Wednesday, November 28, 2012

iScoping with My Phone.

Red-necked Grebe
I have said before that I am no photographer.  I have relied on the kindness of others who have given me the photos that have made this blog more attractive.  I had a plan to change that.  I was going to buy a Leica camera and scope attachment while I was at the birding festival in Texas.  However, when I got there I learned that Leica has pulled their old products off the market and replaced them with a camera that costs over $2000.  I just can't justify that cost on my retirement income.  Bummer.

The next day I was at Estero Llano when I saw a young woman whip out her iPhone, slap it onto her scope and photograph a Harris's Hawk in a matter of seconds.  I immediately went to her.  "Hey, cool!  How did ya do that?" She was kind enough to show me an attachment from Kowa that slips onto the iPhone.  Actually, it replaces any rubber or plastic cover you may have added to your phone.  When you're planning to do some digiscoping, you screw a metal piece onto the new phone cover.  That slips over the eye piece of the scope.  That's it.  you're ready to take digiscoped pictures with your iPhone.  The total cost, including shipping, is under $50.  So let me see ... $2000 .... $50 .... No brainer!

Loggerhead Shrike
So yesterday my friend Rex and I headed to Tallahassee to try to see the Red-necked Grebe that has been reported for the last week or so.  It would be a life bird for both of us, so we also wanted a photo.  It was time to try out my new toy.  I have a Leica scope, and I quickly learned that I had to remove the rubber ring around the scope's eye piece so that the camera attachment would fit.  That done, I had to experiment with the camera and the scope to try to get things in focus.  You can see the results on this page.  It's not the same as digiscoping with an expensive camera, but it's not bad for my first effort and for under $50.

As to the birding, well, that was a lot of fun!  We got the Red-necked Grebe fairly quickly and then spent some time checking out the other ducks and shorebirds in the area.  There were plenty of Northern Shovelers, some Ruddy Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, Bufflehead and Hooded Mergansers.  Several Killdeer and a Least Sandpiper patrolled the edges while Red-winged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings darted around the far shore.  We even had an American Pipit fly over us.  Fortunately, Rex has better ears than I, so he got he on to it quickly.  It was a county tick, so once again I was the beneficiary of the better birding skills of others.  Before we left, I couldn't resist trying my new toy on the Loggerhead Shrike perched on top of a nearby tree.

Sora at St. Marks
Next, Rex and I decided to drive down to St. Marks NWR.  Our targets included some of the birds recently reported around Stoney Bayou 1 and 2. We arrived before 11:00 and set out on what turned out to be a 5 mile stroll.  We started along the north side of Stoney Bayou 1 and then cut over to circle Stoney Bayou 2 and then finished the walk along the east side of SB 1 before heading back to the van.  Rex uses to estimate walking distances, and he told me it was 4.95 miles.  Felt like 49.5 if you ask me.

Shorebirds were numerous with lots of Dunlin and Least Sandpipers.  We also saw some Marbled Godwits, Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers,  Lesser Yellowlegs, Snipes and a Black-bellied Plover.  There were also more Sora than I've ever seen in one day.    At left is the best shot I could get of a Sora, and below, left is photo of a Sora with a Snipe just behind it.

Our hope was that we would locate the Ash-throated Flycatcher that has been reported recently.  We had no luck with that but we did find a Wilson's Warbler, my only Wakulla County life bird of the day.  Then at an intersection in the trail we saw a bobcat (right) that seemed to find us really interesting.  What a beautiful animal!  I've only seen three or four of them in the wild, and each time I felt really privileged. 

On the south end of SB 1 we found the geese we wanted.  There were several Snow Geese and at least two Ross's Geese.  Unfortunately, we didn't see any Canada Geese, but a Red-breasted Merganser joined the group just to add some variation and interest.  We also found a male Vermilion Flycatcher (below, right).  That's a bird that can take your breath away.  He was nice enough to pose for me, so I had to oblige, didn't I?

Eventually, we stumbled back to the car to head back to Gainesville.  But before we could pull out of the parking lot we had to pause to let an otter cross the road.  No picture, but it's a cool memory.  In the end we had about 80 species on the day.  I picked up three county ticks in Leon and one in Wakulla,  Of course the Grebe was a lifer, so that's a state bird as well. And of course, I enjoyed iScoping.  Hey is that a new word?  Maybe I ought to copyright it?

Vermilion Flycatcher
Sora and Wilson's Snipe

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Last Day of the RGVBF


Landing Gear is Down
For me, the final day of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was memorable, but not for the reasons I had hoped.  Certainly the people were great and the birds we saw were wonderful, if few in numbers.  However, I had really been looking forward to seeing the Santa Ana NWR.  After all, it has a reputation as being one of the jewels of the national park system.  Its brochure brags that it has the second largest bird list in the nation.  However, what I found was a scene of wide-spread destruction and very little of the original habitat that made the park famous.

One of the park volunteers related the story.  In 2010 the area was hit by a hurricane and, shortly thereafter, a massive “rain event” that settled over Mexico and dumped loads of rain on the area.  The result was that the park was under 10 – 12 feet of water.  To make matters worse, the dam system along the Rio Grande held the water in place for a long time.  The results were devastating.  Thousands of ancient hardwood trees were killed.  Today they lie, bleak and broken and in heaps where once there was gorgeous bird-friendly habitat.  It was so incredibly sad.

That said, we made the trip to the park arriving not too long after sunrise.  We started around the new visitors’ center, which is a nice facility with a bird feeder area that was very active.  Green Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Great Kiskadee, some House Sparrows, and a few Great-tailed Grackles flew in and out in a steady stream.

Soon we headed out to the park itself.  Immediately we had a Neotropic Cormorant fly over us, followed a few moments later by a Sharp-shinned Hawk and an American Pipit.  Then we started up the path and I saw the extent of the destruction.  Heartbreaking.  Still, we found Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and a small mixed flock of Black-crested Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  We also heard a Long-billed Thrasher calling, but he didn’t show himself.  And hunkered down under a couple of fallen branches was a female Northern Bobwhite.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
The first pond was filled with Black-bellied Whistling Ducks like those pictured on this page.  There were also Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Solitary Sandpiper and a couple of Killdeer.  We heard a Marsh Wren calling, but I never saw it.  We were also treated to an aerial display by a large flock of swallows that included Barn, Cave, Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Despite the wind, the swallows darted and dove while feeding on the abundant bugs.  There were also a number of Mottled Ducks and Northern Shovelers in one pond and American Wigeon and Gadwalls in another.

Unfortunately, I never got up into the hawk-watch tower.  Another group from the festival (one of the chase vans) was up there for hours searching for their target bird, the Hook-billed Kite.  Apparently they got it, but I didn’t. Oh well, that’s birding!  I got 126 species including 25 lifers during the week, and I raised my life list to 400, so I have no complaints.  It was a wonderful experience from beginning to end. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Estero Llano and #400!

Common Parauque ... Can you see it?
First and foremost, I owe an apology to Julie Zickefoose.  I had misread the program and expected her to be the guide for Wednesday’s Seedeater Sojourn, and I mentioned that she was not present.  That’s because she wasn’t supposed to be there.  Instead, she led today’s field trip to Weslaco, and she proved to be a great trip leader and a really nice person.  I’ve heard that she’s one of the more likeable people in the birding world, and now I can attest to the truth of that statement.

The fourth day of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival started like all of the rest: getting up at 4:30, catching a bus by 5:45, and riding to another birding locale.  Today we started at Estero Llano Grande State Park, and there were birds everywhere.  The feeder areas had Chachalacas, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrashers, Green Jays, and many more.  The nearby roads produced a Harris's Hawk, Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and three life birds, a Common Parauque, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and a Curve-billed Thrasher.  There was also a selasphorous hummingbird.  One of the rangers said it was an Allen’s, which would also be a lifer for me, so I did some reading on it tonight.  I learned that the Allen’s favors the precise habitat of Estero Llano while the Rufous prefers coniferous and mixed hardwood forests – definitely NOT the habitat of Estero Llano.  So it looks like that was lifer #4 for the day.

Curve-billed Thrasher
Next we went to the headquarters building where I got the day’s fifth lifer, a Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  This was a special bird for me as it was ABA Lifer #400.  Wahoo!!

Next we walked along a series of ponds and found a nice variety of ducks including Green-winged, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy and Mottled Ducks.  We had a Peregrine Falcon fly over us, and a Common Parauque that was about two feet from where I stood.  And I have to say that the Parauque is a gorgeous bird, and one of my favorites of the trip so far.

We left Estero Llano to visit the Valley Nature Center.  That didn’t work out too well.  Other than 75 House Sparrows and 20 Plain Chachalacas, there were very few birds.  Somebody in the group reported a Clay-colored Thrush, and I saw a Black-crested Titmouse, but that was it.

Green Kingfisher
After lunch I decided to make it another doubleheader day and drove south to Sabal Palm Sanctuary.  This is a pretty little park that is situated in the last few acres of the USA south of Brownsville. The feeders had White-tipped Doves, Green Jays, Black-crested Titmice as well as the day’s second Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  I also had a nice walk along a few of the trails, another group of ducks, Green and Belted Kingfishers, and a lovely view of a portion of the Rio Grande.  It was a really nice way to end the day’s birding.
Harris's Hawk

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Windy Day Birding

Altamira Oriole
It was a very windy day today, so expectations were low as we set out for Bentsen Rio Grande State Park in Mission, Texas, on Friday moring.  This park is on land donated to the state by former Senator Lloyd Bentsen (remember the ill-fated Dukakis-Bentsen ticket in 1988?).  The Visitor’s Center is surrounded by water features, butterfly gardens, and hummingbird feeders.  Trams run through the park on a regular basis.  Several areas have well-stocked feeders.  There is a hawk-watch tower, a large resaca, and lots of hiking trails.  The four hours we spent there were not enough to bird the whole park.

We spent a considerable amount of time in an area where feeders were spread out along both sides of the road.  In the center was a large covered area with plenty of seating and perfect views of the birds.  The Plain Chachalaca were the bullies of the feeders, chasing other birds away and camping out at one feeder until a bunch of food was gone.  Fortunately there were so many feeders that it wasn’t a real issue.  One feeder was the favorite of the Green Jays where I saw as many as seven at a time.  Another feeder was the favorite of a spectacular Altamira Oriole (above, left) who took turns feeding with a Great Kiskadee (below, right).  On the ground, the White-winged Doves chased the White-tipped Doves around and an Olive Sparrow grazed under a feeder frequented by a Black-crested Titmouse.  The water feature was the hangout of a Long-billed Thrasher and (after a considerable wait) a Clay-colored Thrush (bottom, left).  The thrasher, thrush, sparrow and oriole made four lifers in that spot.  We birded other areas of the park with marginal success.  The wind really was a problem, and very few birds were out.  However, when we got back to the Visitor’s  Center we were treated to great looks at a Black Phoebe, the fifth lifer for the day (bottom, right).
Great Kiskadee

I spent the afternoon browsing through the vendors’ exhibits.  I salivated over the binoculars, the digiscoping cameras, the books and the artwork.  The Raptor Project had a large exhibit with a Bald Eagle, several Harris’s Hawks, two Barn Owls, a Barred Owl, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, two Aplomado Falcons, an American Kestrel, and several others.  It was very fascinating seeing those magnificent birds, and the Barn Owls were gorgeous.

Then I had a fortuitous conversation.  I stopped by the booth sponsored by the Audubon Society in Kingsville and chatted with a very nice woman.  I told her that I had stopped at a cemetery in Kingsville on Monday and named what I had seen there.  When I mentioned Eastern Meadowlark, she stopped me.  She said it was much more likely that they were Western Meadowlarks, especially since there were four or five of them.  She said that Eastern Meadowlarks were more likely to show up one at a time.  Based on that, I might be able to claim another lifer, and the 20th of the trip so far.  Maybe if I get time on Sunday I’ll stop at the same cemetery and take a second look.  What do you think?

Clay-colored Thrush
Black Phoebe

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Let's Play Two!

The Resaca at UT Brownsville
I think it was Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Famer Ernie Banks who so loved the game of baseball that he is remembered for yelling, “Let’s play two!” at the end of a long game.  That’s pretty much how I felt today.  I had just finished lunch after a great field trip when I just felt like going birding again.  Turns out that it was a really good decision.

The day started at what I thought was an unlikely destination, the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville.  How birdy could a busy college campus be?  Well, it was loaded with birds.  Within moments of getting off the bus I had my first lifer of the day, a Tropical Kingbird that was kind enough to call to us so that we could be sure of its identity.  But our goal was to bird the Resaca at the center of the campus.  It was crossed by a footbridge that gave us a splendid view of one end of the lake with the sun directly behind us.  There were at least a half-dozen Black-crowned Night-Herons, some Neotropic Cormorants, a Green Heron, a couple of Great Kiskadees and off in the corner, a Green Kingfisher (lifer #2 of the day).  

A Very Vocal Couch's Kingbird
 Along the edges were Solitary Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper, and we also had fly-over Snow Geese and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  In the trees were Nashville, Orange-crowned, Black-and-White and Yellow-throated Warblers.  The grasses had Lincoln Sparrow and Indigo Bunting.  Then we saw another Kingbird, and this one also vocalized – a Couch’s Kingbird and another lifer!  This is a beautiful campus, and the bird life is exceptional.  If you’re in the Brownsville area, it’s worth a stop.

Neotropic Cormorant

Our second stop was at Resaca De La Palma State Park.  While this is a great park, I dipped on my target birds.  No Altamira Orioles and no White-tipped Dove were seen at their usual haunts.  Still, I had good looks at Least Grebe, Green Kingfisher, and the always-spectacular Green Jay. 

Next it was back to the conference center and off to lunch, but I still wanted more.  So I hopped in the car and headed off to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.  I started by birding around the headquarters building.  There were very few birds in the area, but I did find a White-tipped Dove, lifer #4 for the day.  Next I drove out to the lake.  Wow!  There were thousands of American Coots as well as hundreds of American Wigeon, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, a couple of Lesser Scaup, and at least one Redhead.  I also saw a few Roseate Spoonbills, a couple of Forster’s Terns, a Lesser Yellowlegs, and two Long-billed Curlews.  I’m sure I missed some things due to the lateness of the hour, but that was fun!  Next I decided to take one last shot at the bird blind at the headquarters area, but again there were no birds.  The reason may well have been the Eastern Screech-Owl that was peeking out of a pipe in the building just behind me.

Long-billed Curlew
The evening ended with one of those happy coincidences that can make a good birding day great.  My Garmin routed me back to the hotel on a different route than I used on the way into the park.  As a result, I ended up driving along Buena Vista Blvd. south of SR 106 in the dying light.  Up ahead was a white van stopped in the middle of the road.  Before I could go around it, an arm shot out and waved me to a stop.  Why?  An Aplomado Falcon was perched on a fencepost just off the road and no more than 30 feet ahead of me.  What a gorgeous creature, and I had a perfect view.  It was breath-taking, my fifth lifer of the day, and a fabulous ending to a birding doubleheader.  

Eastern Screech-Owl

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Seedeater Sojourn

The Rio Grande from La Laja Ranch
This was an exhausting day.  Officially, it’s the first day of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  My field trip today was billed as the Seedeater Sojourn with Julie Zickefoose, but she was engaged elsewhere and didn’t make the trip.  That was the only disappointment of the day. 

We left the conference center at 5:00 AM heading for a private ranch in Zapata County.  La Laja Ranch has been in the same family since the 1750s and was the first settlement north of the Rio Grande in that area.  It boasts a border of about 3000 feet along the river.  For most of that stretch, the river is lined with cane that produces the seeds that make up the preferred diet of the White-collared Seedeater.   The owner was very gracious in allowing 38 birder and four guides onto his property for a morning of birding. 

Ladder-backed Woodpecker
We broke into three groups and set out in search of our target bird.  For a long time we had no “target bird” luck at all.  We saw some Cardinals, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a House Wren, a Common Yellowthroat and a Lincoln Sparrow.  There was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker in one tree, and a great view of a Northern Bobwhite in another.  But just when it looked like we might dip on the Seedeater, one of the other groups called our leader with some good news.  We dashed to the spot and then waited.  And waited some more.  Then someone commented that there were some birds moving around in a tree at the end of the cane.  That turned out to be a Great Kiskadee, and standing just above it was a Plain Chachalaca, both lifers for me.  Add them to the Harris’s Hawk we saw along the roadside, and I had three lifers.  Not bad at all, but the day’s target bird was still nowhere in sight, so we waited as the temperature climbed toward 90. 

Northern Bobwhite
Then a gorgeous light-morph Red-tailed Hawk flew over us.  We all got on it and exclaimed over its beauty, but suddenly another hawk decided to share the same rising air.  It was a Gray Hawk and it immediately began calling to us so that there was no question at all about its ID.  What a terrific sight that was, and it was lifer #4 for the day. 

By this time we had been standing in the same spot for at least an hour, hoping for the Seedeater to return.  I’ve said before that birding teaches patience, and this time our patience was being tested.  But good things come to those who stand and wait … and bird.  A female White-collared Seedeater finally appeared, albeit deep in the cane.  It was very difficult to get a clear view, so I stared into the dense vegetation for several minutes trying to get a complete picture in my mind of what I was seeing.  Finally, there it was, the short, stubby bill that is characteristic of this elusive species.  And that was lifer #5!

Very soon after that we headed back to the buses and began the journey back to Harlingen.  Along the way we stopped at a picnic area that had a spectacular view of the Rio Grande with Mexico to the left and the USA on the right.  Of course, I was so taken with the view that I stepped into a low cactus and lanced my shin with about 30 tiny needles.  Pulling them out was no fun at all! 

Tomorrow is west Brownsville and Resaca De La Palma.  I’ll let you know how I do.

Caution:  Cacti May Attack Shin at Any Moment!

The Rio Grande with Mexico Above and the USA Below

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Green Jay!!

Say's Phoebe
Finally!  I’m in Harlingen, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival kicks off in the morning.  My first field trip begins at 5:00 AM and doesn’t end until about 4:30 PM.  We’re heading west toward Zapata and Webb Counties in search of the White-collared Seedeater.  The trip is being led by Julie Zickefoose.  I’ve read many of her articles in Bird Watcher’s Digest, so I’m looking forward to meeting her in person.

The drive from Gainesville was exhausting.  I drove for 13 hours on Monday and another 7 or so today.  There was no time for birding yesterday, but today was a different story.  I knew that I had plenty of time to make it to the festival registration by 5:00 PM, so I used an extra hour or two for birding along the way.   I was able to see a nice little collection of “drive by” birds as I worked my way south – all without endangering myself or others.  The best of the roadside birds was a White-tailed Hawk, the first lifer of the trip. 

Vermilion Flycatcher
One stop was at a cemetery in Kingsville.  Actually, I had hoped to bird at Dick Kleberg Park, but it had no birds.  The Escondido River was all dust and no water, and there were no birds along the riverbed, in the trees, or on the fields of the park.  A cemetery was nearby so that became the new target.  Good call!  There weren’t a lot of birds, but the few that I saw were wonderful.  Among them were a Say’s Phoebe, a Vermilion Flycatcher, and a few Eastern Meadowlarks, all of which displayed vibrant colors.

Another birding locale was the famous Sarita Rest Stop on US 77 south of the town of Sarita.  All I can say is, “Oh my God!  Green Jay!”   In fact, there were four of them.  The pictures below can’t really capture what this bird looks like.  It’s an other-worldly experience to see something so beautiful and that I’ve waited to see for 12 years.  They were so compelling that I have to admit practically overlooking the Bronzed Cowbirds with those magical red eyes that strutted around the area.  Instead I chased the Jays from tree to tree and followed them as they fed along the ground.  All I could manage was a few inarticulate phrases like, “Wow!” and “Oh my!”  I spent over 40 years teaching writing, and that’s all I could muster.  
Green Jay
"Wow ... Oh my!"

The Big Red Van pulled in to the festival headquarters at 4:34.  I got registered, bought a souvenir hat and t-shirt, and headed back to the car.  I grabbed my bins and went for a quick stroll under the trees across the street.  On top of one tree I found the day’s third lifer, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. 

So it’s early to bed and up early in the morning for the first field trip of the festival.  Come back tomorrow evening and see how I did.