The endless summer of the Rio Grande Valley seems to have finally abated somewhat and the migrating birds and winter visitors are definitely here.
A cool front swept in over the last few days and temperatures dropped about 20 degrees; all the way down to a high of 75. That, and the mostly cloudy skies, made for a very pleasant day of birding at South Padre Island.
We didn’t find anything earth shattering but there was a good selection of migrants, winter visitors, and locals and a day list of over 75 species. Warblers (8 species) and other migrants were the highlight, including a stunning Blue-headed Vireo in fresh, new plumage. Also interesting were some first-of-season (for us) White-crowned Sparrows and several Hermit Thrushes. Is winter here already?
Perhaps most gratifying was the condition of the habitat on the island. While our home turf is still very parched from the extended drought, the trees and brush on the island were lush and green. The Warbler Rest at the convention center and the Valley Land Fund lots on Sheepshead Avenue looked very nice. We only wish there were several more areas like that in the sea of development.
We continue to watch the bird alerts and make occasional forays to our favorite haunts in the hope of a new bird or two for our year list. But even if it’s just the same old things we are enjoying our stay at home in the RGV.
Renee has often wondered how more experienced birders can identify a bird at a glance even from a moving boat or car, while she takes much more time carefully studying field marks trying to figure it out.
When asked how they identified a specific bird, the experienced birders often said, “jizz.” So Renee wanted to find out what jizz was and more important how you can learn jizz.
Wikipedia says jizz is “a term used by birders to describe the overall impression or appearance of a bird garnered from such features as shape, posture, flying style or other habitual movements, size and coloration combined with voice, habitat and location.” Experienced birders say they recognize birds they see frequently the same way most people can recognize a friend or relative across a room.
So how can a less experienced birder like Renee learn jizz. Part of it is practice. One of the reasons we recognize people we know quickly is that we have seen them many times in many different situations. One of the leaders on the Southern California pelagic trip has seen Sooty Shearwaters so many times that he said they were like robins are to most birders.
But there is more to it than just practice. Renee has discovered that experienced birders use clues other than field marks and vocalizations to quickly identify birds. The first one is habitats. Unlike Renee, experienced birders know what birds they are likely to encounter in different habitats. Range maps help but they don’t tell the whole story. For example, Yellow-billed Magpie is found in Northern California but is almost always in open areas with scattered oak trees. Knowing where to look makes all the difference. Even pelagic birds have habitats. For example, Black-vented Shearwaters are likely to be found close to shore while Buller’s Shearwaters are found further out to sea.
Experienced birders also know the habits of the birds they are identifying. For example, a Northern Harrier usually glides across fields while a White-tailed Kite hovers in place. If a warbler is acting like a flycatcher, it is probably a Yellow-rumped warbler. Knowing the habits of birds can help locate them too. For example, Renee kept looking for Pacific-Slope Flycatcher on exposed snags of trees while Michael knew they preferred shady perches and often eat insects from leaves and branches. He was able to find the bird perched in the middle of a tree.
All of this adds up to what experienced birders call jizz. They don’t even have to think about the field identification marks, vocalizations, habitats, or habits of birds they see frequently.
When less experienced birders ask how they identified a bird, they often can’t break it down. It’s jizz, just is.
We’ve been home for a little over a week and have done a few days of recreational birding, but we have not had any rarities to look for.
All around the country we are watching reports of rare birds; a Gray-tailed Tattler here, a Red-throated Pipit there, while Texas sits and simmers in unseasonably hot weather with no hot birds.
Relief may be on the way. Cooler weather and a large influx of birders to help find a rarity will surely come in a couple of weeks when the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival arrives. Something always shows up when there are several thousand pairs of eyes in the field. Let’s hope it is something new for our year.
Even without something new, our local birds and returning winter visitors are quite a visual treat.
This has nothing to do with birds or birding, but during our travels this year we have had trouble getting our mail.
At first we tried simply putting a hold on the mail. But, the post office will not hold mail for more than a month at a time. Since we have been gone for six or eight weeks on some of our trips that would never do.
So, we tried getting a box at one of those neighborhood shipping and mail centers and having our mail forwarded to them. The problems with that have been many and constant! First, the post office messed up our forwarding order. We lost several pieces of mail that we know were sent to us but never arrived. They are drifting around in the ether somewhere. Then, the business went bankrupt. We had less than two weeks to find a new forwarding address.
Our post office usually has no PO Boxes to rent, but we lucked out (we thought) and one was available. We changed our forwarding order and merrily went on our way at the start of our last California trip. On our return, we found out that the post office had never implemented our new change order and our mail was still being delivered to the defunct business six weeks later! More mail was lost in the ether, including at least two checks.
One of those checks is the refund from our cancelled pelagic trip. We don’t want to be nasty, so we will just say that the trip operator has not been very helpful in getting a new check sent to us. We hope the post office can track down the original one. Caveat emptor.
So, this is a cautionary tale. If you are planning to do your own Big Year, spend more time at the beginning to make sure that your mail is taken care of.
We spent six weeks in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from the end of August to the 11th of October. Here is the cost-benefit analysis.
Total cost for the trip was about $1800. Total number of new species seen was 15. That works out to $120 per species. That is far more than we expected to spend and fewer new birds than we expected to find. It is a perfect illustration of how it gets harder and harder to add new species as the list grows. Remember that we reached 601 species for the year on less than $10 per bird! The next 30 species cost about $60 per bird.
Our biggest shortcoming was the pelagic birds. Bad weather cancelled one pelagic trip and the other was only so-so. We saw less than half the birds we expected to see. We did some whale watch trips as well. We only saw one new species during over six hours of near-shore birding on those trips. Had we been just a little more fortunate we could have added five or six more birds to our list. At the beginning of the year we had not planned to do very many pelagics because they often are quite expensive. We did trips that were quite reasonable in cost, but we did not get the results we had hoped for.
Another disappointment was the lack of rarities during most of the trip. The fall season along the west coast always has some good birds. This year was no exception, but they did not turn up at the right place and the right time for us to chase them. Once again, we were constrained by our tight budget and could not chase some very special birds. We were successful on the majority of rarities we did actually chase; so that’s a plus.
Finally, we were quite unlucky with the timing of our trip when it came to gas prices in California. California is always expensive, but it was especially so during much of our four weeks in that state. At times we saw gas prices of over $5.29 per gallon. The combination of expensive gas and higher prices for lodgings than we usually spend put us several hundred dollars over our planned budget, even though we shared expenses with Michael’s brother for two and a half weeks.
In the final analysis, our last trip was the most expensive and least productive of the year, but we still crept ever closer to our latest goal of 650 species.
We got the Ruddy Ground-Dove today thanks to two ladies named Lora.
We arrived at Crescent Bend Nature Park at 7:30 AM, hoping to see the bird before it left its favorite roost trees at the intersection of Omar and Bluegill Drives. We were unsuccessful and spent the better part of the next seven hours scouring the park for the bird. Still no luck. Finally, at about 2:30 in the afternoon, we decided to park ourselves at the intersection and wait for the bird to return. We watched some Inca Doves on the ground and in the trees for about 20 minutes but did not see the Ruddy.
As we sat we remarked that we wished that some other birders would arrive so that there would be more eyes to help spot the bird. Soon, our wish was granted and Lora Render and Lora Reynolds arrived and parked behind us on the roadside. Almost as soon as they arrived, Ms. Render got out of the car and started pointing for her friend to see a bird in the very tree that we had been watching. Renee got out to ask what she had seen, and sure enough, she had spotted the Ruddy Ground-Dove sitting and preening right in front of our noses! We had been sitting there watching Inca Doves and were completely oblivious to our target bird hidden behind some branches on the other side of the tree.
We wonder how long we would have sat there if the Loras hadn’t shown up! We sure got lucky on that one.
We are back home in the RGV and will be looking for Valley rarities for the next five weeks, the longest stretch of time that we will be home for the entire year. Our budget is almost exhausted; a good thing, because we are almost exhausted as well! Our last birding trip on our pre-selected budget will be in Florida after we visit Renee’s mother at Thanksgiving.
We could reach our latest goal of 650 species before our final money dries up, but even when the money is gone we will continue our Big Year until the end. We will be back in New Jersey and New England visiting relatives for Christmas and we’ll tack on some birding days to that trip and keep track of how far “in the red” we go.
So, for those of you who have been following along for awhile, this story will be familiar.
For the third time this year the Birding Gods are messing with our heads! We just spent five days to-from-and-in California, including one day searching in vain for Blue-footed Booby at the Salton Sea. Does anyone want to guess what showed up at the Salton Sea the day AFTER we left? No points awarded for the uber-obvious answer of Blue-footed Booby! We had similar one-day-after arrivals for Fork-tailed Flycatcher, not once but twice, in Florida and Maine.
Not to worry though; our exit from California was precipitated by reports of a Ruddy Ground-Dove along our route home to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. With any luck (and we have already made offerings to the Birding Gods!) we will replace that missed booby with a cuddly little dove tomorrow!
Which is to say, bad luck.
Well, not exactly … We had a very productive trip with SoCal Birding on the boat Grande yesterday. It just did not live up to our hopes and expectations as far as new species for our year list is concerned. There were as many as 14 new species that were possible on the trip but we saw only two: Least Storm-Petrel and Red-billed Tropicbird.
The highlight of the trip was the huge raft of storm-petrels at the 30-mile Bank. There were thousands of birds there and at least four species of storm-petrels were present, maybe five. (Nobody made a positive id on Leach’s Storm-Petrel, even though Michael and a couple of others saw what they thought was one.)
Make no mistake, we are thrilled that we saw two new species, and they certainly made the trip well worth its cost on our budget Big Year, but we were hoping for at least three new species and had reasonable expectations for as many as five. Alas, it was not to be.
That is the nature of pelagic birding. Any given trip is a huge gamble. You might see everything or you might see nothing.
The car is fixed and we’re on our way to San Diego for our last planned pelagic trip.
We have been frustrated by the recent lack of rarities for us to chase so we are pinning our hopes of making significant strides toward our new goal of 650 species on this trip. There are quite a few possibilities for us, from Black-footed Albatross to Least Storm-Petrel, and we hope to get at least four or five new species at sea on Saturday.
If all goes well, we might also be able to track down a couple of land birds over the next couple of days, although that will be hard unless we get some help from the birding community.
Let us know what is out there so that we can go chase it down!
A note about our budget: Careful observers of our website will note that we have not changed our cash remaining total for some time. During the time that we were traveling with Michael’s brother in California we regularly updated the amount. After that trip Michael’s brother reimbursed us for his share of the expenses during the trip. We did not add that amount back to the total but rather will keep the total static until that amount is used up.