Monday, November 25, 2013

Back from the Valley

I got up early on Friday morning to drive out to Salineno.  I was there by 7:15 and kept a steady eye on the Rio Grande in hopes of seeing red-billed pigeons or muscovy ducks. The 2 year drought was very obvious as the river level was down 3-4 feet from the levels I have seen over my many years of visiting Salineno.  There were far fewer birds around as well with no ducks on the river, and only one double-crested and one pelagic cormorant flew by me during 2 hours of watching.  Needless to say, I did not see any of the sought after pigeons or ducks.

My consolation prize was to spend a few hours at the recently reopened feeding station just above the river crossing.  The state and the Valley Land Trust have been "working" for several months on an agreement to reopen the feeding station which for so many years was a destination for birders in the winter.  The primary draw here is seeing Audubon's orioles, but many other valley species also visit the feeders.  Between the drought and not feeding for many months the numbers of birds were way down.  A eastern screech owl was snoozing in its box though (click on any photo to enlarge).


Over about 3 hours of watching we saw 27 bird species highlighted by the green jays, the greater kiskadees, and a pair of hooded orioles.  We had a crested caracara fly over, and a gray hawk.  4 other birders from northern Virginia stopped in for a second time on their birding trip in hopes of picking up Audubon's oriole, but all of us were disappointed to not have any come to the feeders.

The weather was predicted to get ugly beginning in the afternoon, so about 1 PM I started the 70 mile drive back to McAllen.  Sure enough the rain began on my way there. By 5 PM major thunderstorms were pounding the area, and the temperature had dropped from the mid 80's into the high 40's.  As a result, I decided to try a place that Neil Hayward had told me about called House, Wine and Bistro.  I discovered the kind of restaurant that I had not yet found in the Valley which is dominated by steak houses and all kinds of Mexican food.

I have visited the lower Rio Grande Valley since the late 70's, and I have personally witnessed the vast changes that have occurred with the population growth in the area.  But this was the first restaurant that showed me that modern fine dining had arrived in the Valley.  I enjoyed talking with my wait person who said the place was doing so well that the chef/owner planned to open a second restaurant.  I loved the lime shrimp dish, enjoyed a porchetta sandwich, and a dessert called a choco-mole. 

I was so pleased with my experience that while seated at my table I called Neil to thank him for the recommendation.  He was having coffee with Gerri back home in Cambridge which brings me close to the second half of this post--an update on the 2013 big year efforts. But first I will wrap up the rest of my trip.

I went to Santa Ana NWR Saturday morning where under overcast skies there was not much bird activity.  At the feeder station by the headquarters I met Isaac Sanchez who is a long time friend of Jay Lehman.  He had come down to Texas as part of his photographic big year to see the amazon kingfisher (you can find a link to his blog on the Narba website).  We chatted some about Jay's big year.  When it began to rain again, I headed back to my motel.  I flew home yesterday to even colder temps in Chapel Hill.

As Thanksgiving week is now upon us, the 2013 big year birders have just over 5 weeks left in their adventures.  Ron Furnish has not posted any more trip reports, and his year total is at 686.  Jay Lehman just posted on his blog yesterday about finding a little gull which was his 700th bird for the year.  He has 2 provisionals as well, and plans to continue birding to raise his year end total.

Neil is still not totally caught up on his blog posts, but if you go to his website and check his list you will see that his total is now up to 736 with 2 provisionals.  The one sure bird left for him to see is the whooping crane. He also plans to make a trip to Alaska to see McKay's bunting, and a dusky thrush was reported yesterday in Anchorage.  If he were also to go to Adak, he might pick up some rarities there.  He is still hoping to see a great skua before the year is up.  He also has seen aplomado falcon, but has so far not added it to his list.  He now has seen all the code #1 birds in the ABA area, and all but 4 of the code #2 birds.  He is now ahead of John Vanderpoel's pace in 2011 which means he has a shot at setting a new full ABA area big year record.

For comparison purposes, in 2008 Lynn Barber (723 total) after this date saw 9 more new species of which 6 were code #3 or higher.  Of those birds, Neil has already seen 8.  Bob Ake (731 total) in 2010 saw 11 more species of which 9 were code #3 or higher, and Neil has seen 6 of those 11.  In 2011 John Vanderpoel (743 + 1 provisional total) saw 10 more new birds of which 9 were code #3 or higher.  Neil has already seen 4 of John's last 10. Finally, in 1998 Sandy Komito (745 plus 3 provisionals total) only saw 5 more new species from this date forward of which 4 were code #3 or higher.  Neil has already seen 2 of those 5.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amazon Kingfisher!!

In 2010 during my lower 48 big year, the first ever documented amazon kingfisher in the ABA area was found in Laredo, TX in late January.  I was in Arizona at the time and stuck with my plan for a few days of birding there, but then decided to try to see the kingfisher on my way home.  Because I waited, I missed it by 2 days, but did run into Jay Lehman at the site.  This is one of the key lessons of anyone doing a big year--when a rarity shows up, the rule of thumb is to stop whatever you are doing and chase the bird.  When another amazon kingfisher was reported about 2 weeks ago near Harlingen, TX, Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman both immediately flew to TX, and were rewarded with a really rare and beautiful bird for their big year lists.

I thought about going to look for it from Sunday to Tuesday of last week, but had a long road trip planned with my brother and sister that was scheduled to begin last Wednesday, so I chose to hope that the bird might stay around.  When it was reported again 2 days ago, I decided to fly down to the Rio Grande Valley.

I arrived in McAllen about 2:15 yesterday afternoon, and immediately drove the 45 minutes to the site.  When I arrived there were 3 birders there who had patiently been waiting for several hours.  Belted, ringed and green kingfishers had sporadically been seen, but no amazon.  About 4 PM two birders from Oregon stopped by in hopes of seeing it again.  They had had good views of it about 4:30 the day before.  By 6 PM it became too dark to see well, so we all headed off hoping for better luck the next day.

I was the first to arrive at the two resacas at 6:30 this morning.  Other birders began trickling in soon thereafter.  We again saw belted and green kingfishers to keep our hopes up.  Several forster's terns came thru about 8 AM.  Finally just after 9 AM the female amazon flew up the resaca from the east, and landed right in front of 2 of us (click on the photo to enlarge).  Even when enlarged, the bird was far enough way that from my photo you can't fully appreciate its relative size to say the smaller green kingfisher, and particularly its bill, so I also have added the photo below taken by Neil Hayward. 

It gave us about 2 minutes of good viewing before it flew over the small side road, and landed on the far edge of the adjacent resaca which was about 100 yards west of us.  From there for the next 5-10 minutes it slowly worked its way along the edge feeding and perching which gave all the other birders good looks at it before it disappeared.  There were plenty of high fives as everyone climbed back into their cars.  I came back by the site about 10:45, and was able to watch it again briefly before it flew off.

I will be birding here in the Rio Grande Valley for the next few days.  Maybe something else special will be found.  I will probably do another post at the end of my stay.  No matter what, I will soon update how the big year efforts are going, but for now I will give a big hooray to Jay Lehman who has reached the 700 level this past week.  Once he finds time to update his blog, you will be able to read what he did recently to make it to that lofty height.  Neil Hayward has also been quite busy, but he too is a bit behind in his blog, so I will not say anything else for now.  Stay tuned!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Just 2 Months Left for 2013 Big Year Birders

In 2010 during my lower 48 big year, I was not only birdwatching.  I also built my year around visiting favorite places, seeing close friends and seeking out good food.  To that end, my wife and 2 friends spent 10 days at the end of October and beginning of November in Italy.  Most of the time was spent in Florence where from the summer of 2003 to the summer of 2004 my wife, daughter and I lived.  We have been back almost every year since to visit our Italian friends and to soak up the pleasures of Italy.

One of our favorite places to visit in Florence is the Bargello museum which is known for its sculptures.  I particularly like this little guy who is the essence of joy to me.

The Bargello also has some animal sculptures including an owl which is a gufo in Italian.

Besides lots of walking the streets of the city, we spent many quality hours at our favorite wine bars and restaurants. 

The handmade ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach a topped with a cream sauce is a regular menu choice, as are grilled porcini in season.

When I returned from Italy in early November 2010, I had a message on my phone from Wes Fritz telling me about an ivory gull that had been hanging out in San Luis Obispo for a few days.  I had gotten home about 5 PM, and was on a plane at 6 AM the next  morning.  Unfortunately I arrived about 6 hours after it was last seen that day so I did not get to add an ivory gull to my big year list.  However, because I was in southern California at that time, I did see a black-tailed gull and a taiga bean goose over the next couple of days which raised my total for the year to 690.

So where are Neil, Jay and Ron as the calendar turns to November?  Ron has done a recent post on which shows that he is now at 679 for the year.  Jay is as I write in Louisiana in hopes of seeing a yellow rail.  As of yesterday he is at 690 + 2 provisionals.  He still has several code #1 and #2 birds to find principally in TX, AZ and CA.  With 2 full months to go, he is confident that he will go beyond 700 total birds. 

Neil spent Wed. evening watching a different kind of bird--the St. Louis cardinals losing at Fenway park to the Boston Red Sox who won their first world series at their stadium since 1918.  It was also the Red Sox 3rd world series championship since 2004 after having gone 86 years without winning one.  I think the jinx of the bambino is definitely over.  Neil ended October with 726 birds + 2 provisionals so far for the year.  I believe that there are 6-7 mostly code #1 or #2 birds that he will definitely see.  Every bird after that will be a code #3 or higher vagrant.

As I did recently, I am going to share some key data from 4 other big years.  Sandy Komito in 1998 was at 738 plus 3 provisionals on Nov. 1.  He would see only 7 more new birds over the next 2 months of which 4 were code #3 or higher.  Lynn Barber in 2008 was at 704 by this date.  She saw 19 more new birds by Dec. 31 of which 11 were code #3 or higher.  Bob Ake in 2010 was at 714 by Nov. 1.  He saw 17 more new birds over the next 2 months of which 14 were code #3 or higher.  In 2011 John Vanderpoel was at 729 by this date.  He saw 14 more new birds + 1 provisional by year end of which 12 were code #3 or higher.  Stay tuned!