A Mini-Fallout at South Padre

An early-season cold front delayed a few (thousand) migrants along the Texas coast today.

We spent about half the day checking things out and compiled a list of 81 species from South Padre Island and the Highway 100 access road from Los Fresnos:

  1. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  2. Mottled Duck
  3. Blue-winged Teal
  4. Northern Pintail
  5. Redhead
  6. Red-breasted Merganser
  7. Common Loon
  8. Pied-billed Grebe
  9. Brown Pelican
  10. Double-crested Cormorant
  11. Great Blue Heron
  12. Snowy Egret
  13. Tricolored Heron
  14. Reddish Egret
  15. Cattle Egret
  16. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  17. White Ibis
  18. Roseate Spoonbill
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. Osprey
  21. American Kestrel
  22. Aplomado Falcon
  23. Clapper Rail
  24. American Coot
  25. Black-bellied Plover
  26. Snowy Plover
  27. Killdeer
  28. American Oystercatcher
  29. Black-necked Stilt
  30. Spotted Sandpiper
  31. Greater Yellowlegs
  32. Willet
  33. Lesser Yellowlegs
  34. Long-billed Curlew
  35. Marbled Godwit
  36. Sanderling
  37. Western Sandpiper
  38. Dunlin
  39. Laughing Gull
  40. Franklin’s Gull
  41. Ring-billed Gull
  42. Herring Gull
  43. Caspian Tern
  44. Forster’s Tern
  45. Royal Tern
  46. Sandwich Tern
  47. Black Skimmer
  48. Rock Pigeon
  49. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  50. Mourning Dove
  51. Inca Dove
  52. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  53. Belted Kingfisher
  54. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  55. Great Kiskadee
  56. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  57. White-eyed Vireo
  58. Yellow-throated Vireo
  59. Chihuahuan Raven
  60. Barn Swallow
  61. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  62. Gray Catbird
  63. Northern Mockingbird
  64. European Starling
  65. Blue-winged Warbler
  66. Northern Parula
  67. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  68. Yellow-throated Warbler
  69. Black-and-white Warbler
  70. Worm-eating Warbler
  71. Louisiana Waterthrush
  72. Kentucky Warbler
  73. Common Yellowthroat
  74. Hooded Warbler
  75. Clay-colored Sparrow
  76. Savannah Sparrow
  77. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  78. Red-winged Blackbird
  79. Great-tailed Grackle
  80. Orchard Oriole
  81. House Sparrow

The list includes about 15 neotropical migrants (flycatchers, vireos, warblers, orioles, etc.) that are just starting to arrive in numbers along the coast.

Streak-backed Oriole at Rattlesnake Springs, NM

I am working at our property in Rodeo, NM and hoping for a rarity or two to chase while I’m out west.

So far, nothing new has shown up. But the Streak-backed Oriole at Rattlesnake Springs, an on-again, off-again bird, was re-found and I decided to make the 700 mile round-trip to try for it.

We had tried for this bird on our way home from seeing the Blue-footed Booby and Sinaloa Wren in January, but we only spent one day and missed it that time. This time I was prepared to stay as long as it took to get it.

I got a very early start and arrived at the Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area at about 9 am. I was alone when I arrived but as I was making my first look around a fairly good sized group of birders arrived. I was grateful for the company. The more eyes looking for a needle in a haystack the better. I was even more pleased when I found out the group, a mixture of El Paso Auduboners and Roswell UFOs, was equipped with radios. Now, there were more eyes and the ability to spread out and still keep contact.

I joined the group that was searching the most frequently reported area for the oriole sightings, the cottonwood trees near the restrooms. We spent an hour or so with no luck. During the search, I spoke with some of the birders and learned that the nearby Washington Ranch, where the bird had been reported earlier, was birder friendly. (Renee and I had not visited the ranch in January.) Armed with that knowledge, and curious about the ranch, I left the group and headed over.

The place seemed deserted and I could find nobody to speak with about birding on the property, so I parked by the office and decided to take a quick look at the most readily accessible areas. I was impressed by the birding. The ranch bills themselves as an “oasis in the desert” and they surely lived up to that name. The birding at Rattlesnake Springs had been good but it was even better at the ranch. But my first circuit of the area produced no oriole.

I decided to walk down toward a small canyon a short way from the main office area and almost as soon as I started down the road I spotted the oriole in a small juniper tree. By this time, some of the birding group had started to arrive and I walked back up a short way and tried to wave them over to the bird. They were too far away, or too busy, to see me frantically waving my arms over my head trying to get their attention. Meanwhile, the oriole had started to move away from me, foraging about six feet above the ground in a group of small hackberry trees. I gave up trying to alert the others and went back to the oriole to try to get a photograph.

After watching the bird for several minutes and taking a few long-distance shots, I noticed that the settings on my camera were incorrect. All my pictures were underexposed! While I was readjusting my camera, the bird flew over my head and disappeared. At about the same time, two of the other birders arrived. I told them of the oriole and showed them my really bad photos and we all went off in search of the bird again. Despite another hour of looking, we never got another view.

Thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, and zooming in about 800%, I was able to salvage a decent shot of the bird from among my poor exposures.

And thanks to Camp Washington Ranch for opening their grounds to birders. It was a wonderful time at a wonderful place!

Trip Report: a mini-Big Day in the Estero Llano Grande birding van

Today was the last birding van trip for the winter season at Estero Llano Grande State Park. We did a Big Day kind of trip but we only had eight hours – a mini-Big Day.

The trip started and ended at Estero. We visited the grain silos at Progreso, then headed to South Padre Island with stops at Old Port Isabel Road, The Dump, and the Shrimp Basin boat ramp.

The highlights of the day were two Aplomado Falcons, one at Old Port Isabel Road and the other along Highway 100 near Los Fresnos. There were lots of other great birds, including lots of shorebirds at the Convention Centre and a decent selection of warblers on SPI. Here’s the full 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. Redhead
  10. Ring-necked Duck
  11. Red-breasted Merganser
  12. Ruddy Duck
  13. Plain Chachalaca
  14. Least Grebe
  15. Pied-billed Grebe
  16. American White Pelican
  17. Brown Pelican
  18. Neotropic Cormorant
  19. Double-crested Cormorant
  20. Anhinga
  21. Great Blue Heron
  22. Great Egret
  23. Snowy Egret
  24. Little Blue Heron
  25. Tricolored Heron
  26. Reddish Egret
  27. Cattle Egret
  28. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  29. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  30. White Ibis
  31. White-faced Ibis
  32. Black Vulture
  33. Turkey Vulture
  34. Osprey
  35. Northern Harrier
  36. Cooper’s Hawk
  37. Harris’s Hawk
  38. Red-tailed Hawk
  39. Crested Caracara
  40. American Kestrel
  41. Aplomado Falcon
  42. Clapper Rail
  43. Virginia Rail
  44. Sora
  45. Common Moorhen
  46. American Coot
  47. Black-bellied Plover
  48. Semipalmated Plover
  49. Piping Plover
  50. Killdeer
  51. American Oystercatcher
  52. Black-necked Stilt
  53. Spotted Sandpiper
  54. Willet
  55. Yellowlegs sp.
  56. Long-billed Curlew
  57. Marbled Godwit
  58. Ruddy Turnstone
  59. Sanderling
  60. Least Sandpiper
  61. Pectoral Sandpiper
  62. Dunlin
  63. Short-billed Dowitcher
  64. Long-billed Dowitcher
  65. Laughing Gull
  66. Ring-billed Gull
  67. Herring Gull
  68. Caspian Tern
  69. Forster’s Tern
  70. Royal Tern
  71. Black Skimmer
  72. Rock Pigeon
  73. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  74. White-winged Dove
  75. Mourning Dove
  76. Inca Dove
  77. Common Ground-Dove
  78. White-tipped Dove
  79. Red-crowned Parrot
  80. Common Pauraque
  81. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  82. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  83. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  84. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  85. Eastern Phoebe
  86. Great Kiskadee
  87. Couch’s Kingbird
  88. Loggerhead Shrike
  89. White-eyed Vireo
  90. Green Jay
  91. Chihuahuan Raven
  92. Tree Swallow
  93. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  94. Cave Swallow
  95. Barn Swallow
  96. Black-crested Titmouse
  97. Sedge Wren
  98. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  99. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  100. Gray Catbird
  101. Northern Mockingbird
  102. Long-billed Thrasher
  103. Curve-billed Thrasher
  104. European Starling
  105. Orange-crowned Warbler
  106. Northern Parula
  107. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  108. Yellow-throated Warbler
  109. Black-and-white Warbler
  110. Waterthrush sp.
  111. Common Yellowthroat
  112. Savannah Sparrow
  113. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  114. Northern Cardinal
  115. Red-winged Blackbird
  116. Eastern Meadowlark
  117. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  118. Great-tailed Grackle
  119. Bronzed Cowbird
  120. Brown-headed Cowbird
  121. Lesser Goldfinch
  122. House Sparrow

Spring migration is getting up some steam, especially for the shorebirds.

How to see a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum)

When I first started birding, back in the 1970s, the accepted wisdom on where to find a pygmy-owl was to go to the saguaro cactus habitat in the Sonoran Desert. It was not until much later that I heard people talking about pygmy-owls in South Texas. Now, it is very difficult to find an owl in the desert. The go-to place is Texas.

The decline of owls in the desert (G. b. cactorum) is not fully understood, but rampant development of the desert around Tucson, and southern Arizona in general, is surely part of the picture. It is not the whole picture, however, as owls have become exceedingly scarce even in the undeveloped parks and refuges in the region and are declining in Mexico as well. To be sure, pygmy-owls were never “common” in Arizona (at least not since the early 1900s), always being a treasured find and a rarity at the edge of their range. But, beginning in the 1990s population declines became severe enough for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the western subspecies as endangered. Unfortunately, despite no evidence of recovery in the region, political pressure led to the de-listing of the species in 2006.

Recent studies of owl populations in Arizona and nearby Sonora, Mexico indicate that population decline is a regional phenomenon and there is little hope for increased recruitment of owls into the Arizona desert from the desert of Sonora. This suggests that the likelihood of significant recovery of the population in the U.S.is low and the prospects for birders to see more owls in the Sonoran Desert habitats in the near future are not good.

Less is known about the history of pygmy-owls (G. b. ridgwayi)  in Texas. It was not until the pioneering work of Glenn Proudfoot and others in the middle 1990s that significant research effort was made. Indeed, it was just a few years earlier that pygmy-owls even made it onto the radar of most birders in the area. Whether this represents a case of recent increased colonization of the habitats of South Texas by the birds or just an increase in birders’ recognition of the species I do not know (although I suspect the latter).

Prior to the 1920s, pygmy-owls were a regular part of the South Texas avifauna (although I have not found any information on their abundance at that time beyond Oberholser’s account in The Bird Life of Texas) and were found in a variety of brushland habitats. From the 1920s until the 1970s massive clearing efforts for ranching and row-crop agriculture removed over 90% of the native brush and owls became rare.

How To See a Pygmy-Owl in the ABA Area

Since the 1990s, along with the increased research interest, there has been an increased interest in pygmy-owls as an important resource for ecotourism in South Texas. Much of what we know about owl populations is due to that ecotourism interest. Ecotourism is also the key to preserving the owls and the only reliable way to see an owl for a birder’s life list. There have been resident birds at several public-land locations in the Rio Grande Valley over the past 20 years but at the present time the only reliable locations are all on private land. (I will have more to say about searching for owls on public lands later.)

Without a doubt, the best chance you have to see a pygmy-owl is by taking an ecotour of the Norias Division of the King Ranch. Tom Langscheid and his staff have intimate knowledge of birds at several locations and they are often able to take their groups directly to an owl or owls. Unfortunately, the trip is rather pricey; about $125 and up, depending on how many are in your group. (Visit http://www.king-ranch.com/visit/nature-tours/ for more info.)

Other private ranches (El Canelo, San Miguelito) have offered birders the opportunity to see owls in the past but the presence of the birds has been less reliable lately. Contact the ranch to verify that they are seeing birds before you make the attempt. (El Canelo – http://www.elcaneloranch.com/birding) (Recent attempts to visit the San Miguelito website have failed. The ranch is listed as “for sale” and it looks like they are no longer offering birding access.)

Even though there have been no reliable reports of pygmy-owls on public lands in South Texas since the summer of 2010, there is no reason to think that they are not there somewhere. Likely locations to search are the Salt Lakes tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Driving the back roads in ranch country during the main calling season (mid-March to mid-May) at dawn and dusk might also produce an owl. Some better than average chances are likely to be found along Highway 186 between Raymondville and Port Mansfield near the El Sauz Ranch. But be warned, you will find a whole lot of nothing before you find a pygmy-owl!

In Arizona, the two best locations to find a pygmy-owl are the western unit of the Saguaro National Monument and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Inquire at the park when you arrive and they will do their best to help you find an owl. Another location that has been fairly productive in recent years (but still not a sure thing by any means) is the Tortolita area just northwest of Tucson. Driving, or hiking, and listening are your best strategies.

Do not rely on eBird to produce your lifer owl. Don’t get me wrong. I love eBird. But, people are very protective of “their” owls and most sightings don’t even make it to eBird. Those that do may not give accurate details on location.

Hit the roads or just pony up the bucks and take a tour of the King Ranch. Either way have fun searching for your lifer FEPO!