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!

The Quest for a “Countable” Aplomado Falcon

This is the first in a series of articles about finding some of the “better” birds in the ABA area. There is no schedule for when the next article in the series will be released so stay tuned.

I recently helped lead a birding trip to see Aplomado Falcon along Old Port Isabel Road in Cameron County, Texas. Without a doubt, the easiest place in the ABA area to see an Aplomado Falcon is the coastal plain of South Texas, from Mustang Island south to the Mexican border. 1200 or so birds have been released in this region since the 1980s and 90s. Unfortunately, that population of falcons is considered by the ABA as still in the process of being re-introduced, not sufficiently established to be self-sustaining and, therefore, not “countable” under ABA “rules.”

Several Big Year birders over the past 15 years or so (including the presumptive new record-holder, Neil Hayward, and the two birders who follow him in the standings, Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel) have put falcons seen in this area on their final year lists, and as far as I know, those birds have not been stricken from their totals. But, it is my opinion that under a strict interpretation of the ABA list “rules,” Aplomado Falcons in South Texas are not countable.

To be fair, those Big Year birders did not put South Texas Aplomado Falcons on their lists without considerable misgivings. In fact, in his blog, Neil Hayward gives a complete description of his thought process regarding the falcon and it is clear that he agonized over the decision until the very last before deciding to add it. Rationalizations for including those birds range from “those other guys did it” to “the bird was not banded. It could have been a wild bird.”

So, where do you find countable falcons in the ABA area? The short answer to that question is New Mexico and far West Texas. A slightly longer answer adds a caveat about re-introduced populations in that region.

Aplomado Falcons were essentially extirpated from the ABA area, presumably by a combination of habitat disturbance, pesticide exposure, and persecution. A quick look on eBird shows that the nearest populations are found in Mexico in two main areas, along the Gulf Coast from Tampico south to the base of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the grasslands of central Chihuahua. It is stragglers and hangers-on from the Chihuahua population that presumably occupy the remaining New Mexico and West Texas range of the species in the ABA area.

There are very few “wild” Aplomado Falcons breeding in the area in question. In fact, from 1952 until 2002, there were no accepted records of successful nesting north of Mexico. Starting in 2002 there have been confirmed nesting records in southern New Mexico. All other Aplomado Falcon records for the area are presumably of vagrants traveling north from the Chihuahua, Mexico population. Therefore, the only “countable” falcons in the ABA area are those few breeding pairs and vagrants in southern New Mexico and West Texas.

Finding these birds is a needle-in-a-haystack affair. Very little information is available but eBird records show that the “best” area is southern New Mexico. There have been dozens of records for desert grassland habitats near and along New Mexico Highway 9, mostly in the area west of Columbus and as far as Hachita. (During our Big Year in 2012 we were given a tip by a local birding guide and were able to find a pair of falcons just east of Hachita.) In West Texas, the best area appears to be near and to the northwest of Marfa, although most of the eBird sightings there probably refer to the same bird seen in 1992, and more recent sightings may be of re-introduced birds on private ranches. Other sightings, though extremely rare, have been in the Big Bend region. Most of these sightings can be classified as pure luck, although a falcon seen at Carolyn Ohl’s Christmas Mountains oasis for about a month in 2010 was obviously attracted to her site.

(A note about records: Many sightings of Aplomado Falcons go unreported. Birders, conservation workers, and private landowners often feel that it is better for the birds, or themselves, if the bird’s whereabouts are not widely disseminated. For example, when we were given our tip on where to find falcons it came with the condition that we should not publicize the exact location and only tell others whom we trusted not to do anything that would compromise the birds survival. We did not report our sighting to eBird.)

There is a chance that these Chihuahuan Desert grassland observations will come under a cloud of “countability suspicion” in the future. Re-introduction releases have been taking place on private lands in the Trans-Pecos of Texas since 2002, and on public and military lands near White Sands,New Mexico since 2007. There are other proposed releases, and some rumored ones, on both public and private lands in New Mexico and Texas that could re-introduce more birds and introduce even more uncertainty about which Aplomado Falcons are countable and which are not.

Even more troubling is the recent trend in the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands of Mexico of rampant conversion of habitat to center-pivot agriculture. This accelerated habitat loss makes it even more important that re-introductions into protected habitats in the U.S. take place as quickly as possible. Far better to have birds that can’t be counted than no birds at all!

The “best” way to find a countable Aplomado Falcon is to travel to southern New Mexico and drive along NM Highway 9 between Columbus and Hachita. Scan and scope any areas that are dominated by desert grasslands (a few shrubs and small trees are OK but don’t waste your time searching in areas that are dominated by creosotebush or other shrubs over desert pavement or sand dunes). Get out early in the day. Even during the cooler months heat shimmer makes scoping across the grasslands difficult once the sun gets up any appreciable distance. Protect yourself from the heat, sun, and dehydration.

The birds tend to perch fairly low in the scattered shrubs or on a yucca and are not likely to be seen in flight. Check topographic maps or Google Earth to find areas of suitable habitat and especially look for the presence of available water (stock tanks and the like). There are few side roads along Highway 9 but you should definitely check out some of the county roads that go north from the highway into good grasslands. In particular, try County Road 001 east of Hachita and County Road 003 near Tres Hermanas.

DO NOT trespass on private lands! Landowners this close to the border have many reasons to be protective of their lands. With the current law-enforcement climate along the border it behooves you to be wary as well. Stay on public roads and public lands.

In conclusion, with diligent effort and a little luck, you have your best chance to see a wild and countable Aplomado Falcon on Highway 9 in New Mexico. When you do, be satisfied with your long-distance view (Do NOT try to approach the birds for a better look.) and take a selfie of your big grin!

A “Typical” Winter’s Day in the RGV

We decided to take advantage of the nice weather (temperatures in the 70s and 80s) to visit some birding locations along the coast.

It was a “typical” day. By that, we mean that we saw several things we did not expect and missed many things we did expect. In particular, some of the Valley “specials” continue to be very hard to find (Aplomado Falcon, for one) but the “staked out” rarities were fairly easy (except the Rose-throated Becard, which we missed).

Here is our list of 94 species from the following areas: our home neighborhood in Weslaco, Old Port Isabel Road, Brownsville Dump, Highway 48, South Padre Island, and Sabal Palm Sanctuary. There is nothing new for the Eight Years to 800!? but we did see some new things for the year.

  1. Gadwall
  2. American Wigeon
  3. Mottled Duck
  4. Blue-winged Teal
  5. Northern Shoveler
  6. Northern Pintail
  7. Redhead
  8. Lesser Scaup
  9. Red-breasted Merganser
  10. Ruddy Duck
  11. Least Grebe
  12. Pied-billed Grebe
  13. American White Pelican
  14. Brown Pelican
  15. Neotropic Cormorant
  16. Double-crested Cormorant
  17. Anhinga
  18. Great Blue Heron
  19. Great Egret
  20. Snowy Egret
  21. Little Blue Heron
  22. Tricolored Heron
  23. Reddish Egret
  24. Cattle Egret
  25. Green Heron
  26. White Ibis
  27. Black Vulture
  28. Turkey Vulture
  29. Osprey
  30. White-tailed Kite
  31. Northern Harrier
  32. Cooper’s Hawk
  33. White-tailed Hawk
  34. Red-tailed Hawk
  35. Crested Caracara
  36. American Kestrel
  37. Common Moorhen
  38. American Coot
  39. Black-bellied Plover
  40. Wilson’s Plover
  41. Killdeer
  42. American Oystercatcher
  43. Black-necked Stilt
  44. Spotted Sandpiper
  45. Greater Yellowlegs
  46. Willet
  47. Whimbrel
  48. Long-billed Curlew
  49. Ruddy Turnstone
  50. Sanderling
  51. Least Sandpiper
  52. Dunlin
  53. Short-billed Dowitcher
  54. Laughing Gull
  55. Ring-billed Gull
  56. Herring Gull
  57. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  58. Glaucous Gull
  59. Caspian Tern
  60. Forster’s Tern
  61. Royal Tern
  62. SandwichTern
  63. Black Skimmer
  64. Rock Pigeon
  65. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  66. Mourning Dove
  67. White-tipped Dove
  68. Red-crowned Parrot
  69. Great Horned Owl
  70. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  71. Belted Kingfisher
  72. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  73. Tropical Kingbird
  74. Loggerhead Shrike
  75. White-eyed Vireo
  76. Green Jay
  77. Chihuahuan Raven
  78. Horned Lark
  79. Black-crested Titmouse
  80. Verdin
  81. CarolinaWren
  82. House Wren
  83. Northern Mockingbird
  84. European Starling
  85. Orange-crowned Warbler
  86. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  87. Olive Sparrow
  88. SavannahSparrow
  89. Northern Cardinal
  90. Red-winged Blackbird
  91. Eastern Meadowlark
  92. Great-tailed Grackle
  93. Hooded Oriole
  94. House Sparrow

Slaty-backed Gull at Lake Casa Blanca, TX

The picture first this time:

Early yesterday morning, while we were planning a scouting trip for a birding fieldtrip I am leading later in the week, we heard about “a strange gull” that had first been reported by Susan Foster during the Lardeo bird festival. Pictures and comments in a posting to TexBirds by Holly Reinhard indicated that the bird was a Slaty-backed Gull, a rare vagrant from Alaska. 15 minutes later we were on our way to Laredo! (The scouting trip will have to wait.)

We stopped at Falcon Lake to pick up our friends, Judy and Larry Geiger, and continued on to Lake Casa Blanca International Park, just off Loop 20 in Laredo. We arrived just before lunch time. Few gulls were present at the lake and none were a likely candidate for our target bird.

Soon after our arrival the weather started to deteriorate as yet another cold front started pushing its way south. The windy and cold weather made the rest of the day unpleasant but it reminded us of exactly the kind of weather one usually has when looking for rare gulls!

Throughout our stay at the lake we explored as many vantage points as we could to scope as much of the lake as possible, compared notes with the few other birders who were present, and waited for better luck. The lake was a surprisingly birdy place and there were some unexpected finds, such as Purple Martins and swallows, but our target bird eluded us.

As the day wore on more and more gulls began to return to the lake from their foraging runs. By 3 pm there were hundreds of gulls loafing on the water several hundred yards offshore. Our only choice was to methodically scope as much of the lake as we could and search through every gull out there. Dan Jones had reported seeing the bird early in the day so we still had hope.

About 4 pm we spotted a larger, darker gull far out in the lake. It was facing away from us into the north wind and we were not sure it was our bird. To get a better look we drove around to the boat ramp where we hoped we’d be able to see the bird in profile. Unfortunately, we lost track of the bird while we were moving and could not pick it out from the new vantage point. There were two other birders at the boat ramp and we told them of our “likely candidate” bird. Sure enough, with more eyes looking, the bird was found! Mike Dupree, down for the chase from Houston, spotted the Slaty-backed Gull a couple of hundred yards out.

We all tried to get photos. The pictures show the bird but none of them will win any awards!

They Sure Look Wild and Established to Me!

Today I added three new species to my life list. Unfortunately, none of them “count.”

I have been frustrated that there are no chase-able rarities nearby so I decided to add some non-ABA birds to my list while I wait for rarities to appear. In particular, I went in search of parrots of the RGV in Brownsville, TX. An hour spent at Oliveira Park yielded three new species: Yellow-headed Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, and White-fronted Parrot. The pictures are horrible but the birds themselves put on a spectacular show!

All of these species exist in the RGV because of escaped cage birds from the pet trade. But that doesn’t mean that they are not a part of the local avifauna. These birds have been breeding on their own for as long as I have been in Texas (21 years). It is only a matter of time before they will make it onto the ABA list.

So, for now, they don’t count, but I’ve got them “in the bank” for later.

Building a Big List Is Hard on a Budget!

I decided to try to take an average of one trip each month to chase after rarities and fill in empty spots on my list of Code 1 and Code 2 birds. My goal is to have these trips cost about $500 each and for each trip to produce two new species for my struggle to 800.

My February trip was planned to be a chase after the Greater/American Flamingo pair that has been delighting birders along theTexas and Louisiana coasts for nearly the past decade. Unfortunately, the reports of the birds hanging out in Cox Bay, near Port Lavaca, TX, petered out while we were in Arizona on our first trip of the year. I made an effort to re-locate the birds from shore farther south, figuring that they might have headed down toward Corpus Christi or even Port Mansfield as the weather got colder. I was unsuccessful in searching for the pink needle in the great expanse of wet haystack of the lower Texas coast. I then tried to search the shores of Cox Bay itself from land but was thwarted by the fact that there is very little access by road to good vantage points. I figure that I was able to scope only about 10% of the bay shore. I will have to wait for some fisherman, or the rare birder with a boat, to report the flamingoes again so I can give them a proper chase.

So, I decided to head up north to search for longspurs. I still needed Lapland (one of our nemesis birds from 2012) and Smith’s Longspurs for my list. We had tried a couple of times to see the Smith’s during our year and had spent many days keeping an eye out for the Lappie, all to no avail. This time it was going to be different! I was going to make a trip just to target those two species (and a non-ABA exotic, Bronze Mannikin, since it happened to be on my way).

Well, it wasn’t all that different. Longspurs are not an easy group to see well. I did manage to find a flock of about 30 Lapland Longspurs, but I was not able to get any decent photos. Longspurs have a characteristic, and frustrating, flocking behavior. Just when you think the flock is about to settle in to give you a good view they veer off and circle far out into the fields. They alight briefly, but some bird in the group isn’t satisfied, so up comes the whole flock to wheel and veer about some more, coming tantalizingly close, but ultimately ending up, it seems, at the limits of your view.

The Smith’s Longspurs were even harder. Their winter range is very local and they depend on very specific habitat requirements. Despite going to what I figured were the best locations for Smith’s within range of my budget, I was never able to get a good look. Part of my problem is that phrase “within range of my budget.” I did not want to travel any farther afield than I needed to find the birds. (I also did not want to go too far north because another cold front was in the forecast.)  But, I obviously needed to go farther to get into range of more birds!

Another problem I had was the nature of the information I had on locations for the birds. One place in particular, a municipal airport where the birds are seen in the short grasses along the runways and taxiways, made it seem as if the birds were fairly easily found. But, the report gave few details on how the birds were located and failed to mention that you need special permission to access the runways. When I arrived at the site, the airport was closed (apparently no staff is there during the weekends in winter) and there was no way to get permission. I did spend half the day searching the areas that I could access without special permission and I managed to walk along the parking area for the planes but I was leery of venturing too far from the airport terminal for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist!

It started to rain and the forecast called for it to get worse the next day and perhaps turn to snow. But, I had driven 800 miles to get to the airport and I figured it was better to stay and try in the rain and cold than to go somewhere else with equally sketchy information.

The next day, at first light, I again found myself standing on the edge of the taxiway at Stuttgart Municipal Airport, Arkansas. The weather was windy, wet, and cold but miraculously, after about an hour of that misery, a small flock of birds flew in from out of my view and landed in the short grass between the taxiway and the runway about 50 yards out. The look was too brief for me to see much in the way of field marks but the clincher was the flight call the birds made as they flew by and dove into the grass. The call is usually described as a “rattle” but I think it is more like a short, staccato machine gun burst: pit-ta-tit-tit-tit – four or five quick notes; quite distinctive once you’ve listened to enough recordings.

By the way, I missed the mannikin after two attempts at Bear Creek Park in Houston. But I did see another exotic bird. I know the provenance of this bird so I won’t be counting it on my Eight Years list. If you would like more information, send me an email at my gmail address. It looks to me like a Japanese Quail, Coturnix japonica, which is very similar to Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. Japanese Quail are commonly kept as domestic animals.

Altogether, I drove a little over 2000 miles and spent four nights “camping” in the van to see the two longspurs. That added up to $440 in fuel and camping fees; another pair of $200 plus birds.