Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Apr 22 (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.

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