Friday, November 30, 2012

The early birder gets the bird

Wednesday, November 28th, we left Benson, AZ for the San Rafael Grasslands to look for ONE bird. The Baird's Sparrow nests in the northern Midwest. John looked for it there earlier in the year. The bird winters in open grasses on both sides of the border with Mexico. On our way there, in Elgin AZ, we met Robin. He was leading a group of birders looking for Arizona specialties. We told him of our quest. He looked at his watch and said we should have gotten to the valley by 7:30 AM to have any chance. We soldiered on anyway. The San Rafael Valley is drop dead gorgeous. There are just a few dirt roads crisscrossing it, no power lines, very few homesteads. The tall grass prairie stretches out before you. Robin was right. We saw lots of Vesper Sparrows along the roads, Chipping Sparrows in the creek beds and Savannah Sparrows near the corrals, but no ocher-headed little brown jobbies.

Never mind, off to Patagonia State Park in the late afternoon. There was Robin loading his tour group back into his van. We consulted with him about the difficulty of finding Black-Capped Gnatcatchers anywhere in AZ. The park has a maze of cow trails through mesquite, with plenty of cows and cow pies making our search interesting. No gnatcatcher.

Where to spend the night? Too cold to camp at the park and, besides, it takes too long to get going in the morning. Back to Patagonia and the one hotel in town. Plenty of rooms, adjacent restaurant, early to  bed.

Early to rise and back to San Rafael Valley following Robin's advice to get there by 7:30 AM. We trolled past the first corral seeing lots of Savannahs, drove slowly to the first intersection and turned around to have the rising sun at our backs. Lots of sparrows, probably Vespers, were flying in and out of the grasses. One bird looked a little smaller. It perched up on a grass stalk. It looked ocher. There were tidy streaks. John took some pictures. The grass stalk bent and the bird sank out of sight. Were the pictures good enough? We drove back to the corral. On the back fence, sitting between two Savannahs, was a slightly chunkier bird. It had an ocher head! It posed for even more pictures than the other bird had. Two birds in hand! Congratulatory kiss. Thank you, Robin, for telling us to get there early!

As we were driving out, there was a van by the side of the road and people with binoculars were milling about. They were from the Texas Ornithological Society and their leader graciously vetted John's pictures. No doubt about it, the right head color and the two dots that define a Baird's Sparrow. It was nice to get confirmation from an authority. John has inched up to 679 bird species for his big year!

We tried for the Black-Capped Gnatcatcher for the 5th or 6th time in Montosa Canyon. A Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher gave us some good looks. Ah well, Tucson AZ is too close to home. We chose to suspend birding for our own beds, after more than 6 weeks on the road.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Which way will pay?

Monday, November 26th, off to south Texas to look for the Hook-Billed Kite again. We got about a block when I asked, 'why go for a bird that is rarely seen, when the rosy finches in New Mexico were seen yesterday?' So we angled northwest across Texas into New Mexico. That night we stayed in a Motel 6, of course, in Santa Rosa. My favorite I-40 restaurant, the Silver Moon Cafe, was just across Route 66. I recommend the blue corn chicken enchiladas. Lovely!

Not so early the next morning, we started for Sandia Crest, northeast of Albuquerque. Is that spelled right? From 5000 to 10000 feet in 20 miles. Another beautiful spot John's big year has brought him to. We met some other birders on the way up and up there. At the top, there is a restaurant/gift shop with feeders on the deck. You can watch the rosy-finches from inside while sipping hot chocolate or eating the even hotter chili! All three species appeared while we were there. They would come in double digit numbers briefly then take off for an hour. The only one that 'counted' for John, was the Black Rosy-Finch. It was a life bird for both of us, and number 678 for John's big year! Turns out the facility will close for the month of December, so we were wise to go there when we did. There are plans to put a feeder down by the lower parking lot. You need to check before you go.

Back down to the I-40, turn south on the I-25, stop by Bosque del Apache for a snow goose/sandhill crane fix. You have got to visit there in the winter. It is a natural wonder. Tonight, Lordsburg! Have you seen the movie 'Stagecoach'? Tomorrow, we will try for the Baird's Sparrow in San Rafael Grasslands AZ. It hasn't been reported lately.  :-(  We will try for the Black-Capped Gnatcatcher again too. If he doesn't get it, John may have to call on Melody Kehl again. Did I spell that right? Good night!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Happy 70th Birthday, John!

Sunday, November 25th, John and I went to Bouldin Creek in central Austin to look once again for the Blue-Headed Vireo. Which way to go? As we stood there blithering, a young woman with binoculars approached. Binoculars, always a good sign. Turns out she is a regular there and knows the guy who turns in frequent ebird reports. Suzanne, a real sweetheart, showed us his route, wished us good luck and went off to look for sparrows. A copse of tall trees with lots of undergrowth, kinglets, titmice, warblers. John started to chat with another lady about birds of paradise. Ack! I see a vireo! I punch John in the stomach and cut short his conversation. I see the vireo several more times, but it's movements are tangled up in all the other birds passing through. John can not get on it!

We turn to try another area, Suzanne comes rushing up! 'I just saw one! I played the tape and it popped out in plain view! It is on the far side!' Galumph, galumph, we hurry south. John and Suzanne start talking about Cambodia, where she just returned from. Come on people, let's keep our minds on the vireo! We arrive at the spot. Nobirdy. Suzanne goes off to look again for sparrows. I play the tape. Suzanne's back! She says the bird was just above our heads! I see it! She sees it! John sees it!!!!!! 677! John even gets decent photos!

That has got to be one of the best birthday presents John has ever gotten. Thank you, Suzanne!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stormy weather.......

Cancels pelagic.

At 11 AM Monday November 19th, Debi Shearwater notified participants that the captain had cancelled Tuesday's trip due to high winds and seas. That was 11 AM Pacific. John's flight from Philly was about 1:45 PM Eastern which is 10:45AM Pacific. I saw the email in the evening and called John. He had just loaded his luggage in his rental car. At least he could sleep in.

John will probably spend the day in the motel in San Jose going over pictures. This isn't the time of year that he could easily have changed flights anyway. He had a suspicion cancellation was possible. The marine forecast didn't look bad to me, but I was wrong.

That was John's last scheduled pelagic. He was hoping for the Mottled Petrel, scratch that.

John will fly into Austin Wednesday about midnight for Texas turkey on Thanksgiving. He turns 70 on Sunday. Isn't it interesting how much younger old gets as you get older?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pretty in pink

Not that John saw any pink. After the pelagic out of Delaware, John had a day 'off' and had heard about a Pink-Footed Goose north of Philadelphia. He didn't get it in Maine, so try, try again. Sunday, November 18th, he drove up to Peace Valley Nature Center. There were about 6000 Canada Geese and no birders on the shore. John scanned from three vantage points and didn't find Pinkie. He finally went to the visitor's center. A lady with a telescope told John where to go, past a pond, across a dam to look back on the geese from the other side. Now there were other birders, good sign, and sure enough, paddling around, was the Pink-Footed Goose 675! The pink parts were under water. John took pictures anyway. Turns out, Robert, who is also doing a big year and was on the pelagic, got there a bit earlier than John and got the goose too! Good!

John had talked to a local birder on the pelagic, who volunteered to help John find the Rusty Blackbird. Davich met John Sunday evening at Quakertown Swamp. In the dusk, Davich spotted some male and female rusties amongst the red-wings, but John was not satisfied with his views and decided to return the next AM. Monday morning, John got there about 7 and Davich was nice enough to show up again on his way to work. There were no blackbirds of any kind at first. Then, Davich thought he heard a Rusty call and saw a bird fly towards them. This swamp is quite large with a road cutting through it. Large dense bushes fill the watery areas and trees grow on the edges. Lots of places for birds to hide. Davich played his tape. The bird flew nearer. He played his tape again. The bird perched up in clear view. It was a female Rusty Blackbird 676! Thank you, Davich.

It is always nice to get a little help from fellow birders. Happy, John drove to the airport in Philadephia to fly to San Jose, CA. He will be on a Debi Shearwater pelagic out of Half Moon Bay tomorrow.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

An ill wind blows some good

November 17th, John went on a pelagic out of Lewes, Delaware with Paulagics. He told me it was very cold and windy, 15 knots. The boat was of a good size so handled the seas well. Some of the passengers did not. Glad I wasn't there.

John got both target birds, the Northern Gannet 673 and the Manx Shearwater 674!!!!! Finally, some progress! He got pictures of both and a picture of the Bonaparte's Gull. He had somehow missed photographing that one well before. That makes about 617 species pictures this year.

John could even find some new bird tomorrow! Well, anything is possible. He will stay in Philadelphia tomorrow night and fly to California Monday. He has a scheduled pelagic out of Half Moon Bay Tuesday, November 20th. It looks like the weather will cooperate, just a little windy and a little wet. I won't be there either.

It isn't that I never go on boats. I went to the Antarctic and the Aleutians. I guess those were ships. A ship's captain told me a boat can be put on a ship, but a ship is never carried and do not call his ship a boat!!!! It is just that to go to sea, I have to overdose on sea sickness medications and in the down time between the birds and occasional whales, pelagics can be deadly boring. Then there is a distant sea bird that experts call a whatever. Could be a flying fish for all I know. I like to ID the bird myself.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Where have all the (rare) birdies gone?

John drove up to Maine to chase the Pink-Footed Goose, I will put in the dates later. He found the field reported on Birdseye. It was lush and green and empty. He decided to leave, several geese flew in. Scan carefully, all Canada Geese. Then a larger flock, all Canada. Another large flock, all Canada. At least one more large flock, all Canada. Of course, the Pinkie could have been hiding in there somewhere, but John didn't see it.

Maine has Spruce Grouse. John checked a few spots, no luck.

Near Boston, Northern Lapwings had been seen a few days before. John and some other birders wandered the roads of a preserve and didn't find them.

Would you believe, John tried yet again for the Virginia's Warbler. It had been reported at Alley Pond on Long Island, probably pre-Sandy. Huge trees had been toppled in the storm. Sand was everywhere. That poor lost warbler was nowhere to be seen.

That makes John 0 for 4 on target birds in the northeast. If he had the flexibility and money, he would likely do better to fly directly to see a rare bird as soon as it was reported. Like the Common Cuckoo that we happened to be near, lost birds seem to quickly lose themselves again. John still teases me that this is just a practice year. If he values his life............

John stayed in Philadelphia, Thursday night, November 15th. Friday, he is driving to Lewes, Delaware for a pelagic with Paulagics early Saturday, November 17th. I hope he at least gets the gannet! He has been stuck on 672 a long time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Am I blue?

Friday, November 9th, John's field trip left at 5 AM again, back to the Upper Rio Grande Valley. No Red-Billed Pigeon or Muscovy Duck, but some nice pictures of birds John has already seen. He is still at 672 for his big year, 706 for his life bird list and 611 plus decent photos of bird species taken this year. Not bad for an old geezer who is blind in one eye and mostly deaf.

I had signed up for Birding by Ear but didn't want to go to Santa Ana two days in a row, so managed to switch to Southmost Preserve in Eastern Brownsville. Anyone can go there if they call ahead to the manager to arrange a visit. We got to go behind the border fence. It is anything but a solid barrier. There are gaps at every road. The smugglers are funneled right past the preserve's headquarters. Not good. The preserve has lots of Sabal Palms and a working grapefruit ranch that brings in revenue. The border fence displaced about three hundred palms during construction. The Southmost Preserve successfully transplanted about half of them. Other preserves got the rest of those palms.

The preserve has a spider web of dirt roads. You definitely will need a map! We didn't see much, but had a wealth of warblers, Yellow-Throated, Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-Rumped, Orange-Crowned, Wilson's and Black-and-White, PLUS, a leader spotted a heavier, skulky warbler. I got on it too and we saw a bright split eye ring! MacGillivray's! The other leader, Derek, finally saw it too. That's pretty far east for a western warbler.

Derek has lead field trips during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival for all of it's twenty years. It may be the oldest festival in the USA. It is certainly well run.

We didn't fly to Miami. We decided to stay overnight and try Santa Ana on our own in the morning. We ate at Longhorn Cattle Co BBQ and Steakhouse Friday night. Nice! Saturday, November 10th, we got to Santa Ana at 8 AM. We spent about two hours on the tower, Harris's Hawks, Peregrine Falcon, Red-Tailed, Kestrels, Vultures and Crested Caracaras flew by. One hawk was dipping into the trees for several minutes, flying about 50 feet into the wind, then dipping into the trees again. It had two bright white bars on its tail so I got hopeful it might be the Hook-Billed Kite. Never mind, the book says it has two DULL white bars on its tail. Grump.

We climbed down from the tower to go to Pintail Lakes where the HBK had been seen 5 days before. There was a lot of activity in the bushes around the little parking lot at the tower. I could hear White-Eyed Vireos and drifted right to follow them while John stayed in the corner. Right in front of me, a Blue-Headed Vireo appeared. JOHN! JOHN! I spluttered. He got over to me too late. Argh! Not another glimpse, though we searched the area another hour. John will have to get it elsewhere. I'm so blue! We did get nice looks at a Beardless Tyrannulet. What a drab little bird. Cute call. We never did get over to Pintail Lakes, but the kite wasn't seen there anyway.

We drove to Austin Saturday afternoon. Sunday, John changed his flight so that he would fly out of Austin to Philly, Monday, instead of Miami to Philly, Tuesday. The car rental agency showed that all cars were booked, but at the counter, John did get one. He drove to Connecticut because the Motel 6's in New Jersey were not available. Probably, Sandy, the big storm, is the culprit. I need to verify that John's pelagic on the 17th is still a go.

Hi, Edna!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The dark before the dawn

The festival field trips start before the sun comes up. John's bus left at 5 AM, mine at 6 AM, Thursday, November 8th. It is very dark when you start out and then comes the dawn. John wanted a picture of the White-Collared Seedeater so he went on the seedeater tour. They arrived up in Zapata county at La Laja and were greeted by the owner. There was a lot of staring into weedy patches and some good views of the seedeaters, but John did not get any pictures. They had lunch at the Rio Grande overlook in San Ignacio and spent some time at a county park, then headed back to Harlingen.

I went to Santa Ana. Many of the other participants were getting life birds left and right. That was fun. I did get great looks at Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs feeding next to each other. Least Grebes are always special. I even saw a Beardless Tyrannulet briefly. We watched for the Hook-Billed Kite from the towers. No luck. I would not have wanted to see that bird anyway. If I had, I would have HAD to find it for John.

Somehow, getting off the bus the day before, I left my binoculars behind! I didn't realize it until we got to our car and the bus was gone. Dark panic! The bus company closed before the festival people got a message to them. I checked with the information center this morning and they had not heard from the bus company. John let me take his 8's. He would use only his 18 power image-stabilized ones. Nice of him. After I got back from my tour at noon, I asked again. No news. The festival had lots of booths, several were optics companies, so I spent some time looking at replacements. About 2 they called me and said the bus company had finally called them back and had my binoculars! Dawn! A very nice festival volunteer was downtown and picked them up. I got them about 2:30, walked across to the park, lay down on the grass and rested for a half hour.

Then it was time for Bill Clark's lecture about Neotropical Hawks. After that was over, John had returned. There was a cool demonstration of birds of prey flying around the vendors' hall, some delicious snacks and a glass of wine. You should come to the festival!

We went to La Playa to eat. Yummy! Back to our room by 7 PM. John decide we would stay one more night instead of leaving right after our tours tomorrow. I think that means he will not go to Miami before he flies to Philadelphia.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pip! Pip!

The first tour of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival that we went on today, Wednesday, November 7th, was King Ranch Santa Gertrudis. It was a long drive but worth it. We saw lots of fun birds up there, a pair of White-Tailed Hawks, a Roadrunner, a BOBCAT, Cassin's and Clay-Colored Sparrows, Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, lots of Green Jays and Audubon's Oriole.

We went across to an agricultural section to look for the Sprague's Pipit. 672! We found a group of at least 5 pipits along a farm road in the cotton fields. They don't usually hang together like that. We got great views of a life bird for both of us.

King Ranch fed us a delicious barbecue and we dozed on the bus back to Harlingen.

Another EARLY morning tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Whither shall we wander?

The Louisiana tour was over. On our own again. Should we go east towards Miami, or west towards Texas? Susan, also on the tour, mentioned she was heading for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen TX. I mentioned it to John. Susan also asked if we needed a Jicana. I asked John and he said 'Of course!' It was only seen one day, but got him thinking. We started west ostensibly to redo some of the LA tour's areas but kept heading west without stopping. We managed to get to Kingsville that night.

The next morning we were at the festival headquarters about 9:30. They told us to come back at 12 for walk-in registration. Off we went towards Atacosa on Highway 100. As we approached Old Port Isabel Road I suggested we check it out. Some may remember that we went on it earlier in the year. John had gone on it earlier still. It was a REALLY rutted road and no falcons! This time it had been freshly scraped! Easy as pie! In fact, John was going a bit too fast and I saw the Aplomado Falcon take off from a fence post right next to us. We saw it but not well. John could count it. 671! We continued on to Farm Road 541 and back north to Harlingen.

Got back to the festival at 11:45 and the nice ladies started registering us right away. John got all day tours Wednesday, Thursday and Friday that he wanted. I will go on the first one with him and on half day tours after that. John will still have time for a couple of days in Miami if he wants, before he flies to Philadelphia next Tuesday.

We asked some of the volunteers where we could look for Sprague's Pipit. One suggested farm fields north of Harlingen. After lunch, we wandered there awhile. The sun was getting lower. I said I wanted to go back to Old Port Isabel Road. This time we would approach from Farm Road 541 and have the sun at our backs. Another car came behind us. I fussed a bit that we wouldn't be alone, we switched places a few times, the other driver seemed to not see the falcons flying off fences ahead of us. She flushed two that flew back past us and John didn't get pictures. Argh! BUT one flew back and landed right next to her car on the fence. I didn't want to move our car closer, so John got out and crouch-crawled up using her car as a shield. He got pictures of it on the fence and then in flight! Yay!!!

We continued to follow the other car north. She turned around close to the end of the road and headed back toward us. She thought she had to go all the way back to FR 541. I got to tell her that Highway 100 was just ahead. She turned around again and followed us out. Glad I could pay back a bit for the great views.

There were a Peregrine Falcon and a pair of White-Tailed Hawks along the port road too. Plus all the other usual raptors. Nice day! John was delighted that we decided to head towards Texas this morning.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Two new birds in Louisiana! (LA LA) Added to the three John got on the first day of the tour, that is all five target birds he was hoping to get. Tours are great! You have an experienced leader and lots of eyes to help spot the sneaky little birds.

Saturday, November 3rd, the group headed for Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana. In a coastal marsh, Dan Lane called up a Seaside Sparrow 669! They also saw tons of shorebirds, seabirds and sandhill cranes, all of which John had seen already in his big year. It isn't a waste of time for him. He enjoys seeing and photographing all of the birds again. He even keeps track of which subspecies he has photographs of.

Since I wasn't officially signed up for the tour, I stayed at the hotel Saturday. Laundry needed to be done, so I carted it all to a laundromat, stuffed all the clean clothes in pillowcases and lugged it back to the hotel. Somewhere, between the laundromat and my hotel room, I lost a pillowcase filled with John's underwear. Sunday, after giving up the search, I bought two weeks worth of new underwear and socks for him. Someone out there was probably pretty disappointed with their find. Not much market for used men's underwear, even if it was clean!

Sunday, November 4th, the group headed for the piney woods through heavy rain. The rain eased up once they got there. The standard birds were all there, Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-Headed Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, etc. The fun one for John was the Bachman's Sparrow. They had chased a few and finally had one surrounded. John had a clear view and helped a few others get a good view for their life list. Dan played a Barred Owl, in it flew! His tape must say something nicer that ours does. We only got it to call back. John got great pictures and he prefers to have a visual for his big year list.

Then they went back to the rice fields. A possible Sprague's Pipit morphed into a Chestnut-Collared Longspur. Several people were happy with that. John would have preferred the pipit. Dan Lane has an alarm call tape that brings in all sorts of little brown jobbies from the tall grass. Among them was a Le Conte's Sparrow 670! Ending the day on a nice note, John saw yet another Yellow Rail pop out from in front of the rice combine in a nearby field.

The Field Guides tour, Yellow Rails and Crawfish Tails, was a great success. Thanks, Dan Lane.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cajun country combine

After a week of wandering through gorgeous fall color and not finding new birds, John and I arrived in Scott, LA (Cajun country) for a Field Guides tour with Dan Lane. John wanted to go on the first of Dan's two tours even though it did not have room for me. Lucky for me, a few of the participants were going to be late arriving, so Friday, November 2nd, I got to join in on the rice harvest. Before we got to the rice field, Dan found John a Swamp Sparrow, number 666 on his big year list!

Yellow Rails migrate south and winter along the Gulf coast. The miles and miles of rice fields are a rail magnet. Then comes the harvest. The huge combines cut the rice like giant lawn mowers, suck in the stalks, separate the rice heads and spit out the chaff. Only a few people could ride on the combine at a time. They needed dust masks and ear plugs. The rest of us walked around on the cut part of the field watching for rails to pop out ahead of the combine. The ground was mostly dry, but you still had to avoid wet holes amongst the ruts. A few of us took some hard sprawls.

John scared up a Yellow Rail out of the cut stuff on our first walk 667! To identify the Yellow Rail you have to see the white on the trailing edge of the wing. The rail pops up, flies out sideways to the already cut area, drops down and disappears. The cut stuff is less than a foot high. The combine scares up Virginia Rails and Soras too. They look dark brown all over. Lots of little brown jobbies scare up too.

When I rode on the combine, I got to be in the cab with the farmer. Great view and no dust! I saw all three species of rails pop out.

After my ride, the group got serious about taking pictures. To do that, we had to mark the spot where a rail flew to after it popped out. We ran over there en masse. We surrounded the spot and walked towards the center. Invariably, the rail would pop up unexpectedly and fly to another spot. We would run and repeat until the rail escaped to the edge of the field and tall grasses. Even though we were sure where the rail landed, it would slip unseen through the stubble and pop up from under someone's foot well away from where we thought it was. John did get some pictures of a Yellow Rail in flight. As far as we could tell, no birds were physically harmed, though they all probably had some nasty nightmares last night.

Next to where we had parked, Dan called out a Sedge Wren 668! 

I slept like a log! John messed up setting the alarm, but we both woke up at 6:30 AM anyway. The tour is going to Cameron County today. I am doing laundry. I bought a boudin sausage for my supper.