Thursday, December 31, 2020

Adios 2020!

Well the painful year know as 2020 finally comes to an end.  Here in Progreso Lakes a trio of Ruddy Ducks yesterday brought our 2020 yard list to 205.  That may be a record that will stand for a while as I hope to get out more this coming year.

Here's a few birding highlights for 2020 starting with the bird of the year for me.  This Blue-and-white Swallow seen from our yard on July 20 and 21 was accepted by the Texas Bird Records Committee as the 655th species for Texas.  ABA is currently voting on the bird as a first record.

And more recently this Spotted Rail from Mexico at Choke Canyon Reservoir will be a new species for the ABA area and for Texas.

The third life bird I saw this year was the amazing European Golden Plover south of Raton, NM which is the first for North America away from the Atlantic Coast.

Other great birds for my Texas life list included this Clark's Nutcracker at Alpine far south of its home in the high altitude Rocky Mountains.

This amazing White Wagtail in Austin was of the subspecies from eastern Russia and another first for Texas.

Another Texas lifer for me was this Eurasian Garganey at Aransas NWR.

Locally I was happy to find this Scott's Oriole at the Convention Center on South Padre Island which I think may be a first for the county.

But everyone's favorite local rare bird is this Elegant Trogan which is still hanging out at Estero Llano Grande State Park.

So hopefully everyone has a better 2021.  I'm not sure wheter I will try a Big Year or work on county lists.  Maybe I can travel some if thigs get better but I'd like to see lots of birds.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Quinta Mazatlan, 12/29/20

There's been a Blue Bunting and two Crimson-collared Grosbeaks hanging around Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen the past few days.  I made a run over there this afternoon to try my luck but came up empty on these two Mexican strays.  But this has been the Fall of the western invaders and I did well today in that regard.  The Pacific-slope Flycatcher was particularly cooperative.

One of my targets today was a Black-headed Grosbeak that was hanging out around the feeding station.  I also saw it's eastern counterpart, a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

This Western Tanager was a nice surprise.  We get a few each winter.

There's been some debate about this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  The red bleeds into the black around the throat like on a western Red-naped Sabsucker but it show no sign of red on the nape.  Could be a hybrid.

We had some vigorous discussion about this Empidonx.  We were trying to turn it into a Hammond's Flycatcher but the short bill and primary extensions and big eye ring point to the more expected Least Flycatcher.

There have been a lot of Clay-colored Thrushes ahnging out at Quinta Mazatlan.  A few weeks ago they set up the mist nets and banded 28 of them.  Holy cow!  And that was thought to have been about half of them.  But the anacua berries are about gone and I saw just a few today.

I will have to return to get the Crimson-collared Grosbeak and Blue Bunting on the new year list.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Spotted Rail at Choke Canyon State Park, 12-20-20

For years I have enjoyed perusing bird field guides where my attention is often drawn to the most very rare birds.  I want to be ready if I ever come across any of them.  Among these, two neotropical members of the family Rallidae have always been particularly intriguing; Paint-billed Crake and Spotted Rail.  Paint-billed Crake is known from two specimens from the United States, one from Virginia and the other from Brazos, County Texas.  There are also two US specimens of Spotted Rail, one from Pennsyvania and one from Brown County, Texas.  All four of these records are from the 1970's.  A third Spotted Rail was brought to a rehabber in Victoria, TX in 2015.  Neither of these species have ever been observed by birders in the wild in the United States untill yesterday when a Spotted Rail was photographed at Choke Canyon State Park on the shoreline of 75 Acre Lake.

I have birded quite a bit in Mexico in places where Spotted Rail should occur but I've never seen one.  I have seen the Plumbeous Rail in a coastal wetland in Peru which, being in the same genus, is somewhat similar.  But I really wanted to see a Spotted Rail someday.  So when I saw the photo of the Choke Canyon Spotted Rail on the ABA's Rare Birds Facebook page, I knew I had to make a run up there.  

With a dark and early start I was in George West when I got the call from Mary Gustafson that she was looking at the Spotted Rail.  Darn it!  I shouldn't have stopped for tacos.  In another half hour I was there on the edge of the marsh only to find out the rail had been missing for the past twenty minutes.  Not much else to do but wait and after about an hour the Spotted Rail was found nearby.  It had sneeked past us to another part of the marsh.  My shots aren't great.  The bird was always backlit or patially obscurred by vegetation.  But gee....what a great bird!

Quite a few birders dropped in to see the Spotted Rail today.  I bet well over a hundred got to see the bird.  I'm sure the top ABA listers are booking their flights for this species that no one has ever ticked in the ABA area.  Maybe they will see it tomorrow or maybe not.  It's great to live in Texas where rarities like Spotted Rail are always a possibility.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Horned Grebes, Mountain Bluebirds at Falcon, 12/15/20

Michael Emenaker has been volunteering at Falcon State Park for the past few weeks and has been finding some good birds up there.  First it was Mountain Bluebirds and that had me thinging about making a trip.  But when Michael found a couple of Horned Grebes, a species I have seen only once in the RGV, that was enough to push the needle past the line.  So yesterday I made the long painful drive up river.  Falcon Reservoir has been low for many years due to the prolonged drough.  Vast areas of the lake that are normally submerged are dry land now with actual mudflats that never previously existed.  First I dove out to the make shift boat launching area which is just barely in Zapata County.  I could not find the grebes nor the bluebirds but I did get a Say's Phoebe.

Not finding my birds near the boat lunch, I drove around to the picnic area and made my way down the rough track to the flats which are in Starr County.  I found another Say's Phoebe and a few Savannah Sparrows but that was it.  There were distant Herring and Ring-billed Gulls on the little island a few hundred yards off shore.  This is a Herring Gull which is a pretty good bird for Starr County.

Due to my late start, it was already lunchtime.  I was breaking out my sandwich when the two Horned Grebes appeared about 30 yards away.  They had probably been there the whole time.

Wow! What a great species for Starr County!  I went back to my sandwich when a little flock of American Pipits drifted by.

I was watching the pipits when I saw a flash of bright blue.  Mountain Bluebird!  Due to severe drought in the Southwest, Mountain Bluebirds have invaded Texas where they are also finding little to eat.  Consequently they are showing up all across the state this year.  Michael reported four birds but I found only three.

I was stalking the bluebirds for better photos when I saw a little passerine with white outer tail feathers pass overhead and let out a "squeek".  Unfornately I could not get a photo of the Sprague's Pipit.  So here's the second Say's Phoebe.

Time for butterflies.  I drove back to the butterfly garden but not much was going on.  Fortunately I ran into Michael and he invited me over to his campsite where he has been feeding birds.  The star attraction was a Green-tailed Towhee that has been coming in for seed.  Best I can figure the campground is in Zapata County so I think this was a new county bird for me.

What a nice little serendipitous trip!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

First US Record of Blue-and-white Swallow 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 also agreed 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 my first.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Sage Thrasher at SPI, 12-7-20

 I was moving slow yesterday morning, trying to decide where I was going to bird, when the WhatsApp dinged.  Bill Beatty had just found a Sage Thrasher at the Valley Land Fund's Sheepshead lot on South Padre Island.  Sage Thrashers winter in variable numbers from year to year in the Valley but are always very uncommon to rare.  I've seen quite a few in Hidalgo County, but the species has always eluded me in Cameron County.  So I ran out there and there it was.  Cameron County bird #416.

A real treat in our Progreso Lakes yard the past few days has been two immature White-crowned Sparrows.  They seem to be enjoying the cover, free food and bird bath so I may have them for the winter.  Today they were joined by a third.  They seem to be of both of the subspecies that occur down here.  This is the dark lored "oriantha" subspecies from the Rocky Mountains.

And this is the white lored "gambelii" from northern Canada and Alaska.

Meanwhile the Rio Grande Valley is hosting visitors from NE Mexico.  So far reported are an Elegant Trogon, a Rose-throated Becard, six "Lawrence's" Dusky-capped Flycatchers, six Crimson-collared Grosbeaks and a couple of Blue Buntings.  It's also been a good fall for butterflies so I'm wondering if the Mexican invasion is a result of good reproductive summer.  Now it would be nice if one of these would show up in our yard.