26 June Update

26 June Update
Back on the rarities road

My plan post-Texas was to fly to San Diego, hire a car for a week with a drop-off in Tucson three or four days later. The inspiration for the timing was a recently reported Nutting’s Flycatcher at the Bill Williams River Reserve in Arizona near Lake Havasu Arizona – home of the London Bridge, just over the California border. The broader plan was to pick up several so-called common species between San Diego and southeast Arizona, starting with Yellow-footed Gull at Salton Sea east of San Diego.

As so often happens, it was at almost precisely the time that I was flying from one region (in this case Austin) to another (San Diego) that a rarity showed up just behind me. This time it was Yellow-green Vireo near McAllen, Texas.

Getting back to recounting my SW trip, in addition to the YGVI appearance in Texas, at nearly the same time a White-eared Hummingbird was sighted at the Beatty Ranch at Miller Canyon, Arizona. Although this is an annual occurrence, it was still a pulse-raiser. But I was in California now, with what seemed to be a reasonable game plan - which I nervously decided to stick with. First stop was to the southern shore of the Salton Sea on Wednesday morning, where I watched a single Yellow-footed Gull picking at and devouring stranded fish, one bill-full at a time, impervious to any moral issues as the 20cm long fish tried vainly to escape in the receding shallows. The shoreline was littered with hundreds of desiccated fish, apparently victims of a lowering ‘sea’ level. There were plenty of other gulls lazing at water’s edge, as well as terns (Black, Forsters, Caspian), pelicans and shorebirds – including some scattered Snowy Plovers well above waterline.

With the YFGU box ticked, I drove through 115F temperatures to Lake Havasu City, Arizona on Wednesday afternoon. The aforementioned recent Nutting’s Flycatcher report was partially suppressed at the request of the reporting birders, citing concern about the safety of birders who might be tempted to look for the birds due to heat, snakes, and a confounding nature to the place.

I’ll admit that up until the time of the eBird report, Nutting’s Flycatcher wasn’t even on my radar. I was aware that the species was periodically reported from Bill Williams River Reserve, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was actually resident on a year-round basis. Looking at the crazy number of eBird database reports for the species at the reserve now, I get it. Duh. As per Austin Powers “[it]’s the village bike baby, everybody’s had a ride.” I should have been chasing the bird months ago in cooler conditions. It didn’t take much research (with help from my southern California birding team) to learn that biologist Lauren Harker has kept tabs on these flycatchers for quite a few years, and had published information about accessing the area. When I contacted her she offered to help me find the flycatcher Friday morning – her only available time slot. Seeing it was only Wednesday however, and owing to my ADHD nature, I read everything I could find about the site (Bill Williams River Reserve), and prepared for a scouting effort on my own on Thursday morning. The access road was reasonably easy for a vehicle with good ground clearance – I rented a small SUV from Enterprise Rentals in Lake Havasu City. Arriving at the end-of-road gate at 5:30AM, I had a fantastic morning exploring the scenic (dry) river gorge and surrounding country, which is predominated by Mesquite scrub and occasional stands of cottonwoods. Conditions there are currently very dry, which may account for surprisingly few birds. Although I’m not recommending anyone else to make the hike, I had no trouble finding my way to my intended waypoints and returned to the car before nine owing to fast-rising temperature. Although I crossed tracks with a handful of Myiarchus flycatchers that morning (Brown-crested and Ash-throated), and thought at one point that I was ‘in’ when a particularly skulky, seemingly darker bird made an appearance. Unfortunately, the more I looked at my photos of this bird when I got back to the car, the longer the bird’s bill and tail seemed to grow – and the more elongate its form became. Alas, it was a Brown-crested Flycatcher.

Although I’d explored probably further than I should have, not being clear at the time precisely where the the previous guys had seen the bird (they were not specific). But with round two the next morning to look forward to – this time with Lauren’s help, I remained hopeful.

Lauren and I arrived at the end of the Planet Ranch Road about 4:40 Friday morning to maximise our pre-heat birding opportunities, with just enough emerging light to see our way upstream along the path/creek beds. It took about 45 minutes to get to ‘the’ spot where a Nutting’s Flycatcher had been seen in late April, and then again in late May, then presumably again last week. The area actually has a car park configured at it, where in years gone by it was possible to drive. The extensive vegetation is comprised mainly of a mix of dense thorny Mesquite trees/bushes and introduced Tamarisk trees with emerging poplar-like cottonwoods. Although I guessed there were very few flycatchers mixed in the thin morning chorus, Lauren’s skilled ears picked up at least four pairs of Brown-crested Flycatchers and at least a few singing Ash-throated Flycatchers. We waited for maybe ten to fifteen minutes – which seemed a lot longer at the time. Then I heard, in Lauren’s best matter of fact tone: “I just heard the Nuttings.” Winding the clock in my head back a few seconds, I reckoned that maybe I’d heard it too – but wasn’t sure.  Then, waiting another ten minutes, a Nutting’s Flycatcher sang more clearly – but just briefly. We relocated to a closer position and some time later heard it from the original position. This went on for about a half hour until two birds flew into a dense Mesquite tree, and from their calls Lauren somehow ascertained that one was an Ash-throated, but the other was a Nuttings. Before I could get binocs or camera onto them they were gone. But then, things went our way. A single bird flew to a nearby cottonwood and perched high before letting loose with periodic bursts of song. ID confirmed, I took my usual standard of low quality images, and gave Lauren the appropriate ‘high-five’. Great experience which included only a few bird sightings, but the Yellow-breasted Chat was great to watch, and we had a brief visit from a Bullock’s Oriole.  On the walk back to the car we crossed paths with what is now my favourite North American mammal (sorry my Gray Whale friends, I’ve moved on), a badger! First I’d ever seen – standard quality image below.

Lauren is obviously a terrific birder with a sensational ear, and a dedicated conservationist. She and her team are doing important survey work in the region, and despite some big challenges (like not enough water flowing into the reserve) I can’t help but be impressed by her optimism for the future of the bird fauna in some types deteriorated habitats. She cited a couple of examples of recent bush regeneration actions that have paid off. I wish her very best in her research and applied conservation work, and thank her for her help in my bird-chase.

Back to Lake Havasu to drop Lauren off, then a 3.5 hour drive to Phoenix to catch a late avo flight to McAllen to see about a couple of boisterous rogue vireos shaking up the National Butterfly Centre just out of town. The eBird reports indicated that there were at least two male Yellow-green Vireos on the National Butterfly Center grounds, and that the two appeared to be competing for the butterfly park kingdom, with constant singing and occasional chasing of one another. From the moment I stepped out of the car at the well treed far end of the park – and throughout the hour or so that I stayed, the two male Yellow-greens almost never stopped singing, usually maintaining a distance of 30 metres or so – but occasionally swooping in on one another to keep the tensions high. I never saw physical contact between the two, and both made occasional hops and flutters to score insects in the tree-tops. One of the guys working at the park said that he thought there was a female in the area as well, though I never saw her.

I really like south Texas, but with the main game always at the fore, I cut my stay as short as possible to get back on the road. I wished that I could have stuck around for another shot at Red-billed Pigeon, but that mission will have to wait a bit longer. Still, I’m very excited about the wider prospects for the next week or two, and will hopefully have something interesting to put on the blog in a few days.

Quick summary of SE Arizona – unfortunately the White-eared Hummingbirds haven’t been around for a couple of days, so after finding two year-birds – Botteri’s Sparrow and Sulpher-bellied Flycatcher, I’m tearing myself away from this beautiful place.

Following is a summary of my coded bird sightings for the year so far, which really tells the story of my soon to end Big Half Year of birding. Accumulating this list of rarities has consumed most of my energies (and savings!) for a period that now seems like six years – not a mere six months. Maybe next blog entry will be some summary stuff and review of my strategy for that period – watch this space. Photos for current blog appear below the list – scroll down.
                                               
Running list of rarities (ABA codes 3-5)

Note: Among these 86 species two so-called ‘provisional’ inclusions (Cuban Vireo 21 April, and Pine Flycatcher 11 June). Since these are new species for ABA area, they will need to go through a process of consideration by appropriate rarities committees before being added to the official ABA list.

1 Streak-backed Oriole Yuma, Arizona 1 January
2 Rufous-backed Robin Phoenix Arizona 1 January
3 Tufted Duck Long Island New York 3 January 
4 Black-headed Gull Brooklyn, New York 3 January 
5 Pink-footed Goose Hartford, Connecticut 3 January 
6 Western Spindalis Miami, Florida 5 January
7 Northern Jacana Santa Ana Reserve, Texas 7 January
8 Clay Colored Robin Weslaco, Texas 7 January
9 Crimson Collared Grosbeak Weslaco, Texas 8 January
10 Siberian Accentor Surrey, British Columbia 12 January
11 Redwing Capital County, British Columbia 13 January
12 Common Pochard Kodiak, Alaska 14 January
13 Steller’s Eider Kodiak, Alaska 14 January
14 Black-tailed Gull Carlyle, Illinois 16 January
15 Golden-crowned Warbler Refugio, Texas 17January
16 Flame-coloured Tanager Refugio, Texas 17January
17 Black-capped Gnat-catcher Florida Canyon, Arizona 18 January
18 Ruddy Ground-dove East of Yuma, Arizona 20 January
19 Ivory Gull Duluth, Minnesota 21 January
20 Brambling Medina, Ohio 22 January
21 Flamingo Bunche Beach, Florida 23 January
22 Aplomado Falcon, Laguna Atascosa Reserve, Texas 25 January
23 Shiny Cowbird Florida City, Florida 27 January
24 Smooth-billed Ani Loxahatchee NWR, Florida 27 January
25 Barnacle Goose Centerport Pond, NY 28 January
26 Slaty-backed Gull Will County, Illinois 29 January
27 Rufous-capped Warbler Pena Blanca Canyon, Arizona 30 January
28 Blue Bunting Weslaco, Texas 2 February
29 Tropical Parula Weslaco, Texas 2 February
30 Hook-billed Kite Bentsen State Park, Texas 3 February
31 White-collared Seedeater Laredo, Texas 3 February
32 White-throated Thrush Estero Llanos Grande SP, Texas 8 February
33 Little Gull Dallas, Texas 9 February
34 Yellow-legged Gull Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts 10 February 
35 Kelp Gull Springfield Lake, Ohio 11 February 
36 Ruff Merced County, California 23 February
37 Zenaida Dove Long Key, Florida 24 February
38 Common Crane Lubbock, Texas 26 February
39 Skylark Victoria, British Columbia 28 February
40 California Condor The Pinnacles NP, California 2 March
41 Black-faced Grassquit Long Key, Florida 6 March
42 Fieldfare Gambo, Newfoundland 9 March
43 Ferruginous Pygmy Owl King Ranch, Texas 18 March
44 Brown Booby San Diego, California 20 March
45 Rose-throated Becard Cluff Ranch, Arizona 27 March
46 Sinaloa Wren Fort Huachuca, Arizona 30 March
47 Masked Booby Florida Keys, Florida 18 April
48 Red-billed Tropicbird Florida Keys, Florida 18 April
49 Black Noddy Dry Tortugas, Florida 19 April
50 Cuban Vireo Key West, Florida 21 April
51 Thick-billed Vireo Fort Lauderdale, Florida 22 April
52 Cook’s Petrel Central Coast, California 23 April
53 Hawaiian Petrel Central Coast, California 23 April
54 Murphy’s Petrel Central Coast, California 23 April
55 Tufted Flycatcher Ramsey Canyon, Arizona 28 April
56 Five-striped Sparrow Chino Canyon, Arizona 29 April
57 Buff-collared Nightjar California Gulch, Arizona 29 April
58 Little Stint San Francisco Bay Area, California 3 May
59 White-tailed Tropicbird Dry Tortugas, Florida 4 May
60 Fork-tailed Flycatcher New Jersey 5 May
61 Little Egret Lake Musckaskee, North Carolina 9 May
62 Bahama Mockingbird Fort Lauderdale, Florida 10 May
63 Curlew Sandpiper Chelemer, NJ 11 May
64 Smew Adak Island, Alaska 12 May
65 Common Snipe Adak Island, Alaska 13 May
66 Short-tailed Albatross West of Adak Island, Alaska 17 May
67 Long-toed Stint Attu Island, Alaska 20 May
68 Rustic Bunting Attu Island, Alaska 21 May
69 Pin-tailed Snipe Attu Island, Alaska 22 May
70 Eye-browed Thrush Attu Island, Alaska 25 May
71 Common Sandpiper Attu Island, Alaska 26 May
72 Grey-tailed Tattler Attu Island, Alaska 26 May
73 Terek Sandpiper Attu Island, Alaska 26 May
74 White Wagtail Attu Island, Alaska 26 May
75 Far Eastern Curlew Adak Island, Alaska 29 May
76 Fea’s Petrel Hatteras pelagic, NC 31 May
77 Common Greenshank Gambell, Alaska 3 June
78 Red-necked Stint Gambell Alaska 3 June
79 Common Chiff-chaff Gambell, Alaska 4 June
80 Red-throated Pipit Gambell, Alaska 5 June
81 Spectacled Eider Nome, Alaska 6 June
82 Gargany Montezuma Reserve, New York 10 June
83 Pine Flycatcher Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona 11 June
84 Slate-throated Redstart Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona 11 June
85 Nutting’s Flycatcher Lake Havasu, Arizona 24 June
86 Yellow-green Vireo McAllen, Texas 25 June

That’s:
27 species in January
12 species in February
7 species in March
11 species in April
19 species in May
10 species in June


 Photographs for 26 June update:

Yellow-footed Gull picking morsels from live fish



Black Tern



Nutting's Flycatchers have been reported from the Bill Williams River Reserve regularly for years. 



Canyon wall defining the walk to Nutting's Flycatcher sites



Nutting's Flycatcher



Badger sizing up the situation



One of the two dueling Yellow-green Vireos currently raising hell at the 
National Butterfly Center in South Texas




View from Miller's Canyon, above Beatty's Ranch where I dipped on White-eared Hummingbird.



Botteri's Sparrow - a long time coming






Texas Piñata - 21 June Update

Update 21 June
Texas Piñata

When I was in Texas a week or so ago, I’d intended to achieve a trifecta by finding the two specialty warblers – Golden-cheeked and Colima, as well as the elusive Black-capped Vireo – all within a few big days. I’d put the trip on the front burner due to the fact that all three of these birds are very difficult to find in their post-breeding relative silence and dispersal period. Of course the real urgency with many of these so-called ‘common’ bird species is to not miss out entirely when they leave the ABA area during Fall (and sometimes Summer) migration. My prioritisation of rarity chases and decision to ‘do’ Attu has been a big gamble, and I knew I’d have a big job during the second half of June mopping up. My visit to Texas last week was in fact in part to check on the reported Green Violet-ear in Utopia area – which had flown the coop by the time I arrived. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done enough homework on the Golden-cheeked Warbler prior to arriving in the Utopia and Lost Maples area, where both Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos are commonly reported in May, and upon arriving in the area was shocked to find that my Verizon service wasn’t available – I had no online capacity to dig deeper. That’s my excuse anyway, and bottom line is I dipped on the warbler, but with great effort did find a band of vireos at the top of the ‘pools’ walking track. With my time chewed up I had no opportunity to drive south to Big Bend NP to search for the Colima Warbler. So instead flew to Minneapolis to join my buddies John and Nigel for the trip recounted previously.

But upon flying to Austin a few days ago, I arrived with a proper game-plan for finding the two important warblers. Although I didn’t have expectations of an easy run, I did have a sense of determination, which usually serves me well. After making appropriate arrangements I bought a cheap set of camping necessities – sleeping bag, tarp and air mattress at Kmart, loaded up the rest of the space in my pack with water and Gatorade, and began making the famous hike up Pinnacles Track, camping near one of the known hot spots up near the top. Every serious ABA Big Year birder, past and present (surely I’m the last to get up there this year) has made the pilgrimage to the Chisos Mountains portion of Big Bend National Park for the Colima Warbler, and I thought about people like Kenn Kauffman, Sandy Komito, and Benton Basham, right through to Lynn Barber, John Vanderpoel, Jay Lehmann, Chris Hitt, and Neil Hayward with every step. It was a spectacular hike, purposely undertaken in the late afternoon to avoid the heat as much as possible. The walk was actually much easier than I’d anticipated, in that the ever-rising trail is not all that steep, and its in excellent condition. I arrived at my intended stopping point just after sunset, less than two hours after setting off, and was welcomed by a pair of apparently very territorial Mexican Whip-poor-wills that circled me at head height at a distance of only two to five metres. Assuming that there was a nest very close by, I moved a short distance further up the trail to set up my swag and dream about Colima Warblers.

I awoke just on first light, to the morning serenade of many birds – the closest being a Colima Warbler singing its heart out from the tree directly above me. Couldn’t have imagined a happier way to start the day. Over the course of the next hour I heard at least four Colima Warblers, and saw and poorly photographed two of these. Happy days! And what a beautiful sunrise to begin the walk back down to the car park area. A couple of hours later and I was on the road heading towards Austin.

My front row plan for Golden-cheeked Warblers was to firstly meet up with Austin-based birder Jeff Mundy to look in one or two areas not far from his home. I had two backup plans if that didn’t work out. Jeff is a lawyer who for many years has dedicated much of his efforts, both professionally and privately, to protect and enhance the chances for long-term survival of the iconic Hills Country warbler species. We met at Jeff’s place early, and by 7AM were looking at a feeding group of warblers  and other small birds that included at least one immature Golden-cheeked Warbler. A short time later we found another little group of feeding birds flitting about the upper reaches of deciduous trees, this one including several GCWAs of which I was able to photograph one mature individual.  What a relief!

I grew up in the US (migrating to Australia in my early 20’s), and I was lucky to live on what was then the outskirts of San Antonio during those magic years of ages six to nine. With Salado Creek virtually in my backyard, discovering nature – and snakes in particular, was inevitable. And boy did I catch the nature bug, spending untold hours exploring bushy areas, fishing and crawdad chasing. That was a half-century ago, and I was determined on this central Texas trip to make time to visit the old neighbourhood and surrounding environs.  And I did find the old family house, as well as the school where I attended 1st to 3rd grade, as well as the massive pecan tree where my buddies and I built a tree house from which pecan-chucking battles often raged. But the state of Salado Creek came as quite a shock and a real disappointment. Gone is the slow-moving deep creek full of garfish, turtles and aquatic plants. All that remains now is a gravel-filled rivulet that includes no standing water deeper than a few inches, just a silted up drainage channel. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s a pattern that seems to be unfolding worldwide. This fascination with nature can sometimes be a curse – there’s often a sense of sadness, even in some of the most beautiful places when looking at the most spectacular wildlife species, with the recognition of the degrading factors at play – and of course, nowhere more-so than in Australia.   

As always, I’m totally pressed for time and wish I could invest the time for more colourful stories – there are no shortages of such stories, and I will eventually type up my lengthy voice dictations and write something up. One day!

Big Bend's majestic Pinnacles Track on the way up.



And on the way down - still in Colima Warbler habitat.



It's a Colima Warbler. Honest!


Bud's: Its got everything!

Whew! Golden-cheeked Warbler - voted 'most likely to miss.


Groove-billed Ani - straight outa Jurassic, and my new favorite bird species even though I spent more time chasing it on latest Texas trip than any other species.


Black-capped Vireo from my previous central Texas trip - a stunning bird.