Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January West Texas, Days 1 and 2- Great Birds and Snow!

I ended up with a few days off in January. I love starting the year off with some great birds, so it was obvious what I wanted to do. The question was where. West Texas has great appeal to me, but we had a great trip to the panhandle in December, so that was tempting, too. Martin and I discussed it and finally decided on hitting the Guadalupe Mountains. Our good friend Willie Sekula asked if he could join us.

We left on January 9 early in the morning in the rain. Our first stop was Red Bluff Reservoir, a under birded lake just south of the New Mexico border. I was trying to be Pollyanna Positive, watching the weather on my phone and saying it looked like the lake was not going to have rain. It is a long drive out and the weather didn't improve in the slightest. We arrived and the rain was steady and very cold, almost sleet. The wind was nasty and we were less than enthused. We scanned the lake from the west shore, but between the rain, the wind and the cold, we gave up pretty quickly. There were some gulls and ducks on the lake, but we figured it would be more productive to head to Frijole Ranch at Guadalupe Mountain National Park.

Martin's main target species was Juniper Titmouse. The Guads are the almost only place in Texas to get this species. He had tried numerous times without success. Frijole Ranch and the headquarters building are considered good places to see it. Unfortunately, the weather was just as nasty. We walked around the headquarters and saw a few Phainopeplas, some Western Scrub Jays and a few other expected passerines. A group of jays were mobbing a hawk that Martin flushed, but couldn't get a solid ID on. Frijole Ranch was just as cold and just as titmouse-less.  We drove up to Carlsbad to spend the next two nights.

The best place in the park for Juniper Titmouse is Dog Canyon. This is a tough area to reach. You have to drive almost 60 miles from Carlsbad, through New Mexico, to reach this area. The state line is the entrance to the park. This is where I got my Texas Juniper Titmouse a couple of years ago. The drive in was complicated by several inches of snow on the road in the higher areas. It was a bit nerve wracking, but we finally arrived. There was a couple inches of snow on the ground in the park. We got out and started working the area past the headquarters. Martin and I walked down hill, listening for his titmouse. Willie stayed up near the parking lot. I was really enjoying the snow!

We walked back up and found Willie, looking up at the top of a tree. Perched up high was a female Evening Grosbeak. This bird was recently put on the Texas review list, as they had become extremely difficult to find. It was a new state bird for me, so I was ecstatic! Unfortunately, the rest of the flock consisted of only Dark-eyed Juncos of various types and Chipping Sparrows. Martin had seen Evening Grosbeak in Texas, so while very happy to see this one, he still was most interested in finding a titmouse.

We decided to hike the trail up the canyon. We were rewarded with a good number of birds. Probably our favorites were a group of Stellar's Jays, a tough bird to see in Texas. We had a single Mountain Chickadee and tons more juncos. We also heard what we thought were a couple more Evening Grosbeaks. We probably hiked about three quarters of a mile when things got very quiet. We continued a bit further, but things were still very slow. We turned back and ran into some of the same birds going down hill.

When we neared the corral area, which is at the end of the trail, I was lagging behind a bit. I could hear Willie saying something to Martin, but couldn't make it out.  Then I heard a low slow tooting. I called out "Isn't that a pygmy-owl?" Willie had just said the same thing to Martin. The call sounded like it was about 100 yards from me. The sound was coming from some pine trees in an area that was rather difficult to get to. The calling continued for a couple of minutes, and then stopped. Martin and Willie worked their way downhill and I walked around the top of the ridge, searching the pines. Despite searching very diligently we couldn't find the owl. We had seen a bird fly from the pines, but only got a very brief, occluded view. It was more than frustrating. Northern Pygmy-Owl is a review species. We went back to the car and made lunch. We listened to a tape of the owl's call and agreed that it was what we heard. We returned again to the area, but never saw an owl.

We worked the area around the headquarters some more and still came up titmouse-less. Poor Martin wasn't very happy. Finally we decided to head back. Along the way we had huge flocks of Pine Siskins, Western Bluebirds, and more juncos. Luckily, the snow was almost gone on the road. We checked a lake in Carlsbad, but it was less than productive, with only coots and a few dabbling ducks.

I do need to add that Cameron Carver went back and heard the same call that we had. He recorded it on his phone. It turns out it might have been a Gray-footed Chipmunk. Several people are working on the tape and because of the questions, I am not counting the owl, yet. Gray-footed Chipmunks hibernate, so it seems doubtful to me, but I would rather err on the side of caution.

1 comment:

Sam Taylor said...

Nice blog, Sheridan, and what a great trip! I started a blog last year and it's a blast. Evening Grosbeak and Northern Shrike really inspire me to get out there this winter.

Brad Wier and I have taken several trips to the Guads, including Dog Canyon. We've never gotten the titmouse either. It's always annoying seeing reports of them a few days after we were in the same location. Brad's missed it everytime he's gone. It's become quite the nemesis. Hope you enjoy blogging this year. I look forward to running into you and Martin out in the field again.