The plan for today was to head 30 miles east from Mission, TX to Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. There have been a number of Groove-billed anis seen at the park in the last week. As 99% of Groove-billed anis have moved south out of Texas for the winter, there is no telling how long these birds might stick around. Therefore, I made these birds priority #1 for today even though it would mean extra riding. The new bird deluge started en route as ~20 Green parakeets flew over my head for #599. I saw several groups of these on my ride to Estero this morning. Upon my arrival to Estero, I was met by the refuge staff and Bill Sain. The staff knew generally where the anis have been hanging out of late. We set off in the general direction of the birds, making several stops along the way for other year birds. These included Least grebe and Common parauque for birds #600 and 601, respectively.
Least grebe for the official #600
Common parauque for #601
These are so well camouflaged it's almost unbelievable
The group of 6 anis that had been hanging around Estero Lake has dwindled from 6 birds to 2 over the last week. The remaining 2 birds were seen yesterday, and I had hedged my bets today that they would stick around. Once we reached the "ani zone" near the lake, we split up to cover more ground. It took about 20 minutes but the anis were located about a half mile away. A brisk walk brought two of them into view for #602. YES! This was a really key bird for me. This was even sweeter after the Red-billed pigeon derailment. This find put me back on track! Incredibly, as we were watching the anis, several more of them appeared.....and they kept coming. The most anis that I had in sight at one time was 7! I only needed 1, but 7 was really special today. The refuge staff were incredibly helpful and friendly. The only things as good as the staff were the birds!
1 of the 2 original Groove-billed anis for #602
Bill and I hung around watching the anis for a while. As the temperature rose, we decide to head back to the Visitor's Center to relax a bit and meet up with my hostess from last night, Tiffany Kerstens. I correctly surmised that I would be able to add Buff-bellied hummingbird for #603 at the hummingbird feeders at the Visitor's center. Wow! 5 new birds in one morning (with more to come)! We were joined at the Visitor's Center by local and expert birder Mary Gustafson. The 4 of use were talking birds and casually scanning the ducks on the main pond when we received word of an interesting but not definitely identified bird in the topical/RV portion of the park. We casually headed that way with hopes of refinding this interesting bird that was originally reported as a vireo after only a very brief view. We spread out to find the bird. However, we initially met with little success.
A very small bird eventually materialized in a small, leafless tree right in front of a group of us (there were 7-8 of us involved in the search by this time). Mary got on it an immediately shouted "Honeycreeper". I got my binocs onto the bird a second later. My heart completely stopped when I realized what I was seeing. The bird was generally greenish with a rather long, down-curved bill. It was dead on for a honeycreeper. As honeycreepers do not normally occur in North America, I knew we had found something REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY good. By the time my heart started again, the bird disappeared POOF! GONE! I had seen it for less that two full seconds. Several of my companions got similar views of the bird; Excruciatingly, none of use got a serviceably photo. One staff member, John, got some images with his point and shoot, but they were far from conclusive. We immediately located a copy of The Birds of Mexico by Howell and Webb. Mary took the book around to each person who had seen the bird and asked each of us what bird we had seen. We all individually pointed to the exact same bird: Female Red-legged honeycreeper.
Waiting for the honeycreeper
The bird returned to this tree twice in the 4 hours we watched it
Red-legged honeycreeper range
As you can see, Red-legged honeycreeper is a Central and South American species that reaches is northern limit in Central Mexico. While some have thought this species might at some point surface in South Texas, to date this has not occurred. In fact, this species has never been recorded in North America before. Several previous sightings of males in Florida have been discounted as escapees since this species is very often kept as a pet. Looking at the photo of a male below, you can see why some people might want to do this.
Adult male Red-legged honeycreeper
Female Red-legged honeycreeper
Anyway, all of us were at this stage convinced we had seen a female of this species. When a rarity of this magnitude is found, it is imperative that photos are obtained. We were heartbroken that we had not been able to get good photos; We knew this bird would never stand a chance of being legitimized and counted without them. There was only 1 thing to do: Refind it. This is exactly what we set out to do, and 45 minutes later, the bird returned to the same tree where it had surfaced earlier. This view was also brief (less than 1 minute), but we were able to obtain several serviceable photos that seemed to confirm our ID of female Red-legged honeycreeper.
Head view A
Head view B
In theory, this bird should be year bird #604. However, when something this rare is found, there are going to have be a number of administrative reviews of the sighting to decide if it "counts". This could take a year or more as the record must be reviewed at the state level by the Texas Birds Records Committee and also at the Continent level by American Birding Association. I honestly think that our photos make a very convincing argument that we saw a female Red-legged honeycreeper. I think that the committee decision if this bird is "countable" will rest squarely on "Do we think it is an escapee?" While we will never know the answer to this with 100% certainty, that it was a female bird is a big plus for us. The 2 or 3 Florida sightings that have been rejected have all been of male birds which are more likely to be kept as pets. This is a species that is completely possible in South Texas, and we have good photos of it. As observers, we've basically done what we can at this stage. Now it rests in the hands of other to determine if it counts. I've already had one North American first record tossed out (Swinhoe's storm-petrel, North Carolina), so hopefully this one will count! Not bitter about that. At all. Totally fine. Not. For the record, I still count the Swinhoe's on my life list even though it wasn't accepted. Since this year is "for real", should this bird not count, it won't be on the year list. Hence it has been added as a "+1 Provisional" species below this main species count in which it is NOT included.
While we were waiting for the honeycreeper to surface for a 3rd time - which it never did - a flock of Snow geese flew over Estero. It took until #604, but Snow goose is finally on the 2014 list!
I am not yet 100% sure what is going to happen tomorrow. There was actually a Fork-tailed flycatcher spotted at Laguna Atascoca NWR this morning. If that bird resurfaces, you can bet I'll head that way. Man, the LRGV is going to be exciting - and exhausting!
Incredibly, Red-legged honeycreeper wasn't even the best thing I saw today. That title belongs to the Disco Elephant I found along the road!
43 miles today!