Spring is Starting to Heat Up

Hawk migration was today’s highlight as the pace of spring migration seems to be quickening.

Hundreds (maybe thousands) of Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Ospreys, vultures and other raptors lifted off from, and streamed over Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park this morning. For us, it was the first day of “real” spring migration in the western end of the Valley.

As the migrants flew over, our target bird, the Hook-billed Kite, made an appearance, and what a show he put on! He flew a complete lap around his territory, it seemed, alternately flapping and soaring and spending at least 10 minutes in exaggerated “territorial / display flapping” to the delight of everyone on the hawk watch tower and several groups of bird tour participants. A little while later, we saw a Gray Hawk soaring over his own nesting area to round out our “hawkish” day.

Also on today’s list were Northern Beardless Tyrannulet at a nest, Great Kiskadee at a nest, Altamira Oriole, a variety of shorebirds and waterfowl, Verdin, Olive Sparrow, woodpeckers, blackbirds, and all the other usual suspects and a single Yellow Warbler.

It was a great spring morning and surely primed us for more signs of spring and more migrants to come in the next couple of weeks.

The Strangeness of Big Year Birding

When birding in the Rio Grande Valley, we almost always meet other birders along the way.

Many of these birders are from out of town and are excited to see some of the valley specialties that we saw today like Clay-colored Thrush, Gray Hawk, and Red-crowned Parrots at the Frontera Audubon Center. But as big year birders, we are not necessarily looking for rare birds; we are looking for new birds for our list. So despite all the other special birds we saw today, we were really excited to see Chimney Swifts, our first sighting of these birds for the year.

We also went to Estero Llano Grande State Park where they had a list of 45 birds that had been seen by 10 am this morning, plus another 10 or so that had been spotted yesterday, including the return of the Rose-throated Becard after a week’s absence. Yet, none of these birds were new to us so we went to the sod farms in hope of finding more shorebirds migrating. We just found American Golden Plover and Pectoral Sandpiper, both birds already on our list.

We still love to see a brightly colored male Vermillion Flycatcher or hear Green Parakeets flying overhead but what we are really after are the new birds that will help our list grow without costing us much money since we are staying at home right now. So if we meet you along the trail, please excuse us if we are more interested in finding the skulking Ovenbird in the bushes, which we haven’t seen yet, than the rarer Tropical Parula, which we have already seen.

Big Year birding is definitely strange.


An Additional List Is Available Now.

We have just placed a list of all the species we have seen or heard this year, in phylogenetic sequence, under the Big Year List page.

This list will allow you to see our progress in “filling out” the various bird groups. For example, you can see that we have pretty much completed the waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) that we are likely to see in the lower 48, but still have a long way to go on grouse and their kin (and don’t even ask about the “pelagics!”).

We will update the list with date and location of first sighting soon.

Shorebirds on the Move

Comparatively large numbers of American Golden-Plovers lead the charge as shorebirds are moving through the RGV.

We usually don’t see many American Golden-Plovers, either because we aren’t really looking for them or they are just not that common here, but lately, we have seen more than usual in the RGV. Yesterday, we saw 5 or 6 on the mudflats of South Padre Island, a similar number to those we had seen at the sod farms south of Weslaco a day earlier. Other birders reported sightings of the species as well.

Other shorebirds were represented on fields and mudflats as well and we were able to add American Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, and Short-billed Dowitcher to the year list. Two Soras at the South Padre Island Convention Centre wetlands area rounded out the additions to our list and brought our year’s total to 443 species.

Even when birding is fairly slow, we can usually find something new to see in the RGV!

Not Much Going On

Little migrant activity and even less luck finding RGV specials leads to a bit of boredom.

We’re in one of those in-between times where birding can be very slow. That, coupled with the fact that we have seen most of the non-migrant birds, means that we don’t have much to report.

Recent highlights have been more about the spectacle of migration than the addition of new species to our list. Yesterday we witnessed hundreds of vultures descending on Santa Ana NWR just before sunset to roost there for the night. Hidden in their midst was a single Swainson’s Hawk. Today we watched hundreds of shorebirds wheeling over sod fields before turning up about half a dozen American Golden-Plovers among them.

We still are missing some of the Valley specials, most notably the Hook-billed Kite and Groove-billed Ani. No one seems to know where those birds are at the moment.

Tomorrow, we head back out to South Padre Island to check on the shorebird migration and see if any land birds are hanging out in the woodlots.

Spring is Weather-watching Season

Today we had the first mini-fallout of the migration season on the Texas coast.

With the passage of a cold front, the winds shifted from SSE at about 20 mph to NNE at about 20 mph. The change took place late in the morning at South Padre Island, TX. Those kinds of conditions are ideal for a fallout of migrants on the coast. Birds that had been riding the favorable tailwinds across the Gulf of Mexico would suddenly have been faced with headwinds at just about the time that they would have been in sight of land. Their natural instinct would be to head for land and get out of the wind. Some slower birds would have had to fight the winds for a time and make landfall where the winds had blown them. That’s what happened today, but it was only a “mini” event because, presumably, there were not that many birds aloft this early in the migration season.

Still, it was fun to see, and the conditions were such that it is unlikely that large numbers of birds were caught in the winds and perished at sea. That is always the conundrum for bird (and weather) watchers along the coast in spring. We would like to see a fallout but not one that is extreme enough that it actually kills birds.

We tallied about 12 species of migrants in our visit to the island today, including the five new species we added to our list. Undoubtedly, many more are on their way!

Birding From Bed

At home in Texas we have several natural alarm clocks that wake us in the morning.

Depending on the time of year, we often awake to the sounds of Eastern Screech-Owl, Plain Chachalaca, or Red-crowned Parrot in the trees of our neighborhood.  While on the road we have had similar experiences. At Goose Island State Park in Texas, we awoke to the sounds of Common Pauraque. The deep hoots of Great Horned Owls greeted us at Patagonia Lake State Park in Arizona and we awoke at Picacho Peak State Park in Arizona to a Gilded Flicker. As we lay in bed we heard these and other birds in the campground and added them to our year’s list.

Although one reason for camping is to save money, another is to be closer to the birds. You don’t see or hear much from the typical city motel room. Camping helps us to maximize our birding time. We can practically keep birding as we sleep! We were on an evening walk at Granger Lake (Willis Creek Campground) in Texas when we saw a Short-eared Owl in the moonlight. We doubt we would have seen anything like that from a motel parking lot. A Bald Eagle was perched about 50 feet from our campsite at Fort Sumner State Park in New Mexico when we woke up. You can’t get much closer to the birds than that.

Camping also allows us to get on trails before the “day use” visitors arrive at the parks. To be first into the woods definitely has its advantages. The early birder gets the bird, sometimes. In the evening, while others are driving home or looking for motels, we are out listening for owls.

As we have written in previous posts, it is not always easy to find a campsite near where we want to bird and camping can be tough in bad weather, but when it works, it definitely adds to the birding experience.

Camping is really the best way to bird from bed.

Listening and Not Listening

When Michael and Renee are walking on a trail, Renee will often hear a cacophony of bird calls and songs but Michael will say he doesn’t hear anything.

He doesn’t really mean that he doesn’t hear anything, he means that he doesn’t hear anything new or unusual. As a novice birder, Renee has had to learn not only the calls and songs of many birds but also when not to listen to them. Noisy crows or jays or common birds like House Finches often distract her from listening for our target birds.

Renee has also learned that bird identification is usually not just by sight or by sound but by a combination of both. Of the 425 birds we have seen so far, only three have been identified by sound alone, the Northern Saw Whet Owl, the Barred Owl, and Clark’s Nutcracker.  However, sound has helped us confirm identification of many other birds, such as the Northwestern Crow and the flock of Red Crossbills that flew overhead in Washington.

The calls of birds also have helped us locate them. We followed the calls of dippers down a stream before spotting them on rocks. Many other birds, such as Pygmy Nuthatches and Pacific Wrens were heard long before we finally located them.

As we travel along the highway, we listen to the recorded calls and songs of both our target birds and those birds that might be confused with them. Up until now it has been winter so most of the birds are not singing yet.

As we enter spring migration and summer, the task of listening and not listening will become even more important and more challenging.

We’re Home From Our Winter Wanderings

Our winter trips are officially done and the final tally is 425 species.

Now that we are back home we can take some more time to write about our experiences and musings in more depth than the brief travel logs we were posting throughout March. Stayed tuned for those posts, soon.

We ended the winter with a mixed bag of birds; some still definitely on their wintering grounds and some early returnees at the start of spring. We have renamed this season “wing” – when winter is ending but it is not quite spring, or “sprinter” – when spring is rushing in but winter refuses to let go! In any case, it is not an especially good time of year for birds, at least not in our experience this year. The winter species have already started to head north and the spring species have not yet arrived. We can’t really complain, though. We were able to add new birds to our year list just about every day of wing and sprinter. (Close followers of our list will notice that we took the Dusky Flycatcher off. After getting home and looking at the pictures more closely, we realized that we had mis-identified that one.)

In the last two days, we spent most of our time driving home from Big Bend and visiting two Texas hot spots to try to knock off some of the species we had missed earlier. We managed to get our two main target birds at Salineno, the Red-billed Pigeon and Muscovy Duck, but we whiffed completely on the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Hook-billed Kite at Bentsen State Park. Fortunately, we will have the better part of a month to get those birds before we leave the Valley again.

It is truly spring here in the RGV. We hope to add a bunch of migrants to our list very soon!

Christmas Mountains Oasis!

Thank You Carolyn for Your Wonderful Place in the Desert!

Yesterday, we spent a delightful afternoon at Carolyn Ohl-Johnson’s Christmas Mountains Oasis, near Terlingua, TX. Her place is well known as a spot to find Lucifer Hummingbird, and we were successful on that score. We saw one male and two female Lucifer Hummingbirds there. Unfortunately, we did not get any decent photos to show here.

Carolyn has built an elaborate water-collection system on her property to supply irrigation for her array of oasis plantings. But nature has not been kind to her. The continuing drought has left her system dry and she must drive an hour round-trip several times a day to haul water from a distant reservoir. Her courage and determination to persevere are awesome to see!

We wish you the best of luck and abundant rain for 2012!