Saturday, November 29, 2014

Nov 28 (Day 332) - Worst tactical decision of year with a silver lining

After the honeycreeper triumph yesterday, I made the mistake of taking my foot off the gas; It really cost me today. I also learned that no matter how wed you are to a plan, in a place like South Texas it is really important to be completely flexible.

While we were waiting for the honeycreeper to return yesterday, we received word that a Fork-tailed flycatcher had been seen at Laguna Atascosa NWR. This is a South American species that appears in the lower 48 states with some regularity. It is an austral migrant which means it migrates north during the South American winter. Some of these birds apparently over-shoot and end up in North America. It's all a bit confusing to me to be honest. The birds seem to show up at all times of year in all areas of the lower 48 with a particular concentration in the Northeast. I have seen this species in lower 48 twice - both in Connecticut and both in the last 6-7 years. This Laguna Atascosa bird would surly be my only shot at this species in the last month of the year. It would also be a great and unexpected addition to the growing list.

Fork-tailed flycatcher
Photographed by me in CT, Oct 2013

Fork-tailed flycatcher range

However, for reasons that I do not completely understand myself, I never really got excited about this bird. First, this species is notorious for being a "one hit wonder". It seems that they are very often reported one day only to be gone the next. I chased several of them before I finally got my lifer. Second, chasing this bird would require that I make additional distance east when I really wanted to go west. Going east would ensure that I would have to traverse the LRGV 3 times: this chase, the return to Mission, and then the final exit to the east whenever that happens. I was really hoping to keep backtracking to a minimum so as to keep my miles down. Third, since it was Thanksgiving, I thought I might have a hard time finding food and/or lodging without advanced planning. What I failed to realize it that at this stage ANY new bird in ANY direction must be chased since there are so few birds left for me to add to the list. I had just scored a huge victory with the honeycreeper, and I was admiring my own luck versus stepping on the gas even harder. After leaving the honeycreeper, I should have biked east to Harlingen for the night. This would have put me about 25 miles ( < 2 hours) from Laguna this morning. I could have been at Laguna very early this morning had I done this. I was not there early, and this cost me dearly today.

Instead, I biked west, back towards Mission for the night. I figured I would take my time this morning as I waited for word on the flycatcher. If the bird was found, maybe I would chase it. If not, which is what I expected, I could finish the ride back to Mission and spend the weekend birding Bentsen and Anzalduas for Hook-billed kite, Tropical parula, and whatever else I could find. However, the flycatcher was refound at around 8am this morning. Crap. I had a 55-mile ride to reach the bird. It would have to stay put for > 4 hours for me to reach/see it. Had I headed towards Harlingen last night, I'd be half that distance. I should have done that and gone right to to refuge rather than waiting for word on the bird. I let other people do the dirty work of refinding the bird instead of doing it myself. I left Alamo, at 8am, and I arrived at Laguna at noon. The bird was seen once at 8am and again at 10am. That's it. Had I not been lazy and overly wed to my original plan, I would have almost surely ticked this bird today. I spent 4.5 hours looking for it this afternoon without success. Increasing winds during the middle of the day and afternoon likely forced the bird to hunker down or split completely. I have no one to blame for this but myself. After my futile effort at Laguna, I biked the ~20 miles southeast to Port Isabel for the night. This is the closest place to stay to Laguna. It is also a great place to use for a base to search for Aplomado falcon the next few days. This is a bird for which I wanted to search only AFTER I had dealt with the western LRGV. The falcon is here, it's not going anywhere, so it could wait. Since I've now come this far east, I may as well deal with it now.

A frustrating 71 miles today....

Tomorrow is going to be VERY windy. Winds will be from the south at ~15 MPH at 9am and cranking at a steady 22-25 MPH from the south by noon. Gusts could be 30-35 MPH. This means that much of tomorrow will be both unridable and unbirdable. I could ride back north up to Laguna very early in the morning to explore the small chance in hell that the flycatcher sticks for another day. Given that it completely disappeared when winds picked up today, I am not enthusiastic about this idea. Also, I would have to ride back south into the wind to get back to Port Isabel after searching for the bird. This might prove impossible given how strong the winds are predicted to be. Getting pinned by wind at Laguna without the flycatcher would be the worst possible scenario. Instead, I think I will bird the area around Port Isabel for Aplomado falcon. The wind will limit what I can do, but I should have a good chance of finding it. If I find the bird early, I might try to make it to Brownsville where I would like to spend Sunday birding Sabal Palms and Resaca de las Palmas for rarities. Should I miss the falcon tomorrow, I will likely return to Port Isabel tomorrow night and repeat the process on Sunday. I could then head to Brownsville on Monday. However, I've learned that trying to make a plan down here is sometimes pointless. Some great bird will probably show up back in west and I'll have to fight the wind to reach it!

Oh, I did add White-tailed hawk at Laguna for #605! I guess progress in any form is a good thing.

Despite missing the flycatcher today, some good did come out of last night. It came in the form of the Alamo Inn in Alamo where I spent last night. When he heard about my adventure, owner, birder, and all-around good guy Keith Hackland offered me a couple of nights lodging at this simply incredible Bed & Breakfast. Keith and his place cater specifically to birders. With rare bird sightings posted daily, a bird-centric decor, and an attached boutique that seeks bird books, bird art, and birding gear, this place is a birder's dream. I was so impressed with the place and the support from Keith that I made a video of the Alamo Inn to show everyone. Please take a minute to watch it. I threw in some amusing commentary as well. This is a business for birders by a birder, and it would be great if we could support it and others like it moving forward! I am really glad I was able to experience this awesome little corner of the LRGV!


  1. I saw that same flycatcher in Haddam CT in 2013! I might have bumped into you then. (Uh, and if someone lifted your wallet that day... I know nothing about that!)


  2. We've all made this mistake and learned from it at one point or another. Good luck with the rest of the LRGV birds! -Dave

    1. You'd should be out trying to refine that redshank!

  3. Great video! Looks like a wonderful place for serious birders. I'm going to send a link to some of my other birding friends and hope they'll make it to the Alamo Inn some time. Love the Honeycreeper! Looking forward to seeing what comes next!