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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Oaxaca Birding - La Cumbre to Valle Nacional - and back!

Although it was later in the season than we would have liked, we arranged a trip from Oaxaca city (where we'd been attending a meeting) over the Sierra Juarez to Valle Nacional on May 21-24 2011. Four days were about right for this expedition, as we would have been too hurried in three days. Our targets were the 20+ species with limited range or endemic to the high elevation pine-oak forest, cloud forest, and Atlantic slope foothills. The route was simple, Mexico 175 over the mountains to Valle Nacional. The road has its share of potholes, slips, and slow trucks and takes 5 or 6 hours driving straight through to get from Oaxaca to Valle Nacional.

I'll start with the logistics. We arranged for this trip with local guide Eric Antonio Martinez (mirmidons_1987 AT ( and rode in his Malibu, which had plenty of room for the group and our luggage. The car also had tourist plates, which is required for anyone offering a guide service. Eric was an excellent driver, never bringing on the "white-knuckle syndrome" or motion sickness that these curvy mountain roads can bring on. He knew the area well, and knew which pull-offs provided good bird habitat and safe conditions, and he had a good sense of humor. I would travel with him again and hope to do so this year.
The weather was as expected, fairly cool at higher elevations and hot in the lowlands. We stayed at the Hotel Valle Real on the main street in Valle Nacional. The only hotels available are in Oaxaca city or Valle Nacional. The Valle Real had hot running water, wonderful air conditioning, and a delightful owner Lorena who made us coffee every morning at a ridiculously early hour for non-birders. The hotel was basic for those used to 4-star opulence, but it was clean and comfortable and cool. We ate evening meals at the Restaurant Desgarennes, which had a daily meal option of soup, rice and beans, and a meat entree that was invariably delicious. The beer was cold, and the staff very accomodating.

As far as the birding goes, we start on Monday at 5:30 AM with Eric picking us up on time (as always!) and taking us up to La Cumbre in search of the Fulvous Owl found originally by Rich Hoyer. On the way up, a Mexican Whip-poor-will was sitting in the road and stayed put while we stopped the car. The Fulvous Owl flew in and sat over us, hooting a series of monotone hoots and not sounding like a Barred Owl. What a great way to start the trip!

We spent about five hours walking in the dry pine-oak forest, with Red Warblers so abundant they were dismissed with comments like "just another Red Warbler" - what heresy! We saw Black Thrush, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Gray-barred Wren, Rufous-capped Brush-Finch, Brown-backed Solitaire, Golden-browed Warbler, and many more. We walked a few kilometers up the Corral de Piedras Road and though we saw many Stellar's Jays and a few Gray-barred Wrens, we did not see any of our target Dwarf Jays. Uh-oh! Missing an endemic at one of the best places to find them was disheartening, but we needed to keep moving. We stopped for coffee and then headed off over the pass.
After passing the mirador at the summit, we parked and walked a short distance down a forest trail through more humid pine-oak forest. Eric quickly spotted an elusive Crested Guan, which was eating fruit in the canopy and ran off after tiring of watching us. A flock of Unicolored Jays came in to investigate us, and a gorgeous Blue-crowned Chlorophonia came in to check us out. Yes, I really must carry the camera more often and get a decent flash! While Brown-backed Solitaire is at La Cumbre, from the mirador on the only Solitaire we saw was the well named Slate-colored Solitaire. Eric found a nest on this trail, with four small chicks. Although they sing in the canopy they nest in hollows on the ground - in our case next to the trail.
We continued on, and made a final stop for the day a bit farther on where a Ruddy Quail-Dove whooshed by, bright orange in the sun, and highland birds including Flame-colored Tanager, White-throated Thrush, and Red-legged Honeycreeper stopped by to check us out. White-collared Swifts were pretty common up high, but most were in molt except for this bird, which looks like a youngster lacking the pale collar below.
The next morning we headed back up to walk a forest trail for a couple of kilometers. The trail was shaded and the forest intact. We were looking for interior forest birds, and these shy birds can be tough. Flocks of Barred Parakeets buzzed by overhead, coming lower later in the morning but always going somewhere fast. We had great looks at a pair of Spectacled Foliage-gleaners working their way through the forest. Hummingbirds included Bumblebee, Emerald-chinned, Garnet-throated, and the common Azure-crowned. Azure-hooded Jays were all around at as times, and were glimpsed moving through the trees or in flight and finally one flew in clear view with the sun on its bright blue hood. Here's a morpho that flew by.
We spent nearly an hour playing peek-a-boo with a Mexican Antthrush. The Mexican Antthrush's rising bouncing-ball call was in contrast to the decending call of the Black-faced, but the AOU still considers them conspecific. I finally realized the Mexican Antthrush was at the top of the hill perched in a bush looking at us when it flew over our heads! We watched it run back up the hill in plain view, and then it perched in the open for Eric and I, showing off its bare skin eyering and nearly all black head and breast. Here's a Yellow-bellied Elaenia that was on Highway 175 nearby.
The next two days were a blur of early mornings at different elevations and short walks on Highway 175 (with surprisingly little traffic at times). In the lower more open habitats we saw Blue-crowned (Lesson's) Motmot, White-winged Tanager, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Blue Ground-Dove, Long-billed Gnatwren, Thick-billed Seedfinch, Yellow-faced Grassquit and more.
One afternoon Eric suggested that we go to Tuxtepec to see Sumichrast's Wren, which Robert immediately dubbed the Sumo-wrestler Wren. I had no idea we were only an hour's drive from this micro-endemic! I was ecstatic about the opportunity to look for this bird, and the others could see my excitement so we were off in the 100F+ weather. We got to the site, an area of limestone ridges and a mule track that had polished the limestone. The heat was radiating off the stones, and I wondered more than once what possessed us to make this trek and how unlikely it was to see such a rare bird under such hot conditions. But the wren didn't get that memo, and it came out in the open and sang for us, sounding more like a Canyon Wren than anything else. Another answered it, and we took the time to track down a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl on the way out.
We drove slowly for several kilometers on the way back, picking up open country species including Aplomado Falcon, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Roadside Hawk, Groove-billed Ani, Altamira Oriole, Blue-black Grassquit, Variable Seedeater, and more.

Another afternoon we walked along the river near Valle Nacional, getting our best looks at Keel-billed Toucan and Band-backed Wrens. Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers were along the river.
On the last day we were trying for a few target that we'd missed along the way. Surprisingly, new birds kept appearing even on the last day. We stopped at a pull-off we'd been to before, and found that the female becard we'd been speculating on before was nowhere to be seen, but the male - clearly a Gray-collared Becard - was singing in front of the nest she'd been working on, so that solved that question! A bit farther up the mountain we had a White-faced Quail-Dove rocket across the road, bright chestnut with a strikingly pale head. We were all a bit shocked (fortunately we were all looking the right direction) when the bird flew back across the road!

Up higher in drier pine-oak forest a stop yielded a pair of Great Black Hawks, another stop yielded a whistling Black Hawk-Eagle. An Eastern Wood-Pewee and an Olive-sided Flycatcher were migrants (as were Yellow-bellied Flycatchers). We got back to La Cumbre late in the afternoon and spent two hours looking and listening for Dwarf Jays. Finally, Eric spotted one - and then there were two - and then we'd all seen the pair! What a way to end the trip!