Rio Grande Valley Day 7: Go West

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, November 10, 2014
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This is part seven of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

It has officially been one year since I was in the Rio Grande Valley. I better hurry up and post this. All my social media feeds are full of amazing photos of amazing birds and wonderful friends who were lucky enough to be able to go back this year. I will return some day until then...Day Seven. 

We woke up up before the sun on our last full day of birding with the intention of heading West. We'd seen pretty much all the birds there were to see in the Rio Grande Valley near our home base in San Benito. Short of something insane like an Amazon Kingfisher showing up, we needed new territory. Our host Claire told us she had actually seen an Amazon Kingfisher once in a resaca near her house. She was a new birder at the time and even though she had photos and other people saw it, the records committee had never approved her sighting. "Prove me right boys!" She'd say as we headed out birding each day. We weren't about to spend our day searching resacas for a bird that had only officially been reported in Texas once in recorded history. Our plan was to head to Salineno and then on to Falcon State Park to pick up birds in a dryer, more western habitat. 

We grabbed some breakfast tacos at the gas station and drove about two hours west in hopes to be in Salineno by daybreak. A few wrong turns and some construction meant we got there a hair later than we had hoped. We failed to see any Red-billed Pigeons or Muscovy ducks flying on the river and so we were starting the day off with two misses. We did see a flock of Pyrrhuloxia on the road down to the river and ran into some other birders so at least that seemed like a good start.



Things got even better the more we settled in and searched. There is a little nature preserve there right on the river where a wife and husband keep feeders well stocked. We chatted with them as they put out seed, peanut butter and oranges. They told us the best place to wait so I sat down and didn't move. In just a few minutes, a Hooded Oriole showed up. What a beautiful bird. It was the first time I had ever seen one so I was pretty excited. They are beautiful. 

The woman who maintains the feeding station pointed out that she could hear a single note from an Audubon's Oriole as well so we patiently waited. Soon I could hear it too as it got closer and closer. Before too long a male announced his arrival at the fence just 10 feet in front of me and started to chow down on peanut butter. This is an incredible bird. Gorgeous! Who knew orioles like peanut better so much? We usually stick to grape jelly and oranges up in Minnesota.


While waiting for these two to show up, my first Plain Chachalaca's showed up as well. Three lifers in a matter of minutes! I was thinking we had made a good choice on coming west. We then went back to the river and soon got wonderful full scope views of a Ringed Kingfisher, also a lifer and of course new for the trip. 

It wasn't until months later that I got around to reading the book, A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey in which he tells the tale of being confronted and threatened by drug runners at the exact spot where we were scoping the kingfisher. I'm grateful our visit didn't involve drug runners or someone trying to take my camera. We felt like we'd seen everything we could see in Salineno, including a roosting Screech Owl so it was time to leave.

We had plans to head to Falcon State Park as well for other species. I'd turned off my mobile phone when we got to Salineno because we were so close to Mexico that I could not get a US carrier, only a Mexican one, and didn't want to incur any roaming fees. 

When we got back up to the highway I turned my phone back on and suddenly received a flurry of text messages from pretty much everyone I had met at the festival.

They all looked something like this (albeit with much more colorful language)




At this point I recall a lot of swearing in the car. Here we were 2+ hours west of Harlingen tracking down western species and one of the rarest birds possible shows up back where we had left from. We still had species to pick up out west and it was only lunch time. Given the intel we had on the bird we hedged our bets and went to Falcon State Park for an hour. We were gambling the kingfisher would still be there in the afternoon. At the park we fairly quickly saw Roadrunner and Couch's Kingbirds, both lifers for me. We didn't see any Scaled quail or Ash-throated flycatcher and decided we needed to leave, we just couldn't risk missing the kingfisher. All the while we were getting texts every 15 minutes from people at the conference..."Kingfisher still here."

Before we could get to the kingfisher spot though, we needed lunch and that brings us of course to demons. Bear with me.

We've all heard stories of Jesus appearing in food. I haven't found any historical records to show when this phenomenon first occurred but I'd sure like to believe it was at the last supper. Wouldn't that be a classy move? Judas is slicing the bread and hey, check it out every one. Jesus gives a wry smile as his face appears in a nice slice of challah. People are constantly seeing this guy in food. There's holy grilled cheese, a crucified jesus in a orange and even a nasty gooey looking christ at the bottom of a marmite jar. (I'll let you google those on your own.)
These are all cases of pareidolia. The animal brain is a constantly running pattern recognition machine. It is an incredible evolutionary tool that has allowed us to survive. It errs on the side of caution and often sees patterns where they do not exist. When it comes to recognizing a tiger in the jungle it is better to err on the side of caution more often than not. We are the descendants of the paranoid survivors.
When we see seemingly familiar patterns in food or clouds or wood grain you have a choice. You either believe in the wonderful, awe-inspiring millions of years long evolutionary story of the human brain or, perhaps the grandeur of that isn't enough for you and you choose to invoke paranormal explanations that these random patterns are the handiwork of God. Though, I have to warn you, if you believe the latter than we have to assume God really is flipping us the bird in this deep space photo taken by NASA.


Photo courtesy of NASA. A small cloud in the Carina Nebula.

Our final full day of birding we were present at a truly awe inspiring sign from the birding gods (or, you know, pareidolia). First though, we have to address gas station tacos. Two days previous we'd been out birding with Kelly and she'd suggested we go looking for hawks at Anzulduas Park.

It was a crappy cold day and the hawks knew it. We didn't see hardly anything. Cold and hungry, we loaded back into the car and made lunch plans. We wanted Mexican food and so it was our smart phones to the rescue. Curt pulled out his phone and informed us there was a highly rated restaurant just 5.3 miles away. Perfect.

We followed the directions only to discover the restaurant kept getting further and further away. Next time we asked it was 6.8 miles, soon, it was 15 miles. We checked and we were headed the right way but this mysterious restaurant defied the laws of physics and kept getting further. We eventually made it to the 5.3 mile away restaurant after about 25 minutes. Curt's phone was new and I suspect the miles he kept reading were the miles to the next turn instead of the miles to the final destination.

We got there and after the meal Kelly told us that it was okay but that we'd paid too much. "Oh really?"

"Yes," she told us. "The best tacos you can get are way cheaper."

Kelly then went on to tell us that the best tacos are the ones at the gas station. You have got to be freaking kidding me. Minnesota gas stations pretty much have one hot food item and that is shriveled up hotdogs on a roller grill. This is Texas though, what do I know? Maybe the cheap tacos at the gas station really are great. The price is right, you get your food fast and if they taste great then so be it.

We'd learned that if you doctored them up with enough fixings then they did, indeed, taste pretty good.

So, we ate a lot of gas station tacos and we figured we'd stop on the way to the Amazon Kingfisher. We needed food so we pressed our luck and stopped to grab some quick chow. As one of the workers was heating up the tortilla shells she let out an exclaim of surprise. Wow, just wow. Check out this tortilla. 


That's a human skull wearing a top hat right?

Filled with tasty demon-approved tacos and armed with directions to the spot with the kingfisher we tore back east and made it there by 4:30 pm. There was still a large crowd though not as many as earlier in the day. Still, the police were out directing traffic to make sure no one got killed as they ran around on the side of the road. Apparently the sheriff had told the officers, "Keep everyone safe and make sure they have a good time." How's THAT for hospitality? It doesn't hurt that everyone here knows birders do a lot for the economy.

As soon as I got out of the car people eagerly had us look through their scopes. The bird was very far away and at that distance you kind of had to take their word that you were looking at the right bird. Here's what the view looked like zoomed as far as possible though my 400mm camera lens. 




Can you see the bird? 

If I crop it in you can make it out...kind of.


It wasn't that great a look. We waited, and luckily the bird eventually flew closer and I got the shot below. If it had hung around longer I could have played with the camera setting to get a better shot but, wow, what a cool bird. Look at that honkin' huge beak!




It was our last day of birding in Texas and I was happy to have added 8 more lifers. I never thought I would cap it off with an Amazon Kingfisher.

In the final tally I saw 155 species of birds in 7 days of birding.  Forty-eight of them were lifer species I'd never seen before. It was a fabulous trip and I can't wait to go back.




Rio Grande Valley Day Six: Sabal Palm Sanctuary

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, October 13, 2014
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This is part six of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

I haven't posted much lately but realizing I am coming up on the one year anniversary of my trip to Texas made me get on here to finish this series up. Let's pick up where we left off.

Day Six:

I had a goal for Day Six. As we chatted about the day and wondered where to go I was sure we should hit up Sable Palm Sanctuary.

People had recommended we hit up Sabal Palm Sanctuary and the descriptions of habitat and species looked good. Sabal Palms Sanctuary is home to a large stand of old growth Sabal Palms. Locals had warned us that the birding here just wasn't as good as it used to be after the building of "The Wall." In our xenophobia we've been busy building a giant wall between parts of Mexico and Texas. It doesn't actually keep anyone out since it isn't a complete wall that covers the whole border. All it does is makes people cross somewhere else, or, you know, buy a ladder. We visited plenty of other sites along the Rio Grande where crossing the border would take nothing more than a quick short swim.

The Wall
We were greeted by a pair of Chichuanan ravens as soon as we drove in. This was a good sign and we were happy to see them since they are no longer hanging out at the Brownsville dump.


Excited about ravens before we even hit the parking lot, we hit up the feeding station at the small visitor's center. The birds were plentiful. I also realized as I sat there watching the emending parade of birds that I had seen this feeder set-up before. The Sabal Palm Sanctuary has a web-cam set up on the feeders and I had watched this webcam months earlier. Seeing all these amazing birds on the webcam on a cold boring day in Minnesota was one of the things that had encouraged me to visit the Rio Grande Valley. Here's the live feed right now:


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

While we did see new birds, one of the great things was to get better looks at birds we had already seen.

Clay-colored Thrush (a.k.a. Clay-colored Robin)

We had previously gotten a not very good look at a Clay-colored Thrush while chasing another bird earlier in the week. It was wonderful to get such a better look. We also got a better look at the Black-crested Titmouse and White-tipped Dove.


Black-crested Titmouse


White-tipped Dove

We also got a good look at a bathing Olive Sparrow. We had tried to find one earlier in the week at Estero with no luck. 

Olive Sparrow taking a bath


The highlight for me was this Yellow-throated Warbler. I was a lifer and beautiful!

Breathtaking Yellow-throated Warbler.

At some point, all of the birds disappeared from the feeders when this Red-shouldered Hawk showed up. 

Red-whouldered Hawk

We yet again failed to see a chachalaca though I had seen one at Sabal Palm on the webcam back in Minnesota. Oh we'll. Sabal Palm wasn't just a feeder stake out. We also explored and hiked around the site. I even happened upon a beautiful and endangered Texas Indigo Snake.

There are a number of blinds set up at Sabal Palm. We didn't see a lot of species from them but I imagine at times they are great spots for seeing birds. Here, Erik is checking out the Resaca Blind. Erik was so taken with Texas that he moved down there to take a job with Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center.

Erik in his native habitat

We were able to see these incredibly adorable grebe chicks from the blind.


We also got good views of this Green Kingfisher from the Resaca blind.



Here are the new birds for the trip I added at Sabal Palms Sanctuary.

Red-Shouldered Hawk
Sandhill Crane
White-eyed Vireo
Chihuahuan Raven
Carolina Wren
Yellow-throated Warbler
Olive Sparrow

All told, we saw 35 species at Sabal Palms including the White-eyed Vireo. Everyone else on the trip had seen several of them and it was starting to be a bit of a nemesis bird for me. I kept missing them, including at a gas station while I was loading up on treats inside.

There were lots of other birders at Sabal Palms on official field trips for the festival. I'm not a birding by bus kind of guy and while I'm sure the tour leaders were great and I'm sure they saw tons of birds, I much prefer to bird in a small quiet group at my own pace.

We finished off Sabal Palms Sanctuary by noon and I was feeling pretty good.

At this point in the week, seven new species for the trip by noon was a great accomplishment. Four of them had been lifers for me so I was even more elated.

We hit up our first gas station tacos for lunch informing Kelly that her reputation was on the line since she had raved about them. They were not bad though without adding on loads of extras they were completely devoid of flavor or spice. We should not have taken advice from the one and only Texan who cannot stand spicy food. Still, you cannot argue with the speed and price. We were in,  out, fed, and back on the road with a half day of birding ahead of us.

Where to next? There were rumors of a Prairie Falcon hanging out north of Harlingen. Another new species anyone? It would be our sixth species of falcon for the trip and a lifer. We'd already seen Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Aplomado and Peregrine. What were we waiting for?

We hit the roads and headed north following directions on the BirdsEye app. We saw lots of birds on the wires but no Prairie falcon. Kelly had caught wind that we were headed for the falcon so she drove out to intercept us and try to see it too.

After a little driving around we decided to try a side road and sure enough, there was a raptor perched on the power lines.

We slowly crept up and then scoped it from a safe distance. Sure enough, Prairie Falcon.

Prairie Falcon


What a cool bird to see. Kelly ended up pulling up behind us right as we found it and she got a look too. We found 13 other species while looking for the falcon but none of them were new for the trip. The prairie Falcon was our 145 species of bird for the trip.

It had been a great day of birding but there was a problem. I'd been birding with a pair of Vortex binoculars and the hinge had developed a crack while down in Texas. It wasn't from being treated rough, it had to be a manufacturing defect. I knew of one other pair from the same batch that had developed the same crack. Since I was at the festival and knew that Vortex/Eagle Optics had a booth there I decided to swing by to see what they could do. I showed them to the rep on hand and he looked at them with interest. He had heard of this happening to a few pairs before. He flexed them back and forth a few times and then proceeded to snap them in half. He said something like, "Well, can't be using these can you?" He then reached under the table and pulled out a box with the brand new version of my binoculars and handed them over no questions asked. This is what a lifetime warranty looks like folks. I'm very happy with my binoculars and I know they will be backed up for years to come.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of the series. We ended with one of the greatest days of the trip.

Amazing Heron Video

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, July 15, 2014
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Those of you who follow the Twin Cities Naturalist page on Facebook may have already seen the video below I shared it there yesterday. If you are not already following on Facebook you can follow this link and click on "like."

This video was taken by Jessie Garza out in Washington state. It has been shared over 1,000 times so far as it is truly amazing. Great Blue Herons are opportunistic feeders and will take food where they can get it. Be sure to watch the whole video!


Backswimmers Bite

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, July 7, 2014
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I took my first job as a naturalist about 17 years ago. I was a summer seasonal at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township, Minnesota. I learned many valuable things that summer but one of the first was a staple of the naturalist trade; Dip netting. 

Take a group of kids down to a lake or pond, scoop around with nets from the shore or dock and empty the contents into kitchen tubs, cool whip containers or whatever you can find. 

The exact mechanics might vary a bit from program-to-program or nature center to nature center. Sometimes we were just looking see what was there. Sometimes we would sort all the macro invertebrates we would find, putting predators in one, tub scavengers in another and decomposers in yet another. In one of my favorite versions, we would sort the animals into small tubs by species, with the kids doing all the identifying, and then tally up the results and look at population dynamics. There are many variations but in the 17 summers, springs and falls I've done dip netting there's always been backswimmers. 

I learned what backswimmers are the very first time I went dip netting. They are one of the more common critters we find.  They are a little less than a centimeter long, swim on their back and use long oar like legs to propel themselves through the water. 

I've seen more than a few backswimmers  in my life. I conservatively estimate I've done somewhere around 510 dip netting programs in the last 17 years. That works out to somewhere around 15,300 students. 

I've scooped backswimmers into buckets, I move them around with spoons and screens, I've had hundreds of kids doing the same.

This weekend though, I learned. something new about backswimmers, they can bite! 

Why didn't anyone ever tell me this? Does everyone else know that backswimmers can bite and I somehow missed this bit of information? How did no backswimmer ever bite one of those 15,000 school kids? 

 I was doing a dip netting program this weekend and wanted to show the public a little backswimmer scurrying around inside a kitchen tub placed on the dock. Some folks had arrived late at the drop-in program and I wanted to catch them up on what we'd been seeing. I used my hand to try the scoop up the little innocent looking backswimmer or maybe just make a little pool in my palm so it could swim around and people could get a good look. The backswimmer did not appreciate my hands-on pedagogical technique. 

I felt a pinch on my pinky finger and quickly pulled my hand out of the water. "Ouch," I said, "I think he just bit me!"

I was quite surprised as I had absolutely no idea they could bite. I was also not ready for what happened next. Instead of the pain going away as I would expect from a tiny pinch from a tiny bug, it got worse and worse. A strong burning sensation spread through my finger as though I had been stung by a paper wasp. 

I saw this as a great personal learning opportunity so here is what I have learned. 

Backswimmers are in the insect order Hemiptera making them "true bugs." True bugs are those insects with piercing mouth parts. Yup, sounds right. They are in the family Notonectidae. 

I'd love to tell you the genus and species of the one that bit me but there are 400 species worldwide and many can only be identified by experts examining differences in the male's genitalia under a microscope. I'll pass on that endevour. 

The reason the bite hurts so much has to do with the hunting technique of the backswimmer. They catch prey with their legs and quickly pierce their skin or exoskeleton with their sharp beak. The backswimmer injects digestive enzymes and other chemicals into the animal which paralyze it and begin to dissolve the insides into goo. Once nice and juicy inside, the backswimmer can suck the prey dry. The enzymes are irritating and burn like the sting of a wasp. 

So, there you go. Backswimmers have a very nasty bite. If 15,000 kids over 17 years managed to not get bitten though you must need to really tick them off to get bitten. 

Must be my lucky day. So far my insides have not liquified. 

Lily-leaved Twayblade Orchid

Posted by Kirk Mona Sunday, June 22, 2014
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While training a volunteer in on plant survey techniques in the prairie at Lowry Nature Center, natural resources staff found a rare orchid. I headed out to look myself and was able to snap this photo.

This is the lily-leaved Twayblade orchid. I was trying to find more info on it online but was initially stumped as I only knew the common name "Twayblade orchid". There are quite a number of plants that go by the name Twayblade orchid and most of them are in the genus Neottia. I searched around the read up on the genus but nothing seemed to match what you see in the photo.

It turns out this is what is commonly called the Lily-leaved Twayblade and it is in a completely different genus. The scientific name of this orchid is Liparis liliifolia. Note that "lilifolia" literally means "lily-leaved." I prefer this common name over some others for that reason. It is less confusing. That's the problem with common makes though, they hold no sway and you can make up your own if you really want to. Some other common names of this plant are Brown Widelip Orchid, Large Twayblade, Purple Twayblade, and Mauve Sleekwort. How's that for confusing? Want to make it more confusing? The reason I had trouble finding the exact species is that the Neottia genus are in deed the "twayblades" while the Liparis genus comprise the "false twayblades".

Okay, so do we call this False Lily-leaved Twayblade? No, that would imply that there is a true Lily-leaved twayblade in the Neottia genus. How about Lily-leaved False Twayblade? That's probably better and more accurate but a mouth full. You can see why scientists and botanists simply stick to Liparis liliifolia.

This particular plant or patch of plants is particularly interesting when you consider this map from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This map shows which counties have recorded occurrences of Liparis liliifolia.

 

Liparis liliifolia has never been recorded in Carver County before making this discovery a county record.

Why is it called a Red-Bellied Woodpecker?

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, June 3, 2014
2 Comments

As I show birds to kids I often get a question about red-bellied woodpeckers. It's not so much a question has a statement, they usually say, "Hey look, a red-headed woodpecker!"

While it is technically possible for a Red-headed woodpecker to show up where I work, this isn't what they are seeing. Invariably, they have pointed out a Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

It is an easy mistake to make. The birds are large, conspicuous, and sport a very red stripe down the back of the head. Red-headed woodpecker would be a great name for this bird if it wasn't already taken by this beauty.
 

Melanerpes-erythrocephalus-003


The bird above is the red-headed woodpecker. As you can see, the whole of the head is a deep red and the belly is clean white. The bird below is a red-bellied woodpecker. I took this photo toward the end of the winter. As you can see, the red is only on the back of the head. It isn't an award winning photo by any means but I wanted to share it as you can clearly see the "red belly" as the bird is feeding off a tray feeder.


 
This seems like a terrible name for a bird. They mostly feed while keeping their belly pushed up against a tree which hides the field mark they are named after. Keep in mind though, that while we study birds today with binoculars, they were primarily studied with guns in the past. Ornithologists would go out in the field, shoot birds, and then study them later in hand. It seems awfully strange to us today but especially before high quality binoculars and spotting scopes existed, shooting the birds really was the best way to identify and learn more about them. The red-bellied woodpecker, and others like the ring-necked duck, have names that are hold-overs from a time when birds were best studied post-mortem and in the hand. Remember, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
 
What bird names have you always thought were puzzling?
 
~Kirk

Partial Leucistic Rose-brested Grosbeak

Posted by Kirk Mona Friday, May 9, 2014
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Spring migration is one of my favorite times of the year. On Wednesday, I added 10 new birds to my year list of birds. Thursday I added six more and then today, Friday, I added an additional 11 birds. They just keep coming and it makes it a fun time of year.

One of the birds I look forward to seeing every year is the Rose-brested Grosbeak. People sometimes ask about the name, Grosbeak is derived from the french grosbec. Gros is simply old French for large. The moniker sure fits these beautiful birds.

While at the Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center this morning I checked out the feeders to see what was there. There were numerous Rose-brested Grosbeaks but one caught my eye.

This is a female, though her coloration is aberrant. She is exhibiting partial leucism which I have written about before in other species. Leucism is distinct from Albinism.

Albinism is the total lack of pigment in the body. An albino bird would have all white feathers, pink legs and pink eyes. A leucistic bird has regular colored eyes and legs and the feathers are either paler or they have white patches. The cells of a leucistic bird are damaged and cannot make the pigment necessary for the coloration of some of their feathers. Only the affected cells are white and leucism only affects feathers, which is why the legs and eyes remain the correct color. In contrast, albino birds lack the pigment melanin in all of their cells so their eyes and legs are also not the normal color. Albinism is systemic, affecting the whole body so you cannot have a partial albino.

The partial leucistic grosbeak is interesting. You can see the breast still retains some of the yellowish-orange wash of a female but there is extra white, especially on the head and back.