Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Misses, Mud, and "The Chinese"

After a fantastic few days of birding in Texas, we still had one or two birds on the target list including Ringed Kingfisher. This is another one of those birds that is regularly found in Central America but rare in the U.S. I have seen a few on our various trips to Belize, Mexico and Honduras but not in the U.S. The bird is pretty regular in a few of the parks that border the Rio Grande river. Mary took us to one park on Saturday but we didn't see the bird.

We started the day at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. We were the second car in the parking lot. The other car was actually a van full of birders dressed in camouflage and carrying cameras with giant lenses. We found out that 2 were from China, 2 from Vancouver and 2 from Toronto - all Chinese birders on a tour of the US.

After a grueling and practically birdless 5 mile walk, we struck out on finding the Kingfisher. We did find a few Altamira Orioles to photograph.

Altamira Oriole
And found this Javelina wandering around the picnic area. He scurried away when he saw us.

This is Plain Chachalaca. We saw many on our trip but they are usually skulking around under the trees in the shade. This one came out into the sun briefly.

Plain Chachalaca
We struck out on the Ringed Kingfisher so we headed out to our next destination to see if we could find Mountain Plovers that had been reported in a farm field. We searched and scanned and searched and scanned but not a plover in sight. The field was so large that we couldn't see the other side. The plovers must be there! So we took the Jeep and followed the service road. We were surprised to find a covy of Bobwhite!

We also found a little patch of mud. The Jeep was stuck.

A few pushes and the Jeep was free. Lori was a muddy mess. And we still couldn't find the plovers. Strike two for the day.
Barbara had to be at the airport to fly to Denver so we gave up on the plover search and dropped her off at Harligen airport.

It was a longshot, but Lori and I decided to head 2 hours north to try to see Whooping Cranes. Why not? Whooping Cranes eluded us on our last trip to Texas. We showed up 2 days after they migrated north in April. Now, in November, we hoped to catch the first few as they arrived to spend the winter. Off we went in our muddy Jeep. The speed limit in Texas is 75 MPH and we were going faster to make it to Goose Island before sunset. We were passing a lot of cars and pickup trucks and one big van. Guess who was driving? The Chinese guy from this morning! We slowed down long enough to wave and then sped off again.

We arrived at Goose Island in time to search the area for Cranes and found a few Sandhill Cranes which are gray, but no Whooping Cranes which are white. We drove to the Visitor Center to ask about the Cranes. The guy told us to look in the campground which was ridiculous so we headed back to the field to try again. Guess who we ran into at the parking area? Yup. The Chinese guys. They drove up to see the Cranes too. We laughed and chatted with them for a few minutes and then headed out for one more chance to save the day's birding.

I spent some time photographing this very accommodating Meadowlark.

And then they flew in - 3 Whooping Cranes! The Chinese guys came running up because they heard the Whooping Cranes calling as they flew in. The birds settled into the back of the field for a few minutes and then lifted off again. The lighting was perfect.

Whooping Cranes
We averted Strike Three for the day and everyone was happy! Here are our Chinese friends celebrating. If you are going to Conowingo Dam next week, look for them there. They are on a whirlwind tour.

Chinese Birders

Monday, November 21, 2016

Target Birding in Texas

Why go birding at the bottom of Texas? Because there are birds there that aren't found in other areas of the United States. Check out the map. You can see how far south we are as compared to Mexico. Therefore, we can see birds that we may have never seen before - or - add birds that we've seen in Mexico or Belize or Honduras to our U.S. list. 

Rio Grande Valley
So far, I have 7 life birds for the trip and 8 other birds to add to my U.S. list. In the past, I have tried to see birds in many places on my own but when I told people that we were headed to Rio Grande Valley area, everyone said that we should hire a guide to get the specialty birds. Most of the people who suggested this know what they are talking about and they all said that we should hire Mary Gustafson for a day. I met Mary on the North Carolina pelagic trip (she was the other woman in the Mahi Mahi photo). She lives in Rio Grande Valley and is a professional guide. I contacted her and she agreed to take us around on Saturday.

Mary met us at our motel on Saturday morning. It was blowin' a gale outside but Mary was not deterred. I showed her my spreadsheet and she formulated a plan for the day. First stop - Estero Llano Park. We were surprised to find out that the park was actually an RV park that the State took over. There are only 2 campsites that are allowed to be occupied - they are reserved for volunteer "Park Hosts". We met one of the couples who spend the winter in the park showing visitors around. Very nice people from Ontario Canada. 

Mary took us to a place near the old bathhouse and found a Common Paraque - which is in the night jar family. They hunt insects in the evening and then roost on the ground during the day. They are very camouflaged against the leaf litter. We saw one in Honduras this past spring. 

Common Paraque
Inca Dove is another bird that camouflages pretty well. Here is one sitting on a gravel road in the park. You could almost miss her. They usually take off but this one let me get pretty close.  

Inca Dove
We also found Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet  in the RV part of the park thanks to the Park Hosts and Mary. This is a very secretive flycatcher so no photos. The park also has a lake which has some great ducks and a few Least Grebes which were great to see. 

Off to our next stop which was Frontera Audubon Center. This park is kind of in the middle of town but we really hit the birds here. One of our main target birds was Green Kingfisher. I photographed one in Honduras but wanted to see one in the U.S. Boy, did we get a show from not one, but two! Here is the female which perched on our side of the lake. The male perched on the other side of the lake but when she saw him, she chased him off! 

Green Kingfisher
We caught up with her again when she perched on the railing of the boardwalk. I snapped this just as she dove into the water after a fish. 

We worked really hard looking for another of our Life Bird targets - Olive Sparrow. We spent a fair amount of time looking at the bird feeders around the park waiting for one to slink out from the woods to grab a seed from the ground. Mary and I saw one for a split second but it never came out from under the brush again. We finally heard 2 in the woods later thanks to Mary and saw one  thanks to Barbara's keen eye. Again, no photo was possible. 

Thankfully, some birds were VERY photographable. This Black-crested Titmouse sat still long enough for a photo. 

And Great Kiskadees were all over the place. This one perched near the Green Kingfisher for a few minutes.
Great Kiskadee
Here are a gang of them on another pond. I wonder what they are all looking at. 

Mary took us to a great little lunch spot and then we headed out to find some other target birds. Some target birds aren't really what most people would call sexy, but I want to see those too. Blackbirds might fall into that category for some people. Mary took us out to a grain silo where we found flocks of blackbirds along the road. They go to the grain silos for an easy meal. And we go for easy birding. Here they are swirling around the warehouse. 

Bronzed Cowbird was on my target list. I saw them in Honduras, but not up close and personal like this. Here is a male all puffed up ready for his bath. Look at those devil eyes! You can see the bronze shimmer of his chest which gives him his name. 

Bronzed Cowbird
We also saw Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the flock. Here is a female getting a bath.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Mary wasn't done with us yet. Off we went to the town of McAllen where she knew we could find parrots and parakeets. We lucked into a flock of Red-crowned Parrots which flew across the highway. We exited and drove up a busy street and found Green Parakeets on the wire. Here are 2 snuggling. 

Green Parakeets
A stellar day despite the unrelenting wind and cold conditions. Thanks Mary! 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Boys Weekend in Texas

Calling this weekend "Boys Weekend" was not my idea. Lori came up with that term because 3 of us decided to go power birding in Rio Grande Valley which meant that the other 3 of us stayed home. Which 3 are in Texas? Me, Lori and Barbara. We wanted to go on a trip to find birds and not worry about eating or sleeping or any other comforts. The goal is to see birds!

So far, success. One day around Brownsville and Barbara has 5 life birds, Lori has 4, and I have 3. I also picked up a bunch of ABA birds too. We started the day at Sabal Palm Sanctuary which is right on the Mexican border.  The property was once a large plantation and now is a wildlife refuge.

Rabb Plantation House - Sabal Palm Sanctuary
Driving in south Texas is like being in a third world country sometimes. Little dirt roads, horses tied up in front yards, goats roaming around. We drove down the road to the park and found a Harris' Hawk sitting on a telephone pole.

Harris' Hawk
Of course, we pulled off the dirt road to take this photo. A few minutes later, a Texas State Trooper pulled up along side of our rental Jeep. "Um, are you ladies bird watching?" asked the 12 year old Trooper (OK, he wasn't really 12 years old but he was really young). We told him that we were looking at a hawk and making our way to the park to which he replied "If you see anyone running, call us" while making the phone call motion with his hands. This is border country for sure.

Don's Fence
Donald Trump sure works fast :-) Kidding. This is the border fence that already exists in this area. The guy at the park office told us that the fence runs along the Rio Grande river levee. The park actually sits between the fence and the Rio Grande river. Here I am pointing to Mexico.

Rio Grande River - Mexico
We saw some great birds at this park including Green Jays. There were many of them but only photographable at the bird feeder.

Green Jay
Here is a close up.

Green Jay
We also saw Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. This is the only one that sat long enough for a photo.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird
We also saw butterflies and a rare snake - the Speckled Racer. Barbara saw a little one slither under some palm fronds and then Lori found a 3 foot one slinking through the butterfly garden. We spent almost 4 hours at this park and then headed north to Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge. Everyone warned us about the pothole riddled road and the hunters but we went anyway. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant for lunch. YUM.

This is where it all went downhill. The lady at the Laguna Atascosa visitor center was really nice but most of the refuge was off limits due to hunting season and road repairs. We wandered around the trails near the main office when all of a sudden, the skies opened up and it poured rain for 45 minutes trapping us under a pavilion.

We drove out of the rain and headed to Port Isabel Road to find very rare Aplomado Falcons. These falcons were virtually extinct from the US until recent efforts by the US wildlife department re-introduced the birds to south Texas. They are slowly making a come back. The nice lady at the Visitor Center showed us where to look for them. We struck out at first, but finally found one bird sitting on the cell phone tower at about 4:15 PM - just as a rainbow appeared. Coincidence? I don't think so . . .

Rainbow Falcon
The falcon is the little dot on the left side of the tower next to the rainbow. Here is a zoomed in shot. Keep in mind that the tower was pretty far away and pretty tall.

Aplomado Falcon
Great way to end Day 1 of Boys Weekend. #boysweekend

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Birding Local

The local dog walking area has been slow but steady so far this fall. There haven't been a ton of birds but a few good sparrows have shown up. I spied a Lincoln's Sparrow a few weeks ago and then another one this week that I posed for me in a little tree. Cute little bird with thin streaks on a buffy chest.

Lincoln's Sparrow
Today, Marty and I headed out along the Delaware River to see what we could see. The weather was spectacular with bright blue sky and crisp light northwest winds. Perfect for raptor migration. Marty was hoping for Golden Eagle since he's never seen one in Philadelphia before. I wasn't hoping for anything in particular. We started the day with a great encounter with a Red-tailed Hawk at Glen Feord Mansion. This big bird flew in and perched right in front of us.

Red-tailed Hawk
Here she is spreading out.

Red-tailed Hawk
She was really focused on something in another tree. Maybe a squirrel.

Red-tailed Hawk
She finally took off for another tree. It is great when you can see the red tail that gives this bird it's name. Zoom in and look at those deadly talons. Wow.

Red-tailed Hawk
We headed over to "POD" - Pennypack on the Delaware to search for sparrows and other ground birds. I couldn't resist photographing the skyline with Tacony Bridge in the foreground.

But the raptors won the day there too. As if by design, Marty looked up and viola - Golden Eagle soaring just above our heads. You can tell it is a Golden Eagle by the big white patches on the wings and the white band on the tail. When the bird turned, we could even see the golden nape that gives this bird it's name. Unfortunately, I didn't get that shot.

Golden Eagle
I left Marty basking in the memory of the eagle and headed to Nifty Fifty's for a burger and fries. Yum.