30 April 2011

Chicken Run...COLORADO (30 April)

Well this was the first day of why we really came to Colorado. I am here with other TB guides Nick Athanas and native Coloradan Andrew Spencer who generously showed us one of his favorite state birds in the far southeast of the state today: the frankly absurd Lesser Prairie-Chicken. An incredibly early start was required (3am ish!) but was worth every sleepless minute. The bubbling, clicking and cackling calls of the much-desired chickens were heard pre-dawn and some subtle maneuvering of our car was required before sunrise before we were settled in prime location, watching over a dozen or more males and a couple of distinctly dowdier females at the lek. The action was simply addictive: the strange noises, the face-offs between the males, and the incredible displays of the males that raised their well-hidden feathered horns, and inflated their rich red gular sacs that would give even a frigatebird a run for its money. My first outrageous chicken experience and I am sold, it was one of the best wildlife experiences I have encountered anywhere. Period.

Heading off for more (different) chicken action tomorrow. Surely it cannot live up to this?!...

29 April 2011

Things Looking Rosy in the Mountains...COLORADO (29 April)

After dropping into the "mile-high" city of Denver late yesterday we were quickly on our way, heading up into the snow-cloaked mountains that framed the horizon when we flew into the city. We headed to the town of Silverthorne where some snow-covered cabins and well placed feeders were covered in hundreds of amazingly friendly Rosy-Finches of three species. Every single one of them a lifebird for me. It was a rude awakening from my time in the flatlands of Texas recently to suddenly be in the snow covered high mountains of Colorado, although a mass of Rosy-Finches soon put me back on track! The most common was the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (bottom), with a healthy smattering of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches(including both the interior and coastal forms-middle photos), and the rarest of them in these parts, numbering just five birds in the melee of rosy-finches, the Black Rosy-Finch (top).

It was a great start, although a serious blizzard stopped us from having any real shot at White-tailed Ptarmigan too, although a few other long-desired lifers provided ample compensation and will be posted next...

28 April 2011

High Island High...TEXAS (27 April)

After the doldrums of recent days on High Island the winds changed, and so did our fortunes with some 29 warblers around the "island". I managed to see 2 Cerulean Warblers, 2 different Golden-winged Warblers, many Blackburnian Warblers, masses of tame, tame Black-throated Green Warblers, lots of "Halloween" colored male American Redstarts, and a fine male Cape May Warbler to top all of this off. OK so I missed the rarity-a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher that has been skillfully avoiding me now for three days (not that I am counting), but I did get seriously in your face looks at Yellow-billed Cuckoo at the photo blind (not a regular occurrence even there), along with lots of cool migrants like Warbling Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, and a flyover of four Mississippi Kites that put the icing on the cake when they landed in the trees above us and glared down at with the piercing stare that only a raptor can give.

I have one meager morning in the woods at High Island tomorrow before I set off for snowy Colorado and chickens and mountain birds to come.

24 April 2011

Dick Drops in to High Island...TEXAS (24 April)

After a shockingly quiet morning (one of the quietest I have known at this time of year) we retired to view the sewage pond at the back of Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods a strategy we use when we cannot find any migrants around the woods. So after a few brief looks at unidentifiable cuckoos rocketing through the trees, we found ourselves overlooking the marsh in the hope of a Purple Gallinule that might take the edge off the pain of not finding many warblers in the woods. The Purple Gallinule duly obliged as it crept around the reedy pool, that held a lone Lesser Yellowlegs shadowing a Solitary Sandpiper sharing the same marshy pond. Then suddenly a Dickcissel dropped down into the grasses beside us saving our morning and giving us an unforgettable moment with this attractive migrant.

The question remains though exactly what is a Dickcissel: a blackbird or a bunting? I'll allow taxonomists to fight it out on that one, although we can enjoy thinking about it all the same.

23 April 2011

Titmouse Flashback...TEXAS (April)

With migration slow here today, and photo opportunities of migrants in High Island very slim to say the least today, I am going to post one I forgot from a couple of weeks back at a ranch near Encino Texas, where before Roadrunner stole the headlines by hogging the limelight in front of the blind, we were teased by a titmouse, a Black-crested Titmouse that munched on seed out in front. One of many, many avian photo "models" that day. More from High Island (where I still am) soon...

22 April 2011

Long time coming...TEXAS (22 April)

Through the last week cuckoos on High Island have done their best to avoid me and I seem to have done everything in my power (unintentionally) to avoid them. Today I broke my cuckoo duck for the spring, and finally nailed a proper view of one (having had several brief looks prior to that of Yellow-billed, and completely dipped out on or missed Black-billed so far), as I shared a quiet moment with this fine Yellow-billed Cuckoo late in the afternoon. Most of the afternoon was not especially lively to say the least, although our midday shorebird showdown resulted in a fine flock of White-rumped Sandpipers dropping in and revealing their gleaming white rumps in the process, along Bob Road on the Bolivar Peninsula.

21 April 2011

Hybrid High Jinx...TEXAS (21 April)

Finally today the High Island hybrid that had people head scratching and me desperate to get it on "film" played ball and showed extremely well. Actually yesterday if you were not me you had the chance to shoot it as it was pretty friendly then too, although I guess I came late to the party in that respect. A lot of debating and even a few heated arguments have been ignited by this extremely interesting and rare bird, that now appears (by consensus) to be a Townsend's Warbler x Black-throated Green Warbler hybrid. Why you ask? Well the bird has the black cheek markings that had us first hoping/thinking it was a Townsend's Warbler, a western warbler rare in these parts. But then when Scott Watson and others got the "money" shots it was clear something was just not right about it-it had no clear yellow breast as a pure "Towny" would normally have, but possessed the black cheeks that a "pure" Black-throated Green Warbler would have. Townsend's x Hermit was debated (as there is a very similar bird in the plate in Jon Dunn's excellent warbler guide labeled as such), though finally and with input from many we are sticking to Black-throated Green x Townsend's Warbler (even rarer and more interesting than a pure towny in my book)... for now!

20 April 2011

Yellowbird...TEXAS (20 April)

Today I finally caught up with two of the three Yellow-headed Blackbirds that have been making a scene at the High Island RV park on 5th Street, High Island. Standing in among the Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds besieging the feeders the bird was a little conspicuous to say the least. A morning visit produced just the hapless one-eyed bird, although a quick check there in the afternoon produced a healthy looking two-eyed bird that was a little more pleasant to look at in the photos... Although I only got a short session of migrant watching in the afternoon over at Boy Scout Woods it was noteworthy for my first "wine-splashed" Bay-breasted Warbler of the season (just one or two have come in yet, although this was the first one to give more than the lucky few a glimpse, as this one posed around Purkey's Pond).

Purple Gallinules arrive on the UTC...TEXAS (April 2011)

Now that I am running out of photos of the migrants to post from the last few days, with migrant numbers taking a dip, I thought I would post a Purple Gallinule shot from South Padre earlier in the month. These are migrant birds and indeed have recently turned up in High Island for the first time this spring (they were at the Smith Oaks rookery on Monday and Tuesday-our first records this spring). South Padre was ahead of the game apparently having two birds present all winter (when they should have been wintering down in Central America). This was one of those oddly wintering birds that were still hanging around the boardwalk in early April. Thought this was a timely post seeing as they are now starting to appear on the Upper Texas Coast. Hopefully I'll be seeing another soon.

This morning's migrant update-a walk around Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods in High Island today yielded the continuing male Blackpoll Warbler (for its third day at least), Yellow Warbler (1), Red-eyed Vireo (1) munching mulberries, the odd vivid male Scarlet Tanager, an Ovenbird slowly creeping through the shadowy leaf litter, and the now regular Indigo Buntings and Orchard Orioles, as well as a few "jaffa" orange male Baltimores. Best of all though is lingering warbler oddity from yesterday. When I found it then I cried Townsend's Warbler- a good bird in these parts, although the minimal yellow on the breast (nearly invisible!) hints at a hybrid, perhaps it is a Townsend's x Hermit Warbler hybrid, that is rarer than the pure thing. A fun bird to see, and I hope to try and shoot the thing this afternoon...

19 April 2011

It's not all about warblers you know...TEXAS (19 April)

Just occasionally we also look at things other than the warbler brethren around High Island, and a wander down the coast (on the Bolivar Peninsula) saw us change focus, checking out some shorebirds. However, this unbelievably showy Seaside Sparrow clearly wanted us to notice him, as he repeatedly showed up at close range and sung his lungs out, while these well placed red flowers made for a great photo...

High Island high Continues...TEXAS (17 April 2011)

After Saturday's phenomenal birding, when spring migration came into its own and got everyone hooked to High Island we could be forgiven for thinking that Sunday might be different. The winds and weather pointed to a clear out and not much on the way. Good job we only believe the weather sometimes! OK so there was nothing way different from before, but some significant birds were lingering on, most notably a friendly male Cerulean Warbler that in spite of being around all day long and walking onto many life lists managed to avoid me getting anything other than a poor record shot, which I have included as it took me so long to get just that! The photo blind was pumping during my short visit: a Red-eyed Vireo proved to me that it actually has red eyes when it dropped into the drip and turned to catch the light that revealed its deep red eye. Then it was one color explosion after another: male Baltimore Oriole turned up causing us to shade our eyes, then a pristine blue male Indigo Bunting followed, then a Summer Tanager and a bright male Yellow Warbler. Once again a Swainson's Warbler was shivering in the undergrowth and allowed us to follow it and watch its strange feeding behavior for a long, long time again.

Yet another great day on High Island (I have had a few in the past 4 years)...could this spill over into Monday?

16 April 2011

So far so good today...TEXAS (16 April)

After yesterdays thriller at Boy Scout Woods we were patrolling High Island early, and birds were everywhere. I am posting this at lunchtime and I have already seen a male Golden-winged Warbler toying with our affections by being there one minute and tantalizingly gone the next. A Swainson's Warbler was seen scurrying across the leaf litter working its way through the shadows. Several male Hooded Warblers showed that it is not too late for them to come through just yet, with several them being in tip top condition. Other furtive foragers in the woods included a Worm-eating Warbler that hid out the back of the scrub, and remained deep in cover for me anyway. Aside from that the odd Blackburnian Warbler American Redstart and Northern Parula also peaked our interests. And I have not mentioned half of what is here. A thrilling morning, and so much so I have to leave now to carry one stalking the various migrants flitting about the woods and be on guard for the next predicted wave of arrivals any time now...

15 April 2011

Big "Drop In" at High Island...TEXAS (14 April)

The High Island forecasts had been made (weather that is), and the bird predictions followed, so the dice had been thrown. All we needed now was to see how it actually panned out. And frankly it turned out pretty damn fine. Late morning and the strong fliers showed up with regularity: Orchard Orioles, Indigo Buntings (with a few spanking Painteds too to wow us all), and then by mid-afternoon the celebrity drop ins occurred: Blackburnian Warblers lit up the Pecan trees with their fiery faces, accompanied at times by a Yellow-throated Warbler or two for a color explosion. Then a Blue-winged Warbler would pop up out of the scrub, a little more furtive and less showy than the ostentatious Blackburnians but much appreciated all the same. Then a flash of red would bring us to a Summer Tanager hiding badly in the trees above, or brighter still the odd Scarlet Tanager with its jet-black wings would bring even more color to the occasion. Then the shout went up for Cerulean and I was thwarted in my first attempts to find it. Then popped up a touted cerulean, only to find a parulesque bird but lacking nay yellow at all and not olive back patch as all parulas should have. The possibility of a very rare hybrid (parula x Cerulean) went through my mind, and still linger on now, although without the photos I feel this will go nowhere. The rarest bird in town possibly, but trying telling that to the Cerulean chasers, they just wanted a pure, sky-backed male Cerulean to plant on their lists and a short time later the "real deal" showed up and decorated a few lists in town. The more furtive species were around too, and I managed to run into Kentucky Warblers, Hooded Warblers, although managed to somehow avoid the multiple Swainson's Warblers on High Island today. The showiest of them all, as they often are though, were the adorable Black-throated Green Warblers, that dangled so invitingly just daring us to shoot them! And on top of all of that I finally caught up with the Great Kiskadee that had been taunting for me for days, I mean who had ever heard of a shy and retiring kiskadee!

With northerlies persisting there is more hope for the 'morrow, and I for one will be up early with a stride in my step and hope in my heart..

14 April 2011

Yard Birds Down at the Ranch...TEXAS (11 April)

I had hoped by now to be posting a few more migrant shots on here but a combination of slow birding, and no photos for three days has left me bereft of photo choices for here. So instead I'll keep up with the photos from the Tacubaya Ranch in south Texas, where in the heat of the day we cooled off at the ranch itself and watched some cool garden birds hopping around on the lawn. This included the "Jewel of the Rio Grande", the Green Jay, and distinctly less colorful Curve-billed Thrasher. Meanwhile an over-friendly Bewick's Wren almost hopped inside the kitchen with me while I was shooting the photos!

With good migrant weather on its way, and usually great migration at this time in High Island, I hope to be posting some migrant-orientated stuff very soon...

Sparrow Sundown at the ranch...TEXAS (11 April)

Sadly after just a day at Tacubaya Ranch it all came to a close with a few very different sparrows coming in the drink in the evening around the pool in front of their afternoon songbird blind. The Olive Sparrow did not exactly steal the headlines once the Black-throated Sparrow showed up, with its distinctly more striking plumage. A nice close to our time at this remote ranch near Encino Texas. Even the yard we of the place we were staying in was a magnet for birds: Curve-billed Thrashers tussled with each other on the lawn, but were immediately overshadowed the moment a Green Jay turned up, with its more fancy dress.

Photos of the ranch yard birds to come...

13 April 2011

Charged by a 'runner...TEXAS (11 April)

Well after a morning with the cardinals on the Tacubaya Ranch in the blind we were looking for some other action and so just for a laugh tried putting on a brief burst of tape of Greater Roadrunner, to which one of these very odd cuckoos answered in less than half a second and then appeared to charge at our blind, which was a little bit of a shock, but not so much so that I did not raise my camera and capture the awesome bird as it was puffed up in full territorial mode! They are a personal favorite of mine and I was so glad to see one again. There can be fewer American birds with such character!

More from the ranch to come...

12 April 2011

Out on the Ranch...TEXAS (11 April)

Birding our way back from South Padre Island in south Texas to High Island on the Upper Texas Coast we opted to check in at a "photography ranch" in cowboy country (Tacubaya Ranch), where special blinds have been set up for keen photographers like us. Our most faithful subjects that morning were the ever-present Northern Cardinal, an under appreciated North American gem that is often undervalued due to its abundance in the east, and its cousin the impossible to spell, Pyrrhuloxia that made for nice comparisons of these relatives.

There was plenty more to come though, from down on the ranch...

11 April 2011

More white than red...TEXAS (10 April)

Well after a thoroughly enjoyable weekend at South Padre we had to head north once again for an extended journey back to High Island on the Upper Texas Coast. However, there was time for an early morning walk around the fantastic boardwalk where I was captivated by this white morph Reddish Egret (identifiable from the similar-sized Great Egret by its prominent pink bill base for one thing), that did the whole, classic Reddish Egret thing of "dancing" in the bay to target any hapless fish in its presence. A comical bird if ever there was one. A great end to the weekend that saw me realize wholeheartedly why South Padre is one of THE classic south Texas birding sites. Even though it was quiet for trans-Gulf migrants (courtesy of the strong southerly winds) the waterbirds around the boardwalk were just enthralling, and incredibly tame (that is supposedly normal for this venue) making this place a really fun site to visit with my Canon in toe..

Next up we headed north to the middle of nowhere in Encino Texas to check out a ranch for bird photography..posts to follow soon.

09 April 2011

"Mexican" Fish Hawks..TEXAS (9 April)

The finale to another fantastic time at South Padre was watching two Ospreys (or Fish Hawks) lingering in mid-air overhead hanging invitingly in the wind making for yet another incredible photo opportunity. I especially liked one of the photos where he is looking right down at me shooting him above. He definitely gave me the impression that I know what it must feel like to be a fish in its sights! The Ospreys of Loch Garten, which is a famous Scottish spot to go and find them, will never seem quite the same again. I have seen this bird on five continents but it is hard to envisage seeing them any better than I saw them today. Another phenomenal viewing at the Tip 'O Texas Birding Weekend here in South Padre, that has been very enjoyable to be part of....The day ended with a male Yellow-headed Blackbird teasing me to photograph him while perched invitingly on the fence behind the South Padre Birding Center, only for me to realize as I lurched to run and get my camera, that I had left it back at the house. Hope it's there tomorrow!

One more morning of this to go, before we head to a working ranch somewhere to dodge cattle and cowboys, and photograph more stunning south Texas birds.

Non-warblers on the Warbler Walk! TEXAS (9 April)

Our attempts today to lead a "Warbler Walk" at South Padre with Michael Retter were thwarted somewhat by the distinct lack of many warblers, although a nice camera-shy male Blackpoll Warbler was a new arrival (and my first this year) that was hanging around with the continuing Northern Parulas around the convention center. Luckily though South Padre is never dull and we tucked into the waterbirds instead, which as ever there were incredibly confiding: Sora showed off in one area, Mottled Duck nonchalantly sat around in another, and American Golden Plover walked by a loafing Black-bellied (Grey) Plover to give nice side-by-side comparisons of these similar shorebirds. All in all a bad day at South Padre was a damn fine day anyway, and I am not finished yet.

Heading out on the boardwalk now for more late afternoon action...

08 April 2011

Bittern by the South Padre Bug...TEXAS (8 April)

Today I learnt firsthand the joys of birding South Padre, tame birds is an understatement. This fantastic Least Bittern obviously thought I was just not there as it crept around within 2 feet of me on the boardwalk, gasping and shooting down at it. And its not just bitterns, Reddish Egrets, shorebirds and warblers seem to behave in atypical fashion at South Padre abandoning normal protocol and making for amazing photo opportunities.

Looking forward to more of this tomorrow!