Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stalking the Wild Aparagus, Whoops, I Mean Ring-necked Pheasant, November 19 and 20

On Tuesday, November 19, I arrived at Maumee Bay State Park before sunrise and proceeded to the area near the hill.  A pair of Great Horned Owls were calling with higher pitched and lower pitched hoots.  I stayed in the area for an hour or more but neither heard nor saw a Ring-necked Pheasant.  Then I drove toward Ottawa NWR and looked and listened along Krause Road but also without success.   I spent some time at the grassland area at the intersection of Krause Road and Route 2 and eventually walked the cut trail through this grassland, but again found no Ring-necked Pheasant.

The reason for looking at  Maumee Bay State Park is that in the 5 years prior to this year I have had Ring-necked Pheasant there every year.  When I moved to Ohio in 1994, Dan Sanders and Greg Miller told me that Ring-necked Pheasant at Maumee Bay State Park are more likely to be wild birds.  They had been there for a long time 20+ years, at  least.  There is no hunting and no state stocking program at Maumee Bay State Park.  At popular hunting areas around the state, such as Killdeer Plains WA, cock-bird Ring-necked Pheasants are released as many as four times throughout the pheasant hunting season starting on November 1 and ending January 5 to facilitate the hunting experience.  A list of the release site is published each year.

I had contacted Sherrie Durris who lives near Maumee Bay SP, birds there regularly and is knowledgeable about birds in the area.  She said that she often sees Ring-necked Pheasant at Maumee Bay SP but not this year.  Sherrie knows of a private person who raised some Ring-necked Pheasants and released them at Maumee Bay State Park  within the past two years.  That is a fly in the ointment of the wild theory.  Whether Ring-necked Pheasants are wild or not is a  matter of degree.  All Ring-necked Pheasants in Ohio and elsewhere in the US originated from released stock.  It depends on how long pheasants have been breeding in the area.

I spent the afternoon walking more trails at Maumee Bay State Park.  I found a Northern Shrike on the trails west of the hill toward the camp ground.  Late in the afternoon, I gave up looking for Ring-necked Pheasant at Maumee Bay State Park and headed south toward home.  I had contacted Doreene Linzell to find out where she and Dan Sanders had found Ring-necked Pheasant for their Ohio Year List.  Doreen told me that in the spring they heard Ring-necked Pheasant at Pickerington Ponds where pheasants have been for about 20+ years.  Guess I'll try there in the morning.

On Wednesday, November 20, I arrived early at Glacier Knoll picnic area at Pickerington Ponds and walked out to the overlook.  I listened for a while and then played the crowing call of Ring-necked Pheasant, which I had also used at Maumee Bay State Park.  After the second go around of calls, a Ring-necked Pheasant gave the cackling male alarm call from the nearby high grass and goldenrod.  I turned off the crowing call and the bird kept giving the male alarm call.  I checked the area where the calls came from and found that it was thick with blackberry brambles.  I wonder if the blackberry brambles help the local Ring-necked Pheasants to survive and escape the local coyotes?  Could be.  This bird was very secretive and did not show itself, perhaps an indication of some wildness.  I was satisfied and left the bird alone.

Ring-necked Pheasant raises the total to 701 + 2.           


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cleveland and Little Gull, Number 700 Free and Clear!, November 18

Administration:  I finally recovered the ability to link my list to my blog.  Such a simple thing but not totally obvious to me at least.  Apparently, I need to keep drive, open while I do the linking process on my blog.  I did not recall that this was necessary previously, but then again, I have gone a long time since back in September at Gambell, AK, without the ability to link my list to my blog, except for a brief period of success that was not repeatable.  Google has also changed the way to link documents and give access that started in October, 2013, but that was not the apparent problem.

Back to reporting birding results.  I got up early on Monday morning in Mentor to much colder temperatures, picked up breakfast and headed to Edgewater Park west of my location and specifically to Edgewater Marina.  Yesterday, Jen Brumfield, excellent birder, field guide leader and outstanding communicator of bird reports to the Ohio birding community, reported a Little Gull at Edgewater Marina.  Edgewater Marina is east of the entrance to Edgewater Park, west of Wendy Park and right next to and west of the sewage treatment plant.  Jen does an outstanding job of keeping all generations of Ohio birders up to date on the rarities seen along the Lake Erie lakefront in the Cleveland area.  For those of us in the older generation, who have not yet made the switch to Facebook, Jen's timely and excellent personal reports and relaying of the reports of others to Ohio Birds list-serve is highly valued and appreciated!  Thanks, Jen, and keep up the great work!  Thanks too to Jerry Talkington, who also keeps us informed of the latest rarities that he is seeing.  There are others who deserve mention here--John Pogacnik, Kent Miller and my good friends Dan Sanders and Doreene Linzell.  Keep up with those reports!  While I have been in the LRGV in Texas and the east coast in Delaware, I was able to keep track of where the Little Gull was being seen in the Cleveland area.

I arrived at Edgewater Marina to see a large flock of Bonaparte's Gull in the marina area right in front of the parking area and concentrated in toward the south and east edges and docks, apparently to avoid the high wind.  This looked too good to be true.  I could bird from the relative comfort of my car....but it was not to be.  I couldn't find a Little Gull in this flock.  Then I noticed a large flock of Bonaparte's Gull feeding in the churning lake to the north of the far east-west jetty that parallels the marina.  I walked out the north-south jetty that is close to the treatment plant to get a better view but again could not find a Little Gull in this large feeding flock.  Soon another birder walked out to join me with some welcome help looking.   It was Chuck Slusarczyk, a familiar name from Ohio Birds, but whom I had not previously met.  Neither of us could find a Little Gull in the distant feeding flock of Bonaparte's Gulls.  We walked back toward the parking lot to check the resting flock again.  There was some turnover occurring in this resting flock.  Some birds were also flying and feeding in the marina.  I returned to my car and Chuck lagged behind on the north-south jetty.  Suddenly he shouted,  " I got the Little Gull and think it is an adult."  Chuck had never seen an adult before, and there was a great deal of excitement for both of us!  New birds all around!  I rushed out to join him and found the bird with his instructions.  However, it didn't look quite right for a winter adult Little Gull to me, because the under-wings were not completely black, and there was some black showing in the primaries on the upper side of the wing at the tips.  After watching the bird for a while, I went back to my car to retrieve my National Geographic Field Guide, 6th Ed.  It was clear that this was a second winter Little Gull, with black in the primary and secondary feathers on the under-wing, a partial dark cap on the crown and showing some black in the primaries in flight and when sitting on the water.  I thanked Chuck for his help in finding this gull, and we exchanged high fives through gloves no less.  Even a second year bird was new for Chuck.  We took lots of photos.  Then the Little Gull briefly disappeared, having apparently landed.  We found it again, and I got some good photos of the bird sitting on the water.  I got some excellent photos as did Chuck.  See my photos below.

Little Gull, 2nd winter, lower, versus Bonaparte's Gull, upper right
smaller bill, partial dark cap, no white wedge on upper wing primaries,
dark edges to primaries on upper wing, smaller than Bonaparte's Gull  

Little Gull, upper center,
developing dark on primaries, secondaries and rest of underwing
support second winter
Little Gull, sitting, lower right,
note smaller size and wing tip differences with Bonaparte's Gull, upper
Chuck had contacted Jen Brumfield who was out in the field somewhere nearby and just before I decided to leave, two cars showed up with two women looking for the Little Gull.  What an exciting morning!  I posted to Ohio Birds, but the automatic spell check changed Edgewater Marina to Sedgemoor Marina.  Darn modern technology!

I still wanted to try for Ring-necked Pheasant in Ohio.  The current best place I knew was Maumee Bay State Park, for relatively wild pheasants, where I had crowing male Ring-necked Pheasant every year for the past five but not this least not yet, mostly because I had not been there in the optimum time in the spring.  Or so I thought.  There is no state authorized stocking program at Maumee Bay SP, of which I am aware, and no public hunting except for occasional lottery driven Canada Goose hunts, like this fall.  Consequently, Ring-necked Pheasants at Maumee Bay SP are closer to wild than at other places, where cock-birds are released throughout the hunting season from November 1 to January 5, as many as four times, to facilitate good hunting success for youths and older hunters.   It is a good theory about wildness at Maumee Bay SP.  I headed west.

I tried for Ring-necked Pheasant at Maumee Bay State from about 1:00 pm until sunset walking the trails in the vicinity of the hill and also looking out over the golf course at the higher grassy areas between the fairways.  No success.  I decided to stay in the Toledo area and try again before and after dawn tomorrow, Tuesday, November 19.

Little Gull is new for the year raising the total to 700 + 2.     

Searching the Salt Marshes of Delaware, November 17

I awoke early to get a good start.  Fowler Beach Road in Prime Hook NWR was about 30 minutes north of my motel.  I looked out at the weather and saw heavy thick fog.  I returned to bed for some additional snooze time.  If I am successful in finding Saltmarsh Sparrow quickly, I will drive west to Ohio and head to the Cleveland area to look for the Little Gull(s) that have been seen there for the past week or two.  Today could be a long day, so I might need the extra rest.

I had breakfast in my room again, but picked up an additional breakfast meal to carry with me.  This could be a busy day!  I arrived at the bridge on Fowler Beach Road and parked at the point just beyond the bridge where the road was blocked.  One can walk the road beyond to the beach, but not drive.  The road is showing some damage from storms and/or very high tides.  Frank Rohrbacher had directed me to the bridge and the road beyond.  It was just as he described it.  Thanks again, buddy.  The best place to see Saltmarsh Sparrow was either near the bridge where people fish and crab or along the road toward the beach.  The fog was still thick so visibility was limited but I could see well enough to see maybe 50-60 feet out from the road edge.  The salt marsh was right up against the road; therefore, I still had a chance to see birds early before the fog lifts.  Being optimistic, I got my camera ready and started walking slowly out the road toward the beach, spishing and making kissing noises with my lips against my fingers.  This worked in the past in Delaware and also in Louisiana late in October of this year.  It should be good here too.

When I got almost to the end of the road, some Seaside Sparrows responded to my noises on the north side of the road as well as on the south side of the road.  They sat up and made their "tuck tuck" calls.  There were about five Seaside Sparrows that responded but no Saltmarsh Sparrows.  These Seaside Sparrows were as I remembered them--dark overall maybe darker than the Gulfcoast Seaside Sparrow seen on Halloween in Louisiana.  However, these eastcoast Seaside Sparrows had more orange color on their breast than I remembered.  It was getting brighter as the sun started burning through the fog.  See photos below.
Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrows
Whatsup? Why all the noise?
I started walking back to the west.  Suddenly, I saw a smaller sparrow run out of the salt marsh onto the road edge and duck back in.  Now, that's Saltmarsh Sparrow behavior!   Eventually, I got the bird to sit up and take notice and saw the much heavier and more extensive streaking on the breast than in Nelson's Sparrow and the larger bill and flatter crown and forehead of the Saltmarsh Sparrow relative to Nelson's Sparrow.  See photos below.  In comparison, Nelson's Sparrow has a clean white lower breast and belly with very fine or indistinct streaking across the upper breast and a much smaller bill and steeper forehead.  See photos in Louisiana posting.  The last photo below shows the very sharp ends to the tail feathers; thus, the reason why Saltmarsh Sparrow was named Sharp-tailed Sparrow in the past.  Nelson's Sparrow is also a sharp-tailed sparrow.  It is hard to keep track of the name changes for the sharp-tailed sparrows.  When I started birding there was only Sharp-tailed Sparrows and several subspecies.  Then, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow were split as separate species.  More recently, the names have been simplified to Nelson's Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sparrow.  Keeps us birders on our toes! 

Saltmarsh Sparrow,
heavy streaking across breast, upper belly and sides, buffy-orange
in supercillium, malar streak and upper breast, large bill, gray median stripe on crown 
Saltmarsh Sparrow, note large bill, relatively flat crown
Saltmarsh Sparrow,
sharp ends to tail feathers, typical spread eagle stance on strands of grass
I walked back to the bridge.  An elderly couple were setting up to catch crabs.  I found a few more Saltmarsh Sparrows right near the bridge.  There was a Great Black-backed Gull with a massive tangle of fishing line attached to its breast.  The couple said that he had been there for a while and can eat.  I also saw him fly.  He's OK for now.  There were also Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin and Willets in the area.  I heard them but usually did not see them due to the fog.  Snow Geese also flew over but were invisible above the fog.

I called Andie Ednie to thank him for the information and told him that I had seen Saltmarsh Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow as well as the Manx Shearwaters on the pelagic trip yesterday.  It was time to move on and say goodbye to Delaware....for now at least.  One never knows during a Big Year.  I headed back down Route 1 to the Wawa Dairy convenience store to fill my gas tank and then headed west to Georgetown, Delaware to Route 404 and the Bay Bridge.  Andie had alerted me that bad weather was headed our way and high winds and rain were predicted for Pittsburgh, PA.  It started rain while I was driving on the PA Turnpike toward Pittsburgh.  It rained harder with very hard showers as I headed west to the Ohio Turnpike and then on to Cleveland, Ohio.  Just before I arrived at my motel on I-90 in Mentor just east of Cleveland, a very strong gust of wind blew across the interstate pushing my car to the right.  The rain was so heavy that I could barely see.  I slowed down, and let the crazies fly by me on the road.  Fortunately that did not last long, and I was within a few miles of my final destination.  I safely reached my motel and spent the night in Mentor, and found enough to eat at a 7-Eleven next door to the motel for a healthy late meal.   Tomorrow, I try for Little Gull.

Saltmarsh Sparrow is new for the year and raises the total to 699 + 2.    

To Lewes Delaware for Pelagic Trip and Manx Shearwater, November 15 and 16

I arrived in Dayton, Ohio on November 14 at about 10:30 pm, picked up my luggage, got my car and drove home to Cincinnati, arriving at about 12:30 am.  I needed to pick up a warmer coat.  I slept in my own bed for the first time in over a month.  Only another Big Year birder can appreciate that comment.  I recall Chris Hitt stating this on his blog when he did his Lower 48 Big Year in 2010.  I'm sure that Neil Hayward appreciates that comment given how many times he has stayed in  "hotel rental vehicle" this year!

By 8:30 am, I had picked up breakfast and was on my way on a ten hour drive to Delaware, driving northeast to Columbus on I-71, then east on I-70, cutting diagonally across west Virginia, to get on I-70 east toward Baltimore, Maryland and then down toward Annapolis and across the Bay Bridge to the eastern shore of Maryland and then to Delaware to the Lewes-Rehobeth area.  I birded in this area as recently as early this year, and knew how to get around.  I got a motel room at the Anchorage Motel, based on information from the Paulagics website and my previous experience with staying there when I was on Paulagics pelagic trips out of Delaware.  I needed a good meal, and to pick up food for the day on the boat trip and for breakfast in the morning.  The trip was to leave at 6:00 am, so an early start was needed.

While still in San Antonio yesterday waiting for my return flight, I had sent an e-mail request for information to birding buddies, Frank Rohrbacher and Andie Ednie, about the current best spot in Delaware to find Saltmarsh Sparrow, a bird I still needed for my list.  Andie handles the Delaware RBA reports posted to Delaware Birds listserve and other similar tasks perhaps also for American Birds.  Frank is the secretary of the Delaware Bird Records Committee.  Just before leaving the Anchorage Motel for dinner, I got a response from Andie with his cell phone number, and during a succession of e-mails I shared my cell phone number, promising to call him if I had any further questions.  Fowler Beach Road in Prime hook NWR was the first choice and had Saltmarsh, Nelson's and Seaside Sparrows last week.  I didn't hear from Frank but I suspected that he might be on the boat tomorrow.  (He was!)  While I was waiting for my salad to be delivered at the IHOP, Andie called, and we had a nice long chat.  We hadn't talked in ages.  I promised to call him tomorrow and let him know if I succeeded with Saltmarsh Sparrow.

In my room very early on November 16, I had my usual breakfast at home of cereal with fruit and orange juice, and picked up some much needed coffee and additional food for the day at the local Wawa Dairy convenience store.   I made it to the dock on time in the morning rain, which was predicted to end by about 9:00 am further from shore.  It did.  On board the Thelma Dale IV, I renewed acquaintances with Paul Guris, Maurice Barnhill and Leo Weigant.  Paul Guris started Paulagics, LLC and is the leader of trips.  I first met Paul back in the '90's when I lived closer to the east coast and went out on east coast pelagic trips with him.  Maurice Barnhill is a retired Physics Professor at University of Delaware, whom I birded with extensively, while I was in graduate school at University of Delaware, until I got married and then moved away to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry in upstate New York.  I remembered Leo Weigant from Maryland near Washington, DC, when we introduced ourselves on this boat, because I had met him in the field in Delaware when I lived and birded there.  It was fun to update old acquaintances.

After the first flurry of typical coastal species we started to get out further.  I asked Frank Rohrbacher how to ensure that I did not miss the Manx Shearwaters if and when they were spotted.  He suggested that I join him up front on the bow where there were benches to sit on.  Sure enough, soon thereafter, we heard the leaders call "Manx Shearwater".  We saw a group of at least six flying in a row with at least three others nearby, all about halfway to the horizon and at about 2:00 o'clock, using the clock system for directions with 12:00 o'clock as straight ahead from the bow.  They were migrating by flying together in line formation rather than and flapping and gliding on stiff wings in many directions as shearwaters do while feeding, but they were clearly shearwaters by size and shape with narrow wings and a streamline shape.  I saw these relatively small shearwaters, which are quite dark and blackish above and white below with relatively rapid wing beats and quite short tails.  The short tails are a key field mark.  The other small dark and white shearwater to be seen on the east coast is Audubon's Shearwater, very unlikely to be seen in mid-November, but which has a longer tail than Manx Shearwater.  There were other reports of close to twenty Manx Shearwaters migrating in this group.  I had never seen them migrating flying in line before, which was very interesting to see.  Thanks Frank, great idea!  These Manx Shearwaters were identifiable and countable!  Frank also verified that Fowler Beach Road in Prime hook NWR was one of the best places to look for Saltmarsh Sparrow tomorrow.  Thanks, again Frank.  (Glad you got to see the Fieldfare back in March in Massachusetts.  We had met there on my first day there to try for the Fieldfare.)

Different pelagic trips on both coasts have different ways of operating and reporting birds seen during the trip.  One needs to be prepared, and for me, it had been quite a while since I went out on a Paulagics trip.  That's why I asked Frank who gets out on these trips fairly frequently how to ensure that I see my key bird on this trip.  I really appreciate Frank's help on this one.  It would have been easy to miss these birds, because they were flying fast and the boat could not keep up with them.  I hoped that we would see more Manx Shearwaters during the trip as we got further out.  However, there were only a few more scattered reports during the day of a bird or two flying into the wake of the boat to investigate the gull flock attracted by chumming.  I missed all of those additional sightings.

The trip got out to 76 miles from the dock to the Baltimore Canyon (at least I think that's where we were).  An oil slick was put out in addition to the chum.  There was a good assortment of pelagic and other species in addition to the Manx Shearwaters:  many Northern Gannets (in Delaware and Maryland), Parasitic Jaeger, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Brown Pelican, White-winged Scoter, at least one Black Scoter most of these in Delaware waters, and in Maryland waters, Great Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake and red Phalarope, as well as two Cory's Shearwaters, one the borealis subspecies and the other the nominate diomedia subspecies or sometimes called Scopoli's Shearwater.  Diomedia has white bases to the primaries appearing as white fingers into the dark primaries on the under-wing; thus showing more white on the under-wing, as well as a greenish yellow bill rather than the bright yellow bill of borealis.  I did not get many photos on this trip except for a cooperative Great Shearwater.  I have seen Great Shearwater this year out of North Carolina, southern California and now in Maryland waters out of Delaware.  They are sometimes a cooperative bird and come into the boat to the chum in the back.  I do not get tired of seeing and enjoying Great Shearwaters.  I included several photos to show the action in the chum slick.  See photos below.
Great Shearwater, landing in chum slick

Great Shearwater,
Hey, free food!  I want some too!
Great Shearwater, flying
black bill and cap, white at base of tail, white collar, dark markings in white under-swing
On our way back to the dock, Paul instructed the Captain to motor in to the 30 fathom mark and then slow down for a lot of chumming and an oil slick to try to pull the Manx Shearwaters in closer to provide people better looks.  Shortly after we started in, a Manx Shearwater appeared in the wake, but very few people got to see it.  We continued with the strategy to get to the thirty fathom mark.  I moved back up to the front of the boat.  Some Manx Shearwaters were sighted ahead, and as we approached them, I got a good look at four Manx Shearwaters flying across the front of the boat.  In addition to the field marks that I saw the first time on the way out, this time I also saw the white under-tail coverts as well as a brief glimpse of the face showing the white wrapping around the ear coverts and appearing as a partial white collar or inverted triangle on the face near the neck.  I did not try any photos, because I was too busy making sure that I saw these birds well enough to count them.

Satisfied that I had seen my target bird very well, I repaired to the cabin, and had a snack.  I sat with Maurice Barnhill and had a long conversation.  Due to my association with Maurice, I became a much more active birder back in the late 60's and early '70's and joined the American Birding Association.  We hadn't seen each other and talked much since I left Delaware in 1977, and had a lot to catch up on.  It was good to spend that time with an old friend.  Soon it got dark and eventually it was time to grab our gear and get off the boat.

I headed back to my motel and walked next door to Dirty Dick's, a crab restaurant.  I had an excellent meal of crab cakes, quite large and thick with lots of crab, and corn on the cobb with cole slaw.  It came with a large basket of fresh popcorn as a starter.  I was very hungry and devoured everything.

Manx Shearwater is new for the year, raising the total to 698 + 2.                      




Saturday, November 23, 2013

To Laredo for White-collared Seedeater, Then Back Home, November 14

After a warm meal and a good night of sleep, I left Mission before first light for the 2.5 hour drive to Las Palmas Trail in Laredo to try for White-collared Seedeater.  I got a boost from free coffee at my motel and planned to stop to pick up breakfast on the way.  I stopped in Rio Grande City at a convenient McDonalds along the way to pick up my fruit and maple oatmeal and a two burrito breakfast meal with orange juice.  Soon I was on my way again, and arrived soon after sun-up, which occurs just before 7:00 am, and entered the Las Palmas Trail from the Zacate Creek side and walked toward the International bridge at the western or northern entrance of the trail.  There were more birds active than when I last visited this location in late October just before going to Louisiana for that successful trip.  Back in late October, it was still quite hot and bird activity was low.  This morning with the cooler temperature, bird activity was higher and with more migrants present.  I saw several Nashville Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers as well as House Wrens quite active along the trail near the cliffs.  A small finch flew over me from the west or north and headed back toward the International Bridge.  I suspect that it was a seedeater but could not get a good look at it.  The trail had been maintained since my previous visit and the high grass that I had been concerned about walking through had been cut on the trail.  Some dead snags had been cut and removed.  I had seen a request on-line by the local Audubon Society for help to maintain the trail.  The maintenance was successful in my opinion.  I walked the whole way to the trail head by the International Bridge at the end of I-35.  Just before breaking out of the trees, I found two Clay-colored Thrushes and got good looks at them.  I was nice to see this bird again after first seeing it at Sabal Palm Sanctuary at the feeders back in late March-early April.  Just after exiting the trees near the International Bridge, I encountered a group of 4 to 5 small, buffy colored birds with long dark tails in the bushes near a fenced in facility that looked like a pump.  There were flitting around in the bushes and the high grass and would disappear down into the grass and then fly up again to sit in the open.  At first, I thought that they were warblers because they were so small.  However, then I studied their bills, and discovered that this was a flock of 4 to 5 White-collared Seedeaters, primarily because of the unusual bill shape.  The upper mandibles were quite curved on a very short and stubby bill.  Then I noticed the white wing-bars on several birds, that were the shape of the wing bars on White-collared Seedeater.   This may have been a family group, because there were young birds and at least one male and a female.  I managed to get quite a few good photos.  See below.  This was the most number of White-collared Seedeaters that I had ever seen together.  Previously, I felt lucky when I found only one at a time on several occasions in the past.
White-collared Seedeater, first winter male,
darkish cap, buffy collar, distinct white wing bar
White-collared Seedeater, apparent adult male
blackish cap, white crescent below eye, white collar, dark smudge on breast

White-collared Seedeater, apparent female
buffy color, no cap, no collar
White-collared Seedeater, female
buffy color, thin pale wing bars, no collar 
These were the best views I have ever had of White-collared Seedeaters.  And good pictures too.  Awesome! least in my opinion.  Great addition to a Big Year.

I headed back to the Zacate Creek end of the trail to my rental vehicle.  I ensured my reservation for a flight to Dayton, Ohio and headed back to San Antonio.  I celebrated a bit for my good fortune in Texas and Louisiana where I had great birds and got good photographs.  I bought a first class ticket, actually the only one remaining, and enjoyed the luxury on my way back home.  I needed the rest and relaxation as well as a good meal.  Tomorrow would be a 10 hour drive to Delaware to be on the pelagic trip with Paulagics out of Lewes, Delaware.  How's that for becoming part of the jet set?!!

White-collared Seedeater is new for the year, raising the total to 697 +2.  Onward and upward! 


Still Searching for Nemesis, November 13

I arrived at Santa Ana NWR at about sunrise (6:50 am) and just after the gates were opened.  There was only one vehicle in the parking lot when I arrived.  It was quite cold for south Texas and the LRGV with temperatures in the 40's.  Bird activity was rather low.  I carried my morning coffee with me as I checked the water feature behind the visitor center.  No luck on Groove-billed Ani.  They weren't attracted by my coffee either!  I thought maybe that was why Neil Hayward saw them so easily early yesterday morning.  Maybe Neil chummed them in with coffee!?  :>)  :>)  (Just joking, Neil.)

I suspect that any self respecting Groove-billed Ani is buried deep in the underbrush to escape the cold temperatures or has departed for parts south of the border.  I continued looking around the visitor center and in the thick bushes that border the canal, but no luck.  At about 7:30 or 8:00 am, I walked the Willow Lakes Trail at the spots for Groove-billed Ani.  No luck again.  Jeff and Richard from Galveston showed up again still looking for the Rose-throated Becard.  Eventually, more birders showed up.  Both the birds and the birders were slowed by the relatively colder temperatures.  I kept looking for the anis but without success.  Another birder reported seeing a Hook-billed Kite from the levee road.  Richard, Jeff and I hustled out there to take a look.   However, Richard and I found only three Harris's Hawks.  Meanwhile, Jeff walked out to the tower to look for hawks and maybe the Hook-billed Kite.  Richard and I continued looking from the levee road.  Soon, Jeff texted me that he thought he had a Hook-billed Kite.  Richard and I walked rapidly to the tower.  When we arrived on the tower with Jeff, he described where he saw the bird.  We started scanning.  I found two different Gray Hawks perched up but we never found a Hook-billed Kite.  We continued to scan but no Hook-billed Kite showed.  Soon we heard the tram pull up.  It was filled with school kids, probably high school age, who were very noisy.  The Gray Hawks disappeared, apparently due to the noise and disturbance, and we hustled down off the tower as the kids started tramping up the steps and shaking the tower.  With this group we would see no more hawks and certainly not a Hook-billed Kite.  We exited rapidly back toward the visitor center.

I continued to look for Groove-billed Anis unsuccessfully throughout the day.  Yesterday, I had a very promising close call.  I received a text message, maybe from David Hanson, that there was a Groove-billed Ani at the feeding station by the visitor center.  I was halfway out the Willow Lakes Trail, you guessed it , looking for anis.  I turned tail and walked as fast as possible back to the visitor center and arrived within 10 minutes.  Jeff had received the same text and got there within 5 minutes.  Neither of us saw a Groove-billed Ani.  We searched the area thoroughly but came up empty.  Red-winged Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles were still there as always.  The Groove-billed Ani was apparently heard calling and not seen at first.  After the call was heard, some people thought that they might have caught a glimpse of an ani.  However, there were different levels of confidence by the people at the feeding station in having seen or heard a Groove-billed Ani in the area.  No one seemed 100% certain in my opinion.  These anis are like a "will 'o the wisp." 

Getting back to the present, November 13, soon it was noon.  I decided to stay the whole day at Santa Ana NWR to try for Hook-billed Kite and Groove-billed Ani.  Both would be excellent additions to my list.  In the past, I had been at Santa Ana NWR in November and had seen Hook-billed Kite while walking the trails.  However, perhaps this past experience was an exceptional one.  Hook-billed Kites feed on the snails that live in the trees.  They are up soaring occasionally when they move from roost to feeding location and back or when they move to a new feeding location.  Jeff and Richard from Galveston and I saw many snail shells on the ground along the trails.  Jeff had walked the Jaguarundi Trail down to the Rio Grande River and had seen more there than along the Willow Lakes Trail and other trails.  The only other bird I needed to look for at this time on this trip to Texas and LRGV is White-collared Seedeater.  If I stay at Santa Ana NWR until sunset, I can still get to Laredo early in the morning to try for seedeater before driving to San Antonio to turn in my rental vehicle and fly back to Ohio.  I need to drive to Lewes, Delaware on Friday to get on the pelagic trip on Saturday, November 16.

In the early afternoon, the sun warmed things up, and on the Willow Lakes Trail, the wind was not as strong, maybe due to the trees and being down lower behind the levee.  I noticed that the butterflies got active in the early afternoon and I saw a few reptiles.  Perhaps, the anis would be more active in the afternoon with more insects and reptiles actively moving around and more available.  I also pursued a recent interest in photographing butterflies.  I found this Julian Heliconian, one of the longwings, on the Willow Lakes Trail beyond the observation platform with the roof while I was looking for Groove-billed Ani.  This was the first one that I saw this year in the LRGV.
Julian Heliconian, resting and slightly worn 
Julian Heliconian, feeding on flower

In addition, near the water feature behind the visitor center I found this Zebra Heliconian, also a longwing.
Zebra Heliconian
Zebra Heliconian
I spent a lot of time on the Willow Lakes Trail and around the visitor center looking for Groove-billed Ani.  During the warm period of the afternoon, I was at the clay overlook on Willow Lake, the next overlook beyond the platform with a roof.  Richard from Galveston was also there.  I heard a mellow two noted call, and stated that it was either a Groove-billed Ani or a Long-billed Thrasher.  In my time in the LRGV this fall since arriving the first time on October 20, I had seen Long-billed Thrasher twice at two different locations giving a whistled two noted call that sounds somewhat like a distant or muted Groove-billed Ani.  The National Geographic Society Field Guide, Sixth Edition, describes this call as "a loud, whistled cheeooep."  I found this call for Long-billed Thrasher on the Xeno-Cato website for bird songs of the world, number 1387.  This call is not on iBird Pro.  The Long-billed Thrasher call is not as shrill and lacks the whining quality of a Groove-billed Ani.  I made kissing noises and "spished" to see if I could get this bird out of the underbrush.  Surprise!  Surprise!  A Northern Mockingbird popped out of the underbrush!  I continued trying after the Northern Mockingbird flew off.  Nothing more appeared.  Sherri Wilson, the host at Resaca De La Palma State Park and who leads bird walks there, had told me that Northern Mockingbirds mimic Groove-billed Anis in the park while the anis are present but stop in the winter when anis are gone.  Perhaps there is a silver lining in this cloud, and this observation means that Groove-billed Anis are still present in the LRGV.

Richard and I made one last try for the Hook-billed Kite on the tower near the old manger's residence location.  We succeeded in finding some distant and close Harris's Hawks, the Gray Hawks, again and a distant perched raptor way out on the Pintail Lakes side toward the levee, that turned out to be a immature Red-shouldered Hawk.  One distant and dark bird was in a position that obscured field marks; therefore, Richard rushed back to his car to get his telescope. I stayed to keep track of the hawk.  I had been lazy and did not carry my scope with me in a back pack all the time.  Soon after Richard left for his telescope, the distant hawk flew up out of the obscuring branches and revealed all the field marks of a Harris's Hawk.   Soon, Richard returned with Jeff.  Jeff had been searching unsuccessfully for the Rose-throated Becard, even though it had been seen briefly by a few people in the warmer afternoon.  The becard was seen again along the parking lot but had flown down into the thick underbrush, probably to escape the wind and cold and to find active insects to supplement the berries available.  There was less protection from the wind in the parking lot area and near the visitor center.  After Jeff and Richard joined me on the tower, we scanned for about 20-30 minutes and then gave up.  It was getting cold as the sun dropped in the west.  Jeff and Richard had a long drive ahead of them, and I needed to get some rest.  I had walked three to four miles each of the last two days at Santa Ana NWR or was standing looking in the tree tops for Rose-throated Becard or searching into the underbrush for Groove-billed Anis.  I was tired.  The long drive to Laredo would be easier in the morning with a good night of rest after a warm meal.  After walking out the Willow Lakes Trail, to try for Groove-billed Ani one last time, I made one last pass by the thick bushes along the canal near the visitor center and the water feature behind the visitor center.  On the Willow Lakes Trail, I met David True, again, this time with his girl friend.  I knew David from birding in Ohio at Spring Valley Wildlife Area not far from Cincinnati.  I met him in the spring at Aransas NWR, where he now works, when I went there to get Whooping Crane.  David and his girlfriend were doing a Texas Big Year and had reached 400, if memory serves me correctly.

I left Santa Ana reluctantly, having come so close to adding my nemesis bird, Groove-billed Ani.  I will wait until overwintering Groove-billed Anis are found in the LRGV, or another great rare bird shows up to return to search for Groove-billed Ani.  I stayed the night in Mission, right along Rte. 83 for my early morning trip to Laredo and Las Palmas Trail to search for White-collared Seedeater.

No new birds for the year.

PS:  I am writing this from home in Cincinnati, OH on November 23.  Since my visit to the LRGV, 6 Groove-billed Anis were heard and seen at Resaca De La Palma SP at one of the brush piles by Sherri Wilson on Sunday, November 16 and 4 were reported just yesterday, November 22, by Sherri Wilson on the Quail Loop at Resaca de La Palma, where I had searched extensively earlier in October.  These are either hangers on from the breeding population or migrants moving south through the area from more northern breeding areas along the coast.  There's still hope, but I need to move on to get other more readily available birds added to my list.                      

Friday, November 22, 2013

Searching for a Nemesis Bird But Finding a Good One Anyway, Tuesday, November 12

Groove-billed Ani is rapidly becoming a nemesis bird, much like the Mountain Quail for Neil Hayward.  Previous to this recent visit to the LRGV, I had searched for close to 4 days for Groove-billed Anis reported on e-Bird and otherwise but without success.  I have a summary report about those efforts in draft to be published, hopefully soon.  I realize that it is harder to find them in the fall and easier in the heat of the summer until about the end of September and early October.  However, life got in the way big time in August of this year when I should have tried for Groove-billed Ani in the LRGV.  I was also elsewhere getting new birds for the year, particularly in Alaska and California, in September and early October.

I arrived at about 7:30 am at Santa Ana NWR hoping to find the seven Groove-billed Anis at the water feature, as recommended by Mary Gustafson, that were present yesterday morning until about 10:00 am when Neil Hayward texted me that he was looking at them.  They were not present at the water feature behind the visitor center early or later this morning, November 12.  Meanwhile, I joined the search for the Rose-throated Becard.  The becard was being seen around the visitor center, particularly, near the picnic table alcove behind the restrooms and in the trees along the parking lot.  I kept listening for the anis as I looked for the slow moving and secretive Rose-throated Becard.  At about 8:30 am, a lady saw the becard briefly along the west parking lot.  It was down below the canopy in trees that line the parking lot.  A group of about 10 birders looked diligently but could not find it.  Slowly, the group broke up and moved to different areas to continue the search.  I kept checking the water feature behind the visitor center and the thick bushes near the visitor center along the canal for anis.  My search for the anis and the becard covered the same areas near the visitor center.  Either bird could be anywhere.  I met John Hintermeister from Florida at the water feature behind the visitor center.  just then, John got a phone call from his birding buddy that he had the becard in the parking lot near where the woman had seen it about 30 minutes earlier.  We hustled over there.  By the time we arrived, the bird had moved and was temporarily lost in the leaves and branches, i.e. not visible to us.  However, John's birding buddy had re-found the bird, because he patiently stayed in the area where the bird was first seen and patiently watched the trees for movement.  Then, the becard was found again, and I got excellent looks at this young first winter male with the developing pink throat.  So did an enthralled group of birders.  It was hard to get photographs, because the bird stayed well hidden behind the leaves and branches of an ebony tree and barely moved or moved only occasionally.  The light was rather dim inside this tree.  I know that Michael Dupree got some good photos.  Recall that I met Michael searching for Fork-tailed flycatcher several days ago.  He showed them to me on his camera.  See my photos below.
Rose-throated Becard, first winter male, black cap, partially pink throat,
rusty feathers on wing coverts and in tail, gray back  
Rose-throated Becard, first winter male
Awesome bird!  This was a bird that I did not plan to see this year.  What a great find by Bob Behrstock from Arizona!  A great addition to my list and reasonable photographs given the difficulty of seeing this bird.  Special thanks to John Hintermeister's birding buddy who re-found the Rose-throated Becard this morning.

Now back to finding the Groove-billed Anis.   Several people in the group wanted to see anis.  One woman had seen them along the Willow Lakes Trail on Sunday, November 10, at a spot deemed to be the most reliable for them.  She offered to show us the spot at about 9:30 am.  We went there but did not find the anis.  I checked this spot and the water feature behind the visitor center at least 3-4 times throughout the day.  I never found the anis.  My last visit to the Willow Lakes Trail Spot was just before sunset.  Still no luck on the Groove-billed Ani.  A cold front moved in during the day, causing dropping temperatures and high wind.  The conditions early tomorrow might not be favorable, but I need to try.  I will try for Groove billed Ani again early tomorrow morning before moving on.         

Rose-throated Becard is a new bird for the year raising my total to 696 + 2.


Pelagic Trip Cancelled; Chasing the Amazon Kingfisher in Texas, November 10

On Friday, November 8, while I was preparing to leave early on Saturday, November 9 to drive to Cape May, for the pelagic trip, I checked the Paulagics website and discovered that the Sunday, November 10, pelagic trip had been cancelled due to predicted high wind and high seas of 6-10 foot waves.  I put in a request to change my reservation to the Paulagics pelagic trip out of Lewes Delaware on Saturday November 16.  I was planning to head north in Ohio to chase down Little Gull, which was reported frequently near Cleveland, and try for Ring-necked Pheasant elsewhere in Ohio...until the next NARBA report!  Neil Hayward had the same bad luck with the new England pelagic, which was also cancelled due to high wind and high seas.  Neil headed for Arizona for Madera Canyon to try for the Eared Quetzal, which he did not see or hear and which has not yet been rediscovered as of this writing date (November 22). 

Meanwhile, back in Texas, on November 9, an Amazon Kingfisher was found by Jeff Bouton in the LRGV in Cameron County at the resaca along Rte. 100 just east of US 77.  Big Year plans change quickly and frequently!  Amazon kingfisher is a Life Bird for me.  I tried to see the first American Birding Area (does not now include Mexico) record of Amazon Kingfisher in 2010 at Laredo, but missed by one day, primarily due to a website failure.  I was supposed to meet Dan Sanders in Laredo, but the website to make a flight reservation went down at about 11:00 pm, delaying my flight by one day.  That one day was critical.  The bird was seen the day I had intended to arrive and was gone the next day.  At that time I was still working full time, and my time options were more limited.

This time I was able to get a flight to San Antonio on Sunday afternoon, November 10, arriving at about 8:30 pm.  I drove to Kingsville and stayed overnight, got up early and arrived at the resaca along Rte. 100 at about 9:30 to 10:00 am on Monday morning.  I arrived to hear that the Amazon Kingfisher had been seen and photographed early along the opposite side of the resaca at the western most vantage point.  I saw the distant photograph and thought something looked funny about that photograph.  More about that later.  There were lots of birders present waiting, waiting and more waiting and watching for another appearance of this very rare bird.  This is only the second North American record of this species.

Meanwhile, Neil Hayward was in the LRGV first seeing the Amazon Kingfisher, on Sunday and then looking for Hook-billed Kite near Riverside Club marina, Hidalgo and Anzulduas Park along the Rio Grande River on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, and also tried for Sprague's Pipit at Anzulduas Park.  Two Hook-billed Kites were seen by David Irons and Shawneen Finnegan, both field trip leaders for the LRGV Birding Festival, one on the Mexican side and one on the US side.  These were reported in eBird.  While I waited for the Amazon Kingfisher to reappear, a Rose-throated Becard was seen at Santa Ana NWR, and Neil texted me that he was headed to Santa Ana having been unsuccessful in getting the kite or pipit.  Then while I waited patiently for the kingfisher, Neil texted me that he got  the becard and was looking at seven Groove-billed Anis near the visitor center in Santa Ana NWR.  I had tried hard for Groove-billed Ani in the LRGV and had struck out repeatedly.  However, Amazon Kingfisher is a Life Bird, and I was staying until it showed up again. 

Sorry, Neil if I discussed your blog entries before you actually make them!  It is not my intent to usurp your blog.  Just trying to show how complicated a Big Year can be with so many new birds showing up at the same time in multiple areas at one location as well at distant locations.  Constant decision making and flexibility in changing plans is required.

While waiting for the kingfisher to show, I investigated the area.  Further east along Rte. 100 toward Los Fresnos, there was a very open area along the resaca with good visibility.  The word on the ground from birders present was that this was the best and most reliable spot to see the Amazon Kingfisher.  Neil Hayward had verified that was his experience also.  I decided to park my butt there and wait.  Meanwhile, I had exchanged cellphone numbers with David Hanson and his wife from the Galveston area and Tal from the Dallas area.  Tal thought that we had met somewhere before.  Later he discovered it was in Bill Baggs in Key Biscayne, Florida looking for the Thick-billed Vireo and the Black-faced Grassquit in the spring.  Two groups of birders waited at the western and eastern spots with visibility of the resaca, but the eastern spot had the best visibility.  We needed to be able to communicate rapidly if the bird showed up at either place.  Also present looking for the Amazon Kingfisher was Monte Taylor from California, who has the largest list of birds photographed in the ABA Area.  I had met Monte on one of the pelagic trips out of Point Loma in California, but have not yet written up that trip report on my blog.  I first met Monte near Chicago several years ago when the elaenia, a South American flycatcher, showed up there.  I also met John Hintermeister and his birding buddy from Florida.  They had driven straight through from Gainesville overnight to come to see the Amazon Kingfisher.  That's dedication......but not that unusual for birders! 

Close to 11:00 am or 12:00 noon, two kingfishers flew up from an invisible location at the east viewing site and flew past me and over Rte. 100 to a resaca on the other side of Rte. 100.  Both birds showed a lot of white in the primaries on the wing, and I concluded that neither was the Amazon Kingfisher and most likely Belted Kingfishers.  A Belted Kingfisher had been at the western most observation point on the resaca since I arrived in the morning.  I walked across Rte. 100 and checked the resaca on the other side of Rte. 100, but could not find either bird.  The wait continued.

At about 2:45 pm (or was it 1:45 pm, easy to lose track of time!) two new birders arrived, Jeff and Richard, from the Galveston area.  I told them about the most recent observation of kingfishers, so they walked across the road to check again.  As they walked back, a kingfisher flew up out of the resaca across the road and landed in the open.  It was the female Amazon Kingfisher at close range.  I quickly texted Tal and the group from the south observation point arrived quickly to see and photograph the Amazon Kingfisher.  The Amazon Kingfisher put on a great show allowing us to view all of the key field marks!  It landed on a close snag at first showing the broken breast band, almost clean white in the center, of the female and massive bill.  A male Amazon Kingfisher has a cinnamon breast band.  Amazon Kingfisher is almost as large as Belted Kingfisher but is colored greenish like the Green Kingfisher.  This Amazon Kingfisher then showed off its style of hunting for prey by hovering like a Belted Kingfisher unlike the style of a Green Kingfisher, which does not hover.  In flight, Amazon Kingfisher has very little or no white in the primaries on the topside and has very limited white spotting on the wing coverts.  For Amazon Kingfisher, the amount of white showing in the coverts on the folded wing is much less than that for Green Kingfisher.  The tail of Amazon Kingfisher has white spotting, unlike the tail of a Green Kingfisher which has white on the outer edges at the base of the tail, visible in flight, on an otherwise solid green tail with very limited or no spotting.  It was great to see this Life Bird so well and get photos.  See below.
Amazon Kingfisher, massive bill, broken breast band
Amazon Kingfisher, with tail cocked up, showing tail spotting

Amazon Kingfisher, tail cocked up, white spotting

Amazon Kingfisher, leaving to hover

Amazon Kingfisher, hovering
Amazon Kingfisher, limited white in primaries in flight
For twenty to thirty minutes, the Amazon Kingfisher put on a great show.  Thoroughly enjoyable.  One lady who was present thought that the Amazon Kingfisher held its bill down while hovering, because the bill was so big and heavy that the bird cannot keep its head up!   Very humorous thought.  I got a good chuckle out of this comment.  But really, the bird needs to have its bill in position for prey capture and needs to be looking down to spot its prey. 

Amazon kingfisher is Life Bird number 810 for my ABA Area list with two provisional birds remaining to be counted, White-cheeked Pintail and Common Redstart.  Amazon kingfisher raises my year list to 695 + 2.

Later, it was discovered that the bird seen and photographed in the morning was not the Amazon Kingfisher.  For once, it was an advantage to arrive later in the day, for me, at least!  The distant photos showed a continuous unbroken breast band that was lower on the breast than Amazon Kingfisher.  That bird was likely a female Green  Kingfisher.  David Hanson and his wife went back and got to see and photograph the Amazon Kingfisher.  I texted him a congratulatory message for avoiding a major whoops.  I wonder about the other people.  Did they hear the news?  Could they get back to see the real deal?

After a quick stop for a salad for lunch  I headed to Santa Ana NWR to look for the Rose-throated Becard and the seven Groove-billed Anis.  I met Mary Gustafson there.  She said that the Groove -billed Anis could be seen at the water feature behind the visitor center early in the morning.  I stayed until sunset just before the refuge closed.  I was the last to leave the parking area.  I thought that I heard the Rose-throated Becard giving its thin high pitched two noted call, but no one found the bird that afternoon.  No Groove-billed Anis either.  Oh well, tomorrow is another day.  At least I got the Amazon Kingfisher.  Can't be greedy now, can we?   Why not?  Its a Big Year!      

Hook-billed Kite Plays Hooky, Heading back Home, November 5

I stayed in Brownsville last night and arrived at Resaca De La Palma State Park early to look for the Hook-billed Kite at the resaca.  The best place to look is at the north end along the road where one can look down the resaca for a significant distance.   At the parking area near the gate where I paid the entry fee, I met David Smith and his wife, now from Virginia put previously from Ohio near Dayton.  They were also looking for the Hook-billed Kite.  I was slow to get to the Resaca, because I had carried breakfast with me and ate most of it by my car as I was putting my entry fee in the envelope. 

At the Resaca, we did see several raptors--a Red-shouldered Hawk and an immature Cooper's Hawk.  The immature Cooper's Hawk at first caused some concern due to its shape and long tail.  The bird was somewhat distant for good binocular views.  I had not taken my telescope with me, but perhaps should have done so.  However, the under-parts are streaked in the immature Cooper's Hawk and not barred as in Hook-billed Kite.  In addition, Copper's hawk does not have only two wide white bars on the tail as does Hook-billed Kite.  This bird had these features of immature Cooper's hawk and not Hook-billed Kite.  I stayed at Resaca De La Palma SP until about 10:00 am.  I checked a nearby brush pile for Groove-billed Ani.  Earlier in the fall, Groove-billed Ani could be found at this brush pile near the Resaca.  I left the area to drive to San Antonio to turn in my rental vehicle and fly back home.  I was still kite-less, at least hook-billed kite-less.  The Hook-billed Kite had played hooky.

I arrived home at about 12:30 am, November 6, tired but satisfied with progress on my Big Year total.  In two or three days, I needed to leave for the east coast to get to Cape May, NJ for  a pelagic trip on November 10.  The targeted species for the pelagic trip is Manx Shearwater.  Based on previous trip lists on the Paulagics website, the chances are good for seeing Manx Shearwater on this trip.

During this stay at home, I was busy  checking on financial matters regarding a credit card and caught up partially with cleaning up leaves in my yard.

No change in the year list total.       

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.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sweet and Warm Louisiana Southern Hospitality, November 3

I had contacted Craig Mineo on Friday, November 1 about his post to Louisiana Birds list serve regarding the male Calliope Hummingbird in his yard, asking if I could come to River Ridge at his house near New Orleans to see the Calliope Hummingbird, if the bird was still present.  Craig responded on Saturday in the wee hours of the morning, because he works nights, that the Calliope Hummingbird was still present and that I was welcome to come to his house to see this bird.  I missed Calliope Hummingbird in Arizona during migration in the Spring and in the Fall.  I knew that Calliope Hummingbirds overwinter along the Gulf Coast, particularly in Louisiana.  This was my best and maybe only shot at adding this bird to my list for the year.  I wanted to try for the male Calliope Hummingbird rather than the less distinctive plumage of a female or immature Calliope Hummingbird, at least one of which had been reported in Louisiana.  On Friday, I had returned to my hotel in Jennings very tired, took a long nap, woke up very late and was eating a very late dinner at a truck stop restaurant next door when I received Craig's response.  I responded immediately that I would come on Sunday, if that was satisfactory, because Saturday was my Yellow Rail trip.  Early Sunday morning I got another note from Craig telling me that the Calliope Hummingbird was still present.  I left Jennings at about 8:30 am, based on the time change, which was 7:30 am by hummingbird time.  Craig had told me that the best time is between 10:30 am to 4 pm.

I arrived at about 10:30 am,  Craig and his wife Sandra had returned from church and welcomed me.  Craig and I looked for the bird in its usual roosting spot in a crape myrtle tree over the driveway, but could not find it.  We checked the usual spots in the back yard where it would feed and other trees, but could not find it.  Craig was worried that the bird would not show up for me.  Not to worry.  While we were standing near the feeder discussing the hummingbird and other topics about my Big Year, we heard the bird chipping.  Then out of the corner of his eye, Craig noticed that the bird flew out of the bush behind me on which the feeder was hanging.  It flew very close to me but behind my back and went up into the crape myrtle to roost.  I got good looks at the bird but wanted some photos.  But just then it disappeared again.  At Craig's suggestion, I stood on the front porch where I could peer around the house corner at the feeder and also watch the favorite roost spot in the crape myrtle tree.  Craig went inside to join Sandra and watch from inside.  Usually, during the week when Craig and Sandra were at work, the Calliope had the yard to itself.  The extra human activity may have caused it to be shy today. 

Soon the Calliope Hummingbird returned to its favorite roost and I got lots of photos.  See below.  I saw the very small size, the spikey dark reddish purple iridescent gorget feathers on a white background on the throat, the relatively straight short bill and the wings extending to but not far beyond the tip of the short tail.  This bird was clearly in molt, and consequently, spent a lot of time preening.  The back, wings and crown were a grayish green, and not the brighter green of breeding plumage.  The throat feathers were not as bright as in breeding plumage, the colors of which were often muted by the shade of the drape myrtle.  Nonetheless, it was a great bird to see and to add to my list.  Thanks, Craig!    
Calliope Hummingbird, showing spikey gorget feathers, white mark behind eye

Calliope hummingbird, showing magneta color of spikey gorget feathers
wings as long as tail
Calliope Hummingbird, spikey gorget feathers, preening a lot
It is amazing that this smallest hummingbird that breeds in North America migrates from the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains the whole way south to Louisiana and beyond.  This one safely reached Craig's backyard haven this year.  What a feisty, tough little bird! 

It was really fun visiting with Craig and Sandra.  He has several bushes that he has planted specially for hummingbirds and has had eight species of hummingbirds in his yard, many or all of which have been banded by Nancy Newfield, a local and nationally known hummingbird expert who has published many articles about hummingbirds and several articles in the Birding magazine published by the American Birding Association.  Nancy's 30+ years of banding documented that hummingbirds overwinter in Louisiana.  I remember when that was not known.  Craig proudly showed me his book of photos of many of the eight species that were in his yard and two special bushes recommended by Nancy to plant in his yard just for hummingbirds.  Soon, however, it was time for me to go.  I have so little time and more birds to chase and find.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Craig and Sandra.  Sandra photographed Craig and me.  See below.
Craig and Jay in front of hummingbird feeder and a favorite bush
Craig and Sandra, thank you so much for the warm Louisiana southern hospitality.  I hope that you enjoy your 25 year celebration trip and find some great new birds for your life list.

Calliope Hummingbird raises the total to 693 + 2.  How sweet it is!                  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rockin' and Rollin' in the home of the Blues, November 2

I started the day early at Thornwell looking for Sprague's Pipit on the airstrip along Aguillard Road.  Donna had told me that the combines would be working in the Thornwell area.  There was time for early morning birding, because cutting commences only after the rice has dried sufficiently.  I walked the short grass of the airstrip but found lots of Savannah Sparrows and some fly-by butter-butts, Yellow-rumped Warblers, showing their yellow butts going away.  There were two fly-over pipits, but they revealed their identity as American Pipits when they called.  Donna told me that we had permission to walk the airstrip.  There is a pond near the airstrip, loaded with American Avocets and Long-billed Dowitchers and waterfowl.  As I was walking the airstrip, Greater White-fronted Geese flew over me in large and small flocks.  I was thinking how cool this was.  Greater white-fronted Geese show up every year in Ohio, but are rare enough that they are a chase bird.  A Peregrine Falcon also flew over me as I walked the airstrip.

Soon Donna called me to tell me the exact location, just south of Thornwell and the close-by intersection of Aguillard and LA 582 on a farm road near some green tanks.  I drove out to the intersection of LA 582 to wait for their arrival in a white pick-up truck with kayak racks on the back.  Soon a white pick-up arrived followed by a van.  They entered the dirt road and stopped by the green tanks.  I drove over to join them.  This was apparently the group that Donna agreed to let me join when I first contacted her by email.  Soon Donna Dittman and Steve Cardiff arrived in their white pick-up with kayak racks on the back.  There are a lot of white pick-ups in Louisiana as well as in Texas.  White is a cooler color for a working or birding pick-up truck that gets parked out in the sun during the day.  Consequently, a white-pick-up is not really a good field mark to identify a specific truck to look for.  The kayak racks were the key field mark for the white pick-up truck that I was looking for.  The van included a group of birders from Massachusetts.  A woman with familiar face came over to introduce herself.  I had met Connie Schlotterbeck in March in Carlisle, MA near Boston when I got to see the Fieldfare.   It is a lot of fun meeting and then re-meeting birders as I travel around the country doing this Big Year.  Donna Dittman provided a bag full of goodies, including a poster of the Rice and Rail Festival, very good information about identifying rails in flight, necessary for rice harvest observations of rails, a bag of  bird friendly coffee and a bag of Louisiana rice.  I wish I had enough time to look through all of it before harvesting started. The tips on identifying the rails in flight are very good and very useful.  However, during the day, I learned them on the fly ( :>)  :>) pun intended)!  I signed my release form and was ready to go with my high boots on that I had used in Alaska and the dust mask provided in the package.  I was a gentleman and let three ladies go first riding on the combine with Donna.  An experienced person like Donna is required for safety reasons to ride with the rest of us first timers.  I had heard that one can see the rails well from the ground watching as the combine made its rounds.  I stood on an embankment near the green tanks to watch.  I had my scope and camera with me but soon found out that I had too much equipment.  I put my scope and tripod in the trunk of my rental car and kept my camera and my binoculars.  I could see rails flush near the combine, but most of them looked like Soras.  Soon it was my turn to get on the combine.  The first group had seen two Yellow Rails.  The first in an adjoining field that the farmer used as the entry point for the first field to be cut which was north of the green tanks and toward LA 582.  The second Yellow Rail was in the northeast corner of the first field to be cut.  By the time it was my turn to get on the combine, the Field Guides trip had arrived.   I got to sit in the "catbird" seat next to Richard, the farmer and driver.  There was less noise and dust inside.  I got to ask Richard a lot of questions about his farm and the combining.  However, there were some disadvantages to sitting inside to be discussed later.  We went around the field several times flushing lots of Soras, which were silvery gray and easily recognizable.  There were fewer Virginia Rails, which were smaller and darker with more red in the wing than the Soras, if the bill is not visible.  Of course, when the bill was visible on the flying Virginia Rails, the longer bill than for Sora was easily recognizable.  On the first pass around the field, a very large rail flushed, and was easily identified as a King Rail, converting my heard bird to a sight record for the year.  Way cool!  Now for a Yellow, short-hand for  Yellow Rails used by the farmers and birders.  On one pass, we had an American bittern stay in place for a very close look before it flushed quite close to the left of the combine!  Wow!  that was cool!  After about three passes, the combine stopped for additional birders to ride.  The Field Guides participants and one of the leaders had seen a Yellow Rail on the last pass just before the northeast corner.  I missed it!  Ouch!!  I started wondering if my eyes were failing me, and was a little chagrined that I could not see out to the left easily around the participants standing outside--but it was my choice to be inside, taking comfort in exchange for possibly missing a key bird!  However, I  found out later from one of the riders that the bird flew out to the left and back behind the combine.  There was no way that I could see this bird from inside.  The Field Guides group decided to break for lunch, and I stayed on the combine with Richard for multiple turns around the field and several stops to unload the rice.  Richard told me that he owned this equipment, unlike in some parts of the country were farmers hire an independent combiner to combine crops like wheat, corn and barley.  His farm was about 1780 acres, some apparently rented.  This was the second cutting of the rice crop.  The first in June-July harvests approximately four times more rice.  The stubble left in the fields after the first harvest grows back and yields the second harvest.  The combine holds about 80 barrels of rice with a barrel containing about 182 pounds of rice.  The trucks for unloading the combine hold about 80,000 pounds of rice. 
Unloading rice, standing rice and stubble
Unloading rice
Rice heads
We saw lots of Soras, a few Virginias but no Yellow!  Soon Richard stopped cutting and returned to the roadside near the truck.  There was a problem with the cutting  blade.  No oil.  While we waited for the oil delivery, Steve suggested a quick five minute run for Sprague's Pipit in a field south of Margeuax Road near LA 580, not far away.  This field had Sprague's Pipits last winter and may hold a few.  A few Sprague's Pipits had arrived in the area, according to Donna, but were still quite scattered.  The repairs took longer requiring a new oil filter, which had been torn when installed with an oil change just before starting the cutting today.   We had about an hour to look for Sprague's.  We walked the field on a farm owned by Richard's brother, because Donna and Steve knew him.  All other land is private and should not be entered without permission.
Sprague's Pipit field, beyond tire tracks in front of distant trees
We entered the field from LA 580 and walked west about 0.25 miles, flushing lots of Savannah Sparrows.  Savannah Sparrows do not fly very high and drop down into the grass after a relatively short flight.  I thought I saw two rather buffy birds that flew higher and back toward LA 580 as we headed west.  When we got close to the end of the field we swung north toward Margeaux Road on a leg west of and around the farm buildings hidden by the trees in the photo above.  Very soon Donna yelled and pointed skyward.  She had heard the distinctive flight call of the Sprague's Pipit as it flushed and flew up, up and circled back.  For me, this small bird was lost in the clear blue cloudless sky.  Steve picked it up.  Donna kept pointing at it as it circled and eventually I found it as it started to drop precipitously from very high.  I saw a small buffy bird with white under-tail coverts as it dropped.  The bright mid-day sun caught the white under-tail coverts and the buffy upper-parts and breast.  Donna located the landing spot and immediately called the Field Guides group who were headed back from lunch.  We waited until they arrived and walked out the long field to us to line up before we tried to find the bird in the grass on the ground.  When everyone was assembled in a line, we started walking slowly forward, scanning carefully to hopefully see the bird on the ground.  However, the Sprague's Pipit flushed about twenty to thirty feet in front of me, showing the white outer tail feathers, the buffy face and back as it flew up, up and away (like TWA!) until it became a tiny spec disappearing eventually in the distance to the west.  It did not call this time; however, I saw it well enough to identify it by sight and by its flight behavior.  Great bird and show!  Thanks Donna and Steve! 

By this time, the combine had been repaired.  Steve, Donna and I returned to the rice harvesting operation.  The Field Guides group stayed at the Sprague's Pipit field area to look for Le Conte's Sparrow in an adjoining field of higher grass.  When we arrived at the rice field, Richard had started cutting, but he stopped briefly in the field and motioned me to get on board.  By this time the uncut rice was getting smaller increasing the probability of seeing a Yellow.  On the first two circuits, we saw lots of Soras and a few Virginia Rails and one King Rail as they flushed in front of or to the side of the combine.  On the third or fourth circuit, Richard got excited and yelled there's a Yellow as a small dark rail flew up in front of the combine and then flew to the right landing out in the stubble.  As it spread its wings for landing, I could see the white in the secondary wing feathers.  Yes!  Yellow Rail!  Richard tooted the horn on the combine, which according to Steve is unusual for him.  Other combine drivers do it more readily when the sought after Yellow Rail is sighted.  Steve was outside in the field and noted where the Yellow Rail had landed.  I returned his thumbs up gesture!  By this time, the Field Guides tour group had arrived.  I got off the combine and let others get a ride.  I had lots of opportunity to enjoy riding the combine with Richard and seeing all the rails and particularly, my Big Year Yellow from that vantage point.  Everyone joined Steve to line up and walk through the stubble looking for the Yellow.  We walked right past or over it as it hid under the cut stalks laying on the stubble.  Steve walked again along the deeper tire tracks, picking up the thicker layer of cut stalks.  Eventually the Yellow Rail flew out, giving some in the  group a good view, and landed again  toward the edge of the field or back into the standing rice and disappeared again.  I joined the group and watched the remaining cutting in the first field and saw either the same or another Yellow flush from the last standing rice along with a group of about 6 to 10 Soras.  The Yellow Rail was smaller than the Soras, and the white in the wings was more readily visible from the ground on the Yellow.  I had brought some lunch with me and had no reason to leave.  This was too much fun with good company!  I decided to stay and continue to enjoy the rails and the experience.

Richard started cutting the second field, which was the first one that he entered to get access to the field just finished.  We knew that there was a Yellow Rail in this field, because Donna and the first three women had seen it there.  Steve asked if anyone wanted to join him in a five seater ATV with a  roof, to go the west edge of the field that Richard was cutting.  The sun was dropping by this time and the back-lighting from the west would be better for viewing.  I joined Steve.  The others stayed with Donna to get out in the field edge to get close views of the rails.  Steve and I saw lots of rails as the cutting continued.  On one circuit of cutting, Steve counted/estimated 40 Soras!  We saw several additional King Rails, one flew out towards us for a very close view.  We walked out in the field through relatively deep water to get a closer look, but no luck.  I saw about five King Rails well on this day to change the previous heard only records to sight records.  Flocks of White Ibis and Great and Snowy Egrets flew into the rice stubble to feed, taking advantage of the more open area with standing water.  Cattle Egrets followed the combine closely to grab food.  We also saw flocks of Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese flying over the area, as well as a small flock of about 25 Ross's Geese with a few larger Snow Geese mixed in with this group.  As the remaining standing rice got smaller, we started seeing the Yellow Rail flush with each pass.  Steve called Donna to tell them where to look.   The remaining group still trying to see or photograph rails got closer to the standing rice to wait for the Yellow.
Waiting for Yellow
On one of the last sweeps, the Yellow flew out of the standing rice, landed in the nearby stubble briefly giving great views to the group (see photo above) and then flew back into the rice or the nearby border.  Steve and I got great binocular views of this bird, showing the yellow face and under-parts, dark above and the white in the secondaries.  This was the best view of the day for me. Saved the best for last!  On our way back to the road on the ATV, a young Roseate Spoonbill landed in front of us for a photo.
Roseate Spoonbill
After the cutting of the second field was completed, we headed back to our vehicles parked at the nearby green tanks.  The farmers started heading to another area to cut or to the barn.  Richard told me that he would normally cut until about 10 pm, taking advantage of the good cutting weather.  As I packed up my gear, the sun was setting and mixed flocks of Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese flew by at close range.  The photos are not very good due to the decreasing light, but the blurriness shows the motion.  Quite a spectacle.
Greater White-fronted Geese and one Snow Goose 
What a great day of rockin' and rolln' with the birding and on the combine.  Sprague's Pipit and Yellow Rail are new for the year as noted before and increase the list to 692.

I had contacted Craig Mineo in River Ridge, LA near New Orleans.  Craig had reported on Louisiana Birds a male Calliope Hummingbird in his yard.  Craig agreed to allow me to come to his house to see the Calliope Hummingbird.  I am heading there tomorrow morning early, Sunday, November 3.