Monday, July 26, 2010

Texas Pelagic Trip & Rio Grande Valley Birding, 17-18 July

Thought I'd post a belated report on the pelagic trip out of South Padre Island on July 17th.  What a great trip!  These days it's rare that I am able to spend a full weekend birding, rarer still that I travel a substantial distance to do so.  Parental responsibilities tend to limit such activities and keep me close to home.  So I was really looking forward to this trip, and as it turned out, I was not disappointed.  We saw some good birds, and encountered some awesome marine creatures that made the trip unforgettable.  Afterward I visited some Rio Grande Valley sites before heading for home.

The Gulf of Mexico is off the main migratory path of most pelagic species, and I had been told (repeatedly) not to expect much.  Texas pelagic trips typically produce very low numbers compared to similar trips off the east and west coasts, and this trip was no exception - we had less than twenty individual birds that would qualify as truly pelagic, including 5 Masked Boobies, about 8 Band-rumped Storm-Petrels (a lifer for me), a Greater Shearwater (only the 16th state record?), and 2-3 Bridled Terns.  Actually, my impression was that there were plenty of birds, it was just that the vast majority were terns, and they were concentrated over shallower waters and around shrimp boats.  It was only when we were far offshore, over deeper water, that the birds became very few and far between.

The Greater Shearwater was clearly "the bird of the day."  It was found far offshore, associating with a school of tuna that were churning up the water in a feeding frenzy.  This bird REALLY liked our boat, and stayed with us for quite a while, giving us no shortage of good photo opportunities:
As rare and exciting as the shearwater was, it was overshadowed by the sudden appearance of a whale shark at our bow!  After that initial sighting it was announced that there were as many as three present in and around the area in which the tuna were feeding (I can't personally attest to that, because whenever I spotted one my attention remained riveted on that one individual).  Here one is seen raising its head to the surface (like a whale "spy-hopping"):
On our way out, just as we reached deep water, I spotted a whale off our bow.  It turned out to be more than one whale, but they were elusive, and went unidentified (speculation was that they were probably beaked whales).  We also had Bottlenosed Dolphins bow-riding, and one lone individual that came to the boat appeared to be of the larger pelagic type.  Flying fish were often seen skipping across the water, and at one point I saw a sailfish jump in our wake.  Most of the time there was nothing to see, but isn't that how it usually is?  Moments of intense excitement punctuating long periods of boredom.

Whale Shark & adult Masked Booby:
Sunday morning, July 18th, I drove part of Old Port Isabel Road in Brownsville looking for sparrows, particularly Botteri's, which would be a state bird for me.  Cassin's Sparrows were performing their flight songs, and I managed to kick up a few Botteri's Sparrows (larger bill, buffy unstreaked breast) along the roadsides.  This immature White-tailed Hawk was perched on a fencepost near the road, holding some unfortunate creature in its talons.
Near the intersection of Port Isabel Road and FM 511 I came across a mix of flycatchers that included a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a Western Kingbird, and 2-3 Tropical Kingbirds (vocalizing to distinguish themselves from Couch's).  Tropical Kingbird was a new state bird for me, and a species I had been hoping to see on this trip.  Apparently they have greatly expanded their Texas range in recent years.  Here's one perched on a roadside wire:
...and here's a Couch's Kingbird seen minutes later at Los Ebanos Preserve:
Shortly after I arrived at Los Ebanos Preserve a lady approached me to see what I was doing.  She informed me that the preserve was closed after May, and explained that it was too hot, and the local people "don't go birding in summer."  When she found out I that lived in Texas she commented that I must be used to the heat (which at 9 a.m. wasn't really that bad).  I don't think she intended to chase me off, but I was uncomfortable about the trespassing issue and figured it was time to leave. 

About birding in the summer heat...yes, it can be uncomfortable, particularly at midday, but the birding can be just as good as at any other season.  I've had great experiences birding the Rio Grande Valley in summer, and if the locals want to spend the whole season indoors that's their loss.

My last stop was the Nature Conservancy's Chihuahua Woods Preserve near Mission.  Hook-billed Kites had recently nested there, and I was hoping they might still be in the area.  I didn't see the kite, but as soon as I got to the gate I spotted a Groove-billed Ani perched in a tree ahead, and just past the ani I had a male Verdin and a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet vying for my attention.  The tyrannulet responded very inquisitively to my pishing, allowing me to get some nice photos:
This is my bird list for that morning, in case any Texans who don't go birding in summer would like to know what they are missing (note: due to flooding and park closures along the Rio Grande I was unable to visit any of the great birding spots on the river):

Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Tricolored Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Harris's Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Northern Bobwhite,  Killdeer, Laughing Gull, Black Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani, Greater Roadrunner, Common Nighthawk, hummingbird sp., Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Couch's Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, White-eyed Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Bewick's Wren, Verdin, Horned Lark, House Sparrow, Botteri's Sparrow, Cassin's Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

If This Is Paradise I Wish I Had a Lawnmower

Indeed I do wish I had a lawnmower.  One that works.  I actually own three, but two of them are useless relics and one is at best semi-functional.  It's a Snapper riding mower, and a more capricious, cantankerous, and temperamental beast never existed.  Turning the key to start it would be too easy.  Instead I have to pull the rope starter - usually many, many, many times.  Even if I can get it running before my arm tires it's only a temporary situation.  I've been told the gas filter is probably clogging.  Anyway, it runs for a while (long enough to get about half my yard mowed) and then backfires, sputters, and dies.  As big as my yard is, I'm actually considering getting one of those antique non-motorized push mowers.  At least it would work dependably, and I wouldn't have to contend with dead starters, broken belts, gas leaks, etc. On the other hand, it would take me even longer to get all the damn grass cut.

The title of this post is from the song "(Nothing But) Flowers" by the Talking Heads.  I interpret the song to be about a green revolution that's gone a little too far.  It was playing on the radio last Saturday, when I took Lucy and Bryce back to the Shangri La Botanical Gardens in Orange (which, speaking of green revolutions, is the first building project in Texas to receive a "platinum certification" from the U.S. Green Building Council).  This time I went fully prepared, with a double stroller and icy drinks for the little ones.  Consequently, the kids held up longer and had more fun.  This time we made it as far as the heronry (or should that be egretry?), and from inside the blind Lucy and Bryce were able to watch Great Egrets feeding their young at close range.

Cicada killer wasps were swarming over the dirt embankment below the blind. These are big ground-nesting wasps, capable of carrying off large cicadas (bet they have a nasty sting!).  I've found a couple of their burrows close to our house.  Fortunately they seem to be less social and more solitary in their habits than most wasps.  They can be common in places with sandy soil, which they seem tp prefer for burrowing, but I was still surprised to see so many in one place.  Here's a picture of one:
It was a hot day (which goes without saying - this is Texas in July). Hot means good weather for reptiles, and we saw a few, including this large Texas Rat Snake.  It was a new species for me (and for the kids, of course).

Orange is one of the easier places in Southeast Texas for finding Fish Crows. This one was perched close to one of the garden paths, and was doing its nasal aw aw call, to dispel any doubt as to its identification.  Fish Crows are said to have smaller feet than American Crows - I'm not sure if that is evident in this picture.

This Red-shouldered Hawk was perched in an oak along one of the paths, and didn't seem much bothered by our proximity.  Broad-winged Hawks were also present on both of our recent trips to Shangri La, and I've seen Swallow-tailed Kite there in the past.  Seems to be a good place for raptors.
The kids were more impressed with the children's garden - particularly the gravel box with all the plastic toys in it.  In fact they threw a fit when I told them we had to leave.  Only three years old, and already I'm facing insurrection...
This picture was taken at the frog ponds on our previous visit to Shangri La.  I'm trying to create opportunities for Bryce and Lucy to explore and come in contact with nature.  At the frog ponds there are many discoveries to be made, and new amphibious friends to meet.

This afternoon, as I pulled into our driveway, I saw a Yellow-throated Warbler perch briefly in flowering shrubbery near our carport.  In the evening I heard Brown-headed Nuthatch in pines near the pond, and saw a few Purple Martins flying south. Great Crested Flycatcher and Summer Tanager continue to be heard in our neighborhood.  That's all the birds news for now.