Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dec 19 and 20 (Days 353 and 354) - The big Yellow rail hunt!

Recall that on Thursday, based on a terrible weather forecast for Friday, I opted to bypass Sargent, and instead ride to Lake Jackson. I had hoped to look for Yellow rail in Sargent very early Friday morning, but, with the terrible weather and lack of lodging, this did not look like it was going to be possible. I figured I would hunker down in Lake Jackson during the heavy Friday rains and start fresh on Saturday. As it turned out, we did get a lot of rain on Friday (over 2" in most areas around Lake Jackson). However, this rain did not last as late in the day as expected. Because of this, we rescheduled our Rail Hunt for 8pm on Friday. Importantly, I was able to secure a place to stay in Sargent for Friday night. I reached Sargent at 5pm and prepared for the 8pm excursion. 

27 + 5 unmapped for 32 total

I was met on Friday night by San Bernard NWR Biologist Jennifer Wilson, her husband Wally, their friend Coleen, and bike-birder Ron Weeks. We immediately set to task. It was cloudy and damp, but, with low winds and temps in the mid-50s, it was really quite pleasant. We used a traditional 'bottle-line' to aid out goal. A 'bottle-line' is a rope with cans of screws tied to it at periodic intervals. The idea is to that two people drag the noise-producing line between them to scare birds out of the marsh. As Jennifer is an expext rail bander, those rails that we could capture and band would be used in her studies. This foray was scientific! It took us about 5 minutes before we flushed out first Yellow rail. We subsequently flushed 2 more, both of which we captured and banded. I got great looks at them scurrying around the marsh. However, this was certainly the best look I'll ever have at this incredible surreptitious bird! A huge 'thank you' to everyone who helped to make this possible. This was redemption since I missed this bird, despite huge effort, at Anahuac NWR in Texas in April! I have videos of all of this, but the internet where I am tonight is too slow to upload them. Hopefully in the next few days....

Yellow rail for #612!
No, I did not eat it even though that looks
like what's about to go down!

I had to get this bird on it's wintering grounds since
I was nowhere near its breeding range this summer.

After the rail banding session, I returned to my place of refuge in Sargent. It was from here that I today departed to head east to Freeport and it's famous jetties. I had scheduled a few hours of sea watching from this locale. Even though my chances of finding Black-legged kittiwake were tiny (probably < 5%), I needed to spend what time I could looking for this bird from the jetties today. In all honesty, I had no desire to look for this bird today. It was cold and windy, and it would require a disproportionate amount of riding considering how small the chances of finding the bird were. The problem is that if one did fly by and I missed it, it would be a total disaster. Although my chances of seeing the bird under today's conditions were tiny, tinier still were my chances of finding it from the comforts of a hotel in Lake Jackson. If I used a car, today would have looked like this: Drive 30 mins, bird 3 hours, drive home in warm car. My day looked more like this: Ride 2+ hours in stiff, cold wind, bird 3 hours while getting even colder, ride 2 hours in same cold, stiff wind. Driving 1 hour to bird for 3 (or more!) is a good deal. Biking for 4 hours to bird for 3 is not. I just cannot explain how much easier a car makes birding. Take how easy you think a car makes things, then double it again to reach how much easier a car actually makes things when compared to a bicycle. There is simply no comparison. It goes without saying that I did not see a kittiwake today. Highlights were a single Franklin's gull and 2 Common terns (checklist). I did have some nice company though as I was joined my Ron Weeks (again) and Texas/Oklahoma birder Caleb Frome. Seawatching is certainly much better with others in tow. I will return to this same spot tomorrow for my last, tiny crack at kittiwake before I head inland for the last 9-10 days of the year. 

Ron and Caleb

The light on the jetty was simply awful today, but I did manage 2 fair shots.

Immature Bonaparte's gull - underside

Immature Bonaparte's gull - upperside

58 miles today (Saturday)

The Dallas Little gull was seen yesterday, Friday the 19th. I am not sure about today yet. It will realistically need to stay put for another 5-6 days for me to have chance at it. I know that I am going to be blown-out on Tuesday when the winds are going to be 20-30 MPH from the north, the direction I will be headed on that day. I am hoping to get Harris's sparrow on Monday, hunker down on Tuesday, and then continue North towards Dallas Wednesday through Friday. If the gull disappears this plan could change. Right now though I am proceeding under the assumption it will stick around. As per usual, fingers crossed......

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dec 19 (Day 353) - DeRAILed without internet

Hey All, looks like you're stuck with me (Sonia) again since Dorian is without internet for the night. And yes, the title of this post is my terrible attempt at bird puns. Waka, Waka, Waka... I'll be here all night.

Without going into too much detail, Dorian did end up changing his plans for the day. What was supposed to be a wet and miserable day turned out to be better than expected. Therefore, he traded in his plans of movie watching and buffet gorging for an attempt at bird watching in Sergeant, TX. What's in Sergeant, you ask? He is once again on a Rail hunt (hence my horrible pun). Considering the pains of his last Rail hunt, I am bracing myself for the possibilities that he may come back less than happy after enduring an endless night of unproductive nocturnal birding. Oh joy. That should definitely put him in the Christmas spirit. I am really hoping that the Yellow rail is more cooperative than the Black rail. If you happened to miss those riveting Black rail postings, you can find them here. It was nearly 100 days ago but I still hear "KeeKeeKrrrrr" in my nightmares.

Well Folks, I'm not sure if I'll be posting again this week or even before the end of the year. It's unbelievable to think that the year is nearly over (I'm giddy with excitement to see Dorian in about a week... and this time I get to take him with me!). If I don't get the opportunity in the next few days, I'll go ahead and wish you all a wonderful holiday season now. Dorian can be a bit of a Grinch when it comes to Christmas, so I wouldn't count on any inspirational holiday posts from him. In fact, just today he went on some diatribe about his annoyance with Christmas lights. Something about NASA observing the overuse of Christmas lights from space and how he can hear the sounds of polar ice caps melting. You know, real cheery stuff. 

For comparison, here's me standing in front of a Christmas tree with all those death lights...

And here's Dorian..........

The resemblance is uncanny

Therefore, it is I who will wish you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah  Wonderful Kwanzaa or whatever else you may celebrate. While I have managed to get Dorian into a little holiday cheer in the past, I'm sure he'll spend this at a Chinese buffet biting on pieces of coal.

Below are a couple rare moments of Dorian smiling on Christmas. The secret must be in the ridiculous hats.

Christmas 2013

Christmas 2012

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dec 18 (Day 352) - Hunkering down

I apologize if yesterday's post sounded overly pessimistic. Part of that was clearly a reaction to the crappy weather that I am currently experiencing. I know I have no control over it and that there's really nothing I can do about it. Even knowing this, it still bothers me. I don't like being limited by my circumstances. I like feeling that I am my only limit. That way I can push myself to the maximum level. Right now, there's no point in doing that given the circumstances, and this is a crappy feeling for me. I don't relax well, and I don't like sitting still. Sure a bit of rest won't hurt me, but neither will it help the bird total. I have many times been called psychotic for my unyielding desire to persevere and achieve. I know it sometimes drives those close to me crazy, particularly my mom. It's just the way I am. As I will discuss much more in the future, I subscribe fully to the idea that anything worth doing is worth over-doing. Terrible weather forces me to take my foot off of the accelerator, and I am not completely comfortable with this concession.

It is also worth noting that I am also an eternal pessimist. Perhaps this comes from my time in research science where you know that 90% of your experimental approaches will be uninteresting or fruitless. By outlining the worst possible scenario in my head, I can make preparations to deal with it - even it if seems highly unlikely. Yesterday's post was my way of preparing myself for the unlikely possibility that I'll add only one more bird before the year expires. Yes, 614+honeycreeper would be a great achievement, and as soon as Jan 1 rolls around I'll be willing to celebrate it. For know though, there's work to be done. It's on this that I am now focused. I hope this little peek into the inner workings of my brain helps explain why I approach things the way that I do. I'm sure that when I look back on the adventure many years from now the bird list won't matter at all; Right now, it's the only thing that matters.

I took my time leaving Bay City this morning. This was to give myself the maximum amount of time and information before selecting which of the diverging paths I outlined yesterday I would take today. The weather for tomorrow is beyond atrocious, so we have decided to fold our hand on the late night and early morning rail search. As painful as this is to do, I feel as though it is the correct decisions given the circumstances. I will, however, have another good chance at Yellow rail at Brezoria NWR on Sunday from 12am-6am when I participate in the rail segment of the Freeport Christmas count. 

35 miles today

Folding tomorrow's excursion meant I would head east to Lake Jackson today. This ride was incredibly fast and east on this windless day. I made a brief stop at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory to chat with folks there for a few minutes. One of them has agreed to house me for a night while I am in Lake Jackson. Tonight I will be staying with Ron Weeks. He is a big bike-birder here on the Texas Coast. He currently co-holds the Green Big Day bike record at 181 species! I know he is scheming to better that mark this next spring as he has asked me if I want "in" on the effort. I told him I'd give him an answer after I finish this project! Incidently, Ron co-authored the ABA's "Birder's Guide to the Texas Coast", an invaluable resource for those planning a visit to the area. 

As for tomorrow, I don't have much planned as it is supposed to pour all day. It would be nice to make it down to the Freeport Jetty for some seawatching, but the chances of this being possible don't look good. As there is a movie theater right next to where I am staying, I might try to catch "The Theory of Everything". Coupled with a visit to "China Town Buffet", this would make for a palatable substitute for birding. It would also represent only my third trip to the movie theater in the last ~15 years. As I said, I am not good at sitting still - except when birding!    

Dec 17 (Day 351) - This is the worst way to end the year

I am looking for lodging in Lake Jackson and/or Freeport for the next few days. I'll be around the area Thursday to Monday (18th to the 22nd). If anyone knows anyone, please let me know!

I really thought that once I reached the LRGV and the Texas coast I'd be in for some good weather. While I did have a few nice days in the 2+ weeks I spent in the LRGV, most were marred by either rain or high winds; Neither of these is particularly conducive to good birding. I consider myself very lucky to have found the birds I did, particularly the Hook-billed kite. I was in the exact right spot at the right time (i.e. the only 2 hours of sun in a 4 day span). The days that followed were not at all conducive to soaring.

Since I left the LRGV 5-6 days ago, I have again run into relatively crappy weather. High winds have been everywhere, and yesterday they were coupled with rain to cut short what was turning into a nice roadside birding session. Yesterday I rode the very short distance from Palacios to Bay City. I made a nice detour through what turned out to be some very good birding areas. The most notable of these was the Saha Fish Ponds. The highlight of this session was an out-of-season Black tern. A full checklist of species can be seen here (43 species). Rain began in the early afternoon and forced me towards Bay City.

40 miles

I will take a minute to explain why I am in Bay City. Everything right now is being scheduled around the Yellow rail search that is/was supposed to take place sometime between 12am and 7am on Friday morning as part of the San Bernard Christmas count. Since the Rail hunt is/was going to take place near Sargent, TX, in the southwest corner of San Bernard NWR, I was setting myself up to reach that area on Thursday night. This meant I could take a short day today to reach Bay City and then continue the ~25 miles to Sargent tomorrow. There was no point in riding directly to Sargent since the town has next to nothing; Bay City would help bridge this gap in food and lodging. There is one small place to stay in Sargent, but it is very basic. That's where I had planned on going Thursday night in preparation for activities on Friday (12am-7am).

The problem is that LOTS of crappy weather is headed this way. We were hoping to find a break in the predicted thunderstorms in this 12am to 7am window during which we could try to scare up Yellow rails. Recall I am writing this on Thursday morning, so that "Today" below is Thursday, not Wednesday. It looks as though there is not going to be a break when we need a break. The "Rail Team" leader does not want to try to flush rails during thunderstorms since the birds will have presumably found safe, cozy places in which to ride out the inclement weather. It would not be fair to them to deliberately push them out of these areas. It's probably also wise that we avoid the marsh in thunderstorms for out own safety. 

In an ideal world I'd be able to tick the Yellow rail Friday and then spend the rest of Friday and all of Saturday and Sunday seawatching/searching for kittiwake (one has been seen recently in the area). The weather is going to force major modifications to this plan. 

So, as I sit here at McDonald's I have to make a mutually exclusive decision. I can either ride the ~25 miles to Sargent today, hunker down, keep on eye on the weather, and pray that the forecast changes and a suitable window opens up during which time we can try for rails. The biggest problem with this plan is that while there is supposedly a basic place of lodging in Sargent, they appear to be incredibly disorganized as I have not been able to get them on the phone despite repeated calls over the last 3 days. A friend did get a hold of someone who said they have space tonight. However, I am a bit hesitant to ride down there under the described circumstances unless someone picks up the #$%^&* phone! If the rail walk is cancelled (which it is almost sure to be) then I am charged with riding to Lake Jackson and/or Freeport in the Friday thunderstorms. This sounds about as much fun as a battery-acid enema. 

As an alternative, I could just ride directly to Lake Jackson and/or Freeport when I am done writing this. I could then hunker down in my motel for all of tomorrow. I was hoping to do some seawatching for kittiwake tomorrow afternoon, but that's clearly out. I will use most of what looks like a clear Saturday to look for kittiwake. As am alternative plan for the rail, I am going to attend to the rail portion of the Freeport Christmans count from 12am to 7am on Sunday. The weather for the is session should be fine. Yellow rail is certainly a possibility during this session, but historically the Sargent/San Bernard session has been significantly more productive. 

Beyond the Freeport Xmas count, we'll have to see what happens. A Little gull has appeared and been seen for 3 days in a row on a lake in Dallas. The logical thing to do would be to ride from Freeport to Dallas over 4 days (Mon to Thurs of next week) to search for this bird. Harris's sparrow will be easy along that route. I could get the gull, then continue north to try for Smith's longspur to end the year. If the gull disappears between now and Monday, there's no point in going to Dallas. I have local spies who will check the lake/bird each day for me. If I don't do to Dallas the question becomes what the hell do I do? If the flamingos resurface I could take another crack at them. I could also stay in Freeport a few more days and seawatch for kittiwake and try to schedule a special rail session outside of the Xmas counts if I am still missing this bird. The bottom line is that I am around Freeport at least until Monday. Depending on what the staked out rarities do over the weekend, I will formulate an end-of-year plan accordingly. 

I really wanted to finish the year strong. Right now it looks as though there is a very distinct possibility that I could only add 1 bird (Harris's sparrow) in the last 2 weeks of the year. It is the absolute worst feeling at the moment since there isn't a thing I can do about it. Maybe I get lucky on the Freeport rail session, but I am mentally preparing myself for disappointment at the moment. 

Dec 17 - More in the morning

Hi all, it's Sonia. Dorian is without internet tonight so he's unable to post his update. Since he has written his entry already I'll keep this short. He'll post his update when he has his nutritious breakfast of McMuffins and other McThingies from McDonalds tomorrow morning. Mmmmmm. Breakfast of champs.

Goodnight all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dec 16 (Day 350) - Boating for birds!

As I discussed yesterday, there is are a pair of flamingos, one American and one Greater, that have been bouncing around the Texas Coast for the past few years. These birds have a few favorite haunts where they are occasionally seen. One of these is the large expanse of mudflats on Cox Bay behind (i.e south of) the Alcoa plant in Port Lavaca. The birds were seen at this location on Saturday, and it was to this location that I headed today. As I cannot use motorized boats, a kayak became the most viable transportation option. Bob Friedrichs, a local birder and fisherman, volunteered not only his kayaks but also his guidance for the search today. 

We meet on the east side of Lavaca Bay and launched with a moderately strong NE wind blowing across us. The general idea was to paddle around the Alcoa plant to reach Cox Bay. We were somewhat sheltered from the wind by the large island, but it was still fairly bumpy. Since I have used my arms for nothing this year,  they fatigued quite quickly today. I also had great difficult steering the kayak at the oust. Between my lack of skill and the winds/waves, it was a real challenge for the first hour or so. I eventually got the hang of it. We made good time and after about 2 hours (and a single portage to cut off some paddling), we reached the flamingo area. We scanned and scanned; We were not able to locate the birds. We explored the area further with the same result: no flamingos.

We paddled from where Route 35 hits the eastern 
edge of Lavaca Bay around that big island and 
the plant to reach the center of Cox Bay.
We figured we paddled around 8 miles.

Bob during our quarter mile portage

Cox Bay, looking southeast during our portage. 
We paddled over towards that far shoreline.

This was a painful miss for several reasons. First, American flamingo would have been a very high quality bird for the year. Second, as I do not have many possible birds left, missing any of them seems like a huge deal right now. Third, my guide Bob took time of of his day to escort me, and I really wanted his efforts to be rewarded. It was not to be though. As a bird chaser, you must recognize and accept the fact that misses are part of the process. However, seeing the bird is only part of the puzzle. There were many positives that came out of the outing. I met a great person in Bob, explored a new area of the country, and birded in a new way. The winds on the return paddle were murderous, but that's all part of it. I will say that "Kayaking for Birds" won't be happening anytime soon. The main reason for this is that it's so damn hard to take a leak when out in open water. I almost burst on the return trip! Here's a video. I was a bit flustered trying to make it and not fall out of the boat; Please excuse the somewhat discombobulated commentary.

This was unfortunately my only crack at American flamingo. Returning tomorrow is not an option for many reasons (increasing winds, tired arms, Bob has a life beyond me). I need to be in/around Lake Jackson and Freeport on Thursday afternoon to get ready for the Yellow rail search that is now scheduled for Friday morning. There will be strong east winds tomorrow. I am, of course, headed due east. I hope to get an early start and lay down a decent chunk of miles before midday when I might get shut down for a few hours. There could also be thunderstorms on Thursday and Friday. The weekend is looking much better, but the next few days are going to be a royal slog - UGH.

Biked west to Palacios after the kayak session - just 28 miles total

Tomorrow could be rough. I expect both my arms and my legs to be sore and tired. So stoked for more headwinds! Woot woot!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Dec 15 (Day 349) - Whoop, there it is!

Those well-versed in 90's hip hop should immediate recognize the reference in the title. Those lacking rap knowledge might want to check this out so that we are all on the same page. Anyone in his/her mid 30s should recognize this song from any middle or high school dance he/she ever attended. Although the track is called "Whoomp! (There it is)", it actually sounds more like "Whoop! (There it is)". When I found the first Whooping cranes of the day, I could not help but think "Whoop - There it is!". Finding the cranes today was very straightforward. I biked the ~9 miles from Rockport, TX to Goose Island. I immediately headed for the "Big Tree", a very large and ancient oak that guards a particular field that the Whooping cranes frequent. When I rolled up there were 2 adults and a young crane foraging in this field. I was also able to locate 3 additional crane pairs in the surrounding marsh for a total of 9 birds. Year bird #611 could not have been easier. The 3 in the field eventually flew off but were instantly replaced by 4 of the birds from the marsh. It was really cool to see the birds in flight today! I have only ever seen these from a large distance. Today was the best look I have ever has at these incredibly beautiful and magnificent birds. For the curious among you, an eBird checklist of my Big Tree visit is available here.

56 miles + 3 horsing around and eating in Port Lavaca for 59 total

Original 3 Whooping cranes in field (Sandhills on left edge)
Year bird #611!

Orignal 3 flying off

The 4 replacements coming in!

After the cranes I started the ride north to Port Lavaca. I was rolling through a particularly flat, exclusively agricultural area when I heard a quick "think, think" from a bird I flushed along the road. I turned to see what I assumed was A Sprague's pipit land not 25 yards out into one of the fields. I stopped, put the camera together, and spent the next few minutes chasing the bird around. I got decent views of this bird. These "on-ground" looks were better than the flight views I got of this species in New Mexico. This was a really nice roadside find today. A bit further down the road I made a stop at the Guadalupe Delta for a bit of birding. It was the usual marsh stuff, nothing species. Checklist can be found here. I made one more birding stop at Fishing Pier Park once I reached Port Lavaca. American oystercatcher and Least sandpiper headlined this short checklist. I will confess that the eBird thing is already quite addictive! With the very short days at this time of year, I have lots of time to mess around with it right now.

Sprague's pipit - white eye ring, bright pink legs!

Tomorrow is the big flamingo chase! It looks as though the wind is going to cooperate to at least some degree. I am being met by a local birder tomorrow morning. We will then kayak the 4 miles out and return to search for the birds. This same local birder saw the birds on Saturday in this same area. Hopefully they are still present....

Now, this part will take a bit of explanation. There are actually two flamingos that have been hanging out together on the Texas coast for the last few years. The first of these birds is a wild American flamingo that was banded in 2005 as a juvenile at Ria Lagartos Reserve on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. This bird is affectionately known by the letters on his yellow leg-band, "HDNT". People have hypothesized that this bird was carried around/across the Gulf of Mexico by a tropical storm or hurricane. This is a 100% wild bird and as such is completely countable. The second bird is an Old World Greater flamingo that managed to escape from the Sedgewick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas on June 27, 2005. As this is a known escaped bird, it is not countable. This bird wears yellow leg-band "492". What is really mind-boggling is how these 2 needles in the proverbial haystack found one another. They are apparently now best friends as they are always seen in each other's company. They seem to roam up and down the Texas Coast, but they return periodically to the Port Lavaca area where they are only accessible by boat. Where they go when they aren't here is not known. Here is a photo of the two birds taken by Bob Friedrichs last year.

Left: Dark pink, wild, countable, American Flamingo HDNT
Right: Light pink, escaped, not countable, Greater flamingo 492

Tomorrow is going to really exciting as we look for these birds!

Dec 14 (Day 348) - Moving north in terrible wind, flamingo plans

I started today in Kingsville, TX, and ended 83 miles later in Rockport. I had to take a frustratingly circuitous route in order to avoid Corpus Christie. A straight shot through the city would have required lots of riding on urban freeways where bikes are not permitted. It would have also required a number of dangerous bridge crossings. The city is also a bit of an industrial wasteland, so I wanted to avoid this after biking through a similar refinery-scape in Port Arthur, TX.

83 windy miles

While the route pictured above kept me on relatively bike-friendly roads with shoulders, it did create on huge problem. I knew the wind was going to be from the southeast, but I guess I just underestimated or forgot how hard riding into a 20 MPH headwind actually is. The first ~30 miles of the ride were relatively straightforward, but as soon as I turned towards the east the nightmare began. The wind was POUNDING. Each crank of the pedals was incredibly difficult. I gave serious thought to hanging it up for the day when I reach Taft at about the 50-mile mark. After I ate lunch I felt a bit better and was able to continue the remaining ~30 miles to Rockport. I arrived in time to do a bit of birding on the Gulf coast (checklist here). Not much to report as it was just the usual shorebirds, gulls, terns, waders, and pelicans. I did make a video of the conditions today. It's only appropriate that you won't be able to hear much even though I was shouting at my max volume. Also notice that the wind turbines are cranking!

OK, as for the next few days, it looks as though a plan for the flamingo is starting to congeal. Tomorrow I am going to ride to Port Lavaca via Goose Island where I should be able to tick Whooping crane. I will spend tomorrow night in Port Lavaca. I have a local with 2 kayaks who has offered to take me out on Tuesday to try for the birds. The big variable in this whole plan is wind. If the wind is heavy, it would shut this plan down. I can realistically spend all day Tuesday and Wednesday looking for the birds - by boat or squinting from shore. Thursday I will need to start moving north toward Freeport for the big Yellow rail hunt this weekend. Everyone say your prayers for good weather Tuesday/Wednesday!

I found a bunch of gulls perched on posts near Rockport Harbor today. I extracted headshots of a few of them for comparison.

Winter 1st year Laughing gull

Winter adult Laughing gull

Winter 1st year Ring-billed gull

Winter adult Ring-billed gull

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dec 13 (Day 347) - Big miles return, unfinished business, rarities appear ahead!

Let's start with an exciting hold over from yesterday. In birding Sabal Palms yesterday I saw a bird that I was 99% sure was a Magnolia warbler. Who cares, right? Wrong. This would be a very good December find for the LRGV since there are no overwintering records for the entire area. In fact, there are only 4-5 winter records in the entire state of Texas. I saw this bird only very briefly. This was because I was immediately distracted by the Tropical parula that flew into the same binocular view. Not realizing that the Magnolia was the rarer of the rare birds on this particular day, I let it go to chase the parula. I did report this 'very probable' Magnolia to the appropriate LRGV channels. Today, Mary Gustafson refound this bird and confirmed it to be just as I originally thought! This doesn't mean a thing for my year list. However, it was nice to find this great seasonal rarity to add to the list of unusual things I unearthed at Sabal Palms in my two days birding the area.

As for today, it was time to make some big distance north. It was difficult to leave the LRGV behind, particularly on weekend when rarities are most likely to be found, but the SE winds were too good to pass up. The ride was very uneventful as it was over 100 miles along the same road with the same view. Here is that view. With partly cloudy skies and temps in the mid 70s, it was really pleasant on the road today.

107 miles north

My destination for the night was the Best Western in Kingsville. There was one stop I needed to make before heading to the hotel. Northern bobwhite is one bit of unfinished business for me. I heard plenty of these on the Texas coast in the spring, but I did not see a single one. I just assumed that I would scare one off the road at some point. That time never came, and the bird has sat on the year list as my only diurnal 'heard-only' bird of the year since then. In speaking with Tom L. of Ferrugiouns pygmy-owl fame, he mentioned that bobwhite frequent the area around the King Ranch visitor center in Kingsville. He suggested I swing by the center when I arrived in town. I managed to find the extra strength to do just this, and I was rewarded with a single female bobwhite. So, that bird is now officially "seen" versus heard-only. This leaves me with 6 'heard-only' birds - all nocturnal. 

1 - Black rail
2 - Chuck-will's-widow
3 - Common poorwill
4 - Mexican whip-poor-will
5 - Buff-colored nightjar - I actually saw this bird for 0.1 seconds, but the ID was 100% based only on voice.
6 - Barred owl - This was another bird I just figured I would see at some point (aka Florida). I only managed to hear 2, and they were well away across a creek I could not cross. I might try to track this bird if I have a bit of free time in the next few days. 

Bobwhite sprinting away!

Lastly, as I said above, it was tough to leave the LRGV and it's rarities to head north. My spirits would buoyed by 2 exciting reports that came today from the northern areas of Texas to which I am headed. The first of these was of Little gull on a lake outside Dallas. From the post, it sounds like this bird might have been around the same area for a decent chunk of last winter. If this is the case, then I would definitely chase this bird if it is still around when I am done with Harris's sparrow in a week or so. This chase might pair nicely with a Smith's longspur chase into Northern Texas or Oklahoma during the last week of the year.

Second, the Port Lavaca American flamingo has finally resurfaced! It was seen about 5 weeks ago, but then disappeared until today when the bird was seen in its usual spot behind the Alcoa plant. The problem? You need a boat to reach the area where the bird was seen, and no access can be had from the Alcoa plant. There is no publicly accessible land/road from which I can scan the bay for the bird. My only chance for this bird is to get my hands on a kayak. I actually have someone who has offered to help me on this front, but I am fairly certain it has to be on the weekend. As Port Lavaca is ~135 miles north from where I am now, that means the earliest I could do anything with this bird given my current situation is next weekend. This would mean I'd have to ride the 200 miles up to Freeport this week, do my birding, then return the 100+ miles to Port Lavaca and pray that the bird hasn't moved in the intervening week. Unless someone in the Port Lavaca area can hook me up with a kayak on Monday or Tuesday, I'm think I'm going to be frustratingly out of luck on this bird.

Dec 12 (Day 346) - Sabal Palms, eBIrd initiation, goodbye to the LRGV

Yesterday at Sabal Palms was so enjoyable that I decided to repeat it today. Like yesterday, I did not expect to find any new birds; I simply wanted to have a relaxing day of birding as I waited for some big weekend winds to arrive. As a fun challenge for myself, I set a goal of finding 50 species in the park today. In 6.5 hours, I found 52 species! The highlight of the day was certainly what I assume was the same Tropical parula as yesterday. Otherwise, the species were fairly similar to yesterday. Clay-colored thrush and Northern parula were also notables. It was really, really nice to just wander around without a specific bird-finding agenda. I also spent a bit of time checking out the butterflies, bugs, and turtles. An Indigo snake also cruised through the reeds as I enjoyed a Solitary sandpiper resting on the shore. In other big news, I created my first eBird checklist ever today! Now to figure out how to add photos - ugh, not as simple as I thought it might be.

Tropical parula from today

Northern parula

When I am birding by car, I find that I often check out a spot only to move on if there isn't immediate bird activity. In a car, the time and energy cost of moving to another spot is really low. However, on a bike, the cost of moving is significantly higher. I find that the bike has really slowed me down for the better these last two weeks in the LRGV. I have birded Bentsen, Anzalduas, Estero Llano Grande, Resaca de la Palma, and now Sabal Palms with a diligence of which I am very proud. I know each of these parks and the diversity of birds within them very well. In many instances, I birded my way through slow points to find nice birds later in the day. There is something very satisfying about diligently, repeatedly, and thoroughly combing through these parks. I hope to apply this approach to more of my future birding beyond 2014. 

44 miles today

Tomorrow I will ride the 28 miles to Raymondville and then the 72 across the King Ranch to reach Kingsville. There will be some nice SE wind tomorrow (10-15 MPH) afternoon. This should be a big help as the terrain is plum flat the entire way. Sunday I plan to ride ~80 miles northeast to Rockport. This ride will also be wind aided (15-20 MPH SSE). The winds are supposed to die down on Monday, the day I have blocked out to look for Whooping crane. As you can see, the next 3 days are completely structured around the wind forecast. This is why I decided to chill/bird at Sabal Palms again today.

Incidently, I am staying at a very interesting place tonight. I am staying in San Benito with Marci and Terry Fuller. They have an incredible property with a yard list of 312 species! The have found amazing birds like Green-breasted Mango, American Flamingo, Crimson-collared grosbeak, and Mangrove cuckoo just out the backdoor. As they plan on doing lots of traveling the next few years, their house is actually for sale right now. They would love to see it go to birders, so I said I would mention it here in case any of my readers are looking for a place in the LRGV. You can check at the house/property at

I also found lots more butterflies today. I had access to a field guide tonight. With the help of my butterfly-expert host, I sorted out IDs on all of them. Here are a few of them.

Red-bordered pixie

Common mestra

Common buckeye

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dec 11 (Day 345) - Fun and good birds at Sabal Palms

With the addition of Ferruginous pygmy-owl two days ago, I exhausted the birds I could realistically expect to add here in the LRGV. As I do not need to race north up the Texas coast just yet, I could afford to kick around the area for a few more days. Maybe I'd find something incredible. Maybe someone would find something incredible for me. Yesterday I checked out Resaca de la Palma State Park north of Brownsville. Today I headed south of the city for a day of birding Sabal Palms.

23 miles of riding + ~5 miles of leisurely walking at Sabal Palms

Sabal Palms Sanctuary is about as far south as one can go in Texas. It sits right on the border, and it has some very unique tropical-type habitat. I visited the sanctuary on my 2008 Texas trip so I knew basically what to expect. Barring the appearance of some mega rarity (Golden-crowned warbler, White-throated thrush, e.g.), today would be a relaxing day of birding in this unique setting. Birding in here is really tough since the foliage is so thick.

I was actually able to tease out 3 very good birds from the many large feeding flocks that I encountered today. The first of these was yet another (the 3rd for the last week) Tropical parula. It took me a while to tick the first, staked-out bird, but since then I've found 2 in the last two days! The second notable bird was a Black-throated gray warbler that afforded me brief but diagnostic views through the thick foliage. Small numbers of these winter in the LRGV, but it's probably only two handfuls or so are found each year. Lastly, I found another western warbler, a Townsend's warbler, for the best bird of the day. Only a few of these surface in the LRGV most years; Some years none are found. As I expected none of these 3, finding each of them was fun and exciting. There were lots of warblers present today. I am sure there were more goodies hidden in there somewhere. I am going to return to Sabal tomorrow before I head north to Harlingen for the night. Who knows what will surface. The warbler list for the day is sort of odd since there are eastern, western, and southern species represented. 

Nashville warbler - 49% of total warblers. Dozens everywhere
Orange-crowned warbler - 49% of total warblers. Dozens everywhere
Common yellowthroat - 5?
Black-throated green warbler - 2
Black-and-white warbler - 4?
Yellow-rumped warbler - 1
Wilson's warbler - 1
Ovenbird - 1
Yellow-throated warbler - 1
Tropical parula - 1
Black-throated gray warbler -1
Townsend's warbler -1

Yellow-throated warbler from today

Townsend's warbler from today

Tropical parula from Resaca SP yesterday.
It was quite far off.

I also spent a few minutes in the Sabal butterfly garden (I can see Sonia's head about to explode). I snapped a few quick pics. Photographing these is so easy that my life/photo list is going to be one and the same. I did not take pics of everything, but here are a few. I'll need to get a butterfly book so I can figure out who is who and who is related to who. I know NOTHING at this stage. I have included a few from yesterday as well since I only today got around to downloading them. I am curious about how people list butterflies. Does seeing the caterpillar count on the butterfly list? I doubt I will get into listing butterflies, I am just curious as to the conventions. I'd get into butterfly photography before I got into listing them, but I'd want to know what I was shooting nonetheless.

iPhone today

iPhone today

iPhone today

Red admiral(?) from yesterday with real camera

Real camera today

Real camera today. This guy was really pretty.

The Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens is a TERRIBLE lens for butterfly photography since its minimum focusing distance (MFD) is 11.5 feet. The iPhone shots are taken from very close (less than 1 foot). This is why the iPhone shots look just as good if not better than shots taken with the "real camera". The new 100-400 f/4-5.6 would be idea with a MFD of 3.5 feet (older version MFD is @6 feet if I remember correctly).