South Texas Continues To Be Amazing!

The 2014-2015 winter season is shaping up to be a monster for rarities in South Texas.

After the relatively slow summer and fall seasons we experienced in North Carolina and New Mexico, respectively, we have had great luck in South Texas this winter. Since November, I have seen two first-for-the-state records (if accepted by the records committee) and two other “code birds” (birds with ABA rarity codes of 3 or higher). Amazing!

The latest is another gem from Estero Llano Grande State Park. The park itself and, more important, the great staff and volunteers there, make this park the very best in the Rio Grande Valley right now, IMHO. Thanks to Huck Hutchens for finding a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat!

My pictures aren’t great, but the bird sure is!

Interestingly, at the same time that I was looking at the yellowthroat, a male Blue Bunting was being reported at Laguna Atascosa. A similar situation occurred back in November when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen at Laguna while everyone was looking for the Red-legged Honeycreeper at Estero. Laguna Atascosa NWR is definitely my runner-up pick for Valley hotspots this season. (Unfortunately, I missed the Blue Bunting when I went to look the morning after seeing the yellowthroat.)

It seems that good birds come in bunches down here this year.

Well, Maybe One More Rarity Chase Won’t Hurt

Despite my recent post about eliminating long-distance chasing of rarities due to the high cost per species of such chasing, I just had to go see the first-ever-in-the-ABA-area Striped Sparrow nearby in Texas.

Actually, I had planned on chasing this bird before I posted to the blog about my disappointment in rarity chasing. I was delayed, however, by bad weather that turned my driveway into a mud puddle and led to me getting my camper van stuck. (Getting stuck was the straw that broke this camel’s back and made chasing the bird decidedly less fun than I had hoped it would be.) After three days of trying to dig out, the weather finally turned better and our landlord was able to get his tractor out of a nearby field and pull my van out. My spirits perked up markedly.

Texas is a big place. That’s more than a cliche, folks. A trip from one end of Texas to the other on Interstate 10 is equivalent to driving from Washington, DC all the way to Orlando, Florida. So, when I say that the sparrow was “nearby inTexas” that’s a relative term. Still, at about 385 miles away, it was within an easy day’s drive and within a reasonable budget (especially with fuel prices falling as they have). I’m not planning to do this kind of chasing very much anymore, but this sort of mega-rarity was an exception to my new “rule.”

The chase itself was a piece of cake. I was the only birder there when I arrived at the stake-out site at first light (about a half-hour before dawn) and the bird was already feeding in the road with a flock of sparrows and cardinals. It was too dark to get a picture and I stuck around for better light. For the next two hours the bird made half a dozen visits, spending about 10 minutes sitting and preening in a tree and shorter times feeding along the roadside. By the time I left at about 9 AM, at least 30 other birders had seen the bird, too.

Even with all these chances, however, my pictures are not good. A small bird at a fairly long distance is hard to shoot well. These are the best documentary shots I have.

As for the budget, this chase only set me back about $150. That’s a cost per bird that I can certainly live with.

Some Thoughts About Budget Birding in Florida

Florida can be an expensive place for birding, especially during peak season and at any time in the Miami area and the Keys.

The best way to deal with the expense is to make a few, very efficient, visits to the area rather than many, less focused, ones. We have a very good situation since Renee’s mother lives in Florida and we can count on reduced lodging costs when we visit her. Even so, we only visited Florida three times during our Big Year and tried to see as many of the specialties as we could each trip (with mixed results). We still have some glaring holes in our Florida specialties list, but we think the following advice is good, in general.

First, late winter and spring (March and April) are the best times to visit Florida in terms of the highest species richness. Many of the most sought-after rarities winter farther south and start to return by then and most of the winter specialties are still hanging on. So, you get the best of both seasons. You also miss most of the crowds of winter tourists and have better and sometimes cheaper lodging options (although the lodging costs can still be quite high in the south, especially the Keys). Late fall and early winter are also quite nice, though some of the more tropical birds are already gone by then. Summer can be good for breeding birds but the heat, humidity, and insects make camping more difficult and tend to increase lodging costs when you are “forced” to stay in motels. The peak season (right after Christmas and through February) tends to be crowded and more expensive for just about everything.

Second,Floridahas a very good system of county and state parks and federal camping options in National Parks and National Forests. You really should do at least some camping to save money and to get closer to the best birding areas. For example, camping in the Everglades National Park at the Flamingo campsite is very reasonable and it is much better than having to drive all the way from the nearest motels in, say, Homestead. Be warned, however, that even the camping in the Keys can set you back $40 or $50 just for a tent site; but that’s still better than $100 to $200 for a motel room. If you are flying in, it makes sense to rent a reasonably sized RV and tour the state. That way, you get your car rental and lodging all in one package. The saving could be substantial.

Third, plan to spend 10 days or more if you want to see the most species with the least cost. Florida is at the far southeast edge of the country and getting there is quite expensive for many folks. Doing a shorter trip and having to come back again when you miss something is always more expensive than a single, longer trip. (You’ll still miss some things, but longer trips are usually better in the long run.) Even when you are coming to Florida to chase a specific rarity it is always a good idea to see if there are other birds to seek nearby that can be reached at a modest added cost in time and money.

So, where do you go for your 10 days or more of birding in Florida? Here are our favorite spots:

1. The Florida Keys- especially make an effort to visit Key West and the Dry Tortugas during the spring. If you can do it during “fallout weather” you could be treated to one of the birding highlights of your lifetime. Camping at Fort Jefferson is a special treat. The conditions are somewhat primitive but it is worth it. Make sure to get reservations as far in advance as you can. Space is limited. Also, there are special rules set by both the National Park Service and the Yankee ferry company, so do your research. Keep an eye on eBird for rarities. There are a dozen or more special birds that are possible in the Keys.

2. Everglades National Park and surrounding areas – water birds are the highlight here, but it is also a great place to see Shiny Cowbird, Short-tailed Hawk, and (if you are lucky) anis.

3. The greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale area – especially good for the many exotic species that are possible in the urban and suburban environment. Traffic and development take their toll on both the birds and the birders, but if you can stand the conditions you will find some good birds. It is imperative that you do lots of research on eBird for the hard-to-find species. We don’t hire guides for most birding but this is one place where you might consider it for birds like White-winged Parakeet, Spot-breasted Oriole, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani, etc. (Larry Manfredi is the go-to guy for this area.)

4.Sanibel Island and Ding Darling NWR – water birds and Mangrove Cuckoo are the biggest draw here. It can be very expensive staying near here, so plan things carefully.

5. The southern end of Lake Okeechobee- the Stormwater Treatment Areas and other marshes are the big draw in this area. The best spot for Snail Kite.

6. If you are driving in from the west, make a stop at Appalachicola National Forest and look for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and others. These species are found in other areas, too. Do some eBird research to see where they are likely to be along your route.

7. OscarSchererState Parkand the Venice area for Florida Scrub-Jay. Again, there are other likely spots, so do your eBird research if you won’t be near this area during your stay in Florida.

8. Anywhere that a rarity is being reported – keep in touch with eBird, NARBA, Tropical Audubon Society, and other rare bird alerts throughout your stay.

Even if you follow all that advice, you aren’t guaranteed to clean up on all of the 30 or so Florida specialties (We still have about 10 left for our list!) but you should have made a good dent in those numbers.

This is the end … my friends.

I have decided not to continue the Eight Years to 800!? project. (I’m still heading for a big list, but at a more leisurely pace and no “pressure” to hit a specific goal.)

It’s not because I think that the 800 goal is unattainable. It’s because I don’t think it is attainable on the budget I am prepared to spend. This blog is about Birding on a Budget, after all. After careful consideration of my recent successes and failures (mostly) when chasing rarities and trying to mop up on the more common birds we missed during our Big Year, I don’t like the trend that the “dollars per species” is taking.

It is abundantly clear that the only way to reach 800 species in the ABA area is to see many of the Code 4 and 5 birds that show up sporadically and unpredictably each year. These species can be anywhere and require spur-of-the-moment travel to see many of them before they disappear again. Plus, many of the birds show up in hard-to-get-to (read expensive) places like Alaska, maritime Canada, at sea, etc. During our budget Big Year, we avoided travel to these rarity hotspots because of that expense, but I can’t avoid them anymore if I expect to get a big ABA list. So, the budget part of Birding on a Budget is winning out and I am suspending the rarity chasing.

Another reason is that the project has not been very much fun lately. As a retired person, I realize more than some, perhaps, that there is no reason to do anything if it is not fun. Birding, especially, should be fun!

We still intend to keep birding and blogging (perhaps a bit less frequently) and we will continue with our plans to visit Alaska in the summer, despite the price tag. Alaska has been on our travel radar for as long as we can remember and we have to visit it at least once!

I’ll write some more about my thoughts on budget birding and building a list soon.

The First New Bird of the New Year

We spent a month attending our son’s college graduation, visiting family, and doing a little birding and managed to add just one new species to the life list.

Needless to say, I’m a little disappointed by that result. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. There were several reasons for the poor results. First, there were no birds I needed for my list during the entire first two weeks of our trip, while we were in the Northeast U.S. (That’s not exactly true, but the Eurasian Kestrel in Nova Scotia was far too far away for me to chase.) Second, we were so busy with other stuff that we only were able to spend about six days birding during the whole month. Finally, I had some bad luck, and simply missed three of the four birds I was chasing in South Florida. The worst miss was the Key West Quail-Dove near Miami. I was in a group heading to see it. It was being watched by advance scouts at a stake-out location. But, by the time the group reached the location, the bird had flown away and it was not relocated that day. Three days later it was re-found, but I was long gone by then.

Enough of the bad news. The good news was that I finally found some Purple Swamphens. It took three attempts, but the “third time was the charm.”

That’s all for now. I’ll try to write more frequently in the future!