Fallout at the Fort – continued

We are at Renee’s mom’s house and have some time to update the site before we resume our Big Year.

The bad weather that plagued us at the Everglades National Park brought perfect fallout conditions to the Dry Tortugas on Saturday and Sunday, April 21st and 22nd. Our trip was scheduled for the 23rd but the winds were still high and the seas were rough and the boat captain didn’t make the final decision to go until just a few minutes before our scheduled departure. It was a very rough trip and most of the passengers were seasick along the way. We had taken some dramamine and were ok. In fact, we were at the bow and spotted four Bridled Terns skimming low over the water on the way out!

Once at the island we quickly set up camp and started to look for birds. It wasn’t hard to find them. All you needed to do was look down at your feet and it was likely that a thrush, Palm Warbler, or redstart would be there! The few trees on the island were crawling with birds. Warblers, tanagers, orioles, cuckoos, buntings, and more were there and it was an ever-changing list. The winds continued from the NW and N throughout the time we spent on the island and each day brought different species. Monday was dominated by Prairie Warblers and Cape Mays, Tuesday brought more Magnolias and Yellows, and Wednesday was the day of the Blackpolls.

The land birds were the highlight of the fallout but the local and migrant seabirds and shorebirds were not to be outdone. We counted 15 different shorebirds, including White-rumped Sandpiper, new to our year list, and the boobies, noddies, terns, and frigatebirds that make up the main breeding attraction were everywhere.

Soon after we arrived a private tour boat moored in the harbor and some birders we had met at Bill Baggs State Park were among the guests. Also on-board were two birders from New Jersey who were friends of Michael’s brother. Birding sure is a small world!

The tour was being led by Larry Manfredi of Miami. Larry was extremely helpful to us and let us tag along with his group at times as we all shared information on our latest birding finds. It was Larry who found the White-rumped Sandpipers for us, after we had shown his guests a Baird’s Sandpiper on the beach. Late in the day, Larry found a Black Noddy among the thousands of Brown Noddies in the breeding colony and sent one of his party to find us to make sure we saw the bird for our list! Thank you Larry for helping to make our stay at Fort Jefferson even better.

As day one drew to a close we watched nighthawks feeding over the fort but they would not talk to us and we had to go to bed without an id. We were exhausted from the boat trip and the hectic day of birding.

Early on day two we watched a Purple Gallinule, who appeared as exhausted as we had been the night before, swim ashore. The winds were still fairly strong from the NE and the poor gal just was not up to flying against them. Some of the previous day’s denizens had left however. We noted a marked drop in the total bird numbers as the days progressed.

But birding and bird photography were still great. New species like Bobolink and Veery dropped in and the number of Merlins on the island climbed. We had seen four on day one and counted at least seven on day two. The increase in their number also contributed to the decrease in the numbers of the smaller birds. Larry refound the Black Noddy and Michael even got a fuzzy picture of it.

One of the highlights of day two was meeting an 11 year old birder from New Hampshire named Aiden. Aiden is a young birding phenom and he was great at getting photos of the birds too. On the return trip on the ferry Aiden even managed to see and photograph an Audubon’s Shearwater that we missed! (We had been on the bow with him but decided to get out of the wind and went to the top deck at the stern. The shearwater flew by as we were moving around the boat…bad luck for us but great luck for Aiden, and he deserved it.)

By day three the fallout was petering out. New birds were arriving, but the winds had fallen and it was clear that many birds had managed to fly off the island and continue their migrations north. Some of the birds were not so lucky. We found a couple that had died on the island and the Merlins had surely taken a quite hefty toll. But it did not appear that this fallout had dunked large numbers of birds into the sea as sometimes happens. It had been a spectacle for the birders without being a disaster for the birds.

Once back on the keys, we continued our searches and managed to add Mangrove Cuckoo and Antillean Nighthawk to our keys birding total. Maybe we’ll have more to say about those events later on.

Right now we are debating whether to chase some rarities that showed up in central Florida while we were on the keys, so we had better sign off.

Fallout at the Fort!

Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, provided a migration fallout that was among the best we have ever seen, and we only came in on the tail end of it.

We also saw almost all the local specialties you can expect from the area. It was a very special three days. If you ever have a chance to camp out on the island during spring migration, we highly recommend it!

Details of our trip to the Dry T’s will follow as soon as we get a better internet connection.

Bad Weather … Good Birds

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Springtime storms and cool fronts are what birders hope for and we have had both over the past few days.

On Friday we had clear and breezy weather for most of the day and bird activity was light. We still were able to add seven new species to our list as we ticked off some of the more common Florida specials at Bill Baggs State Park and found the La Sagra’s Flycatcher there. (We had seen what we thought was THE bird back in January but were unable to get a photo to confirm our id. This time we still missed the photo but got a good enough look for us to be confident to add the bird to our list.) Later in the day the weather turned windier as we drove over to Everglades National Park. We added Common Myna in Homestead, FL and saw Purple Gallinule along the Anhinga Trail at the park.

Then, all hell broke loose! Wind, rain and more rain pelted us throughout the night and for most of the day on Saturday. We tried valiantly to keep birding through the wet and windy day and managed to add Shiny Cowbird at the Flamingo campground, but most of the birds were smarter than we were and declined to brave the elements. As the day drew to a close the rain slackened and we got our first inkling of what the “drop-in weather” had brought us. The hammocks were jumping with Black-throated Blue, Cape May, Black-throated Green, and other warblers.

A smattering of rain continued through Saturday night but Sunday brought mostly fair weather, although the winds were quite strong, especially as we headed down the Florida Keys. There were birds everywhere. Every little bit of roadside habitat held a warbler or two, or 10 if the conditions were just right. Without really trying we saw a dozen species at a random stop along Highway 1. A five minute walk along the edge of a mangrove swamp yielded eight species of migrants on Key West. The cool front that had brought us all the rain in the Everglades had caused a fallout in the keys!

By the end of the weekend we had managed to bring our total to 509 species … and that’s before we start our trip out to the Dry Tortugas. We are hoping for five or six more birds out there that we might not be able to see elsewhere. Wish us luck.

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More Migration Musings

Monday’s drop-in/fallout at High Island whet our appetites and we hungered for more, but, alas, it was not to be.

The birding was good on Tuesday but the spectacle of the prior day proved too great to be equaled. Instead of hundreds of birds in the trees at once, we had to be content with just tens. Instead of 20+ warbler species for the day, we had to be content with far fewer. It was still a good day, but we had been spoiled rotten by Monday. By the time we left High Island to search the rice fields for Hudsonian Godwits (We missed them again.) we had only added one new species to our list (Northern Waterthrush).

Other migrant traps proved to just a bit disappointing as well. We did not visit, but we heard reports that Sabine Woods was somewhat slow. We visited Peveto Woods near Holly Beach, LA and found it to be underwhelming. On Wednesday, we visited Dauphin Island, AL, and although it was better than most of the places we have visited so far this spring, it was no “High Island on Monday.” (We added Bachman’s Sparrow to our list at Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR and saw Swainson’s Warbler and Gray-cheeked Thrush at Dauphin Island.)

Overall, we were pleased with our totals from the Gulf Coast migration portion of our Big Year. We missed several species but we will still have a chance for them when we return at the end of the month.

Today we started the trip to southern Florida and the Dry Tortugas. Tomorrow we hope to get another chance to see the La Sagra’s Flycatcher!


Christmas came very early for birders at High Island, Texas, and the colorful ornaments on all the trees were a dizzying array of neotropical migrants!

According to the weather report, the conditions weren’t quite right for a full-blown fallout along the Texas coast today, but don’t tell that to the birds. Eighty-one species of birds were seen during the day, including 31 warblers. This has to rank as one of the best single days in recent memory. We didn’t see everything there was to see, but we were able to add 10 species to our year list, an incredible number to us.

Not only was there a large number of species but there was also a huge number of individuals. At some times during the day it was literally impossible to point your binoculars into the treetops and not see at least one bird somewhere in the field of view! It was hard to avoid sensory overload from all the potential birding targets.

All was not rosy, however. The reason there were so many birds was that it was raining most of the day. The wet weather and its poor lighting meant that Michael was not able to get any pictures of the spectacle.

You’ll just have to take our word for it…and that of the hundreds of smiling birders who shared the day with us!

High Winds + High Island = Low Birds

Low migrant land birds, that is, but we have still been able to add to our list thanks to the high diversity of water birds along the Texas coast.

We spent the last three days traveling up the coast and birding the barrier islands and High Island in Texas. Weather conditions have been awful for birding but, presumably, good for the birds. High winds from the south have been pushing the birds across the Gulf of Mexico and on toward their breeding grounds, leaving empty forests and fields for us. In fact, we have never seen it so empty in some of the places we have visited.

Undaunted, we pressed on. Mustang Island and Port Aransas turned up only Blue Grosbeak for the year list. Galveston Island produced nothing new at all. Despite a general scarcity of neotropical migrants our luck improved at High Island, Anahuac and Bolivar Peninsula. We had good luck with water birds and even picked up two migrants.

Some highlights: Rollover Pass was full of gulls, terns, and shorebirds and we easily picked up Common Tern and Black Tern there. In fact, we saw eight species of terns for the day. Anahuac NWR was teeming with three species of ibis (according to reports), both bitterns (Least Bittern was new for us.), several rails (Yellow and King were new for us.), and a variety of shorebirds. The Skillern Tract was especially interesting. We also added Common Nighthawk and Seaside Sparrow at Anahuac. The woodlots of High Island were slow and finding birds was like pulling teeth. After several hours of patience we were able to add only Eastern Kingbird and American Redstart.

A weather system is approaching and we are hoping for better birding later in the week. The winds forecast looks like it might produce a moderate fallout. Stay tuned.

No Birds Today

Renee was sitting on the committee for a dissertation defense by one of her former students and Michael was getting ready for our next excursion, so we did not get the chance to do any birding today. We’re stuck on 474. Tomorrow we leave for High Island, TX and the Dry Tortugas, FL, a potent one-two punch for migration in the south. We hope to get to 525 by the time we finish with those legs of the trip and return to Texas at the beginning of May. We’ll try to stay in touch whenever we get internet access. Happy birding!

Buffies and Uppies!!

This story falls under the category “Birds are where you find them.”

How often has someone asked you “Where can I find bird X?” How often have you looked for a certain species in the same or similar place over and over again and not found it? How often has it happened that when you finally found a certain bird it was where you never expected it to be? This story is about those questions.

The conventional wisdom when folks are looking for Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper in South Texas is to visit the sod farms during the early spring. If you visit often enough you will eventually find them there.

We followed that formula this spring and visited all the sod farms we could find as often as we could. We squinted into the rising sun at distances of over a hundred yards at peeps and pecs. We scoped birds silhouetted against the setting sun over the glare of newly irrigated fields. We roasted under the mid-day sun staring at dry fields with grasses of various heights. We sorted through hundreds of golden-plovers looking for longer-necked interlopers. We were getting quite sick of the smell of grass!

Upland Sandpiper was the first to fall under our gaze. We found it initially on a trip out of the Valley but spotted some on our local sod farms a few days later. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper was proving to be much harder.

Today, we finally found our buffies, and they were nowhere near a sod farm. In fact, as you can see from the picture, there was precious little grass anywhere near the birds.

We actually were not looking for buffies at all. We had received a tip from our friend Huck Hutchens, a volunteer at our favorite local hotspot, Estero Llano Grande State Park, about a Hudsonian Godwit on Bucy Road near Hargill, TX. The location was a small pond surrounded by farm fields a short way north of town. We drove to the spot where he had seen the godwit and spent some time scoping for the bird with no luck. As we were looking at the assortment of birds in the pond – dowitchers, pecs, least, stilts, yellowlegs, ducks, etc. – Michael noticed some smallish birds in a drier area of bare ground beyond the pond. “Buffies!” he called, and started to adjust the scope for Renee to take a look at the eight or nine birds he had found.

Now, if you look at our picture under the Who Are We? page of this web site you will see that this presents somewhat of a problem for us. At almost 6 feet 4, Michael racks the tripod almost all the way up, and at 4 feet 10, Renee needs it almost all the way down! In this case, by the time Michael had lowered the scope for Renee, the birds flushed and Renee had to be content to identify them based on the wing pattern and other clues in flight. We were not happy with that result because we always want both of us to see all the birds on our Big Year “well enough to put them on a life list.”

Ecstatic at the good luck of finding the sandpipers in the totally unexpected locale but also somewhat disappointed, we returned to the car and decided to “take a look around” at the unfamiliar area and scout out other future birding locations nearby. We drove about a quarter of a mile from the pond and were looking at a large pasture with some nice-looking grass when Renee asked “What are these birds over here?” She had spotted some birds quite close, but on the other side of the road, in a plowed field of mostly bare dirt.

The sun was in our eyes as we looked at the shorebirds walking down the furrows but it was immediately obvious that she had found some more buffies! Not only that, but there were uppies and some golden-plovers as well. “Sod farms? We don’t need no stinking’ sod farms!” they seemed to say. All in all, we counted about a dozen buffies, about the same number of plovers, and about twice as many uppies. Not bad for a bare field of dirt out in the middle of nowhere.

The moral of the story is: Keep your eyes open wherever you are. Birds are not always where you think they will be.

Ok, NOW Spring is Here!

After a couple of days of easterly winds the migrants on South Padre Island were far better than “normal” today. We added seven new species for the year.

We started today on Old Port Isabel Road. We heard and saw several Cassin’s Sparrows and heard some distant snippets of song that may have been our target, Botteri’s Sparrow, but were unable to get a clear id on the latter bird. Then we headed over to South Padre Island to see what the east winds had dropped in.

The answer was, quite a bit. The overall numbers were not great – often it was just a single bird of a species – but the diversity was good. Several empids were present, first-of-year for us, although we felt confident only calling Acadian Flycatcher. A stunning male Scarlet Tanager was at the convention center, along with Orchard Oriole and Kentucky Warbler; all three year-birds. They were joined by Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Hooded Oriole, Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, and a variety of others.

At the Valley Land Fund lots on Sheepshead Street there were Prothonotary Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush to add to the list, along with Black-and-white and Black-throated Green Warblers, more parulas, empids and orioles, and a nice assortment of the other usual suspects.

On the bay shore we looked through the usual flocks of gulls, terns, and shorebirds to find Semipalmated Sandpiper to add to the list.

We ended the day by checking the sod farms for Buff-breasted Sandpiper on our way home. We were unsuccessful, but did find dozens of American Golden-Plovers, several Upland Sandpipers, and some Pectoral Sandpipers, Killdeer, and far-off peeps.

The addition of seven new birds for the list was the highest total of new species that we have had in quite some time.