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.

Well, Maybe One More Rarity Chase Won’t Hurt

Despite my recent post about eliminating long-distance chasing of rarities due to the high cost per species of such chasing, I just had to go see the first-ever-in-the-ABA-area Striped Sparrow nearby in Texas.

Actually, I had planned on chasing this bird before I posted to the blog about my disappointment in rarity chasing. I was delayed, however, by bad weather that turned my driveway into a mud puddle and led to me getting my camper van stuck. (Getting stuck was the straw that broke this camel’s back and made chasing the bird decidedly less fun than I had hoped it would be.) After three days of trying to dig out, the weather finally turned better and our landlord was able to get his tractor out of a nearby field and pull my van out. My spirits perked up markedly.

Texas is a big place. That’s more than a cliche, folks. A trip from one end of Texas to the other on Interstate 10 is equivalent to driving from Washington, DC all the way to Orlando, Florida. So, when I say that the sparrow was “nearby inTexas” that’s a relative term. Still, at about 385 miles away, it was within an easy day’s drive and within a reasonable budget (especially with fuel prices falling as they have). I’m not planning to do this kind of chasing very much anymore, but this sort of mega-rarity was an exception to my new “rule.”

The chase itself was a piece of cake. I was the only birder there when I arrived at the stake-out site at first light (about a half-hour before dawn) and the bird was already feeding in the road with a flock of sparrows and cardinals. It was too dark to get a picture and I stuck around for better light. For the next two hours the bird made half a dozen visits, spending about 10 minutes sitting and preening in a tree and shorter times feeding along the roadside. By the time I left at about 9 AM, at least 30 other birders had seen the bird, too.

Even with all these chances, however, my pictures are not good. A small bird at a fairly long distance is hard to shoot well. These are the best documentary shots I have.

As for the budget, this chase only set me back about $150. That’s a cost per bird that I can certainly live with.

Some Thoughts About Budget Birding in Florida

Florida can be an expensive place for birding, especially during peak season and at any time in the Miami area and the Keys.

The best way to deal with the expense is to make a few, very efficient, visits to the area rather than many, less focused, ones. We have a very good situation since Renee’s mother lives in Florida and we can count on reduced lodging costs when we visit her. Even so, we only visited Florida three times during our Big Year and tried to see as many of the specialties as we could each trip (with mixed results). We still have some glaring holes in our Florida specialties list, but we think the following advice is good, in general.

First, late winter and spring (March and April) are the best times to visit Florida in terms of the highest species richness. Many of the most sought-after rarities winter farther south and start to return by then and most of the winter specialties are still hanging on. So, you get the best of both seasons. You also miss most of the crowds of winter tourists and have better and sometimes cheaper lodging options (although the lodging costs can still be quite high in the south, especially the Keys). Late fall and early winter are also quite nice, though some of the more tropical birds are already gone by then. Summer can be good for breeding birds but the heat, humidity, and insects make camping more difficult and tend to increase lodging costs when you are “forced” to stay in motels. The peak season (right after Christmas and through February) tends to be crowded and more expensive for just about everything.

Second,Floridahas a very good system of county and state parks and federal camping options in National Parks and National Forests. You really should do at least some camping to save money and to get closer to the best birding areas. For example, camping in the Everglades National Park at the Flamingo campsite is very reasonable and it is much better than having to drive all the way from the nearest motels in, say, Homestead. Be warned, however, that even the camping in the Keys can set you back $40 or $50 just for a tent site; but that’s still better than $100 to $200 for a motel room. If you are flying in, it makes sense to rent a reasonably sized RV and tour the state. That way, you get your car rental and lodging all in one package. The saving could be substantial.

Third, plan to spend 10 days or more if you want to see the most species with the least cost. Florida is at the far southeast edge of the country and getting there is quite expensive for many folks. Doing a shorter trip and having to come back again when you miss something is always more expensive than a single, longer trip. (You’ll still miss some things, but longer trips are usually better in the long run.) Even when you are coming to Florida to chase a specific rarity it is always a good idea to see if there are other birds to seek nearby that can be reached at a modest added cost in time and money.

So, where do you go for your 10 days or more of birding in Florida? Here are our favorite spots:

1. The Florida Keys- especially make an effort to visit Key West and the Dry Tortugas during the spring. If you can do it during “fallout weather” you could be treated to one of the birding highlights of your lifetime. Camping at Fort Jefferson is a special treat. The conditions are somewhat primitive but it is worth it. Make sure to get reservations as far in advance as you can. Space is limited. Also, there are special rules set by both the National Park Service and the Yankee ferry company, so do your research. Keep an eye on eBird for rarities. There are a dozen or more special birds that are possible in the Keys.

2. Everglades National Park and surrounding areas – water birds are the highlight here, but it is also a great place to see Shiny Cowbird, Short-tailed Hawk, and (if you are lucky) anis.

3. The greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale area – especially good for the many exotic species that are possible in the urban and suburban environment. Traffic and development take their toll on both the birds and the birders, but if you can stand the conditions you will find some good birds. It is imperative that you do lots of research on eBird for the hard-to-find species. We don’t hire guides for most birding but this is one place where you might consider it for birds like White-winged Parakeet, Spot-breasted Oriole, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani, etc. (Larry Manfredi is the go-to guy for this area.)

4.Sanibel Island and Ding Darling NWR – water birds and Mangrove Cuckoo are the biggest draw here. It can be very expensive staying near here, so plan things carefully.

5. The southern end of Lake Okeechobee- the Stormwater Treatment Areas and other marshes are the big draw in this area. The best spot for Snail Kite.

6. If you are driving in from the west, make a stop at Appalachicola National Forest and look for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and others. These species are found in other areas, too. Do some eBird research to see where they are likely to be along your route.

7. OscarSchererState Parkand the Venice area for Florida Scrub-Jay. Again, there are other likely spots, so do your eBird research if you won’t be near this area during your stay in Florida.

8. Anywhere that a rarity is being reported – keep in touch with eBird, NARBA, Tropical Audubon Society, and other rare bird alerts throughout your stay.

Even if you follow all that advice, you aren’t guaranteed to clean up on all of the 30 or so Florida specialties (We still have about 10 left for our list!) but you should have made a good dent in those numbers.

This is the end … my friends.

I have decided not to continue the Eight Years to 800!? project. (I’m still heading for a big list, but at a more leisurely pace and no “pressure” to hit a specific goal.)

It’s not because I think that the 800 goal is unattainable. It’s because I don’t think it is attainable on the budget I am prepared to spend. This blog is about Birding on a Budget, after all. After careful consideration of my recent successes and failures (mostly) when chasing rarities and trying to mop up on the more common birds we missed during our Big Year, I don’t like the trend that the “dollars per species” is taking.

It is abundantly clear that the only way to reach 800 species in the ABA area is to see many of the Code 4 and 5 birds that show up sporadically and unpredictably each year. These species can be anywhere and require spur-of-the-moment travel to see many of them before they disappear again. Plus, many of the birds show up in hard-to-get-to (read expensive) places like Alaska, maritime Canada, at sea, etc. During our budget Big Year, we avoided travel to these rarity hotspots because of that expense, but I can’t avoid them anymore if I expect to get a big ABA list. So, the budget part of Birding on a Budget is winning out and I am suspending the rarity chasing.

Another reason is that the project has not been very much fun lately. As a retired person, I realize more than some, perhaps, that there is no reason to do anything if it is not fun. Birding, especially, should be fun!

We still intend to keep birding and blogging (perhaps a bit less frequently) and we will continue with our plans to visit Alaska in the summer, despite the price tag. Alaska has been on our travel radar for as long as we can remember and we have to visit it at least once!

I’ll write some more about my thoughts on budget birding and building a list soon.

The First New Bird of the New Year

We spent a month attending our son’s college graduation, visiting family, and doing a little birding and managed to add just one new species to the life list.

Needless to say, I’m a little disappointed by that result. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. There were several reasons for the poor results. First, there were no birds I needed for my list during the entire first two weeks of our trip, while we were in the Northeast U.S. (That’s not exactly true, but the Eurasian Kestrel in Nova Scotia was far too far away for me to chase.) Second, we were so busy with other stuff that we only were able to spend about six days birding during the whole month. Finally, I had some bad luck, and simply missed three of the four birds I was chasing in South Florida. The worst miss was the Key West Quail-Dove near Miami. I was in a group heading to see it. It was being watched by advance scouts at a stake-out location. But, by the time the group reached the location, the bird had flown away and it was not relocated that day. Three days later it was re-found, but I was long gone by then.

Enough of the bad news. The good news was that I finally found some Purple Swamphens. It took three attempts, but the “third time was the charm.”

That’s all for now. I’ll try to write more frequently in the future!

Looking Forward to a Year-ending Trip to the Eastern US

The RGV has quieted down after the excitement of the Thanksgiving holiday and we have been under the weather with “chest colds” so there is nothing new to report. But, we hope that we’ll have a chance to see some eastern specialties over the Christmas holiday.

Our son, Allan, graduates from Cornell University in December and we’ll be there to see his big day. Following that, what better way to celebrate than a visit to the famed Sapsucker Woods for some winter birding? (Well, for us anyway.) Then, it’s off for holiday visits to family in New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida – a regular smorgasbord of East Coast birding opportunities (with free lodgings to boot!) Let’s just hope that a rarity or two turns up during our whirlwind tour.

This final birding opportunity of 2014 will easily push my Year List over 500 species, but I’ll have to be extremely lucky to hit my Life List goal of 700 species by the end of the year. Still, in the first year of my Eight Years to 800!? project, I’ve done fairly well. I have added 32 species to my list during 2014, bringing my total to 693, just 7 less than my round-number goal.

Unfortunately, I have not done too well on the Code 3+ rarities. For the most part, I did not chase many rarities unless they were very close to me; and when I did chase later in the year I had a success rate of only about 35%. Let’s just say it has been a learning experience. I hope I’ll do better from here on out. I’ll need to to get anywhere close to 800 in just 5.5 more years!

On the budget front, I did fairly well. I expect my birding-related expenditures will be about $6000 for the year. That’s about what we normally spend for travel in a given year. Future expenses will need to be much higher, especially since we will be making some trips to Alaska in the coming years.

We have planned a two-month visit to AK for 2015 and our costs estimate is about $12000. Not all of that will be for birding, but considering that we did an entire Big Year for about $10000, Alaska is a budget buster!

The RGV Comes Through …

… with not one, but two rarities during our first month back!

The Thanksgiving holiday was a pretty spectacular one for birds in the Rio Grande Valley. First, at about noon on turkey day, a MEGA rarity was reported at Estero Llano Grande State Park. About a half-hour later the Red-legged Honeycreeper was reported on NARBA. This is a potential Code 5 rarity that has appeared in the ABA area before (in FL) but which has, so far, not been accepted by the state bird record committee and, therefore, is not yet on the ABA list. It is possible, even likely, that the Estero bird will also be rejected as an escaped cage bird, but it’s presence sparked a birding frenzy during a busy birding holiday!

I was home nursing a chest cold, not wanting to infect the whole holiday gang, while Renee was at Thanksgiving dinner with friends. I wasn’t feeling too well and birding was the farthest thing from my mind, but when Renee called to tell me that she had just received a phone call from our friends Larry and Judy Geiger (as relayed by Ben from the Parks and Wildlife Department) that a honeycreeper was at Estero Llano Grande, I recovered remarkably fast and was out the door in 10 minutes!

The bird had been seen two or three times by the time I arrived at the park but it was far from regular and the views had been fairly brief. A small group of birders were staked out at the original site and we settled in to wait. Throughout the afternoon the birder numbers grew, but the honeycreeper did not reappear on Thursday.To add the the excitement, during the stakeout a report came in that a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was at Laguna Atascosa NWR, about 50 miles away.

On Friday, Renee and I went to Laguna first. We arrived at about 7:45 and drove along the entrance road where the bird had been reported. On our first pass we spotted one Scissor-tailed Flycatcher but not the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. We turned around at the end of the entrance road and headed back for a second pass. This time, we spotted a small group of cars ahead of us and hurried up to see what had attracted them. Sure enough, it was the Fork-tail!

As you can see from the photo, this was a beautiful adult bird with a splendid forked tail to live up to its name.

Since we had seen the Laguna bird at 8:20 am, we still had plenty of time to head over for another attempt at the honeycreeper. We arrived at Estero about 10:00 and I joined the stakeout again. This time, after about two-and-a-half hours, the bird made another of its brief visits to its original “favorite tree.” The view was brief, but definitive, but there was definitely not enough time for a photo. Throughout the rest of the day, and even on Saturday, I spent more time trying to get a photo, without success. The bird was seen during that time but it never became a regular visitor to any location.

As I write this, I have not seen a positive report on the honeycreeper for two days and the flycatcher also appears to be gone. I was certainly fortunate to see both of these rarities in one day on Friday.

It almost makes up for the horrid luck I had earlier this fall.

Back in the Lower RGV

And, of course, a rarity showed up as soon as we left the West!

Sigh!

It is uncanny how poor my luck has been with chasing rarities lately. We left New Mexico after spending two months and making one rarity chase. Almost immediately after we arrived back in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a Common Crane was found at Muleshoe NWR in the Texas panhandle. Muleshoe is not “on the way” but it is only a few hundred miles out of the way for our usual return route from NM to South TX. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear of the bird until we were outside my chase radius. With the miserable results of my West Coast chase so fresh in my mind, I am not about to make another exception to my distance “rules.”

After missing all but one of my chase targets on that trip, I was very close to giving up on the whole idea of chasing rarities and drastically altering my Eight Years to 800!? project. After taking a few days to cool down, I have decided to continue, but I am setting new chase parameters (again).

The only way to get a large list, approaching 800 species, is to see a fair number of Code 4 and Code 5 birds. By their very nature, these birds are highly unpredictable and chasing them is a crap shoot. To try to keep my chasing within a reasonable budget, I have reestablished my original 500 mile (more or less) chase radius for most rarities (Code 3 or 4). Going farther than that, especially with the low odds of success on most chases, does not fit my Birding on a Budget philosophy. I will chase Code 5 mega-rarities that show up at longer distances if I think my chance of success is better than 50-50.

Thus, the Code 4 Common Crane is out of range for me.

But, at least we are settled in to the familiar surroundings of the RGV and ready to chase whatever happens our way this winter. How about a Blue Bunting or a Roadside Hawk? Aren’t we due for them pretty soon? Hope springs eternal.

An Epic Chase (4000 miles; 5 target birds) and an Epically Frustrating Result (1 new species)

Be warned. This is a long post.

As I’m sure is true for most of you, Renee grew tired of listening to me moan about the lack of chase-able rarities. “I guess that Eight Years to 800!? won’t work; at least not on a budget.” I said. “It certainly won’t work if you don’t try.” she replied. Thus, the spark was struck that lit the fire for an epic chase; one that was far beyond my original, self-imposed distance limit of 500 or 600 miles (a one-day trip).

I decided to up my limit to about 1000 miles since I had gone five months of the year without having anything within my earlier range. Near that limit, there was a newly-reported Falcated Duck at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, CA, 1096 miles away according to Google Maps. There was also a mega-rarity Eurasian Hobby way up in Washington and a new report of a Brambling near the hobby. These two birds were an additional 800 miles away, but if one rarity was worth driving 1000 miles, then three would certainly be worth driving 1900!

The decision to try this chase was made about 2 pm on Friday and by 6 pm I was on my way in the Sprinter van. My plan was to drive through the night, stopping in roadside rest areas whenever I started to feel drowsy to catch a couple of hours of sleep before pushing on. I knew that time is often of the essence. You never know when a rare bird will stop being seen. By 7 the next morning I as 650 miles away and approaching the outskirts of Los Angeles. I had not done very much sleeping, obviously, and it was clear that I was not going to be able to drive straight through to Colusa NWR (about 10 hours farther on, including stops for food, fuel, and rest) before dark.

So I did what any die-hard birder would do. I went on a search for Spotted Doves at Salt Lake Park in Huntington Beach. The last time that I knew that a Falcated Duck had been at Colusa was during the winter of 2011 – 2012. It had stayed for a couple of months before leaving right before Renee and I headed west in February of our Big Year. Based on this history I took the gamble that it would stick around for another day while I chased after Spotted Doves. It was that, or try to get all the way up to Colusa before dark after having just four hours of rest the previous night. I picked the safer dove option.

It turns out it was the wrong choice. Despite having received some “actionable intelligence” (a tip from another birder) that Salt Lake Park was one of the best places to find Spotted Doves, I whiffed on the bird. My hasty research on the Salt Lake neighborhood turned up trip reports listing up to eight birds as recently as 2010, but I saw only one “likely candidate” and could not confirm the ID.

I am not the only one to miss Spotted Doves recently. The decline of this introduced exotic species has been dramatic. I’m not sure that anyone knows why, and many birders are not going to miss it, having disparaged it as yet another invasive species competing with our native fauna, but I was still disappointed. Unfortunately, that was just the first of my disappointments during this chase.

After driving through the day to get close to my next destination, getting some much-needed sleep, and heading out very early on Sunday morning to continue my drive, I pulled up to the observation deck at Colusa NWR at 7:20 am. I was the only birder there and I was greeted by thousands of ducks and geese milling about or resting in the pond. I diligently began scanning the throng. Over the course of the next five hours I was joined by about 20 other birders, off and on, who also diligently scanned the throng. I spoke with a refuge volunteer who showed us photographs of the bird sitting on a log about 30 yards in front of the observation deck. “It sat there for about four hours yesterday.” she said. I drove the refuge auto tour loop and scanned many other throngs of ducks. It was worse than the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. It was like trying to find one particular needle in a needle-stack!

The Falcated Duck could be in this picture. Go ahead and pick it out!

So, I left Colusa NWR without the Falcated Duck on my list and headed north. But that was not the end of the day’s disappointments. Renee, who had been monitoring NARBA for me, sent me a text saying that a cold front had moved into Washington and several days of rain were in the forecast. Now, rain in Washington is no big news, but in this case it came with the news that the hobby had not been seen since the rains began. I soldiered on, despite the bad news, confident that at least I still had the Brambling to fall back on. Besides, one morning of negative reports didn’t mean the bird was truly gone, right?

It turns out it did. After another drive through the night with little sleep, this time in the rain, I arrived at Neah Bay, WA about 10 am on Monday. I did a little scouting around for the Brambling first and saw a Tropical Kingbird, of all things, in a bush by the bay shore. I met some other birders, who were really excited by the kingbird news, and who reported that they had just come from the hobby spot with no success. With little hope for the hobby, I redoubled my efforts for the Brambling. That sounds like I had to do something strenuous, but all it really entailed was patiently waiting by the tiny patch of beach where the bird had been seen feeding on beach grasses. After a couple of hours, the bird arrived and posed for some nice photos. What a relief! I wasn’t going to get skunked after all! At least not by the Brambling.

 

The rest of the day was spent in the rain hoping for a glimpse of the hobby. Several locals, who were very amused by the fuss that “their bird” was causing, stopped to tell me that “The hobby was seen by a bunch of people Saturday on the powerline, right there.” or something similar. I’m sure they meant to be helpful, but it was not helping my spirits at all to miss another bird by just a day or two after driving so far.

The forecast was for clearing the next day, and I and several other birders decided to stay one more day and hope that better weather would bring better results. Maybe the hobby was just hunkered down somewhere, his belly full of dragonflies, waiting for better hunting conditions. Maybe he was just hunting passerines on the forest edges, now that the dragonflies had been beaten down by the cold rains, and someone would find his new haunts. Maybe this or maybe that. It was worth a shot after driving 1972 miles. Alas, it was not to be. I spent a very pleasant morning the next day with several new birding acquaintances, but none of us could find the hobby.

While all of this was going on, a report had shown up on NARBA of an Olive-backed Pipit in Anaheim, CA. In fact, the bird was seen while I was leaving LA and heading up to Colusa, but I did not get the report until I was already on the road for a few hours. Rather than turn back and search for the pipit, I decided to wait and see if it was still there on my return trip from Washington. That was another error.

The pipit was fairly regular for a couple of days while I was traveling north. It was not seen one day (while I was searching for the hobby). Then it was re-found during the time I was driving back south. The day before I got back to the LA area it was seen “as early as 8 am and continuing throughout the afternoon” to quote the NARBA report. Do you see where this is heading? That’s right. I arrived at Yorba Regional Park at 8 am on Thursday (after braving two hours of rush-hour traffic that started at 6 am!). I stayed until 3 pm. During that time, none of the dozens of birders who were present saw the bird. Another “You should have been here yesterday.” story; the third in five days. As far as I know, it hasn’t been seen since. But I stopped looking at NARBA. I don’t even want to know!

So, what is the bottom line of all this? Basically, I am seriously reconsidering the viability of the whole Eight Years to 800!? concept. This website is called Birding On A Budget, but it cost me over $800 in travel money to get one new species for my list. That is certainly NOT budget birding. I don’t want to be one of “those” birders! (You know, the kind who throw money at their list.) If I had seen three or more of the five species I targeted, I would have considered that a reasonable expenditure, especially since I had not spent any money chasing rarities for five months, off and on, during the year. But $800 for one bird is obscene! Besides that, it wasn’t even fun, most of the time.

I may just change the name of this project to “However many years it takes to whatever number I end up with.” I’ll have to think about it and let you know.

October Wrap-up

October is drawing to a close and it has been another month of far-away rarities.

We have been patiently waiting for some rare birds to show up within chasing distance (recently upped to 1000 miles) but there have been none so far. We have enjoyed watching the end of the NTMB migration and the trickling in of the wintering nearctic birds, but the rarities scene has been deadly dull. That’s not the case in some parts of the country.Alaska has continued to have a banner year for Eurasian vagrants and the northeast US and Florida have had their share of recent finds. None of these are close enough for me to chase however. Chasing rarities on a budget is a frustrating hobby!

Our local birds (and birders) have provided plenty of pleasant diversions from the waiting-for-a-rarity-in-the-southwest-US grind. It has been nice to get to know the birds on our property more and to meet more of the highly knowledgeable group of people in the Rodeo and Portal areas. But October has still been a birding bust as far as the Eight Years to 800!? project is concerned.

I am sitting at 690 on the new life list. My goal for the year was to reach 700 (after starting at 661, an addition of 39 species for the year). There are many reasons why I have fallen short so far. The most important one is that I have not chased any of the code 4 and 5 rarities that have graced our shores since the spring season. They have not been near enough or reliable enough to fit into the budget birding concept. (I haven’t set a strict budget limit such as the one we used for our Big Year, but I am still very stingy with the birding bucks when it comes to chasing.) Another reason was my zero-for-everything performance when we made a brief trip to Florida over the summer. (I couldn’t even find a Purple Samphen!)

The prospects for reaching 700 in 2014 are not all that great, but it is still possible with our expected future travel. Soon, we will be heading back to Texas to spend the rest of the fall and part of the winter. It is likely that something or other will turn up there (perhaps a Blue Bunting or a Roadside Hawk). Then, in December, we will be heading up to New York for our son’s graduation from Cornell. There are always a few rarities in the northeast US over the winter and we might be able to chase them between our other obligations. Finally, we are looking into the possibility of taking a pelagic trip to see Great Skua with Brian Patteson in Hatteras, NC. (We might even make it down to Florida again, but that will likely be in early January if it happens.)

It is not likely that those travels will turn up 10 more birds, but anything is possible!