Saturday, December 17, 2011

Eastern Towhee at Quinta Mazatlan

I went to Quinta Mazatlan after lunch today with the idea of taking a quick look around in the rain and then heading home quickly. One of the first flocks that I encountered had 3 Spotted Towhee (a male and two females) and this Eastern Towhee.
It was great to hear this bird "chewink"-ing near the mansion later in the afternoon. The towhee flock moved off and this Tropical Parula came in with a flock of Orange-crowned Warblers. At one point it nearly landed on me! Later I saw it feeding on the orange bars by the amphitheater. The yellow breast is very extensive, extending to the legs rather than ending on the upper breast as in Northern Parula; the yellow breast is lacking a crescent (again as in Northern) but rather has an orange wash across the breast. The pale around the eye is more visible in the photo than it was in the field. I have noticed other Tropical Parulas here losing the pale edgings through the winter. This bird sang a few times in a large live oak near the amphitheater.
A quick call to Dan Jones and he came over to look for the Eastern Towhee with success. As we were birding around, this Broad-tailed Hummingbird appeared at one of the feeders at the mansion. Not the greatest photos here in the rain, but the tail had broad blue-green central tail feathers and rusty edges on the outer tail feathers. The throat lacked color in the gorget, and the lores lacked any rufous. It seemed to duck into the feeder when the Buff-bellieds were away.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Eating Crow - Royal Tern in Hidalgo County

I'm known for being a cynic - I may not be from Missouri, but I like to see photos or descriptions when I'm told about rare birds. There are a few species that I hear reports of, but never see documentation. I've come to question the status of these birds within Hidalgo County, an inland county in Texas.

One such species is the Royal Tern. It's common on the coast, but that's an hour away. I have heard many reports of Royal Terns in Hidalgo County but never seen one myself. I had no idea I was in excellent company - long time local birder Dan Jones had a similar hole in his county list. Today, I called Dan Jones about a Bonaparte's Gull at the Donna Reservoir - and he paid me back with a call about a Royal Tern that he found when he went to look for the Bonie. I still think many reports of Royals in the county are begging juvenal Caspian Terns. Juv Caspians are still peeping and following adults in fall and winter when most Royal Terns are reported.You can see the long, narrow, orange-yellow bill; white forehead with black extending from eye to eye across the back of the head; clear white wingtips with a narrow black border on the trailing edge below; narrow wings throughout their length; and more forked tail compared to Caspian Tern.
Directions to the Donna Reservoirs - from US 83 on the west side of Donna, take FM 1423 (Val Verde Road) south to Business 83. Follow 1423 east to its continuation on Valley View Road south, which bisects the Donna Reservoirs. This is a good area for diving ducks, herons, egrets, swallows, and gulls and terns in winter.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Surf Scoter at SPI - Until the Alligator ate it...

I was sitting at observation platform 7 watching the Pied-billed Grebes and ignoring the alligator this morning, when I saw a Surf Scoter swimming down the channel towards me. I was shocked to say the least as I was sitting in a fresh water marsh. I snapped off a few photos and my card filled up - just too many photo ops on the boardwalk! So I went to delete some images to free up space as the scoter kept swimming right at me. I looked down to delete another less than sharp Reddish Egret when I heard a loud splash. I looked up - no scoter. Also no alligator. I waited, and the alligator came to the surface with the scoter in its mouth. Now why couldn't it have grabbed a coot instead?
And the Hammond's Flycatcher was still at the Convention Center too.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Linda Moss's photo - Masked Duck, Santa Ana, 11-23-2011

Here's Linda Moss's photo of a female plumaged Masked Duck at Willow Lakes of Santa Ana NWR 11-23-2011. The bird has been looked for and not seen through 11-27-2011.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

American Woodcock at Casa Santa Ana, Alamo Texas

I spent a delightful evening tonight (November 22, 2011) on the patio of Casa Santa Ana watching this American Woodcock probing the soil. It seemed to be finding food in this green spot in the middle of the drought. American Woodcock are rare birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Woodcocks have their eyes widely separated on either side of their head, allowing for binocular vision both in front and behind the bird. This bird is watching John McClung and I stalk it - but it's relatively unconcerned.

Golden-crowned Warbler in Mission at National Butterfly Center

Here's a couple of quick pictures of the Golden-crowned Warbler from the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas this morning. The NBC (or NABA) park is located about 1 miles east of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park on old Military Hwy. The bird is on the woodland or dike trail between feeders D and F, but it could be anywhere on this wooded trail. This species tends to be a real skulker but will come out in the open if you are lucky. NBC is closed on Thanksgiving, and mosquitos are present on the woodland (aka dike) trail.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Birding the La Laja Ranch, west of San Ygnacio, Texas

The La Laja Ranch is a 3000 acre ranch with extensive access to the Rio Grande. There is a two-track road along the river with viewpoints to the river and extensive corrizo cane and many White-collared Seedeaters, the main attraction for birders.

Access to the ranch needs to be pre-arranged with the owner, Edward Herbst. There is a fee to visit the site, $25 per person in October 2011 for 6 or more birders; or a flat $150 for less than six. Contact information for Mr. Herbst is Someone will have to meet you on the highway (US 83 west of San Ygnacio) at the Arroyo Delores, let you through the gate, and show you the way to the river.

To date, every birding group has seen White-collared Seedeater! I went with six people on 10/21/2011, and each person saw 4-8 seedeaters. This private ranch is the best site I've visited for White-collared Seedeater, and the river access and hackberry trees in the riparian corridor make the birding interesting with Plain Chachalaca, Gray Hawk, Great Kiskadee, Long-billed Thrasher, and Clay-colored Thrush.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birding the Chara Pinta Reserve, Sinaloa

The Tufted Jay is a charismatic endemic with a very limited range in the pine-oak forests of highlands in Sinaloa, Durango, and Nayarit. Steve Howell's A Bird Finding Guide to Mexico gives directions to this species at Rancho Banco Liebre in Sinaloa. The neighboring community, Ejido El Palmito, has developed an ecotourism program with facilities for tourists who want to see the Chara Pinta, as the Tufted Jay is known locally. And who wouldn't want to see this bird? Here's the Ejido El Palmito van for the Ecotours Chara Pinta in front of one of the cabins. The cabins have running water, propane hot water heaters (lit only when you want a shower), a small cooking facility (gas burners), a sitting area and 2-3 bedrooms per cabin.Here's our cabin, which was set off from the main area by a couple hundred yards. We could see the lights of Mazatlan from the porch, and we could hear Stygian Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will! Whiskered Screech-Owls are also common here.The communal area had a kitchen and dining room.Here's a view of the cooking end of the cabin -
And the seating and eating end. Note: No internet access as of 10/2011, but cell phone reception was OK. There's no electricity on site, so rechargeable LED lights (provided) were used in the cabin - and bring your own headlamp or flashlight!A wood stove next to the cooking area was used as well, here to heat blue corn tortillas. Our group had arranged for the local community to provide our meals, and we were glad we did! Very tasty food, we especially enjoyed the homemade salsa with roasted chiles and tomatoes. Cooking over a wood fire can be a slow process, but the results are worth the wait. The forest is spectacular. Old pine trees mix with oaks and madrones, and an extensive understory means that Red Warblers of the gray-cheeked subspecies melanauris.
There are several miradors or view points over the Barranca. We saw Military Macaw (Guacamaya) and Band-tailed Pigeon flying in the canyon.Here's Don Santos, our bird guide from Ejido El Palmito with Greg Levandoski of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. Our thanks to Don Santos for sharing his knowledge and experience. But the star of the show is the Tufted Jay or Chara Pinta.
We spent a lot of time talking to Don Santos about the Tufted Jay. He believes from survey work he has done that the population has declined on the property by 50% from 600 to 300 birds. Don Santos knows the birds well, and using him as a local guide will add to your experience at the property. Don Santos has a good knowledge of vocalizations, and because he's out on the property often he knows where the birds are. We first met him as we drove in to the reserve and he had a group looking at a Stygian Owl roosting near the road! He told us the best season for Thick-billed Parrots (early November) and knows the seasonal presence of the birds as well. I can't wait to return! To make reservations to visit the Chara Pinta reserve, contact Lizett Gabriela GarcĂ­a Alfaro (Gaby) at For our group of four, costs for meals and room came to $800 pesos for 2 nights in October 2011. Don Santos's guide service is extra, as is transportation to/from the Mazatlan airport or hotels. If you are unfamiliar with driving in Mexico or uncomfortable with dangerous mountain roads and lots of truck traffic, leave the driving to Ecotours El Palmito. Others who rode in their van were pleased with the drivers skills and abilities on the tight turns and "interesting" situations presented by the Durango Highway. The road from the highway to the cabins was recently graded when we arrived and although we had to walk some sections (to assess clearance and lighten the load) we were able to navigate the road slowly and with due caution. Higher clearance would have made the trip much easier.

For more information, see the Reserva Chara Pinta facebook page here; go to the "info" and "welcome" links at the left under the logo. And "like" the page while you are there!

A bird list can be found for the Tufted Jay Preserve hotspot in eBird/Aver Aves. Please report your observations in eBird!
Here's a link to an update with a better photo of the Tufted Jay!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Birding Mazatlan - October 2011

I birded the Mazatlan area during the CECAM 2011 meeting October 2-7.
Estero del Yugo is a reserve of the University of Sinaloa. There is a donation of $50 pesos requested for a day visit. The reserve is a mangrove and tree-lined lake with numbers of wading birds and land birds. I recorded about 50 species each trip, with highlights being Purplish-backed Jay, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, Grayish Saltator, and many migrants.

I birded around the hotel as well, many migrants including Painted Bunting, a variety of warblers, egrets and herons flying by, and the many many Blue-footed and Brown Boobies around the Booby Rocks or Dos Hermanos.One morning, a group of us drove 30-45 minutes north to a private ranch within the Meseta Cacaxtle. We enjoyed large numbers of migrants including Varied and Painted Bunting, warblers, and sparrows. Hummingbirds included Plain-capped Starthroat, Costa's, and Broad-billed.

Red-crowned Parrot

There's a lot of interest in Red-crowned Parrot since the US Fish and Wildlife Service responded favorably to a proposal to list the species (see the federal register notice here). I am posting this account - long held in draft form - to pique your interest in the species and its distribution in south Texas. You can also read about a local grass-roots effort by the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival to help the Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen on their blog.

Red-crowned Parrot
Amazona viridigenalis
IUCN Status: Endangered

The Red-crowned Parrot is a familiar resident of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s urban habitats. This species forms large flocks in winter in the area of Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen. The flocks roam the area, flying out in the morning in search of food, and returning to roost in the evening. Flocks often roost in traditional locations, though these may change through the course of the winter.

Pairs are evident in the winter as mates allopreen (preen each other). Pairs seem to remain together through the winter. In spring, flocks break into smaller and smaller groups as pairs search for suitable cavities to enlarge. Nest cavities are often in dead palm tree trunks, either in the top of the snag or in enlarged holes in the trunk. Red-crowned Parrots in the LRGV have been seen nesting with other species of Amazon parrots (including Yellow-crowned Parrot for several years at Allen Williams in Pharr) and hybrid offspring have been produced. Younger non-breeding birds form small flocks in summer. Like most Amazon parrots, Red-crowned Parrots do not nest until they are several years old.
Confusion species are all believed to be exotic in origin, with the most frequently reported species Yellow-headed Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, Lilac-crowned Parrot, and Yellow-crowned Parrot. Hybrids of these species with Red-crowned may occur. Compare female Red-crowned with smaller Lilac-crowned Parrot.

The voice of the Red-crowned Parrot is a distinctive raucous series of calls usually given in flight. As with most parrots, they have many voices, but the harsh grating tones and raucous voice is unmistakable where other large Amazons are unlikely. Listen here to one of John Arvin's recordings on the WBC site.

Females have less extensive red on the crown compared to males, though this is often easiest to see in pairs. Younger birds have gray irises, changing to light brown to yellow in adults. Field work in Mexico showed individuals with yellow feathers in the head and body, and others with the bend of the wing red (Enkerlin and Hogan 1997).

The Red-crowned Parrot was not present in the valley historically. The earliest records are in the mid-80’s, and by the late 80’s they were present across the valley. There is no agreement as to the origin of these birds, with some advocating that the birds came from Mexico in response to a severe drought, and having found the well irrigated urban environments of the LRGV they decided to stay. Others believe that the flocks had their origin from captive birds. Regardless of the source of the flocks in Texas and those known to be of captive origin in Puerto Rico, Florida, California, and Hawaii, there are now more Red-crowned Parrots in the United States than in their native range.
This chart shows the number of Red-crowned Parrots per party hour as recorded on Texas Christmas Bird Counts from count year 82 (1980-1981) to count year 110 (2009-2010). The wild fluctuations may be the small number of counts driving the numbers, the variable number of observers on each count each year, and the difficult some years finding the flocks other than at dawn and dusk, but only if you know where they are roosting.

Counts with Red-crowned Parrots present include:
* Anzalduas/Bentsen - 1 year - count 94 (1993-1994)- 2 birds. The McAllen flock rarely wanders west to Mission.
* Brownsville - 4 years - count 110 (2009-2010) - 143 birds.
* Harlingen - 13 years - count 107 (2006-2007)- 163 birds.
* Santa Ana - 17 years- count 102 (2001-2002)- 200 birds.
* Weslaco - 7 years - count 107 (2006-2007) - 159 birds. Weslaco has recorded Red-crowned Parrot every year this relatively new count has been conducted.

Range maps for Red-crowned Parrots are generally based on Howell and Webb (1990). The map at NatureServe includes the introuced populations in Puerto Rico as Exotic but does not map the US populations well. A much better map of the Mexican range of the Red-crowned Parrot is in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species here.

The Red-crowned Parrot has several conservation issues that can be addressed, including limited nest sites, lack of protection and harvest for the pet trade, hybridization, and destruction of riparian corridor and foothill habitats in the native range in Mexico. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is providing parrot and parakeet nesting towers to provide additional sites for these birds to nest. Leaving dead palm tree trunks standing or "planting" these dead trunks in safe areas provides much needed nesting structure. Red-crowned Parrot is not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBTA provides the majority of the protection for birds in the United States, and at the time the Treaty was was written there were no wild parrots left in the United States as the Carolina Parakeet was extinct. Parrots could be added to the treaty to ensure protection for the Red-crowned Parrot. The city of Brownsville has legislation that protects the Red-crowned Parrot, and other cities are contemplating taking action to protect these birds and their nests. Protection of nest sites, and the riparian corridor and foothill forests used by these birds in Mexico, is desperately needed to maintain the native population in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.
Where to see this species:
Absent or very rare at many World Birding Center sites. See Valley Nature Center's brochure or webpage for suggestions, or the Rare Bird Alert ( Try Downtown Brownsville, Harlingen, Weslaco, and McAllen. Also consider - University of Texas - Brownville Campus; Olivera Park, Brownville; Pendleton Park, Harlingen; Valley Nature Center, Weslaco; Frontera Audubon Center, Weslaco; Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center, McAllen; Allen Williams' Backyard, Pharr.

Online References:

Enkerlin-Hoeflich, E. C., and K. M. Hogan. Red-crowned Parrot. Birds of North America. This series is extremely useful but it is a fee site. The fees are discounted to Texas Ornithological Society members and free to American Ornithologists Union members. Join!
IUCN Red List 2011
NatureServe InfoNatura 2011

Frequent Flier

More and more it seems everyone is a Frequent Flier with some airlines!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Flooding 2010 - Santa Ana NWR Pintail Lakes

See photos in the blog from last summer showing flooding at Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen RGV State Park, and other sites. Water at Pintail Lakes of Santa Ana is just coming down so the levees and roads are visible again. Up until these photos - taken last week - the area was one large pond. This is looking east from the Pintail Lakes cuttoff trail.
And looking southeast. This is normally a field. You can see the road that is the Pintail Lakes trail dividing this pond.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hook-billed Kite Saga 2011

The date: May 28, 2011.
The location: Private property near La Joya, Texas.
The birds: Hook-billed Kites.
I live near the epicenter of Hook-billed Kites in the USA in western Hidalgo County, Texas. I actually go out looking for them in the summer, and I'm always surprised when I do find one.

My first observations of Hook-billed Kites this summer were of the adults carrying snails on May 29, 2011. The photo above is of the red-barred female. While small, whitish land snails in the genus Rabdotus are the common diet for the species, the kites don't usually carry them long distances unless they have a chick they are feeding in the nest. If they don't have chicks, they take the snail to a nearby stump or fence post, extract the snail, and grab another. But this female was carrying snails off to the north, and returning without a snail. She's got a chick somewhere north of me.

It's funny just how many people jump at the chance to burrow their way through thorny, dusty, tick and chigger-filled thorn forest to look for a Hook-billed Kite nest. A crack crew assembled to look for the nest on June 3. We were all around the nest but we didn't find it, though many of us gave blood to the thorn forest understory.

Here's the chick in the nest, as found on June 5, 2011. I found the nest, snapped this photo, and got out without the adults knowing I was present. That's a great feeling. The nest was actually visible from a road if you knew just where to look.

I worry about the kites being "loved to death" - they are very defensive of the area around their nest, and will follow people around if they find them too close to the nest. Instead of entertaining birders and photographers, they should be feeding their chick - no easy task in the current "exceptional" drought. The nest is in a mesquite, and if anything it is higher than the nest we found last year (see posts from June and July 2010). Here's the male, below, making a snail run - I'm not near the nest here, he's just flying overhead. The male Hook-billed Kite of this pair is a gray (normal) morph (as opposed to the rare black morph) but this individual is nearly lacking the white barring on the breast of a typical male. This unusual plumage allows this bird to be identified as an individual, especially with the very small number of Hook-billed Kites in Texas. The male makes many fewer trips to feed the chick than the female, at least in the second half of the nestling period. I've never found a nest in incubation or with a small chick. The male seems to feed the chick more than the female in the late afternoon. Here's the female Hook-billed Kite crabbing into a very strong headwind, and compensating for the wind by using her tail as a rudder. We've been getting a lot of strong winds this summer.
I wasn't so lucky trying to skulk into the nest to check on the chick a few days later. The female appeared behind me as soon as I got to the area. Hook-billed Kites often remind me of a parrot when perched, something like an African Gray. I think it's the light eye and the large head, but it is exascerbated when the bird is looking for a snail or cocking its head. After I peeked quickly at the chick - getting bigger, doing just fine - I headed straight out. The female was perched by the road on the way out, and she allowed me to walk right by her - but not without some comments. I think she's starting to recognize me as an individual. Probably better I don't know what names she's calling me. Here's the chick on June 18 - it's extensively barred on the underparts and already has the rufous collar across the back of the neck. The extent of the barring means it's a female, the males are much less barred as juveniles. The nest was empty on June 19. The birds vanished last year as soon as the chick fledged. They likely move the chick closer to the feeding area if it's not depleted, or to new areas if it is. I don't expect to see them again soon.

So just how rare are Hook-billed Kites? While they are widespread in the New World, extending well into South America, they are at their northern limits in South Texas. In South Texas there are very few birds, with 4 pair known in Hidalgo County this spring (2011). There were no territorial pairs in Cameron County where they are rare, and there were only infrequent observations in Starr County. The unique nesting habitat needs of the Hook-billed Kite includes stumps, snags, or fence posts to use as food perches, LOTS of accessible Rabdotus land snails for food, and tall trees to hold a nest. There aren't many places that have enough snails to support a nesting pair of Hook-billed Kites. The snails need natural areas with prickly-pear, yucca, or other plants that drop enough leaves, pads, and vegetation to form thick mats on the forest floor. When it gets hot and dry the snails burrow under the mats to conserve moisture.

Your best bet to see these birds is to check the Lower Rio Grande Valley Rare Bird Alert for recent sightings, or look from the tree tower at Santa Ana NWR or the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park hawk tower. Hook-billed Kites are often seen early in the morning when the Turkey Vultures are leaving their roosts. The Hook-billed Kites seem to start flying about the same time as the vultures. And remember, any day you see a Hook-billed Kite is a good day.

Observations of Hook-billed Kites in South Texas are greatly desired, please send information to or enter them into eBird. Notes on plumage, color and extent of barring, and behavior (carrying snails, display flight, vocalizing) are of great interest. Notes on any Texas nesting attempts from years past are also desired.