Monday, March 30, 2009

El Cielo Trip - Day 5 - March 27, 2009

March 27, 2009

Driving day. We had breakfast at the cabins and started driving down the mountain. Our guides spotted Broad-winged Hawks perched in the forest. The forest echoed with the calls of thrushes and warblers. I wished we'd had time to walk down instead of riding in the truck. We were pleased to see groups of school children riding up to Alta Cima for a field trip.

We stopped to try to see a Greenish Elaenia, which I saw briefly perched before it flew off again. We stopped for a perched Hooded Grosbeak which also flew off immediately. We made it to Casa di Piedre in Gomez Farias for an early lunch, and then headed off down the mountain. We saw some birds driving, including a spectacular view of a Zone-tailed Hawk stooping and catching a rodent! We made good time and got back to the bridge at about 7 PM, for a very short 20 minute wait to get back into the USA. Thanks to Roy Rodriguez and Martin Hagne for organizing this trip!

El Cielo Trip - Day 4 - March 26, 2009

During the night I woke up and heard four Mottled Owls sounding off.

It was great to wake up and be at 4000 feet in the pine-oak zone. The bird song surrounded us. We took the truck and went to a former town site called again Casa de Piedra – house of the rock. This high elevation site had great birding on the way in, with flocks of warblers including good looks at a Golden-cheeked Warbler, a life bird for Esteban! I glimpsed a perched Amethyst-throated Hummingbird which flew off immediately.

We walked on from Casa de Piedra and saw another Bumblebee Hummingbird male, and had great looks at Golden-browed Warbler. A Bat Falcon was rousted off its perch on the mountainside by a pair of Common Ravens. The Bat Falcon stooped at the Ravens several times and was joined by its mate, and then succeeded in driving the Ravens off the hillside. Other birds included Hutton’s Vireo, Magnificent Hummingbird, and more Mountain Trogon.

We drove back down the mountain for lunch at the hotel. After lunch, we drove into the town of San Jose, birding on the way. Blue Mockingbirds were singing and mimicking other birds. We saw many Azure-crowned Hummingbird and Greater Pewee, and Acorn Woodpecker were well seen by the group. We walked part way back to the hotel through mostly second growth and farms.

After dinner we tried to call in the Stygian Owl that I heard the night before with no luck. We then went back to the open area where the guys had been looking for Stygian Owl the first morning and tried a tape there. The bird hooted back once but we could not find it with a flashlight. “Mexican” Whip-poor-wills sang up on the rocks well up the mountainside, a fitting end to a great day.

El Cielo Trip - Day 3 - March 25, 2009

March 25, 2009

Again, I woke early and listened to the Tawny-collared Nightjar singing. Then, the rain started right as we were getting read for breakfast. After breakfast, we packed up the pickup truck with our gear for the next two days. Lalo, our driver, had the truck covered with a tarp, but that didn’t last long as we stopped and removed the tarp quickly as the rain stopped. The overcast and fog stuck with us so birding was slow. We did have great looks at Crested Guan, Flame-colored Tanager, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Brown-backed Solitaire, Golden-crowned Warbler, Black-headed Saltator, Blue Bunting, and Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

We made it to Alta Cima in rapid order as the fog kept the birds difficult to see. We took a break to check the shops and stretch, birding all the while. Esteban Perrones, another local birding guide, joined us in Alta Cima. In the photo at right is Esteban (left), Lalo (center), and Ricardo (right).

We went on up the mountain about 2 km when Esteban told us that we were in a Bumblebee Hummingbird territory. We stopped the truck in the shade and watched the male displaying with his gorget feathers splayed wide. He bounced up and down in front of a female and did his airplane display for us, singing all the while. What a show!

We stopped a few more places on the way up to the Cabinas Canindo just a few kilometers short of San Jose. The Cabinas were rustic but serviceable with clean sheets, running water (hot on request) and solar electricity. A pair of Rufous-capped Brush-Finch were on the porch when we arrived, and Brown-capped Vireo sang over the cabin. We had lunch and went birding, walking down the road to an area where we had seen a number of Mountain Trogons on the ride up. We had quick views of White-eared Hummingbird, great views of Mountain Trogon, Olivaceous and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush. At one point, we were surrounded by Singing Quail but could not see them. Esteban herded two Singing Quail so they crossed the trail in front of us. We headed back to the cabins for dinner. After dinner, when it was full dark, we were able to call in a Mottled Owl which flew directly over our heads and perched in the open! Great end to a great day.

El Cielo Trip - Day 2 - March 24, 2009

March 24, 2009

I got up at about 5 and listened to the nightbirds calling. A Tawny-collared Nightjar called “Chip-Willow” in the distance. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl called in the mango trees, seen by early risers but not others. We had breakfast at the hotel and then went back to La Florida, much more peaceful without the bus of bathers. We heard Thicket Tinamou at close range but did not see them. A Bronze-winged Woodpecker put on a good show. This is an endemic subspecies according to the AOU, probably due to lack of work as the vocalizations and plumage are markedly different from Golden-olive Woodpecker. A huge flock of Blue-crowned Motmots made us laugh on the way in, as Roy has missed this species with most of the groups he has taken down to El Cielo this year. We saw a Lineated Woodpecker peering out of a nest hole, and later her mate came in to replace her in the nest.

Things were really rather quiet so we packed up and went to Boca Toma II, a restaurant and fish farm on the river Rio Frio (?) downstream. We took a boat ride in search of waterbirds in an outboard boat with plastic seats and had great looks at Sungrebe and Boat-billed Heron – this is the northernmost known outpost of both species. We also had excellent looks at Amazon Kingfisher, Muscovy Duck, more Blue-crowned Motmots, another pair of Bat Falcons. Walking around Boca Toma until lunch, we found a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls allopreening, the larger female preening the male while sharing a perch. We found at least two nests of Rose-throated Becard, and several of us enjoyed watching adult males of the local very black subspecies after watching the immature male at ELG molting all winter.

Lunch at Boca Toma II was Langostinos and catfish. Langostinos are large freshwater prawns served drenched in garlic butter, and the catfish was filleted special for us as they were out of tilapia, and served steamed with vegetables. Rice and potatoes accompanied the meal. This was truly as much a food trip as a birding trip thanks to Roy's knowledge of the local restaurants. We spent another hour waddling along the canal seeing mostly butterflies in the heat of the day before we decided to move on.

We went next to some cactus (nopal) plantations and looked for birds in the patches of grass remaining. We saw Ruddy Ground-Doves on the way in, always a treat since we look for them and rarely find them in the LRGV. We quickly found Yellow-faced Grassquits, and worked to see Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, White-collared Seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit. At one point Roy and I had walked on and the group had remained behind, and Roy spotted an unfamiliar hummingbird. I looked at it and recognized it after a minute as a female Lucifer Hummingbird and snapped off a photo of it as we hurridly tried to set a scope up to take digiscope pictures. Alas, it flew before we could get any more pics. But this was a lifer for Roy, and the first time I heard the term "birdgasm"!

We headed back to the hotel after a pleasant afternoon birding, and sat in the courtyard and watched the birds find us at beautiful Casa de Piedra.

El Cielo trip - Day 1 - March 23, 2009

March 23, 2009

We met in Mission and Harlingen and were picked up by Roy Rodriguez. We crossed at the Los Indios bridge at 8:30 AM. While the group got visas, I watched swallows (Tree, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cave, Cliff) fly by. A single flock of 8 Am Golden Plover flew silently by. Then it was a long drive with several stops (lucn at El Tinieblo, the museum of mescal). We arrived at Gomez Farias at 3:30 PM and checked in at the Casa di Piedre. I was given the key to the Magnolia room, a delightful room with a balcony overlooking several Mango trees. That's the hotel on the right - and their new dining room overlooks the valley. The food and staff were great!

Ricardo Jimenez Ramirez (, a local birding guide, joined us for the whole trip. We went down to La Florida, a popular swimming hole in the river (Rio Sabinas). Although there was a busload of tourists from Veracruz there swimming, we were able to locate a number of birds including a pair of Blue-throated Motmot, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Spot-breasted Wren, White-crowned and Red-lored Parrot, Red-billed Pigeon, Vaux's Swift, and Boat-billed Flycatcher.

We went back to the hotel, stopping at a telephone pole with Bat Falcon perched on top. This pair has nested in the area for several years to the delight of visiting birders. A pair of Pale-billed Woodpecker were feeding on the hillside above us and put on a great show, allowing everyone to see them in the scope. We had a fantastic dinner at the hotel and turned in early.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Birding this week - March 16-20, 2009

Last night I spent a few hours in Bentsen RGV state park with some biologists. It was a great evening with some mosquitoes but not hoards, lots of people in the park as it's spring break, and some interesting behaviors to watch.

At dusk, just as the Pauraques and Eastern Screech-Owls were starting to sing an Elf Owl began calling loudly quite close to us. We watched the pair flying across the road and investigating tree cavities by silhouette before the male sat in place and called repeatedly. It was fun to watch him turning his head and calling.

We located several Pauraque including a confiding pair. The male was singing, flying up and displaying, and shuffling or running along the ground. The female with noticeably less white in the wings and tail flew in and sat nearby before moving off again a short while later. I had just put a red filter on my light, and I was interested to see that I could get closer to the Pauraque with the filter than I could the last time I tried without it. It will be interesting to continue to play with the filter and see how the birds react.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are regular on Bentsen Palm Drive now, and Green Parakeets are often in Mission or Palmview flying around in the morning.

Today (March 20) There were lots of Lincoln's Sparrows and a Common Yellowthroat in the HQ area at Bentsen today. A Tropical Kingbird was singing near the Bentsen Park HQ this morning.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Allen William's March 15

I went to Allen Williams yard in Pharr on Sunday, March 15. At times the birds on his property are so tame that I have to focus my camera as close as it will go and then BACK UP until the bird is in focus. Such was true for both a Buff-bellied Hummingbird and a very curious Northern Mockingbird today. I sat and watched his mulberry for an hour and a half. I was amazed to see SIX Northern Mockingbirds in the tree at once, it was as though they had territorial boundaries extending to individual branches in the tree. Great Kiskadees were in and out of the tree constantly as well. The Clay-colored Thrushes were in and out quickly, as was the female Western Tanager and a Baltimore Oriole. The wintering warblers were still around as well, with Wilson's, Black-and-white and Orange-crowned present though I missed the wintering American Redstart this time.

Here are a couple photos, one of a Buff-bellied Hummingbird (top) and the other of a Northern Mockingbird that decided to pose for me.

Southmost Open House March 14

It was a cold, wet, windy day on Saturday at the Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve of The Nature Conservancy. This normally closed property was open for an open house.

David Benn and I were joined by Jennifer Owen, Huck Hutchens, and Tom Pendleton to lead birdwalks for those interested. Note to self: Next time, notify the birds! Seriously, the waterbirds were plentiful even if the landbirds were staying out of the wind. We had flyby Sandhill Crane, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Wilson's Phalarope, a single Greater Scaup, and more widespread species of ducks and shorebirds on the resacas. Swallows put on a show with Barn and Cliff Swallows joining the abundant Tree and Rough-winged Swallows. A Sora marched out in the open briefly. Ringed Kingfishers were seen by both groups. Cassin's Sparrows flushed ahead of the group on our way back from the marsh. We had fun but we were glad to get out of the wind at the end of the morning.
Here's the designated greeter, an immature male Vermilion Flycatcher.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bentsen State Park March 12

I went into the park for an hour this wet and windy morning. The winter flocks are really difficult to find in the wind. We saw a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Orange-crowned Warblers out in the wind, but not many. My friends were looking for Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, so we spent most of our time in the north end of the trailer loop. We walked around, and on the way back we went onto the concrete platform that marks the old lift station on the NW corner of the Acacia Loop. I almost immediately saw a Tyrannulet! Of course I couldn't get anyone else on it. Then the male started calling a single peeping note and we were able to locate the pair for good looks at this drab, enigmatic and much desired bird. The feeding station by the Kiskadee Trail had numbers of molting Indigo Buntings and a Clay-colored Thrush, the thrush coming to a peanut butter log. The Gray Hawks in the area were calling off and on but never came by. My friends went off in search of other birds, and I went off to work.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Canoeing the Rio Grande with Roma Bluffs WBC

I went canoeing the Rio Grande from Chapeño to Salineño last Friday. This is a great way to see the Rio Grande and its habitats without getting covered in chiggers and ticks. We went with the great volunteers from the Roma Bluffs World Birding Center. Although we hit a really windy day, the trip was memorable for the vistas of the Rio and the stately Montezuma Bald Cypress. The wind was so strong it created whitecaps going UP the Rio Grande - against the current. I can't wait to go back on a calmer day and canoe up towards Falcon Dam. THANK YOU to the Roma Bluffs WBC Staff and Volunteers for making this trip possible!

Anzalduas March 10 (evening)

The wind is still roaring through south Texas. I headed over to Anzalduas County Park [Mission Texas] after work to help some friends searching for birds. They were looking for Gray Hawk and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. We walked the northern section looking and listening for the Tyrannulet, and though I thought I heard it a couple of times give a single "peep", it was hard to hear in the wind and it's difficult to localize this sound even in calm conditions. The Gray Hawk male came into the nest calling and was glimpsed by all, but it didn't stay long. We found the pair later perched on the south side of the park (across the levee) and had good looks as the male flew off with a stick in his talons, the female following a moment later.

Other highlights were Prairie Warbler (presumably the wintering bird - finally!) and excellent looks at swallows by the dam.

We celebrated at Casa del Taco for Molcajete and Negra Modelo - it was a great evening!