Frostbite!

Today was flippin cold! The sky was lovely and sunny but that swine of a wind made -20°C into -30°C and it chilled to the bone.

In the afternoon I went to Bois Papineau with Claude and we had a tour of the woodlot there hoping for owls. The Eastern Screech Owl was not home in the regular hole but we did find a Great Horned Owl that gave us a good stare. It was very skittish but then if you are daft enough to try to roost above a main path where dogs and folk walk then you learn the hard way. I got a few record shots though.

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In the north section of the wood there was a fair bit of activity around the feeding station as birds were coming and going all of the time. Some birds posed so I just had to capture their images.

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The morning had been quite different. We went off to Mont Royal Park in downtown Montreal looking for the recent Black-backed Woodpecker that had been regularly found in the small pine woods below the chalet. The first look drew a blank but, refreshed and reheated by a cup of hot chocolate, we gave it another bash. In between the frantic flapping of the flags above the chalet, oddly the Canadian flag was not there, I heard a distant call and so we plunged down the hill, finding the female woodpecker giving some more trees grief.

We tracked her as she moved around a fair bit but away from decent photo range. Eventually she settled down for a preen with the sun behind us and our lenses in hand, or tripod, depending on who’s kit we are talking about, and the cold cameras went into action. She has obviously been there all winter, judging by the numerous pock-marked trees that bear the marks of her fastidious attention.

Below are a couple of shots for your enjoyment.

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Texas through a smaller lens

While I lug around a Canon 70D with a 100-400mm lens attached wherever we go, Sandra has a lightweight Canon SX40. I did try the super-zoom route last year while working (briefly) in Nevada but found it too limited and frequently moody when it came to focussing. Even when the subject filled the viewfinder I still had problems and would have to turn it off, wait ten seconds and then hope the subject had not become bored and left.

It has taken a while to become comfortable with, after using a Panasonic for a few years but now Sandra’s camera is producing some pleasing shots, a few of them are below.

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Sandhill Cranes, part of a group of 90 or so with a small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese and a single Snow Goose in the background.

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A white morph Reddish Egret seen on the Whooping Crane boat trip.

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Great Kiskadee.

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Just a Northern Cardinal but a nice study.

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Long-billed Curlew from a moving boat, I couldn’t even get a shot of this one.

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Curve-billed Thrasher at Quinta Matzalan.

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Roosting Common Pauraque at Estero Llano Grande.

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Adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron waiting for dusk.

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Male Blue-winged Teal – nice.

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Great Blue Herons at a breeding colony at Aransas.

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An unexpected sight – a Great Horned Owl at Aransas, this bird was a long way away.

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American White Pelicans at Aransas.

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Brown Pelican in all its finery.

The shots are a mixture of close and distant, just to give you an idea of how well that camera can perform.

Time to go

After the success with the Slaty-backed Gull we then spent longer than expected around Lake Casa Blanca SP, more in hope than expectation of stumbling upon a covey of Scaled Quail but, alas, no. The park looked like the sort of place that you could spend a full day exploring and if we ever rent an RV for a valley trip it will be on our itinerary for sure. While cruising the back roads we found our trip first Chipping Sparrows and Ringed Kingfisher and had a few photo ops but we were only putting off the inevitable and it was soon time to head north.

Below: Western Meadowlark, Killdeer, American White Pelican, Spotted Sandpiper and a record shot of White-collared Seedeater from a trail out by the Rio Grande.

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Our journey north was uneventful apart from a few stops for obvious birds, the best being a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk somewhere near Freer. As we neared Houston we found time to stop at Texana Lakes for a look around. It was overcast but dry and we checked out part of the lake and a trail. Even at this late stage we were still easily adding to the trip list and just having fun birding. Time pressed and so did we. It seemed to be going well until the stupid sat-nav took us up highway six instead of taking the Sam Houston around Houston. Traffic light after traffic light barred the way and we encountered more dopey drivers than you’d think would be possible, no wonder people drive erratically at times.

When we booked the Woodlands Best Western for the last night it sounded quite nice, faintly rural and, from memory, in a very leafy area of greater Houston. Having seen it again, I suggested on my inevitable service survey that they preface the Woodlands name with ex, such is the deforestation that has happened to the area since 1997. The following day we had about seven hours of daylight and planned to target the Bear Creek Greater Pewee (ABA tick) and, if possible, the Williams’ garden for hummingbirds. Plan B was Red-cockaded Woodpecker, found just around the corner from the hotel.

The next day fate took a hand. Our morning alarm call was earlier than expected, courtesy of four freight trains in an hour starting at 04:10 and hooting like banshees. They sounded loud and we later found out why, the track ran behind the hotel but lacked a mention on their web site. I suppose the railway horn blowers are up at that time so why not everyone else! Once we got out onto the service road we could see the highway was a parking lot, it didn’t move at all and so we went looking for the W. G. Jones state forest and the woodpeckers.

Memory said it was along a quiet lane were we had parked somewhere near the ranger center and then walked in. Reality said hey, we’ve built a two lane highway where the lane was and ripped up blocks of the forest and inserting expensive dwellings, good luck with finding your way in now.

We pulled into the main section parking lot resigned to making the best of things and spoke to a nice lady who was out emptying her dogs in the forest. She knew the bit we meant and directed us to the right place, a poorly signed parking lot just over the road. It was all a lot smaller than I remembered but the woodpeckers were still hanging on for now. Once on the small trail we were fortunate in bumping into Dennis Shepler who knew the site well and got us onto Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch straight away. We then went off for a stroll around and found another five woodpeckers and a few more nuthatches before deciding to chance the highway. The woodpeckers all fed high and in shade but I got a couple of record shots.

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At the Williams’ yard we got Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbird easily. It was very refreshing to find a birding couple who welcomed strangers onto their property to share the birds, even when they are not around. We duly signed the visitor’s book in their absence and wondered whether we could still fit in a try for the pewee or not.

We decided we could, even though we didn’t that much of a window. We found the area and a few other birders with the same intent in mind and set about searching. We looked for as long as we dare but it was not showing or calling and the clock just kept ticking. We got to the airport with a good five minutes to spare before the car rental went into another day. The pewee was seen the next day, could that five minutes have made all the difference? We will never know and now have the arduous task of having to visit Arizona to see one, oh how we suffer for our art!

As is always the case, the trip slipped past so quickly and we were on how way home in no time. It was a welcome change to be able to bird in light clothing for a while, rather than draped in the goose down coats and padded trousers needed in Québec for most of the winter. The final trip stats were: species seen 197, lifers four, ABA ticks ten, miles, lots, burgers and shakes, a few, calories – don’t ask. I’m not sure whether we ‘found’ the House Finch at Hidalgo Pump House but eBird suggests that people are going there to see them now. I also had to smile when I saw the North 10th street McAllen parakeet roost referred to as the Red Lobster parakeet roost.

There will be one last post in the Texas trip sequence, it will be made up mostly of photos from Sandra including a few non-bird ones. It took 17 years for us to get back to Texas. If health and finances hold constant then I predict that we will be back and birding again in Texas good deal sooner. Colima Warbler anyone?

If you’ve enjoyed reading this stuff then you might be interested to know that I’ll be publishing an eBook shortly, the first in a series called ‘Just a Birder’. It will be about a big year done in 1984 and will be very cheap. Just check back occasionally for the link, it should be ready by the end of April at the latest.

Roadrunner

Back in 1997 we saw lots of Roadrunners when we went to Falcon State Park. We had already seen the odd one before we got to Falcon but it was there that they were more conspicuous, even tame. My photos from the time are pretty awful I must admit. I was using a Kowa scope adaptor for my Ricoh SLR and slide film, I got one decent shot for every twenty frames or something like that, and so digital images of Roadrunners was something I was hoping to get.

After leaving Inca Dove Cottage we went to Mission County Park because there had been up to five Hook-billed Kites showing in recent weeks, although we were told that they had become harder to see because birders and photographers had been kicking them all over the place. While we had seen one at Salineño back in 97, and were familiar with the species from trips to Panama where they are fairly regular, we still wanted to see the Mission birds, especially the black morph. So the plan was to be on the levy bank to view the roost area as early as was reasonable, before heading west to Zapata.

While at Mission we bumped into a local birder who was going for one of his regular site visits and he thought we might struggle now that the kites were less accommodating. As we walked the levy bank a Roadrunner hopped up and scooted over the track in front of us and away, trip tick. The birder and another group of three went off further along the bank but we decided to stay and scan from our vantage point to save a few hundred yards of extra shoe-leather before heading back to the car. While scanning for the kites another Roadrunner edged up out of the vegetation then posed nicely for us in the grass and on the track. It knew we were there and frequently went into alert mode although it is possible that there were predators such as hawks, cats and even Coyotes around too.

After a few minutes the Roadrunner started to go off, giving us what would later become the familiar view of the Falcon birds. We reached our cut-off point, time-wise and started to move off. Just as we were leaving the Roadrunner came back over the track, paused for more glory and then legged it back into cover.

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At Falcon we did see more Roadrunners but they were always running away. We didn’t see much else there at all but at least we got out of the car and walked a trail. We’d been to Chapeño after leaving Salineño and found it an odd place. We were greeted at the gate by some hairy apparition who took our dollars and, when asked where to go he said “anywhere you like”, not very helpful and we didn’t stay long meaning no last shot at Red-billed Pigeon, surely a valid reason to return to the valley again if not Chapeño.

Salineño was quite different and we had a good couple of hours there down by the river, along the trails and at the feeders. The hoped for kingfishers didn’t appear but there were quite a few birds along the river including a showy Gray Hawk and lots of Ospreys. At the feeders we saw the trip first Audubon’s Orioles along with four or more Altamira and a couple of Hooded.

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It was hard to get a shot of the Audubon’s Orioles without them sitting on a log and stuffing their faces with peanut butter!

After leaving Salineño we took the dump road looking for Scaled Quail but no luck. We did get nice views of Pyrrhuloxia and an argumentative pair of Harris’s Hawks, here are the photos of both, heat haze was an issue as was range. It would have been great to bird the road at dawn but now, as the day was starting to heat up, it was pretty quiet and we still had a way to go.

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We got to Zapata late in the afternoon, dumped the suitcase and then gunned it to Lake Casa Blanca in Laredo to try for the Slaty-backed Gull. If you read the earlier posts you’ll know that we dipped the gull but we did get a Zone-tailed Hawk on the way. We chose to stay in Zapata to try for the White-collared Seedeaters for the ABA list, but reference to eBird that evening showed birds only being reported from Laredo and so we didn’t bird Zapata at all, just packed the case ready to launch ourselves west once again before first light.

We had just 1.5 days of birding left in Texas and we had to drive a fair bit to get to Houston the next day, driving that would eat into the available birding time. Next time we visit (see, I’m already making plans), we will try to fly into the valley directly I think. It was a noisy night, what with the room being right on the highway but they didn’t have anything else available so that was that. At least the meal at Pizza Hut was OK and something of a surprise – looking around it seemed to be the peak of culinary delight in Zapata but like I said, it was OK.

Double squawk

Having already found Red-crowned Parrots the day we arrived in the valley, now we had to find the Green Parakeets. The birds wander widely but roost in several spots along 10th in McAllen, all we had to do was drive up and down it a bit to see where they were on this day.

We arrived early in the general area and so went down to the Old Hidalgo Pump House for an hour or so, it proved to be a good choice. The grounds around the pump house are not huge and so easily covered in a short time. We added a few trip ticks as we picked through the many Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, then we heard parakeets calling.

Parakeets can be quite the ventriloquist at times, they seem to be calling in front of you then suddenly they fly away from behind you. The birds we could hear seemed to be calling from behind some tall trees to the north of the site and their calls were receding, poot! After ten minutes or so the calls started up again, this time closer and a group of parakeets alighted in front of us, not green, as expected, but Monk Parakeet. We last saw these in downtown Miami when we were both recovering from a week of flu, mine being much worse than Sandra’s naturally.

Monk Parakeets remind me of Budgerigars but bigger. They are a great looking bird and we enjoyed watching five squabbling about in some tall, grassy plant. There are a few shots below, pity the bird flying away didn’t glance back, my call imitating them must not have been very convincing, it must be the accent.

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Driving North 10th in McAllen, it seemed to go on forever; it’s so long that you half expect it to end in Louisiana! We found the intersection where birds were reported to roost but not the birds and so we kept driving. At one of the many traffic light stops I was scanning ahead and saw five parakeet species streaking off north before swirling back and joining a flock of something. The situation was clouded by the colossal number of grackles lining the road all the way up. When the colour of the birds on the wires changed from black to green we knew we had come to the right place.

Taking advantage of a lack of a gap in the traffic, yes I did mean to put it that way, we did a U-turn that would have made our old Magellan sat-nav proud and pulled into the parking lot of Red Lobster at 7617 North 10th. The wires were all bending with the weight of the Green Parakeets, it was spectacular and loud. Passers-by were also stopping to enjoy the raucous congregation as groups of parakeets fought and preened, sometimes at the same time.

After a while we repaired to the said Red Lobster and celebrated by consuming some Shrimp in garlic, yummy. As the parakeets continued to squawk until after dark I cast my mind back to the Whooping Crane trip and the Captain’s request that we did not deposit anything down the sea toilets that we hadn’t eaten first, before pointing out all of the Shrimp boats around us – and now we were able to enjoy the fruits of their labours, what goes around comes around!

Green Parakeet was a lifer and another step on my modest quest to reach 600 for my ABA life list this year. I know people can do over 700 in just one year when doing a big year but that is not currently an option for me, so 600 it is and then press on towards 700. Speaking of numbers, I’m aiming for a 500 ABA year list this year and, if the trips we have planned happen, I might just make it. Sorry for switching the tense from We to I without explanation by the way. Sandra loves the birding trips but is less likely to chase a year bird in QC or the adjacent states than I am, she’s the sensible one.

Below are a few images of the Green Parakeets, the light was not good and views were more important than photos in the fading light. The shots of the birds on the wires represents about a fifth of the string of birds.

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Valley birds

For a couple of days we shuttled between reserves. We ‘did’ Santa Ana the first morning before going on to Estero Llano Grande and then McAllen Sewage Farm, the Old Hidalgo Pump House and finally a Green Parakeet roost but more about those later.

The following day we kicked off at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, then Quinta Mazatlan before settling in at Bentsen SP for most of the rest of the day. We rounded the valley out by going to a blackbird roost at the end of Alamo, perhaps as big a spectacle as we saw all trip.

Our thoughts for the places we birded were:

Santa Ana – it was hard work here for some reason. We started early but couldn’t find any of the target birds; it’s a big place if you don’t have details. I didn’t like the look of the hawk tower, I can’t understand not filling in the middle, thereby providing somewhere for vertigo sufferers like me to retreat to. We also looked for a blind that should have been looking over Willow Lake but only found some sort of shelter thing. Not really sure what it was for.

Estero Llano Grande – what a great little reserve. Compact, helpful staff and lots of places to sit. It was hellishly breezy when we were there and so the birds stayed low. The Pauraques were great.

Quinta Mazatlan – a tidy little place although a bit busy when we were there. None of the specialities showed unfortunately.

Old Hidalgo Pumphouse – we really enjoyed our short visit there and it is worth a look. We had a couple of House Finch there, an uncommon valley bird.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands – an odd but attractive place with seemingly a different habitat ever seven feet, the birds like it too.

Bentsen SP – great feeders and seats to watch them from too. The blinds seem to be sponsored by the local Chiropractors though. No shelves for elbows, slats not at eye level but they are at least birding blinds. I also found it odd that some of the feeders from the blinds had big trees right in front of them. We nearly got splatted on the way down to the parking lot. A truck (Dodge Ram) driven by an idiot drove straight over the main access road from a side road at speed and over a stop sign. He was lucky I was not an armed Texan because I would have shot him, I could even see the whites of his eyes he was so close!

With hindsight a few more days in the valley would have been great but we didn’t have that luxury. We would have liked to go east too but alas time beat us. Below are a few of the birds we saw.

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Black-crested Titmouse – everywhere in the valley and very vocal.

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Plain Chachalaca – Common in the valley but you can walk right past them.

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Great Kiskadee – the sound of south Texas after Great-tailed Grackles.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker – seen at most sites.

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Golden-fronted Woodpecker – ubiquitous.

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Green Jay – Ubiquitouser (I know but they are).

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Long-billed Thrasher – we didn’t see that many, perhaps the wind kept them low.

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Orange-crowned Warbler – the default warbler at feeders, Yellow-rumped held that title elsewhere.

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Altamira Oriole – we saw more at Salineño than anywhere else but this one was at Bentsen.

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Inca Dove – a smart little dove.

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Curve-billed Thrasher – we only saw a few.

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck – a good number at Edinburg.

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White-eyed Vireo – out of practice with the song until we saw one, we don’t get them in QC.

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Eastern Phoebe – I had a picture.

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Common Pauraque – two at a range of a few feet at Estero Llano Grande, fantastic.

Not finished yet with the Texas stuff but getting close!

Interlude

Just a quick break here from the Texas stuff. I nipped out this morning, it was only -14°C so no coat needed! I did the lanes around St-Clet where I noted a significant reduction in the numbers of Snowy Owls, are they off do you think?

I did see four Snowy Owls, sorry if you are reading this from a snowy free zone, but they were all concentrated in one fairly small area and only one was a dark immature type. Of interest )to me) was a pair of Common Ravens nest building on a grain silo. I doubt the silo owner will leave it be but it was interesting all the same.

Here is one of the Snowy Owls plus a view of the raven nest construction.

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