Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rio Grande Valley Day Four: Double Dipping

Posted by Kirk
This is part four of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

Many people have been asking me, "Where's day four?" The truth is that I've written this post three times now. Twice it was somehow deleted by the computer. That sort of sucks the will to write out of you for a while. Now on to the birds!

Wednesday morning we awoke bright and early, excited about another amazing day of birding. It was to be just Tony and Curt with me as Erik was off setting up his booth at the Rio Grande Birding Festival. I should probably point out that while I've been talking about all this birding being part of the festival, it really hasn't been. The Festival runs Wed-Mon but we were birding Sunday-Sunday. The festival hadn't even started yet and we'd been out seeing all kinds of great birds.We were at 116 for the trip so far.

Tuesday had been a wonderful day of birding on South Padre Island but now I was ready to go chase the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. It would be a lifer for me and a great one too as they are not a bird commonly seen.

We headed down to Port Isabel in the morning and then planned to work our way up 48 to Brownsville. This was a waste of time. The maps looked good but 48 was pretty devoid of both places to stop and birds. When we got to Brownsville we turned onto "Boca Chica Boulevard" and headed toward the last known location of the flycatcher.

If you want to picture where this is, think about the shape of Texas and where it comes to a point at the bottom where it meets with both the gulf and Mexico. That's where this road goes. We were headed into the Boca Chica Unit of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area. The whole southern side of the WMA is the boarder which here is also the Rio Bravo River.

There were certainly plenty of birds and we tallied them up while slowly driving down the road trying to figure out where the flycatcher had been seen. I was trying to cross reference the BirdsEye app on my phone with the google map showing our current GPS location. The maps differed a bit so it was tricky but we eventually made it to the correct spot.

Along the way we saw our first Altimira Orioles of the trip.

Altimira Oriole at Boca Chica

We also spooked up several coveys of Northern Bobwhite along the roads. These were nice as they were a sort-of lifer. I'd seen one in Minnesota before at my work at the nature center but I am 99.9% sure it was a bird that had escaped from a game farm.

At the flycatcher spot, we drove around for a while, parked for a while, drove, parked, waited, scanned, waited more. It was early in the morning and the resident Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were all perching low. We carefully looked at each and every one of them. Alas, no fork-tailed. There were plenty of mockingbirds to rub it in. Had we waited to long? Should we have come yesterday like we planned?

After an hour or so of searching we decided to head down to the end of the road. It leads though some good shorebird habitat then out to the beach. Along the way at a good shorebird spot we passed a car and Curt said, "Hey, I think that's Kelly!" He pulled over, leaving the car mostly on the road as birders do, and started to walk back to the car behind us. Sure enough, it was Kelly. Curt and Erik had met her at the festival last year.

She gave us all kinds of tips and suggestions for birding the rest of our trip. While Curt and Kelly were chatting about last year, Tony and I set up a scope and got to work IDing shorebirds. There were many we'd already seen but we were able to tease out a lone Black-bellied Plover. There were also an impressive 200 American Avocets hanging out in a group.

We told Kelly we'd see her later at the opening party that evening and headed down to the end of the road. At the beach I added a lifer Ruddy Turnstone along with a handful of gulls and terns for our Texas list.

We decided to take one more crack at the flycatcher so we turned around and headed to the spot. We weren't hopeful. We'd left our phone number with birders who were staked out and no one had called us. We pulled up just as all of the other cars were leaving. Nothing had been seen. Just after the last car left a lone flycatcher flew up to the exact spot it had been seen on Tuesday. Could it have returned to roost now that everyone was gone?

We slowly rolled a little closer and using the car as a blind looked a the features of the bird. We started to get excited. Some of the field marks were a match. "That's it! That's it!" someone exclaimed. I wasn't convinced. The day had worn on and the sun had risen higher in the hazy sky. The lighting was terrible. I was pretty sure the head was grey not black. We took a couple of photos and then drove closer to reveal that it was, in fact, a simple Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I think we just wanted it to be the Fork-tailed too much.

It would be easy to say the morning had been a bust. We'd birded the area for three hours and not seen the one bird we were really looking for. Everyone dipped on the flycatcher that day. No one saw it the rest of the week so we weren't the only ones. Most people out that day had just arrived for the opening of the festival. I had regrets about not going to look for it Tuesday, or Monday or even Sunday when I heard about it. Such is life.

I closed out my list on the BirdLog app and to my surprise we'd tallied 41 species in three hours. Considering at least an hour of that was dinking around looking for a non-existent bird it was more like 2 hours to get those birds. That's a different species every three minutes so I can't complain. I'd even added three lifers.

The list for the morning had been Northern Bobwhite, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Harris's Hawk, American Avocet, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Bonaparte's Gull, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Caspian Tern, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Tropical Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, House Wren, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Lark Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, and Altamira Oriole,

We decided to make up for our big dip in classic birder fashion by going to a garbage dump and missing everything we need there as well. "I told you so" probably seemed appropriate at this point. My birding buddies were hoping to see Chiuahuan Raven or Tamaulipas Crows at the dump. I already knew the two birds we wanted to see at the landfill probably wouldn't be there. The Bird's Eye app shows all sightings for a given location. The Brownsville Landfill may be the famous location for Ravens but according to the app it had been over a month since one had been seen there. I'd already double checked on this with our host Claire and she confirmed ahead of time that it had been well over a month since anyone had seen them there.

Still, hope springs eternal. We went birding at the dump. No dice. There were 11 species of birds there foraging though the detritus but not the species we were looking for. It was time to head back to Harlingen.

A small group of birds at the dump. Click to enlarge if you feel like IDing them all,
We checked in with Erik, got our badges and then had a little time for more birding before the opening night reception. Where to go? BirdsEye suggested Harlingen City Lake. Off we went. It was a nice little stop. We added three new species to the Texas list. Mallad Duck was one of them. How had we not seen a mallard yet? We also added Canvasback and a very nice Neotropic Cormorant. All told there were 17 species in the park including about 20 cute Least Sandpipers.

Neotropic Cormorants are smaller than Double-crested. Note the white on the face as well.

I was still feeling like we'd been burned by the lack of the Flycatcher and we needed to make up for it. Parrots were our last hope for the day. It was getting late and there were a couple of places where parrots roost in Harlingen. Armed with a map provided by the conference organizers, we set out.

We drove all around looking for the parrots at the spots marked with no luck. We looped back to where we'd stared, a church parking lot, and decided we we needed to wait. It was still too early for the parrots to roost. We set about killing time by updating checklists and discussing birds. We all had our noses buried in books or glued to our phones when all of a sudden I realized I was hearing a strange noise. I looked out the window and I shouted "Parrots!" We didn't have to find the parrot roost, they had found us. We'd parked right under the power lines the parrots had chosen to roost on. We watched as hundreds flew in and we got down to business taking photos.

Soon more birders were closing in on our location. Without planning it, Erik drove by and we flagged him in. We were soon joined by our birding friends Annette, Robert and Paula from Tuesday. We all scanned the birds and marveled at the noise. There were 160 Red-crowned Parrots. I don't remember who spotted it first but someone pointed out that a couple of the birds looked different. We took more photos and scanned all of the birds. Hidden in with all of the others were two Red-lored Parrots as well. Not too shabby!
Red-lorred Parrots in some really tough lighting.
With the sun setting and our birding done for the day we headed to the reception only to find that it wasn't where we thought it was. We drove around like lost birders do, wandered around inside a couple of buildings that were clearly not right, and finally found the spot.

It was good to meet other birders and officially kick off the festival. This brings us back full circle to me washing down owl cupcakes with wine.

We'd added 15 species to our trip list Wednesday. We'd already seen 131 species of birds, the festival had finally begun and we had three days left. The clock was ticking and a cold front was moving in.