Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Big Day

Well, not that big, but bigger than I had really expected. There ended up being three of us. The final numbers equated to 16 hours and 180 miles for 134 species. I don't think we ever settled on a team name, but the top contenders were "See Birds, Hear Birds, Drink Booze", "Ivory-billed or Bust", and something about a possum.

A Painted Bunting's song is as loud and stunning as its plumage.  Many were heard before they were seen.
I really hesitate to put this Mississippi Kite here for a couple reasons.  First, it's a shit picture.  But more importantly, I carry much shame with this bird.  Prior to yesterday, this was a bird I had never seen.  I have decided to fight through the embarrassment and derision, so as to provide myself as an inspiration for those of you who are hiding a ridiculously easy, yet-to-be-seen life bird.  Fear not, friends.  Everyone has their day.
Rock Wren is a one shot bird in Travis county.  An extra 30 seconds of patience provided us with this bird.  The patience did not come from me.
This being our first big day, there was a relatively steep learning curve. Here are some lessons that I will need to apply next year.

1. Time ended up running out faster than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated it moving pretty fucking quick. Not enough hours in the day.

2. Migrant passerines are unreliable and hellish. Sure, you could probably get good numbers of warblers, vireos, etc., but if you've got a uncooperative wind and a short amount of time for each spot, odds are you aren't going to clean up on these birds. We did not.

3. Everything is better in the morning. If we could have hit every spot that we hit for the day before 10am, we'd probably have another 10 or 15 birds. By the time we got to the east side of the county, we were missing easy, easy birds.  

Baird's Sandpiper was the sole consolation from a stop at Windy Point. 
The only Eastern Screech-Owl of the day was a 3 minute stop.  I've been informed that the bird's name is Francisco.
Barred Owl is relatively reliable in one spot.  This is one of three fledglings.
We had a solitary Solitary Sandpiper on the day.
That being said, we cleaned up pretty well on a good number of resident birds. There were definitely obvious and embarrassing misses, but we had some good birds that were iffy at best. While migrant passerines and ducks were kind of a bust, we had much better luck with raptors (10 sp.) and shorebirds (13 sp.). We pulled out 4 species of owl, an American Robin (tough bird, honestly), Greater Roadrunner, and both Chuck-will's-widow and Common Poorwill.

Killdeer was very effective at calling loudly enough to block out the songs of other birds we were looking for.
Semipalmated Sandpiper helped us get the "peep sweep."
Lesser Yellowlegs were more abundant that Greater, but on a big day, one is enough.

So, that was big day. Out of the 134 birds we saw, there was only one, Common Poorwill, that only 2 of us got. Best bird was a lone, female Greater Scaup. Green Kingfisher was pretty good as well. Worst miss was probably Osprey. Ridiculous. How do you miss Osprey? 

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Plea for Water Bird Karma

So, I'm doing a Travis County big day this coming weekend. There will be four of us. There will be coffee in the morning, and there will be whiskey on a rooftop in the evening (migrant flyovers). What there may not be much of are shorebirds/ducks/waders. I am disheartened and a bit frightened by this.

This Common Gallinule was photographed in Port Aransas.  I'm sure that there are one or two in my county right now, but to get it, I'd have to poach the bird from some good friends who are also doing a big day.  That would be bad juju; one notch below trying to touch a Yellow Rail (can you tell that I'm still not over this?)
I anticipate Blue-winged Teal.  I do not anticipate them giving me looks like this.
Or this.  Again, Port Aransas.
Black-necked Stilts should be around, but they were not at the most obvious spot when I scouted earlier in the week.  I'm concerned. 
I've accumulated many of these birds over the last few weeks, and I'm throwing them here now, in a desperate attempt to please whatever Bird Buddha watches over us all.  

Willet is a bird that will most definitely not be found on our big day.  I've seen a pair in the county, once.
I lucked into some pretty sick looks at this Stilt Sandpiper a couple weeks ago with Seagull Steve.
Here, our friend is preparing to charge.
In most years, I would expect this bird on our big day.  I don't feel that this year is like most years.
So, the reason for all the concern basically boils down to the water levels at "Austin's Premier Birding Locale" (my emphasis), Hornsby Bend. It's where they break down all the shit and turn it into compost and such. And of course, birds love shit. Unfortunately, water levels have been abnormally high, so there isn't much habitat for the kind of shorebirds and waders I'm looking for. I have no explanation for the lack of ducks this season.

Black-crowned Night-Heron is a bird I can count on.  I have faith in you.
The same goes for its Yellow-crowned cousin.
Least Sandpipers are the easiest sandpipers.  They are also getting to look pretty fucking dapper right about now.
Pectoral Sandpiper - If we don't see this bird, we should have our birding credentials taken from us immediately.
So yea, we'll see how it goes. First time around, hasn't been much scouting, kind of winging it. Don't expect greatness. Mediocrity will reign supreme.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

And Now, There Are Birds

Not a ton of birds, mind you, but where there were not birds before, there are now birds.  Some will stay, some will move on, but more are coming.  This is good.

Summer Tanagers will soon be ubiquitous for me.  I am okay with this.
Gray Catbird in Port Aransas; hiding from the Geri hordes.
Red-shouldered Hawks
Some of these birds were seen in the Corpus Christi/Port Aransas area, which can be great during migration but can just as easily be as dead as disco.

Chuck-will's-widow is a massive nightjar that flies through trees like a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  It is truly an intimidating experience to be walking through a park amongst these pterodactyls that seemingly erupt from nowhere.  I highly recommend seeing this bird under these circumstances.
Swainson's Hawks are exciting birds for central Texans.  There's only a small window to see them, and they are usually too high to satisfyingly ogle.

The drabbest of swallows, the Northern Rough-winged Swallow.
Wood Ducks are resident here, but who doesn't want to look at Wood Ducks?
Singing sparrows are not something we hear too much of in Texas, however Lincoln's have been going nuts lately.  They will soon be leaving me to go north and plow.

Clay-colored Sparrow; a good sparrow, subjectively speaking.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Horribly Dressed British Man and the Yellow Rail

Let me first tell you that there should be a picture of a Yellow Rail right here.  You should not have to suffer my ramblings, you should be rewarded for your recent diligence and perseverance with a crush of a most uncrushable bird.  I most definitely saw a Yellow Rail.  Yes, I was lucky enough to get a horrible look as it flushed and flew away from me. But that's not the whole story.  Not more than a 60 seconds after getting my life look at a yellow blur with bright white secondaries, the bird flushed up from my feet and perched, frozen, atop a tuft of grass no more than 4 feet in front of me.  So why in all that is holy is there not a picture of a Yellow Rail right here?  It was right there.  It wasn't going anywhere.  Until...the horribly dressed British man intervened.

Purple Gallinule - flashy, some may even say gaudy, yet not quite a Yellow Rail.
Least Bittern - again a remarkable bird, yet still somehow easier to see than a Yellow Rail.
See, there were 15 or 20 of us.  We had stretched out a long rope with empty milk jugs tied along it, which we drug through the tall marshy grasses of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.  I had just finished my rotation on one end of the rope, and I was now in the middle of the group, following closely behind.  Next to me was a horribly dressed British man.  We were towing the line together, bound in Yellow Rail glory.  And then it happened.

Whimbrel - Too much bill to be a Yellow Rail.
Surely, Yellow Rails don't fly so gracefully.
When the bird flushed, it flew up and perched directly in front of and between the two of us.  In retrospect, the duration of what happened next feels like 20 minutes, but in actuality it was more like 3 seconds.  I stopped dead in my tracks and let my eyes take in what was in front of me.  I slowly began to pull my camera up while simultaneously trying to form the words "Yellow Rail" in my mouth, so that the rest of my cohorts could witness the magic that I was privy to.

Tricolored Heron - Sleek, elegant, and cunning; qualities obviously not associated with a Yellow Rail.

Next to me, the horribly dressed British man reacted differently.  Whereas I immediately stopped walking, he continued.  Whereas I prepared to demolish the bird with my camera, he raised his arm forward.  Whereas I tried to muster out the words, "Yellow Rail", he stuck his pointer finger out.  And as soon as I realized the atrocity that was about to happen, it was too late.

Upland Sandpiper - Wrong kind of grass.  Not a Yellow Rail.
Neotropic Cormorant - stunningly coming into breeding plumage, yet still not a Yellow Rail.
And then...he tried to touch the bird.  That's right...HE TRIED TO TOUCH THE BIRD! I mean, that must have been what he was doing.  His legs, arm, and finger moved in one continuous motion until they were not more than 3 inches from the bird.  Inevitably, it flushed.  It had to.  If it had not, it would have been touched by a horribly dressed British man.  So, it flushed.  Back down into the grass, never to be seen again.  Let me say this one more time.  HE TRIED TO TOUCH THE BIRD!

This Eastern Kingbird is surveying the scene of the crime and wearing his disdain on his face.
These American Avocets are fleeing from the ever reaching finger of the horribly dressed British man.
I will live the rest of my life wondering what was going through the mind of the horribly dressed British man.  I was up late that night, trying to find a justification that would let me love this man as my brother and find peace with what had happened.  I have so far been unsuccessful.  And so that is why you are looking at pictures of birds that are definitively not a Yellow Rail.  I tried.  I did everything I could.  But one man, one horribly dressed British man, defeated me.  May God have mercy on his soul.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Rain-soaked Migrant Blues

As migration picks up on the coast and civility loses another step on Texbirds, I feel that once again, I need to reiterate that I am at first a birder, and second a photographer.  I think that the quality of the images from my last post should be a testament to the fact that I'm barely a photographer.  That being said, I find that instead of being able to drink the kool-aid and revel in "nature's wonder",  I find myself frustrated when I can't crush good birds.  What does this mean?  Am I really one of them?!?!  No, of course not.  But I need to be careful to not walk too close to the line.

All that is preparation for you, dear readers, for another series of shitty, grainy photos.  Of cool birds.  Rain, mist, and low light are not conducive to crushings, at least not for me.  Am I supposed to pretend I didn't see cool migrant passerines this weekend?  No.  I will share my horrific photos of the good birds, and yearn for the day when I can destroy them in optimal conditions.

Blue-winged Warbler - Early-ish migrants on the coast, and one of the best warblers.

This Painted Bunting is doing the typical "just landed migrant" thing of chowing down incessently and not give a fuck about anything else. 

Red-eyed Vireo - Dapper.
Prothonotary Warbler - Delicate, brutish, intelligent, and coy.
Scarlet Tanager - Not a hawk, but still.  Crippling. As. Fuck.
And the less adorned Summer Tanager.
Hooded Warbler - everywhere on the coast right now.
Fuck.  Maybe the best warbler.  Cerulean.
I am smitten with this bird.

So yea.  Good migrants.  Ended up being a 21 warbler weekend, 16 on Sunday.  There were also waders/shorebirds, which I'll get to in the next post, where I'll also tell you about the biggest piece of shit/moron birder in the history of the world.  Fun stuff.