29 April 2009

Cape May Day … (High Island, Texas): 29 April 2009

After yesterdays heady 28 warbler day on the High Island “Dome” today was a step down with much fewer species seen (16 or so). However, for me personally this was a killer day. After yesterdays lifer Cape May that turned out to be a female bird, I gorged shamelessly on a scorching male today, and it finally felt like I had got a “proper” Cape May.

The morning did not start too well though, when one of the other TB guides, Josh Engel, picked out a male Cape May as the very first bird of our free-guided walk for Houston Audubon. However, all I saw as I swiftly spun round was a warbler shape darting off into the distance. My mood was brightened considerably when after a days chasing of this mighty fine warbler we managed to finally pin a male down in Smith Oaks woods. Also dancing around the same warbler-draped area was several stunning Bay-breasteds, continuing Blackpolls (that have been reamed “trashpolls” after their overexposure on High Island this season!) Despite a fall in species numbers there is clearly some warbler “totty” to be had around High Island, even though some birders would already sound the death knells of spring already, (a very dangerous call when you consider that High Island can be hopping well into May).

Other choice sights were Piping and Wilson’s Plovers down at Bolivar Flats, and a mass of Bobolinks (250ish birds) in a roadside field along the highway 87 just beyond the Bolivar Flats turn. On the down side the highest numbers of mosquitoes I have ever encountered battered me senseless all day, and just proves that for all its diversity the tropics can sometimes be a much less tricky place to hang out!

Bundle of Bobolinks...(Bolivar Peninsula, Texas): 28 April 2009

Just a few photos - firstly a bundle of Bobolinks seen from the road, that contained at least 200 birds with a few dandy Dickcissels thrown in for good measure too. These were seen during a midday free walk guided for Houston Audubon Society. In the afternoon another guided walk in the Smith Oaks sanctuary on High Island finally produced the Cape May Warbler I had been chasing for two days. It was a lowly female so not the showstopping bird that a male is but a lifer all the same, tarnished a little when I then missed a male by minutes late on!!!

15 April 2009

Blue Day on the “Dome” ...(High Island, Texas): April 12, 2009

27 species of warblers were counted in the High Island woods today by all. We knew this was going to be a special day when I returned to the Boy Scout drip from my morning walk to the sight of Christian Boix punching the air in celebration of a ice blue male Cerulean Warbler that had just dropped into thrill the few gathered on the grandstand there. A few hours later I was looking for this blue ***tard and returned when Boix tipped me off that it had returned. I set off with another lady who was also in dire need of a Cerulean injection only the look up at the first bird I saw flitting around heavily leafed-out Live Oak, and be hot with the pristine gleaming white underparts and dreamy blue upperparts of a male Cerulean, the very first bird we clapped eyes on during our walk! Later in the day I popped into Smith Oaks to do my afternoon walk where we found a large roaming flock of warblers that held a Townsend’s Warbler and another “blue wonder” (Cerulean). The former being a very scarce bird in these eastern migrant traps, that had been around for the last few days but had eluded me until then. A nice High Island “tick”. This warbler-packed day was capped superbly when we ran into a glowing Blackburnian Warbler that looked like its face had been set on fire. My neck may have been feeling the strain of warbler neck, but I did not care one jot. Long may this good birdy spring continue.

Bobbie on the Beat…(High Island, Texas): April 2, 2009

Although I personally did not see all of them, (I saw over ten), 17 species of warbler were recorded just in HAS Smith Oaks and Boy Scout on High Island today. The morning walk in Boy Scout Woods was delayed by a heavy downpour or two, blackened skies causing a deathly quiet to settle over the mottes. However, not long after the black clouds passed on the warblers slowly but surely appeared over us in the trees – a striking Yellow-throated sharing a cypress tree with a tree-climbing Black-and-white, and a male Black-throated Green. The odd ‘blue bullet’, (AKA Indigo Bunting) shot up into the trees there too, along with the odd butch Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Gray Catbird frantically checking for ripe mulberries around the grandstand, where a late crop this year was not satisfying their craving at all just yet (give it a couple more weeks and, as they say in Oz, “she’ll be right”).

The afternoon walk at Smith was a blustery and largely migrant-less affair, the early morning promise of the black clouds and noon tease of swallows careening down the beach at Bolivar coming to little, until late on when a furtive Kentucky hopped off the path in front of me, giving me very much the impression this ground-dweller was fresh off the Gulf. Aside from that we did squeeze a Nashville from the afternoon crop. However, the evening thrill came not from a warbler or migrant at all, but from a resident feline on the island. As I picked up the phone to reel in Christian with the lure of his lifer Kentucky he cut me dead with the bone-jarring revelation that a Bobcat had just walked out in front of him while live on air on the phone. My frantic reaction to try and glean where exactly Christian was at the time was quickly met with the distinctly unenlightening information that he was currently “at the back of the woods”. A few words later and closer to the facts required we hung up on each other swiftly, me to track my way to Christian quicksmart, for him though to be able to enjoy the cat to the full now that he had freed a hand for his binos! As I treaded with nervous anticipation toward the area where I thought he was I saw a Nine-banded Armadillo scamper out of the brush in front of me, and wondered whether he was running in fear of a stump-tailed cat lying behind in the shadows?! wavered for a minute, then decided I should stick to my original course and head for Boix. Not long after I turned the corner to make out the outline of Christian lurking near the Smith drip, and noticed he was busy trying to line up his Leica to digiscope something at the drip. He shot a glance at me and gently but firmly gestured for me to look through the ‘scope when I was greeted by a stubby-tailed feline drinking from the bird drip, its head filling my view. Soon after it began to walk straight at us and crossed the open path right out in front of us (while we spun cartwheels in our minds). A magic moment. We got back to the car, giddy from this cool cat, and finished with a vermillion Summer Tanager searching in vain for ripe mulberries by the car park. A most enjoyable day indeed.

The Ike Affect (High Island, Texas)

I am now based in High Island, Texas for the season (until May 3) working in partnership for Tropical Birding and the Houston Audubon Society as a seasonal High Island bird guide. I did not know what to expect when I arrived in the aftermath of last autumns Hurricane Ike on the region.

There has been a lot of publicity about the devastating affects of Hurricane Ike on the coastal region around High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. Certainly any trip along the peninsula leaves you with much to think about. Houses and local businesses destroyed and stark human impact and “re-distribution” of bird habitat. However, on High Island itself despite the loss of some trees at both Smith Oaks and Boy Scout Woods-the two main Houston Audubon sanctuaries-the impact was not that severe.

This seems to be borne out by the birds that have turned up this year too – with warbler numbers in my personal opinion up on last year and just a way more exciting spring season so far this year compared to last. Before the middle of April we have experienced 27 warbler species days and also enjoyed a mix of the usual eastern migrants, along with some less expected bonus birds – such as Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Violet-green Swallow, Western Tanagers, Black-legged Kittiwake and Magnificent Frigatebirds. The above photos were just some that we have been watching during the early part of the season in the Houston Audubon Boy Scout Woods sanctuary on 5th Street.

06 April 2009

Jay Turns up at the Last Chance Saloon…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 23 March 2009

This morning we birded for the final time in Oaxaca, starting at La Soledad, an area of high pines and oak on the pacific slope, north of Puerto Angel. We had checked this site in the middle of the day earlier on our trip with limited success, so we still had a discreet set of endemic birds to try for here. A short distance along a nice forest trail that thankfully got us off the annoyingly busy highway, we heard and quickly saw one of our key birds, a pair of Gray-crowned Woodpeckers scrapping by the side of the trail. A blast of a Colima Pygmy-Owl tape did not unfortunately bring any response from the owl, but did bring in an array of scolding birds, including a scarlet-hooded male Red-headed Tanager, Rose-throated Becard, Elegant Euphonia, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Tufted Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and the odd Berryline Hummingbird, all “screaming abuse” at me (or really my owl tape), from the treetops above. A little further back we heard the greenlet-like song of a Golden Vireo and watched another of these endemic vireos serenading from the canopy. However, our main bird we were after seemed absent as we heard not a peep out of it. My companion Nick even remarked lets go bird somewhere else “…as there are no Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireos here”. Famous last words if ever there were. A few minutes later we both heard a strange call that we independently both thought, could it really be…? So we popped the tape, and sure enough high up in the trees a magnificent male Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo appeared right on cue, where we had declared they were not around just a short time before. A sweet, sweet moment as we had somehow failed to find a close calling bird at La Cumbre earlier on the trip, so had begun to believe we had thrown away our best chance at that time.

With the vireo under the belt we went off for one last desperate attempt to get a jay that had showed just to me briefly earlier on the trip. However, with the woods now quiet, bright blue skies overhead and the day having warmed up considerably our chances were looking bleak to say the least. Hot sunny days in the cloudforest are famously poor for birds with activity strongly peaked in the wee hours after dawn. Aside from the ever-present masses of wintering American wood-warblers (not to be scoffed at mind you), there was little sound of any other birds aside from a few roadside hummers at flowering tree, that included a brief Blue-capped Hummer. We trooped up the trail more than anything else to check a flowering tree where we might pick up a new hummer. As we walked up with the sun beaming down on us, and minimal bird activity Nick continued intermittently to pop the tape of White-throated Jay, in a last desperate act. Just as I was mulling the pointlessness of this at 1pm in the afternoon I heard the unequivocal sound of a jay right beside me, glanced back at Nick who had not heard and so proceeded to wave my arms around to catch his attention. Soon enough we were both combing the sides of the road for signs of the jay that had gone quiet and turned dastardly once more. Here and there we received a quiet indistinct reply from the jay to little effect, until I picked up a subtle movement in the bushes below and clapped my eyes on a deep indigo blue jay with a gleaming white throat and thin ivory brow – White-throated Jay. Nick came down to get it just as it slinked back into the undergrowth. Eventually though we both got killer looks (if brief), of this star jay. The bird was always really tough though, just appearing for the briefest of moments, otherwise remaining hidden in deep cover, only calling very softly and very occasionally. It became clear why people struggle to get this here. We were both very relieved to get it at the very last chance saloon, and were then happy to head back to Oaxaca where we celebrated with some top spicy Mexican tamales and tostados, washed down with a couple of dark Bohemian beers. A great end to our Mexican road trip.

05 April 2009

Vireo Hatrick on our return to Alban…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 22 March 2009

Flushed with our success from birding the valley the day before, and armed with some further hot gen from Michael Retter about good stuff they’d seen around the ancient Mayan ruins site just a few days earlier, we were keen to return to the place we were first birded in the Oaxaca Valley - Monte Alban. Focusing our efforts along the entrance road , just above the city of Oaxaca, initially we found the gate barring entrance to cars, and joggers busy combing the road up from the gate. So we dropped the car by the gate and walked up the quiet road in to the ruins. Michael had put us on a sixpence for one bird (i.e. his directions were top notch, and pinpoint), that noisily called back and popped up in front of us, once we’d reached the appointed location. The bird, an indistinctive “cresty” flycatcher, called Pileated Flycatcher is a tricky customer, as they are often believed to be absent in winter when most birders visit the ruins. Although, our return visit seem to have been just late enough for the birds to be back in town, and we heard three or four different birds during the morning. A far cry from the “silent valley” we had experienced in the second week of March. We also heard several sneaky Ocellated Thrashers along the road although could not get one to come out, some tantalizing rustling in the leaf litter being all we got out of them. Our road work was not finished though as shortly after enjoying the Pileated Fly, a superb Slaty Vireo appeared in the trees beside us and rapid fire shots could soon be heard from our cameras. I’d seen this endemic vireo on our first visit for a fraction of a second, so it was good to be able to enjoy one at length at last.

Moving on from the road we checked around Tomb 7 just outside the main ruins, where we had birded before. The activity was slowing down even at this early hour of 08.30, although we still found a Canyon Wren hopping along a dry stone wall (wren number 19 of the trip!), a couple of Blue Mockingbirds skulking in the brush, and could hear several Ocellated Thrashers. We went “off-piste” (i.e. scrambling through the thorny scrub) in hot pursuit of this spotted number. As we neared the sound and readied ourselves for what we thought would be a scramble into the undergrowth to find him lurking near ground level, I looked up to find one sitting high up in a tree singing its heart out. I had barely managed to glass it, when it slinked down into the undergrowth just before the person I was with was in sight of it. A game of cat-and-mouse followed for a while and it appeared that may have been its last star performance of the morning, when suddenly there it was up on top again, and a little later we even saw a second bird trying to outperform the firsts star turn. I then went to check out a small stream near the tomb where it had been very birdy on our last visit (and where I had missed the short showing of a Dwarf Vireo). I followed a narrow trail finding another Blue Mocker, more of the ever-present White-throated Towhees, and amazingly at the last gasp, a Dwarf Vireo gleaning low down in the thorny scrub. Mission accomplished for all our main targets, we headed back down to the car, being distracted by an eye-level Golden Vireo picking bugs off a flowering tree, and decided to head out of town once again for our final birding in Oaxaca.

In the afternoon we travelled south on the Puerto Angel road again to the picturesque village of San Jose de Pacifico and checked into some neat log-fire mountain cabins once more. A period of afternoon birding south of there was quiet except for a few hummers, including a single Garnet-throated Hummingbird.

Valley of Sparrows…(Oaxaca, Mexico): 21 March 2009

We spent the morning making our way south from the ‘beer city’ of Tuxtepec along highway 175 back to Oaxaca City. The journey saw us initially rising in altitude to over 2700m or more passing through pine-oak cloudforest on the wet Atlantic Slope, and finally dropping down in altitude into the tinder dry interior valley of Oaxaca. An interesting journey full of contrast in environment and climate. On the Gulf slope we experienced a couple of bursts of heavy rain and chilly temperatures where we were surrounded by high pines sprinkled with the odd bromeliad clad to their trunks. However, by the end of the day we were struggling to breath in the hot, dry scrubby environment of the Oaxaca Valley, with clear azure blue skies overhead, and low leafless scrub surrounding us. As we passed through Valle Nacional we checked out birds along the highway, like flocks of deep-blue Unicolored Jays in the higher stretches of forest, although best of all was a tiny, tiny male Bumblebee Hummingbird singing from the top of a tree. As we zigzagged down the highway we picked up some bright red shapes in the trees, the distinctive white cheek revealing three or four more sightings of the incredible Red Warbler that once again foiled our attempts at photographing them.

Once we dropped into the Oaxaca Valley just north of the city with the same name, we had a few special targets in mind. When we had visited just a few weeks earlier we could have nicknamed the place ‘death valley’ as there was little sign of life and the birding was dead. However, we had a tip off from a friend Michael Retter that the birdlife had picked up, indicating that maybe spring had finally come to the valley. Not only that but he had given us up to the minute gen on some of our targets – the endemic sparrows of the interior valleys. We hopped out of the car where Michael had indicated and almost immediately flushed a group of birds that included Bridled Sparrow, a few Oaxaca Sparrows and a black-and-gold male Black-vented Oriole. All lifers and all seen virtually within just a few minutes. The odd White-throated Towhee was also in their company. The change in birding fortune from just a few weeks previously was amazing, with barely a bird seen or heard in this same valley earlier in the month. A great return to the valley. A Rufous-backed Robin around our hotel in Oaxaca City was also much appreciated, although Michael’s tree ‘covered’ in Dusky Hummingbirds was unfortunately now devoid of birds just a few days later, because presumably the flowering bounty was now over as far as they were concerned. With such success we turned to re-jigging our plans for our final few days in the state of Oaxaca.