Friday, May 30, 2008

Bluebird Monitering

This morning, I wrestled down the aluminum pool-cleaning pole off its usual hook in our garage. No, I wasn't cleaning a pool; I was monitoring bluebird nest boxes. The normal person would not associate a pool-cleaning pole with bluebird monitoring, but the pole is an essential part of the California bluebird monitor's kit. Out here, virtually all bluebird boxes are hung in trees; it is much cheaper and easier than mounting the boxes on posts. Additionally, the boxes are less noticeable and are less likely to be disturbed by curious humans.

If this were not odd enough, I make rather unorthodox nest boxes. I drill two entrance holes into the front of the box, instead of a single hole. This allows an incubating female bluebird (or nestlings about to fledge) to escape the box in the event of an attack by a House Sparrow or other predator. Also, these boxes are jumbo-sized; twelve inches tall, with a floor of about 6" x 5 1/2". This roomy interior allows the young bluebirds to spread out a bit so they aren't piled on top of each other in the nest.

I carefully caught nest box #1, located in a greenbelt right behind my house, in the wire basket attached to the end of the pool-cleaning pole. These wire baskets are designed and made by Dick Purvis, master bluebirder of Southern California. I flipped the latch and opened the box - nothing except bare wood. But that's what I expected. I just hung this box last week, and it might take awhile for a pair to find this new box. I replaced it on its branch and continued onto the next box.

Two angry adult bluebirds dove at me and snapped their bills angrily as I lowered their nest box. Their hearts, however, were not really in it. They know the routine by now. I peeked inside - five eggs! Two more than last week. I quickly hooked box #2 back on its branch and walked away. The female bluebird flitted back in as if nothing had happened.

As I approached my third and final box, the male bluebird scolded from nearby but didn't dive-bomb me. When I peered into the box, the coal-black eyes of the female bluebird glittered back up at me as she crouched on her eggs. She didn't budge. I snapped a couple quick photos before closing the box and hanging it back up. Many female bluebirds won't move off their eggs when the box is opened; I never cease to be amazed by their boldness.

So, if in the next few weeks you hear poundings, sawing sounds, and frustrated expletives coming from the garage, that will be me making more bluebird nest boxes. :-D

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Three Digits, Starting with a Two

I slouched on the uncomfortable bench and surveyed the scene before me. Birds were plentiful. Still... where were they? Sure, the American Avocets, Great Blue Herons, Pied-billed Grebes, and Black-necked Stilts were there, but that was the usual fare. I was looking for those tiny white screechy birds that fly around and dive into the water. They're supposed to be here... but why aren't they? I felt slightly betrayed. I could bike down to Back Bay - they are all over the place there, after all. However, laziness (or was it weariness?) prevented me from abandoning my post. I slid down farther on the bench, shivering a little in the cool breeze.

Then I heard it. "Cher-bink! Cher-bink!" I looked up, and there it was: a Least Tern (code name: Toy Tern) I stayed on the bench for a few minutes and watched it as it dove for food in the pond. I wouldn't have to bike down to Back Bay, after all; I was at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Number two hundred and two for my Bigby list.

Huh? Wait - since when is Neil's Bigby list over two hundred? Since today. It's a long story, but today I decided I must break two hundred.

Prior to today, my Bigby list had been balanced at one ninety-nine for nearly two weeks. I set off early this morning, and steadily pedaled down the mountains to sea trail. My target was Grasshopper Sparrow, and I knew just where to find it: Sepulveda Vista Point, immediately adjacent to UCI. As I labored up the hills along Culver Drive, doubts crept into my head. Sure, there had been a Grasshopper Sparrow there on Birdathon, but that was a whole month ago. Would it still be there?

I panted up to hill to the point (I locked up my bike at the bottom of the hill and headed up on foot. I am an adventurous person, but I won't ever try to bike up that hill), ears cocked. Horned Larks sang with their tinkly voices, a Blue Grosbeak warbled away, and... A GRASSHOPPER SPARROW BUZZED! I couldn't help but perform a little victory dance (no one was in sight, fortunately). Number two hundred! I crept up the grassy hillside and managed to spot it sitting on top of a metal post. It sang frequently.

Non-birders would certainly not understand my excitement over this bird. If a non-birder saw one (which is very unlikely, because the elusive Grasshopper Sparrow has become very uncommon in Orange County), he would undoubtedly shrug it off as "a sparrow". If you aren't impressed by this bird's looks, then you won't be impressed by its song; many would either completely miss it or pass it off as an insect. I think it is a very interesting bird though. I stalked it, getting excellent looks and not-so-excellent photos before it fluttered off with its stubby wings.

Satisfied, I cruised back down all the hills I had labored up on the way and soon arrived at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. I had expected to easily find Least Terns, a species I still needed for my Bigby list. In reality, I had trouble with this one. I did find a Willow Flycatcher near the parking lot, a little brownish flycatcher that looks a lot like about twenty other little brownish flycatchers. I suspected it was a Willow Flycatcher when I first spotted it, and the bird was courteous enough to call to clinch the identification. Bigby bird number two hundred and one.

I finished up at Pond Two (as described above) with a couple Least Terns, my third new Bigby bird for the day. My birding for the day, however, was not done. While biking up the San Diego Creek Trail towards home, I noticed this flock of gorgeous White-faced Ibis.

After I had finished gawking at the ibis, I noticed this Black-crowned Night-Heron (code name: Night-crowned Black-Heron) staring up at me from the rocks below.

After a lengthy bike ride (why do all the hills have to be the last few miles when I'm most tired?), I arrived home. I rode precisely 35.38 miles (I got one of those nifty bike odometers), picked up three new Bigby birds, and had an immeasurable amount of fun. Oh yeah, and I got exercise. What more could one ask for?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

June Gloom

Most Orange County residents associate the phrase "June Gloom" with the heavy marine layer that blankets the sky many days early in the summer. The marine layer usually burns off by the late morning, but occasionally lasts all day. Recently, however, we've had more heavy-duty clouds roll in. Genuine rain clouds! Even as I type this, I can hear the soothing patter of rain on the roof above my head and the occasional distant rumble of thunder.

The birder's summer does not last long. For a few weeks between the departure of the last spring migrating warbler and the first fall migrant dowitcher, birding can be rather dull - hence the term "June Gloom". Sure, locally breeding birds are fun to watch, but the excitement of migration just isn't there. Many birders are not aware that migrants are almost always around. In southern California, migrating swallows and hummingbirds begin to show up in early January. Spring migration tapers off in late May, but the first migrant shorebirds of the "fall" often show up before summer even officially starts!

On Wednesday, I pedaled over to Peters Canyon Regional Park and birded for a couple hours before school. Maybe I'll find a some late migrants. A Willow Flycatcher would be nice! I thought as I pulled into the park. No luck. I saw exactly two migrants the whole morning - singles of Warbling Vireo and Swainson's Thrush. The willows were shedding their fuzz in such excessive quantities that safety glasses and a mask were almost required to survive. That's serious fluff.

Birding is never boring. I was right with this thought. The summer residents were out in great numbers. Several flavors of swallows were swirling about gleefully snapping up the plentiful insects. I managed to spot one Greater Roadrunner perched up on a fence post, but it was too distant for a photo. California Towhees (aka Plain-brown Shufflers) were plentiful, as always.

Discordant squawking alerted me to the presence of several Red-crowned Parrots in some trees in a backyard backing up against the park. Even though they are gaudily splashed with bright green and red, these birds are difficult to spot against the foliage. Oftentimes, I only spot them when they noisy burst out of the treetops.

I'm looking forward to fall migration! In the meantime, I need to work on my Bigby list a bit more; my total is perched at one ninety-nine. My latest addition was an Olive-sided Flycatcher last week. I think a long ride is in order...

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Red-Letter Day at Starr...

One thing I've sorely missed since moving out to California is regular bird banding at Metrobeach Metropark in Michigan. I assisted with the banding there as often as humanly possible, and learned vast amounts about bird identification, aging, and sexing. The only banding operation in Orange County is at Starr Ranch, and up to today I had been rather disappointed by it. It seemed that every time I went banding there we set a new record for least number of birds banded in a day. That changed today, much to my delight.

Today was the second MAPS (Monitering Avian Productivity and Survivorship) banding day of the season (I missed the first when I was in Texas). I jumped out of bed at four a.m., despite having gotten only five hours of sleep. As my dad and I walked out to the car, a couple migrating Swainson's Thrushes called as they winged north over our house. A good sign, I thought. Migrants were moving.

We bumped our way into Starr Ranch at 5:15 a.m. My dad dropped me off at the lab. The trees and ridges were still mostly concealed by gray dawn gloom. A couple Common Poorwills called nearby. Once we had all assembled, the other banders (Justin, Debbie, Barbara, Matt, Al, Janet, and Carol) and I loaded up into a couple four by fours and set out for the MAPS station. The station is located in a remote area two miles down a rocky "road" from the lab. Starr Ranch boasts some of Orange County's most gorgeous landscape - acres and acres of rugged terrain, free of traffic noise, congestion, and development that is so prevalent in Orange County.

We unfurled the nets as the grayness lifted. Our first bird of the day was a Swainson's Thrush (pictured above); they were all over the place. We banded at least fifteen of them, and I saw several unbanded ones in the banding area. Debbie, Justin, and I were checking some of the nets on the first net run when Justin's radio suddenly screeched:

"JU-crackle-crackle... Barbara-CRACKLE-crack...HAWk-SCREEEEECH-crackle net eleven-crackle-CRACKLE-snap"

Justin quickly took his leave to help while Debbie and I finished checking the nets. Sure enough, we had caught a gorgeous adult Cooper's Hawk. Unfortunately, we didn't have any bands large enough to put on it and had to release it unbanded.

We kept catching lots of birds, including more Swainson's Thrushes, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, and Oak Titmice. Migrants put in a good appearance, and we caught several species of warblers. We banded one brilliant Townsend's Warbler.

Even more excitement lay in wait for us. A couple Wilson's Warblers showed up in the nets, along with a Warbling Vireo. However, my favorite banded bird of the day was this MacGillivray's Warbler, one of two we banded. Surprisingly, these may be the first ones ever banded at Starr Ranch.

As the mercury on our portable thermometer rose, bird captures tapered off. We were forced to close a few nets exposed to the sun. Around 11:30 a.m. we closed up shop and headed out. We handled forty-nine birds, an excellent total for Starr Ranch. It was nice to handle birds again after a several-month long hiatus!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Texas, Day Five - 5/4/08

Home. That word loomed over us like a dark thunderhead as we spent our last hours in Texas birding some areas near Marci and Terry Fullers' house in San Benito on Sunday morning. We were having too much fun to go home: getting up at ridiculously early hours every morning, racing around all day seeing exotic tropical birds, and then grabbing a few hours of sleep. Repeat. Can't ask for a better life.

The shrieks of Great Kiskadees outside the window woke me out of my slumber before my alarm clock did. I groggily got up, showered (picked a few ticks out of my skin at the same time), and then headed out the door to see some of those amazing Texan birds before I had to leave. A beaver swam right by the little dock on the resaca behind the house, much to our delight. It even slapped its tail on the surface of the water, something I've never seen before.

Number One suggested that we go on a brief pre-breakfast birding jaunt by van to some nearby areas to look for Red-crowned Parrots. We jumped at the idea. Sure enough, we easily found a little flock of noisy Red-crowned Parrots hanging out in someone's yard nearby. While everyone else gawked at the parrots, I yawned and told tales of large flocks in my backyard. Backyard - arrgh, a reminder of home.

We decided to explore a small dirt road that looped behind the resaca. Suddenly, the van sank into extremely soft, slimy mud. Up to this point, the dirt had been parched and even cracked, but for some reason this little part of the road was a morass.

After a few futile attempts to push the van out, we temporarily abandoned it and Marci came and picked us up. After eating a delicious banquet prepared by Marci, we birded the yard some more. A few migrants filtered through the treetops, including the only Red-eyed Vireo of the trip (better late than never!). Some small brown butterflies flitting close to my ground caught my attention - Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius). A lifer!

While I was stalking an uncooperative Long-billed Thrasher, this Couch's Kingbird landed on a telephone wire right overhead. Both Couch's and Tropical Kingbirds are resident in the immediate area, but this one was nice enough to call so I could actually identify it. Couch's and Tropical Kingbirds are essentially identical, best differentiated by call.

An Inca Dove flew in and landed on the same wire just a few feet from the kingbird. This tiny dove is quite common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley; one often hears their mournful calls.

I had one hour before I had to leave. What to do? I kept looking for birds, enjoying them in a bittersweet way. Who knows when I'll see Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Great Kiskadees, or Black-crested Titmice again? I glanced at my phone - 11:50 a.m., ten minutes until I had to leave for the airport. I walked over and staked out one of the hummingbird feeders on the back porch. In the last five minutes, a beautiful Buff-bellied Hummingbird visited the feeder several times. A nice way to end the trip...

With that, I left Texas. As the sun was setting, my plane touched down on a runway at LAX. A few American Crows were hanging out along the runway - didn't see a single one of those in Texas.

A big thanks to Marci and Terry Fuller for letting us stay in their house Saturday night and everything they did for us Sunday morning! I also have to thank Number One and Leica Mom for being awesome mentors/drivers/temporary parents. It was an amazing trip - I saw 219 species in five days, and recorded twenty-eight lifers. Back to my Wrentits and California Gnatcatchers now. :-)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Daylight Fades

It's a good life, I mused as I stared into the golden eyes that were glaring back at me from a fuzzy ball of fluff. You sit in a pine tree all day, snoozing away or watching the world around you from above. You don't have much to fear - you are the top of the food chain. If something - a coyote, perhaps - started eyeing you, your ferocious, sharp-taloned parent would spring into action and drive away the enemy. You don't have to hunt your own food - that's what your parents are for.

Those eyes, those wild golden eyes. Ever watching, unless of course the owner of those eyes is taking a cat nap. I wonder if it gets boring, sitting up in that same old tree all day, I thought as I watched the fuzzball hop to a more comfortable branch. My bare foot crunched down among the ground cover, and the fuzzball's head instantly whirled around to see what was happening. That must be cool, being able to turn your head like that. No need to turn around; just spin your head over your back! As the sun slowly sank, the fuzzball became more active and those eyes remained open and attentive to their surroundings. The night would start soon...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Texas, Day Four - 5/3/08

Today actually started yesterday. Not possible, you think? Well, it did. Following our early bedtime of 3:00 p.m., our alarm clocks rudely interrupted our sleep at 8:00 p.m. We hurriedly prepared ourselves for the big day, checked out of the hotel, and headed to to closest IHOP for "brinner". Over pancakes, eggs, and bacon, we put the finishing touches on our route.

By midnight, we were driving down a dike at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, meditating every time a rock struck the tailpipe of the van with a musical ting. Number One stopped, and we leaped out of the van and into the muggy night (I did, of course, take the precaution of checking for rattlesnakes, skunks, and dead pigs before jumping out). Common Paraques wheezed from the dark woods - our first bird of the day. A Northern Mockingbird burst out into song unexpectedly. A Chuck-will's-widow perched on a roadside post was a pleasant surprise.

A muffled chuckle coming from a dense stand of trees caught our attention. The bird responsible for this was an Elf Owl. We were excited; this owl, smaller than a coke can, is a tough one to dig out. A second owl whistled nearby - an Eastern Screech-Owl. A Common Nighthawk croaked out its beer call in the distance. Not even an hour had passed, and we were finding some great night birds.

We cruised around some nearby back roads to look for Barn Owls. We stopped several times, trying to squeak one in. At one such stop, I walked to the other end of the van while the others watched for Barn Owls. Suddenly, a ghostly pale bird swooped across the road in front of me. "BARN OWL!! BARN OWL!!" I yelled, but the silent wraith had disappeared into the murk with moth-like wingbeats. No one else saw it. According to the rules, at least two people on the team must see every bird. Barn Owl remained a hole on our checklist. We spent quite a while walking around Bentsen by moonlight, swatting mosquitoes and straining our ears for other night birds.

By three a.m., we headed upriver. We struggled to remain awake as the miles dragged. At least two people had to stay awake in case a Barn Owl flew across the road, while the other two slept (or, as they insisted, "rested their eyes"). By four-thirty we were bumping our way into Santa Margarita Ranch, occasionally slipping by rather ferocious-looking cows. We frequently stopped, listening for Barn Owls and Common Poorwills. We were rewarded with only paraques and mockingbirds. Finally, a Common Poorwill began calling w-a-a-a-y in the distance. You could hear it if you cupped your ears and used your imagination...

We anxiously waited for dawn at Salineno. Slowly, ever so slowly, the blackness began to blend into gray as the night faded into dawn. Suddenly, a raspy screech pierced the darkness. Barn Owl! Everyone heard it, so the little white circle beside Barn Owl on our checklist was filled in with satisfyingly black ink.

As it got lighter and lighter, we picked up more and more species for our list. Our eyes were ever on the river, hoping for certain rare Mexican species. Slowly, this paid off. Red-billed Pigeons showed up, and were quickly followed by both Green and Ringed Kingfishers. A stunning Gray Hawk immigrated from the United States to Mexico. It must be nice, I thought, to be a bird. Borders don't matter. The Rio Grande is just another river, and the south side is much the same as the north side. Mexico was almost a stone's throw away; so close, in fact, that we could hear the Mexican roosters announcing daybreak with gusto. The American roosters crowed back at them. The roosters weren't the only birds calling in Mexico; a Yellow-billed Cuckoo taunted us by calling from somewhere across the river. We never did find one in the United States, so it didn't find its way on to our checklist (only birds found on the US side of the border count for the Great Texas Birding Classic).

We headed to Starr County park next. We had excellent luck here. A couple Clay-colored Sparrows, a great species to find on a big day, were quickly followed by a lone Chipping Sparrow. In short order we found many of the expected brush land species such as Verdin, Cassin's Sparrow, Cactus Wren, Pyrrhuloxia, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. A male Vermilion Flycatcher, very likely the same one we saw yesterday, was still hanging around.

We lucked into a pair of House Finches (don't laugh - they are tough to find in the Lower Rio Grande Valley!), and eagle-eyed Bunting Boy picked out a pair of Bobwhites right alongside the road. We contemplated changing his code name to Bobwhite Boy, but popular vote rejected this.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, our total for the day climbed. We headed down river towards Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, only stopping at Roma Bluffs to find our only Audubon's Oriole and Cave Swallows of the day. After a seemingly endless drive filled with games of word association, lame jokes, and random videos, we arrived at Santa Ana late in the morning. Suddenly, we were in full-alert birding mode. Within five minutes of arriving I spotted a Clay-colored Robin lurking in the brush near the visitor center. We stalked down the trails, hungrily seeking new species. We came through with difficult bird after difficult bird: a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet here, a House Wren there, a Solitary Sandpiper...

Buoyed up with enthusiasm, we rode out of Santa Ana. The next spot was the La Feria Sod Farm. We came, we saw, we conquered. Shorebirds swarmed over the flooded sod. I feasted my eyes on the bonanza; Baird's Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers... all in perfect breeding plumage, scampering about madly. All of these are rare in California. Nearby, on the dry grass, the landlubbers of the shorebird family foraged: Upland Sandpipers (code name: Bug-eyed Grasspiper or Periscope-necked Meadow-Strider).

Suddenly, Number One let slip a gasp reminiscent of a choking elephant. A large shorebird, dwarfing the dowitchers and phalaropes, had dropped out of the sky to a flooded furrow. It couldn't be anything other than a Hudsonian Godwit, with that long, bicolored bill, deep red underparts, and spangled upperparts. A tough bird to find, and definitely a bonus bird for our big day.

We finally tore ourselves away, and doggedly battled traffic through the valley cities. We picked up Long-billed Curlew, Tropical Kingbird, Green Parakeet, and Eastern Wood-Pewee in San Benito without even having to leave the car. Our hopes were pinned on South Padre Island and Route 48.

Route 48 traverses extensive coastal grasslands and wetlands. We easily added many coastal species to our list. We patched up our shorebird list, finding coastal species such as American Oystercatcher, Wilson's Plover, and Sanderling (a major cause for celebration!). I spotted a soaring White-tailed Hawk at sixty miles per hour, and everyone got on it without even having to slow down. As we rolled over the causeway to South Padre Island, we raked the sky and water for birds. This paid off, with our only Brown Pelicans of the day. We stopped and searched the scattered clumps of exotic vegetation right by the entrance to the island. Here, neotropical migrants played hide-and-seek with us while simultaneously trying to keep out of the wind. We added Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, a few warblers here. We raced up to Sheepshead, where we garnered a few more warblers.

Convention Center, Convention Center. The biggest, meanest migrant trap on South Padre Island. Would all those migrants still be there? Would the Least Bitterns show their faces? Would any rarities show up? Would...?

We sprang from the car, scrambling past seat belts, back packs, fellow team members, and other obstacles. We worked the bushes, finding lots of birds: a Cape May Warbler, an Ovenbird, an entire flock of orioles with one blue oriole - whoops, a Blue Grosbeak! I scoped out the flats while everyone else searched out more migrants. A couple Philadelphia Vireos popped out of nowhere, followed by a Blackburnian Warbler. We sprinted down the boardwalk, and Hop quickly pulled a Least Bittern out of nowhere. Ray called us over to look at our first Veery of the day. Then...

"SOOTY TERNS!!! SOOOOOOTTTY TERNS!!!!" Number One bellowed above the howling wind. Sure enough, a pair of raucously-calling Sooty Terns were flying up the beach. A rare bird for Texas, and completely unexpected. Naturally, a life species for me. After they had disappeared and we had recovered from the shock, we continued birding. I wasted about two seconds photographing this cute fledgling Northern Mockingbird.

Light faded. Twenty-four hours isn't very long. We had just about run out of birds to find. No Black-crowned Night-Heron - we looked in vain. We headed back down Route 48 in hopes of finding a Peregrine Falcon, White-tailed Kite, or anything that would be new for our list. Nope. Suddenly, we all realized how tired we were. As darkness crept over the land, we headed back to San Benito where we were staying overnight at Marci and Terry Fuller's house. I collapsed on my cot at some late hour and fell into not sleep but hibernation.

Oh yeah, I forgot to say how many species we got. One hundred and ninety-five. Not bad!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Texas, Day Three - 5/2/08

Beep-beep... beep-beep... Why are alarm clocks such horrible things to wake up to in the morning? I pondered this while extricating myself from bed early Friday morning. We had to leave the hotel by five to get to the upriver areas we were scouting today by dawn. Maybe I should have gone to bed earlier - four hours isn't very much.

After a long drive (almost seventy miles) we finally reached Santa Margarita Ranch (pictured above). Much of the ranch is arid brush land, with birds such as Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, and Cactus Wren, but a moist strip of riparian habitat lines the banks of the Rio Grande. As we drove in, Lesser Nighthawks coursed through the air in pursuit of insects.

Number One led us to a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande is a highway for many different kinds of birds. Egrets, herons, doves, and ducks were flying up and down the river. I spotted a Red-billed Pigeon perched up on top of a snag downriver - first lifer of the day. This sought-after species's range barely juts up into the United States. A slow, mournful whistle drifting up from the brush below caught our attention, for a good reason: Audubon's Oriole! It eventually popped into view. Another lifer, and my 600th life bird.

Suddenly, two large black birds with white wing patches swung into view around a bend in the river. Muscovy Ducks! This species is well-known throughout the United States, since released/escaped domestic individuals are common in urban parks; only here in southernmost Texas do wild Muscovy Ducks occur.

Our next stop was Salineno. There's a small boat ramp on the river's edge, and some nice riparian vegetation. An interesting incident delayed us here longer than we had anticipated, but we made the most of it and found some interesting birds.

A beautifully-marked Spotted Sandpiper was teetering his (or her?) way along the edge of the boat ramp most of the time we were present. It's nice to see them with spots! I imagine it is a female, since it is so brightly marked.

We also came across this duskywing basking on the ground near the van. After much studying and arguing, we came up with the identification of Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis).

On our way out of Salineno, we birded the Salineno Dump Road. As the name implies, the road is a dump. Random trash, including toilets, old tires, and beer cans, litters the ground along the road. It's sad to see how the environment is trashed down in southern Texas. And, of course, there's the whole mess with the proposed border wall. We found a second-year male Painted Bunting singing sweetly away right beside the road and several feet above an abandoned toilet. Sorry yet again Chris - just skip over the photo.

We took a spin around Starr County Park, which lies almost in the shadow of the Falcon Dam water tower. Some people would call it a campground; I would call it land with some crude picnic tables, shelters, and restrooms slapped hastily on it.

Starr County Park is covered with grassland and dry, scraggly bushes. This whole upriver area has several species of birds, such as Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Sparrow, and Vermilion Flycatcher, that are impossible or extremely hard to find farther downriver. It's a long drive for a big day, but it's worth the gamble because of these different species. As we jolted down the rough gravel road through the "campground", Bunting Boy spotted one of these: a brilliant male Vermilion Flycatcher sitting up on a bush. Someone else spotted an Ash-throated Flycatcher perched on some nearby telephone wires. A common enough species in Orange County, yet a "must-have" species on a big day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

A few sparrows swirled out of the grass in front of the car. Sparrows of any kind are not very numerous in the Lower Rio Grande Valley at this time of the year, so they were worth a look. The white tail tips flashing as they flitted away instantly identified them as Lark Sparrows. Hop spotted a different sparrow sitting in a nearby bush - a Lark Bunting, a decent bird for this late in the year. Another life bird for me.

We cruised down some nearby roads, looking for Cassin's Sparrows. Eventually, we found one singing right along the road. This dull brown bird gets my vote for the best singer in the United States. Although certainly not impressive to look at, as soon as it opens its bill and pours out its poignant song, you'll be amazed. We even saw it skylarking (floating through the air while pouring out that song). It landed on the fence right outside the car - here it is, as seen between the car's side mirror and Number One's ear.

With that, we pulled a U-turn and sped back towards McAllen. Bedtime: 3:00 p.m. Big day coming. Need sleep.

Lord Baltimore

Baltimore Orioles were just about the last thing on my mind while I was out for a walk around my neighborhood on Tuesday morning with my collie Chestnut. A big push of migrants had come through, and I was out looking for them. I quickly found lots of migrants: a Hermit Warbler (my first of the year), Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Wilson's Warblers.

Suddenly, a piping whistle accompanied by a harsh chatter broke its way into my thoughts. Now that, I said to myself, is most certainly a Baltimore Oriole. Of course, another little voice in my head said, You know that's impossible. You're hearing the echoes of the birds you heard in Texas.

I was determined to see that bird. It was calling from the adjacent neighborhood, so Chestnut and I sprinted down a nearby horse trail and managed to get right where the bird had been singing from. An entire chorus of dogs began barking and howling at us. The bird sang - but it was distant, back in our neighborhood! We ran back, binoculars bouncing on my hip and Chestnut's tongue lolling out as he panted. Some dogs make good birding companions, and Chestnut isn't one of them. He's a good walker, but he absolutely detests even the thought of standing around and staring into trees. He expresses his displeasure with extremely loud, strident whines (very much like Lassie, but a few times as loud). He was already tired, so I had to pull him along. We got back just in time to hear it singing, but farther away near the lakes. We followed it, and then it stopped singing. I cast around for a bit, but it remained silent. See? said the pessimistic voice in my head. Baltimore Orioles don't exist in California!

Just then, the bird sang again from a eucalyptus tree right above my head. I finally laid my eyes - definitely a Baltimore Oriole! The pessimistic voice remained silent as the bird continued to sing. I followed it for some time, attempting to take photos as it flitted high in the trees.

On Wednesday I decided to try my luck with migrants at Peters Canyon Regional Park. Thick clouds concealed the blue skies that California is so famous for. Light, misty rain fell. Fitful gusts blew through the trees. Despite these conditions, migrants were hopping! I don't think temperatures climbed above sixty degrees; in the last week, my friends from the Midwest have laughed at us Californians as we shiver in the freezing weather while they bask in seventy-degree sunny weather.

A scratchy warble coming from the sycamores turned out to be a beautiful male Hermit Warbler, the first of about ten individuals I saw over the morning. Wilson's Warblers swarmed in the willow thickets; I saw dozens. A small gray flycatcher just south of the dam turned out to be just that: a Gray Flycatcher. Since it is an uncommon migrant on the coastal slope of California, I followed it for awhile to confirm its identification. It wagged its tail almost constantly, a dead giveaway to its identification. Unfortunately, it was too fast for a photo. Nearby, I pished a female MacGillivray's Warbler out of the brush. It perched up on a cactus before flitting away - can't say you see that very often!

This morning I went out for another walk around the neighborhood to see if I could pull another rare bird out of the hat. I didn't, but I discovered a family of Great Horned Owls sitting up high in a pine tree. Three cute fuzzy owlets were perched up there with one attending adult. Last year, my family had a great time tracking the actions of a family of Great Horned Owls around the neighborhood - I hope they are as cooperative this year!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Texas, Day Two - 5/1/08

After a fitful night's rest in hotel beds, we arose early and set off to scout other birding spots in the area. The South Padre Island Convention Center was a stone's throw away from the hotel, so of course we stopped there. Some of the first birds to greet us there were the ubiquitous Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. These odd birds have amazingly long, skinny necks, bubble-gum pink legs, and neon red bills. They call to each other in piping whistles, hence the name. A small group was perched on the boardwalk railing, allowing close approach.

Plenty of migrants still swarmed the little patch of brush, including a few species that we missed last night. The boardwalk produced plenty of interesting marsh birds for us. A few Soras with their plump sunflower-yellow bills scurried through the shallow water under the boardwalk. Somehow, someone spotted two Least Bitterns poised motionless the reeds at the edge of the small pond. While we were enjoying them, at least two more Least Bitterns flew across the pond and landed in the open. Talk about Least Bittern heaven!

A bull alligator was floating the the middle of the pond, providing great views. He even started bellowing (that's probably not the correct term...), much to our amazement.

After working the woodlot again, we drove the van out on the adjacent mudflats looking for water birds. Lots of shorebirds, including Sanderling, Piping Plover, Dunlin, and Marbled Godwit, were out and about. A tardy Red-breasted Merganser swam just offshore ("Definitely a bird we'll want to find on Saturday," said Jeff). A large assortment of terns was loafing on the edge of the flats, including these *ahem* Sandwich Terns.

We quickly vacated the island and headed inland. At Bunting Boy's begging, we stopped by Sabal Palms Sanctuary, which turned out to be a good idea. I spotted a Lesser Nighthawk sitting in the middle of the road on the way in. Unfortunately, it was injured. Number One managed to nab it before it got hit again. As we held it and stroked its soft plumage, we marveled at its amazingly complex plumage and its fascinating comb-like claws. Unfortunately, the Audubon Center rehab couldn't take it, so we had to leave it.

The feeding station had large numbers of tame birds foraging at close range in the open - Plain Chachalacas, White-tipped Doves, Green Jays, Bronzed Cowbirds, and even Olive Sparrows. I was glad I shot this mediocre shot of one of the Green Jays, because it was the only Green Jay that cooperated for photography during the entire trip.

The Plain Chachalacas fed brazenly just feet away from the observation deck. As their name implies, they don't have the looks of some of the other nearby tropical species, but they were still fascinating to watch. Their raucous shrieks were fun to listen to!

We tore ourselves away from the feeders to take a look at the resaca (oxbow lake, formerly a part of the Rio Grande but now cut off) to look for other birds. This paid off almost immediately - Least Grebes were everywhere! There were at least twenty of these dwarf grebes on the lake, several within a few feet of the blind! Their tiny size and bright yellow eyes make them very endearing.

As we headed farther inland, we paused by a flooded sod farm, the La Feria Sod Farm. The water pooled up between the furrows was a big draw to migrant shorebirds. Stilt Sandpipers (in full alternate plumage, with chestnut cheeks), Wilson's Phalaropes, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Long-billed Dowitchers foraged at close range. Careful scanning produced other species, including White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Pectoral Sandpiper. We all wished to linger over the beautiful shorebirds, but we had to scout other birding spots.

Our next spot was Estero Llano Grande World Birding Center. We hiked a short distance down some of the trails and found some great birds. A handful of Cave Swallows swooped over the ponds, along with Cliff and Bank Swallows. As I was enjoying looks at my life Green Kingfisher teed up on a snag over one of the lakes, everyone else disappeared. A couple minutes later, I found out why: a day-roosting Common Paraque. We enjoyed great looks at this nocturnal species as it rested on the ground near the trail. We hurried back to the car, but couldn't resist stopping to check out a couple of Groove-billed Anis hanging out next to the trail. We found this rather large and disagreeable-looking lizard basking next to the car in the parking lot. I think it's a Texas Spiny Lizard.

Our next spot was the famed Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. I first started reading about it when I was eight, when I read George Harrison's account of it in Dozen Birding Hotspots. It didn't disappoint! We hiked around the trails, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and tossing tufts of Spanish moss at each other. A few warblers dithered through the trees in the mid-day heat, including the only Bay-breasted Warbler of the trip. Near one of the ponds, a slow, mournful little whistled carol emanated from the Spanish-moss draped woods. Clay-colored Robin! We tip-toed down a small trail towards it.

Unfortunately, the bird proved impossible to spot. It always slipped away just as we came around a corner, or would fall silent and then start singing again farther back in the woods, luring us on. Suddenly, Number One's ears pricked up almost visibly. I had heard it too: a high, whistled peer peer peer peer. I recognized that song from Arizona - Northern Beardless Tyrannulet! We celebrated silently and gave up on the robin. The tyrannulet wouldn't show his face either.

We saw lots of other cool birds at Santa Ana, including Ring Kingfisher, Roseate Spoonbill, Solitary Sandpiper, White-faced Ibis, Least Bittern, and Painted Bunting (sorry again Chris!). This beautiful ribbon snake posed for photos right next to one of the blinds.

As light faded, we wandered around Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park until the Common Paraques and Eastern Screech-Owls started up for the night. A lone Chuck-wills-widow sounded off a few times after dusk. On the walk out of the park (the park is closed to vehicles) we encountered javelinas, tarantulas, and several gopher snakes.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Texas, Day One - 4/30/08

As I excitedly boarded my plane bound for Texas, I thought of all the birds I was to see in the next several days. The day had started off ordinarily enough; we had to leave for LAX at some ungodly hour of the morning, and the only bird I had for the day was the persistently singing Northern Mockingbird outside my window while I was trying in vain to sleep. That was to change soon!

The flight to Houston Hobby was uneventful. We flew over the Californian mountains and deserts, over the Arizonian mountains and deserts, over the New Mexican mountains and deserts, and over the Texan hills and deserts. The plane did fly almost directly over the north end of the Salton Sea, which was interesting.

I found my way to the gate where my connection was due to leave in the Houston Hobby Airport. I joined my teammate Hope Batcheller (code name: Hop) in looking for birds out the airport window. She was desperate to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, but the only birds we saw were European Starlings, Great-tailed Grackles, and Cliff Swallows. Exciting. Our connection finally came in and an hour later we were wandering through the tiny airport at Harlingen.

We met our teammates Saraiya Ruano (code name: Ray) and Nico Sarbanes (code name: Bunting Boy) around the baggage claim, along with our mentors/drivers/temporary parents, Jeff Gordon (code name: Number One) and Liz Gordon (code name: Leica Mom). We loaded up our luggage in the waiting van and took off. I immediately noticed two strange things about driving in Texas: the roads are narrow and straight, and the traffic lights are horizontal!

As we headed towards South Padre Island, we started finding birds. My first lifer was a Golden-fronted Woodpecker that swooped across the road right in front of the van in Harlingen. We stopped at Marci and Terry Fuller's house San Benito nearby. Here, while wandering their wonderful yard, I found four more life birds: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, Black-crested Titmouse, and Long-billed Thrasher. We saw many other interesting birds here, including Brown-crested Flycatcher, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, and Couch's Kingbird. Unfamiliar, tropical-sounding bird calls echoed through the woods and utterly confused me. I had spent considerable time studying bird calls beforehand, but first-hand experience can't be beaten.

On our way to South Padre Island, we swung through Brownsville. Number One spotted some Green Parakeets zipping through the air, so we hastily stopped and quickly found them investigating cavities in a nearby building. Here is a shot of the team enjoying the parakeets (left to right: Number One, Bunting Boy, Leica Mom, Ray, and Hop):

Route 48 to Port Isabel and South Padre Island produced many species of birds. I saw four lifers: Mottled Duck, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, and Wilson's Plover. Shorebirds and terns were common. It was very tempting to linger and enjoy all the water birds, but Number One urged us on towards South Padre Island. Laughing Gulls were annoyingly abundant, but I enjoyed seeing this species that rarely visits California.

Our first stop on South Padre Island was a little brushy lot known as Sheepshead. As soon as we walked up, it was evident that birds were everywhere: waves of brilliant Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks fluttered into the brush. Numbers of migratory eastern species were present, including Magnolia Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Summer Tanager, and a lone female Painted Bunting, a life bird for me (sorry Chris!). A cute male Magnolia Warbler flitted through the weeds just feet away from the edge of the road.

Number One finally managed to pry us away from the scene with promises of even more birds at another woodlot a couple miles up the road - the South Padre Island Convention Center, known to birders simply as "the center". He was right; as we were pulling up an after second-year male American Redstart flashed across the road. I looked with disbelief at the tiny patch of brush nestled against a wall of the center; could this minuscule patch of plantings really be such a hot spot for migrants?

Again, the answer was "yes"! Bright eastern warblers swept through the treetops swaying in the wind, orioles of two sorts (Orchard and Baltimore) were greedily devouring grapefruit halves set out by thoughtful birders, and Indigo Buntings coated the ground by the dozens. I particularly enjoyed seeing the eastern warblers, whose faces I've missed while staring at California Gnatcatchers, Wrentits, and various shearwaters. I was especially excited to see Ovenbirds, much to the amusement of everyone else. Only Chestnut-sided Warblers cooperated for photographs; there's a second Chestnut-sided Warbler hiding behind the first one.

Number One again had to pry us away from the warblers to take a stroll down the marsh boardwalk to look for Least Bitterns. We couldn't find any, but got excellent views of Clapper Rails lurking under the boardwalk. Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets (code name: Radishes), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Tricolored Herons, and Sandwich Terns all flew about and foraged as the sun sank below the horizon.

Instead of turning in early as we should have done, we took a walk down the beach in the dark. The only birds we saw were a couple Sanderlings and a Willet, but we had fun catching ghost crabs. (Or rather, everyone else had fun watching me catch ghost crabs with my Yellow-crowned Night-Heron-like skills; Hop got nailed by one and Ray and Bunting Boy passed the opportunity wrestle with them.)

Coming next: May 1st, and Sabal Palms Sanctuary, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park!