Getting Close to Moving Day!

I have been so busy preparing to put our Texas home on the market and move to our summer place in the Great Smoky Mountains that I have not been able to chase some fantastic rarities that have shown up.

Fortunately for my sanity, most of the rarities that I have missed have been one-day wonders and I can at least rationalize my inability to chase with the “It wouldn’t have been there anyway.” excuse. But the string of rare birds has been impressive, and impressively frustrating, nonetheless.

Since returning from my trip to North Carolina (and missing the Texas flamingo pair along the way) there have been the following rarities:

  1. Marsh Sandpiper in CA – too far to chase
  2. Common Crane in NE – too far to chase
  3. Slate-throated Redstart in AZ – not refound
  4. Northern Wheatear in NM – too far to chase
  5. Thick-billed Vireo in FL – not refound
  6. Flame-colored Tanager in AZ – too far to chase
  7. Black-vented Oriole in TX – not refound
  8. Slate-throated Redstart in TX – not refound
  9. Bahama Mockingbird in FL – too far to chase
  10. Fork-tailed Flycatcher in FL – too far to chase
  11. Tufted Flycatcher in TX – not refound
That’s an amazing list for such a short time (12 days)! But it is depressing to think that I was unable to get away because I had to paint or clean something to get ready for selling the house! The activity that kept me stuck in the RGV instead of chasing birds was just too mundane!
This experience illustrates an important point about my Eight Years to 800!? project. I need to be patient. I still have over six years to reach my goal and if 11 rarities can show up in just 12 days, then that gives me hope that I will have many more chances to chase birds once we have made our move and I have the freedom to drop whatever I’m doing and head out after a rarity.
You’ll also notice that I have labeled all of the birds as “too far to chase” or “not refound.” The definition of what is too far to chase will change once we have sold our home and we are traveling more. Then, we can travel farther in search of rarities if we were heading that way or can make an excuse to head that way. But, I’ll still wait until a rarity is confirmed and is found to be fairly reliable before chasing. My budget won’t allow chasing if the bird turns out to be just a one-day wonder. I’d be out of funds very quickly with nothing to show for it that way.

So, patience is the word of the day. Yesterday, we listed the home and our move is just 10 days away. I think I can wait that long to chase rarities … unless some of those TX birds are refound!

Update on the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

San Miguelito Ranch is OPEN and they have owls in the yard!

In my post about finding pygmy-owls I mentioned San Miguelito Ranch and indicated that the website was not working and the ranch was for sale. That is true. The owner, Letty, is no longer using the website (Look for the ranch at San Miguelito Ranch Birding on FaceBook instead.) and the ranch is up for sale. But, after last year’s horrible drought chased away her birds, this year’s wetter weather has brought them back! So NOW is the time to go see them.

Don’t wait. Letty’s season is a brief one. Call her at 956-369-3118 and arrange a visit. The cost is $30 per person. (That’s a BARGAIN!)


Another Disappointing Chase

I tried to chase down the Texas flamingo pair but had no luck.

We are getting close to making the move to our summer place in North Carolina and I had to deliver some furniture and boxes of other stuff there, so I decided to combine the trip with chasing some birds along the way.

My first target was the famous Greater/American Flamingo pair that have been hanging out along the central Texas coast this winter. Almost all of the sporadic reports had been of sightings in areas where access is only by boat and no sightings were newer than several months, so I was excited to read an eBird report of the birds on a unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge that is accessible by land.

The birds were seen on the Whitmire Unit, and although the area is accessible by vehicle, unfortunately that unit is not open to the public. The area was not far off my intended route to North Carolina, so I decided to try to see what I could do anyway.

As it turns out, I couldn’t do much. At first I was encouraged by the fact that the Whitmire Unit is very close to the Cox Bay areas where the flamingos had been seen by several fishermen and a few lucky birders fairly recently. But a combination of bad weather, locked gates on every road near the unit, and poor visibility of the shoreline made it clear I was going to have to be very lucky to see my quarry. About the closest I could get to the birds’ reported location was three miles, so unless there was a miracle fly-by, I was out of luck. Alas, no miracles occurred.

I continued on toward NC and made a swing into Houston to check on some reports of manikins, both Nutmeg and Bronze, in the city. The eBird reports mentioned locations such as River Park and Schumann Trails so I was anticipating pleasant walks in city parks and along nature trails as I sought the birds. Wrong. River Park is an upscale, manicured housing development and Schumann Trails is a street in a gated community. The reports apparently were of birds coming to backyard feeders in those neighborhoods, but the birds were not readily accessible to me. Again I had struck out.

But, the remainder of my trip to NC was not without its share of birding adventure. I made stops at Peveto Woods in Louisiana and Dauphin Island in Alabama, two of the premiere spring migration birding spots along the Gulf Coast. The birding was good, but I did not find any rarities for my Eight to 800 quest.

As I made my way to North Carolina, Renee was keeping me up to date on the rare bird alerts and there was some discussion of sightings of a Ruff near Galveston. I had seen the reports but had not made a try for the bird since the jury was still out on whether or not it was indeed a Ruff. I unloaded the van and took care of some maintenance issues on the NC place and returned back to the road with a turn-around time of just four hours, intending to make a try for the Ruff on my return trip if it was confirmed. But, sightings ceased and the last I heard the consensus was that the bird was not a Ruff. Strike three on my rarity chase.

I returned to Houston and made yet another attempt at finding the manikins, this time at Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City, but again was not able to find them. I also made another attempt to see the flamingos, hoping that they had moved out into more accessible feeding locations, but it was so windy no self-respecting bird would be moving anywhere, except for long-distance migrants riding the southeasterlies up to Canada!

All-in-all it was a very frustrating trip. True, I saw lots of birds along the Gulf Coast, but none of them added to my life list. That’s the peril of being a “big number birder,” no matter how many birds you see, if they are not the rarities you need, you end up disappointed. I don’t like that kind of birding very much!

A Boring Map for Rarities So Far This Spring

I sure hope there are still some people following along on this blog. I’d understand, though, if I was writing to myself. There hasn’t been much to write about lately!

The primary constraint to my birding strategy for the quest for 800 species is the budget. Just because I started a new and crazy idea doesn’t mean I won the lottery or something. will stay true to its roots and I’ll only chase my goal with this question in mind: How could a “normal” birder (with a normal budget) get the most birds under the circumstances?

My definition of a normal budget is not a fixed number this time. During our Big Year we set a budget limit at the start. For Eight Years to 800!? I’m playing it by ear. I’m setting a target of trying to take at least one “chasing trip” each month and trying to keep the cost of each trip as low as I can. So far it has worked out to a little more than $500 per month. That’s a number I am comfortable with. Squeezing $500 per month from our regular retirement budget isn’t too hard, especially when you figure in the fact that we don’t have many other recreational expenses besides birding. (That is, we would be spending money to go birding anyway, so it might as well be chasing a rarity.)

If only there were more rarities to chase! Every day, and usually several times a day, I check NARBA and eBird to see what has been seen around the country. The maps have been very sparsely populated this year. I should rephrase that. The maps have been very sparsely populated with species I haven’t already seen this year.

In order to keep costs down, I have made a decision not to chase after a bird unless it is sufficiently rare to warrant it. That means that unless the bird is a Code 4 or 5 species I probably won’t chase it. Even then, I want to see a few days worth of data to judge whether or not the bird will still be there by the time I can reach it. So far, those two criteria have only been met a couple of times.

I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) complain, though. Since the start of the year, I have added 10 new species to my overall list. Three of those were “Code 0 birds,” my designation for non-ABA species (parrots in Brownsville, TX), but even seven birds is good for just three months. The trouble is, it is only going to get harder and harder to add new species as time goes on. I need to get as many species as possible at the start to account for the fact that I will get very, very few at the end.

Practically speaking, however, there is nothing I can do about. If the map is bare (or the birds are too far away to be chased economically) I’ll just have to live with my boredom!

A Mini-Fallout at South Padre

An early-season cold front delayed a few (thousand) migrants along the Texas coast today.

We spent about half the day checking things out and compiled a list of 81 species from South Padre Island and the Highway 100 access road from Los Fresnos:

  1. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  2. Mottled Duck
  3. Blue-winged Teal
  4. Northern Pintail
  5. Redhead
  6. Red-breasted Merganser
  7. Common Loon
  8. Pied-billed Grebe
  9. Brown Pelican
  10. Double-crested Cormorant
  11. Great Blue Heron
  12. Snowy Egret
  13. Tricolored Heron
  14. Reddish Egret
  15. Cattle Egret
  16. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  17. White Ibis
  18. Roseate Spoonbill
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. Osprey
  21. American Kestrel
  22. Aplomado Falcon
  23. Clapper Rail
  24. American Coot
  25. Black-bellied Plover
  26. Snowy Plover
  27. Killdeer
  28. American Oystercatcher
  29. Black-necked Stilt
  30. Spotted Sandpiper
  31. Greater Yellowlegs
  32. Willet
  33. Lesser Yellowlegs
  34. Long-billed Curlew
  35. Marbled Godwit
  36. Sanderling
  37. Western Sandpiper
  38. Dunlin
  39. Laughing Gull
  40. Franklin’s Gull
  41. Ring-billed Gull
  42. Herring Gull
  43. Caspian Tern
  44. Forster’s Tern
  45. Royal Tern
  46. Sandwich Tern
  47. Black Skimmer
  48. Rock Pigeon
  49. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  50. Mourning Dove
  51. Inca Dove
  52. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  53. Belted Kingfisher
  54. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  55. Great Kiskadee
  56. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  57. White-eyed Vireo
  58. Yellow-throated Vireo
  59. Chihuahuan Raven
  60. Barn Swallow
  61. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  62. Gray Catbird
  63. Northern Mockingbird
  64. European Starling
  65. Blue-winged Warbler
  66. Northern Parula
  67. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  68. Yellow-throated Warbler
  69. Black-and-white Warbler
  70. Worm-eating Warbler
  71. Louisiana Waterthrush
  72. Kentucky Warbler
  73. Common Yellowthroat
  74. Hooded Warbler
  75. Clay-colored Sparrow
  76. Savannah Sparrow
  77. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  78. Red-winged Blackbird
  79. Great-tailed Grackle
  80. Orchard Oriole
  81. House Sparrow

The list includes about 15 neotropical migrants (flycatchers, vireos, warblers, orioles, etc.) that are just starting to arrive in numbers along the coast.

Streak-backed Oriole at Rattlesnake Springs, NM

I am working at our property in Rodeo, NM and hoping for a rarity or two to chase while I’m out west.

So far, nothing new has shown up. But the Streak-backed Oriole at Rattlesnake Springs, an on-again, off-again bird, was re-found and I decided to make the 700 mile round-trip to try for it.

We had tried for this bird on our way home from seeing the Blue-footed Booby and Sinaloa Wren in January, but we only spent one day and missed it that time. This time I was prepared to stay as long as it took to get it.

I got a very early start and arrived at the Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area at about 9 am. I was alone when I arrived but as I was making my first look around a fairly good sized group of birders arrived. I was grateful for the company. The more eyes looking for a needle in a haystack the better. I was even more pleased when I found out the group, a mixture of El Paso Auduboners and Roswell UFOs, was equipped with radios. Now, there were more eyes and the ability to spread out and still keep contact.

I joined the group that was searching the most frequently reported area for the oriole sightings, the cottonwood trees near the restrooms. We spent an hour or so with no luck. During the search, I spoke with some of the birders and learned that the nearby Washington Ranch, where the bird had been reported earlier, was birder friendly. (Renee and I had not visited the ranch in January.) Armed with that knowledge, and curious about the ranch, I left the group and headed over.

The place seemed deserted and I could find nobody to speak with about birding on the property, so I parked by the office and decided to take a quick look at the most readily accessible areas. I was impressed by the birding. The ranch bills themselves as an “oasis in the desert” and they surely lived up to that name. The birding at Rattlesnake Springs had been good but it was even better at the ranch. But my first circuit of the area produced no oriole.

I decided to walk down toward a small canyon a short way from the main office area and almost as soon as I started down the road I spotted the oriole in a small juniper tree. By this time, some of the birding group had started to arrive and I walked back up a short way and tried to wave them over to the bird. They were too far away, or too busy, to see me frantically waving my arms over my head trying to get their attention. Meanwhile, the oriole had started to move away from me, foraging about six feet above the ground in a group of small hackberry trees. I gave up trying to alert the others and went back to the oriole to try to get a photograph.

After watching the bird for several minutes and taking a few long-distance shots, I noticed that the settings on my camera were incorrect. All my pictures were underexposed! While I was readjusting my camera, the bird flew over my head and disappeared. At about the same time, two of the other birders arrived. I told them of the oriole and showed them my really bad photos and we all went off in search of the bird again. Despite another hour of looking, we never got another view.

Thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, and zooming in about 800%, I was able to salvage a decent shot of the bird from among my poor exposures.

And thanks to Camp Washington Ranch for opening their grounds to birders. It was a wonderful time at a wonderful place!

Trip Report: a mini-Big Day in the Estero Llano Grande birding van

Today was the last birding van trip for the winter season at Estero Llano Grande State Park. We did a Big Day kind of trip but we only had eight hours – a mini-Big Day.

The trip started and ended at Estero. We visited the grain silos at Progreso, then headed to South Padre Island with stops at Old Port Isabel Road, The Dump, and the Shrimp Basin boat ramp.

The highlights of the day were two Aplomado Falcons, one at Old Port Isabel Road and the other along Highway 100 near Los Fresnos. There were lots of other great birds, including lots of shorebirds at the Convention Centre and a decent selection of warblers on SPI. Here’s the full list:

  1. Gadwall
  2. American Wigeon
  3. Mottled Duck
  4. Blue-winged Teal
  5. Cinnamon Teal
  6. Northern Shoveler
  7. Northern Pintail
  8. Green-winged Teal
  9. Redhead
  10. Ring-necked Duck
  11. Red-breasted Merganser
  12. Ruddy Duck
  13. Plain Chachalaca
  14. Least Grebe
  15. Pied-billed Grebe
  16. American White Pelican
  17. Brown Pelican
  18. Neotropic Cormorant
  19. Double-crested Cormorant
  20. Anhinga
  21. Great Blue Heron
  22. Great Egret
  23. Snowy Egret
  24. Little Blue Heron
  25. Tricolored Heron
  26. Reddish Egret
  27. Cattle Egret
  28. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  29. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  30. White Ibis
  31. White-faced Ibis
  32. Black Vulture
  33. Turkey Vulture
  34. Osprey
  35. Northern Harrier
  36. Cooper’s Hawk
  37. Harris’s Hawk
  38. Red-tailed Hawk
  39. Crested Caracara
  40. American Kestrel
  41. Aplomado Falcon
  42. Clapper Rail
  43. Virginia Rail
  44. Sora
  45. Common Moorhen
  46. American Coot
  47. Black-bellied Plover
  48. Semipalmated Plover
  49. Piping Plover
  50. Killdeer
  51. American Oystercatcher
  52. Black-necked Stilt
  53. Spotted Sandpiper
  54. Willet
  55. Yellowlegs sp.
  56. Long-billed Curlew
  57. Marbled Godwit
  58. Ruddy Turnstone
  59. Sanderling
  60. Least Sandpiper
  61. Pectoral Sandpiper
  62. Dunlin
  63. Short-billed Dowitcher
  64. Long-billed Dowitcher
  65. Laughing Gull
  66. Ring-billed Gull
  67. Herring Gull
  68. Caspian Tern
  69. Forster’s Tern
  70. Royal Tern
  71. Black Skimmer
  72. Rock Pigeon
  73. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  74. White-winged Dove
  75. Mourning Dove
  76. Inca Dove
  77. Common Ground-Dove
  78. White-tipped Dove
  79. Red-crowned Parrot
  80. Common Pauraque
  81. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  82. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  83. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  84. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  85. Eastern Phoebe
  86. Great Kiskadee
  87. Couch’s Kingbird
  88. Loggerhead Shrike
  89. White-eyed Vireo
  90. Green Jay
  91. Chihuahuan Raven
  92. Tree Swallow
  93. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  94. Cave Swallow
  95. Barn Swallow
  96. Black-crested Titmouse
  97. Sedge Wren
  98. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  99. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  100. Gray Catbird
  101. Northern Mockingbird
  102. Long-billed Thrasher
  103. Curve-billed Thrasher
  104. European Starling
  105. Orange-crowned Warbler
  106. Northern Parula
  107. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  108. Yellow-throated Warbler
  109. Black-and-white Warbler
  110. Waterthrush sp.
  111. Common Yellowthroat
  112. Savannah Sparrow
  113. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  114. Northern Cardinal
  115. Red-winged Blackbird
  116. Eastern Meadowlark
  117. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  118. Great-tailed Grackle
  119. Bronzed Cowbird
  120. Brown-headed Cowbird
  121. Lesser Goldfinch
  122. House Sparrow

Spring migration is getting up some steam, especially for the shorebirds.

How to see a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum)

When I first started birding, back in the 1970s, the accepted wisdom on where to find a pygmy-owl was to go to the saguaro cactus habitat in the Sonoran Desert. It was not until much later that I heard people talking about pygmy-owls in South Texas. Now, it is very difficult to find an owl in the desert. The go-to place is Texas.

The decline of owls in the desert (G. b. cactorum) is not fully understood, but rampant development of the desert around Tucson, and southern Arizona in general, is surely part of the picture. It is not the whole picture, however, as owls have become exceedingly scarce even in the undeveloped parks and refuges in the region and are declining in Mexico as well. To be sure, pygmy-owls were never “common” in Arizona (at least not since the early 1900s), always being a treasured find and a rarity at the edge of their range. But, beginning in the 1990s population declines became severe enough for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the western subspecies as endangered. Unfortunately, despite no evidence of recovery in the region, political pressure led to the de-listing of the species in 2006.

Recent studies of owl populations in Arizona and nearby Sonora, Mexico indicate that population decline is a regional phenomenon and there is little hope for increased recruitment of owls into the Arizona desert from the desert of Sonora. This suggests that the likelihood of significant recovery of the population in the low and the prospects for birders to see more owls in the Sonoran Desert habitats in the near future are not good.

Less is known about the history of pygmy-owls (G. b. ridgwayi)  in Texas. It was not until the pioneering work of Glenn Proudfoot and others in the middle 1990s that significant research effort was made. Indeed, it was just a few years earlier that pygmy-owls even made it onto the radar of most birders in the area. Whether this represents a case of recent increased colonization of the habitats of South Texas by the birds or just an increase in birders’ recognition of the species I do not know (although I suspect the latter).

Prior to the 1920s, pygmy-owls were a regular part of the South Texas avifauna (although I have not found any information on their abundance at that time beyond Oberholser’s account in The Bird Life of Texas) and were found in a variety of brushland habitats. From the 1920s until the 1970s massive clearing efforts for ranching and row-crop agriculture removed over 90% of the native brush and owls became rare.

How To See a Pygmy-Owl in the ABA Area

Since the 1990s, along with the increased research interest, there has been an increased interest in pygmy-owls as an important resource for ecotourism in South Texas. Much of what we know about owl populations is due to that ecotourism interest. Ecotourism is also the key to preserving the owls and the only reliable way to see an owl for a birder’s life list. There have been resident birds at several public-land locations in the Rio Grande Valley over the past 20 years but at the present time the only reliable locations are all on private land. (I will have more to say about searching for owls on public lands later.)

Without a doubt, the best chance you have to see a pygmy-owl is by taking an ecotour of the Norias Division of the King Ranch. Tom Langscheid and his staff have intimate knowledge of birds at several locations and they are often able to take their groups directly to an owl or owls. Unfortunately, the trip is rather pricey; about $125 and up, depending on how many are in your group. (Visit for more info.)

Other private ranches (El Canelo, San Miguelito) have offered birders the opportunity to see owls in the past but the presence of the birds has been less reliable lately. Contact the ranch to verify that they are seeing birds before you make the attempt. (El Canelo – (Recent attempts to visit the San Miguelito website have failed. The ranch is listed as “for sale” and it looks like they are no longer offering birding access.)

Even though there have been no reliable reports of pygmy-owls on public lands in South Texas since the summer of 2010, there is no reason to think that they are not there somewhere. Likely locations to search are the Salt Lakes tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Driving the back roads in ranch country during the main calling season (mid-March to mid-May) at dawn and dusk might also produce an owl. Some better than average chances are likely to be found along Highway 186 between Raymondville and Port Mansfield near the El Sauz Ranch. But be warned, you will find a whole lot of nothing before you find a pygmy-owl!

In Arizona, the two best locations to find a pygmy-owl are the western unit of the Saguaro National Monument and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Inquire at the park when you arrive and they will do their best to help you find an owl. Another location that has been fairly productive in recent years (but still not a sure thing by any means) is the Tortolita area just northwest of Tucson. Driving, or hiking, and listening are your best strategies.

Do not rely on eBird to produce your lifer owl. Don’t get me wrong. I love eBird. But, people are very protective of “their” owls and most sightings don’t even make it to eBird. Those that do may not give accurate details on location.

Hit the roads or just pony up the bucks and take a tour of the King Ranch. Either way have fun searching for your lifer FEPO!


Heading West, but Nothing to See

I’ll be heading out to our property in New Mexico to install a solar electric system. I wish there was something to chase!

The rarities have been few and far between this winter; at least those that have been near enough for me to chase. There have been some regional rarities, birds that are rare for South Texas (Slaty-backed Gull in Laredo was fabulous!), but no ABA Code 4 or 5 birds have been within driving range since we returned from seeing the Blue-footed Booby and missing the Streak-backed Oriole over a month ago.

I haven’t crunched the numbers but it sure seems like it has been an unusually slow season for rare birds down here. That’s a little surprising given all the unsettled weather up north and all the apparent havoc that could cause for birds, but nothing unusual in the way of bird movements seems to have happened. The exception is gulls. There have been more species of gulls down here (11) than anyone can ever remember. But where are the Blue Buntings, the White-throated Thrushes, the Tamaulipas Crows?

There was a fair number of birds in Florida over the winter – Spot-breasted Oriole, White-winged Parakeet, even a White-cheeked Pintail – but that is too far away for me to consider them within easy chasing range and within my budget. Besides, most of those birds will be there when we visit the state during our regularly-planned family visits over the summer so spending time and money now would be doubly wasteful.

There has been some progress on the Eight Years to 800!? birding project even though I have not had anything new to chase for a while: I have made reservations to take some pelagic trips with Brian Patteson in North Carolina in May and I have started working on trying to arrange our first visit to Alaska for as early as the fall of 2014. Both of these options are more expensive than the average birding trips, especially travel to Alaska. Getting something arranged there will be a true challenge for the birding on a budget concept.

I shouldn’t make it sound so gloomy! Counting the non-ABA parrots I saw in Brownsville, I have seen nine new species in less than two months this year. That’s a great start on the way to the 35 new species I hope to see in 2014.

I just wish there was something more out west. It seems a shame to travel all that way and not have something near enough to chase once the solar panels are up!