Looking back

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The stately and unique Robinson Hall, home to Brown University’s Economics Department.

It is remarkable to me that less than a year ago I was reflecting on the brisk changes occurring in my life. During the previous nine months, I attended my freshman year of college at Brown University, making some great new friends and forming terrific relationships with a couple faculty members in the process. The year definitely required a bit of adjustment, and I found things to be a lot smoother during my second semester, once I became used to the pace and rigor required to be a successful student.

Coming out of my first year, my plans for the summer were few. I had initially planned to take on a field job, but a residual issue with my eyes from treatment made me decide otherwise. Instead, I decided to take one last free summer to relax and reflect, and also to “get my eyes fixed.” I am happy to say that my vision is now very much improved, and I am looking forward to focussing on the first part of my summer plans (i.e. the resting and relaxing).

My free time also leaves me more room in my day to hopefully compose blog posts, something that was utterly lacking during my first year away. Along with blog posts, my birding time also took a major hit, and on only a few instances during the whole year did I venture off of campus to bird. I did, however, enjoy a fulfilling and fun trip to Costa Rica during my lengthy winter break, which netted almost five hundred species in less than three weeks.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t physically birding all that much, I was able to live vicariously through the photos and postings of others. Additionally, I spent time furthering my knowledge of ornithology, and ecology and evolution in general. During the first semester, I took a course that I was so enthused about, I could barely contain my excitement whenever I entered the room, or got a chance to meet with the professor. That course was The Diversity of Life, taught by Professor Jim Kellner, and I am looking forward to being one of the TAs in the course this coming fall.

The focus of the class was the growth and erosion of diversity over time, and how life has evolved to meet changing conditions. Topics ranged from the Cambrian Explosion to the K-T Extinction Event to patterns in diversity (like Wallace’s Line and Adaptive Radiation). It was an absolutely marvelous experience, and shored up an already immense passion for evolution and ecology.

So that’s basically it for me. My intention is to major in Biology, and then go to graduate school to focus solely on birds. It is a fun time to be involved in academia, and I can’t wait to keep learning and growing as a student.

-Alex

Texas Part III

Better late than never I suppose! Although the events detailed in this post occurred more than a year ago, it doesn’t seem right to leave the trilogy of posts on this trip unfinished.

Day 5 (April 19) Part II – Our long drive west, punctuated only by a stop for gas and groceries, was largely uneventful. We planned to hit two major areas during our time in West Texas: Davis Mountains State Park and Big Bend National Park. In the late afternoon, we finally exited I-10 on our way to the former. We then made a sharp left, and spent the next forty-five minutes birding Lake Balmorhea, a rare patch of blue in a sea of brown and gray.

The western flair to the birds we found during our visit certainly confirmed that we had passed into a different biogeographic zone. Highlights in the vicinity of the lake included Scaled Quail, Western and Clark’s GrebesWhite-faced Ibis, Black-necked StiltAmerican Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Western Kingbird, ‘Audubon’s’ Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brewer’s and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. But the biggest surprise of the visit came in the form of a singing Sedge Wren, an eastern species just a little west of its mapped range.

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Clark’s Grebe

As we continued on, our approach to the Davis Mountains was accompanied by outstanding scenery, the setting sun blanketing the surrounding cliffs and hills in a variety of bright hues of yellow and orange.

We arrived at the park just after six, and decided that our first priority should be to investigate the current Montezuma Quail situation. This species was a large part of our reason for visiting the state park in the first place. It is one of the most reliable places to see this species, and a covey had been known to frequent the feeders, coming within feet of dazzled onlookers. We were hopeful that we would enjoy a similar experience.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. A visit with the rangers revealed that the quail had not been seen visiting the feeders since a flood six months before. In a single blow, our chances at Montezuma Quail appeared to be reduced to what I’d experienced in Arizona. We would need to chance upon a bird by ourselves, and after two unsuccessful trips hoping for that same thing in Southeastern Arizona, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.

We spent a little time watching the feeders after hearing the grim news. Our highlights at the entrance of the state park and in and around the feeding station included Black-chinned Hummingbird, Acorn and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Say’s Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird, Canyon Towhee, Scott’s Oriole, Pine Siskin, and Lesser Goldfinch. No quail were seen at that time.

After a little while, we decided that it was time to head to our accommodation at Indian Lodge, the only lodging available in the state park. Nestled between a few of the peaks at the upper end of the valley, the lodge provided an impressive view of the expansive state park below. After checking in, Dave realized he had forgotten his scope down at the feeding station. As we turned left out of the lodge and began heading along the road down the valley, something happened that makes years of trying for and missing a bird worth it. It is the kind of moment that I live and bird for. As we sped along at thirty miles per hour, I saw the unmistakable, harlequin face pattern of a male Montezuma Quail out my window.  The dire, near-panicked look on my face convinced Dave that I wasn’t teasing him on this bird, and we quickly spun around. Sure enough, sitting in the grass on the side of the road, was a brilliant pair of Montezuma Quail.

We spent the next hour watching those birds, dumbstruck by our luck, and so grateful that, despite the lack of recent, dependable quail, we were still able to catch up with these birds. At first, the pair sat idly in the grass, content to poke at whatever morsels lay below them. But eventually, first the female and then her strikingly-patterned mate stood up and ever so slowly began to retreat, providing terrific looks at their entire bodies from the comfort of our car.

Click on the thumbnails below for larger views. The last two show the female.

Our time with the quails was capped off by three birds sounding off in the near-vicinity, completing a perfect, documentary-style experience with this glorious species. We followed this up with a delicious dinner in the quaint town of Fort Davies, just down the road from the state park. Afterwards, we returned to the park and took a brief stroll through the campground, finding ourselves surrounded by four adult Elf Owls, two of which were tending a nest with three young in a nearby telephone pole. While watching the owls, a Common Poorwill called from nearby.

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Elf Owl

Day 6 (April 20) – Our whirlwind trip through Texas was turning out to be a striking success, and our only goal for the day was to keep piling on more good birds and more great experiences. With our main target in the mountains secured, we could dedicate our time to reacquainting ourselves with some of the fun western birds we had enjoyed on previous trips. We spent the first part of the morning covering the extent of the state park, getting great looks at a number of terrific species, including an absurdly close Black-throated Sparrow and a perched Scott’s Oriole. Other highlights included a copulating pair of Cooper’s HawksGreater Roadrunner, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Canyon Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Summer Tanager. Unfortunately, I decided not to carry my camera with me as we clambered about the slopes of the valley, so I missed a few stellar photo opportunities.

After a couple hours in the main area of the state park we crossed the street and explored another section of the park, which included a different mosaic of habitats (and thus, different birds). Here we picked up two new birds for the trip: Phainopepla and Green-tailed Towhee.

Finally, we advanced out of the state park and drove higher up into the Davis Mountains. Our first stop was the Lawrence Wood Picnic Area and adjacent TNC Madera Canyon Loop Trail. Here we were stunned to find two more Montezuma Quails, a male that slowly crossed a path right in front of us and a calling bird (presumably his mate) just a few feet away in cover.  Other good birds included a teed-up Gray Flycatcher, as well as a pair of Western Bluebirds tending to a nest site, and a calling Hepatic Tanager.

Our next stop, the McDonald Observatory, was much quieter bird-wise, and we decided to return to the lodge and relax during the heat of the day.

After a brief siesta, we decided to spend our evening at a location seven miles south of Fort Davis, where Western Screech-Owls had recently been seen. We arrived to the sound of another calling Montezuma Quail, which set the tone for a couple terrific hours of birding, highlighted by Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, a female Vermilion Flycatcher, Cave and Cliff Swallows, Hermit Thrush, Curve-billed Thrasher, White-crowned Sparrow, and two surprises: Brown Thrasher and White-throated Sparrow. The night shift yielded three calling Western Screech-Owls (one of which was spotlighted for excellent views), as well as a calling Elf Owl and Common Poorwill.

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Western Screech-Owl

Day 7 (April 21) – The next morning we said our goodbyes to the Davis Mountains and headed south toward our final destination: Big Bend National Park. Sitting on a large curve in the Rio Grande, the park is known for its fabulous scenery, as well as being the only place to see Colima Warblers in the United States. The warblers spend the breeding season in the upper reaches of the Chisos Mountains, which require a predawn ascent from the valley floor below. Dave had made this trek multiple times, and I felt lucky to be accompanied by someone with such an in-depth knowledge of how to find these birds. We had given ourselves two separate mornings to the find the warbler: April 22nd and 23rd. The latter would be a desperate move, though, as we would have to nail the warbler and check out, all before 12pm. It would then be followed-up by a lengthy drive back to San Antonio for our flight home the next day. It was a backup plan that we hoped we didn’t need to put in place.

Concerns on whether or not the warbler would show would have to wait until the next morning. For now, we planned to hit a couple locations before checking into our lodging in another portion of the park. Our first stop was Blue Creek Canyon, where we spent a torrid three hours searching for one of Big Bend’s other avian specialties: Lucifer Hummingbird. It was not until we were on our way back that we chanced upon a stunning male perched atop a nearby Ocotillo, remaining long enough to provide some solid scope views.

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Lucifer Hummingbird (phonescoped)

Our other highlights from the canyon included Bell’s and Gray VireosRock, Canyon, Bewick’s and Cactus Wrens, Verdin, Clay-colored, Rufous-crowned, and Black-throated Sparrows, and Pyrrhuloxia.

Continuing on, we made our way to the nearby Cottonwood Campground, with temperatures well into the triple digits. Our best birds here were five stunning Vermilion Flycatchers, Orange-crowned Warbler, and two pairs of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers feeding young.

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female Vermilion Flycatcher

By the time we left the campground, it was already mid-afternoon, and we decided to head to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which would be our base for the next two nights. The lodge is positioned at the base of ‘The Bowl’ a circular valley surrounded by the spiky peaks of the Chisos Mountains (except for a small opening called ‘The Window’ that looks down on the desert below).  After an early dinner, we hit the hay, ready for an early ascent of the Pinnacles Trail the next morning.

To add: on the way to Big Bend, we connected with a species I’d been itching to see for years. As I dozed off to sleep, Dave spotted four Pronghorn out the passenger’s side window. I’ve developed a keen interest in the once diverse megafauna that occupied all continents and most islands up until very recently. But in every continent except Africa, advancing humans took a terrible toll on these mighty beasts. The Pronghorn is a relict from a bygone age, its main adaptation (speed) evolved to outrun the cheetahs that chased it across the plains of North America.

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male Pronghorn

Day 8 (April 22) – We began our ascent in the dark, serenaded by the calls of Great Horned Owl, Common Poorwill, and Mexican Whip-poor-will (still haven’t seen the latter despite hearing it a few previous times in Arizona). There are multiple options for accessing the upper reaches of the Chisos, with the Pinnacles Trail being the quicker, but steeper way up. The trail involves a seemingly endless series of switchbacks before you reach the ‘top’ and relatively flat trail that transverses the upper mountains, including a portion that leads to Boot Spring, a famous spot that has attracted a number of rare Mexican species in the past.

As we climbed, the sun began to slowly rise over the valley, although our position remained in shadow for the entirety of our ascent. The habitat too began to change, eventually giving way to the scraggly oak forest that the warbler calls home for the summer. From overhead came the calls of White-throated Swifts, moving high above the valley floor like squadrons of aircraft in fast pursuit. These birds lived a life on the edge. Their nesting sites were the high, sheer pincer-like peaks of the Chisos.

Eventually, about three quarters of the way up the switchbacks, we heard our first Colima Warbler. Frantic, we tried to pinpoint the source of the sound, but the song seemed to be coming from all directions. Moving up the trail, Dave soon spotted a Colima, and just a couple seconds later, had the bird in the scope (Dave’s scope skills are remarkable). I looked in, but didn’t see a bird. It had already flown out. A few switchbacks later, and I finally accomplished a brief look at what was likely a Colima Warbler. Unsatisfying for sure, and definitely not a look I wanted to remember this bird by. A few meters later we reached the top. A few more steps and we had a singing Colima Warbler in earshot. Racing forward toward the bird, we pinpointed the song (a difficult task amongst all the cliffs), which was emanating from some oaks in the valley below us. Luckily, the bird wasn’t too far off, and Dave soon spotted it clambering about. This time, we got awesome scope views of the bird, a number of distant photos, and even a few recordings of its song. After twenty minutes, I had secured a wonderful “life look” at this species.

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Colima Warbler

Pushing on, we made our way to Boot Spring, where we stopped to have lunch. Another Colima Warbler circled us in the trees above (we ended up with at least six for the day), while a striking pair Painted Redstarts moved about on the ground nearby. While watching a friendly Hermit Thrush moving about near the redstarts, Dave spotted one of Boot Spring’s more dependable specialities, Blue-throated Hummingbird. Our views were backlit but satisfying as the bird spent quite a while perched in the same spot midway up a nearby tree.

Click on the thumbnails below for larger views

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Hermit Thrush. Much grayer and drabber than our eastern birds.
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Painted Redstart
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This image illustrates why these birds are often referred to as ‘Whitestarts.’
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Blue-throated Hummingbird

Eventually, we cut our losses and headed back the way we had come. As we descended, we were overcome by multiple troops of inquisitive Mexican Jays, a near omnipresent species along the length of the trail. We stopped to return the glances of the curious jays, a member of the fantastic genus, Aphelocoma.

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Mexican Jay

We finally reached the valley floor below, and dropped down on our beds in exhaustion. Our eight hours on the Pinnacles Trail had been wonderfully successful. Other fun birds included Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Brown Creeper, Townsend’s Warbler, Spotted Towhee, and Black-headed Grosbeak.

After a couple hours, we emerged from a restful torpor. Feeling every single switchback, we staggered out of the room, and spent a successful hour birding the area around the lodge. The standout was fantastic looks at a brilliant male Varied Bunting, accompanying a flock of five House Finches in the brushy area below the lodge building.  Our other target in the area (Black-chinned Sparrow) unfortunately refused to show.

Getting to see such a rare and range-restricted species as Colima Warbler is always a treat, but to share it with such a fun, compassionate, and intelligent person as Dave made it all the more special.

Day 9 (April 23) – We slept in a little more the usual the next morning, still exhausted from our climb the day before, and also extremely grateful that we were able to forego our planned last-ditch attempt. Instead, we covered the area around the lodge one more time, saying our goodbyes to some great western birds and connecting with a singing Black-chinned Sparrow, belting out its song from the scrubby cliff directly below us.

Before long, it was time to check out and begin our five-hour drive back to San Antonio. Along the way, we made just a single stop. On a seemingly random road of the outskirts of the city, we surrounded ourselves with the chirping chorus of twenty-five Dickcissels. As the birds sang in an uneven chorus, we reflected back on what a remarkable trip it had been. In less than ten days, we had crisscrossed the largest state in the lower 48, observing well over two hundred species in the process. Although the total life bird tally was small, we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a number of birds better, an experience that revived an excitement for birding in the ABA Area. We both were struck by the fact that, while getting heaps of life birds in far-flung destinations is fun, it is also  rewarding to spend more time exploring our own country and its birds.

-Alex

Texas Part II

Day 3 (April 17) – As noted in the previous Texas post, the first half of our trip had been planned completely around seeing Black Rail, with three full days dedicated to the effort. Picking up Black Rail just a couple hours into the first of those days freed up a whole swath of time for other endeavors.

On the morning of the 17th, we set out for Laredo, and the Mexican border. We had both visited the Rio Grande Valley previously, but were itching for a return trip. I still needed White-collared Seedeater as an ABA bird, which was part of the motivation for making the trip down.

As we headed toward the valley, we made stops in far fields south of Houston, which yielded a number of highlights, including Swainson’s and White-tailed Hawks, White-rumped, Pectoral, Stilt, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Sedge Wren.

A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, we arrived in Laredo, where temps had entered the triple-digits. Undeterred, we headed to one of the locations where seedeaters had recently been reported: the Las Palmas Trail. Our search for the White-collared Seedeater was a success, and we ran up a total of five birds, including three males singing in the vegetation along the Rio Grande, with the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo in the background.

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White-collared Seedeater

We also notched a number of other RGV specialties, including Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, and Long-billed Thrasher. A migrant Grasshopper Sparrow was another solid pickup.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

After Las Palmas, we headed to our lodging for the evening, and enjoyed some delicious Mexican food in town.

Day 4 (April 18) – Waking early, we set out for one of my all-time favorite birding spots: the small town of Salineño, and specifically, the portion along the Rio Grande. When you arrive, Mexico beckons from just a few meters away. The river is decently narrow in this area, and it is fairly easy to make out birds in the canopy on the other side. Our sense of place was further enhanced when we were passed by a boatload of Mexican men, heading off to work for the day.

I think multiple factors are involved in making Salineño one of my favorite places to go birding. First are the birds, of course. This is the best location in the ABA area to observe extremely restricted RGV specialties like Audubon’s Oriole, Red-billed Pigeon, and Muscovy Duck. The location also contains an abundance of all the fantastic Rio Grande Valley birds, and I saw many life birds here on my first visit in March 2011. Second is the location. The Rio Grande is probably more wild and unspoiled here than anywhere else east of Laredo, and the edge habitat created by the river makes birds easy to see. Finally, through a combination of these two factors, one really gets the sense of birding in the tropics, something that’s near impossible to come by in the rest of the ABA.

The best time to visit Salineño is probably February-March, when the three big species are easiest to see, the oriole thanks to a nearby feeding station that pulls them down to eye level. We were well past the location’s annual peak, with the winter visitors that maintain the feeders already gone, and had the spot to ourselves for the majority of our visit.

We walked up and down the river in both directions, our main goal simply to enjoy as many of the cool birds that this location offers as possible. In the end, we missed the three biggies, but still had a great time. Our highlights included loudly-calling Plain Chachalacas at sunrise, Northern Bobwhite, Gray Hawk, White-tipped Dove (calling from the Mexican side), Brown-crested Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Green Jay, Olive and Lark Sparrows, Bronzed Cowbird, two Altamira Orioles building a nest (and mobbing a Crested Caracara that came too close), and three more White-collared Seedeaters singing along the river.

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Crested Caracara

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Crested Caracara and Altamira Oriole

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American Coot

After Salineño, we birded some roads east of Falcon Dam State Park, where I’d had luck on my last trip to the area. The place was again birdy, and our highlights were great looks at a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers, along with Harris’s Hawk, Cactus Wren, Cassin’s Sparrow, and Pyrrhuloxia.

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Ash-throated Flycatchers

Eventually, we cut our losses and began heading north. We were slated to start making our way out to West Texas the next day, but in the meantime, we decided to dedicate the next twenty-four hours to pinning down some Edward’s Plateau specialties.

In the early afternoon, we stopped off on a productive piece of road, which yielded amazing looks at singing and skylarking Cassin’s Sparrows, in addition to Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Curve-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored and Vesper Sparrows, and Blue Grosbeak.

Continuing on, we reached the Neal’s Lodges area outside Uvalde with a couple hours of daylight left. Our target bird at this location was a recently-reported Tropical Parula, which managed to evade us despite our best efforts. A Northern Parula that landed with its back to us got our pulses rising before turning around and slamming our hopes back down.

The avifauna of the Edward’s Plateau is on odd one. It is primarily Eastern, despite its longitudinal position, but also contains some Western and RGV species. Last but not least, its uniqueness is confirmed by the presence of a breeding endemic: the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

All of these groups were represented on our visit, during which species like Carolina Chickadee, Great Kiskadee, and Black-chinned Hummingbird were seen side-by-side.

After daylight ran out, we returned to Uvalde to regroup, with plans to return to the area at sunrise.

Day 5 (April 19) – The previous evening, we’d stopped at the Neal’s Lodges office before heading back to Uvalde. The purpose of our visit was to inquire if there were any local birders present that might be aware of the most recent locations where the Tropical Parula had been seen. We were provided with a number, but unfortunately, the person did not pick up. The next morning, just as we were about to leave to return to Neal’s, we received a call, and were provided with a location for the parula, as well as a couple other Edward’s specialties.

Upon arrival, we headed straight to the Tropical Parula location. Immediately upon exiting the car, we had a possible sighting, but the bird was too fleeting and frankly so unexpectedly sudden, that we weren’t able to clinch the ID. Dave and I eventually split up; while he went down to check the river (where we’d tried the previous evening), I remained at the spot we’d been given.

A few minutes later, I heard a Tropical Parula sing. After what seemed like an eternity spent frantically trying to pin the bird down, a stunning male Tropical Parula flew onto a dead branch right in front of me:

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Tropical Parula
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In the words of Dave Hursh, “like a ripe citrus fruit.”

Dave came up and caught the bird before it flew off (he’d seen them in the ABA area before, including at this same location). We also got glimpses of a second bird, which was probably a female. Mission accomplished.

We spent another hour and a half scouring the lodge grounds, looking especially for the two big Edward’s Plateau birds: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. We heard one Golden-cheeked sing, but weren’t able to pin it down. With time running out, we decided to run to an area where these two species are found in higher density, before making the long drive west.

(Other highlights at Neal’s included an almost ridiculous proliferation of White-eyed Vireos, great looks at a pair of Canyon Wrens singing and moving about the cabins along the river, Olive Sparrow, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak.)

A little less than an hour after departing Neal’s, we arrived at the Lost Maples SNA (State Natural Area), site of my life Golden-cheeked Warbler in 2011. It is a beautiful location set amongst the rolling hills of the plateau, and we greatly enjoyed the brief time we spent birding there.

The standouts were of course the two biggies. We had tremendous looks at multiple singing Golden-cheeked Warblers (including scope views!), and followed a male Black-capped Vireo around for a while, receiving only occasional glimpses as a reward.

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Poor photo of a Golden-cheeked Warbler

Other good birds on this short but very successful stop included White-tipped Dove, both Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and stunning male Lazuli and Indigo Buntings. The Edward’s Plateau sits right at the confluence of East and West, and seeing both representatives of these groups certainly illustrates that point.

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A subpar photo, but the only one I’ve ever taken that shows Lazuli and Indigo Buntings in the same frame.
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Lazuli Bunting alongside a House Finch severely infected with conjunctivitis.
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Black-crested Titmouse, also from Lost Maples.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away, and headed west, excited to begin the final climax of our adventure.

-Alex

Texas Part I

Note: Apologies for the long pause between posts. My first semester in college has had a strong grip on all of my available time. I hope to get the rest of the Texas posts and a summary of the birding I was able to do over the fall up here soon.

Day 1 (April 15) – Dave and I arrived at separate airports, so after grabbing the rental car, Dave headed up to IAH to pick me up. Soon after, we were on the road and headed east on I-10. En route to our hotel, we started picking up birds like Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Great-tailed Grackle. After checking in, we spent the rest of the afternoon birding the fabulous Skillern/East Bayou Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Before even arriving at the refuge, we picked up many trip birds on the nearby roads, including Cattle Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Kingbird, Cliff Swallow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Baltimore Oriole.

Our intentions for Skillern were to get in some quick birding before moving out for an early dinner. But the place was incredibly birdy, and even when dusk set in, large numbers of birds streaming overhead made it impossible to peel ourselves away. Skillern set the tone for the rest of the trip, and produced some awesome birds in the process. The highlights were many and varied and included both whistling-ducks, Mottled Duck, both bitterns (and ten Ardeids overall), Sora, both gallinules, Upland Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Nighthawk, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Marsh Wren, Brown Thrasher, Black-and-white, Tennessee, and Blackburnian Warblers, Painted Bunting, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Orchard Oriole.

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Dusk at Skillern.

Eventually, it got too dark for us to see anything, although night-herons and ibis continued moving by. Night in Winnie.

eBird Checklists: Road to Skillern, Skillern.

Day 2 (April 16) – We awoke early for one of the most anticipated events of the trip: the ‘Yellow Rail Walk‘ at Anahuac. Arriving at dawn, we picked up some new trip birds while waiting for the group to assemble, including Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-necked Stilt, Caspian and Forster’s Terns, Loggerhead Shrike, and Bronzed Cowbird. Several calling King Rails (a life bird for me) taunted us from nearby cover.

After a briefing from the refuge staffer, we were on the road, heading south among a caravan of cars to the aptly-named ‘Yellow Rail Prairie.’ Disembarking, half of the group gathered along a line of rope at the edge of the field, while the other half (those not interested in the physical labor of trudging through thick, wet grass) waited on the road.

Because the rails would rather run than fly, our plan to induce them into flight was to fill milk jugs scattered along our rope with rocks, line up elbow to elbow along the rope, and walk at a fairly brisk pace, clapping all the while. With this impenetrable line bearing down upon them, the rail would have no choice but to flush. Or so we hoped.

As we started walking into the field, we flushed a Yellow Rail almost immediately. The bird flew just above the grass for about ten yards, put on the landing gear (flashing those distinctive white secondaries), and once again disappeared into the mass. It was one of four Yellow Rails we would flush during the walk, of which we were able to obtain satisfying flight views of every individual.

Other rails soon followed including two Virginias and seven Sora. A couple dozen Seaside Sparrows were also around.

Having picked up our target species, we left the field in order to limit the amount of disturbance we made to the habitat. As we disengaged, we picked up great looks at a few nearby Sedge Wrens (some of which were singing) as well as a flyover Black Tern molting into alternate plumage.

But Black Rail (our primary target in this region) was on the back of our minds for the entirety of the walk. We had planned to spend all of Day 2, as well as Days 3 and 4, looking for this species at Anahuac and nearby San Bernard and Brazoria NWRs.

We had gotten a tip from some other birders that calling Black Rails were present across the road from the Yellow Rail Prairie the day before. Sure enough, as we walked onto the road from the field, we were told that there was a calling Black Rail in that exact spot. Straining our ears, we soon picked up the distinctive kikikerr of a Black Rail. Awesome! Soon after, another bird started calling nearby.

The rails were close, calling from some thick, high grasses between the edge of the road and a fence line perhaps ten feet in. Dave and I, sensing this was the closest we could get to seeing this bird, rallied the staffer to make a go. A group of four people lined up alongside the rail, in hopes of swinging around it and corralling the bird into view for the 50+ others to see. That attempt ended up being a disaster. In (understandably) tense anticipation, the birders on the road refused to take a few steps back to allow the rail some space, and those walking in the grasses were also unable to move the bird in the right direction. It soon called again from further down the fence line.

Desperate to try again, Dave and I urgently tried to get a word in with the refuge staffer to try to make another attempt. While waiting our turn, nearby birders hit us with comments like, “Well you know, you can get them on the Colorado River,” or “Lots of people have them in San Francisco Bay.” To this, I couldn’t have been more frustrated: “I’m here, I have a calling Black Rail six feet away, and you’re telling me to go to $%^##$# California?!” I thought. It was one of many moments we experienced during the time leading up to and during this quest when the the shroud of secrecy and denial in the birding community around this bird came to bear.

We finally mustered up a group to make another attempt. The thick grasses ended a few yards to our right, with a gate and a short road leading out into another field. We decided to move the bird that way. We walked and then began to run. People on our line of six or so started catching brief glimpses. We were certain we had it, and began to make a tightening circle around where we thought the bird would be. Eventually, with only a square foot for the bird to move around in, we got down on our hands and knees in a circle and started moving back the grass. Nothing. The frickin rail had gotten away.

After all that, Dave had caught a brief glimpse and I had still not seen the bird. Birders began leaving in droves. Soon, only seven of us stood there, staring at the grasses, contemplating our chances of seeing this ghost of the marshes.

Our small, stalwart group adamantly decided that we would not leave until everyone had seen the bird. In the back of my head, I prayed that if we still didn’t have the bird in thirty minutes, that the others would hold to that promise. Some of us started making tunnels to coax the bird to walk through, while others stood on the road strategizing. Eventually, we came up with the plan that would seal the deal.

Our situation was this: in front and to our left were long green grasses, with a fence a couple of yards in (beyond that was a clipped field). To our right the fence gave out in a few yards, to a gravel patch with a gate. The grasses continued up to the gate, but along the fence were replaced with a few bushes, which created small openings to look through.

We mustered up for our third attempt and managed to corral the bird under the bushes. Each of us then lined up on our hands and knees on either side, each person peeking into a different crevice. Eventually people started seeing it, and with calls of “moving to the left,” I knew the bird was bearing down on me. Soon it appeared, and I squinted at disbelief at how small it was. Suddenly it was there, in a small bare patch under the bush, simply walking and bobbing its body, paying no attention to the pair of eyes just a foot away. Its most striking feature was its eye, which gleamed crimson. I noticed the spotting on the upper parts and chestnut nape, but was surprised, as they appeared subdued and dull (perhaps a female?).

Over the next twenty minutes or so, I caught two more glimpses exactly like this one, and eventually everyone in the group had similar views. When Gary, the last of us who hadn’t seen it, connected with the bird, we all jumped up onto the road and started hugging and high-fiving. We were jubilant: we had seen what is arguably the hardest bird to glimpse in all of North America, and despite multiple failures, we had persevered and eventually got great looks at the bird. As we were chatting excitedly, the rail finally did what we were hoping for all morning: we caught it skittering away on some of our flattened grasses, directly out in the open for a few seconds, in full running retreat. Soon after, as if nothing happened, the rail resumed calling in earnest.

I didn’t bring my camera on the rail walk, nor did I bring it when looking for the Black Rail. It would have been extremely difficult to obtain photos of the Yellow Rail in flight and my lens simply was too long to have been able to focus on the Black Rail. Furthermore, with birds as elusive and difficult to see as these, I wanted my life looks to be as complete as possible, not marred by possible camera issues. Next time I attempt to look for these species, I will definitely try to photograph them, and will have to remember to bring along a 50mm lens for the Black Rail!

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With no photos to show for our effort, I decided to sketch the Black Rail after returning home from the trip.

Leaving the rail behind, Dave and I realized that our next two days had been completely freed up, a bonus that changed the outcome of the trip in numerous ways, one of which was that we avoided the devastating rain and flooding that occurred in the Houston area, an extremely lucky break only possible thanks to the dedication of our small group.

We spent the next few hours birding the refuge, picking up species like Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Harrier, both gallinules, American Coot, Crested Caracara, Peregrine Falcon, and a gorgeous male Golden-winged Warbler. We also made a strong attempt to see one of the calling King Rails, but came away empty handed. I find it slightly comical that I have now seen Black and Yellow Rails before King.

In the early afternoon, we traded Anahuac for High Island, our first stop being the famous Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon. High Island was pretty slow that afternoon, but we were content with our FOY Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, Worm-eating Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

We then moved over to the Smith Oaks Sanctuary, notching a female Hooded Warbler as well as a gorgeous male Summer Tanager, obviously exhausted as it sat still for most of the time in low vegetation.

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Summer Tanager

We ended our day with a two-hour drive from High Island to Lake Jackson, from which we would launch the next phase of our trip.

eBird Checklists: Anahuac, Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks.

Looking ahead…

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Early morning at Pine Creek Open Space in Fairfield, Connecticut. August 26, 2012.

Yesterday morning I hit Pine Creek for my first visit of this fall migration season. Despite solid conditions the night before, and large numbers of birds moving on radar, the place was mostly devoid of the desired passerine migrants (warblers). As happens often at the beginning of a season, the pace of migration gets off to a stuttering start, with cold fronts failing to pass against the wretched soup that currently pervades the region.

Such an event is normal, even expected. But what isn’t normal is my schedule for the fall, at least in comparison to the last decade of birding Pine Creek: I’m going off to college. After a long and protracted college application process, I am excited to be heading off to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in order to start the next phase of my education.

Overall, though, my feelings about leaving are melancholy. On one hand, I’m excited to begin a new phase of my life (and explore the birding opportunities Rhode Island has to offer), while on the other, I am still grappling with the end of an old one. Fall is a uniquely nostalgic time for me, when the excitement of being back on [the high school] campus was mixed with the wonderment toward the passing migrants experienced by birding my local patches on the weekends. Despite taking a gap year this past year, I was able to maintain the latter, but this year am letting both go.

Looking back, my summer has been pretty low-key. I broke my arm at the end of May and that and its associated surgery in mid July have kept me pretty sedentary. Because of that, I still have some financial wiggle room to go on trips when my school schedule allows.

I am also still working through photos from trips earlier this year. I came back from Australia with 11,000 photos, and have slowly worked to decrease that number. Here’s hoping I can get some of those photos on here soon.

It was impossible for thoughts of the myriad number of epic fall days I experienced at Pine Creek (and the associated positive times in my life) not to enter my mind this morning. They remind me of, despite all I’ve faced, how lucky I am to be alive and to be connected to birds.

-Alex