Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Great Texas Birding Classic: Day 5, the end

Our final day of birding dawned with us heading to San Leon, a small fishing village to look for Monk Parakeets. Two large nests had been built under some lights near a fishing pier and restaurant. We thought maybe the birds would get up early, since there was so much light. We were wrong. Who knew parakeets liked lazing in bed on a Saturday morning? We had to get to the Texas City Prairie Chicken preserve by 730AM. so we were feeling impatient. To top things off, it was really foggy. Finally, just as it started lightening up a bit, I spotted a parakeet on a phone wire across the road. We wasted no time in heading to the Prairie Chicken refuge.

We pulled up to the gate and were actually early. Another single birder was there to do volunteer work. We waited a few minutes and a staff member came and let us in. We drove up to the headquarters and piled into a pick up truck and took off for the lek. It was getting late in the season for leking (breeding displays) but our guide told us she had seen them the day before when she took one of the other teams in. (grrrr) We pulled up at a safe distance from the lek and pulled out our scope. Tony got up on the bed of the truck and scanned. My knees were aching, so I stayed on the ground. Finally a couple of birds stirred. David heard one call. I didn't see or hear them, but it was ok, as the others did, so we could count it. We felt a real sense of urgency, so we took off.

Tony had access to an industrial site where his wife works that has some fantastic wet lands. We registered and went in and very quickly scored Eared Grebes. There were some good ducks, but nothing new. I was scanning through the fog and caught sight of a swimming bird with a longish pointed tail. I called out "Pintail!" and then quickly realized that it was a Laughing Gull. Needless to say I was more than a little embarrassed. So much for my credibility! We were happy with the grebes, so we took off for Galveston.

Offatts Bayou is an excellent place for loons of all kinds. We got out the scopes and started scanning. Common Loons were very easy to find, fairly nearby. Our target was one of the Pacific Loons that had been seen in the last couple of weeks. It was still fairly foggy, so the distant birds were difficult at best. David mentioned a bird across the bayou looked a bit different and looked to have a chin strap. I got it in my scope and concurred. We watched it a bit longer and could see it was smaller than a nearby Common and had a smaller bill. That was enough to seal the ID, so we jumped back in the car.

Galveston is on an island accessible by causeways or ferry. We needed to get back to Boliver Peninsula, so we had to take the ferry. We stopped at East Beach, an excellent place for gulls and found a Bonapartes, a gull we didn't think we would get. The line to the ferry was a bit daunting, but we had all seen worse. We patiently waited and finally got on board. We jumped out of the car and scanned for mergansers, with no luck. Our trip back across was a bit slower than the night before. We did see a few dolphins, which didn't count for the Classic, but were still fun.

We returned to Bolivar Flats, hoping for Red Knots, but it was not to be. We walked a way down the beach and ran into a friend of mine, Curt Harweth, who was doing the one day Upper Coast portion of the Classic with some friends of his. He told us they had just seen some Bobolinks in front of the Boliver Lighthouse. Bobolinks are a hard species to find in Texas. In fact, I have only seen them once. We hurried back to the car and headed back towards the lighthouse. We jumped out and there was a big flock of Bobolinks jumping in and out of the reeds! It was probably my favorite moment in the entire 5 days. Unfortunately we couldn't savor the moment, as time was rapidly ticking away.

We worked our way down the peninsula, birding side roads. We picked up a few birds, including a much wanted Long-billed Curlew. We stopped briefly at High Island to see what was around. It was a bit slow, so we pushed on to Anuhauc NWR to try for the Barn Owl again and to drag the prairie for rails. This consists of dragging a rope with milk jugs full of rocks through the spartina, hoping that rails will jump up in front of us. I have very mixed feelings about doing this, as I fear it disturbs nesting birds, but I went along with it, as everyone else wanted to do it. I needn't have worried. We didn't see a single bird. We did hear a Black Rail call, though, which was enough to count. We had no better luck with the Barn Owl again.

We decided to head back to Beaumont for the Fish Crows and then finish at Sabine Woods. We planned on "trolling" for the crows with french fries, something Bob Berhstock had recommended when we ran into him earlier in the day. Fortunately we didn't have to waste any of our fries. We turned to go back to Tyrell Park, when we spotted a crow in the parking lot of the hotel on the corner. We pulled in, determined that it was a Fish Crow and very happily started for Sabine Woods.

Sabine was a bit quieter, but we worked it hard. There were not many birders around. We decided to go to the Willows at Sea Rim State Park, just down the road for Sabine. We noticed several cars parked on the side of the road. We worked the trees and found a few warblers. Then we heard their had been an Olive-sided Flycatcher seen earlier. We searched up and down the board walk and finally found our quarry perched, as Olive-sideds always seem to be, in the top of a dead tree. The afternoon was turning into evening, so we decided to give Sabine Woods one more shot.

We got there only to hear that a Mourning Warbler had been seen just before we got there. We looked long and hard, but had no luck. We did see another Olive-sided. We worked several groves of trees hard for the Barn Owl, but they didn't produce. We decided to head out and check a location at McFaddin NWR, which is nearby. We found a shed that was recommended, but only found pellets. We stayed until dark scanning the fields, still no Barn Owl. Reluctantly we headed back to Beaumont to turn in our list. I wish I could say we found our owl on the way, but it was not to be. We did our paperwork at an I-HOP, eating the first sit down meal in a week. We got to the Courtyard Hotel, the headquarters for the Classic, turned in our paperwork and had a much appreciated beer at the bar next door.

The next day we went to the celebratory brunch, wondering how we did. We sat through lunch and all of the other awards. We found that the group of college students we had helped in Jasper came in first in the one day Upper Coast division, which pleased us. It seemed to take forever to get through all the awards and door prizes. Finally it was time for the week long awards. We ended up in second place with 306 species. The Reliant Energy Team won, AGAIN, with 316 species. (They always seem to win!) The Butcher Birds were a distant third with 286. Our prize was a $10,000 conservation grant to award to the project of our choice from the requests submitted. We are still working on which proposal to accept.

I had planned on flying back to San Antonio, but there was a little glitch in that plan. It seems one of the teams that did the Central Coast one day event found a bird that stirred a lot of interest, a Piratic Flycatcher! This is an extremely rare bird any where in the United States. I found out Martin, my spouse, was there looking at it. I was aching to see it, as was Lynn, who is doing an ABA big year. She suggested I cancel my flight and drive down to Corpus with her, meet Martin and get the bird. I called Martin, who had the same idea, so that's what we did! It was a three hour drive, so we hustled out of Houston. We had gone about 20 miles when we got a call from Tony, who was also on his way down, with his wife! We got there at the same time, ran up to Martin's scope. Saw the bird and heaved a huge sigh of relief. We all thanked Martin for waiting for us. It was a great ending to a grueling week.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Great Texas Birding Classic: Day 4

I would say we got up on day 4 bright and early, but a better description would just be early. I was still feeling the tiredness from the day before, but headed out the door before dawn to get to Boykin Springs National Forest before our target birds were up and at 'em. Boykin Springs is the home of an endangered woodpecker, the Red-cockaded. This is a bird that has an extremely limited range, depending on mature pine trees with decayed heart wood. It is found only in a few south-eastern states. They are difficult to find during the day, as they range throughout the forest feeding, never staying in one spot for long. The best way to see them is to watch a nest tree at dawn, when they leave for the day.

We got to the spot in the dark and noticed a minivan parked up the road. We suspected it was our nemesis team. We hurried up the path through the woods to the grove that Tony had scouted the week before. Bachman Sparrows were just starting to tune up, so we scored another of our target species. I even found one perched up on a snag, barely visible in the pre-dawn dimness. Just as it started to get light another birder, a young guy from Colorado, came up the path. We discovered it was his minivan that we had seen, not the dreaded Butcher Birds. Just as he arrived we heard a Red-cockade call. We searched the nest holes and saw a bird emerge. Soon he was joined by several others.

We heard another group of birders approaching. Luckily it was not the BBs, but a team from Texas A&M, who were scouting for the next day's one day event. We pointed out the Red-cockaded and shared sites for other birds. It was great to see college students with so much enthusiasm for birds. A Brown-headed Nuthatch called, completing the trifecta of expected species, so we left to cruise for other birds.

We drove through the National Forest listening for other eastern Texas specialties. We heard a Yellow-throated Warbler, then a Yellow-throated Vireo. Swainson's Warblers were singing in many locations. We had found a Louisiana Waterthrush in Corpus, so we didn't have to worry about that one. Tony had a spot for Prairie Warbler scouted out, so we headed there. A light rain was falling and the birds were really still. We got out of the car to walk a bit and I spotted one perched on top of a small scrubby pine. Then Lynn found a bird we didn't expect to get, an Eastern Towhee. Things were going better than well!

Martin Dies State Park was our next stop, where we were looking for one of my favorite birds, Swallow-tailed Kite. We walked out on a boardwalk overlooking the lake. A Wood Duck flew past, giving us a bird that is usually difficult to find in the Classic area. Then Lynn spotted a Kite coming up out of the trees across the lake. We were ahead of schedule and feeling pretty good. Its amazing how the adrenalin can make you forget just how tired you are!

It was time to head south to pick up migrants and shorebirds that we still needed. We made a quick stop in Beaumont's Tyrell Park for Fish Crow, with no luck. This was rather a shock, as they are "always there". With visions of our experience with the Brewer's Blackbird in our heads, we were a little nervous. I had a back up spot in Humble, just east of Houston for the crows, but we didn't have time to go for them. We decided we could alter the route on day 5 to include that spot, if necessary.

Sabine Woods, a Texas Ornithogical Society refuge, was our next destination. This 30 acre wood is near the border of Louisiana, across a field of cat-tails from the Gulf of Mexico. Its probably the best migrant trap on the upper Texas coast, even out shining High Island. We moved quickly through, picking up warblers and other migrants. Tony found a Brown Thrasher, which was a bird we were worried about getting.

We then shot down to Anuahac NWR refuge, David's stomping ground. David is deeply involved in their volunteer program and knows the refuge like the back of his hand. We were hoping for Swamp Sparrow and he swore he knew where a Barn Owl was. Unfortunately the sparrow he had staked out the Saturday before seemed to have flown the coop. We went into a good area of woods where there is always a Barn Owl. Sure enough, there was, but only David saw it as it flushed. We came out of the woods and looked and looked, but we had no luck. To be counted the bird has to be seen by at least 2 people, so it was useless for the competition. One of the refuge workers gave us a tip about a nesting Barn Owl in a barn (imagine that!) on the refuge, so we headed over there. There was no sign of it when we went into the barn. I had seen a Barn Owl in the Smith Oaks pump house at High Island the week before, so I wasn't worried.

We proceeded to High Island to check the boards for birds seen that day. It seemed a bit slow and it was starting to get late, so we headed down Boliver Peninsula for shorebirds at Boliver Flats Refuge, run by Houston Audubon Society. By the time we got there dusk was settling fast. We raced down the beach, hoping for Wilson's Plover, one of the few shorebirds we hadn't seen. David spotted one running on the beach, so we went back to the car, to take the ferry across to Galveston. The trip was swift and birdless. We drove through Galveston, crossed the causeway and ended our day at the hotel in Texas City. We felt really satisfied with what we had gotten.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Great Texas Birding Classic: Day 3

We reached the half way point back of the Classic at the Bass Inn, near Choke Canyon State Park. We drove in the dark to Simmons City Road and took a gravel road up a hill to listen for night jars. Our old fiends, oh, I mean friends, the Butcher Birds were parked on the road about 100 yards down hill from where we wanted to be. We passed them making friendly hand gestures. The wind was howling again, so hearing night jars was going to be tough. We got out and started straining our ears. Soon we heard a Paraque, then a Chuck-wills-widow. Finally we got the bird we came for, Whip-poor-will! We hoped that the BBs were too far down hill to have heard it.

We took off for Choke Canyon, hoping to find the Bell's Vireo we had missed on our scouting day and to re-find the Yellow-headed Blackbird we had seen. We walked a narrow corridor of mesquite near one of the boat ramps. Success! The Bell's Vireo came through. We then started driving the road where the blackbird had been. We found several flocks of mixed black birds, but no Yellow-headed. Our time ran out and we left the park.

Beeville was our next stop, where we hoped to find American Robin. The golf course there usually has them strolling around, but not today. We decided to try the nearby neighborhood. Tony say 33rd Street is usually good for them, so he headed that way, turning on 34th instead. This was a lucky mistake, as I spotted a Robin seconds after we turned. We decided to give Field Sparrow one last try. We got to the spot, opened the doors of the van, and didn't even have to get out! They were belting it out full blast. Off to Corpus Christi!

First stop was Rose Hill Cemetery. We picked up a few warblers and other migrants. Then we drove a few blocks to Blucher Park, one of my favorite migrant traps. This park is great for ground warblers, like Hooded and Ovenbird. We scored on both, with an extra Clay-colored Robin thrown in for good measure. We crossed the causeway to Padre Island, hoping for more migrants at Packery Channel. Unfortunately, the wind was still high, and we were less than successful. We ran up Mustang Island to Port Aransas, looking for Red Knot and a Merlin. We didn't find either one. Paradise Pond lived up to its name with some great close up looks at warblers. We dipped on Cinnamon Teal at the Port A. Birding Center, unfortunately, but the rest of the team picked up Solitary Sandpiper.

We had a long drive ahead to Jasper, north east of Houston, so we couldn't linger. We had another place to try for Brewer's Blackbird near Tivoli. We had the same bad luck there as we had at the other places we had tried. Fortunately, we were able to pick up a Great Scaup north of Rockport, when a very cooperative hen flapped her wings, showing the white extending all the way down the wing. We then had an extremely successful stop just south of Baytown. A fish hatchery along the road had been a good spot for Bald Eagle in the past. We stopped to scan and noticed a sod farm behind the ponds. We found a side road leading to the farms, drove down and pulled out the scopes. We found a large flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers! While we were scanning for other shorebirds a flock of about 150 Hudsonian Godwits flew over. Then Tony spotted our target, the Bald Eagle. Yes! It more than made up for not getting the Blackbird.

We had a long twisting ride to Jasper, arriving at near midnight. It had been our longest day. We were feeling pretty successful with the Robin, Field Sparrow and the great shorebirds. The Ramada Inn looked pretty darn good!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Great Texas Birding Classic: Day 2

We were lazy on our second day, sleeping in until 530AM! We regrouped after a breakfast of something in a box and took off for Bentsen State Park. David Dauphin told us that we could find Barn Owls and Great Horned Owls on the levy between Bentsen and the NABA Butterfly park. We scored on the Great Horned, but dipped on the Barn Owl. No worries, Barn Owl should be no problem. Right?

We headed over to Bentsen and walked in. We were searching for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, with no luck. There were plenty of the "regulars", Green Jays, Brown-crested Flycatchers, Long-billed Thrashers. along with a few warblers. The alarm on David's phone went off, letting us know it was time to head out. On the way out of the park we finally heard the tyrannulet.

Our next stop was Anzaldulas County Park. Here we got fabulous looks at a Gray Hawk sitting on a nest. A few migrants were around. This park usually produces good warblers. We drove up to the area overlooking the spillway to the dam, trying to find ducks. We did pick up a couple, though pickings were pretty slim. We had a discussion about how after the border wall goes in, this park will be no more. The tragedy of this boondoggle project hit us all over the valley. We are going to lose so many of our great birding spots.

Then we went on to Santa Ana NWR. Santa Ana has produced some amazing rarities in the past, including Crane Hawk and Roadside Hawk. Unfortunately the widespread drought the state has been experiencing has really hurt the refuge. We still managed to pick up some new birds. Shorebird were in good numbers at the Pintail complex. A Solitary Sandpiper flew out, giving only brief looks. There were Stilt Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, a number of peeps and a few other birds. Groove-billed Anis were being their normal goofy selves in the willows around the ponds.

David's alarm went off again, so we took off for our next stop, South Padre Island. one of the best migrant traps in the state. There are wood lots maintained in town by the Valley Land Fund, where tired migrants stop to drink, eat and just rest. We did see a few birds in the Sheepheads lot, but it was fairly quiet, so we drove to the convention center, where small motts of trees and shrubs are maintained for the birds. This was a very successful stop, with our best bird being a stunning male Cape May Warbler, one of my favorites and not easy to get in Texas. We got in the car to leave the island when we got a call from Scarlet Colley, a resident birder on South Padre. She gave us the location of a male Surf Scoter, just off the main drag in Port Isabel, across the causeway, where we were heading. What a beauty!

It was time to head north, back towards the lovely Bass Inn where we had started. We worked our way up to Corpus Christi, watching for Brewer's Blackbirds along the way. I kept saying that they would be no problem. They are ALWAYS at the Sarita Rest Stop. Guess what? No blackbirds. I assured Tony that I knew another spot where we could find them the next day. We then went to a small lake near Riveria, where we found a large number of shorebirds and a few ducks. We had an appointment at 530PM at the King Ranch, so we couldn't stay long.

We met Tom from the King Ranch at the headquarters building. He had us pile into a van and we headed off for a small pond, which held a real prize, a Masked Duck. We jumped out, scoped the duck and jumped back in and took off. We had no time to fool around. Tom gave us some information on a couple of geese that were hanging out at Lake Alice, between Kingsville and the Bass Inn, so we quickly headed there, hoping to make it before dark. Luckily we did and found a distant Snow Goose and a Greater White-fronted Goose across the lake. It was a great finish to a very full day!

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Great Texas BIrding Classic: Day 1

  • We got up at 430AM to begin the first day of the classic. I ate breakfast at the Denny's next to the hotel, (how the hell can they mess up oatmeal???) and came back to the hotel. David and Tony were outside loading the car. We heard a bird singing away, but it didn't register what it was. I was assuming it was a Mockingbird and didn't really pay attention. Suddenly David or Tony said "That's a Tropical Kingbird!". We could not count it unless all four of us were within voice distance, so I ran upstairs and opened the hotel room door. David called up to see if Lynn could hear us. She could and so we got the first official bird of the competition!

We jumped in the car and headed towards Salineno and the Rio Grande River. We stopped on the way on the road to Santa Margarita Ranch to listen for Poor Wills and other nightjars. To our chagrin we saw the car of one of our competitors, the Butcher Birds, from New Jersey. There is an air of friendly competition between the week long teams, though we do take it rather seriously. We heard our Poor Will and Common Paraques calling, so we took off for the river.

We got to Salineno right before dawn, which is the best time to pick up Muscovy Ducks. Unfortunately, they must have slept in. We did start ticking off some of the Rio Grande specialties like Greater Kiskadee, Green Jay and Green and Ringed Kingfisher. Shortly after we arrived our nemesis team, the Butcher Birds, showed up, too. Instead of calling out the birds, we started cluing in our team mates with winks and nudges. We noticed the BBs scoping the island in the center of the river, so we did the same, picking up Red-billed Pigeon. David's alarm went off, signalling it was time to move on to the next stop, so we left our friends on the bank with a few gentle barbs.

We proceeded to Falcon County Park, where we had heard the Pygmy Owl the day before. We quickly found a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, which had eluded us the day before. Then we discovered one of our best birds of the trip, a Brewer's Sparrow, feeding in the grass with some Clay-colored Sparrows. We headed to the area where the owl had been calling the night before, only to have deafening silence answering David's call. We knew we had a chance for this species at Bentsen State Park, but we were still a bit let down.

We birded Falcon Lake, which was not very productive, and then headed south down the river. We stopped and had lunch on the bluffs at Roma, where we found a Black Phoebe. Then we drove to Frontera Audubon in Weslaco, which was fairly productive with migrants and other birds, including a good look at a Clay-colored Robin. Groove-billed Anis were playing around in the mesquites off of the boardwalk.

It was getting to be late afternoon, so we drove like crazy to Sabal Palms, where we got Least Grebe, leaving just minutes before they close at 5PM. After that we went searching, successfully, for Botteri's Sparrow and Aplamado Falcon on Old Port Isabel Road. We cut back to Brownsville, where we found both Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots, nesting in the palms at Fort Brown. We did a little trolling for Tamaulipas Crows, with no success. They have been extremely sporadic this year, so that wasn't surprising.

It was getting close to sunset, so we scooted over to Bentsen State Park to look for owls and other night birds. We walked into the park and picked up Elf Owl rather quickly. We went further in, battling mosquitoes, were we were successful in hearing Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, to our great relief. Eastern Screech Owls were also calling, along with more Paraques. We headed to the Comfort Inn in Mission for a well deserved night's sleep.