Friday, June 21, 2024

Magnificent Day! 6/20/24

The Central American Gyre has been churning for a couple of weeks over the Central American Isthmus and finally produced Tropcal Storm Alberto.  The Gyre is a large counter clockwise swirling area of low pressure stormy weather caused by westerly winds off the Pacific, Gulf easterly wind and storms blowing off the mountains of Colombia and Central America.  Though a weak storm, Alberto sent a massive fetch of tropical moisture to northeast Mexico and southern Texas.  The moisture was badly needed though some spots in the Sierra Madre have had some severe flooding.  The birding upshot in Texas has been strong easterly and northeasterly wind bringing over a hundred Magnificent Frigatebirds to the Port Aransas area.

Maybe this might be the optimum time to head to Willacy County and score a frig for the county list.  So I took off in the moring, checking Delta lake along the way.  Four species of terns were nice but nothing unusual.  We really need a hurricane to bring coastal species inland.  As I drove though Willacy County and kept an eye on the sky, the WhatsApp dinged.  Justin and Evan were reporting Pomarine Jaeger and Bridled and Sooty Terns from the South Padre Island jetty.  Dang!  Maybe I should have headed out to the Island.  Too late.  I was committed.

I made a stop for birds and bugs at the channed crossing just east of the Sacahuiste Flats east of Port Mansfield.  Not much going one but as I started to pull out on the highway I spied a distant flock of large black birds riding the wind.  That looked suspicious.  Got the bincos on them and yes they were Magnificent Frigatebirds.... a bunch of em!  So I got out of the car and starting firing shots.  They seemed to be following the channel and coming right toward me.  Total count was 25!

Wow that was cool!  These mostly pelagic birds had been blow in from the Gulf and were trying to find their way back to sea.  Now to check out Port Mansfield.  I headed over to Laguna Point Recreation Area where I found the salt marsh that was completely dry a few weeks ago now flooded by the high tide.  Laughing Gulls and Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns were feeding inthe rough water.

Looking back to the south, I saw large, black, narrow winged birds.  More Magnificent Frigatebirds!  Best count I could get was 21.  These may have well been from the same flock I had seen earlier.  Later looking at Google Earth I saw the south bound channel they have been following curled around  to the north right befor it entered the Laguna Madre.  It would have been a short flight up shore for the frigatebirds.  Some wandered over for photos.  Here's an adult male.  These are the guys with the big red throat pouch that are ubiquitous on nature flims about the Galapagos Islands.

Adult female with black head.

Immature birds have white heads.

Here's a mixed group.

It's been many years since I have seen so many frigatebirds.  Back in 1992 I made a solo trip to Ecuador and had a magical frigatebird experience.  I was on the beach near Salinas on Punta Carnero watching the famous balsa raft fishermen.  These are the fisherman that inspired Thor Heyerdahl to build his balsa wood raft, Kon Tiki, that he sailed to Polynesia in 1947 attempting to pove that South Americans may have arrived in Polynesia prior to the actual Polynesian peoples.  These fisherman were in the surf pulling on a huge net they had earlier taken off shore on the balsa rafts.  Another group was in the surf pulling similarly on another net several hundred yards down the beach.

As I watched these fisherman I noticed the distant group seemed to be getting closer.  Wait a minute!  These two groups were actually pulling on opposite ends of the same massive net.  It must have been a least a half kilometer in length.  Mesmerized by the spectacle, I lost sense of time as slowly the two groups of fishermen slowly came closer together.  People gathered on the beach to watch.  Gathered with wagons and buckets and shovels.  A couple of beat up pickups drove up to the growing crowd.

The fisherman were joined by some of the spectators who helped pull the obviously very heavy net through the shallow surf.  They drug it loaded with hundered of pounds of fish up onto the dry sand and then hell broke loose.  Everyone ran into the huge pile of fish and started grabbing.  Men shovelled sardines into wagons which they took to the waiting trucks.  Little kids screamed and ran off carrying the night's dinner as old women tried to find good specimens for the market.  And while all this was going on the Magnificent Frigatebirds which had soared peacefully overhead dove into the melee and scarfed up what they could.  Everyone was laughing and screaming and grabbing fish.  What fun! One of my all time favorite memories!

Friday, June 14, 2024

Crimson-collared Grosbeak at Santa Ana NWR, 6/14/24

This morning I ran over to Sana Ana NWR to look for butterflies.  As I walked to the visitor's center a calling Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet was a good omen for what would prove to be a great morning.  After checking in I immediately found my first Boisduval's Yellow for the refuge.  And then plenty more good butterflies along the trail on the north side of Willow Lake.  After working the trail that crosses the lake at the fourth overlook, I sat down for a rest on the concrete water intake and was admiring my photos of Silver-banded Hairstreaks when I head a very familiar "see-ooo" call.  It took me a minute.  Not Social Flycatcher and not a Rose-throated Becard.... hmmm....  Crimson-collared Grosbeak!

I have been fooled by Green Jays making very similar calls so I wasn't going to get too excited.  I whistled an immitation of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Black-crested Titmice got excited and and scolded me.  And then a basic plumaged Crimson-collared Grosbeak landed right over my head.  Wow!!!

A closer look at this bird seems to reveal a pale gape indicative of a newly fleged bird.  Most of the birds had their moths open on this hot humid morning.  I don't know what that pale ring around the eye is about unless it's flaking off the sheaths of newly sprouting feathers.

After I got home I posted the first photo above on Facebook and quickly recieved lots of positive feedback.  Most interesting was a comment by nationally renowned birder and author Kenn Kaufman.  He stated the first Crimson-collared Grosbeak in the United States was also found in June in 1974 and most of the others have been during winter.  The TOS Handbook of Texas birds says all the other records have been between November and May.  So this bird represents the first June record since the intial find fifty years ago.

And if this is a newly fledged bird, where did it come from?  Did it wander over from Mexico or did we have a successful nesting on this side of the border?  Anyway, Happy 50th Anniversary!

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Last Shorebirds of Spring, SPI 6-7-24

This morning I thought I would head east to get out of the heat and maybe make a run up the beach at South Padre Island in the eternal search for a migrant Arctic Tern.  But as I approached the exit for Laguna Vista I decided a search of the Laguna Vista Reservoir might be in order.  Actually it's not a reservoir but a vast mostly dry playa that recieves effuent from the Laguna Vista sewage treament plant.  Good idea as this late Whimbrel was my first for the year.

A small flock of more common Long-billed Curlews stopped by.  They are longer billed and more buffly than the Whimbrel.

I jut checked the TOS Handbook of Texas Birds only to discover that our summer breeding Willets are of the eastern subspecies.  The immatures that pass through in July and August are "Western" Willets.  That makes sense as these birds today were the dark "Eastern" Willetrs.

Black-necked Stilts also breed here.

Other late shorebirds today inclued Least, White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers but all were too distant for photos.  I wasted a lot of time trying to turn this distant Wilson's Plover into a fourth US record Collared Plover but as Steve Howell says in Rare Birds of North America "ironically Collared Plover lacks the white collar of Wilson's Plover."  Normally the large bill of Wilson's Plover makes identification easy but this bird was so distant.  But it did have a white collar.

So then I was off to nearby South Padre island.  A stop at Sheepshead turned up nothing so I ran up to the flats north of the Convetion Center to eat my luch and watch shorebirds.  But luch got interrupted by five flyover Magnificent Frigatebirds, my first for the year.

Then a flock of nine late Marbles Godwits landed nearby.

And then it was nine late Red Knots.  Don't see any bands on these.  These are nonbreeding birds and may well not continue the journey north.  The big ones are Willets.

Here's a late Semipalmated Plover.

There were plenty of Royal Terns around.  I don't know if these are going to nest, have already nested or are just going to say "To hell with it."

Nonbreeding Common Tern.

"Bring me a fish and I'll think about it."  Least Terns.

I never made it to the beach but it was still an interesting day.