We Saw 140 Species on Our Birdathon Day

“Winter” in the RGV is a very birdy time!

Temperatures in the low 80s. Huisache and Spanish Dagger in bloom. Birds singing and calling in spite of the wind. It actually felt like the start of spring.

We started the day at our B&B in Rangerville with a flyover by a Peregrine Falcon. We picked up a Yellow-headed Blackbird at the grain silos in Progreso, and spent the next several hours at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Estero was bit disappointing due to fairly high winds, so we drove north to the salt lakes area to look for arid country birds. We were successful and found Say’s Phoebe, Brewer’s Blackbird, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin, among others. Lunch was at Delta Lake Park and we added some unexpected species (Eastern Bluebird, for one) without even having to get up from the picnic table.

After lunch, we drove out to South Padre Island to tick off all the shorebirds, ducks, and waders expected there. We missed some fairly easy birds however. It always seems to work out that way; you miss easy ones and pick up unexpected ones. We ended the day at Oliviera Park in Brownsville with great looks at four different species of parrots.

Best of all, we exceeded our fundraising target in support of Frontera Audubon!

It’s Birdathon Fundraiser Time!

My former employer, Frontera Audubon Society, is having a Birdathon fundraiser in less than a week. Please donate!

Frontera Audubon owns and manages a 12 acre urban habitat in Weslaco, TX. If you have visited the Rio Grande Valley, you know it as The Thicket, where such rarities as Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Elegant Trogon, Golden-crowned Warbler, Roadside Hawk, and other rarities and near rarities have been found.

It takes serious cash to maintain a place like that! Each year, Frontera holds a Birdathon to help raise some of that cash. This year’s event is February 21st. Help support wildlife habitat by visiting www.fronteraaudubon.org to make a donation. There is an easy “donate” button on the home page.

Renee and I will be competing with Team Tyrannulet. We hope to see lots of birds and help raise lots of cash!

And the Birds Just Keep on Coming

We’re only five weeks into the new year and already I’ve seen four new Code 4 or 5 species.

This time, a White-throated Thrush appeared at Estero Llano Grande State Park. It was found by Todd McGrath, whom some of you may know as a pelagic bird trip leader in California (Santa Barbara and San Diego, mostly). He lives in Texas now and was visiting Estero Llano Grande to see the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. This is a great example of how one rare bird attracts a crowd of searchers who then turn up even more good stuff!

We got the alert from NARBA about three hours after the bird was first seen and rushed over as fast as we could. A fairly fluid group of about 15 or 20 birders were drifting in and out of the stakeout area at the end of the road to the “Tropical Zone” of the park. There is a fence there and the land on the other side, where the bird was seen, is private land, not open to the public. We all had to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses through the haze of the chain link fence of birds fllying about at a fair distance. Finally, after two hours of looking, several of us noticed a group of Clay-colored Thrushes, mockingbirds, and starlings feeding on the berries of an anacua tree about 35 yards beyond the fence. I moved to get a better view and almost immediately saw the White-throated Thrush eating berries in the tree. The lighting was not great, so my photos are a little blurry.

The bird proved very difficult to see for many of the birders in the group. There was a house and some storage sheds partially blocking the view. I was lucky because I am tall enough to look over the storage sheds and other obstructions but Renee never got a look at the bird. There was such a limited view of the fruiting tree that it felt like we were looking for the bird through a keyhole!

If you venture out for this bird make sure you check all of the fruiting trees in the area. Be patient and it may come to a tree that offers better views.

Another Code 4 From the RGV

Back in early January, while we were still in Florida, our friend, Dan Jones, found a female Blue Bunting at Santa Ana NWR, about a half-hour from where we are staying in South Texas.

Here is Dan’s picture:

 Dan Jones

I made a couple of attempts to see it once we got back but missed it both times. In fact, as far as anyone knows, the bird was not re-found … until today, that is. This morning, on my third attempt to find the bird, and a month after its original sighting, I was able to relocate it.

Even though this is a Code 4 bird, most of us who spend a lot of time in the RGV feel like the bird is present somewhere just about every year. The trick is to find them. They can be quite hard to spot, especially the females, that might be passed over as Indigo Buntings or even cowbirds. This is my first sighting since just before the start of our Big Year. In November of 2011 I managed to get some pictures of this stunning male at the Casa Santa Ana Bed and Breakfast, which is right next door to the refuge.

If you are coming to see the female bird, look for it between the big tower and the photo blind, along the B Trail, and near the photo blind itself.

The Chase List for Rarities in the ABA Area

Throughout our Big Year and at the start of the (now suspended, but not really abandoned) Eight Years to 800!? project, Chis Hitt was nice enough to offer some advice.

Chis is very good at keeping track of the numbers side of the bird-listing game and he pointed out that 800 in a short period of time was certainly possible IF you could see enough rarities (ABA Code 3, 4, and 5 birds) each year. In my case (starting at 659 at the end of the Big Year), I needed about 20 new species each of the next seven years to reach 800 in eight years. I still had a fair number of the easier Code 1 and Code 2 birds that I had not seen (especially in Alaska), so that the number of rarities I needed to see was about 10 – 12 per year. Thus, I made an initial plan to try to chase at least one rarity per month as long as it was within a reasonable distance and budget.

I did very well in 2014 as far as getting the 1s and 2s was concerned and I even met the rarity goal as well:

  • Sinaloa Wren (Code 5) –HuachucaCanyon,Fort Huachuca,AZ
  • Blue-footed Booby (4) –LakeHavasu, near Parker, AZ
  • Slaty-backed Gull (3) – Lake Casa Blanca Park,Laredo,TX
  • Streak-backed Oriole (4) –Rattlesnake Springs,NM
  • Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (3) – SanMiguelito Ranch,TX
  • White-cheeked Pintail (4) – Mad Island WMA,Collegeport,TX
  • Ruff (3) –AnahuacNWR,Anahuac,TX
  • Fea’s Petrel (3) - Gulf Streampelagic,Hatteras,NC
  • Herald (Trinidade) Petrel (3) - Gulf Streampelagic,Hatteras,NC
  • Red-throated Pipit (3) –Dairy Mart Roadsod farms,Imperial Beach,CA
  •  Brambling (3) –Neah Bay,WA
  • Fork-tailed Flycatcher (3) – Laguna Atascosa NWR, TX
  • Red-legged Honey-creeper (5) – Estero Llano Grande SP, TX

I also added some non-ABA birds (what I call Code 0) that I am considering as being “in the bank” for future listing. (Yes, I know about the argument about whether or not “banking” those is “within the rules.”)

But I could have done so much better! I missed a bunch of what I considered easy birds and I had a very poor success rate on rarities in the fall of 2014; so much so that I got frustrated with chasing rarities and drastically scaled back my planned efforts. The main reason was the cost. I want my efforts to be true to the Birding on a Budget concept as much as possible. It will get harder and more expensive as time goes on.

But, what could have been done if I had had a bigger budget and a better success rate (due to that budget)? In other words, what was (and is) out there that I chased and missed or didn’t chase? It turns out that there are and have been quite a few rarities around. Unfortunately, I did not keep a day by day list, but I am starting one now. The purpose of this list is to show what was reported on eBird and NARBA that might have been chased. The main reason for doing this is to see if getting “enough” rarities each year was indeed possible or likely. The list will be called “The Chase List” and will appear under the “Life List” page with all the other lists.

My rules for this list are simple. Each year I will show each new species as it appears on the rare bird reports ONLY if I still need it for MY list. I will show whether or not I actually chased it, and whether or not I saw it. If another individual of the same species shows up at a different time and place during the same calendar year, I will note that in the original species entry but not add a new entry. Thus, the list will show how many rarities actually were out there per year for the next six years or so (or as long as I stay interested in the whole game!). I will start with what I remember of earlier in 2015, even though a month has already passed this year. (Sorry if I leave something out.)

I hope this new list will prove interesting and helpful in some way.