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

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