Friday, April 30, 2010

Antillean Nighthawk--Yes!

Our day began in Key West where we went to Fort Zachary Taylor again to see if anything might be coming in there. We checked the docks just outside the park first and found 4 roseate terns preening themselves. They looked very sharp with a faint pink hue on their breasts. Inside the fort area we mostly saw several warbler species. We also ran into the VENT tour group, and the Kansas tour group again.

We then began the drive up the keys towards Florida City. We kept looking out for the Wurdemann's form of the great blue heron, but only found the white form plus a couple of regular great blues. We did find a very nice reddish egret. Also some shorebirds including semipalmated, black-bellied and american golden plovers, ruddy turnstones, killdeer and willets.

As we were driving down a side road looking for the Wurdemann's we kept hearing a noise that sounded like a rock stuck in one of the tire's treads. Stopping to check it out, we found instead a screw that somehow had penetrated the tread. We went straight to a place nearby that was able to pull the screw and plug the hole. On a toasty, humid day in the keys, having a flat tire to deal with would have been no fun, so we felt fortunate to have discovered the potential problem before it ruined our day.

We stopped at a very small place to try some Cuban food. We had a shrimp, peppers and rice dish, a shredded chicken dish, cuban tamales and water. Simple and satisfying. It was so much better than the barbeque from the nite before that professed to know how to make North Carolina BBQ, and failed miserably.

Because the past 2 nites we had only heard the antillean nighthawk at the airport in Key West, we decided to try one more time, but at the Marathon airport. We sat and chatted in the airport parking lot waiting for dusk. At 7:45 we started looking and listening closely for the bird. The first nighthawk to show up was a common that we heard calling and saw fly off. A few minutes later we heard the different call of the antillean, and then found the bird flying over the runway. We watched it for about 10 minutes and then jumped into the Tacoma for the 75 mile ride back up to Florida City.

I did not get any new bird shots today so instead there is a photo of a very large turtle we saw in the Everglades. I am sorry but I do not know what kind of turtle it is.

Today is April 30th, and the end of month four of this big year. I ran into Bob Ake, another person doing a big year, yesterday at the Key West airport. I had first met him at Bentsen SP in Texas in March. He is doing a full ABA area (all of North America above Mexico) big year. We chatted about how we thought the year was going for each of us. He seemed fairly pleased with his effort so far. Like me he has passed the 500 birds seen mark. This weekend he is out at the Dry Tortugas and will find more new year birds.

I told him I was pleased with my results so far. As I told my friend from NC who is birding with me this week, I had a good sense of how I thought the overall year would go, and in turn the number of different bird species that I could reasonably see (600). But I had not really expected to break 500 birds in only 4 months of birding.

The 1st day of week 18 ended with 56 bird species seen, and the antillean nighthawk is also a new year bird bringing the YTD total to 520. Tomorrow we are going to drive up to Merritt Island NWR to look for shorebirds, particularly white-rumped sandpiper. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dry Tortugas

We checked in at the Yankee Freedom II at 7 AM for our 8 AM departure. They let us on the boat about 7:30 and we had a continental breakfast before the boat headed out of the Key West harbor. Deb, the naturalist and "color" commentator along with the boat captain, had told us when asked that no roseate terns had been seen yet this year. But on our way out we saw several--they had literally come in with the wind the night before. This boded well for our full day tour to the Dry Tortugas.

For those who know nothing about the Dry Tortugas, it is a group of small islands/keys that lie 68 miles west of Key West. For birders they are a special place to bird, especially in the spring during migration. Deb was telling us all on the way out (a 2 hour ride) that yesterday was a really good day at Fort Jefferson. The fort was built in the mid 1800's as part of the defense of the southern flank of our country. Among its odd claims to fame, it was once the largest structure made from bricks in the US, and it was the prison for Dr. Mudd who tended to a wounded John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. Today the fort is part of Dry Tortugas National Park.

On our way out today--a coolish, overcast day that threatened rain most of the day, and sprinkled at times--we also saw bridled terns and brown boobies (new year birds), 1 of which was sitting on a channel buoy (see top photo above). At Garden Key, the small piece of land that is almost totally covered by the fort, the birding was in fact quite good. There were many yellow-billed cuckoos flying among the trees inside the fort. 13 warbler species were found including the palm warbler in the bottom picture above. A magnolia warbler also showed up which was a new year bird.

Soon after entering the fort, I saw 2 kingbirds that did not at first look like gray kingbirds, possibly because of the overcast conditions, and they were definitely not eastern kingbirds. This led to some short lived excitement that they might be the very rarely seen loggerhead kingbird. In case that was true, the leader of the VENT group (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) was brought over who told us that it was in fact a gray kingbird. The initial excitement disappeared to be replaced with the general fun of being at Fort Jefferson and seeing lots of migrating birds. My friend found a bird she did not know which turned out to be a dickcissel, another new bird for the year.

The primary reason birders want to visit the Dry Tortugas is to see the 1000's of sooty, and brown noddy terns that nest on Bush Key which is right next to Garden Key. There is also a nice sized colony of magnificent frigatebirds that nest here. If you are really lucky 1 or 2 black noddy terns will be found mixed in with the browns, but this year none of the black species has been seen so far. You also will see the masked booby, and bridled and roseate terns traveling out and back. Another seabird that we saw coming back to Key West today was the pomarine jeager (a new year bird).

We arrived back in Key West about 5:30 PM after a most enjoyable day. Since this is Thursday, another full week of birding is in the books. 27 more birds were added to this week's list, 9 of which were new birds for the year. The YTD total is now up to 519. Tomorrow my friend and I will bird in Key West a bit more and then slowly bird our way back up thru the keys to Miami. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Can You Say Mangrove cuckoo?

A very early start today at 5:30 AM to make the 2.5 hour drive down to Sugarloaf Key--a primary site for mangrove cuckoo. When we got there we found many other birders, including a large VENT birding tour group. There were lots of different thrushes (wood, swainsons and veery). We listened and finally heard the very short call/gurgle of a cuckoo, but we were never able to find it in the mangroves. We did see a bank swallow fly over--a new year bird. After a couple of hours on a beautiful, bug free morning we decided to drive the short distance into Key West. On the way we saw and photographed the gray kingbird--a keys specialty--in the top picture.

In Key West we drove straight to Fort Zachary Taylor Park, and saw a birder from Arizona that I had first met there in February, then saw briefly yesterday, and again at Sugarloaf. We were talking when a small group of cuckoos flew into the trees. We began to follow them as they moved through the trees, and found mixed in with the yellow-billed cuckoos one mangrove--both cuckoos were new year birds. A mangrove cuckoo had been reported at the fort a week ago, and again today we tracked one down. We hung around for awhile to see what else might drop in, and were rewarded with a small number of bobolinks.

It was getting quite warm, so our next stop was our motel. After a short respite, we went for an early dinner. We chose a place called the Grand Cafe in downtown Key West. Since it was only 5:30, we were almost the only people eating. It was cool and low enough humidity to eat outside. Our waiter told us he had been living in Key West for 18 years. We enjoyed talking with him off and on during our meal. My friend went for pork tenderloin with slaw and polenta. I had blue fin tuna lightly grilled with sesame rice noodles and citrus slices. The food was pretty good but not world class. Our bottle of 2006 Sanford Santa Rita Hills pinot noir was probably the best part of the meal.

After dinner we headed over to the Key West airport to listen/see an antillean nighthawk, another specialty bird of the keys. At dusk there were 2 other tour bird groups, plus a foursome and the 2 of us. On cue we watched over a 10 minute period a few single nighthawks fly over us, but none were calling. This is no good because the antillean looks all but identical to the common nighthawk, so their call is how you tell them apart. We stayed around listening, and finally heard in the distance the call of the antillean. We will go back tomorrow evening for another attempt to match a flying bird with its call.

Today ended with 17 more birds for this week including 3 new birds for the year bringing the YTD number to 510. There is an updated travel map also today. Tomorrow we take the boat out to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Finally a Spot-breasted Oriole

This morning I picked up my friend at 9:15 AM at the Miami airport, and we headed over to the Baptist Hospital area again to search for the spot-breasted oriole. As we were slowly driving down the street I noticed a guy with a large camera lens looking up in a tree. I pulled over and said, "you don't happen to have a spot-breasted oriole in that tree?". He said that in fact he did. We jumped out and were able to get the top photo above. This made for a fine beginning to our day. My friend also got to see a red-whiskered bulbul and hill mynas.

We drove on down to Everglades NP for an afternoon of birding. It was warm but not too humid with a mild breeze and mostly sunshine. We surprisingly saw only 1 swallow-tailed kite (bottom photo above). While looking for a bronzed cowbird we found 4 shiny cowbirds mixed in with the brown-headeds. We also saw some marbled godwits and willets with an almost full plumage black-bellied plover and a turnstone that was only partly shifted over to its summer garb.

At Anhinga we got a short glimpse of the smooth-billed ani before it flew off. Overall, there were far fewer birds there than earlier in the year when I had made other visits. At dusk we found a hunting barn owl, and several chuck-will's-widows.

12 new birds were seen for this week of which 2 were new birds for the year--spot-breasted oriole and chuck-will's-widow. Tomorrow we start very early to drive the 2 hours down to Sugar Loaf Key to look again for a mangrove cuckoo. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 26, 2010

One of Those Days

I was off to Key Largo before 7 AM to hunt for mangrove cuckoos. Specifically, I went to Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical SP (do you think they could have made that name any longer) because it has been the place where most people are currently looking for and finding the cuckoo. It was a very humid morning because a storm was blowing into the area but did not arrive until about noon. I walked the key areas patiently listening for the bird to call, but none were in the mood. I did get to see 2 new year birds--gray kingbird and black-whiskered vireo. The latter had a red band on its ankle which I observed as it sang loudly over and over again from an exposed perch.

After a tourist place lunch of fish and chips, I drove in the rain back into Miami to have another go at the spot-breasted oriole. I first tried again the neighborhood near Baptist Hospital. I got photos of the hill myna (top) and the red-whiskered bulbul (bottom photo: remember to click on the photo to make it bigger so that you can see the red whisker), but after 90 minutes I was still without an oriole sighting.

I drove on up by the airport to check into my motel and regroup. Since I had broken 500 birds seen for the year, I decided to review the list and discovered I had double counted the northern flicker by accident--I had down both the red, and yellow shafted forms as separate birds which they are not. So I have corrected that error, and reduced the YTD number by 1.

About 5 PM I decided to try for the oriole again at the house that I visited yesterday. Today I was able to meet the owner who had been absent yesterday. She was quite accommodating, and even introduced me to her pet bird. 90 minutes later I again came up empty, grumbling to myself about how much I really dislike bird stakeouts.

So here I am back in the motel having seen today only 4 new birds for the week, but 2 were new year birds bringing the YTD number up to 505. Tomorrow my friend arrives at 9 AM, and we will pick up the hunt for the oriole, the cuckoo and many other birds over the next few days. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Day of Bobs

What in the world does that title mean? Quite simply it refers to the northern bobwhite quail and the bobolinks that were seen today, but I am once again a bit ahead of myself because yesterday had nothing to do with either bird. Instead it was about going to De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, FL. The hope was that it would be a very good spring migration day there, and it would live up to its rep. But that was not to be. In fact the wind was blowing quite hard which pushed all the migrating birds right past De Soto to places unknown. I did meet a local birder though who took me to see the seemingly proud parent and chick great-horned owls in the top photo above.

I also did get to see some shorebirds including many red knots. There were also a few common terns to go along with the normal group of least, sandwich and royal terns. So the time at De Soto was not a total bust, and as I was leaving a magnificent frigatebird soared past me.

Since the birding was quite poor, I headed on over to Avon Park to visit for a second time during this big year with two dear, long time friends. As I walked up to their front door an eastern towhee popped out of a bush, pushing the YTD number up to 503.

We drank some good red wine while we caught up on each other's doings over the past 5 weeks. Then we got some southern cooking from a place appropriately named James Brown and the Flames. We had pulled pork with collards, black-eyed peas, fried okra and cornbread. We also added some totally fresh local corn tortillas and green sauce, making pork and black-eyed pea tacos. It was a delightful meal and evening.

We all left just after 7 AM this morning to drive over to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve SP to see what it was like, and to look for the Florida race of the grasshopper sparrow. It was a nice, somewhat cloudy morning, and "the prairie" was very pretty. We kept listening for the grasshopper sparrow, but only heard bachman's sparrows singing. Soon after we entered the park much to our delight a small group of bobolinks flew up out of the grass. A bit later an even larger group of 19 bobolinks landed in some leafless plants. Next we found the crested caracara shown in the bottom photo above. The caracara is much less common here in Florida than it is over in Texas. On our way out we found one more large group of 34 bobolinks to put a nice big bow on our morning of birding.

After a late but nice breakfast at a local place in Okeechobee, we parted ways as I headed off for Miami. I had some info on a possible location to see spot-breasted oriole in north Miami, so I stopped there. After 2 hours of lots of other bird activity at the home where the oriole had been seen, I left without finding one. I then drove to another neighborhood in south Miami to look for the oriole there. I saw red-whiskered bulbul, hill myna, monk parakeet and white-crowned pigeon, but no oriole.

The past 2 days gave me 53 more birds for the week, plus 3 new ones for the year bringing the YTD total up to 503. I am now back in Florida City for the nite to be ready to start early tomorrow to look for mangrove cuckoos. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Psittacidae and more!

I hope that the results of the first day of week #17 signals some good birding for this week. I needed to do some work on my computer this morning, so I got off to a very late start--9:45 AM on the road heading toward Hernando Beach and its few remaining budgies. On the way I stopped at Withlacoochee State Forest to look for bachman's sparrow and red-cockaded woodpecker.

These 2 species often are found in the same limited habitat. The key for the woodpecker is they need very mature (60 years old) pines, usually longleaf, to make a nesting cavity inside. They can do this because the heartwood of these mature pines is infected with red-heart, a fungal disease. It may take as long a 3 years to finish a cavity. The woodpecker also drills "resin wells" above and around the cavity entrance, which causes sap to run down the trunk. It is believed that the sap repels tree-climbing snakes, thus protecting the young in the cavity.

I had very good info from A Birder's Guide to Florida where to look for a cluster of cavities (the red-cockaded is a communal bird). I quickly heard and then saw a woodpecker working the trunk of a pine tree in search of food. As I was driving back out I heard the bachman's sparrow singing, and located it about 12 feet up in a tree. Both were new year birds with the Bachman's sparrow being the 499th new bird for the year.

I stopped at a clam shack I had seen on my way to see the birds and thoroughly enjoyed both some steamed littlenecks, and a pound of New England steamers. I then headed to Hernando Beach to search again for the budgerigars. You may remember that a month ago I tried to see this bird, but a driving rain storm made it impossible. So today was a critical stop if I was going to find another new year bird, and also a life bird. The picture at the top indicates that my search was successful today. I did some more research on the budgie, and found out that they estimate there are only 15 pairs left. I spent some time admiring this pair, and also saw a 3rd bird fly by.

I drove on down to Clearwater and checked in to my motel. I then went out looking for some black-hooded parakeets (bottom photo above). This parakeet has become so well established in the Tampa-St. Pete area that the Florida ABA has accepted it for its state list. For some reason the national ABA bird review committee has not, so this bird is not countable for my big year. It does not take away from the beauty of the bird, and the fun in seeing it. So between the budgie and the black-hooded it was a very good day for psittacidae (parrots and their allies). And since I also picked up a life bird--#16 for the year--and reached 500 total birds for the year, I would also call this another red letter day!

Week #17 starts out with 23 countable birds seen. Tomorrow I will be birding at one of Florida's reknowned birding spots during spring migration--Fort De Soto Park. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

End of 16th Week

Another Thursday has come and almost gone. I am back in Florida and will be here for more than a week. I am here mainly to visit the Dry Tortugas next week, and to pick up a few birds elsewhere that I still need. But I am ahead of myself.

On Wednesday I was up and out birding at High Island by 7 AM. I met the English birder one more time since we have enjoyed birding together. It is always a treat to find a birder who is really on top of his/her game; a birder who understands some of the keys to successful birdwatching like form, shape and movement is often more important than color. For example, yesterday we were studying a small group of shorebirds at a wet area in Crystal Beach. One bird stood out as being different from all the others because of its coloration, shape, size and eating movement. But it also did not match the characteristics immediately of the bird we finally realized that it was--a baird's sandpiper. It was the right size, it had black legs and its eating motion and posture were right, but its color and its bill were a bit off the norm, thus causing some initial doubt.

Overall the birding was still good yesterday, and I got the shots above of the black-necked stilts (top) and the fulvous whistling-ducks. I had to leave mid afternoon to start driving over to Florida. And today was pretty much all about driving with the exception of a short stop at Ft. Pickens, Fl to see the beautiful white sand beaches and the old fort. So the last 2 days generated no new birds for the year, but there were 10 new birds for the week, bringing the total to a personal weekly best of 185.

As for my time in Texas the past 3 weeks, I feel very good about the results. Over 250 different species were seen. Almost all of the "target" birds were found. The trip out to Big Bend and the time at High Island were especially good. The potentially seeable but missed birds were white-rumped sandpiper, tamaulipas crow, groove-billed ani, and hook-billed kite. The sandpiper I will have more chances at over the next few weeks. The other 3 can only be found in "the valley" which may warrant a brief return trip this summer.

So there is no change to the YTD total of 497 birds, but the travel map has been updated. Tomorrow I will be back at Hernando Beach here in Florida to track down a budgerigar. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Wild Reeve Chase

The day began early as usual. I picked up the Brit birder and we headed down to the Bolivar peninsula to try to find the elusive nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow. This little fella hangs out in cord grass marshes, and can be difficult to see. We drove 2 side roads that had excellent habitat for the sparrow, but could not raise a single one. We did see many seaside sparrows which was some compensation for the time put in.

The standing pools of water on the peninsula that had been so productive yesterday were not today because the tide was low, and the shorebirds were feeding elsewhere. At about 9 AM we decided to do a twitch as the English call it. A twitch is when an English birder "chases" a bird--usually a rare one. 2 days ago a female ruff, known as a reeve, was found in some rice fields about 35 miles west of Houston. Only a few ruffs and reeves are seen in the U.S. each year. We took the ferry from Port Bolivar over to Galveston and then drove up to the small town of Pattison. Enroute we ran across a Whole Foods Market, so I took the Brit in to see what it was like, and to buy some Black and Gold chocolate.

When we arrived at the rice fields a birder from Houston was scanning for the reeve. Soon after we got there a couple we had met at High Island also stopped in to look for the bird. Unfortunately, while there were lots of birds out in the rice fields, they were so far out that we could not really see them all that well with our spotting scopes. The reeve is not a very large shorebird, and in the end we had to give up. We did see a nice group of hudsonian godwits, plus some distant buff-breasted sandpipers and many dowitchers and yellowlegs (greater and lesser).

We drove back toward High Island stopping at a body of water that the couple told us had wilson phalaropes. It was a very large pool perfect for wading birds, and sure enough there were 4 phalaropes feeding there--a new year bird. We were scanning the small sandpipers known as peeps in hopes of finding the white-rumped when the farmer who owned the property came barreling up in his pickup truck and told us to clear out. We did not know we had driven down a road that was private, so we apologized and left.

Back at High Island we checked out a yard that had large numbers of wood and swainson thrushes. We located 1 gray-cheeked thrush mixed in with the group. There were also a few ovenbirds (a kind of warbler for you non-birders). The ovenbird and gray-cheeked were both new birds for the year also.

We finished our birding day in the marshy area at Boy Scout Woods (a part of the Houston Audubon Society birding sites in High Island). The sun was getting low in the sky, but there were many birds still feeding--orchard and baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, marsh and sedge wrens, lincoln and swamp sparrows, great and boat-tailed grackles, little bitterns, and summer and scarlet tanagers. The top photo is a scarlet tanager looking to eat some mulberries. The 2nd picture is of the roseate spoonbills' rookery at Smith Oaks.

14 new birds were added to the week's total which breaks last week's record for the most birds seen in a week, and there are still 2 days of birding left in this week. The 3 new year birds brings the YTD number to 497. Tomorrow I will bird here in the morning before I start the long drive back to Florida. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Another Fine Day of Birding at High Island

My day began at Anahuac NWR at 7 AM to see if there might be hudsonian godwits or white-rumped sandpipers that had come in overnite. There were not any so I headed down to High Island to see what the nite had brought in there. The number of birds were definitely down from yesterday but 2 new year birds (philadelphia vireo and wood thrush) were seen.

I had agreed yesterday to meet up with the birder from England, and we decided to start driving down the Bolivar peninsula in search of shore birds. We hit several places along the way seeing many good birds but no new ones for the year until we arrived at Frenchtown Rd. In a pool of water we found a partially molted red knot (top picture). We drove to the end of the road and then returned to the pool to check it one more time. As we scanned the water we saw a group of large birds (bottom photo above) which turned out to be hudsonian godwits. We counted 15 birds in all. Notice the dark rusty chest on 1 of the godwits. Also the long up-turned bills. Remember if you click on the photo it will get bigger.

The hudsonian godwit stops along the coast of Texas on its way to its breeding grounds in places like Alaska and the Hudson Bay in Canada. Two days ago 13 birds were seen at this same location for 15 minutes before they continued their flight northward. Today when another birder arrived and got out of his car, the group took flight and were joined by 6 other godwits that we had not noticed. They also headed north and did not return to the pool. Finding this bird today was a thrill because I have only seen them before in Alaska. Also, I really needed to see them in Texas for the big year, otherwise I would have little chance of seeing them in the fall on their return flight to South America.

We were both elated at the find. We then headed back up to High Island for late afternoon birding in the Smith Oaks section of High Island. It was another sunny end to the day with temps in the 70's. Even though it was a weekday, there were as many birders today as yesterday. Three more new warbler species for the year were located--yellow, chestnut-sided, and cerulean. The last one attracted a large crowd who happily enjoyed watching the bird quietly eat its dinner.

Today ended with 40 new birds for the week bringing that total to 160. There were 7 new year birds raising the YTD number to 494. Tomorrow I am here again to see what new migrants might have flown in overnite. Maybe a white-rumped sandpiper will make an appearance. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Back at High Island

Yesterday was mostly about driving in an effort to track down 4 key birds on the upper Texas coast. I had no success with any of the four, but I did see 43 new birds for this week. This was only the second day so far this year when I have birded that I did not get a new bird for the year.

Today however made up for that short fall. It started slowly with some rain while I drove around looking for rice fields in hopes of finding buff-breasted sandpipers. I thought I had some on sod fields, but they spooked and flew away before I could make a positive ID. I finally drove by a rice field near Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR where in the past I had seen this bird, and sure enough I found a group of about 30. I spent some time checking out this new year bird with my scope before heading towards Houston.

I hit a torrential thunderstorm as I was coming into Houston, but checked the rare bird alert to find that High Island finally was having a major birding day with more than 20 species of warblers leading the show. I made it to High Island by 1:30 PM to join in on the birding fun. Since today is Sunday, there were lots of birders enjoying the number and diversity of birds. The top photo is of one of my favorite warblers, an american redstart. The second is of a baltimore oriole.

I ran into an Englishman that I had seen earlier at High Island and also at South Padre Island. He was supposed to have flown home yesterday, but the Iceland volcano has grounded him in the States for another week. Hopefully the spring migration will now pick up and keep him happy.

By the end of today 15 new year birds were seen, 5 of which were warblers (blackburnian, blackpoll, prothonotary, worm-eating and northern waterthrush). I saw a total of 18 warbler species in 4 hours of birding. This is not close to my 1 day record of 24, but it is quite good for only 4 hours of time in the field. A total of 52 new birds were added to the week's total which is now up to 120. For the other 9 new year birds, check the year running total list on the right hand side of the blog. The YTD number is now at 487. Tomorrow I will be out all day taking in the migration, and looking particularly for hudsonian godwits. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Back in Austin Again

It is Saturday morning here in Austin, and I am getting a bit slower start than normal--I actually slept until 7 AM. Last nite I had a good time socializing with old friends, drinking lots of interesting wines, and eating a lovely meal of salmon, sugar snaps and rice with a bit of coconut milk added to it. This morning before hitting the road again I will be eating at one of my favorite taquerias--Gueros.

Yesterday morning before making the long drive back to Austin from Marfa, I stopped in at the Davis Mountains SP to see if the montezuma quail were coming into the feeding station. It was chilly but sunny, and several bird species were enjoying the seed being offered. The top picture is of a chipping sparrow (left side) and a rufous-crowned sparrow (right side). While both birds have a rusty cap, notice that the one on the right has markings on its throat called malars. Also the rufous-crowned is a bit bigger bird.

After about 30 minutes a pair of montezuma quail walked into the feeding station, and began to scratch up the rocks to find seed and bugs. Their claws and feet are very strong so they can move some pretty good sized stones. Because they are constantly scratching, the photos of them are not as sharp as I would have liked. The middle picture is of the front of the male, and the bottom picture has both the male and female in it. Notice how well the female blends into the landscape around it. This quail used to be named the harlequin quail I assume because of its face markings, but a few years back its name was changed to montezuma. Every now and then a bird will be renamed, but often you don't know why exactly.

While sitting watching the birds feed I had the chance to talk to another birder from Washington state. He is very knowledgeable about birds in his area including winter visitors like great gray owl and gyrfalcon. I am looking forward to the possibility of joining him this December to do some birding in Washington.

The first day of week #16 ended with 25 bird species seen, and the montezuma and rufous-crowned were both new birds for the year, so the YTD total is now 472. I am off to an area west of Houston today to scan the rice fields for migrating shore birds. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

End of 15th Week

Another Thursday has come to an end, and this is the 15th time that has happened in this big birding year. I have quite abit to catch up on because I have not posted since last Monday. To begin with Tuesday, that was generally a bust day for birding. I began early in Brownsville trying to bird at the dump to look for tamualipas crows, a location where they used to always be found in the past. That has not been true for a few years, but this past week 2 were seen and photographed there. So I showed up before 8 AM only to be told that it was too muddy to let birders come in. Since I needed to start moving towards Big Bend NP that day, I was pretty pissed but there was nothing I could do.

I then drove back over to South Padre Island to see if the black-vented oriole might have reappeared, but it had not. According to the woman who posted the photo of the bird, the last black-vented in Texas was back in the 1970's, so you can imagine the excitement for birders that its brief stay generated.

I then drove a couple of hours to Falcon SP to try again for the groove-billed anis. After 4 hours of walking sections of the nature trail, I still came up empty. I thought I heard one a few times, and even saw a black body flash thru the undergrowth, but did not see enough to verify that it was an ani. I did see one new year bird--an ash-throated flycatcher--while wandering around. Finally at 6:15 PM I headed down the road because I still had a 4 hour drive to get to Uvalde, Tx.

I was up at 6 AM Wednesday morning to make the drive to Kickapoo Cavern SP. I have never been to this park and found it to be somewhat unusual because it has been open to the public only on a reservation basis. You call the park phone number, and they give you the combination to the lock for the front gate. This odd system is changing in May when it will be open like other Texas state parks.

I went to Kickapoo because it is one of the best places to find black-capped vireos--a bird, like the golden-cheeked warbler, that is only found on the Edwards Plateau in Texas. It was raining as I approached the park just before 8 AM. Fortunately once I got out and started looking for the vireo, the rain had mostly stopped. I slogged thru the caliche listening for the vireo, and after about an hour I was able to locate one in my binoculars. This is a bird that I have only seen one other time back in the mid 70's along the Guadalupe River (which also means it was a new year bird). I was watching my youngest brother in a kayak race, and a black-capped popped up along the river. I would have liked to bird some more at Kickapoo, but the rain started up again, so I headed for Big Bend NP.

I arrived about 5 PM, and as I drove thru the entrance to the park a nice covey of scaled quail crossed the road--a new bird for the year. Even though the weather did not look good, I decided to risk a walk along what is called the Window Trail which starts at the Chisos Basin. A huge thunder storm was brewing, with quite an electrical show. It was on the low desert to the west of the basin, but as the thunder moved into the basin I decided to hightail it back to my truck. 5 minutes after I got back into the tacoma, a bit damp from the start of the rain, all hell broke loose. For the next 20 minutes it was what we call in Missouri a real turd floater which included a brief spell of small hail stones.

I was sleeping in the back of the pick-up last nite (it has a camper shell on it), so I waited for the worst of the rain to pass before getting settled into the back. I have a sleeping platform that lets me store stuff underneath, but gives me enough room to sleep. I was asleep by 9:30 which is the earliest I have been asleep since the big year began.

I was up at 6 AM to get organized for my hike up into the high Chisos today. As I mentioned somewhere in an earlier post, I began birding at Big Bend in the spring of 1973, and have been back here several times to hike. It is absolutely one of my favorite places to be. The same brother who was kayaking was also with me in 1973, and over the years he has hiked at Big Bend more than any other place. In fact, he is one of the very few people who has hiked all the way across the park from the east side to the west. He broke the hike into 2 phases: east border to the Chisos, and 2 years later the Chisos to the west border. The picture at the top provides some sense of the Chisos mountains, and the other one is a shot of an ocotillo, which to me is the signature plant of Big Bend.

I hit the trail at 7 Am just at first light to make sure that I had adequate time to hike the 10 mile round trip up to Boot Canyon--the prime location for the colima warbler. The Chisos mountains is the only place in the US that this warbler breeds. Unlike some other difficult to find birds that have roads that get you within a short walk to the bird's preferred habitat, there is no road that takes you close to the colima's habitat. The basin is at 5400 ft. and the canyon is about 7000 ft. the shortest hike up is 4.5 miles one way.

It was a beautiful morning (sunny with low humidity, clear air and broken fluffy clouds) and it stayed that way all day. I heard many birds calling on my way up, but most were not visible and I kept hiking since the colima warbler was the key bird for the morning. I hoped to hear one calling before I reached Boot Canyon, but did not. Once I got into Boot Canyon, I heard a few and quickly located one singing away while eating in the oak tassles. I had a snack myself while enjoying watching the bird. I then retraced my steps in hopes of seeing some of the birds that I only heard coming up the trail. Only a mile from the basin I ran into a birder couple from Wisconsin who thought they had heard a colima calling. I told them that was not likely, so they decided to hike higher.

They also told me about a common black hawk that was nesting down at Rio Grande Village which was a 30 mile drive down to the river from the basin. This was great news, so I headed down the trail. On my way I found a canyon wren, black-chinned sparrow and scott's oriole--all year birds. I made the drive down to the river, and began to look around for the hawk only to find a gray hawk sitting on a telephone pole. Then scanning a large group of cottonwoods where it was supposed to be nesting, one flew in to its nest. This is a majestic hawk which always lifts my spirits when I see one. I also saw several bell's vireos (new year bird) while looking for the common black hawk.

I stopped at the ranger station at Panther Junction to talk with a ranger that I noticed the day before knew his birds. I asked him if the gray vireos were back in, and he suggested that I try blue creek canyon. I had hiked this canyon in 1973 and have fond memories of it. Even though it was mid afternoon, I decided to give it a shot. I had only been walking up the wash 20 minutes when I found one singing on the hillside. This vireo, while not quite as limited in its breeding range as the black-capped vireo, is still a challenge to track down. So with the colima warbler, the common black hawk and the gray vireo, today was unquestionably another red letter day for the big birding year!

To make things even better, I drove up to Marfa for the nite. This is a quirky town of 2100 people on the Texas plains that is really on the way to nowhere. It was known in Texas for lights seen on occasion at nite on the plains east of town that no one could explain. Then a New Yorker came to town in the 70's and bought an abandoned army base to use the old wood barracks to create an art museum. You might call Marfa a "small" Santa Fe.

I was at Big Bend back in 2006 with a friend and we stopped to see what was happening in Marfa. There is an old hotel called the Paisano which was the headquarters for the cast and crew when they shot the movie "Giant". There is also one of the best pizza places in the country called the Pizza Foundation. The owner is a woman who worked for several years at the Al Forno restaurant in Providence, RI. She and the owners of Al Forno were going to open a pizza place in Providence, but instead she moved to Marfa to open one there because her sister insisted she come to try Marfa out. Needless to say, I had a really tasty pizza for dinner tonite.

The week's total for species seen hit 172 which by 2 birds edged out last week for the most birds found in a week so far this year. The last 3 days added a total of 10 new birds for the year which brings the YTD number to 470. tomorrow I am heading back to Austin for the nite to see my friends before going back down to the Texas coast for a few more days of the spring migration. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back in South Texas

I began today in the dark in Everglades NP in hopes of hearing a black rail calling at a location that it had been reported being over the past week. As the dark began to give way to day I heard chuck-will's-widows calling. Then great horned owl hooting. I kept listening, and listening and listening, but to my dismay I did not hear any black rails calling. At 7 AM I had to give up because I needed to drive to the airport to catch my plane back to Texas.

I arrived in McAllen at 3 PM and immediately drove to South Padre Island to see if the black-vented oriole seen and photographed yesterday with a large group of orchard orioles was still around. I arrived just as the rain was letting up, and heard that many birders had poured in during the day, but the black-vented had become what is called in the birding world "a 1 day wonder".

Even though the oriole was absent, the birding in a small garden next to the South Padre Island convention center was outstanding. I saw 4 new year birds in the trees and shrubbery--baltimore oriole, and tennessee, blue-winged, and kentucky warblers. I also got a shot of the hooded warbler at the top of the posting, and a group of indigo buntings in the bottom photo above. I am particularly fond of hooded warblers because several breed each year on our land in North Carolina. Other birds included ruby-throated hummer, chimney swift, yellow-headed blackbird; parula, black and white, and yellow-rumped warblers; lincoln sparrow, blue grosbeak, and summer tanager.

Behind the convention center on the mudflats was a large variety of shorebirds and gulls. Among them were 2 more new year birds--semipalmated sandpiper and franklin's gull. The franklin's were showing their beautiful breeding plumage pink/peach colored chest feathers. I ran into a birder from England that I had met at High Island last week. We both had a good time picking out various birds thru the scope including black skimmers; royal, caspian, least and forster's terns; stilt, pectoral, baird's, least and western sandpipers; willets; short-billed dowitchers; and black-bellied, piping, semipalmated and wilson's plovers.

There is an updated map of my travels thru today. The bird count for the week is up to 135, and the YTD number is now 460. Tomorrow I am off to the Brownsville dump to try to find a tamaulipas crow. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Can You Say Bar-tailed Godwit?

Yesterday morning we birded at Santa Ana NWR early to see if just maybe the elusive hook-billed kite would make an appearance. It did not, but we did see 100's of mississippi kites that had roosted for the nite at Santa Ana on their way north. As we were leaving we were told that a hook-billed kite was perched near where the hawk watch was being done. We went to see the bird only to find that it was a gray hawk--a new bird for the year, but not a hook-billed kite.

My friend and I caught the same plane to Dallas. He then went on to Missouri and I flew to Miami to have a try at the western spindalis and the bar-tailed godwit. I arrived in Florida to find that the spindalis was not seen yesterday even though about 40 birders spent much of the day searching for it. I still went to Bill Baggs SP this morning in hopes that it would return. It did not while I was there from 8-10 AM. I did see 3 new warblers for the year--cape may, black-throated blue, and american redstart. A local birder had caught a black-throated blue warbler in a mist net which she is holding in the top photo.

I also met 2 very good birders from Orlando and Gainesville. We headed down to Flamingo in Everglades NP to look for the bar-tailed godwit. This is a bird that I have not seen since I started birding in the early 1970's. One shows up in Florida about every 10 years. They had searched on Saturday but did not find it. Today was a different story. About 12:30 PM it flew in with a large group of marbled godwits and willets. The 2nd photo is the bar-tailed by itself. The last photo shows it between a marbled godwit (above it) and a willet and another marbled godwit (below it). Note the overall size and color differences. Also check how much less pink there is at the base of the bill of the bar-tailed compared to the marbled.

While looking at the bar-tailed I realized that I had met both of these guys in 2006 in Alaska when we were all birding at Gambell (a native american village on St. Lawrence Island) and Nome. Another small world story for my big birding year!

So after 3 days this week the total species seen is at 94, and the YTD number is now 454. Tomorrow I am heading back to south Texas where a black-vented oriole was seen today. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Can You Say Muscovy Duck?

This morning we were on the road at 5:15 AM to make the hour+ drive to Salineno in hopes of seeing a muscovy duck. This bird is seen only rarely along a very short section of the Rio Grande river centered on Salineno. I have seen the duck just one other time, and know that the key is to be watching the river at dawn. As the early morning light slowly illuminated the river we saw 2 ducks sitting on a log that was probably 500 yards up river. After much viewing thru the scope, it became clear that they were mottled ducks. However, at 7:23 a single muscovy duck came flying by heading down river.

We then drove the short distance to Falcon SP to look for a family of groove-billed anis that have been seen there. After walking all the trails for an hour, we came up short. We did see a cooper's hawk several times, and a harris's hawk too. We headed back toward Santa Ana NWR. Enroute we stopped in Roma at a small taqueria and had a simple but good Mexican breakfast. This meal was in contrast to the steak dinner the nite before at Santa Fe Steak House in McAllen.

We decided we should have a steak dinner since we were in Texas. The young woman at our motel reception desk suggested a place called Remington's which is in an Embassy Suites hotel. To test her recommendation, we walked in and asked the young lady working the Embassy Suites desk where a good steak house was. To our surprise, she did not suggest the 1 in the hotel, but told us to go to Santa Fe down the street, so we did.

The place was a classic steak house in ambience, menu and wine list. We wanted to drink an '06 St Cosme gigondas but they were sold out. Instead we drank an '06 chianti from Felsina that was ready to drink, and improved throughout the meal. For food, we tried the zozobra appetizer--2 large anaheim chili rellenos stuffed with crab that were quite good. Then I had a new york strip with a black bean and corn salsa relish that may have been the best part of the meal. I also had matchstick sweet potato fries. My friend had a perfectly cooked slice of standing rib roast with a side of sauteed spinach. We both walked out stuffed but happy.

After breakfast we returned to Santa Ana for another hawk vigil from the tower. We saw vultures, swainson's, broad-winged, and harris's hawks, but alas no hook-billed kite. We then checked the nearby sod farm again, and found a new group of american golden plovers and upland sandpipers.

Tonite we went to Poncho's--a Mexican restaurant with a bit of a reputation here in Pharr. The place was jammed, mostly with hispanic customers. The bohemia beer was good and cold, the enchiladas were solid, and the red snapper dish, which filled a plate to overflowing, proved quite tasty. The mariachi band, however, was an overly loud nuisance. Fortunately our food came quickly so we were in and out in an hour.

The first day of the new week ended with 55 different species seen, with the muscovy duck being the 449th new bird for the year. My friend flies home to Missouri tomorrow morning, and I am contemplating a whirlwind air trip myself back to Florida to try to see 2 rare birds--a western spindalis and a bar-tailed godwit. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hook-billed kiteless

Today is the end of week #14, and after 2 long mornings in a row at hawk towers--1 at Santa Ana NWR and the next at Bentsen RGV SP--I am still without a sighting of a hook-billed kite. Over the past 10 days, only 1 kite has been reported. But the birding overall since we arrived in the valley has been quite enjoyable. Yesterday was generally a slow day for raptor migration. We did see 20 more new birds for the week on Wednesday, and one--a brown-crested flycatcher--was also a new bird for the year.

Last nite we decided to be daring and try a sushi restaurant we saw near our motel. The growth of sushi restaurants in the US over the past decade has been huge, and they are now pretty much everywhere. That said, it felt odd to see a non-asian sushi chef. We were not that hungry so we ordered lightly which proved to be wise. This place is not going to make valleyites clamor for more sushi and less Mexican cuisine.

Today spent mostly at Bentsen was slower with only 6 new birds for the week, but one was an elf owl which was a new year bird. The owl was hiding in its hole in a dead tree. When a golden-fronted woodpecker landed on the tree, the owl stuck his head out of the hole to say "you are not going to take this hole!".

So the week total finished at 170 birds, and that was done without any major migratory action. A normal migration for early April would have brought the total closer to 200. That said, 170 is still the best week for the year. The YTD number is now up to 448. Tomorrow we will try something new, driving up to Salineno to look for a muscovy duck. We also will see more of the desert based birds like the harris's hawk above. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Moving Down the Texas Coast

The past 2 days have seen us moving down the coast into "the valley" as they say here in Texas. Yesterday morning we started at San Bernard NWR near Freeport in an effort to find a black rail. We found some good habitat, but heard no rail. We then stopped in at Indianola which also had good rail habitat but again found no rail. En route we did get a new year bird--cliff swallow. In general we found that the spring migration still is not really underway. So we drove on down to Kingsville to spend the nite.

The highlight of the day was dinner at Daddy O's whose sign caught our attention claiming that they had the best hamburgers in town. We walked in and asked our waitress if that claim would hold up, and she said of course. After talking with her about the menu, I chose the chicken fried chicken which in Texas is a chicken breast filet cooked like they cook a chicken fried steak (at Daddy O's their version of chicken fried steak uses an 8 oz ribeye instead of a minute steak). It came with really good mashed potatoes and gravy, and slaw. My friend went for the hamburger and confirmed that it was a very good burger. Our waitress then sold us on the homemade cheesecake that was like a good New York cheesecake. On the way out my friend walked into the kitchen, and discovered that the chef was cordon bleu trained in Philadelphia.

This morning we started well in a little county park in Kingsville where birds were calling from everywhere. We found 2 more new year birds--chimney swift and bronzed cowbird. Then we drove thru many back roads south of Kingsville looking to see if we could find more migrating shore birds but did not. Next birding stop after lunch was Laguna Atascosa NWR--my third visit here this year. We drove the 13 mile loop which really had fewer birds overall than when I came thru 3 weeks ago. What it did have this time was both an immature aplomado falcon and an adult. This bird is not currently countable under ABA rules because it has not been accepted as an established breeding bird in the US. It is still a fine bird to see and enjoy.

We then wandered around the countryside between Laguna and Brownsville looking at a few shorebirds (such as western sandpiper, short-billed dowitcher, dunlin, black bellied and american golden plovers, willets, and reddish egret). We also checked out some habitat that might have had either cassin's or botteri's sparrows, but with today's high winds sparrows were not out. We ended the day in Brownsville looking at red crowned parrots, and green parakeets (3 sitting together in the photo above).

So after 2 more days of birding here in Texas, the week count has risen to 143 different species seen. 4 more new birds for the year brings the YTD total to 446. Tomorrow morning we will head over to Santa Ana NWR to see what it has to offer. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Quiet Day for Spring Migration

We began the day at Anahuac NWR looking for a leconte's sparrow which did not make an appearance, but we did see a virginia rail (new year bird) and an american golden plover. Driving back over towards High Island I thought I saw a bobolink sitting on a fence post as we raced by. Backing up we could not locate the bird but instead found another new year bird--an upland sandpiper.

Next stop was yacht basin rd on the Bolivar peninsula where we looked for a nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow. No luck again on this sparrow, so we then tried to find it further down the peninsula at bob rd. Again no sparrow but we did find a pectoral sandpiper, another new bird for the year. We then checked out Rollover Pass to see if there were any new shorebirds there. The tide was out so the sand/mud bars were extensive which meant the birds were pretty far out. Our scan revealed essentially the same birds as yesterday.

So we headed back to High Island which was again quite slow for a spring day. Nevertheless, 2 new year birds were found--ruby-throated hummingbird and hooded warbler. Given the relatively slow progress of the migration at High Island, we decided to begin moving down the coast. We drove past Houston and stopped in at Brazos Bend SP only to find throngs of Easter Sunday picnickers. We walked one of the several lakes there searching for a purple gallinule. Sifting thru countless moorhens and coots did not produce a gallinule. We did see several herons like the great blue above. As we approached the truck a mississippi kite flew over--the day's 6th new bird for the year.

The week total is up another 20 birds to 127, and the YTD number is now 442. Tomorrow we will be hitting San Bernard NWR and Aransas NWR. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Days 92 & 93--High Island, Anahuac NWR & Bolivar

Yesterday I drove to Houston to pick up my oldest friend who was joining me for the 2nd time this year--he also came to Minnesota back in January. Enroute I saw a kettle of about 50 broad-winged hawks passing over my truck--a new year bird. We arrived at High Island at 4 PM to find that the spring migration was not very far advanced. I did pick up my 1st swamp sparrow of the year.

We started today at Anahuac NWR with about 20 other birders to do a walk thru the marsh to try to flush some rails. This involves tromping thru the marsh in a line right behind 2 guys pulling a long rope that has 4 plastic gallon milk jugs with some stones in them. Between the jugs bouncing thru the marsh grass and all the feet clomping, you hope to scare up the rails.

When I 1st did this walk several years ago, we had almost 80 people in the group that morning, and as a result, we quickly flushed 4 rails--sora, virginia, yellow and black. The latter 2 are the hardest to see, and many birders hear them but never really see them unless they do a rail walk. Today we walked for an hour before finally flushing 1 yellow rail and 1 sora. Since the hurricane that came thru Anahuac a couple of years ago, black rails have been very scarce here. So getting a yellow rail was a very good start to the day. And by the end of the day we found both of the bigger rails--clapper and king (see photo at top). We also saw sedge wrens, seaside sparrows and eastern kingbirds as part of the rail walk--all new year birds.

After getting out of our soaked pants, we headed over again to High Island--a small town that is built on a piece of land that is slightly higher in elevation than the marsh land that surrounds it. As a result, there are some sections that have a good number of large trees. There were more before the hurricane came thru, but the trees that remain still attract migrants as they make landfall after flying across the Gulf of Mexico. The Houston Audubon Society manages 3 small tracts of trees and undergrowth.

The birding was quite slow there this morning, so we drove on down to the coast stopping at rollover pass to study the shorebirds and terns. There were good numbers of birds on the mudflats and the light was very good for viewing them thru our spotting scope. There were a total of 8 different species of terns including 4 new year birds--common, sandwich, least and black. We also had good looks at a reddish egret, short-billed dowitchers, western and least sandpipers, wilson, piping and semi-palmated plovers, dunlins, american avocets and marbled godwits.

We drove a few of the side roads to find habitat that might have nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows but struck out. We did see some good birds though like fulvous whistling ducks and gull billed terns. We then returned to High Island to see if the bird activity had picked up. It had a bit with several orchard orioles flying around, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker (2nd photo above). We finished the day looking for sparrows at Anahuac.

Before coming back to our motel room to watch the Duke/West Virginia basketball game, we stopped at Papa's Place to have barbecue pork ribs with green beans, onion rings and a good beer (Shiner Bock in my case). This proved to be our second good "country" meal in 2 days. Last nite we had fried crawfish tails and oysters with red beans and rice, and green salad.

There is an updated map of the year's travels. After only 2 days the week total has already reached 107 birds. The YTD number has climbed to 436. Tomorrow we will bird here during the day, and then begin to move down the coast to see what we can find during the early stages of the spring migration. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Back in Austin

I left Clovis, NM at 5:15 AM yesterday to make the almost 500 mile drive to Austin. When I left Austin 2 weeks ago spring had not crept up from south Texas yet, but as I drove southeast towards Austin I began to see the new green leaves on some trees. And once I reached Austin spring was in full flush.

Enroute I saw several colonies of cave swallows swarming out from under bridges. I also saw one of the harbingers of spring in Texas, the beautiful scissor-tailed flycatchers (photo above). I made good time getting to Austin, so I stopped at a local city park to search for one of the unique birds here in the Edwards Plateau of Texas--the golden-cheeked warbler. I walked down a nature trail along Turkey Creek and one flew up from taking a bath in the creek. This warbler has had alot of habitat loss over the years, and efforts to protect it have been underway for some time.

My drive generated 15 new birds for the week of which the cave swallow and golden-cheeked were new birds for the year bringing the YTD number to 423. Yesterday also was the end of week #13. To kick off the 2nd quarter of my big year I am leaving soon to drive to Houston to pick up another friend. For the start of the spring migration here in Texas we are going to be birding for the next 3 days at one of the meccas for birders--High Island. Stay tuned!