, sponsored by Brookline Bird Club, on which there is a good chance for Great Skua and Manx Shearwater.  However, this New England pelagic trip was over-booked and had no spaces left.  Neil Hayward had told me about this trip, but I have been so busy making other plans and going here and there birding, that I delayed until too late trying to get reservations.


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