Our Time in the RGV is Running Out

There have been lots of great birds in the RGV this winter, and nearby as well, but we are running out of time to add any more lifers to our list.

Northern Jacana started our stay in south Texas this winter and we added Flame-colored Tanager as well. There were grosbeaks, buntings, warblers and more, but none of them were new to our list. Now, our time is running out. It is likely that we will be leaving Texas in just a couple of weeks. How about one more lifer?!

The weather started out a bit odd, with alternating days in the 90s and 40s and quite a bit of rain. Lately, though, it has been beautiful. The winds have been a bit high sometimes but the temperatures have been delightful. Almost every day we take a couple of hours to do some wildlife watching. The diversity of birds has been great: tropical specialties and northern visitors, desert friends and humid neighbors, common and rare; all have put in an appearance.

But we still are waiting for another code 4 or 5. Yep, we’re getting greedy in our old age!

Another Successful Chase … but

UPDATE: We went back to Refugio and got a much better look at the tanager!

Yesterday, I drove up to Refugio, Texas and got a glimpse of the Flame-colored Tanager there.

But it was just a glimpse; a diagnostic glimpse, but a glimpse nonetheless. Needless to say, there is no photo. That’s not much to show for a six hour round trip drive and six hours of stakeout birding. I can add the bird to my list but it was not very satisfying.

On a more positive note, Lions City Park was interesting, especially since it was the first time I have been there. This small bit of habitat has hosted two mega or near-mega rarities and some other unusual birds this winter. I did not see the Golden-crowned Warbler that has been resident for several weeks, but I did find the Greater Pewee and a completely unexpected Chukar. The last bird is almost certainly an escapee from a game ranch that releases them for shooting, but it was fun to see it anyway.

The list stands at 723. I’m still hoping for more from South Texas this winter. Someone conjure up a Roadside Hawk!

The Christmas Bird Count From Hell

Yesterday we participated in the CBC from hell. 12 hours of wind, rain, mud, more rain, getting the car stuck in more mud, and rain … again.

We had agreed to take over one of the count areas in the Harlingen CBC for friends who were out of town. In years past, they had almost always managed to find more birds than anyone else, so the pressure was on for us to continue the tradition “come hell or high water.” With the nasty weather and all the flooded roads and fields, we got both.

We started the day by owling around Vieh’s B&B, where we are staying for the winter season, at 5 AM. By 5:05 we had flushed a Barn Owl from a palm tree and we thought we were on the way to a good day, despite the wind and rain. We added a pauraque about 20 minutes later from its usual roosting area in a palm nursery on the property … and then things started to slide downhill.

Almost literally. We headed to our next planned owling stop and as soon as we turned off onto the dirt road to the area it was obvious that there had been more rain than we had thought. The road was slippery. I tried to keep up my momentum and get to a drier part of the road to turn around but I misjudged just how sticky the situation was. After just a couple of hundred yards we were stuck. The clay soil was so sticky that it had built up on the tires so thick that the mud was almost completely filling the wheel wells. The car had no traction at all. We rocked and pushed the car onto the side of road to get out of the way and it slid down slightly into the roadside edge, hopelessly stuck, but at least out of the way of any other crazy people who might be out at 6 in the morning.

After a short walk back to the paved road, we managed to flag down a passing truck and I got a ride back to the B&B to pick up the van and get everyone back to the house to start over, this time in a four-wheel-drive truck. But the delay caused by getting stuck had pretty much ruined any further chances we had for owls in the early morning light. We did not see or hear any other night birds.

The early optimism of the 5 AM start quickly gave way to a sluggish plod through the gray and dreary morning rain and wind. Very few birds were evident in forested or brushy habitats and the large concentrations of water birds we had seen at the ponds and resacas during our scouting were, for the most part, dispersed elsewhere. We managed to find many of the species we expected, but their numbers were way below what we had seen earlier in the week.

The biggest impediment to finding birds was the constant rain. At times it was only a drizzle but at other times it was a driving rain that soaked through any protective gear you might have on. The rain and muddy roads made it impossible to visit many areas of our count area that had less than paved access. The rain kept our binoculars and scopes in a near constant state of foggy and wet blurriness. The rain and mud made it difficult to hike on the trails we had planned to take, and most of all, the rain seemed to suppress the activity of many species of birds. For example, we did manage to find a couple of foraging flocks of passerines in the woody areas of our count area but far fewer than we had expected and many of the birds in those flocks were wet and bedraggled.

The main consequence of all this was a crew of not-very-happy campers who were relegated to doing most of their birding from the confines of a truck on roads that were less than ideal for reaching the best birding habitat. On several occasions I went off on my own to see what I could see and left the rest back in the warm and dry truck, not the best way to ensure that we saw all that we could see.

Still, and this is a testament to how great birding in the RGV is, we managed to find 97 species of birds in our count area. Sure, this is about a dozen fewer than in some previous years, and many of the species were represented by only one or a very few individuals, but we did manage to have the highest species count in the Harlingen count circle and continue the tradition of “our area.”

So, I guess all the wet clothes, cold hands, soggy socks, I-hope-I-don’t-catch-a-cold-from-this sniffles, and the muddy, tired people were worth it … barely.

RGV in Winter – Final Tally

Despite less than ideal birding for the last few days of our Valley hotspots tour we ended our list with 188 species. That’s about 45 more than we saw in Florida.

That result is not all that surprising given the greater variety of habitats in southern Texas but the magnitude of the difference in species was more than we expected. Winter birding in southern Texas is definitely a better bang for your buck compared to Florida, especially if you are a newcomer to the area and want to add lots of birds to your life list.

Since our last post, we visited Falcon Lake and its neighboring hotspots, Bentsen-RGV State Park, South Padre Island, and Oliviera Park in Brownsville. (We did not visit Zapata as we had planned and thus missed any chance for seedeaters.) We were mostly successful at finding the target birds for each of the hotspots but there were, as always, some birds that we missed. It is certainly possible to see over 200 species in a relatively short visit to the RGV in winter!

Our best birding (as defined by the total numbers of birds and the number of species) was at these five sites:

  1. Estero Llano Grande State Park
  2. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
  3. South Padre Island
  4. Hotspots in and near Brownsville
  5. The Salt Lakes (including Delta Lake)

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park was also good in terms of species number but it was not as birdy, overall, as the top five.

Florida has its specialties and winter birding there is quite good, but our money is on the RGV as the better place for winter birding.

The Rio Grande Valley in Winter

When we summed up our early winter visit to Florida we mentioned that we did not see as many species as we had expected to see in the 10 days we had spent birding in the Sunshine State.

That led us to ask the question: How do the Rio Grande Valley and nearby areas of Texas compare at this time of year? To find out we decided to conduct a test by visiting a similar range of latitudes over a similar number of days and compare the species lists and the success at finding local specialties and rarities.

In Florida we had traveled from the wetlands of the Everglades to the pine forests of Apalachicola National Forest. An equivalent latitudinal variation in Texas would take us from about Houston to the RGV. Thus, we began our list for this comparison at Brazos Bend State Park, just south of Houston. In Florida, we had spent all or most of 10 days in the field, so we will spend the same amount of time in Texas before ending the comparison list.

Our brief stay at Brazos Bend did not turn up many species. (The more northerly parts of Florida were not that birdy either.) However, some of the species we saw at Brazos Bend are quite unlikely in the RGV, so it did illustrate the importance of covering a variety of regions and habitats to increase one’s list.

Given that we spent just one day at Brazos Bend and on the drive from there to our place in the Valley, we have nine more days to cover as much of the area as we can. What are the best places to visit during that time? Here is our list of the Top Ten Valley Hotspots. (They are listed in our estimation of the approximate order of likelihood to produce a big list at this time of year.)

1. Estero Llano Grande State Park, Weslaco. (Also visit these nearby areas during this trip if you have time: Frontera Audubon Thicket, Weslaco; the grain silos in Progreso; the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco.)

2. Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary AND The Dump, Brownsville. (The dump is on the way to the sanctuary if you take FM 511 so it makes sense to combine these two into one hotspot. Also, visit Boca Chica Road, east of Brownsville if you have time.

3. The Salt Lakes, Highway 186, west of Raymondville. (This area includes the village of Hargill, Delta Lake Park, Brushline Road, and Rio Beef Feedlot. In fact, driving just about any of the back roads through this area and visiting the small farm ponds and US Fish and Wildlife tracts will be productive.)

4. South Padre Island. (We usually go via Highway 100 and return via Highway 48. Stop along Highway 100 on your way to the island or at Old Port Isabel Road, just a short side trip from 48, on your way back to look for Aplomado Falcons, if you missed them on the Boca Chica Road.)

5. Falcon Reservoir area, Falcon Heights. (This trip includes Falcon Lake State Park, Salineno, Chapeno, and nearby areas. If you have time, visit Zapata or San Ignacio for the seedeaters.)

6. Bentsen State Park AND Anzalduas County Park, Mission. (These two areas, and the nearby NABA Butterfly Center make a nice day trip.)

7. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Alamo.

8. Laguna Atascosa NWR, Laguna Vista.

9. Resaca de la Palma State Park, Olmito. (This is a new-ish state park and may or may not be productive, depending on water levels. Check locally before visiting if time is tight.)

10. Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen AND Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Edinburg. (These two suburban parks are worth a visit if you have time. Also, check locally on the whereabouts of the Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots in the area.)

If you don’t have time to devote 10 days to Valley hotspots here are the Top Five/Must See areas we think you should go: Estero Llano; Brownsville; Falcon; South Padre; Bentsen.

We are in the midst of visiting the Valley hotspots now. So far, we have been to Santa Ana, Laguna, the Salt Lakes, Estero, and Brownsville. We have four more days left and we plan to visit Falcon, Zapata, Bentsen, and South Padre Island.

So far, our Valley list stands at 168 species. That’s more than for all 10 days in Florida.

 

 

First Day Back In The Rio Grande Valley – Northern Jacana!

One of the reasons we did not spend very much time birding on our way from Florida to Texas was that we wanted to get back to the RGV to look for a Northern Jacana.

This has been a special year for jacanas. Four have already been seen in the US since September. Two have been seen fairly regularly during that time and one was re-found, after an absence of two months, within 30 miles of our winter home.

Northern Jacana is one of the species that we have seen several times in the US and dozens of times in Mexico, but we had not seen it during our Big Year or since beginning the Eight Years to 800!? project. Thus, it is a new bird for our new list.

This individual is a first-year bird that is molting into its adult plumage. It was first found at Santa Ana NWR early in the fall and was re-found just a few days before we returned from Florida. We went looking for it during the passage of a cold front through the area and were worried that it might be hiding from the blustery weather. We needn’t have been concerned. We found it within five minutes of arriving at the stakeout location at an observation platform on Willow Lake.

What else do you think we might expect during our stay in the Valley? I’m hoping for at least one more new species to add to the list. How about a Tamaulipas Crow or a Roadside Hawk? Send us good vibes!

Florida Trip Is In The Can

That’s movie-speak for finished, in case you don’t know.

As promised last time, here are some photos of the Nanday Parakeets at Fort DeSoto Park:

I love those bright red leggings they wear! Also, how they hold food in their feet as they eat.

Now For The Trip Report

Overall, our trip produced about 140 species. That’s a little lower than I expected but still fairly respectable. One reason it is low was all the rain we had. It’s not that birds don’t go out in the rain; it’s that we decided not to. In fact, we skipped going down to the Keys entirely due to the rain. (That and the fact that there were no rarities being reported there.)

Our success with the Florida specialties was only so-so. By skipping the Keys, we did not even have a chance for about a third of all the species on the specialty list I posted before the trip. Also, many of those species were not present, as far as we could tell, due to the season. There were a few of the typical “breeding birds” still hanging around, such as a Gray Kingbird reported at Fort DeSoto, but most were gone to their winter haunts. Of the rest, we managed to see about 60% of what was there, including four lifers for the Eight to 800 list.

A summary of those follows here:

American Flamingo – coastal mudflats and freshwater marshes; south FL – Missed (M)

Bachman’s Sparrow – pine woods; north and central FL – (M)

Common Myna – parks and gardens; south FL – Tick

Egyptian Goose – city parks and freshwater wetlands; south FL – Tick

Smooth-billed Ani – (M) – but one showed up as soon as we got back to TX!

Florida Scrub-Jay – oak and shrub scrub; mostly central FL – (M)

Gray Kingbird – subtropical, coastal habitats; south and central FL – (M)

Limpkin – freshwater marshes; most of the state – Tick

Parrots and Parakeets – a variety of exotic species seem to prefer urban and suburban habitats throughout the central and southern parts of the state. Monk Parakeet, Budgerigar, White-winged Parakeet, Nanday Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot and Green Parakeet are listed on the ABA bird list. – Ticked 5 species

Purple Swamphen – freshwater marshes; central and south FL – Tick

Red-cockaded Woodpecker – mature pine forests; central and northern FL – (M)

Red-whiskered Bulbul – parks and gardens; south FL – (M)

Short-tailed Hawk – deciduous woodlands near water; southern FL – Tick

Snail Kite – prairie wetlands and marshes; central and south FL – Tick

Spot-breasted Oriole – parks and gardens; central and south FL – Tick

Western Spindalis – usually in urban and suburban parks along the coast; south FL – Tick

White-crowned Pigeon – coastal woodlands and hammocks; south FL – Tick

Our Favorite Spots

Our best birding luck was at these locations:

1. Markham Park in Broward County

2. Everglades National Park

3. Baptist Hospital in Kendall

4. Urban and Suburban areas of Miami and Homestead (for exotics)

5. the central “lakes district” from Okechobee to Kissimmee

6. Fort DeSoto Park

7. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge and Apalachicola National Forest

We usually also include Sanibel Island and Corkscrew Swamp on our itinerary but skipped them, along with the Keys, on this trip.

That about does it. We’ll be birding in the Rio Grande Valley for the next 10 weeks. We’ll let you know what’s up.

Birding Florida in Winter (or late fall)

Yesterday, we left Sarasota and headed up the coast on the first leg of our return trip to Texas.

Our first target bird was Nanday Parakeet. We hadn’t seen this species well since the Big Year and I wanted more photos. The trip up to Fort DeSoto Park took just a little over an hour and it took us about the same amount of time to find the birds (only after asking for info at the park hq) feeding in Australian pine trees in the campground. After about 10 minutes of photo time the flock took off without warning and was never seen again. Be sure to ask for the latest information when you get to the park. The birds are good at hiding!

(Normally, I’d put a photo here but I am not able to process the shots as we travel. I’lI try to post a pic or two when we are more settled.)

The next couple of hours was spent driving north along Highway 19 through the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. I do not recommend that! It was very slow going. The idea was to stop along that road at Chassahowitza or Withlacoochee and look for Bachman’s Sparrow but when we stopped at the first area we found it teeming with deer hunters and in the middle of a prescribed burn. We decided to skip the search for that Florida specialty.

A couple of hours farther on we stopped at Manatee Springs State Park. We added a few of the common eastern birds that do not go all the way to southern Florida, but the highlight here is manatees. (Imagine that!) As they do all along the coast, they come into the springs for the winter because the water temperature is warmer than the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, we birded St. Mark’s NWR and added about a dozen typical species but we dipped on the Florida specialty birds there. (Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, and Henslow’s Sparrow) Part of the reason for the miss was that we just did not have enough time to do a proper search. Another reason is that we decided to spend more time in general birding and less time “chasing” specials as we head west.

Our list for Florida in Winter stands at 139. We still have one more “travel birding” day in the panhandle to go. I’lI update on our success with finding special birds after that.

South Florida Wrap-up (no photos, just text)

We cut our southern Florida excursion short by a day or two and are back at Renee’s mom’s place preparing to head west to Texas for our usual winter season haunts.

Winter is usually the dry season in Florida but we had rain on five of the six days we were birding, including two days where we had nothing but rain and the roads and fields were flooding. This put a serious damper (pun intended) on our efforts. It’s just not fun to be wet all the time, to have wet binoculars and cameras, and to deal with the wet clothes and gear while camping in an 84 square foot van. (Thank goodness we weren’t in the tent!)

There was another reason for cutting the trip a little short. We had already seen four lifers (five for Renee) for the Eight to 800 list and there were no more reports of any other species that we needed to chase. So, it was more efficient to head back and wait for another time to try to get those other rarities we still need for Florida.

Finally, a big reason for the trip was to try to get better photos, and taking photos in the rain is usually a waste of time, at least for the kinds of photos I like to do. That made it three strikes and you’re out for us.

Overall, our success rate on the rarities and needed specialties was great, but the “normal” birding was not all that good. We tallied less than 120 species for the trip and missed many species that we felt we should have seen. That was the effect of all that rain.

There were probably other factors at work as well. For one thing, it is still very early in the season and there has not been much cold weather in the north to “push the winter birds down here.” This seemed to especially be the case with waterfowl. We did not see any wintering ducks until after the cool front that triggered most of the rain had passed through, and only then in the northern part of our trip range (near Sarasota). Wintering warblers, sparrows, and other passerines were also quite scarce but we don’t have any possible explanation for that.

Our general impression of the birding on this trip was shaded by our relatively low species total. It seems to us that the rampant development and human population pressure (Traffic and new construction were everywhere!) are having a negative impact on south Florida birding. I haven’t done the research to verify bird population changes, but it is certainly harder to find good birding spots now than it was when we first visited Florida in the 1970s!

Still, south Florida has a lot to offer and, at least when it is not too wet, winter is a pleasant time to visit. Keep tuned as we bird our way north and west and conclude our “winter” in Florida over the next several days.

The Hits Just Keep On Coming! But so does the rain.

After our great first day with two lifers for Michael and three for Renee, we decided to search for some of the exotic parakeets we still need for our list.

But first, we spent part of the morning taking photos and doing some general birding at Markham Park. The park is definitely going on our Florida hotspots list for future trips. Even without the spindalis, it is a great place for several specialty birds: Spot-breasted Oriole, Monk Parakeet, Purple Swamphen, and Snail Kite, to name a few we saw.

We left the park about 10 am and headed toward Miami in search of White-winged Parakeet. During our Big Year we had made only a cursory search for these birds. Back then, we had decided that we did not like doing urban birding in big cities and we skirted Miami as much as we could. Our fears and dislike of urban birding proved to be justified in the present case. Traffic was horrible and it took us over two hours to finally find the site we were looking for. We were following a lead on eBird that was listed as Ocean Bank, FL. We thought it was a suburb of Miami but we could not find Ocean Bank on any maps. We had a street intersection but we were not sure exactly where it was. We spent some time on the SE side of the city before we realized that the intersection was on the SW side. If you haven’t spent much time in Florida you won’t understand how confusing the street systems can be, but trust us, 42nd Street SE is very different from 42nd Street SW and make sure it is 42nd Street and not 42nd Avenue or 42nd Court , or Lane, or Circle! Finally, we looked up the GPS co-ordinates for the site and made our way to Ocean Bank, which turned out to be an actual bank building. I sure wish eBird would make their locations a little more clear.

Once at the bank we instantly heard the chatter of parakeets, even over the roar of traffic on 42nd Street. The noise was coming from a small courtyard between two towers of the building. Our first question was “This is a concrete and asphalt jungle. Why in the world are these birds here?” After finding a parking space and walking back to the bank, the answer was obvious. Inside the small courtyard were a handful of palm trees that were full of ripe fruits. The birds were eating these fruits. Or at least we assumed they were. At first we could only hear the birds. We couldn’t actually see what they were doing. After a few minutes of watching we did see a few of the birds fly between some of the trees. The white patches in their wings were unmistakable. Some more waiting and a couple of the birds moved into positions that allowed a few photos and the identification was confirmed. The key features of the gray lores and the white feathers in the wing could be easily seen. These separated these birds from their close relative, the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, which is also present in the Miami area but, for some reason, is not countable as an ABA bird.

After adding this lifer to the list we drove across more of the asphalt jungle to Baptist Hospital in nearby Kendall. The reason for this visit was to try to get some photos of Mitred Parakeets and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, two exotic birds we had seen at the hospital during the Big Year but that we had not been able to photograph well. The photo opportunities turned out no better this time and we didn’t even see any bulbuls, but the trip was not wasted. While we were searching the grounds we happened upon a small group of parakeets that turned out to be Yellow-chevroned, giving us a perfect comparison to the birds we had just seen at the bank. Note the green lores and the smaller patch of only yellow in the wing. Even though this is not an ABA bird yet, it goes on my Eight to 800 list as a possible “bird in the bank” for the future. Another day of two lifers. Amazing!

The rest of the afternoon was spent traveling down to Everglades National Park, and we spent the next day searching there for more Florida specialties. In particular, we were following an old-ish report on eBird of American Flamingo. The mosquitoes were atrocious but we did manage to spot some good birds. The best were probably the White-crowned Pigeons, but we ticked off quite a few of the expected species for the area, including a nice dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk and a white-morph Great Blue Heron.

The highlight of the day was a boat trip in search of the flamingos. Unfortunately, it was a highlight not because of the birds we saw but because of the rainstorm that caught us out on Florida Bay. There were lots of birds out there and we may even have had a chance for a flamingo, but the rain caught the boat captain a bit by surprise and we had to turn for home and make a run for cover. Alas, we lost the race against the wind and rain and we returned to the dock soaking wet on all our parts we couldn’t keep well-enough protected under the boat’s canopy. A consolation prize, of sorts, was that we had great views of crocodiles and manatees at the marina.

We have already added four species to the list on this trip and missed one more. But there are no more hot tips for new species on eBird or NARBA. I’m not sure what we’ll do next, but the bird list (at least the trip list) will keep on growing!