Thus ends our first month…

We fell a bit short of our expected list total for our first month. We recorded 272 species. We had expected to get 275 – 300.

Most of our shortfall can be explained by the fact that we have yet to see much in the way of true winter. As we pointed out while we were in New England, we have only had a few really cold days and only one or two days of snow. Without winter weather, we are also out of many “winter birds.” We suspect that mild weather has allowed the finches, redpolls, crossbills, and similar species to stay farther north and to be out of our reach. We lacked the flexibility, and the budget, in our early schedule to go farther north to seek those species.

We have had generally very good results in the south (especially with rarities in the RGV) but even there we have seen some evidence that the unusually warm winter has kept some bird numbers down. We won’t know until we see the final reports, but this may end up being the warmest winter ever in parts of the country.

We also had some really bad misses. Either through poor strategy, or poor execution of the strategy, we have missed several birds that were there and that we should have seen. Again, our budget held us back in a few cases: we didn’t want to spend extra money to stay longer in an area and continue searching for a bird. As John Vanderpoel pointed out, that was a false economy. Having to go back later will be more expensive than staying longer in the first place. Lesson learned. We hope next month goes more smoothly.

Another factor, that likely cost us as many as 10 species, was our decision to eschew the ugly, traffic-snarled urban birding in and around Miami and other big cities. That kind of stress is just not something we want to put up with on our Big Year.

Finally, we had some plain bad luck. In several cases, birds that were present in an area for weeks or months prior to our arrival had disappeared just before we came. We had expected to count the Brown Booby in MA and the Black-vented Oriole in TX but those birds had stopped being seen just days before we arrived in their area. We know that we should try to get to the area of a rare sighting as soon as possible, but sometimes that is just too hard or too expensive to do.

Overall, we are satisfied with our total, but we recognize that there is room for improvement on our future trips. Stay tuned.

A Day of Contrasts

Today we tried two contrasting ways to bird: waiting at a feeding station for a rarity and searching prime habitat for unexpected finds. Can you guess which we liked better?

This morning was surreal. We arrived at the old DeWind’s feeding station at Salineno, TX  (now owned by The Valley Land Fund and staffed by some very committed volunteers) at about 8 am. We were among the first to arrive but soon after there was a near constant stream of new birders, some alone or in small groups, others in organized tours. We waited. By 10 am every seat was taken and many birders were standing. It was hard to imagine, with all the hustle and bustle, and all the noise of multiple conversations happening at once, that the hoped-for Brown Jay would ever arrive. It certainly seemed to us that the true spectacle of the morning would be the gaggle of birders and not the bird. We waited. At about 10:30 a pick-up truck (diesel no less) arrived to deliver a load of oranges for the feeding station. All the feed for the birds is bought with donations to the donation jar or provided by visiting birders, so the noisy truck was tolerated by the patient crowd. We waited.

Just part of today’s crowd of birders at Salineno

Then, to the surprise of just about everyone, and just a few minutes after the truck had unloaded its cargo and made a noisy exit, THE bird appeared! We were amazed that the bird was so tolerant of the large crowd of excited birders. It even allowed the site staff to replenish some of its favorite foods, waiting patiently in the mesquite trees while a volunteer walked among the feeders. It moved among the feeders and put on quite a show, made all the more surreal by the fact that this bird is the only individual of its species known to be in the U.S. at the moment; a true needle in a continent-sized haystack!

The star of the show; what they all came to see!

 

Soon after leaving Salineno, we drove to Santa Margarita Bluffs, a few miles down the Rio Grande. The contrast could not have been greater. Here, among gorgeous semi-desert scrub, and overlooking the largest expanse of riparian flood forest remaining in the U.S., we were completely alone; not a single other birder as far as the eye could see.

We had some ideas of what we might find there but it was totally unlike the patient (or not so patient) wait for a known rarity at a feeding station. The possibilities were endless and the thrill came from the discovery of something new or unexpected from among the broad expanse of available habitat. We only saw a couple of birds that were new to our year list, but in some ways they were more satisfying than the ticking of the mega-rarity at Salineno.

We’ll still do some feeder watching for rarities, but I suspect our hearts will always be in the broad expanses of unexplored habitat.

Patience Rewarded…and Not

We spent most of the day tracking down rarities in our own home town. Our score: three yes and one no.

Yesterday we had made a short, unsuccessful attempt to get the Golden-crowned Warbler at Frontera Audubon Thicket in Weslaco. Today, Renee was determined to get the bird and we spent four hours at the Thicket before we were finally successful.

Our reward was an outstanding look at this very-hard-to-see bird! A group of birders were staking out a water drip that the bird has been using. Once one of the group spotted the bird we got a decent look and we all thought that was going to be the end of the show. This warbler is a dense-brush skulker and we were happy to get any look at it. But to our surprise, the bird put on a tremendous show, feeding in nearby bushes, seemingly oblivious to our presence, for over five minutes. Truly extraordinary!

Our second target was much easier. We visited the Valley Nature Center (VNC) for the first time in several months and had a look around at improvements they had made and are making. Then we headed over to the feeding station to look for the Clay-colored Thrushes that had been seen there. We had not even settled into our seats when Renee asked “Isn’t that the bird?” and, sure enough, there were three thrushes! Made to order.

Target three was the Green Parakeet. We heard and saw a flock over the VNC after driving around town a bit listening for them. We were not able to photograph them, however. Tick three.

Finally, is the Rose-throated Becard, rapidly becoming our nemesis bird for this home town stay. Over the past two days we have searched for this bird for about seven hours at three different times of day and the end result is still the same: not even a peep or a glimpse. As another birder said: “Was it this hard to see this bird when you saw it in December?” Absolutely not!

Still, three out of four is not bad at all!

Searching for Needles in Haystacks

Trying to find a single rare bird in an entire state park is just a bit frustrating.

Today was windy and overcast; not the best conditions for birding. We spent three hours searching Estero Llano Grande State Park for the Rose-throated Becard with no success. The bird has been moving around more than it was when we saw it back in November, so it is now necessary to search practically the entire wooded area of the park to feel confident that you have given it your best shot. Even so, you are likely to come up just as empty as we did. Crossing paths with a single bird is highly unlikely.

We had similar luck trying to find the Golden-crowned Warbler and Crimson-collared Grosbeak at the Frontera Audubon Thicket in Weslaco. We only spent an hour there but we met others who had looked far longer and were just as disappointed as we were.

But that doesn’t mean that the morning was wasted; far from it. Any winter day in the Rio Grande Valley has the possibility of being a very special day. We saw a mix of eastern and western species, northern and southern species, and Valley specialties. Here is our day list (actually, it is a half-day 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. Canvasback
  10. Ring-necked Duck
  11. Ruddy Duck
  12. Plain Chachalaca
  13. Least Grebe
  14. Pied-billed Grebe
  15. Neotropic Cormorant
  16. Double-crested Cormorant
  17. Great Egret
  18. Snowy Egret
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. White-tailed Kite
  21. Cooper’s Hawk
  22. Red-shouldered Hawk
  23. Red-tailed Hawk
  24. Crested Caracara
  25. American Kestrel
  26. Peregrine Falcon
  27. Common Moorhen
  28. American Coot
  29. Killdeer
  30. Black-necked Stilt
  31. Spotted Sandpiper
  32. Rock Pigeon
  33. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  34. White-winged Dove
  35. Mourning Dove
  36. Inca Dove
  37. Common Ground-Dove
  38. White-tipped Dove
  39. Red-crowned Parrot
  40. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  41. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  42. Broad-tailed Hummingbird
  43. Rufous Hummingbird
  44. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  45. Eastern Phoebe
  46. Great Kiskadee
  47. White-eyed Vireo
  48. Green Jay
  49. Black-crested Titmouse
  50. Brown Creeper
  51. Carolina Wren
  52. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  53. Hermit Thrush
  54. Northern Mockingbird
  55. Long-billed Thrasher
  56. Curve-billed Thrasher
  57. European Starling
  58. Orange-crowned Warbler
  59. Northern Parula
  60. Black-throated Green Warbler
  61. Black-and-white Warbler
  62. Wilson’s Warbler
  63. Olive Sparrow
  64. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  65. Northern Cardinal
  66. Red-winged Blackbird
  67. Great-tailed Grackle
  68. Brown-headed Cowbird
  69. Lesser Goldfinch
  70. American Goldfinch
  71. House Sparrow

This is the largest one-day list we have had so far this year (by one species) and it was all done within five miles of our house. Gotta love the RGV!

Back in the RGV!

The first birding tour of the Big Year is history and we compiled a total list of 212 species.

We’re glad to be back home after our first trip and looking forward to heading out to look for all the great birds that are in our own backyard. There are at least eight ABA code 3,4, or 5 birds in the RGV right now; not to mention all the Valley specialties that we tend to take for granted. It should be a great couple of weeks before we head off for our next big trip.

Since we arrived back in Texas a couple of days ago, we have added 26 new year birds. The last two days have been among the “birdiest” we have had so far this year. We attribute that to the very mild weather and the help we have received from birder friends who have suggested some hot spots for us to visit along the Texas coast. We especially want to thank Larry and Judy Geiger. They are volunteers at Goose Island State Park and their help was invaluable today as we added 12 new birds based almost entirely on their advice on places to look in the Rockport-Fulton area.

Among our highlights today was this Burrowing Owl. Thanks again to the Geigers!

Back in Texas…not quite home

The trip around the Gulf of Mexico was mostly uneventful. We did manage to see Red-cockaded Woodpecker and a few other new birds but mostly we just saw asphalt and tail lights as we drove fairly hard for two days.

We’re back in Texas and looking forward to seeing some of the winter visitors and rarities that have been hanging out here while we were away on the east coast. We hope we don’t see a repeat of the pattern that has plagued us so far: birds that have been reported on the rare bird alerts for days, weeks, or even months, mysteriously evaporate when we try to see them! The best example of this sad phenomenon has to be the Brown Booby that showed up on Cape Cod, MA after a hurricane in August. It hung around for over four months but then left about a week before we went to Cape Cod to try to see it. (It looks like a similar fate will befall us with regard to the Black-vented Oriole. It was at Bentsen – Rio Grande Valley State Park for months but is now no longer being seen. Sigh!)

Even without some of the rarities, though, we will be happy to get back to the Rio Grande Valley. We don’t want to knock the east coast. We saw over 90% of the birds we expected to see there. But there is nothing quite like the RGV in winter.

We’ll need to be patient for a couple of more days as we work our way down the Texas coast toward home. We plan to try for longspurs and gulls near Houston, make a swing through Texas City to see if any Monk Parakeets are still hanging around, then search for Whooping Cranes near Goose Island State Park before turning to deep south Texas for the stretch run to the RGV.

Our goal was to have 200 species on our list by the time we returned home from this first trip. We have just 14 more to get in the next two days. Wish us luck!

Aren’t Any Anis Anymore?!

So far, we have searched in vain for the Smooth-billed Ani.

In the winter of 1974 – 75 Michael and one of his college roommates from Rutgers University hopped into his VW Super Beetle and headed south for birding in Florida. The recollections of that trip are clouded by 37 years of time but one thing is certain: Michael got his lifer Smooth-billed Ani on that trip, and it was not just a single bird. Birding trips in later years also regularly turned up the ani, including Renee’s lifer some time in the 80s and a notable sighting of a bird at Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, in the 90s. But this trip we have been shut out.

We are not alone. Anis are hard to see nowadays. Here is a quote from the Tropical Audubon Society website concerning finding the ani: “While still common in the Bahamas, this species appears to be disappearing from Florida. Currently, the only reliable location is south of Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. One or more anis are regularly seen on Old Griffin Road, about 0.2 miles west of US 1. Most recently, a single bird has been seen in an overgrown field on the north side of the canal that parallels Old Griffin Road, just west of the railroad tracks that cross the road.”

Over the course of three days we visited these sites and others described by bird finding guides for south Florida. The “only reliable location” described in the quote above turns out to be an exceedingly narrow strip of trees bordering a canal across from a row of warehouses and light industrial properties. A few weedy fields are adjacent to these properties. The thought that this is the last holdout for a species in the U.S. was so depressing that we gave the sites a cursory look and then left. We prefer to look for birds in “good ani habitat” even though they might not be there, rather than resort to scrounging for the last remaining bird in an area of marginal, at best, habitat. We visited “good ani habitat.” As noted, we were shut out there too. (To be clear, there are remnant populations of anis in Florida locations other than those described by the quote above, mainly in the Florida Keys, and we did not visit those possible sites. In fact, optimists that we are, we expect to see the ani on a return trip to Florida in April.)

How did it come to this? How did an entire population of birds get reduced to “a single bird has been seen in an overgrown field?” How did the U.S. representatives of an entire species slip through the cracks?

We don’t have answers to those questions. We do know that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to list the Smooth-billed Ani as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Their rationale is that the species has a large range outside the U.S. and it is common in much of that range. Therefore, despite its alarming decline in Florida, it is not worthy of special listing and protection.

It’s a shame that this interesting species may soon be absent from our country.

A South Florida Roller Coaster

The last few days have been a perfect example of the ups and downs of birding. We have been on an emotional roller coaster!

While we were making our sometimes frenzied dash through southern Florida we managed to add 29 species to our year list. During those few days we had some great high points when we found a rarity and some very low points when the stress of traffic and constantly being on the go wore on our nerves.

We also realized what is most important to us on our Big Year, and despite the whole concept of year listing, we want our year to be about the journey and not about the destination. By that we mean that the enjoyment of the birding itself is far more important than the ultimate length of the list.

The best example of what we mean can be seen in our decision not to chase after the exotic rarities of escaped cage birds that inhabit Miami and other cities of southern Florida. We made one attempt to see Budgerigar in Hernando Beach, which involved a pleasant hour or two driving around a typical suburban neighborhood, but we decided not to brave the snarl of Miami / Fort Lauderdale traffic to chase after other species. To us, that kind of urban birding is simply not fun. We realize that our decision to avoid that kind of birding will cost us a dozen or so species on the final list, but more time spent on birding in more natural settings is its own reward. We may visit an urban park or garden if it is convenient to our itinerary, but we will not be going out of our way to chase exotic birds in big cities.

We also realized that we need to slow down some. In the first 18 days of the year we have traveled over 4000 miles in 14 states from Maine to Florida. If we continue that pace we will be on a trajectory to nearly double the total miles we expected to travel in the year. Plus, as John Vanderpoel pointed out in a comment on our blog pages, we need to slow down to make sure we don’t keep missing some of the rarer target birds of the trip. Our average of seeing rarities is very low so far. We have missed more than we have found. We think that slowing down to concentrate on special birds is compatible with our ultimate goal of having fun as well. It is not just about adding those birds to the list but also about the joy of discovering something special.

That’s enough of the philosophical psychobabble! Check out the bird list to see what we found during the past few days in southern Florida.

 

Camping Out – no internet access

We’ll be incommunicado for a few days as we visit some of the more remote sites in southern Florida and will not have internet access.

Yesterday was spent searching for Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Budgerigar in west-central Florida. We missed those target birds but added 14 species to the year list. Today we are heading into the “thousand lakes” area of central Florida and then on down to the edge of the Everglades. We’ll make a run at the La Sagra’s Flycatcher in Bill Baggs Florida Cape State Park on Monday and then disappear into the wilderness of the Everglades for a day or two.

We’ll see you on the flip side.