Monday, April 13, 2009

Texas trip update

Currently enjoying a hotel room in San Antonio, TX before embarking on the grueling 8 hour drive out to Big Bend National Park tomorrow morning. Thus far the trip has been highly successful garnering each of us (Caleb Putnam, Tom Prestby, and Sam Galick) many lifers and ABA birds.
Below is Tom Prestby's account of our first eight days:

"I spent the last week birding in south Texas with Sean Fitzgerald, Caleb Putnam from Michigan, and Sam Galick from New Jersey. We saw 258 species of birds, by far my highest trip total ever. The following are the day by day highlights:

Sunday, April 5th

Sean and I arrived at the Houston airport a couple hours before Sam and Caleb so we found some green space outside and conducted a stationary count. The biggest surprise was flushing a roosting Chuck-wills-widow from a small hedge nearby, the bird then took shelter in the parking garage of the airport. Doesn’t seem ideal but at least it’s a dark place. A small hawk flight also occurred with numerous Broad-winged and Swainson's and much to my delight a dozen of my lifer Mississippi Kites. Once the group assembled we headed to Galveston and birded there the rest of the day. Here we saw very good numbers of shorebirds, herons, gulls, and terns just about everywhere we stopped.

Monday, April 6th

We started the day birding at Brazos Bend SP where we camped the night before. We woke up to the song of many southern passerines that would be with us for the rest of the trip and eastern hardwood species like Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpecker that we would not see the rest of the trip. In general, warblers were slow-- the highlight was a Prothonotary singing close to our campsite. From here we slowly birded our way down the coast to Aransas NWR. The main highlight along this drive was great views of several White-tailed Hawks. The highlight at Aransas was 2 lingering wintering Whooping Cranes seen from the observation tower- a life bird for all of us. Good numbers of shorebirds, gulls, terns, and ducks were seen from here as well. Scanning the ocean from here yielded us a couple unexpected species like Common Loon, Red-breasted Merganser, and Lesser Scaup. Next, we walked the Rail Trail where we saw our first (of many) Least Grebe of the trip and our only Purple Gallinule of the trip along with many other common marshbirds. We camped at Goose Island SP that night and were treated to a chorus of Paraque and Barred, Great-horned, and Barn Owl as we pitched our tents and went to sleep.

Tuesday, April 7th

We woke up early and started our birding at South Padre Island. We saw some new warblers and other passerines but not nearly as many as we were expecting. We only saw 10 species of warblers on the island. Next stop was Laguna Atascosa NWR. The main habitat here is very dense thicket which is very reminiscent of the tropics. Here we were immediately exposed to many of the south Texas specialties with great looks at species such as Green Jay (on the right), White-tipped Dove, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Plain Chachalacha. At Alligator Pond we had great looks at the Masked Duck that has been present for several weeks—another life bird for all of us (it's getting pretty tough for me to pick up new ducks in the ABA area... I think Spectacled Eider is the only other life duck that regularly occurs that I haven't seen). Next, we birded the long auto tour where we saw large numbers of shorebirds, herons, gulls and terns including over 100 Reddish Egrets and quite a few Gull-billed Terns. Technically our rarest bird was a male Greater Scaup that we photographed, this species is fairly rare down there this late in spring.

Wednesday, April 8th

We started the day on Port Isabel Road where we found one of the Aplomado Falcons on its nest, lots of singing Cassin’s Sparrows (left), a very obliging White-tailed Hawk, and good numbers of grasspipers, ducks, and herons. We were stunned to count 43 Least Grebes in just two ponds on this road. We whiffed on Botteri’s Sparrow. Then we went back to Laguna Atascosa NWR where we staked out the no-show pair of Blue Buntings. Next we checked South Padre Island again but the birding was even slower than the previous day. After looking for passerines we walked out on the jetty on the south end of the island and found the Purple Sandpiper (right) that has been lingering with Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings. We spent the night at Bentsen SP where we were greeted by Paraques, Lesser Nighthawks, and Eastern Screech-Owls.

Thursday, April 9th

We started at Bentsen where we were awakened by a dawn chorus which included Clay-colored Thrush and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (left) among many of the other valley specialties. The hawk tower had a pretty good hawk flight including good numbers of Broad-winged, Swainsons, and Mississippi Kites. A couple Groove-billed Anis hung out in the area below the tower. We spent the early afternoon birding Estero Llano Grande State Park. Even though it was hot and mid-afternoon we did very well finding our target birds- the young male Rose-throated Becard, the Black-throated Magpie Jay (of captive origin but still very cool to see), the nesting Red-crowned Parrots, and my lifer Green Kingfisher in a small creek. Other birds present were both species of Whistling Ducks, a pair of Cinnamon Teal, and several species of shorebirds. We finished the day at the Frontera Audubon Thicket. Good numbers of the Rio Grande specialties were present here but we couldn’t find the lingering Blue Bunting or Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

Friday, April 10th

Started the day back at the Frontera Audubon Thicket. After about a half hour of searching we found the female Blue Bunting in the orchard area. It gave brief but very good views as it fed in some of the grasses (allowing me to digi-bin 3 photos of it, only one of which was reasonably in focus - on the right). We tried for the Crimson-collared Grosbeak for another couple of hours but it never showed up. We moved on to Anzalduas County Park but unfortunately it was closed because of Good Friday. We decided to go to the restaurant/bar next door (Pepe’s on the River) so we could at least watch the river from there. Nothing much on the river but we witnessed a big raptor movement. We saw tons of Swainson’s Hawks (see left - at a straight kettle of SWHA) and very good numbers of Broad-wingeds, Mississippi Kites, Vultures, and a couple Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. However, the real surprise came when we were about to leave. As we were opening the car doors we noticed a medium-sized falcon flying at us that was light colored with dark axillaries. We realized this was not a pale large Merlin or small Peregrine but a Prairie Falcon! This was completely unexpected as Prairie Falcon is supposed to be out of the area by the end of March. After this excitement we headed back to bird at Bentsen for the rest of the day but the hot weather put a damper on bird activity. At dusk we heard a pair of Elf Owls but the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl never made a sound.

Saturday, April 11th

We started at dawn on the Rio Grande in Salineno. Much to our dismay, two other birders told us that a pair of Muscovy Ducks had flown by five minutes before our arrival, the worst words a birder could hear. It wasn’t long before multiple Green and Ringed Kingfishers gave close flybys. We also heard several Audubon’s Orioles in the trees near the boat landing and after some waiting a male finally gave us a nice look. Just when the birding seemed to be getting dull around 8:30am the group spotted a large black bird with white wing patches flying towards us from the Mexico side of the river- a female Muscovy Duck! She put on a show by circling over us and flying back to the Mexico side to land in a snag across the river. Only minutes later, a pair of Red-billed Pigeons, our other main target bird here, were spotted in the distance on a snag. At first they were very flighty and uncooperative but they eventually settled down on a snag and provided nice scope views. From here we birded the road that cuts north through desert habitat where we picked up Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow and Pyrrhuloxia among others. It was neat to see a Curve-billed Thrasher nest along the road as well (adult Curve-billed pictured on right). From here we worked our way north to Falcon County Park where we found a pair of Vermillion Flycatcher and Verdin and Falcon State Park where we saw more common desert-associated species including an entertaining Roadrunner. We couldn’t find seedeaters in Zapata or San Ygnacio but we picked up Black Phoebe for the trip. After leaving San Ygnacio at dusk we found a field full of Chihuahuan Ravens which were using the field as a roost site. We counted 963 ravens—a very neat spectacle to witness (Sam clicking below).

Sunday, April 12th

We started at the Zapata Pond but missed Seedeaters again but we did have a nice look at an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Afterwards we tried the Las Palmas trail along the Rio Grande in Laredo but we couldn’t find any Seedeaters here either. We did find my final trip bird though, a male Black-chinned Hummingbird.

I flew back from Laredo yesterday but Sean, Sam, and Caleb went on to the hill country just SW of San Antonio (success on both the warbler and vireo!) and Sean and Sam are continuing all the way to Big Bend NP. I’m sure Sean will post a report from the rest of the trip.

I ended the trip with 10 life birds and another 2 ABA lifers. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this report!

Tom Prestby"

The rest of the trip was a resounding success and Sam and I ended up the trip having seen 314 species in just two weeks moving across TX! The most unusual birds we saw were a high flying migrant Common Black Hawk high above the Chisos Mountains while searching for the elusive Colima Warbler. A very cooperative singing Painted Redstart also in that area. One of the most unusual birds were a pair of Carolina Wrens right along the Rio Grande in Cottonwood Campground. Sam and I didn't think much of it at the time, but it is well NW of where the normally occur in TX... The highlight birds for me personally were seeing Colima Warbler and Common Black-Hawks (pictured below) at close range out at Big Bend NP.