Friday, April 25, 2014

Day 114 - Squeaking out a few more High Island birds, birding as therapy?

Given the strong south winds last night, I figured that this morning would be very slow birding. My suspicions were confirmed as I was able to find only 4 warbler species in 3+ hours of woodland birding this morning. Since the birding was so painfully slow, I made the 1/2 mile run down to the coast to check for White-rumped sandpiper. I struck out on this bird, but I did find a particularly cooperative Short-billed dowitcher who posed for some photos. This guy had only 1 leg, and as a result he spent much time hopping around with his wings outstretched for additional balance. This gave me the chance to get some really nice shots of his underwing and tail patterns at point blank range. I returned to the woodlands after this diversion to find a few more common warblers. I ended up with just 8 species for the morning.

Short-billed dowitcher

Victor Emanuel and his long time friend Dennis met me for lunch at Smith Oaks Sanctuary around noon. Most of the larger tour groups had long since disappeared to forage for themselves. As a result, the sanctuary felt rather empty as we took to the trails after we had finished our own midday meal. We immediately encountered a nice mixed flock that was comprised of various species. Dennis shortly called out that he had a spotted a Blackpoll warbler. He immediately got me onto the bird for year bird #329! This is a bird for which I have been diligently looking, but have managed to miss up to this point. I think everyone at High Island but me saw this bird yesterday! My other target bird for the day was Bay-Breasted warbler (I somehow missed this bird yesterday as well). We found a beautiful male of this species shortly after the Blackpoll disappeared. This was year bird #330 and can be identified in the rather poor photo below. These were two birds that I was starting to worry I might miss, so getting these nailed down today was a big relief. Warbler activity remained high throughout the afternoon and peaked right at sundown. When all was said and done, I racked up a very good list of warblers for a day that started off so slowly. This is just another example of how it pays to keep pounding the trail knowing that eventually you'll find something. I also tacked on Western kingbird for #331. I will surely see thousands more of these as I move further west.

Dennis and Victor in action!

A treetop Bay-breasted warbler!

Blackpoll warbler - Taken in Newfoundland last year.
Note the bright orange legs on this guy!

My warbler list for the day (19 species)
Common yellowthroat
Northern waterthrush
Worm-eating warbler
Kentucky warbler
Hooded warbler
Tennessee warbler
Magnolia warbler
Yellow warbler
Black-throated green warbler
Blackpoll warbler
Bay-breasted warbler
Chestnut-sided warbler
Blackburnian warbler
Golden-winged warbler (at least 3)
American redstart
Cerulean warbler (1 male)
Prothonotary warbler
Northern Parula

One thought that I had today was the possible use of birding as a therapeutic for various physical, mental, or emotional abnormalities. For example, I know that art has been used to help people improve their emotional states, and I understand that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a recognized treatment option in some instances. I feel like birding could be used to accomplish similar ends as some of these practices. Birds are beautiful, and they are certainly a living, animate part of almost every landscape on the planet. I find birding in its most basic form to be incredibly relaxing. I feel more connected to the natural world, and I generally feel less stressed when I am in the outdoors. Birding also provides a moderate amount of exercise, and exercise is well-established practice for the attenuation of both physical and emotional states. This is not coming from any sort of professional opinion on my part. I was just wondered what affect a really good introduction to birding might have on folks who are unfortunate enough to be afflicted with either physical or emotional challenges. Learning about birds, their identification, and their life histories would be a tangible and structured project that might actually benefit some people. I have no idea if this is completely crazy, but I do know that birding is like therapy for me. It reminds me that material things and just that, and that I am part of a living planet that stretches far beyond other human beings. Just how far is what I think birding can start to show people.

How birding makes me feel!

I will be pounding the trails at High Island all day again tomorrow. I am hoping to find Black-billed cuckoo or Yellow-bellied flycatcher. I thought I had found the latter bird at the end of the day today, but I think the setting sun made the Empid appear artificially yellow. I did not have time to go through the other marks before it disappeared, so this bird will remain as 'unidentified'. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Day 113 - A Veery nice day on the Bolivar

Today I leisurely pedaled the 28 miles from the southwest end of the Bolivar Peninsula back to High Island. I made several birding stops that yielded the expected terns and shorebirds, and it was an altogether enjoyable morning despite the very humid conditions. The south wind picked up over the course of the day which meant that High Island was on the quiet side this afternoon. I was able to scrape out 15 warbler species including Kentucky, Cerulean, Worm-eating, and Blackburnian. Numbers of cuckoo and orioles were certainly down today, but I did notice an increase in Empid numbers.

28+3 unmapped = 31 total today

"Empid" is an abbreviation that birders use for the 11 flycatchers of the genus Empidonax. To the amateur eye, members of this group of flycatchers will look essentially identical. Even many accomplished birders must rely on their distinctive calls to distinguish them. I have been able to track down Acadian and Least Flycatchers so far in 2014. I am also hoping to find Yellow-bellied, Willow, and Alder Flycatchers. These last 3 birds birds migrate very late, so I may to leave the Texas coast before the birds arrive. All 3 of these birds fall into the late migrating "northern migrants" category that I described yesterday.

I did find a lone Veery near the end of the day for species #328. It took a bit of patience to cull through endless wood thrushes (and a single gray-cheeked) to find this bird, but as usual my persistence paid off. Veery is also a late migrant, so I imagine I will see a few more of these in the next few days. Regardless, it was a nice addition to the year list! Tomorrow I will hunt for Blackpoll, Bay-breasted, and Mourning warblers. I also need to find Black-billed cuckoo, but this is a notoriously difficult bird to locate. I think birding tomorrow will be very slow, but Friday looks a bit better. I'll just have to get out and repeatedly pound the same trails until I find some of these birds. I am staying in High Island for tonight and the next 2, so I am positioned right next to the prime birding areas for tomorrow and Friday.

Lunch on the road....yummy.

I am sorry for the short post, but I have a number of administrative things to which I must attend tonight. I will hopefully get these done so that I can have a more involved post tomorrow. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Day 112 - Friendly birding on the Bolivar Penisula

Birdwatching is largely about birds. However, many people outside the birding community do not realize to what extent that birding is also about people and friendships. Today was a shining example of this. I spent last night on the Bolivar Peninsula with Victor Emanuel at his small cottage. Over dinner last night the conversation swayed from birds, to politics, and to family. The birds provide the connection between Victor and me, but the friendship is free to roam to wherever it may. We see each other very infrequently, so we always have many things to discuss when we finally do reunite. 

We spent the first part of this morning birding from the deck of his house that overlooks the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. This is a fantastic place to view many types of shorebirds, but it was the American avocets that really dominated. Thousands of these birds have gathered in front of Victor's house, and we spent the first part of the day in awe of their numbers. We also had a large flock (~75) of Franklin's gull cruise over the house at one brief point. Many of these birds showed the characteristic pinkish bellies they develop during their breeding period. 

The view from Victor's deck (Taken this 
afternoon when the sun was out)

A sample of the avocet flock during this cloudy morning

Rose-breasted grosbeak in the mulberry bush
next to Victor's deck

Victor's cottage as seen from across the flats.
No shortage of birds (skimmers, avocets, herons)

After our stint on the porch, we headed over to the very long (~4 miles) north jetty that extends out from the southwestern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. The primary purpose of this structure is to prevent silt from filling in the main shipping channel into Galveston (TX) that lies just behind it. From this jetty we spent the next several hours scanning shorebirds and swapping birding stories. At one point we just sat on the rocks and studied the avocets feeding behavior. It was incredible to see so many of these birds sweeping their up-curved bills back and forth in the water in unison. We found a number of other common shorebird species, but  it was the 5 Hudsonian godwits that made a brief appearance on the flats that got us most excited. We were also particularly excited when we found a female Black scoter floating around in the shipping channel. This is a very good bird this far south. What we found out later in the day was that this scoter has been here for several weeks. While we were apparently the last to know about this bird, it does not diminish the excitement we experienced when we "found" it. It was just as much about the teamwork to find and identify the bird as anything else.

The rest of the day was a hodgepodge of neighborhood birding, napping, and shorebird viewing. We found a number of the usual migrants (buntings, tanagers, flycatchers) today, and I was able to add my FOY (that's "First of Year" for the unbirders) Magnolia warbler for #327. This was a bird I fully expected to see, but is one of our most attractive warblers irrespective of the circumstances in which it is viewed. The highlight of the afternoon was certainly the pair of Buff-breasted sandpipers I found in the mowed fields around Ft. Travis. I phoned Victor who was off grocery shopping at the time, and he raced back to see them. Dinner was pasta and shimp that I helped (at least a little) to prepare. We will spend the remainder of the evening just hanging out. It should be nice.

Magnolia warbler from my stock. This was
taken in Newfoundland last July.

Tomorrow I will bird the Bolivar Peninsula as I head back up towards High Island where I will be staying for the next 5 days. There are a number of migrants that I still need to find before I move out of the area (Blackpoll and Bay-breasted warblers, Black-billed cuckoo, Veery, others). Interestingly, these birds are some of the most northern nesters of the neotropical songbirds. These birds return later the southern nesters since the northern breeding grounds take longer to thaw out than their southern counterparts. Thus, spring songbird migration tends to happen in 2 waves. A wave of southern nesters in the first part of April, followed by a second phase in the later half of the month that brings with it the northern nesters. It is amazing how evolution has tuned each species to its particular circumstances. For the northern nesters, it is a delicate balance. If they arrive too early, a late cold snap could be lethal. If they arrive to late, they could find the prime nesting territories already claimed. Its amazing to know that the first Magnolia warblers come through here on or around the 20th of each year. It like clockwork and its incredible.

Day 111 - Back on track!

The plan for today was to spend a few hours kicking around Anahuac NWR (TX) before heading down to High Island for the afternoon. I figured that a few relaxing hours of morning birding would be a nice change of pace from the high energy rail walks from the past two days. However, the morning was not without excitement as I was able to tack on two good birds to the year list. The first of these was Nashville warbler (#323). This bird normally migrates along a more inland route, so finding this lone bird this morning was a good find for Anahuac. I was also able to find a Bobolink (#324) which is a very good find for this area (but not as good as Black-throated blue warbler from last week). The normal migration route of Bobolink carries is mainly east of where I am at the moment. They are seen in Eastern Texas with some regularity, but there is no single spot to which a person can go at this time of year in Texas and expect to see the bird. I figured I would get this bird in Colorado during the summer. After today, this is no longer a variable that I need to consider in my travel equation. Just as a note, Bobolinks are closely related to meadowlarks, blackbirds, orioles. Together these birds form the family Icteridae. 

Bobolink from today - headed directly to the website!

The afternoon was spent birding at High Island. High Island sits on the Texas coast about 30 miles east of Galveston and is probably the most famous migrant trap in North America. Every April hundreds (thousands?) of birders, well-seasoned and novice alike, descend on this area to witness the spectacle of spring migration. The boardwalks are jammed with people spotting warblers, vireos, cuckoos, thrushes, and tanagers. It is a time for the birding community to come together, exchange birding stories, and spend time celebrating the birds as they return to their summer homes in North America. The birding today was fairly decent. Birding with Victor Emanuel, we were able to tease out a number of nice birds including Canada warbler, Hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and most notable, my year Philadelphia vireo (#325). Today's visit was just a preview as I all be returning to the area on Wednesday for 4-5 additional days of birding.

56 miles today (54 + 2 unmapped)

After my High Island visit, I headed southwest to the Bolivar Peninsula where I will be spending the next two nights. This visit to costal cottage of Victor Emanuel is as much a social call as it is a birding endeavor. Victor and I have been friends for 23 years (we met when I was 12!), and I always enjoy hearing about the great things to which he is currently devoting himself. He has been birding the Bolivar area for many years, so I will have a very knowledgable guide for our outing tomorrow. I was also able to add Black tern (#326) on my ride to the peninsula this afternoon. I was just amazed by the number and diversity of terns I observed at Rollover Beach on the peninsula. At one point I had Caspian, Royal, Sandwich, Gull-billed, Common, Forster's, Black, and Least terns all visible at the same time. This was a real treat and demonstrated why this area is a top birding destination at this time of year. Tomorrow should be very exciting!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Day 110 - Derailed.....

I am exceptionally tired after today. I woke up very early to reach Anahuac before sunrise. I was hoping to hear Black rail, but was unable to do so. I also attended 2 rail walks today, but we did not find either Black rail or Yellow rail on these outings. I had allocated 2 full days to find these birds, and I struck out on both. I will have other chances for Black rail in Northern California, but Yellow rail will most certainly not be on my list this year despite the time and effort that was spent searching for  it. Yellow rail and Mangrove cuckoo have clearly been the biggest disappointments of the trip, but I knew going into this that I could not find every bird I wanted to see. My year is not like a normal big year where I can just fly up to Canada to get them on their summer breeding grounds. When I miss a bird, that's generally it. Maybe Yellow rail will surface in some unexpected spot; Black-throated blue warbler did just that!

There were 3 things that really helped to soften the disappointment of being "derailed". First, I did find some other good birds at and around Anahuac. Ruff was a fantastic find, and ticking Buff-breasted sandpiper on Friday opens up time to look for other species in upcoming days. Second, I met many, many interesting people. A large proportion of these folks had heard about my adventure, and the support and encouragement that they provided this weekend will help fuel me long after I depart Eastern Texas. Lastly, Anahuac is a fantastic place that is packed with birds. While I did not pile up year birds this weekend, do not let that mislead you into thinking that Anahuac isn't a top birding destination. I am sure I found well over 100 species in my 2.5 days of birding. A special note should me made of the Friends of Anahuac NWR. These volunteers lend their own time to help make Anuhuac the amazing place it is. This group performs any number of functions to ensure that everything at the refuge functions properly and in the best interest of visitors. It was the Friends that sorted me out with my lodging during my visit, and I want to publicly thank them for their generosity and hospitality during the last 3 days. You guys rule!

I am still trying to figure out how I am going to handle tomorrow morning. I should go to another area of the refuge to listen for Black rail, but I really need a decent night of sleep tonight. Tomorrow I head to High Island for the late morning and afternoon. I will kick around that area before I bike an additional ~30 miles down the Bolivar peninsula where I will be staying with long-time friend and Texas birding icon, Victor Emanuel. I will spend Tuesday and Wednesday on Bolivar before returning to High Island on Wednesday night. I will be at High Island from Wednesday night (the 23rd) to Monday morning (the 28th). After that it's off to Austin and then across Texas.

I am sorry for the lack of photos today, but I really need to keep this short to get some sleep. Here are two Common nighthawk photos from yesterday. I normally try to avoid man made posts in my shots (barbed wire is the worst though), but I simply love this shot as it is. Can't beat end of day light!

***click for bigger images***

Head detail extracted from another frame

I biked ~32 miles today, just for the record. I should cross the 5,000-mile mark sometime before the end of the month!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Day 109 - Ruff day for rails, a personal milestone

First, we have cleared $10,000 raised for bird conservation! I will update the fundraising counter on Friday as per usual, but I wanted to let everyone know what great progress we have made. If you want to donate to bird conservation, please click on the BIG GREEN DONATION BOX at the top right of this page.

Second, if you are visiting for the first time and use Facebook, feel free to "Like" Biking for Birds. There is a link to the Biking for Birds Facebook page on the right hand side of this page.

The focus of today was rails - specifically Yellow rail and Black rail. These are two very small, very sneaky birds that spend most of their time buried out of view on the ground beneath dense marsh grasses. Both of these birds can be seen on the famous Anahuac rail walks which take place each spring on the National Wildlife Refuge. These walks have traditionally been the best place in the country to see Yellow rail away from its northern breeding grounds. Black rails nest on the refuge and, occasionally, they too are seen on the walks. I spent some time this morning listening for Black rail before the rail walk but did not hear any. I did, however, this afternoon hear a mockingbird on the refuge giving the classic "ke-ke-ker" Black rail call. It was very strange to hear this call coming from the top of a tree! This year has been a bit of a down year for these rails at the refuge, so I planned on attending the morning and afternoon walks today and an additional two tomorrow. This will be my only shot at Yellow rail this year, but I may be able to squeeze out Black rail somewhere down the line (SF Bay area, for example).

The general idea of these walks is as follows. Participants form a tight phalanx behind a weighted rope that is pulled through the marsh. The combination of the weighted rope and crashing footsteps cause a disturbance that is usually sufficient to flush these furtive birds out of the marsh. Most of the views of these rails are very brief; after the rails flush they dive back down into the dense grass to hide once again. These birds are basically never seen in this area without these tactics. It may seem a bit extreme, but by having a few scheduled and organized walks, disturbance is actually minimized since individual people are not continually stomping through the marsh without supervision.

The birder phalanx

The rail walks are very popular and attract birders from all over the country. This morning I met Big Year legends Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel. Sandy set the North American Big Year record in 1998 with 748 species. John gave this a good run with his 744 species in 2011 ( Sandy's epic year was the subject of Mark Obmascik's book, "The Big Year". This book was eventually made into a major motion picture of the same title. It was great to meet both of them today!

Me, Texas birder Bill Sain, Sandy Komito.
Bill has been incredibly helpful in organizing 
the Texas legs of my trip. Notice Sandy's Attu hat!
Note also facial hair variants.

Despite some very heavy birding firepower present at both rail walks today, we did not find either Black or Yellow rail on either the morning or afternoon walks. However, there was a HUGE consolation prize that appeared right as the morning walk ended. We received word of a Ruff on the refuge, and so everyone went tearing off to try to refind it. Ruff is a European shorebird that often wanders to North America. Female Ruffs are called Reeves. This will become relevant in a moment. 

As soon as I heard about the Ruff, I took off at a dead sprint to where it was reported. This was a bird that I did not expect to see this year, and this would likely be my only shot at it. It would also help soften the blow of a rail-less morning. I arrived just behind the car crowd. Armed with spotting scopes, everyone started combing the area where the bird had been reported. John and I were apparently both watching the same suspicious bird through some grass. As soon as it finally popped it, both he and I shouted, "There it is!". We got confirmation from other birders, and all in attendance were treated to decent albeit distant views of the bird (hence no photos, sorry). 

John and I celebrating after simultaneously
relocating the Reeve (Ruff) late this morning

The rest of the day was filled with continued shorebirding, and, after a bunch of 2pm arrivals, decent landbirding. Landbirding was highlighted by Worm-eating warbler and lots of Scarlet tanagers. I also saw a few nice King rails today which is always a treat.

47 miles today (44 below, plus ~3 unmapped)

I now want to leave the birding discussion for a bit to address something a bit more personal. Today I had a personal affirmation that I think will prove invaluable for the rest of my life: I can accomplish anything to which I completely devote myself. This is a cliche that I have heard often, but today I finally believed.  When I took the risk to swap my life as a scientist for the life of a biking birder, I had no idea in what form personal growth might come. Today it came in the form of an absolute and unwavering belief in myself. No matter what discovery I could have made in my lab in the last 4 months, it would have been dwarfed by the personal insight that I had today. I have no idea what the rest of 2014 may hold for me, but I can say without hesitation that even if I do not see another bird for the rest of the year, it will have been an incredible success. I have challenged myself in ways I never thought I would, and I have been propelled in large part by the thousands of people around the world who are as excited about this project as I am. Perhaps these feelings have been precipitated by the huge number of people who have passed along kind words to me in my last few days of Texas birding. This adventure is for everyone, and I hope that people are as excited for the rest of it as I am. One of the reasons I left my old career was that I felt I did not have the chance to sufficiently inspire other people. After speaking with many of you today, this is apparently exactly what Biking for Birds is doing for birders around the world. As of today, I know that I can transfer this inspiration to whatever I chose to do when this amazing journey finally does conclude. Watch out world......

Friday, April 18, 2014

Day 108 - Kicking around Anahuac NWR, early to bed

I was scheduled to arrive at Anahuac today, but I decided to fold my hand on my last day of birding at Sabine Woods to travel here to Anahuac yesterday. This meant that I had an extra day in this area, and I decided that I would use today for two purposes. First, I wanted to familiarize myself with Anahuac NWR since I will be riding into it in the dark tomorrow morning for the rail walk. Second, I wanted to search the agricultural fields around Anahuac for one of my main target birds, Buff-breasted sandpiper. The first task was relatively straightforward, but the second was less so.

38 miles today

I am actually staying a just a few miles up the street from Anahuac NWR. This made for an easy commute down to the birding areas this morning. I wanted to get an early start since I figured that heat shimmer over the agricultural fields where I would search for the sandpiper would be a major problem starting around 10:30 or 11:00am. The spotting scope on which I would rely to scan the fields magnifies everything by a factor of 32. This includes the heat waves rising from the earth as it warms over the course of the morning. What this means is that the telescope is most useful when it is cool, and as the day progresses, this heat shimmer phenomenon renders it less effective. Basically the heat shimmer cuts down the effective range of the scope by 1/2. So, if there is a Buff-breasted sandpiper very far out in one of the fields, it will but much easier for me to find it early in the day. 

I spent 3.5 hours scanning fields along State Road 1985. This was the same road that I birded on my way into this area yesterday. I was able to find lots of plovers, Whimbrel, yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers, stilt, avocets, and other common shorebirds. I also found a lone Solitary sandpiper, but I was unable to locate either the Wilson's phalarope or Hudsonian godwit from yesterday afternoon. I did hear several Northern bobwhite calling (#319), but was unable to find any of them. I will almost certainly see these as I head west in Texas n the next few weeks. By 10:30, the heat shimmer was starting to be a real problem. I was ready to close up shop and head into the refuge proper when I spotted a small, buffy bird way out in the field. I immediately recognized it as the Buff-breasted sandpiper (#320)! The bird quickly worked its way back into the field and out of scope range. I could count this bird, but it was a very unsatisfying look. I will return to this in a moment. Soon after this, 2 pinkish Franklin's gulls passed over the field for year bird #321. It was clearly a very successful morning!

Panorama of agricultural fields

During the middle part of the day, I headed into the main part of the refuge. I will be going on one of the famous Anahuac rail walks at 7:00am tomorrow morning. I will need to bike to the far side of the refuge (everyone else will carpool), so I wanted to check the condition of the access road. The road is actually in very good shape, and I have decided to ride it before sunrise to listen for rails before the walk actually commences. 

The afternoon at Anahuac was very relaxing. Birding casually I found lots of Stilt sandpipers and dowitchers, and a large number of American white pelicans were observed circling over the main impoundments. There were quite a few Northern Shovelers today, and the usual cast of ibises and herons rounded out a nice assortment of water birds. The highlight of the day was a family of King rails that ran right across a walkway at a spot where several people have told me to look for King rails (it nice when that happens, isn't it?!?). I was able to get the camera out for the last chick as it sprinted across the path only to vanish into the adjacent reeds. I also observed Sora and Virginia rail today. Hopefully I can pick up Yellow and/or Black rail on the rail walk tomorrow. I was generally very impressed with Anahuac NWR this afternoon, and I think it won't be hard to spend a few more days birding the area. On my way home, I did find a Common nighthawk snoozing on a post. I cracked off a few frames and left the lethargic bird as I found it. 

King rail chick at high speed!

King rail adult before it vanished into reeds. 

Adult King rail I photographed in Massachusetts 
a few years back. The above photo was taken at 2pm. This was 
taken early in the morning. This is why I do all my shooting early 
and late in the day; The colors aren't washed out.

Sleeping Common nighthawk from today

As I was leaving Anahuac, I decided to take a 9-mile detour to return to the same fields where I had found the lone Buff-breasted sandpiper this morning. I really wanted to find a few more and to get a better look a this bird. As I was biking along, I saw 2 Upland sandpipers. I stopped to have a look at them. When I did this I saw that there were 8 smaller birds with them. These all turned out to be Buff-breasted sandpipers! They only stuck around for a second before they flew off, but at least I got a better look than this morning. I continued down the road when I spotted 6 more suspicious looking birds not far from the road. These also turned out to be Buff-breasted sandpipers. They stuck around for a few minutes which gave me the chance to get a record shot. It was really nice to finish out the day strong by finding these bonus birds!

Buff-breasted Sandpipers from today

A Buff-breasted sandpiper I photographed in
Massachusetts a few years back.

Ok, that's all folks. I am going to hit the hay early since I have a very early start tomorrow morning.

Day 107 - On the road again, thoughts on our birding dollars

I awoke to light rain this morning. This dampened my already limited enthusiasm for birding what I figured would be a very quiet Sabine Woods. Instead, I decided to make a few phone calls to see if I could line up an exit strategy for today. I would have a great east tailwind, so it would take a minimum amount of energy to reach to Anahuac NWR if were I to depart today. It turned out that my host for Friday and Saturday nights could receive me a day early, so I decided to pull the plug on Sabine Woods and hit the road. I have basically squeezed out all the geotropic migrants I needed to see from the early rounds of migration. It therefore made sense to move and to do some water birding for a few days before returning to the woods for the later-migrating neotropics at High Island later next week.

I must confess that I felt a bit of separation anxiety as I cycled out of Sabine Pass this morning. My 4 days of birding at Sabine Woods were nothing short of fantastic, and, despite the somewhat limited resources of the town, I will miss my casual interactions with the owners of both the local gas station and the the Sabine Pass Motel. I want to take a few minutes to describe some of the interactions.

The first one is a bit silly, but has an environmental point. I told you a few days ago that the gas station was the only game in town when it came to food. Dinner each night was exactly the same: a can of cold veggies and a pizza. I saved the box from the first pizza, and each evening I would return to the gas station with the empty box to have another pizza placed into it. This occurred at exactly 7pm each night, and I think the woman running the show got a good laugh out of my routine. This routine permuted me to consume 5 full pizzas out of one box! There really are a multitude of ways to use less of everything, so get creative! (As an aside, there is a basic lunch diner that is open from 9am-2pm on weekdays. It is only 4 miles from Sabine Woods and caters to the oil and natural gas workers. It would be a VERY short drive for birders at Sabine Woods.)

The second one is a bit more sobering. I spent about 20 minutes speaking with one of the owners of the motel about the business. The bottom line is that the motel is perfectly adequate, but suffers greatly from 2 things. The first is the lack of food to which I have alluded several times. This was caused by Hurricanes Rita and Ike that combined to decimate all eating establishments while also cutting the town's population in half. The second problem is the lack of a through road. Not surprisingly, this is a result of the same 2 storms that succeeded in washing away the main road that connected Sabine Pass to Galveston. What this means for the motel is that they have experienced a precipitous drop in business the last few years. This motel is PERFECT for birding Sabine Woods as it it just 4 miles up the road. Most people with whom I spoke were staying in Winnie which is 44 miles from Sabine Woods. However, Winnie is a much bigger town and has the eateries to support stays longer than a single night.

I am not going to tell you that you should bird Sabine Woods for a week and spend that whole time staying in Sabine Pass. The town just does not have the facilities for long term stays (unless you are willing to rough it like I was). However, I want folks to consider the following. The way I see things, it is important that we put our birding dollars into the communities that we visit. The closer we spend our money to the places we actually bird, the more incentive that the people in those communities will have to ensure that these place remain undeveloped and accessible. The Sabine Pass Motel is a perfectly adequate lodge, and it is run by some really nice folks. So, in the future, perhaps birders would consider staying here for a night or two of their trip. If you are driving it would be easy to bring what food you would need with you (I did not have this luxury). This would show the residents of Sabine Pass that we are willing to come and spend our money in their community. This would give them increased incentive to cater to birders and to develop the businesses to facilitate longer stays. It would also incentivize the continued maintenance of Sabine Woods, and it might even motivate other local landholders to allow birders on their properties for a few weeks a year. We collectively need to take a few minutes to think about how we can maximize the conservation value of our collective birding dollars rather than just spending them wherever and whenever without foresight.

As for the birding today, I observed a number of species along the road on my ride. There was some great birding along State Road 1825, the approach road to Anahuac NWR. I was able to add Swainson's hawk (#317) and Wilson's phalarope (#318) along this stretch. There were a number of wet, soggy fields along 1825 that held thousands of shorebirds today. I have never seen so many Lesser yellowlegs and Pectoral sandpipers. There were also lots of Whimbrel and a dozen or so Upland sandpipers. A beautiful breeding Hudsonian godwit made a brief appearance, and American golden plovers were in great abundance. I plan to more thoroughly bird these fields tomorrow in search of Buff-breasted sandpiper.

Lastly, route 1825 is heavily trafficked by birders transiting from Anahuac to High Island. No fewer than 5 carloads of folks recognized me and flagged me down on the roadside to chat today. All of these folks have heard about the adventure and have been following this blog. It is really satisfying to hear that people from San Francisco to Quebec are riding along with me! I also knocked into one of my oldest birding mentors and friends, Victor Emanuel (I knew he was in the area since we speak regularly).Victor is a long-time fixture in Texas birding, and he has done as much as anyone to spread the gospel of birding across this country and around the world. He is truly one of our best ambassadors. I will be staying with him early next week, so there might be a bit more on him coming.

Jacques and Lynn Pleau from Quebec. They are taking a 
road trip around much of the lover 48 states!

Me, John, Victor

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Day 106 - Hard work for bird #316, rundown of birds I still need on the Texas Coast

A quick note: I completely forgot to add Least flycatcher from yesterday. I heard one along the road on my ride to Sabine Woods very early in the morning. This bird was #308, and I changed the numbering of the other species I added yesterday accordingly. Now back to our regularly scheduled birdcast....

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday was incredibly birdy at Sabine woods; Today was markedly less so. While most of the birds present on Tuesday appeared to have continued north last night, only a few representatives from most of the common migrants remained to entertain birders today. I was personally able to tease out ~15 warbler species today (Worm-eating, Cerulean, Kentucky, others) but none of these were new for the year. I also found large number of both Wood and Swainson's thrushes. I refused to believe that there wasn't at least one Veery or Gray-cheeked mixed in with these more common birds. I made it my personal mission to repeatedly comb through the thrushes until I found something else. After much searching, I was eventually able to identify a Gray-cheeked thrush for bird #316. I was very happy that my strategy and diligence proved fruitful! This is a bit on the early side for this species, so it was a quality find for today.

Gray-cheeked thrush - note plain gray face, 
largely yellow lower mandible, and lack 
of buffy eye ring (like Swainson's thrush)

Everyone is in general agreement that northeast winds will likely prevent a significant trans-gulf migration tonight. Sabine Woods is thus likely to be very quiet all day tomorrow. I was going to head to Anahuac on Friday, but I might break out of here a day early if the birding gets any slower. I did take a few pics today, so here they are.

Yellow throated vireo

Solitary sandpiper

Nighthawk - there was lots of debate if it was a Common
or a Lesser. Going down as just Nighthawk in my book.
This is a relative of the Eastern whip-poor-will from yesterday.

 The always popular Scarlet tanager

A very distant shot of a Peregrine falcon. I have not
seen many of these since I left the northeast.

 Overexposed male Summer tanager

Perfectly exposed female Summer tanager. She's easier
since her colors are quite as vibrant. This will probably find its way

As far as bird finding in the next 10 days, I will focus on finding the following species before I start the run west to Austin and beyond to Arizona.

I need to be in the marshes/beaches/rice fields/wet areas to find these
Mississippi kite - I should see this, if I missed this I can get it between here and Austin
Yellow rail - Anahuac is my only shot this year. They have been seen on 2 of 8 rail walks this year. It is a down year for them. I will do 3-4 walks so, this means maybe a 25% chance at this bird.
Black rail - Very rarely seen on Anahuac rail walks, but more likely to be heard. Still a very slim chance. Will have shots at this elsewhere, but it will be just as hard/unlikely in those areas.
White-rumped sandpiper - Migrates late, should get at Anahuac or Bolivar peninsula next week.
Buff-breasted sandpiper - Same as above but harder to find. I could miss this...ugh.
Franklin's gull - Has been seen every day at Rollover Pass on Bolivar for last week. I should get this.
Black tern - Same as above.

I need to be in the woods to see these:
Black-billed cuckoo - Generally come through after April 20, fair chance at High Island next week
Yellow-bellied flycatcher - Probably won't get this, most come through in early May after I leave this area
Alder+Willow flycatchers  - These also come through really late. Also, they do not call much around here, so identification will be difficult if not impossible. Willow I could get breeding out west. Alder will almost surely be missed.
Philadelphia vireo - Come through after April 20, good chance at High Island next week.
Veery - Same as above. Could get in Northern Rockies if I miss this here, but here would be much easier!
Nashville warbler - I could get this elsewhere, but it would be good to get it out of the way now.
Magnolia warbler - Come through after April 20, great chance at High Island next week.
Bay-breasted warbler - Same as above, but less common. I should still get this at High Island.
Blackpoll warbler - Same as above
Mourning warbler - Very late migrant, very hard to find. I expect to miss this.
Cape May warbler - SUPER hard to find since it is an Eastern Gulf migrant. However, they still see more of these each year in Texas than they do Black-throated blue warblers! I do not expect to see this, but since I was able to find Black-throated blue, who knows?!?!?!?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Day 105 - Migrants and Lifers everywhere!

Yesterday afternoon at Sabine Woods was very good. Today was even better. The severe weather that went through yesterday evening and night set the table for a fantastic day of birding today. I spent 11 hours walking around the woods, and at no point did the birding slow down. Orchard and Baltimore orioles were everywhere, and I probably saw 25 Summer tanagers over the course of the day. Wood and Swainson's thrushes lurked in great numbers below the high oak canopies that held Yellow-throated, Warbling, White-eyed, and Red-eyed vireos. I have never seen as many Yellow-billed cuckoos as I did today. However, it was the warblers that really stole the show. Collectively we had ~27 species. I saw most of these, and the only ones I missed are common migrants I should find at some point in the next two weeks.

The highlight of the day was my lifer Swainson's warbler (#313). This very cooperative bird spent the entire afternoon foraging in the same, very small area. Everyone had a chance to observe this secretive little bird as (s)he foraged relentlessly in the understory. I took quite a bit of time to watch the bird as it methodically sifted through the dead leaves on the forest floor looking for food. This was going to be a tough one for me to tick, so I am glad I had this opportunity! He stayed pretty well-buried in foliage too thick for photos, but at one point he did stick his head out onto the path for a few brief seconds. I was able to grab this shot!

An appropriately camouflaged Swainson's warbler

Besides this Swainson's warbler at #313, I did add a number of birds to the year's list. Most of these are birds I expected to find at some point in my Texas visit. These were:

#308 Least flycatcher (H)
#309 Acadian flycatcher
#310 Warbling vireo
#311 Canada warbler (a bit early for this species so a bit unexpected)
#312 Chestnut-sided warbler
#313 Swainson's warbler
#314 Ovenbird
#315 Yellow warbler

I did take a number of other pictures today. Most were taken at high ISO in poor light, so I present them just as an example of the variety I encountered today. 

Scissor-tailed flycatcher

Kentucky warbler

Summer tanager


Yellow-billed cuckoo (lots of these today!)

Female Cerulean warbler  - There were 3-4 
Ceruleans present today

Male Cerulean warbler

Worm-eating warbler (saw 3 of these today)

Canada warbler

Golden-winged warbler

Swainson's thrush

 Blue Grosbeak - not bad!

I saved one bird for last since it will require a bit of explanation. I have no idea who actually found this, but it stayed it in the EXACT same place all day. This is an Eastern whip-poor-will (photo below). It is a member of a cryptic family of birds called "Nightjars" that includes several similar birds. All North American nightjars are nocturnal, and rely on their amazing camouflage to keep them hidden during the day. The only reason this bird was found was because it was sitting on a branch versus the forest floor. When they sit on sea leaves, they are literally invisible.

Eastern whip-poor-will

Here is what a related nightjar looks like in leaves - 
can you find it?
(Answer at end of blog entry)

This bird presented a very unique situation. This is NOT a year bird for me, but it IS a life bird. Confused? I will explain. I heard an Eastern whip-poor-will in Central Florida on March 19, and while year listing conventions stipulate that a I can count birds I hear on my year list, I require that I see the bird for it to be places onto my own personal life list. Thus, this Florida bird went onto the 2014 year list but not my life list. I counted the viewed bird today as my "Lifer". Hopefully this makes sense. 

The Eastern whip-poor-will (C. vociferous) was split from Mexican whip-poor-will (C. arizonae) a few years ago; The two used to be considered a single species called simply Whip-poor-will. I have seen Mexican whip-poor-will in Arizona.

Here is the nightjar!

Tomorrow I will be back at Sabine Woods for a third full day of birding where I hope to scrape out 2-3 more new species. Right now we are still in the early stages of migration, and I have ticked quite a few of the early migrants. This means it will get tougher to add species in the next few days, but this should change as migration continues. There will be some different species coming through Texas as the month progresses, so I should generally continue to add birds over the next 2 weeks. There is no way that I will be able to find every (or even close to it!) species I need to find here in Texas. At some point I will have to decide to pull the plug on Texas to start the LONG ride to Arizona. This will certainly be no later than April 29, but it would be great to find species at a rate that would get me out of here a few days earlier than that.