Mexico City Birding, Day 1: Lerma marshes, D.F., & Morelos

So having a kid limits your time to blog… who woulda thought?!?! Anyways finally catching up on some way overdue posts.

With the prospect of my son’s arrival and greatly limited birding time staring at me straight ahead, I started to think about one last weekend to load up on lifers.  After briefly considering the costs and effort to run after the Lesser Prairie-Chickens in Texas/Oklahoma, Birding Buddy Steve, Mr. G, and I stumbled upon cheap airfare to Mexico City.  Spouse’s permission and passport in hand, we booked the tickets, found a guide, and counted down the days.

We landed in Mexico City late on February 1st.  Once we figured out how to hail a ride, we took a cab to our hotel (which was surrounded by hundreds of riot police due to nearby demonstrations), and got to bed early.  I’m glad we got our rest because this was my first foray into international birding and the first day did not disappoint.  We started the morning pre-dawn at a gas station in San Nicolás Tlazala.  Across from the gas station was a small tamale stand serving the local specialty, guajolota; basically, a tamale in a bread roll.  They were amazingly delicious and comforting when we got out of the car at the marsh and the cool fog would cut right through us.  We had two main targets here: the endangered Black-polled Yellowthroat and Aztec Rail.  The Aztec Rail is essentially a southern King Rail.  However, the incredible density of Sora and Virginia Rails lead to several tense moments of watching reeds rustling for the skulking marsh bird and ears straining to separate the remarkably similar grunts among those three birds.  Conceding defeat on the rail, we moved on to the money spot for the yellowthroat.  Despite sharing the same reputation as skulkers, these birds were far friendlier and the lifer celebration began.

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Mr. G was thrilled at the number of Yellow-head Blackbirds, and with good reason, we estimated about 5,000 of them!!

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Amazing and frustrating at the same time.  So many rails, none of the Aztec variety.

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The Black-polled Yellowthroat’s hood gives it plenty of attitude.

Our next two stops were public parks with the main target being the other central highlands endemic yellowthroat, the Hooded Yellowthroat.  Similar to its marsh cousin, this bird had no problem popping out and saying hello.  In fact, this bird was found only a few yards from the parking lot at Botanical Garden at the Biology Institute for the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  Wandering through the garden yielded a couple more lifers, but we were not to linger, other area specialties awaited.

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Hooded Yellowthroat, another parking lot lifer

The fun thing about being a traveling birder is that common birds elsewhere are your lifers.  This means that at some point on your trip, you’ll end up freaking out about lifers galore in the most humblest of locations.  For this trip, it was on a town road, flanked by houses and small business, just beyond the highway exit.  Fifteen minute stop on a roadside, 5 ticks on the list.  A new bird every three minutes.

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Before I saw this Curve-billed Thrasher, the only one I had seen was in Lincoln Park, Chicago. #VagrantWeirdness

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Road-side lifer: Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

Our last stop of the day was Xochicalco and we had one mega-target, the Balsas Screech-Owl.  Endemic to the Balsas River Basin area, the small range of this owl is the reason it’s considered “Near Threatened” by the IUCN.  However, we arrived with a few more hours of daylight birding to knock out and crushing views of Rufous-capped Warbler and Black-chested Sparrow were more than sufficient to pass the time.  As dusk started to fall, we munched on tacos and Mexican Coke outside our cabins, watching Lesser Nighthawks hunt over the mountain ridge.

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Rufous-capped Warbler

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I could not get enough of the Black-chested Sparrow’s malar stripe (the white stripe that extends down from its lower mandible)

Finally, it was dark enough for us to head back towards the main entrance to the Zona Arqueológica.  For some reason, I’ve failed to mention our guides, Rafa and Miguel but, they were great.  Two young guys, but they knew the spots and were excellent emissaries when we navigated the roadside taco stand scene.  Nowhere did this local knowledge come into play more immediately than with the Balsas Screech-Owl.  Within a few minutes of arriving, armed with flashlights, Rafa took us to the magic owl spot.  We had a slight delay before searching as there were a few late-night cars driving by.  Once everything calmed down, a short play of the screech-owl call brought two birds to within 30 feet of us!!  Full disclosure, the first time the owls came in, my excitability caused me to loudly shout, “There it is!!” This could have very well been followed by, “There it went!!”  Luckily, the owls returned and for the next couple of minutes we were in lifer owl heaven.  Returning back to our cabins, we set our optics on the table and shared a couple of beers celebrating a wonderful first day to our trip.

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Not a bad place to wait for nightfall

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Balsas Screech-Owl


Ending with a whimper…

For many reasons, 2016 was largely agreed to be a pretty crappy year.  Personally, I had two areas of my life in which I could take refuge from the harsh world: the outstanding year of birding I was having, and the anticipation of my first child.  (I’m not saying those are equally good.  I mean, I didn’t see THAT many birds.)  So, before my bird-laden Facebook feed becomes baby central, Aly and I planned one last road trip up to the frozen abyss of Minnesota.

In the weeks before our trek to the Sax-Zim Bog in Duluth, things were falling in line; nearly a dozen Rough-legged Hawks appeared at Big Marsh, we found 5 screech-owls on an early morning in the Palos area, and I finally added Snow Goose to my Cook County list.  (I had seen 2 Ross’s Geese in my home county before finding its larger cousin.)  This is how a good birding year was supposed to end.

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Good stuff.  Ruffed-legged Hawks aplenty on the south side of Chicago.

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A 2 hour drive west will find thousands Snow Geese but, they’re rarities on the Chicago lakefront

We headed out early on December 30th.  I had planned a slightly longer route for us to pass through the Buena Vista Grassland to try and track down a Greater Prairie-Chicken.  The endangered birds do exist in a few pockets in Illinois but it’s about a 4 hour drive from Chicago.  After about 90 minutes of driving around, I had turned our car to towards the highway, all but ready to admit defeat.  At one of our last stops, I noticed black blobs hanging out at the top of a tree, several hundred yards away.  Got em!  A quick confirmation in the scope provide excellent views of the treed chickens.  As we were packing up, lifer in tow, a light and dark morph pair of Rough-legged Hawks swooped right over our heads.  We got to Duluth that night, ate cheese curds, and went to bed.  Things were looking up…

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Chickens are actually really good fliers.  If you were a walking meal, you’d learn how to fly away pretty well, too.

…and then it all came crashing down.

Listen, I still picked up 3 lifers (Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, and Ruffed Grouse) and the boreal forests are beautiful but, the chasing ineptitude that followed for the next 2.5 days made me want to give up on the trip, birding as a hobby, and life in general.  We followed every hot tip to find a Great Gray Owl.  We had a can’t miss American Three-toed Woodpecker.  We were assured that Sharp-tailed Grouse would visit the feeders if you’d wait a little while.  Like suckers, every time we talked to someone who told us new local info, we’d get excited and say, “At least if we can get this bird, it’ll make the trip worth it.”  The epitome of this Sisyphean effort were the texts a fellow travelling Illinois birder, a snot-nosed high school kid, was sending me, 30 minutes ahead our present location.  (Actually, he’s a real nice kid and a hell of a birder but, when you’re getting gripped on good birds, you hate everything and everyone.)  “Get to the Visitor’s Center!  Hundreds of White-winged Crossbills!” “The bird is easy at the plow turnout, exactly 4 miles in!” “Just sit by the feeders, it’ll walk up to them!”  Argh.  No amount of assistance could undo the bad birding mojo that had overcome us.  Three lifers of the potential 9-10 and none of the bog specialties that inspired us to spend 3 days sitting in the car.

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We actually had good luck with some fancy finches.  Pine Grosbeak.

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Evening Grosbeak.

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What we saw, we saw well.  Common Redpoll

Alas, that was it: 2016 year birds 425, life list settled in at 510; all in the US.  A nice birding year that could have been just a little bit nicer.  With the impending arrival of my birder understudy, I definitely won’t have the opportunity for a couple of years to match my US year total.  However, perhaps out of concern that my bird-chasing incompetence will affect the self-esteem of our soon-to-arrive son, Aly agreed to let me take a February dad-chelor party weekend and head to Mexico with birding buddy Steve (BWM).  This will be my first foray into neotropical birding nirvana.  So, since 2017 is looking up already, let’s get crazy.  Goals for the year: 500 total year birds, 625 life list.  Happy New Year everyone!!

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American Red Squirrel

Westport Pelagic

Living on the shores of a Great Lake is somewhat of a seabird tease.  For example, Sabine’s Gulls and jaegers occur here every year but, they’re usually way offshore, a distant spec over a dark horizon.  You need to be out on the right day, at the right time of year to see one, maybe a few, if the winds are right.  Seeing one of those birds is cause for much celebration and toasting and almost assuredly requires documentation to your state’s ornithological records committee.  Obviously, a bird being rare in one place and common in another is not unusual but, for whatever reason, pelagic birds drive me mad with bird envy.  Perhaps it’s because the experience of finding, say, a storm-petrel, requires the better part of a day on a boat, heading out to the deeper parts of the ocean.  Lots of people walk on shores or in fields; birders just happened to have binoculars with them while they do it.  Pelagic birding trips are just such a “birder” thing to do; it’s the height of a birding obsession.

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Yeah, birds don’t walk on water where I’m from… Pink-footed Shearwater

Lucky for me, Aly really enjoys pelagic birding, as well.  After the balance of the birds have been seen, she’s pretty good as carving out a small corner of the boat to enjoy a nap.  If anything notable comes by, she knows I’ll wake her.


Me and a mostly awake Alison

We arrived on the dock at 6:00 a.m. to board the Monte Carlo, operated by fine people at Westport Seabirds.  Once everyone was loaded we head out of the harbor, surrounded by fishing boats and a rising sun.


The benefits of sitting astern…it was too dark to look at birds anyways

Once we moved beyond the inshore waters, Common Murres and Sooty Shearwaters started to appear.  For the coastal birders, a Sooty is a bird quickly relegated to the trash bin of the day’s list.  An inland birder like myself, made sure to appreciate the remarkable flying skill the shearwaters demonstrate while dodging among the waves.

After a few hours heading out, we reached the main focus of our day’s endeavor; the fishing boats.  Trailing these vessels were hundreds of gulls, shearwaters, and albatrosses.  As soon as one boat would begin to raise its nets, the birds would arrive and gorge on anything dropped or brought to the surface.  After the initial frenzy subsided, birds would resume exploring the other boats, looking for the next human-assisted meal.  Black-footed Albatross and the smartly-dressed Sabine’s Gulls rounded out the masses of California Gulls and Pink-footed Shearwaters.

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Black-footed Albatross

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Procellariiformes, the tubenoses

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The first time I’ve ever seen a Pomarine Jaeger with its spatulate tail

After we trailed a few fishing boats, we head out closer to the continental shelf where the water conditions were more conducive to Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels.  After about 10 minutes of trailing some cooking oil mixed with fish oil, the scent-guided bird arrived.  Like the swallows of the sea, the minute storm-petrel dotted around the boat, eventually being joined by a second.

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Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel – Pretty happy I get to lord this sighting over a birding buddy #gripped

As we turned towards the coast, we stopped by the fishing boats to see what else might be hanging around.  Our species and bird counts being a touch light, we were sure to scan the flock for the less common seabirds like Tufted Puffin, Short-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters.  Somewhat disappointingly, only the Short-tailed Shearwater (differentiated from Sooties by head shape and bill length) would make an appearance.

One last pelagic excursion was to see what other marine life we could locate. While we lacked that one “signature bird” to add some spark to the trip’s checklist, a group of 5 active Humpback Whales was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever witnessed. As the captain cut the engine, all on board fell silent and we were able to watch and listen to the 79,000 pound beasts breath through their blowhole and dive into the water. We talk about good looks of awesome birds as being “cripplers” as they freeze you in your tracks; I’m not sure a slang term exists for the condition of the 20 passengers on the boat that afternoon.

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Simply awestruck

On our way in, we swung around the east end of the spit to look for pure Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls (in these parts, the overwhelming majority are hybrids of the two) as well as any shorebirds that might be hanging around the rocky shore.  My lifer Glaucous-winged Gull would be the last addition made to my life or year lists on this pelagic trip.  What I did get, however, was to see more Marbled Godwits in one place than I have ever seen.  I am a huge sucker for numbers of shorebirds and at 700+ godwits, it was a satisfying end to an intense day of birding.

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Godwits.  A Bar-tailed version was found in this group the day before and the week after. Ouch.

(As a footnote… I cannot recommend Westport Seabirds more highly.  Their ship is quite comfortable and the crew is knowledgeable and accommodating.  The ginger snap cookies were a welcome snack as we head out on our birding pursuits.)

48 Hours in Texas

One aspect of “listing” I’ve come to like is that it forces you to consider what is actually possible versus only what is practical.  Need to be at work in 14 hours?  That’s enough time to drive to Ohio, see a Brambling and get back.  Black-tailed Gull in southern Illinois? If you leave at 1 a.m. you can be back in time for dinner.  Often times, while eating lunch at my computer, I’ll look for cheap airfares to no place in particular with the daydream that I could jump on a red-eye flight, explore for a day, and get back the following night.  While Aly can handle any type of trip I can dish out, the “bird until you can’t open your eyes” style of travel is not really her thing.  So when her architecture firm decided she needed to fly to India for a new hospital she’s designing, a $150 round-trip flight to Houston was the enabler to my weekend birding bender.  “After all,” I tried to justify to her, “if you’re in the land of bee-eaters and bulbuls, shouldn’t I at least get to be around caracaras and chachalacas?”  Clearly, the alliterative argument had an effect on her because, she agreed to let me go.

The plan was set.  I’d land in Houston late on Thursday, drive through the night to the Corpus Christi area, then head to the lower Rio Grande Valley for a day, then book it back for an early morning return flight.  My goal was to see 125 bird species.

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Sunrise at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

I landed around midnight on Thursday, grabbed my rental car, and hit the road.  I wanted to be at Aransas before sunrise so getting a hotel room didn’t make much sense.  Instead, I’d spend a few hours with my eyes closed siting in the parking lot of the Victoria County Rest Area on Route 59.  Finding the rental car’s folded down rear seats and trunk to be too short for any comfort, I woke up after a couple hours of restless sleep and hit the road at 4:00 a.m.  Ninety minutes later, I was driving along the San Antonio Bay, near the entrance to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Walking through the Rail Trail, the marsh was starting to wake up.  Coots and Sora rails were starting to clack and scream.  As the sun started to paint the sky, dozens of Sandhill Cranes took off with their signature rattle.  Crane excitement at Aransas is not limited to Sandhills; the real prize at Aransas is the other North American crane, the highly endangered Whooping Crane.  Returning annually from their breeding grounds in Alberta, this patch of land on the Gulf of Mexico is the wintering home to the last of the migratory Whooping Crane population.  Beginning on the auto tour loop, I started to tick off the standard Texas wintering birds.  Over the shallow waters of the Gulf, both kinds of pelicans glided over the top of the water to their daytime roosts.  Ponds along the route were filled with teals and grebes.  A quick walk along a path yielded very little besides a feral hog and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Approaching the top of an observation tower gave panoramic views of the entire refuge as well as the oil derricks out on the water.  Seeing those symbols of greedy exploitation so close to the natural landscape of the refuge made me nervous for the long-term health of the pristine wetland.  The destruction a Deepwater Horizon sized spill at one of those structures could knock entire species right off the planet.  On my way back to the auto path, I observed several dozen vultures hopping along the ground, clearly jockeying for some kind of carrion.

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Female Ring-necked Duck

Continuing on the auto tour, I’d occasionally see a passerine fly across the road.  When I’d stop and train my binoculars, I’d usually find a few mockingbirds with some Eastern Phoebe’s mixed in.  Reaching a long north-south segment of road, I started to lengthen the time taken between stops.  Most of the birds seen were repeats and their density started to thin out.  A few minutes later, I decided to get out and get some closer looks at a bright male kestrel when three large white birds appeared in the distance.  Stretching almost five feet, bill to feet, the massive white Whooping Cranes flew across my field of view.  Panicking, I grabbed my camera and managed to snap a few quick photos of the.  A couple of years earlier I had seen the Wisconsin Direct Autumn Release Whooping Cranes.  Essentially, caged birds that were human-raised to join nearby Sandhills and, hopefully, migrate south.  Of the 13 Wisconsin birds I saw on that day, only one bird, named Latka, survived to the second year.  However, in those three wild birds flying over me continued the knowledge of how to migrate thousands of miles and reproduce as they have done for thousands of years.

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Whooping Cranes

After that thrill, I eager completed the auto tour loop.  I only stopped one more time to look at dark, soaring bird that didn’t quite look like a vulture.  As it banked in the late morning light, I saw two white flashing on its wings; a telltale sign for a Crested Caracara.

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Crested Caracara

I’m not much of a rarity chaser but, the rarities in this part of Texas are fairly sought after.  The state’s closeness to Mexico means that Neotropical vagrants show up regularly.  Throughout the week, a Golden-crowned Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, and Greater Pewee all were observed in a little park in the hamlet of Refugio.  Studying the stickers on the cars as I pulled in (“I brake for crakes”), I knew I was not the only birder here.  Grabbing my camera and binoculars, I started walking along the quarter-mile long loop through the riverside woodland.  Joining a few other folks at the previously reported warbler location, we all scanned the underbrush for any sign of movement.  A half hour yielded nothing until I saw a flycatcher, with its large head and bicolored bill perched 30 feet away.  Calling out my pewee sighting, another birder joined me and started reciting field marks for Greater Pewee.  Sure enough, this bird checked out.  Filling ourselves with vagrant-delight for a couple of minutes, we continued our look for the warbler.  Having a packed schedule in front of me, I regrettably threw in the towel and head to the car.  The Golden-crowned Warbler would be spotted a few hours after I left.  All was not lost, though, on my way out a kind birder pointed out a Barred Owl nestled in between the branches, 15 feet above my head.

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The only rarity of the trip: Greater Pewee

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Barred Owl

I am a sucker for shorebirds.  I don’t know if it’s their superlative migration distances or the fact that they’re so easily observable, if there is a shorebird hotspot nearby, I’m visiting.  The Texas gulf coast at this time of year is loaded with wintering shorebirds.  My destination was a narrow string of land that follows the coast almost the full length of Texas, Padre Island.  On the way, I’d stop at a few county parks to pick up a few of the area’s unique species.  Gregarious Green Jays pecked at some seed spread over a picnic table, Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds swooped over water grabbing insects, and Least Grebes darted underwater and fled the moment I was noticed.

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Couch’s Kingbird (probably)

Corpus Christi is separated from Padre Island by a shallow channel.  Often less than 5 feet deep in many locations, this creates excellent habitat for waders and shorebirds.  Immediately after passing over the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, I turned into Packery Channel Park and beheld shorebird nirvana.  While fishermen did a good job of scaring away most of the birds off of the near shoreline, there was a narrow strip of land about 60 feet out, that was loaded.  Every square foot held terns, yellowlegs, Laughing Gulls, herons, spoonbills, Willets, and Godwits.  Walking along the saturated, squishy shoreline I moved away from the many fishing area to where I could crouch along the edge of the water and allow the birds to come to me.  Black-bellied Plover and Sanderlings, with their frenetic run and peck feeding style, passed not more than 15 feet away.  My favorite, though, was the Long-billed Curlew that stood like a statue while it snapped photo after photo.

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I’ll stop being a birder when I’m no longer thrilled at seeing this bird: Long-billed Curlew

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Black-bellied Plover

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Brown Pelican

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Roseatte Spoonbill

While I was in bird bliss, there was the unfortunate disturbance of a fishing boat screaming by, leaving harried birds in its wake.  These were scarcely better than the off-road trucks that would go bounding over the rutted-out beach.  Despite my indignation, I spent a few more hours observing the wildlife here and then returned to my car.  This would be the last stop for the day before heading to the Rio Grande Valley.  To add symmetry to my day, as the sun was getting ready to duck below the horizon, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes flew over my car, on their way to their nighttime roost.  Making McAllen, Texas by 7:00 p.m., I ate some forgettable Mexican food, tallied up my day’s count, and collapsed in bed.

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Sunset, end of day one

I had gotten a taste of what Rio Grande Valley birding could be like the previous year when Aly and I backpacked Big Bend National Park, so it was with high anticipation I pulled myself out of my hotel room and hit the road.  I would have the daylight hours to bird along the Rio Grande River and then turn back north for the 5 hour evening drive to Houston.  I would hit a series of state parks and preserves starting at the west end of McAllen, working my way east.  Nearby there were reports of rarities such as Northern Jacana, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and Tropical Parula.  My route was planned so that, if I got lucky, I could see all of them.  I began walking through the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP and, more by virtue of us getting there at the same time, paired up with a kind couple from the Houston area.  More birders equals greater likelihood of not missing a rarity so we were happy to grow our group.  For a birder from far away, the feeding stations  here were remarkable.  Green Jays and kiskadees were trash birds.  A group of at least 50 Plain Chachalacas pecked at the group as a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk scream by.  We watched the chaos instigated while we discussed exactly what would happen if the offending hawk, scarcely larger than the chachalacas, would actually try to catch one.  Moving on, we ticked off other lower valley standards like Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Prryhuloxia, Clay-colored Thrush, and White-tipped Dove.  When we reached the river, we glanced at the international shoreline for either of the two specialty kingfishers; Green and Ringed.  Neither making an appearance, I decided to end my time as a third-wheel birder, thanked the couple, and head to the car.

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Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

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Great Kiskadee

I swung by the Santa Ana NWR where I missed the Northern Jacana that had been spotted there over the past few days but, I got some outstanding views of a couple of Olive Sparrows.  After a couple hour visit, I headed to what would be my last major stop of this trip, the Estero Llano Grande State Park.

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Harris’s Hawk

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Olive Sparrow

At this point in the trip, I was beginning to run out of gas.  I was about 38 hours into my 48 hour birding blitz with a 5 hours drive in front of me.  Coincidentally, Estero Llano provided the capstone on the trip.  Walking around the bird-packed state park, I couldn’t help reflect on how a state, whose politicians seem to relish in destroying the natural world, could have such an extraordinary state park system.  Upon entry, you walk onto a deck near the park office where the bird life is in your face.  Five feet from the deck edge, Wilson’s Snipe probed the mud.  Teals of all flavors floated a bit further away.  Ibis, Spoonbill, and Herons commanded the standing water and flycatchers swooped back and forth.  This is the only moment of the trip I came to regret chasing lifers as I could have sat and watched that pond for hours.  I did take a few minutes to rest and photograph a few birds, including a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at a feeder, then I started walking the boardwalks and paths to look for a few remaining Rio Grande Valley specialties.  Coming to a pond, I noticed a few night-herons in the trees.  As I identified both Yellow and Black-crowned a kingfisher flew across me and landed on some low branches.  Smaller and more blue-green than royal blue, I watched the Green Kingfisher move back and forth between two select perches.  Nearby is a “can’t miss” patch for the Common Pauraque, a true valley specialty.  After scouring the ground in the small loop for 30 minutes, I could not find the damn bird.  Sitting down to watch the night-herons and regroup, I noticed a family of 7 crowding around a downed log.  Of course, they found the bird I walked past at least a half-dozen times.  After snapping a few cracking photos of the cute, little nightjar, I took a long, slow walk back to the car.  If I visit the lower valley again, I thought to myself, I will allow for a full day of exploring this park.

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Common Pauraque

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Green Kingfisher

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Wilson’s Snipe

I realized at that point, it was 3 p.m. and I had only ate a granola bar; such is the single-track mindset of a birder, I suppose.  So I made my way to the main commercial drag in Harlingen.  Along the way, I gave a half-hearted effort at the Frontera Audubon Center to find the Crimson-collard Grosbeak and Tropical Parula, missing both.  Instead, I proceeded the nearest Wendy’s and sat at a nearby reservoir to eat my Junior Cheeseburgers.  A few cormorants swooped past, an Osprey soared overhead, and I sat in the car, filling out my checklists.  One glaring omission jumped out at me; right at the top.  I had not seen a Black-bellied Whistling Duck!  According to eBird stats, almost 20% of a checklists submitted for this area contain this bird and, despite visiting at least 10 places, I had not seen one.  Finishing my drive-thru meal, I started to pull a little closer to a Neotropic Cormorant for a picture when I noticed a pier full of ducks, about 150 yards away.  On it rested about 30 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, tucked together to stay out of the cool (by Texas standards) wind.  A rarity they are not but, a lifer they were.  Having picked up one last tick, I jumped in the car and turned my back to Mexico, heading to Houston.

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Neotropic Cormorant

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The drive back was pretty uneventful.  Near the valley there were drainage ponds packed with waterfowl.  I stopped at a few, trying to get my binoculars on as many birds as possible but, more often than not, the birds flushed, so I just kept driving.  Sitting in the hotel bar outside the Houston airport, I reviewed my final tally for the trip.  I counted 123 birds and almost 20 lifers.  If anything, this trip was just an appetizer.  I knew then that I will be coming back to this place. Instead of simply running around, trying to get a taste of the incredible Texas bird scene, I’ll pick a few locations and really get to immerse myself in the Neotropical wonderland of the Rio Grande Valley.

My eBird Checklists:

Day 1
Aransas NWR
Lions/Shelly Park (Refugio)
Hazel Bazemore Park
Pollywog Pond
Packery Channel Park

Day 2
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP
Santa Ana NWR
Estero Llano Grande SP
Frontera Audubon Center
Dixieland Park
Driving out of the valley

Marco Island area Birding (August 7-10)

Ever since my good friend Aaron became engaged and announced they were having their wedding in Florida, I’ve had this date circled on the calendar.  While an April or October wedding would have been nice, I’ll have to forgive him and his bride for not planning their nuptials around avian migration.  As a consolation, they chose to have their wedding on Marco Island, an area loaded with birding hotspots.  Keeping with the theme our 2015 trips, the hot weather would mean I’d have to do my birding bright and early.  This would be complicated by the late-night, tiki-drink fueled celebrations.  However, we fought through the hangovers and managed to find the outstanding birding we had hoped for.

The first day we visited the closest and most productive hotspot of the trip, Tigertail Beach.  Located at the north end of the beach, this lagoon absolutely delivered.  The only complication we ran into was something completely foreign to us Great Lakes birders; tides.  Weather and wind patterns are hard enough to plan birding around; tides added a third dimension.  The mass movement of water, exposing or concealing land, greatly altered the birds found in an area, as I learned when I made a return trip, later in the afternoon.  Arriving during high tide, did not mean we left empty handed.  Within 5 minutes of arriving wading birds were everywhere.  Herons included Tricolored, Green, Little Blue, and Great Blue.  Egrets found were Great, Reddish, and Snowy.  A group of White Ibis probed the south end of the lagoon.

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Reddish Egret

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White Ibis

Walking around the south end of the lagoon, towards the beach, a substantial group of shorebirds, gulls, and the like collected around some standing puddles of water.  Again, my Great Lakes birding expectations did not prepare me for the embarrassment of riches running a few feet from my binoculars.  Dozens of Willets, Sanderlings, Marbled Godwits, and Ruddy Turnstones were completely at ease with close human proximity as they frenetically fed along the shoreline.  Later, when Aly and I took to lounging around in the ocean, a Red Knot walking right by would become commonplace.  I blasted away with my camera taking pictures of the terns and skimmers along with the previously mentioned birds.  Walking back, I was a bit nervous that I hadn’t found a Wilson’s Plover yet, when two ran within 10 feet of me.  My frustration with Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a glaring absence from my life list) would not be satiated, though.

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Willet, one of hundreds seen

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Ruddy Turnstone

When I returned in the afternoon, low-tide opened up easier access to the “tail” end of the beach.  Wading across the lagoon, I could see shallow water and flats now exposed.  As I began to walk along the beach, I noticed people walking just steps from a large raptor perched on a sign.  My birding ethics indignation kicked in and I grew annoyed that people would not give this expert fisher some space.  As I walked towards the lagoon shoreline, I saw the reason for the folks’ encroachment; Osprey were literally everywhere.  It was impossible to walk along the beach and not pass within 5 feet of these birds.  For their part, the Osprey did not seem to mind.  In fact, they probably were more frustrated by the shorebirds that would occasionally run into their area.  I’m not sure if this was normal behavior or a result of the extreme heat but, several Osprey lounged in 5-6 inches of water throughout the lagoon.  The dozen or so Osprey would not be the only close encounter.  A Wilson’s Plover was headed my direction while I knelt on the beach taking pictures of other birds.  The plover walked to about 3 feet away from me before decided that was close enough. The little shorebird apparently had its mind made up on walking south on the beach, so I took a few pictures and got out of its way.

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Wilson’s Plover

The following morning, we decided to head north on I-75 and hit two locations: Hidden Cyprus Preserve and the renowned J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Hidden Cyprus Preserve was our first stop and largely consisted of a main road you would walk along.  The quality of the habitat was high but, the bird life was a bit subdued.  There were highlights, though.  Black Vultures roosted in trees on both sides of the road in substantial numbers.  As we walked by, several were perched on the fence, allowing us to clearly see the differences with Turkey Vultures.  As the sun started to create thermal movement of air, dozens of vultures would take to kettling in the sky above our heads.  Aly, through some insanely good spotting, found a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched in the trees.

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Black Vulture

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Red-shouldered Hawk

After a few hours we took off to Sanibel Island and the Ding Darling NWR.  If the lesson of coordinating our birding with the tides was not learned at Tigertail, it was etched in our minds here; we saw more cars than birds.  The high tide pushed birds away as the mangrove roots and mudflats became inundated with saltwater.  Climbing up an observation tower gave us distant and unsatisfying views of Roseate Spoonbills.  A few Mottled Ducks and hardly visible manatees later, we retreated to the Lazy Flamingo for some delicious grouper that would make the two hour return trip to Marco worth it.

After the wedding, we had one last destination in mind, the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  During migration, the serpentine boardwalk would be dripping with migrant passerines.  Songbirds were still present but they were mostly observed by call rather than sight.  Regardless, the White-eyed Vireo, an elusive species for me in Illinois was heard from first step to last on the boardwalk.  As we approached halfway on our path, the volunteers began to disperse and take their daily counts.  Not more than twenty feet after we met a pleasant birder and swapped sightings, we ran into a Limpkin perched on the wood railing, staring right at us.  On the other side of the walk, an Anhinga perched in a tree, spreading its massive tail.  We took our time observing the two birds since we knew we had only one route and it would definitely flush the birds away.  We couldn’t help but wonder if the Limpkin flew in just for us, since surely the birder would have mentioned the presences of this large, unique bird.

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The difficult thing about taking trips where the main focus is not birding is to be satisfied with the birding time you have, no matter how excruciating the misses.  I remain dumbfounded as to how I could not spot a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bird that appears on over 25% of eBird checklists in August.  But, I think it’s those challenges that make me excited to return to southern Florida and enjoy the unique wildlife that lives there.

My eBird Checklists:
8/7 Tigertail Beach (AM)

8/7 General Beach Observations

8/7 Tigertail Beach (PM)

8/8 Hidden Cypress Preserve

8/8 J.N. Ding Darling NWR

8/8 Eagle Lakes Community Park

8/9 General Beach Observations

8/10 Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Birding Southern California: Day 2, Salton Sea

Previous Day

We allocated the following morning to exploring the Salton Sea area. (B)  The large, man-made sea is the pinnacle of the wild impracticality of the agricultural development in Southern California.  Plenty of sun, they have, but the increasing salt levels of the Salton Sea area pressuring the area’s true scarce resource, water.  Luckily, there is still a strong density of bird life supported by the various fields and mudflat areas.  Among the first birds we found were Aly’s favorite, Burrowing Owls.  As you drive along the fields of fruit and nuts, the berms and culverts built along the roadside are typical hangout spots for the goofy, little owls.  The dryer areas turned up White-faced Ibis, Long-billed Curlew, and the threatened Mountain Plover.  Even among those birds I was very familiar with, the numbers were staggering:  1,000 American Coots, 8,000 Snow Geese, almost 1,000 Northern Shovelers.  However, one of my favorite moments was when several hundred Red-winged Blackbirds (with some Yellow-headed mixed in) went streaming 20 feet overhead.  For someone used to birding in big city parks and forest preserves next to highways, the sound of the wind rushing past the wings of the often-ignored bird was thrilling.   Our two day birding extravaganza ended as we made our way to Joshua Tree National Park to continue our outdoor adventure.

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Burrowing Owls

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Western Meadowlark

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Mountain Plover

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Long-billed Curlew

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My eBird Checklists:

Salton Sea – Brawley

Salton Sea – Sonny Bono NWR

Salton Sea – Lack Rd.

Birding Southern California: Day 1, San Jacinto

If I were a “big year” birder, this would be one heck of a way to start off the year; New Year’s Day flight to San Diego and then a drive to some of the best birding areas in southern California.  Our ultimate destination was Joshua Tree National Park but, we had planned for a day and a half of unrelenting birding.  We started at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area. (A)  Normally, we’re not huge fans of birding by car but, this place was extraordinary.  A series of gravel roads elevated on dikes created wetland habitat that was loaded with birds.  Aly called the spot a “bird zoo.”  The birds were so tame in this area that at one point I was nervous that I would run over a Wilson’s Snipe.  Within the first half-hour, I had added 13 birds to my life list.  Among those I was most excited for were the shorebirds.  American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, and Long-billed Dowitcher were all observed with looks no further than 20-30 feet away (often closer!)  Other highlights were our first Greater Roadrunner, Cattle & Snowy Egrets, and Cinnamon Teal.  We stayed for about 3 hours and then we had to get moving to our hotel in Palm Desert.

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American Kestrel

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Long-billed Dowitcher

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American Avocet

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White-faced Ibis

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Wilson’s Snipe

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Black-necked Stilt

Go to Day 2

My eBird Checklists:

San Jacinto Wildlife Area