Thursday, March 15, 2012

West Texas, The Panhandle, and Home

On Tuesday, March 6, we headed north from Uvalde to the Lost Maples State Natural Area. The area gets its name from the Bigtooth Maples that are found here; a Rocky Mountain species that is very sparsely distributed here at the southern end of its range. Most of the deciduous trees had no leaves, nor any flowers, but the maples were easy to spot against the canyon walls as they had abuntant, though small, yellow flowers.

Bigtooth Maple

We hiked portions of two of the trails into canyons where, quite expected, we heard several Canyon Wrens calling from the cliffs above. There were also several Carolina Wrens and, once I tracked down one singing bird it was obvious that there were several Hutton's Vireos singing there as well. One bird singing from on the ground was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow that cooperated for photos.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

This park is known as a breeding area for endangered Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. It being early March, we weren't expecting either species, but in fact there were at least a half-dozen warblers singing including one that gave us good, though brief views. If any Black-capped Vireos were present, they weren't in evidence visually or through song. The trails were interesting for the plants that were in bloom here, including what is sometimes called "Texas Mountain Laurel", though most often it is called Mescal Bean which makes more sense as the flowers are certainly indicative of of the pea family and not laurels.

"Texas Mountain Laurel" or Mescal Bean

"Texas Mountain Laurel" or Mescal Bean

"Texas Mountain Laurel" or Mescal Bean

A common flower growing all over the ground, and even on the rocks, was the Basket Anemone, named for the shape of its flowers.

Basket Anemone

Basket Anemone

A bright yellow flower caught our eye, and was a species we'd seen before, Narrowleaf Gromwell.

Narrowleaf Gromwell

The morning had started out cold, but by the end of our hikes there were butterflies beginning to get active. One of these was a species of duskywing. These butterflies are a bit of a jinx for me, as I have photographed them many times but every time I get them home to identify, they always turn out to be Juvenal's Duskywing. Indeed, that's what this one looks like too even though we were at the southwestern edge of their range.

Juvenal's Duskywing

A similar jinx occurs with the fritillaries, though we have seen a few species in the western U.S. But so often, they turn out to be a fairly widespread southern species, the Variegated Fritillary.

Variegated Fritillary

From here, it was a long drive to our next planned locations in West Texas, and we were running short on time, so we dead-headed it for the rest of the day, only to find out that our intended stop, at Balmorea, had no hotels or motels. So, we continued westward to Van Horn for the night.

The original plan was to visit three areas in West Texas; Big Bend National Park, the Davis Mountains, and Guadeloupe Mountains National Park. But being short on time, we had to decide on just one to visit, and since it was the only place we hadn't been before, it was easy to choose the Davis Mountains.

So, on Wednesday, March 7 we struck out through arid grasslands, dotted with Yuccas and one very prominent cactus, the Chainfruit Cholla.

Chainfruit Cholla

Another small cactus was found near a fence line, a species of Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus sp.) but would only be identifiable (by me anyway) if it was flowering.

Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus sp.)

We had hoped to find grassland species in these areas, including longspurs that would be new for our Texas list, but it was quite windy (again!) and not much was in evidence.

On our way to Davis Mountains State Park, we stopped at the Madera Canyon picnic area, where The Nature Conservancy had a preserve with some trails. We walked part of one trail, finding Canyon Towhees as well as a Spotted Towhee.

Canyon Towhee

We arrived at the Davis Mountain SP where we immediately headed for the feeders in hopes of seeing Montezuma Quail. When we got there, we were greeted by quite a herd of perhaps 15 Collared Peccaries that were taking advantage of the free food.

Collared Peccary

At one point we were a bit concerned as the Peccaries were essentially surrounding us, and this isn't a critter to be trifled with. I wish I could say that these photos were taken with a 400mm lens, and cropped, but I had to back up with the lens at 120mm just to get them in frame!

Collared Peccary

With so many Peccaries, as well as more than a half-dozen deer that strolled through the feeding area, it was clear that there was an ample prey base for the Mountain Lions we'd seen warning signs about at the park entrance.

Collared Peccary

Needless to say, with so much mammalian activity the hoped-for Montezuma Quail did not appear, but there was a good variety of other birds at the feeders.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

Canyon Towhee

Chipping Sparrow
(Clay-colored and Brewer's were also present)

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, female

Lesser Goldfinch

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Western Scrub-Jay

White-crowned Sparrow
(probably the Rocky Mountain subspecies)

White-winged Dove

We left the park, minus encounters with Montezuma Quail (darn) or Mountain Lion (whew! darn!), and took the "scenic loop" road back north, which lived up to its billing.

Davis Mountains

Davis Mountains

We headed north into southeastern New Mexico where we spent the night.

On Thursday, March 8, we headed east into the Texas Panhandle. We were hoping to see longspurs and possibly other grassland birds here, but it turned out to be the windiest day so far, with sustained 30 mph winds with a few higher gusts. Even so, we decided to see what the Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge had to offer. The right type of grassland was present, with a very needle-leaved Yucca growing in the grassland.

Buffalo Lake NWR

The species we were looking for were on the bird checklist, but it was very difficult to walk around without getting blown down, so after driving the loop road our list for this area was only about a half-dozen species. So, it was on to our final Texas destination, mainly for scenery, Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon

From here we headed east into Oklahoma, where we again did not find any longspurs probably because the high winds from yesterday continued, and we drive through about six small hailstorms on the way.

On Friday, March 9, we headed northeast through Oklahoma to Missouri. Today was mainly a travel day, to get as close to home as possible, but one stop was made at Bennett Springs State Park in central Missouri in the hopes of finding a lifer salamander. We walked the trails and flipped a lot of logs, but apparently the Western Slimy Salamanders weren't active yet. We were serenaded by a Great Horned Owl off in the distance, even though it was mid-day, and there were a few wildflowers in evidence.

White Trout Lily

Fumitory sp.
(possibly the same species in Michigan)

Unidentified flower. More work to do!

On Saturday, March 10, the drive home was long and uneventful. We were glad the snow we encountered two weeks ago was no longer a problem.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a place that quickens the pulse of birders because of the number of birds found in the U.S. only there. Although we have been there four times previously, and there were no life birds possible, I felt great anticipation heading down to the valley.

On Friday, March 2, we drove from Kingsville, with our first stop being the Sarita Rest Stop. It was a clear day and warm, but windy as it has been every day since we arrived in Texas. We walked the area for about a half hour, looking unuccessfully for Tropical Parula here...we've never had it here, but usually it is at the smaller pullout about a mile south (not there today either). But the first South Texas specialties were found, including Golden-fronted Woodpecker and several very vocal Black-crested Titmice.

Black-crested Titmouse

A more common species there was Brewer's Blackbird. Surprisingly, these were the first we'd seen on the trip.

Brewer's Blackbird

It was also nice to see some flowers, including the Spiderwort species below.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp).

The next stop was Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. We drove the loop road, but there was not much water in the lake beds, so few shorebirds. There were plenty of mosquitos, though nowhere near as many as farther up the coast. The photo blind was fun, as always, and we saw Green Jays quite well here, in addition to White-tipped Doves, and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at the feeders.

Green Jay

We navigated our way onto South Padre Island through Port Isabel but the traffic was so congested that we gave up trying to bird there and headed to Harlingen for the night.

On Saturday, March 3, we headed to a new area in the Valley that we'd never been to before, Llano Estero Grande State Park. This is probably one of the nicest places we visited in the Valley as it was easy to walk around, there were feeders at several places, a nice deck overlooking a pond, and trails and dikes throughout. One target bird here was a female Rose-throated Becard that had been seen most days for quite some time; a potential new species for my Texas list. But it never showed. Instead, we got good looks at a Broad-tailed Hummingbird that had been coming in to a feeder for a couple months, as well as a couple Black-chinned and a male Rufous. Two Clay-colored Thrushes were interesting, as was a male Hooded Oriole. The latter was up in a tree above the Clay-colored Thrushes, not giving me the views I needed to confirm the ID, until a larger nearly identical oriole came and chased it Altamira Oriole. Most of the photos from this locale were of cooperative waterfowl, including a local rarity, a Cinnamon Teal that didn't stop swimming for a decent photo, so all I have is this record shot.

Cinnamon Teal

I'm not sure what is going on between these two Green-winged Teal.

Green-winged Teal

Another Valley specialty, the Least Grebe, eventually put in an appearance close enough for photos; there were several on this small pond.

Least Grebe

Perhaps the bird most associated with the Rio Grande Valley is the Great Kiskadee, and they were easy to photograph at the feeders here.

Great Kiskadee

Next it was on to Weslaco and the Frontera Audubon thicket, where one special bird had been seen daily for at least two months, a Golden-crowned Warbler. This is a Mexican species that occasionally wanders north of the border, but was a new ABA species for us although we'd seen quite a few in Central America. After about an hour and a half, the bird was found for us by John Schwarz, who obtained outstanding photos minutes before we came along (check them out here), but alas the bird remained a skulker for us, though eventually brief but good views were had as it moved around below eye level only a few feet away. Before finding this mega-rarity, we wandered the short trails in search of other species. A Spotted Towhee made a brief appearance, and a Green Kingfisher was well hidden at the back of a small lagoon.

Green Kingfisher

A Buff-bellied Hummingbird perched in the open for quite a few minutes, very uncharacteristic for a hummingbird, right near the spot where the Golden-crowned Warbler had appeared.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

The sun was warming things up, so the butterflies and dragonflies were becoming active. I managed a photo of this Great Pondhawk, one of the commonest species on the trip in the Valley.

Great Pondhawk

Our final destination for the day was Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The birding was slow, but the butterflies and dragonflies were pretty good. Also, the first identifiable lizard of the trip was alongside one of the trails, an Eastern Fence Lizard.

Eastern Fence Lizard

One of the commonest butterflies in the Valley was the Phaon Cresent, and I had a number of opportunities to photograph them, both at Santa Ana NWR and subsequently.

Phaon Crescent

Another fairly common species, though not seen everywhere, was the Checkered Skipper.

Checkered Skipper on Lantana

We ran into friends from Michigan, Mark and Joanie Hubinger, who live in the Upper Peninsula from spring through fall, and volunteer at the refuge during the winter. We talked about a few things related to birds, bugs, and other critters in the valley. But the birding was fairly slow this afternoon, with the main highlight being a Ringed Kingfisher along the Willow Lake trail, so we headed back to Harlingen for the night.

On Sunday, March 3, we got up extra early to head for Bentsen State Park, so that we could at least hear, and hopefully see some Common Pauraques along the roads near there. We were quite successful with these and then headed into the park just at surise for a morning of birding. At the first set of feeders, the Plain Chachalacas were already scarfing down the seed when we arrived.

Plain Chachalacas

It was quite a birdy morning, and with some work I eventually located a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, new for my Texas list. The photo blind was reasonably good, but mainly with just two species in attendance, Green Jays and White-tipped Doves.

White-tipped Dove

As the morning warmed up, the butterflies became active, including this Gulf Fritillary.

Gulf Fritillary

We decided it was time to head over to the nearby International Butterfly Center. This site was still under development, and not open to the public, when we were here in July 2006, so it was nice to check it out especially since we've been members of the Center's sponsor, the North American Butterfly Association, for several years. There were several species present, but they were difficult to photograph partly because it was windy (yet again), and partly because many individuals were quite worn. Many of my butterfly photos from this site are of skippers that I'll have to work out the identifications from the photos after we get home. But one of the sought after species we did see included the Mexican Blue Wave.

Mexican Blue Wave

Another was the Bordered Patch.

Bordered Patch

From here, we went to Anzalduas County Park, but were disappointed becuase the road up over the dam was closed, so the main birding area was not accessible. We went north to McAllen for the night.

On Monday, March 5 we headed west, to Salineno, where we went down to the river first to check for Ringed and Green Kingfishers and Muscovy Ducks...negative on all these this time, unlike in July 2006 when we had them all here. But the trailer park area where birders were maintaining feeders was quite active and productive. I hesitate to post yet another photo of a very abundant Texan species, the Great-tailed Grackle, but this one was sitting adjacent to Red-winged Blackbirds giving a very good size comparison.

Great-tailed Grackle with Red-winged Blackbirds

Other common Valley species were easy to photograph here too, including Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

Green Jay

Great Kiskadee

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

And the Altamira Orioles put on quite a show too, with a couple adults and at least three second-year (first spring) individuals, a plumage not illustrated in many field guides.

Adult Altamira Oriole

Second-year Altamira Oriole

I had hopes of photographing Audubon's Oriole here too, but although one was singing across the road (and another across the Rio Grance in Mexico), they didn't turn up at the feeder while we were there. At one point, my ears picked up a familiar vocalization, the squealing "sklee" of a Pine Siskin. Very soon, two of them were on the feeders in front of us. Perhaps a rarity in the Rio Grande Valley? But the rarity we'd come to see, as had many others since it first appeared in the fall, was the Brown Jay. We had seen several Brown Jays at Rancho Santa Margarita in the 1980s (and many in Central America too), but in recent years they've become quite rare north of the U.S. border...until this one turned up. He came in fairly early, maybe around 8:30 after we'd only waited a half hour.

Brown Jay

Although he is well over twice their size, he was dive-bombed by a single Great Kiskadee and he didn't stay more than a few minutes; also the scores of Red-winged Blackbirds tended to overwhelm the other birds too. We called it a successful day and departed, but not before a pair of Northern Bobwhites ran across the road in front of us, heading for the feeders no doubt.

Our searches for White-collared Seedeaters at Zapata and San Ygnacio were not successful this time, perhaps because of the wind or perhaps just poor luck. We continued north through Laredo to Uvalde where we stayed the night. We made a trip north to the Frio Bat Cave entry road where we waited outside the gate to see if we could see the bats emerge. But apparently they hadn't arrived in numbers yet, as we only saw a dozen or so flying randomly around long after sunset when it was nearly dark. The skies were very clear, and the wind had let up some, which allowed us to have great scope views of four planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, plus a nearly full moon.

The next posting will cover West Texas.