Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Along the Border: Some Reflections

The border wall at Southmost Nature Preserve, Brownsville, where the preserve is entirely behind the wall.

Birds have wings, not passports, but birders play by the rules of our society and of our pastime.  Which means, by the listing rules of the American Birding Association, that Mexican birds are not countable unless they are on "our side."  This is the parochial part of our particular game, of course, but it also echoes entrenched political debates on immigration.  Rivers are not arbitrary boundaries, particularly in south Texas, where both sides of the river depend on the Rio Grande/Bravo for irrigation and drinking water, and are bound by a shared history.  Like people, birds depend on the long riparian corridor defined by this river, and so it is that in late fall every year over 800 birders descend on Harlingen, TX to look at birds along the border as part of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (which is only one of the local nature festivals throughout the year).

The resources of time and money that enable these festivals are no small reason for the economic growth of this region that is fueling strong migration (and the drug trade) across the river.  Across the entire US/Mexico border clandestine immigration is at an all-time low, except for the counties in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, especially Hidalgo County, where the number of people crossing has put huge strains on border enforcement.  One particular pressure point is a horse-shoe bend in the river below Mission, TX where two parks face each other across the riverine border: on the US side is Anzalduas Park, and on the Mexican side is La Playita, a small beach and picnicking area.

Anzalduas Park.  On the peninsula within the bend of the river is La Playita, nearly wiped out by Hurricane Alex in 2010.  All that remains of the original outline of the peninsula is a small island on the inside of the bend.  Every time the banks recede the international line is redrawn.  My eBird point for a observations during a boat ride above and below the park is apparently in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Anzalduas Park is a lovely grove of live oak and ash trees, and is renowned as a reliable place to see both Zone-Tailed Hawk and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, our smallest flycatcher.  On the sunny afternoon I visited and found both birds, families on both sides of the river were cooking, playing with their kids, playing the same music, and enjoying the warmth after two cold days of rain. Kinglets and warblers zipped through the trees and all manner of flycatchers perched on snags and wires.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Anzalduas Park
As I was strolling by a family preparing a picnic, all speaking Spanish, the man called me over and asked (in excellent English) where I was from and whether I kept track of all the birds I see.  He had read a number of news articles about rare birds, had heard of the Festival, and was really interested in the protection of ocelots.  He offered me a beer and we chatted about the park and the change in weather.  I forgot for awhile that the the only things different about these parks from any others were the river, of course, and the two Border Patrol SUVs patrolling the perimeter road; the Sheriff's Department SUV criss-crossing the park; a Border Patrol boat tethered up river; the huge surveillance installation at the bend in the river; and this permanent line of State Police cruisers at the ready.

Anzalduas Park, Mission TX

Surveillance unit, Rio Grande River, Mission TX
Depending on your politics, these images are reassuring or not, but as always nothing is so simplistic as political ideology where real people and local context are taken into account.  While enjoying the sunshine (and the smell of carnitas wafting across the river from Mexico), I heard loud music and a DJ floating around the bend.

The Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) tour boat is a fixture here (I've seen photos and videos sprinkled across the web), and was rather nicer than the tour boat I took a few days earlier to see birds.  I show this for its poignant mixture of national pride—with a stirring soundtrack celebrating Mexico—and recognition of this place and its many layers of importance.  The DJ is talking about how the recent floods had reshaped this bend in the river, and as the boat turns the bend, he says "and here, for those of you who believe in our saints, is our Patron Saint of Immigrants and Floods, which we placed in the middle of the river to remember them."  More stirring music follows as the boat makes a crisp turn around the small floating statue, and then the DJ turns to Anzalduas Park, "in the great state of Texas, United States," and specifically notes that it is famous as a preserve for birds.  As the boat trails by, we see the flags of both Mexico and the United States.  The saint remains, rocking on her little platform, facing the US boat ramp where, a few minutes later, a massive, black Texas Highway Patrol boat is pulled out of the water.

For various perspectives on Anzalduas and the migrant wave of 2014, see articles in The LA Times,  Texas Monthly, Huffington Post, and The New Republic. On birding the park, see the excellent photo tour by David and Jan Dauphin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Texas, Day 7: How Ani lost her Groove

Cacti, Hugh Ramsey Park, Harlingen
With a mid-afternoon flight, I had another morning to play with so I managed to get to the SPI Convention Center by 7, expecting to see a number of birders looking for the continuing Groove-Billed Ani.  There was no one. Not another birder until 8:30, but by then it seemed pretty clear that either the Ani had vacated over night or they were lying low until the raucous band of Red-Winged Blackbirds finally left.  But after they did, still nothing.  So, we walked the boardwalk, scoped the Roseate Spoonbills and many shorebirds (including 21 Marbled Godwits) on the mudflats before calling it.

There is a lesson in the fact that I dedicated two afternoons and part of a morning to just a few species, and my readers can draw their own conclusions about the wisdom of chasing rarities when you have limited time on a birding holiday.

Leaving SPI my goal was an inlet and boat ramp on TX-48 between Port Isabel and Brownsville, just off the shipping channel with the mellifluous hotspot name of Shrimp Basin Bridge / Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp / San Martín Lake Outlet. I had spotted an astonishing eBird report from there before the festival and vowed to visit it if I could.  I will let my report speak for itself:

TX48- Shrimp Basin Bridge / Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp/ San Martin Lake outlet, Cameron, US-TX
Nov 10, 2014 10:45 AM - 11:20 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments:     Massive roost of gulls, terns, and shorebirds all hunkered down in a stiff wind. Edited to add: Reviewed photo evidence and added several species not noticed in scoping and corrected some tern numbers.
32 species (+1 other taxa)

Neotropic Cormorant  2
Double-crested Cormorant  2
American White Pelican  X
Brown Pelican  20
Great Egret  2
Snowy Egret  1
Tricolored Heron  1
Osprey  1
Black-necked Stilt  30     counted, and likely more tucked into other wind breaks in the marsh
American Avocet  8
American Oystercatcher  1
Black-bellied Plover  20
Snowy Plover  2
Semipalmated Plover  2
Willet (Western)  66
Ruddy Turnstone  2
Sanderling  2
Semipalmated Sandpiper  6
Long-billed Dowitcher  5
Laughing Gull  150
Franklin's Gull  1     picked out among roosting gulls and terns in photos
Ring-billed Gull  100
Herring Gull  20
Caspian Tern  12
Forster's Tern  4
Royal Tern  8
Sandwich Tern  1     picked out among roosting gulls and terns in photos
Black Skimmer  99     counted, give or take a few
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  X
Barn Swallow  X
American Pipit  1
Western/Eastern Meadowlark  4     singing
House Sparrow  X

Black-Necked Stilts with American Avocets. Everything tall was hunkered down behind wind breaks or lined up bills to the wind.

Black Skimmers with assorted Caspian and Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls, and one Franklin's tucked in.

Terns and Black Skimmers
Prickly Pear, Hugh Ramsey Park, Harlingen
After that extravaganza I happily headed home to Massachusetts.  This was a very memorable trip, and I can see why many birders come year after year (whether they are festival junkies or not) for the sheer pleasure of seeing so many birds so easily, and the hope of finally seeing the hard ones, some day.

Hasta Luego, Texas!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Texas, Day 6: Chasing Cinnamon Teal (and Zone-Tailed Hawk)

The sun is still a novelty.  Today's field trip was to Estero Llano Grando State Park, which I visited a few evenings ago (in the rain) to see the Common Pauraque (and much else).  Estero features some stunning wetland impoundments which are controlled for shorebird or fall/winter duck migration.  Additionally (as our guide explained to us) they cut back the reeds in sections to promote new growth and provide birders with an opportunity to see rails dart across these openings.  Now, why don't we do that that Great Meadows NWR?

The group on the bus today was tired, and perhaps because this trip was labeled as appropriate for beginners, there were many birders who had not seen the basic species.  So, the going was a little slow, but our guide knew what was where, and we saw some juvenile Least Grebe, a single Cinammon Teal (which took some time to find and show everyone), Yellow Crowned Night Heron, White-Faced Ibis, and many, many ducks (including some Ring-Necks!).  Once we got the the "Tropical Zone" in the former trailer park, the passerine birding was a little slow.  Nonetheless, this is one of my favorite destinations this week.  Now, birds get all the attention here, but the valley is a pre-emiment butterly destination, and a major Code 5 butterly was being seen in the parking lot.  Two of our guides were in fact primarily butterfliers, and there was some excitement about getting back to the parking lot to see this very rare creature.  Tropical Duskywing has apparently only been recorded in the US about 5 times (remind you of ABA Rare reports?).

Tropical Duskywing (aka Common Blue-vent)
 With a total of nearly 80 species, Estero was much as I had imagined most of the Valley locations in terms of species variety, but what makes this park extraordinary are the wetlands, and this should be your main reason to go there.

After the rain-soaked debacle that was Wednesdays trip to Anzalduas Park, I vowed to return, so I dedicated the afternoon to driving there and trying for its specialties, Northern-Beardless Tyrannulet and Zone-Tailed Hawk.  Now bear in mind that there is a certain psychology to looking for specific species; that is, if you desire them, you will tend to find them, despite evidence to the contrary.  Which is why my two readers will be skeptical when they hear that in fact I succeeded.  After chasing groups of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers and Orange-Crowned Warblers, I suddenly heard a very distinctive, high-pitched, plaintive "teeee ..... teeee."  I chased this bird for 30 minutes between four ebony trees before it stopped calling, but although I was never able to spot it, I will have to call it my "life" Tyrannulet.  The whole thing about life sightings/hearings is that you have to get them right the second time; that is the deal you make to list it the first time.

As for hawks, I picked through numerous kettles of mixed Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Red-Shoulder (two of them), and Grey Hawk (one, looking very out of place kettling with big black birds).  After an hour and a half of searching I gave up and went to the back of the park to look at warblers (some Black-Throated Greys had been reported in this area).  Suddently, a dark raptor cruised over the park from the south, alone, and I looked up and saw this.

Zone-Tailed Hawk, Anzalduas Park, Mission, TX
Zone-Tailed typically uses the cover of flying with Turkey Vultures, as it shares the distinctive contrast of light light flight feathers and dark coverts.  Except for a distinct white band on its tail and more pointed wings.

Now that sighting was nice, but you know what was nicest?  When searching for warblers I spotted two birds foraging side-by-side.  One was obviously a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, but the larger bird by it was largely yellow with a black back and hood.  Lesser Goldfinch, a bird I had despaired of ever seeing and having to assume I had "seen" in fly-over flocks of finches.

 I left Anzalduas in time to get back to Harlingen in time for a presumably reliable roost of Red-Crowned Parrots.  Except that this evening they did not roost on the lines by Calvary Baptist Church of Harlingen, and a drive through all the surrounding blocks did not turn them up.  Ah, well.

Tomorrow I leave Harlingen on a 2:30 flight, which means I have a full morning, so I am going to return to South Padre Island to try again at the Convention center for the rare birds showing there, among them some Groove-Billed Ani.

For those counting, my trip to Texas has netted 48 new birds and 162 species encountered.  Let's see what tomorrow brings!

Texas, Days 4 and 5: Beyond the Wall

I apologize to my two faithful readers for not posting a report yesterday.  After two days of nearly constant rain, I was exhausted and demoralized, but the sunrise today was greeted with hurrahs on the bus as we headed toward a preserve just beyond the (in)famous border fence.

But first, a recap of yesterday's trips.  The morning trip to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park is generally one of the highlights of the festival, as this destination is perhaps the most storied of the birding hotspots in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  A big park with a system of roads, it is sprinkled with small parks with feeding stations, plentiful bathrooms, bird blinds, and the famous two story hawk platform, from which you can see well into Mexico.

The fabulous hawk platform at Bentsen-Rio Grande, from which I saw my lifer White-Tailed Kite
We were greeting at Bentsen by Javier, the terrific Park Ranger, with this doubly memorable line: "bathrooms are on the left, Black Phoebe is on the right of the drain pipe."  As it was pouring, we walked around the covered walkways looking at a few hummingbirds, then ventured out into the drizzle for a short walk, during which it actually stopped raining for much of rest of our time there.

Highlights were the White-Tailed Kite, a Black-Chinned hummer, a White Eyed Vireo, and four lovely Altamira Orioles.  The slight improvement in the weather put up some raptors, and we had some Crested Cara-Caras and a White-Tailed Hawk.  Not a good day by which to judge this great park.

On our return, I headed to the small Frontera Audubon property in nearby Weslaco to chase a reported Tropical Parula.  Over two hours of chasing a mixed migrant flock did not turn up the Parula.  Did I mention it was raining again?  In any case, Frontera Audubon is a gem; not as glamorous as Quinta Mazatlan, which I visited today, but deserving its reputation as a hotspot for good birds.

Yesterday was saved by a bird I decided to try for in my remaining time.  Frontera Audubon is very near Estero Llano Grande (where I am going with a group on Sunday), and Common Pauraque were apparently staked out.  So, after a muddy slog, I found all the photographers, and three of these:

No, not Jabba the Hutt but a Common Pauraque

Today (the 8th of November) dawned ... almost dry!  The goal was the Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve, which as its name suggests, is literally the south-most  point in Texas.  The Preserve contains a small stand of the nearly eradicated Sabal Palm, but features a grapefruit grove and a large marsh, hedge-rows, and riparian habitat.  After two solid days of rain, and the tromping of the group the day before, the trails were sodden and goopy, and we got very muddy.  But it was birdy indeed, with a Franklin's Gull seen from the bus, a fly-over Wood Stork, Vermilion Flycatchers, a rare Blue Grosbeak, a juvvie Gray Hawk, my life Loggerhead Shrike, and a Groove-Billed Ani seen only by the other half of the group.  You see, the leaders typically split the group into two and follow separate routes, and the leaders were not in communication, so our group found out about the Ani only when we all met back at the bus.  Now, many of us spent a great deal of money to see rare birds like the Ani, so the "sorry" we got on the bus rankled a bit.  There is nice little feature on smart phones called texting, folks:  use it, and give participants the option to chase a bird or stick with the main group.

Our trip continued down the famous Boca Chica road, lined with excellent raptor habitat and power lines.  Many Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers, Kestrels, shrikes, meadowlarks.  Boca Chica Beach itself was a little underwhelming, with a few Forster's Terns and a Royal Tern, Sanderlings, and one Ruddy Turnstone looking a little out of place.  The surprise (for me at least) was a long string of Surf Scoters which only I and one of the leaders saw.

This afternoon I chased another Tropical Parula report, along with many other people, and also came up empty.  As I mentioned earlier, I went to the lovely Quinta Mazatlan property in McAllen, surrounded by stately palms and manicured carefully for events like the wedding photos being staged in one photogenic area.  Suffice to say, no Parula seen, but a couple of really nice photo opportunities with which I will leave you (including the Curve-Billed Thrasher I have put on the masthead today).

Plain Chachalaca reaching up for berries.  Just after this shot it leapt for some high berries and fell off its perch. Wierd, but oddly amusing birds.

Great Kiskadee.  Loud and flamboyant.

White-winged Dove.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Texas, Day 3: Rio Bravo and Anzalduas Park

Over the past week Anzalduas Park has been the site of repeated Zone-Tailed Hawk and Hook-Billed Kite sightings, so expectations were high.  But the weather had other things in mind, and it rained all day.

The Border Wall/Levee at Anzalduas.  The weather did not improve from this.
Fortunately for us, the first part of today's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival Trip was a pelagic of sorts: a tour of the riverine borderland that is the Rio Bravo/Grande.  And our pontoon boat had a roof, so we remained fairly dry the first 2 hours as we drove slowly up and down to Anzalduas Dam.

As a constant reminder of where we were and the politics at stake, we saw plenty of border control presence.

Highlights were a Gray Hawk flying across the river in front of the boat (where I was), numerous Green Kingfishers, and several Black Phoebes hanging out at docks and railings.

Folks, this is what is called a record shot, not photography.  Black Phoebe on a boat ramp railing.
Once we got to Azalduas Park after the boat ride, it became clear that we were going to get very wet. Hope of a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet waned as we got wetter and wandered around between heavy downpours.  Aside from a pocket of Orange-Crowned Warblers, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and Black Crested Titmice, we found no Tyrannulet.  Our consolation was the cacophony of twenty of these:

Great Kiskadee
The rare bird of the day was actually—hold onto your hats—House Finch.  Rare everywhere in the Valley, for some reason they are regular here at Anzalduas.  I even took pictures.

Tomorrow the forecast is for continuing, but perhaps gradually tapering rain.  The weekend, mercifully, looks promising.

Texas, Day 2: Laguna Atascosa and South Padre Island

My goals for today were to get to Laguna Atascosa NWR at dawn and spend half the day there before working my way down the coast to South Padre Island.  Perhaps it was the impending front, and its sticky, gloomy leading edge, but Atascosa was not quite what I had hoped for.   The Visitor's Center (which I knew would be closed today) seems very overgrown and featured (at least today) primarily Green Jays (not that I am complaining!), Chachalacas, Long-Billed Thrashers, and the ubiquitous Great-Tailed Grackles, which are simply everywhere. I worked the area, including doing the Kiskadee Trail twice, but didn't come up with much except a nice sight of my lifer flyover Scissor-Tailed.  But I am growing fond of these thrashers, which have proven quite photogenic.

The Osprey Overlook is, I am sure, fabulous in winter, but even now the number of Coots and especially Redheads was amazing: perhaps 400 of the former, at least 2000 of the latter.  With the Bayside Trail continuing closed to protect Ocelots, and Alligator Pond also closed, there wasn't much more to do than drive back down Buena Vista slowly looking for goodies on the wires.  And there were!  Twenty Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers all lined up.

Count 'em: 20 Scissor-Tails

Leaving the Refuge, I continued south on Buena Vista Road into prime Aplomado Falcon territory, hoping perhaps I might get lucky.  Then BOOOM!  A medium-sized falcon explodes across the road chasing something I never saw.  I stopped and got onto it, long enough to see its long, narrow wings and uniform grayish color.  Hardly the lifer look I hope for, but I'll take it.  A few hundred yards later I finally saw a White-Tailed Hawk.

After a very productive stop in Laguna Vista at a lagoon by a waste-water treatment plant (hundreds of Coots, two Black-Necked Stilts, two Avocets, and much more), I headed across Laguna Madre to South Padre Island.  After a quick bite of excellent Mexican at The Big Donkey, I first toured the boardwalk at The Birding and Nature Center, which is adjacent to the Convention Center.  The boardwalk crosses salt pannes and marsh and then the beach and into the bay, with photo blinds everywhere you want them.  It was especially fun shooting terns as they flew upwind.

Caspian Tern
Forster's Tern

Sandwich Tern
 But the highlight of this stop was finally seeing one of these:
Long-billed Curlew
Astonishingly, the thickets around the SPI Convention Center, which have been hosting a Blue Grosbeak and several rare warblers this week, were empty, leaving only hundred of terns and shorebirds to pick through, although I can't complain about seeing 20 Marbled Godwits!

One more stop at the Valley Land Fund Lots turned up an Inca Dove and my first legitimate Tropical Kingbird.

Tomorrow: a pontoon boat ride on the Rio Grande and a tour of Anzalduas State Park.  Zone-Tailed Hawk!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Texas, Day 1

I arrived in Texas 12:30 local time, got my rental, and headed immediately to Harlingen's premiere birding destination, Hugh Ramsey Park, one of the World Birding Center sites, and one of a series of birding sites along the Arroyo Colorado in Harlingen.

There is a good reason this park has earned a reputation as a reliable, and easily accessible destination for newbies like me.  It was 85* and humid and the middle of the afternoon; what could be going on? A lot, actually (certainly by New England birder standards).  Several Belted, two Green, and one huge, loud Ringed Kingfisher; numerous Harris Hawks; migrant warblers (including a Nashville along with many Orange-Crowned); a Curve-Billed Thrasher; and many, loud Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas; a showy Couch's Kingbird, and several Buff-Bellied Hummers.  I was hoping this would be a good introduction to some of the local specialties, and it did not disappoint.  Here is my list for the afternoon:

Hugh Ramsey Park eBird List 11/4 1:25-4:10

I took a few pictures, but wish I'd taken the Canon.

Buff-Bellied Hummingbird, Hugh Ramsey Park/Arroyo Colorado

Buff-Bellied Hummingbird, Hugh Ramsey Park/Arroyo Colorado

You know what it is. Hugh Ramsey Park/Arroyo Colorado

Plain Chachalaca. Hugh Ramsey Park/Arroyo Colorado
Tomorrow is an early start for Laguna Atascosa NWR and then several stops along the way to South Padre Island.  Stay tuned.