Renee and Michael’s Excellent Adventure!

We are off on our great spring and summer adventure to travel from Texas to Alaska and back to our place in North Carolina!

We left a little early because a Slate-throated Redstart made an appearance in Arizona. It was first reported by NARBA on Thursday. We spent the rest of that day and a couple of hours on Friday packing our van and getting ready to leave. By 10 am we were on the road. By 10 am Sunday we were pulling into the parking lot at Hirabayashi Recreation Area on Mount Lemmon, northeast of Tucson; a total of 1160 miles from our starting point in just 48 hours. Unfortunately, the bird was a two-day wonder and had not been seen since late on Friday. Our trip was in vain.

All was not lost, however, as we got a good start on our trip list traveling through three states and three time zones. Our goal is to try to get 500 species as we travel on our trip. (We didn’t start the list until we were already out of the RGV so as not to make it too easy.)

The trip will last about four months by the time we return to NC. Two of those months will be in Alaska, one will be spent traveling to Alaska, and the last one will be the return trip. On the way up we plan to follow the migration north along the west coast. On the way back we will come down through western Canada and the center of the USA. You can see from those plans that we will be traveling over 10,000 miles and visiting a large number of the major ecoregions of the continent, so getting to 500 is certainly possible if we spend enough time birding as we go and don’t get bogged down by the number of miles to drive. (We drove over 60,000 miles during our Big Year, so 10,000 should be a piece of cake!)

Right now we are spending about 10 days in NM and AZ while we wait for the migration to heat up. There have been some interesting birds, including a Black-throated Blue Warbler who is a little lost in Cave Creek Canyon near Portal, AZ. We have seen 120 species so far, a nice mix of wintering regulars, residents, and some early migrants. In a little while I’ll start a master trip list so you can follow along.

Stay tuned for more updates on our excellent adventure.

Some RGV Highlights of the Last Few Days

There have been no new rarities within my short, budget chasing range so we spent some time looking for local birds on the cusp of winter and spring.

Spring migration for shorebirds has started in earnest but passerine migrants are still fairly scarce. We spent several hours looking for warblers and vireos and such. There were some mixed species flocks but we but found nothing that could not be considered a winter visitor as well. A few Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are starting to be seen and there was a single Great Crested Flycatcher but not much else stands out with the flycatcher set.

Among water birds, a few Western Sandpipers are showing up and there has been a noticeable reduction in the numbers of some of our wintering birds (such as American Avocet and many ducks). The highlight for us has been large flocks of American Golden Plovers. All of these have been in basic plumage but they are still impressive birds. There has been so much rain that they are showing up wherever there might be a flooded field as well as at their usual haunts at the sod farms.

Peregrine Falcons are migrating through as well. We found this disheveled young bird along the entrance road at Laguna Atascosa NWR. Notice that it is banded. Also notice that it is starting to molt its back feathers as it heads north, probably for its first season as a potential breeding bird in the population.

Some highlights of local residents were a pair of Groove-billed Anis and a cooperative Chihuahuan Raven also along the Laguna entrance road. Anis have been around all winter in a few locations but these were the first we have seen in quite some time.

Chihuahuan Ravens have also been quite scarce of late. This bird was calling and displaying but we did not see any others around.

We’ll be doing some more checking for the start of our spring migration blitz in the next few days and we’ll let you know if anything big happens before we head west to our staging area for our Alaska trip.

Our Alaska Wish List

There are over 100 species of birds that can be considered Alaskan specialties, but over half of those are Code 4 or 5 rarities. The following list shows our target birds for the Alaska trip (excluding the Code 4 and 5 rarities). The number following the name is the ABA code.

  1. Taiga Bean-Goose 3
  2. Tundra Bean-Goose 3
  3. Whooper Swan 3
  4. Common Pochard 3
  5. Steller’s Eider 3
  6. Spectacled Eider 3
  7. Smew 3
  8. Willow Ptarmigan 1
  9. Rock Ptarmigan 1
  10. Arctic Loon 2
  11. Yellow-billed Loon 2
  12. Short-tailed Albatross 3
  13. Northern Fulmar 1
  14. Mottled Petrel 2
  15. Red-faced Cormorant 2
  16. Lesser Sand-Plover 3
  17. Terek Sandpiper 3
  18. Gray-tailed Tattler 3
  19. Common Greenshank 3
  20. Wood Sandpiper 2
  21. Bristle-thighed Curlew 2
  22. Bar-tailed Godwit 2
  23. Red-necked Stint 3
  24. Temminck’s Stint 3
  25. Long-toed Stint 3
  26. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 3
  27. Common Snipe 3
  28. Red-legged Kittiwake 2
  29. Ivory Gull 3
  30. Ross’s Gull 3
  31. Aleutian Tern 2
  32. Long-billed Murrelet 3
  33. Kittlitz’s Murrelet 2
  34. Parakeet Auklet 2
  35. Least Auklet 2
  36. Whiskered Auklet 2
  37. Crested Auklet 2
  38. Horned Puffin 1
  39. Common Cuckoo 3
  40. Boreal Owl 2
  41. Gray-headed Chickadee 3
  42. Arctic Warbler 2
  43. Siberian Rubythroat 3
  44. Bluethroat 2
  45. Northern Wheatear 2
  46. Eyebrowed Thrush 3
  47. Eastern Yellow Wagtail 2
  48. White Wagtail 3
  49. Olive-backed Pipit 3
  50. Bohemian Waxwing 2
  51. McKay’s Bunting 2
  52. Rustic Bunting 3
As you can see, about half of these species are Code 3 birds or fairly hard to get Code 2s. Our expectation is that we will see only about 20 of the birds on this list and perhaps a rarity or two.

Help us do better than that! Tell us where and when to see the birds on this list. Send an email to Michael (mdelesantro) at his Gmail address.

Alaska on a Budget … sort of

Things have quieted down considerably in South Texas so we’ve turned our attention to planning for our trip to Alaska this spring/summer.

Travel to and in Alaska is more expensive than we were used to during our Big Year but we have taken some steps to try to keep the costs down. We will be driving up in our camper van rather than flying and renting a vehicle there. We will camp on state and federal lands as much as possible, and we will limit our plane travel once in Alaska.

We had considered taking the ferry up so that we could avoid potential problems with snowy roads early in the season, but the cost was so high (about $3500, one way) that we scrapped that idea. We also thought about flying to Anchorage and renting an RV once there. This was an attractive option because the cost of RV rental, especially during the shoulder season when we are first planning to get to Alaska, is very reasonable. But since we are planning to spend a full two months in Alaska, it works out better if we use our own vehicle, even with the added cost of driving it up there.

Van camping is the obvious choice for several reasons. First, staying in the van is much cheaper than getting a motel every night. Second, camping at the actual birding sites is much better than having to find a motel close enough to where you want to be. Third, a van or RV is much more secure than a tent in bear country.

So, here is what we think we can do and the budget we think it will cost:

0. We will be traveling to visit friends in Washington during the spring migration. It’s not part of the Alaska trip but it is part of the budget to get to our departure point for Alaska. – $800 +/_

1. Driving the Cassiar Highway and other roads from Washington to Homer, AK (2500 miles over 10 or 12 days) – $1000 +/-

2. Participation in the Kachemak Bay Birding Festival in Homer (field trips and lodging) – $800 +/-

3. Exploring the Kenai Peninsula  for two weeks + (boat trips, lodging, entry fees, etc.) – $1800 +/-

4. An eight day trip to Nome at the peak of migration (airfare, lodging, car rental) – $2400 +/-

5. A week at Denali National Park and Denali State Park – $400 +/-

6. A week on the tundra near the Arctic Circle – $400 +/-

7. A week exploring the Gulf of Alaska by ferry (without the vehicle), a poor man’s pelagic trip – $800 +/-

8. The return trip to our place in North Carolina – $1600 +/-

Total estimated cost is $10,000.

That’s a sizable chunk of money (The three month trip will cost us as much as our entire Big Year.), but visiting Alaska is like visiting a foreign country. It is a long way!

In a few days, we’ll write about our expectations for the new birds we can see in Alaska.

We Saw 140 Species on Our Birdathon Day

“Winter” in the RGV is a very birdy time!

Temperatures in the low 80s. Huisache and Spanish Dagger in bloom. Birds singing and calling in spite of the wind. It actually felt like the start of spring.

We started the day at our B&B in Rangerville with a flyover by a Peregrine Falcon. We picked up a Yellow-headed Blackbird at the grain silos in Progreso, and spent the next several hours at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Estero was bit disappointing due to fairly high winds, so we drove north to the salt lakes area to look for arid country birds. We were successful and found Say’s Phoebe, Brewer’s Blackbird, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin, among others. Lunch was at Delta Lake Park and we added some unexpected species (Eastern Bluebird, for one) without even having to get up from the picnic table.

After lunch, we drove out to South Padre Island to tick off all the shorebirds, ducks, and waders expected there. We missed some fairly easy birds however. It always seems to work out that way; you miss easy ones and pick up unexpected ones. We ended the day at Oliviera Park in Brownsville with great looks at four different species of parrots.

Best of all, we exceeded our fundraising target in support of Frontera Audubon!

It’s Birdathon Fundraiser Time!

My former employer, Frontera Audubon Society, is having a Birdathon fundraiser in less than a week. Please donate!

Frontera Audubon owns and manages a 12 acre urban habitat in Weslaco, TX. If you have visited the Rio Grande Valley, you know it as The Thicket, where such rarities as Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Elegant Trogon, Golden-crowned Warbler, Roadside Hawk, and other rarities and near rarities have been found.

It takes serious cash to maintain a place like that! Each year, Frontera holds a Birdathon to help raise some of that cash. This year’s event is February 21st. Help support wildlife habitat by visiting www.fronteraaudubon.org to make a donation. There is an easy “donate” button on the home page.

Renee and I will be competing with Team Tyrannulet. We hope to see lots of birds and help raise lots of cash!

And the Birds Just Keep on Coming

We’re only five weeks into the new year and already I’ve seen four new Code 4 or 5 species.

This time, a White-throated Thrush appeared at Estero Llano Grande State Park. It was found by Todd McGrath, whom some of you may know as a pelagic bird trip leader in California (Santa Barbara and San Diego, mostly). He lives in Texas now and was visiting Estero Llano Grande to see the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. This is a great example of how one rare bird attracts a crowd of searchers who then turn up even more good stuff!

We got the alert from NARBA about three hours after the bird was first seen and rushed over as fast as we could. A fairly fluid group of about 15 or 20 birders were drifting in and out of the stakeout area at the end of the road to the “Tropical Zone” of the park. There is a fence there and the land on the other side, where the bird was seen, is private land, not open to the public. We all had to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses through the haze of the chain link fence of birds fllying about at a fair distance. Finally, after two hours of looking, several of us noticed a group of Clay-colored Thrushes, mockingbirds, and starlings feeding on the berries of an anacua tree about 35 yards beyond the fence. I moved to get a better view and almost immediately saw the White-throated Thrush eating berries in the tree. The lighting was not great, so my photos are a little blurry.

The bird proved very difficult to see for many of the birders in the group. There was a house and some storage sheds partially blocking the view. I was lucky because I am tall enough to look over the storage sheds and other obstructions but Renee never got a look at the bird. There was such a limited view of the fruiting tree that it felt like we were looking for the bird through a keyhole!

If you venture out for this bird make sure you check all of the fruiting trees in the area. Be patient and it may come to a tree that offers better views.

Another Code 4 From the RGV

Back in early January, while we were still in Florida, our friend, Dan Jones, found a female Blue Bunting at Santa Ana NWR, about a half-hour from where we are staying in South Texas.

Here is Dan’s picture:

 Dan Jones

I made a couple of attempts to see it once we got back but missed it both times. In fact, as far as anyone knows, the bird was not re-found … until today, that is. This morning, on my third attempt to find the bird, and a month after its original sighting, I was able to relocate it.

Even though this is a Code 4 bird, most of us who spend a lot of time in the RGV feel like the bird is present somewhere just about every year. The trick is to find them. They can be quite hard to spot, especially the females, that might be passed over as Indigo Buntings or even cowbirds. This is my first sighting since just before the start of our Big Year. In November of 2011 I managed to get some pictures of this stunning male at the Casa Santa Ana Bed and Breakfast, which is right next door to the refuge.

If you are coming to see the female bird, look for it between the big tower and the photo blind, along the B Trail, and near the photo blind itself.

The Chase List for Rarities in the ABA Area

Throughout our Big Year and at the start of the (now suspended, but not really abandoned) Eight Years to 800!? project, Chis Hitt was nice enough to offer some advice.

Chis is very good at keeping track of the numbers side of the bird-listing game and he pointed out that 800 in a short period of time was certainly possible IF you could see enough rarities (ABA Code 3, 4, and 5 birds) each year. In my case (starting at 659 at the end of the Big Year), I needed about 20 new species each of the next seven years to reach 800 in eight years. I still had a fair number of the easier Code 1 and Code 2 birds that I had not seen (especially in Alaska), so that the number of rarities I needed to see was about 10 – 12 per year. Thus, I made an initial plan to try to chase at least one rarity per month as long as it was within a reasonable distance and budget.

I did very well in 2014 as far as getting the 1s and 2s was concerned and I even met the rarity goal as well:

  • Sinaloa Wren (Code 5) –HuachucaCanyon,Fort Huachuca,AZ
  • Blue-footed Booby (4) –LakeHavasu, near Parker, AZ
  • Slaty-backed Gull (3) – Lake Casa Blanca Park,Laredo,TX
  • Streak-backed Oriole (4) –Rattlesnake Springs,NM
  • Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (3) – SanMiguelito Ranch,TX
  • White-cheeked Pintail (4) – Mad Island WMA,Collegeport,TX
  • Ruff (3) –AnahuacNWR,Anahuac,TX
  • Fea’s Petrel (3) - Gulf Streampelagic,Hatteras,NC
  • Herald (Trinidade) Petrel (3) - Gulf Streampelagic,Hatteras,NC
  • Red-throated Pipit (3) –Dairy Mart Roadsod farms,Imperial Beach,CA
  •  Brambling (3) –Neah Bay,WA
  • Fork-tailed Flycatcher (3) – Laguna Atascosa NWR, TX
  • Red-legged Honey-creeper (5) – Estero Llano Grande SP, TX

I also added some non-ABA birds (what I call Code 0) that I am considering as being “in the bank” for future listing. (Yes, I know about the argument about whether or not “banking” those is “within the rules.”)

But I could have done so much better! I missed a bunch of what I considered easy birds and I had a very poor success rate on rarities in the fall of 2014; so much so that I got frustrated with chasing rarities and drastically scaled back my planned efforts. The main reason was the cost. I want my efforts to be true to the Birding on a Budget concept as much as possible. It will get harder and more expensive as time goes on.

But, what could have been done if I had had a bigger budget and a better success rate (due to that budget)? In other words, what was (and is) out there that I chased and missed or didn’t chase? It turns out that there are and have been quite a few rarities around. Unfortunately, I did not keep a day by day list, but I am starting one now. The purpose of this list is to show what was reported on eBird and NARBA that might have been chased. The main reason for doing this is to see if getting “enough” rarities each year was indeed possible or likely. The list will be called “The Chase List” and will appear under the “Life List” page with all the other lists.

My rules for this list are simple. Each year I will show each new species as it appears on the rare bird reports ONLY if I still need it for MY list. I will show whether or not I actually chased it, and whether or not I saw it. If another individual of the same species shows up at a different time and place during the same calendar year, I will note that in the original species entry but not add a new entry. Thus, the list will show how many rarities actually were out there per year for the next six years or so (or as long as I stay interested in the whole game!). I will start with what I remember of earlier in 2015, even though a month has already passed this year. (Sorry if I leave something out.)

I hope this new list will prove interesting and helpful in some way.

South Texas Continues To Be Amazing!

The 2014-2015 winter season is shaping up to be a monster for rarities in South Texas.

After the relatively slow summer and fall seasons we experienced in North Carolina and New Mexico, respectively, we have had great luck in South Texas this winter. Since November, I have seen two first-for-the-state records (if accepted by the records committee) and two other “code birds” (birds with ABA rarity codes of 3 or higher). Amazing!

The latest is another gem from Estero Llano Grande State Park. The park itself and, more important, the great staff and volunteers there, make this park the very best in the Rio Grande Valley right now, IMHO. Thanks to Huck Hutchens for finding a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat!

My pictures aren’t great, but the bird sure is!

Interestingly, at the same time that I was looking at the yellowthroat, a male Blue Bunting was being reported at Laguna Atascosa. A similar situation occurred back in November when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen at Laguna while everyone was looking for the Red-legged Honeycreeper at Estero. Laguna Atascosa NWR is definitely my runner-up pick for Valley hotspots this season. (Unfortunately, I missed the Blue Bunting when I went to look the morning after seeing the yellowthroat.)

It seems that good birds come in bunches down here this year.