Another Successful Chase … but

UPDATE: We went back to Refugio and got a much better look at the tanager!

Yesterday, I drove up to Refugio, Texas and got a glimpse of the Flame-colored Tanager there.

But it was just a glimpse; a diagnostic glimpse, but a glimpse nonetheless. Needless to say, there is no photo. That’s not much to show for a six hour round trip drive and six hours of stakeout birding. I can add the bird to my list but it was not very satisfying.

On a more positive note, Lions City Park was interesting, especially since it was the first time I have been there. This small bit of habitat has hosted two mega or near-mega rarities and some other unusual birds this winter. I did not see the Golden-crowned Warbler that has been resident for several weeks, but I did find the Greater Pewee and a completely unexpected Chukar. The last bird is almost certainly an escapee from a game ranch that releases them for shooting, but it was fun to see it anyway.

The list stands at 723. I’m still hoping for more from South Texas this winter. Someone conjure up a Roadside Hawk!

The Christmas Bird Count From Hell

Yesterday we participated in the CBC from hell. 12 hours of wind, rain, mud, more rain, getting the car stuck in more mud, and rain … again.

We had agreed to take over one of the count areas in the Harlingen CBC for friends who were out of town. In years past, they had almost always managed to find more birds than anyone else, so the pressure was on for us to continue the tradition “come hell or high water.” With the nasty weather and all the flooded roads and fields, we got both.

We started the day by owling around Vieh’s B&B, where we are staying for the winter season, at 5 AM. By 5:05 we had flushed a Barn Owl from a palm tree and we thought we were on the way to a good day, despite the wind and rain. We added a pauraque about 20 minutes later from its usual roosting area in a palm nursery on the property … and then things started to slide downhill.

Almost literally. We headed to our next planned owling stop and as soon as we turned off onto the dirt road to the area it was obvious that there had been more rain than we had thought. The road was slippery. I tried to keep up my momentum and get to a drier part of the road to turn around but I misjudged just how sticky the situation was. After just a couple of hundred yards we were stuck. The clay soil was so sticky that it had built up on the tires so thick that the mud was almost completely filling the wheel wells. The car had no traction at all. We rocked and pushed the car onto the side of road to get out of the way and it slid down slightly into the roadside edge, hopelessly stuck, but at least out of the way of any other crazy people who might be out at 6 in the morning.

After a short walk back to the paved road, we managed to flag down a passing truck and I got a ride back to the B&B to pick up the van and get everyone back to the house to start over, this time in a four-wheel-drive truck. But the delay caused by getting stuck had pretty much ruined any further chances we had for owls in the early morning light. We did not see or hear any other night birds.

The early optimism of the 5 AM start quickly gave way to a sluggish plod through the gray and dreary morning rain and wind. Very few birds were evident in forested or brushy habitats and the large concentrations of water birds we had seen at the ponds and resacas during our scouting were, for the most part, dispersed elsewhere. We managed to find many of the species we expected, but their numbers were way below what we had seen earlier in the week.

The biggest impediment to finding birds was the constant rain. At times it was only a drizzle but at other times it was a driving rain that soaked through any protective gear you might have on. The rain and muddy roads made it impossible to visit many areas of our count area that had less than paved access. The rain kept our binoculars and scopes in a near constant state of foggy and wet blurriness. The rain and mud made it difficult to hike on the trails we had planned to take, and most of all, the rain seemed to suppress the activity of many species of birds. For example, we did manage to find a couple of foraging flocks of passerines in the woody areas of our count area but far fewer than we had expected and many of the birds in those flocks were wet and bedraggled.

The main consequence of all this was a crew of not-very-happy campers who were relegated to doing most of their birding from the confines of a truck on roads that were less than ideal for reaching the best birding habitat. On several occasions I went off on my own to see what I could see and left the rest back in the warm and dry truck, not the best way to ensure that we saw all that we could see.

Still, and this is a testament to how great birding in the RGV is, we managed to find 97 species of birds in our count area. Sure, this is about a dozen fewer than in some previous years, and many of the species were represented by only one or a very few individuals, but we did manage to have the highest species count in the Harlingen count circle and continue the tradition of “our area.”

So, I guess all the wet clothes, cold hands, soggy socks, I-hope-I-don’t-catch-a-cold-from-this sniffles, and the muddy, tired people were worth it … barely.