Monday, July 27, 2020

Hurricane Hanna drops Coastal Birds at Delta Lake, 7/27/20

Hurricane Hanna crossed from the Gulf into South Texas just north of Port Mansfield at about noon on 7/25/20.  For the next sixteen hours she ground across the brush country with winds up to 90 MPH at an agonizingly slow 8 mph dropping from eight to twenty inches of rain across the Rio Grande Valley.  The upshot was much flooding and displaced coastal seabirds.  So yesterday afternoon Justin LeClaire battled his way through flooded roadways up to Delta Lake and reported one Common Tern, six Royal Terns, three Sandwich Terns and a Brown Pelican.

Our internet was down so I didn't get the message till late and had to make the trip up this morning.  Three of those species I've seen before in Hidalgo County but Sandwich Tern was a species I was not sure I would ever get to see.  After finding that FM 88 north of Weslaco was flooded I detoured to US 281 up through Edinburg to TX 186 and then east to FM 88 and south to Delta Lake.  Upon arrival I was disappointed to find the water high on the west side where the mudflats can hold rare birds.  But not to worry, there was a small group of terns on a small mudflat on the east side.  Scoping soon turned up two Sandwich Terns, Hidalgo County bird #408.

With them was a juvenile Common Tern, a species I have seen only once before in Hidalgo County.

Six Caspian Terns were not a surprise.

It took a while but a Royal Tern finally dropped in.  I've seen them maybe three times in the County.  This one is next to a juvenile Caspian Tern.

I was about to give up on the Brown Pelican when it flew over my head.  This is a pretty ratty juvenile.

The day started well with a Magnificent Frigatebird on FM 88 over the flood channel just south of Weslaco.  Only my second ever in the County.

A lot of people are suffering because of Hurricane Hanna but she sure made for fascinating birding.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Blue-and-white Swallow, First US Record at Progreso Lakes, 7/20/20

I wrote this up on July 21 and later discovered that I forgot to post it.  But this bird now has the TBRC seal of approval.

June birding was really slow as always so I've been doing a lot more gardening and butterfly stuff.  But birding gets more interesting in July.  Babies are fledged and wandering and the first fall migrants start to pass through.  Yesterday I thought I would spend some time in the yard and work on my July list.  It was a little dull but swallow numbers were building.  I got my first Cliff Swallow for the fall.  And there was a big flock of Purple Martins and some Cave, Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  And then I thought I had a Tree Swallow which is really rare this early in migration.

It was gleaming white below but something wasn't right.  The crown was almost black.  Through the scope it had a faint purplish blue gleam.  And it was smaller than a nearby rough-wing.  Hmmm........  I fired some shots with the camera.  The bird was about 80 yards away with with some trees behind so I to manually focus.  Then the battery died.  I ran inside and grabbed a new battery and returned to get some more shots.  It still didn't look like a Tree Swallow.  So I ran inside and edited a few of the photos.  The under tail coverts were dark and not white like on a Tree Swallow.  This did not seem to be one of our regular swallows.  I had an idea and the South American field guides proved me right.  This was a Blue-and-white Swallow.  Further reading revealed that the patagonica race of southern South America is migratory.  And migratory birds sometimes get lost.  I had just found the first United States record for Blue-and-white Swallow.  I did not see it again during the rest of the day despite much searching.

Yesterday the reception to my find on various Face Book birding groups was lukewarm to say the best.  But this morning I found the bird again and was able to get better photos.  I'm finally scoring a few congratulations.  I think a lot of birders are having a hard time wrapping their head around this one.  Characteristics consistent with Blue-wnd-white Swallow are the small size, blue-black dorsal coloration and white under parts with some black spotting on the chest.  This bird seems to be in heavy molt around the neck with some new feathers sprouting in the tail.

Flight photos show the dark rump and limited dark under tail coverts of patagonica.  The nominate nonmigratory cyanoleuca race has much more extensive black under the tail.  Also note the new tail feathers.

This bird is definitely not the bright blue-black and white bird so commonly seen in South America so I think it might be a young adult. The young tail feathers growing in are sure to mean something though I'm not sure if anyone knows anything about the molt on these swallows.  So there's quite a bit of research to do before do I submit the write up for the records committee.  Meanwhile normally I would now be bracing for possibly hundreds of listers to come and tick this bird.  Unfortunately our Hidalgo County judge has issued a stay at home order because of the raging Covid19 in the RGV.  So far only me and Mary Beth Stowe have gotten to see this bird.  And that may be all.

Fast forward to 12/9/20.  As it turned out the Blue-and-white Swallow was not seen again despite several days of diligent searching.  I wrote up the details for the Texas Bird Records Committee and sent the photos around to some experienced ornithologist.  Daniel Lane who is an associate researcher for the Louisiana State University Ornithololy Department and coauthor of Birds of Peru thought the bird looked good for Blue-and-white Swallow and that the molting tail was right for a bird that would nornmally be wintering in the Amazon basin.  Several other South American experts agree though I got little support from the tour guides with the big birding companies.  Not sure what was up with that. 

Well, the TBRC has completed their vote and I got word that the bird passed unanimously.  So Blue-and-white Swallow is now officially on the list of wild birds seen in Texas.  The American Birding Associations checklist committee will be voting on it sometime.  They usually go with the recomendations of the state committee but you never know.  But if all goes well, I will have a second ABA first record.  My White-crested Elaenia back in February 2008, also an austral migrant, was the first.