Friday, November 14, 2014

I Could Spend All Day...

...At the refuge watching these birds. They will always have my heart.

Winter always makes for excellent birding in the Tennessee River Valley. Right now, I am waiting to (possibly) be approved for a house in Guntersville. It will be fantastic to be so close to the lake that I practically live at in the winter months.

Hopefully soon, I can devote the time to a proper blog post. 

Until then,
Happy birding to all of you!

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Since migration has ended, another season is at its peak through the summer months. The season for herping!

I've always had a love for all animals, for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately for snakes, my father is scared of them. So, I never really got the chance to be around or actively search for snakes.

So, now it begins.... since moving to this house, I have loved the property. In six months, I've recorded over 130 species of birds. I started flipping rocks and logs, and finding salamanders on a regular basis. We also have a healthy population of Five-lined Skinks and Green Anoles around the house and workshop. It really sparked an interest into herping for me.

As of late, I've been doing a lot of road cruising for snakes and turtles. Eastern Box Turtles are pretty active after rains, and I've been dying to find some venomous snakes down here. Mostly, I focused on trying to find Cottonmouths, but am still striking out. However, the other day, I found this handsome dude chilling out in the road after finishing a meal:

Timber Rattlesnake (crotalus horridus)

My first venomous snake (ever) wasn't the painfully common Cottonmouth or Copperhead... but a Timber! Seeing one of these snakes up close and personal gave me a new found respect (and love) for snakes, especially venomous species.

So, now I have the herping bug. Expect a lot of photos of snakes and turtles and salamanders for the remainder of the summer.

Until next time: Happy birding and herping to all!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Now That Migration Is Over..

I won't be birding as much anymore.

I love birding, but I spend a lot of time alone down here while doing it. There was not really a community to welcome me with open arms. I had to create one. And still... even with those efforts, it's been a lot of drama and ridiculous crap.

One of the first things I was told when I got here was not "Welcome" or "We're glad to have you"... it was "You'll need to prove yourself". And you know what I say to that? What a crock of B.S!

I used to look forward to birding- the excitement of finding new birds, and meeting new birders. But now, I'm jaded. I don't really look forward to meeting anyone, because if I've learned anything here, they'll think I'm an idiot. And if they're fake enough to want to "get to know me first", they'll certainly be an ass once they do. I'll be told of all the things I'm doing wrong to hinder me from "fitting in". If I talk about an accomplishment, I'll be called a braggart. If I respond to the fact that none of my sightings are ever confirmed without a photo, no matter how well I describe behavior or field marks... well, then I'm just whining or too sensitive. I'm just "over-reacting". And if I talk about how I've been treated this way from day one, I'll be told "You just haven't proven yourself yet".

And you know what? Birding shouldn't be that way. Sure, not everyone can ID a bird all that well. But, that's why you teach. That's why you're kind. That's why saying things like, "You need to prove yourself" are not beneficial, but harmful. They drive people away from birding. If you treat someone like an idiot, especially without just cause, they'll give you the finger and walk away.

Every sighting unreasonably questioned, being told I am "too sensitive", being told that "I haven't proven myself".... to everyone who has ever had the nerve to insult me or question my integrity, all I can say is this: You've lost a better birder than you'll ever be.

I'll always love birds... but other birders... well, there are certainly great ones. I have met a couple here... but they aren't listers. And maybe that's the common thread. Maybe I should just get away from listing and chasing.... because I haven't met a single kind birder in the time I've wasted doing it.

I was told that I shouldn't write this... but, I've never been one to hold back. And, I've gotten feedback from newer birders who have experienced the same things here that I have. They confide in me privately about being shunned from group meetings, being treated like an idiot, talked down to, and sometimes even flat out ignored at outings. This sort of thing has to stop. Birding shouldn't be some hierarchy. We shouldn't have to "earn our keep" or "prove ourselves".

I don't really know what else to say on the subject. But, there it is.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Not much to write about lately (getting over the flu), but got out today to Guntersville Lake. Now, here's a huge dose of adorable brought to you by some ducklings!

You're welcome.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Migration? Seems Like Such An Understatement....

Wow... just... wow. Migration this year has been incredible! I have seen so much in the past week, from Warblers to Cuckoos, to Nightjars, to Sparrows, to Flycatchers. Every morning, I find myself awake at 5:30 A.M. getting my oldest daughters off to school and heading out as the sun is rising to hike the local trails and migrant traps. I even saw a Connecticut Warbler, which is a pretty great find for Alabama!

But nothing more exciting than visiting Winfred Thomas Agricultural Research Station- the farm for Alabama A&M University. It's open to the public most days, and accessible for birding. I find it to be one of my favorite spots in northern Alabama. It's the place that gave me a surprise Smith's Longspur back at the end of February and another birder here a Northern Goshawk in early March. In summer, I go to watch and photograph the Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels. And sometimes, you get to see the nesting pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that come back year after year.

What I didn't know was that Bobolinks migrate through, stopping at the farm in large numbers. I absolutely adore these birds, and it's been almost a year since I last saw one. So, when I visited on the first... I was greeted to large flocks, appearing out of the grass left and right from my van as I slowly traveled down the dirt road.

Amongst the Bobolinks, you could spot Dickcissels also.

Barn Swallows were also there in decent numbers.

After spending a little over an hour birding, I got a nice surprise of this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher putting on a short show.

If you haven't been getting out- hurry up and do so. Migration radar tonight is exploding over Alabama. I expect some awesome birding tomorrow morning, and will be out getting my bird on. 

Until next time- happy birding, y'all!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Staying Positive

It's official: I am cancelling my Big Year.

Many reasons, but mostly, the repairs to the van have not been as easy and cheap as I had hoped. I didn't have a ton of money saved, since this was a Big Year "on a whim"... so the van repairs have eaten through the savings. Ever since the wreck in Minnesota, things are going wrong.

So, this week repairs are finishing up. New tires, brakes, rotors, axle work, wheel bearings, radiator, and hopefully the front end damage can also be repaired, though that's just cosmetic.

This does not mean that all birding trips are suspended. I still have plans to travel a little this year to bird. It's just no longer a Big Year. I plan on tackling a Big Year in 2015 instead, with about twenty thousand saved, and the ability to go to Alaska (maybe twice!). Next year- it will also be an official ABA Big Year.

That all being said- I will still be updating the blog with plenty of birding trip information- and possibly more! Thank you all for reading and following. I wouldn't keep this all up if it wasn't for you!

Until next time....
Happy birding to all of you!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Identity Crisis

So, I was out shooting birds the other day (with my camera, don't worry!) at Ditto Landing in Huntsville. Normally, I don't go to this spot, just because it's more of a recreational spot and I like the empty, more secluded spots that don't have crowds of folks or lots of fishermen/hunters. But, there's a nice paved trail along the river and a small group of American Coots that are friendly and will approach for good photograph opportunities.

My walk down the paved trail yields nothing but hidden views of Cardinals, Titmice, and Brown Thrashers, so I decide to head back to the docks at the landing. Here, about eight American Coots would surround the dock and allow me to take beautiful pictures of them.

I stopped for a bit, mostly to rest my arm as my new combination (lens/body) is much heavier than I'm used to and I didn't have my arm propped very well. As I sat there, I realized something.

Coots are amazing birds!

Most folks wouldn't think twice about a Coot... dull, black... usually hundreds of them in every given spot of water... but, just sit and watch them. I have this theory that you can't really enjoy birds until you start to appreciate the most basic, common ones you see. This has held true for me.

Sitting there I thought about all sorts of things- but mostly, I started to identify with Coots. Feeling overlooked and plain... passed over for flashy, better-looking people. How many people have passed me by, never saying a word, simply because I didn't stand out to them?

I'm a Coot. Chunky, a tad plain, but beautiful in my own right. I'm talkative (sit and listen to Coots... they never shut up!), social, funny, only fly if I have to, and brave. I honestly couldn't think of a better bird that fits me.

There's something to be said for making personal realizations about yourself while doing the one thing you love more than anything. It brought up a lot of emotion, and a lot of happiness. I'm proud to be a Coot, because that means the people who realize my beauty are the kind of people who I want in my life... not the ones who pass me over for something aesthetically "better".

So, I went back to shooting, when this Coot came up and checked me out. Now, I'm not going to be cheesy and say we had a connection- but hey, maybe he knew I was a Coot too.

What bird do you identify with? Feel free to share in the comments.

Stay tuned for my Ohio and Arizona trip reports later in March/April.

And, as always... Until next time- Happy birding to all of you!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Adventures in the Great White North

Day One: It's Gyrrrrrrreat!

Okay, so I know how to pronounce Gyrfalcon, but since I'm low on clever titles, bear with me. My other choice was "Bogs are stupid", but we'll get to that later.

Around noon on Friday, I left my house to head south to Montgomery to pick up my friends, Beth and Chad, who would be joining me on the LONG, and not just long- but VERY LONG, drive to Sax-Zim Bog. Since my van had better tires than their car, and I knew the road conditions up north would be rough, I decided to drive down and pick them up so we could take my van instead. 

Three hours south, and we get loaded up and on the road. At the very least, Montgomery sits along I-65, so it's a straight shot up into Tennessee from there.

I drive the first five hours, and then Chad takes over. While I love driving, I tend to get sleepy whilst driving at night, so since he's a better night driver, I just find it best to switch off and catch some Zs. 

I wake up around the time we hit central Illinois, and my excitement about the trip keeps me awake. Daylight hits once we're in Madison, Wisconsin... and Beth decides to start looking up rare bird sightings. We figure- why not find something cool along the way? This is how we would learn of the location of the Gyrfalcon that a poster on Whatbird got photos of. It was about an hour and a half out of our way but come on! It's a Gyrfalcon! When would I have another chance this year to see one?

So, we make the drive north to Buena Vista Grasslands. Roads are definitely not clear here... which would set us back a little more time... however, the Gyrfalcon would make an immediate appearance, making things easy for us. As soon as we arrived on County Highway W, it only took a couple miles before we found him. He flew alongside our van for a good half mile before finally landing in the top of a tree. We pull over to get photos, when he decides to fly across the way and hover over some long grass. Snapping off more photos, not great ones, I decide to walk back to the van when Chad shouts, "Amber! Overhead! Get a photo!" I literally turn, put my camera up, and start shooting. No time to adjust settings or even worry about focus. All I can hope is that they come out IDable. I was pleasantly surprised to have gotten this shot:


The Gyrfalcon eventually flies out of sight. With such a great start to our trip, we drive around hoping to find some Greater Prairie-Chickens, but can't seem to locate any. We only stick around for another thirty minutes or so before heading west towards Eau Claire to get back on track.
The roads are solid sheets of packed-down snow and ice.... making our trip to Eau Claire over two hours long. It sets us back an extra hour... but we push through. We had gained a lot of time overnight making minimal stops and maybe driving a little faster than we should've... maybe. :)
From Eau Claire, we'd reach Sax Zim about 4 1/2- 5 hours later at 4 PM-ish.
Once arriving, my 4G signal is spotty, so a lot of what I bookmarked on my computer cannot be pulled up. Let me tell you, Sax-Zim area is HUGE. Unless you know where you're going, forget about it! We eventually figure out where the visitor's center is... and at this point, have seen next to nothing. The feeders there mostly frequented by Black-capped Chickadees, and a few Pine Grosbeaks show up. At least the Grosbeaks are a lifer/new year bird! At the visitor's center, there is a white-board with sightings, and we run into a gentleman and his wife who help us find our first Northern Hawk-Owl along Owl Avenue. Apparently, photographers have been baiting him with mice, so if you stop and get out of your car, he will fly in to the nearest tree and make an appearance.

Northern Hawk-Owl

Bogs were suddenly less stupid. We decide to check out McDavitt Road and Admiral Road for a Great Gray. On the way, along Arkola Road, a Black-billed Magpie flies in front of the van.... Along McDavitt Road... we find a lone Ruffed Grouse in a bush...  am able to get IDable photos, but the best I can do in the lighting conditions.

Otherwise, by this point, darkness was really settling in, and we would be unlucky to find much of anything. Around 7 PM we decide to head back towards Duluth to book our room at the Days Inn. The next day would be far more "adventurous" with more birds, and more mishaps. 

Day Two: Crash Into Me and the Great Gray Ghost

So, we start Sunday off super early, but fall behind while checking out of the motel. We arrive to the Sax-Zim area around 6:30 AM. Chad had met a lady from Tallahassee, who he shared our phone numbers with, so she could tell us about need birds she might see. So, while driving on Arkola Road, she texted that she was watching a Great Gray Owl on Admiral Road near the feeder station.

Now, a bit of advice... don't let someone from Alabama ever drive your vehicle in the snow. They just don't know how to compensate when they hit a patch of ice. And these roads were covered in it.

I direct the way, and when we turn onto McDavitt, Chad loses control of my van and crashes it into snow on the embankment. I don't think he had any idea that plowed up snow piles are not cushy pillows... no... they are ice. Our front end is lifted off the ground, and we have no traction to get out. The Tallahassee lady texts that the Great Gray had flown off. Of course it did! I get out of my van and start finding pieces of it in the pile of snow and on the ground around us... and I might even cry at this point. I am lit. At this point, I'm the only one driving my vehicle, because I have half a mind just to throw my hands in the air and go back home.

Finally a tow truck arrives to pull us out, and I see that I'm basically missing the driver's side portion of my bumper, and there's a couple small dents in the fender. Cosmetic really, except now my van drives with a rumble and shake... so pretty sure it also threw my alignment out of whack. Either way, it's driveable and no real significant damage is done... however it sets us back an hour, so we can forget about seeing the Great Grays- as most of the sightings are early morning (before 8 AM) or in the evening (after 5 PM).

Our first stop is at the Admiral Station feeders, where Gray Jays and Black-capped Chickadees are congregating. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers arrive, and we stick around for ten minutes waiting on the Boreal Chickadees to make an appearance. They don't, so we move on to the visitors center.

Gray Jay

We get there around 10 AM, and talk to the lady indoors, who tells us where to find the Evening Grosbeaks. She says that they only seem to stay at the feeders in the morning, and since the location was over 10 miles away, we better get going. So, we head to the private home whose feeders are hosting the Grosbeaks. We knew exactly where to stop, since you can't miss the "Welcome Birders" signs in the front yard. The homeowners allow birders to pull in and walk the driveway to get pictures of the birds at the feeders. We'd see a White-breasted Nuthatch, some Black-capped Chickadees, a couple Hairy Woodpeckers, and our target bird: The Evening Grosbeak.

Evening Grosbeak

We stay awhile, snap a bunch of photos, and head back to Zim Road. We've heard there's a Snowy Owl hanging out near Highway 7, and I need one for the year. Sure enough, he was sitting up high in a pine tree, where we would see him each time we passed during the day (about three times).

Snowy Owl

This day is already proving to be more successful than the first. Before we spotted the Hawk-Owl the evening prior, Beth and I dubbed Sax-Zim a "stupid bog". We jokingly refer to birds that elude us or things we don't like as "stupid". Today, it would be "stupid" grouse, as we dipped on Spruce and Sharp-taileds on the trip... the Sharp-taileds were a bit sobering, as they seemed to be toted as a "sure thing" at the bog. But we checked the two spots given where they'd been seen and they were nowhere to be found. Bummer.

At this point, we decide to head over to Meadowlands to find Black-billed Magpies. I was the only one to see the one who had flown in front of our van the day prior, and Beth needed them for the year, so we decided to go look. We didn't have to look long though, as we saw several along Highway 133.

We hadn't seen one of our target birds yet: The Boreal Chickadee. Next we would head back up to the Admiral feeders after breaking in Duluth for lunch at Five Guys. (Awesome burgers, BTW..) We would meet two photographers who would give us advice on the Great Grays, and wait for the Boreals to show up. Within about five minutes, they flew in to enjoy the feeders and peanut butter slathered on the branches.

Boreal Chickadee

They were adorable little cherubs... and made photos easy. They stuck around for a couple of minutes before taking off. At this point, nothing was coming to the feeder that we hadn't already seen, so we went back to Highway 7 and Arkola Roads to watch for Sharp-tailed Grouse and the Northern Goshawk, both of which we would end up dipping on.

Around 4 PM, we start cruising up and down Admiral and McDavitt Roads, hoping to spot a Great Gray, but unfortunately winds are high, which isn't good for viewing opportunities as the owls will perch lower and blend in more. We stay until 6:15, along with several other birders, none of which would spot one. This bummed us out the most, as I'd always been told "Great Gray Owls are everywhere at the bog". Apparently, this year it was just not the case.

All in all, we got 10 of our 15 target species, without a guide, and 10 hours of daylight total to bird in, I'd say we did a phenomenal job. Next time I go, I know where to look, and where to get information. I plan on heading up again sometime later in the year for those Grouse and the Great Grays. Hopefully next time, they won't be so elusive.

Until next time...
Happy birding to all of you!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twice in One Week?

On Friday, the 7th, I packed up and drove to Ohio with my friends, Beth and Chad. My target: Northern birds. Yes, we are planning a trip to the Sax-Zim Bog for this upcoming weekend (the 22nd), but I wanted to knock out as many northern wintering birds as possible before the trip, since we are driving it and won't have mountains of time to chase birds.

First stop- Deer Creek State Park in Mt. Sterling to see a reported Long-tailed Duck. I already had this bird for my list, but Beth and Chad didn't, so I wanted to swing in and nab it for them.

Next, we would head northeast over to Woodbury Wildlife Area in Coshocton. Last year, this was a super reliable spot for Northern Shrikes, but we would dip on these and continue on to Cleveland.

We hit 72nd Street and start scanning the ice for gulls. Great Black-backed and a lone Glaucous are present along with some Lesser Black-backed and hoards of Ring-billeds and Herrings. We would see Red-breasted and Common Mergansers in decent numbers in some of the only open water on the lake.

Next- we travel over to Lorain County airport to try to nab some Short-eared Owls (again, for Beth and Chad), but dip on these as well. We drive back east, towards Warren, to hit Mosquito Lake in the morning for Long-eared Owls.

At the crack of dawn, we're up and getting ready to head out. I was given explicit instructions on where to find the Long-eared Owls. It was snowing pretty heavily... and Beth and I decided to walk the road so we could see better. (Not to mention, it was quieter than puttering along in a car) We walked for over an hour, scanning the area they were to be found, and nothing. Chad swears he heard them hooting in the distance, and I accepted the possibility that they roosted high to ride out the weather, as they were found later in the day by somebody else. Really disappointed to dip on these guys, as I've been searching years for them and have never seen one.

The snow holds us back, and even through that, we swing over to the airport in Wayne County where a Snowy has been seen. The snow is heavy, visibility is terrible, and there's no sight of the owl. Just another species to dip on...

We are behind, but make two stops in the Dayton area- the first to nab White-winged Scoters for Beth and Chad, and then to nab some Trumpeter Swans. I am counting these birds, due to the fact I am not submitting my Big Year to the ABA, and it's not necessarily known where these birds actually originate from. I am comfortable counting them, and have for my list. In the grand scheme of things, eliminating one bird from my list wouldn't be the end of the world, and I would do it if I felt I had to.

I started the Ohio trip with a target list of 17 species and came home with only 7. While 7 is better than none, it certainly bummed me a little to miss out on so many.

However, I decide to head north again on Wednesday (the 12th) to chase a Prairie Falcon at the Sommerville Mines in Indiana. This trip would prove to be successful. 

The drive to the hotspot was actually very easy, and short (considering my other trips). From my door to the spot was about 4 1/2 hours. Approaching the hotspot around 7 in the morning, the first bird to notice as I was driving up Indiana-61 was none other than the Prairie Falcon himself (herself?)! Obviously, since I was driving, there is no picture to be had. However, it's not a bird that any semi-experienced birder would mistake for anything else. Too light to be a Peregrine, too big for a Merlin, and all sorts of beautiful. 

I would continue to drive around the mines, hoping for some Short-eared Owls to pop up. I wouldn't see any (they are a photo nemesis bird), but I would flush a male Ring-necked Pheasant, and see a Northern Shrike in my searching. I only had one target bird for this drive, and racked up two extra year birds- bringing my year total to 220.

This week, I have a trip to Tallahassee to meet up with a birder I know to nab some more year birds, and then the big Sax-Zim Bog trip this weekend. Stay tuned for more Big Year updates!

Until next time-
Happy birding to all of you!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Today marked the third day that I didn't actively look for any birds.

I am going through withdraws.

I tried to keep busy indoors, with the gloomy and rainy weather.... I cleaned up my house which I've neglected during this whole Big Year thing. Three hours and I feel like I only put a dent in it. Normally, you can eat off my floors, though not sure I would suggest such a thing right now.

Played with the young kidlets. Made cookies. Did all the house-wifely things I should be doing, if I wasn't a freakin' birding addict. If I wasn't going for a poor (wo)man's Big Year.

And still, I was twitching for something. Nothing new really comes into the yard anymore.... and I'd have to wait until nighttime to owl out in the woods out back. So, I get on my laptop, bring up eBird sightings for Alabama and see a sighting of a Northern Saw-whet Owl reported in Jackson County. The spot is a little over an hour away- near the Tennessee state line.

I need a Saw-whet.

It's dark now, and raining... and I still am fighting the urge to hop in my van and go find that tree. (Which would prove difficult at night)

Birding withdraws are rough. I need to get back to this Big Year thing. Being cooped up in a house is just not working out.

This weekend- chasing a possible Code 4 and Code 3 on the east coast with my new friends, Beth and Chad. Stay tuned.

Until next time....
Happy birding to all of you!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

I've Got a Twitch- For a Sprague's Pipit

As a member of several birding groups on Facebook- especially surrounding states- I am always looking for rarities being reported. I mostly chase in Tennessee, but couldn't ignore reports of Sprague's Pipits (and some uncommon gulls as well) in northwest Mississippi.

So, with all five of my kids in tow, I make the 500 mile round trip to Robinsonville and Sardis Lake in somewhat nearby Sardis, MS.

The first stop is Sardis for reported Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls. Both of which I would dip on. But, that is the nature of the chase. My next stop would be Arkabutla Dam, as it's on the way to the Sprague's Pipit spot. While I find more gulls there, and a possible Great Black-backed (however none of the photos cinch the ID, so I cannot add it to my list), I still dip on anything uncommon.

Onto the next spot- Buck Island Road. This spot hosted about 16 different Northern Harriers, which put on a show the entire time I was there scanning for Short-eared Owls. A quick drive down the road got me the bird I was really twitching for- the Sprague's Pipit. While it was too far for my measly 300mm lens to get great shots, I got IDable ones. He stood out like a sore thumb amongst the darker, and far more numerous Savannah Sparrows. I would also see Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks in the surrounding fields.

Sprague's Pipit #208

Before leaving, I watch two Harriers dive-bomb a Short-eared Owl (#209)... this trip ending with 209 year birds and a new lifer.

Today was a day of rest. I have driven over 4000 miles in the past month, and needed a day to relax. This week: back to chasing and finding more birds for the year.

Until next time-
Happy birding to all of you!

An Unintended Big Year

I have this friend... my best friend... who also happens to be a birder. He's not just a birder, but he's a passionate birder such as myself. If I am hyped about a sighting, or a potential new hotspot- he's the first person I call to tell about it. When I started listing last year, and setting number goals... when I whined that I could never hit 300, he was the first person to help me have a little bit of faith in myself. He has always believed in me more than I have.

So, when I started off this year with 100 within the first two weeks, pretty much knocking out the vast majority of northern Alabama birds, I got excited. I got hyped. I just wanted to see ALL THE BIRDS. Therefore, I start talking about a trip to Texas, to Florida, to Ohio... I want to go somewhere! A trip with a friend to St. Marks gets cancelled, and it leaves me an open weekend. At the last minute- I decide on the Rio Grande Valley. I tell my friend how exciting it would be to have 200 on my year list by the end of January.

When he hears that, he makes the comment that it would sound like an awesome start to a Big Year.

An awesome start to a Big Year. Those words would change this year for me forever. Completely inspired by what seemed like such an innocuous statement, I decide to go for it. I may not have the what-seems-like unlimited resources that the hardcore Big Year birders have... but I have a van, a couple weekends free a month, and the drive to see as many birds as I can- even if that means all I eat on a trip is energy/protein bars and coffee. Even if that means I have to sleep in my van instead of a motel. Even if that means I drive 36 hours in a weekend, just to bird for six. I have the drive and determination, and I believe, though it may not get me to the 700 club- I believe it will take me far this year in my search for birds.

Now I will end this post with the obligatory thank you to that friend, who I will refer to as "C" from now on. Thank you, C... for always believing in me. For always listening to me ramble on about birds and sightings, even when working, even when it seems everyone needs to talk to you, and your phone is going off non-stop. Thank you for the inspiration, the time you take to help me through my trips. Just, thank you for being my best friend and being you.

Until next time, everyone. Happy birding to all of you.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Aransas and the Rio Grande Valley

If there's one thing about me- it's that I'm not a meticulous planner. I tend to make last-minute decisions, and really love an adventure. The element of surprise just adds to the fun of the adventure, in my opinion. So, it was no surprise that I decided to go to Texas on a birding trip just hours before leaving my house. Originally, I was supposed to go to St. Marks in Florida on a birding trip with a friend, but after he cancelled, I decided I should go somewhere else.
My first choice was to go up to Ohio, where I am familiar, to nab some northern birds for the year list such as Snow Buntings, Short-eared Owls, Long-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Black-capped Chickadees, etc. However, a snow storm would be moving in, and I decide that the weekend would not work to my advantage. So, why pay all that money and spend that time driving to potentially be trapped up there in a massive storm? No thanks!
That being said, I consider going to the Everglades. It's a twelve hour trip and completely doable in a weekend (I tend to Iron-Man my trips... sleep in the van, driving straight through sometimes on very little sleep, and still hiking and birding all day. Having five kids and a budget, I don't get to take cushy vacations.)  :)
But then, something a local birder friend said to me came to my mind. She asked: 
"How do you plan on reaching 400 this year without going to Texas?"
Texas! Of course! I think about the Whooping Cranes at Aransas and decide to check any ABA rarities being reported. I notice in the Rio Grande Valley (Hidalgo County), two code 3s are being regularly seen: Hook-billed Kite and Tropical Parula. If I'm going to drive 16 hours (according to Google maps), I'm going to chase some rarities in the process!
That with a report of a Painted Redstart at Aransas NWR- my plans are sealed that morning. I would leave Friday evening to go to Texas. Just checking eBird checklists, and factoring in the three rarities, I have a possibility (though damn near impossible) to add up to 167 year birds to my list, and 75 lifers. I am super excited for this trip!
However, my half-assed, last-minute plans aren't going as haphazardly planned. I am two hours late getting out of the door to even start my drive. Forget the fact that once I arrived in the Baton Rouge area, the roads were iced over, and they shut down I-12 and I-10, forcing me to take US-190 to get over to Texas, which was 50% iced over bridges. I fall behind another hour and a half, and almost in tears. I text a friend who suggests finding a local hotspot instead, but I have my heart set on the Rio Grande Valley, and damn-it, I'm going to make it there!

So, I push through. Around the Lake Charles area, I-10 is finally open, but bridges are still icy and clear through Beaumont, Texas, there is a lot of stop-and-go and slow traffic. I realize, fairly quickly, that in order to make this trip work I will have to reverse my plans. My first stop would now be Aransas NWR instead of Mission, Texas. I would spend the afternoon birding at Aransas, and then Sunday morning down around Mission and Santa Ana NWR before heading home.
Once to Houston, the traffic is moving very smoothly, and I am able to make up about an hour of the time I lost. I arrive to Aransas NWR around 1:30 CST.
Of course, my GPS takes me to the rear gate and back gravel roads. In this area I would find my first Burrowing Owl. A cagey fellow, I was lucky to get a shot at all.

I text my friend again for help, not knowing how to get to the visitor's center, and he provides me an address. I get there around 2 PM. I scan the trees for the Painted Redstart for about 20 minutes, and give up because I am short on time. I hate missing a target bird, but there was so much to see in 4 hours, I don't want to waste time on ONE bird. One of the refuge workers suggested the Heron Flats, so I go to walk that mile and a half trail.

On the bridge at the beginning of the trail, I look down in the marsh area to see a Sora feeding in the open. I snap off some shots and proceed to the observation deck, where they have a scope in place. I view five Whooping Cranes feeding out on the flats, along with some other waders such as Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibises, White-faced Ibises, and Tricolored Herons.
I continue down the trail, with Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers surrounding me. Perched in a bush is a Ringed Kingfisher, with its back to me. At first I decide to call it a Belted, but once it turns and I see the solid rusty underparts, I realize my mistake. It would be moments later that a female Green Kingfisher would fly by, after the Ringed Kingfisher is flushed by my walking by.
Out on the flats, tons of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are feeding. I notice two American Avocets amongst them, which gave me a big grin. For 2013- Avocets had been my nemesis. I lost count of how many times I chased them and missed.
Along the trail I would also encounter an armadillo, who really didn't care that I existed. I could've touched him and he would've probably just kept doing what he was doing. But I decided against it since leprosy doesn't sound like a fun time.

 As it starts growing dark, I decide to take the auto tour on the hopes for some hunting raptors or owls. While I didn't find many raptors, I did see that Javelinas were active (a sow with babies crossed the road in front of my van- talk about adorable!), and I found a Great Horned Owl perched in a coma tree. I would end my first day at Aransas with 76 species seen. Tallying those up with birds seen while driving, and at a random stop along the way to Aransas- 80 species total!
I am exhausted, and decide to head to Mission (over 200 miles from Aransas) and grab a bite to eat. I would end up finding a travel plaza to park and sleep for the night.
Aransas NWR checklists:

Around 1 AM, I wake up. I had fallen asleep around 7 or 8 PM, and being a mom of five, I rarely get more than 5-6 hours of sleep at a time. So, I could not fall back asleep. I got online and started looking at the parks I would be visiting once I made it to Mission.

I was an hour out still from the truck stop I rested at. Around 3 AM, I decided to finish the remainder of my drive and stop somewhere for breakfast.

One place I wanted to stop was Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. So, I punch it into my GPS and go along my way. Around 5 AM, I arrive. Of course my GPS takes me down some rough dirt roads before the entrance (I have no idea why it does this). Normally, this sort of thing ticks me off... but this morning, it would prove to be awesome.

So, as I inch down this narrow dirt road, that drops off on both sides, mind you.... and by drops off, I mean if I go off the side, my van is going to roll. Feels safe! Anyways, I continue down it slowly, high-beams on... because at this point, I don't know if the road is actually going to lead anywhere, or if I'm going to have to drive this entire distance backwards to get out. I peer ahead when I see some eyes shining in the road. I slow down and inch up on whatever this thing is in the road. Once I'm up on it (it's about 8 feet in front of the van), I can clearly see it's a nightjar of some sort. I reach for my camera, not removing my eyes from the bird, when it takes flight and I notice the wings seem shorter and rounder. I know there are two types of nightjars I could see here- and I eliminate Lesser Nighthawk. This bird was a Common Pauraque! (Why couldn't I get the picture? Argh!)

Continuing down the road, it's not much further before it leads to the back of the maintenance building at the refuge. I am able to turn around and head back. Coming up on a tree, I flush another bird, which I think is a Greater Roadrunner, but since it's pitch black and I cannot locate the bird, I leave it off my list for now.

I head back to the city, to kill a little bit of time before the refuge opens. Around 7 AM- I head back out.

Once at Santa Ana, I start scanning the trees. The first birds you will hear when you pull in are the Great Kiskadees. I don't know if you've ever heard one before, but they are loud. And there were lots of them. Another loud bird in the trees there: Green Jays. Binoculars and camera in hand, I start taking photos and watching them. It's hard not just to sit and stare at new birds, watch their behaviors, and generally just enjoy them. But, I was short on time, so I was "Power Birding" this time around.

Great Kiskadees, Green Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, Black-crested Titmice, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, White-tipped Dove, Inca Dove, Greater Roadrunner... so many new birds on my short walk. I head back to the visitor's center where one of the workers is refilling the feeders. He is surrounded by a bunch of excited and hungry Plain Chachalacas. They didn't seem to be frightened of our presence at all. I check the hummingbird feeders and find a male Black-chinned feeding. I don't want to leave! I spend an hour, tally up species, and decide to head over to Mission to find the Hook-billed Kites.

One thing that has spoiled me about Alabama and Ohio is that generally, the parks are free to get into. And I've never had to pay to get into a National Wildlife Refuge. This isn't so in Texas. The refuges gave me envelopes to send money in, since I do not carry cash on me (especially on trips), and allowed me in. However, the park where the Hook-billed Kites are, was not as lenient. It would likely take me 25-30 minutes just to find an ATM to draw out money. So, I decide (after talking to a gentleman who tells me the Hook-billed Kites are likely returning to nest) I will go on up to Edinburg Municipal Park to chase a Tropical Parula that's been reported there instead. At this point, I have dipped on 2 of 3 of my target birds. I am still happy with what I have seen though.

Arriving at Edinburg, thankfully I don't have to pay to gain access to the park. However, they have a wetland area called a "World Birding Center" (I noticed other parks have this as well), which was closed for Sunday, and also costs money to get into. I am able to walk the perimeter of the fenced area, and pick up birds that way. It doesn't take long before I find the Tropical Parula in a tree with a Northern Parula. This made it easy to see the differences and know that I had found the bird. One of three target birds and a code three? I'll take it!

One of the large ponds at the park is hosting some ducks, so I walk around to the fishing pier and notice a large group of Black-necked Stilts in the water. Also, a pair of Cinnamon Teal were dabbling near the shoreline. Cormorants were flying in and out, and I notice they aren't the usual Double-cresteds, but Neotropics. This park is alive with activity, and I pick up a few more lifers/new year birds here in the hour I spend. Now it's 10:30 AM, and I have to start my long drive back to Huntsville.

A bird I really wanted to see, and hadn't at this point, was a Crested Caracara. On the drive home, I would count 28. (Where were all of them on my drive down?) I also would see a White-tailed Hawk on my drive home, amongst a couple other new species. The drive home was brutal. I was exhausted and wondered if I could even make it home safely towards the last three hours of it. Multiple stops for coffee, to walk around, splash water on my face, etc... I finally arrive home 18 hours later. Was it worth it? Well, for 71 new year birds and 35 lifers, I'd say so!

Santa Ana NWR Checklist:

Edinburg Checklist:

Thanks for reading- and until next time... Happy birding to all of you!