Monday, April 6, 2015

March Madness - Searching for Spring Part 2

On Saturday, March 22, with rain in the forecast yet again (the drought in South Texas must be over now!), we decided to cover the eastern portion of the Rio Grande Valley since the prediction was for rain in the western part in the morning, and increasing to the whole area in the afternoon. As we drove south of Robson, it was sprinkling off and on. As we got to Raymondville it was still raining, and we headed east toward our first destination to look for Aplomado Falcon; today's target bird. This species was lost as a nesting species in South Texas many decades ago. In the 1990s, an effort was made to bring them back by releasing captive-reared individuals. Up through about 2013, several hundred were released in this way and by 2010 or so, there were at least 25 breeding pairs, and young had been hatched in the wild. So, in 2014, the ABA relaxed its "listing" rules to allow this reintroduced species to be "countable". We did not see any falcons east of Raymondville, just a bunch of wet vultures sitting on the ground in the agricultural fields, and several Crested Caracaras too. The wet weather was not at all suitable for soaring.
Turkey Vulture, Crested Caracara, and Black Vultures
grounded by the rain east of Raymondville, TX

A wet Crested Caracara east of Raymondville, TX

We also found a few other raptors along this drive, including this Harris's Hawk.
Harris's Hawk east of Raymondville, TX

When we reached our next destination, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast, the rain had subsided but it was still overcast, and foggy.
Spanish dagger (Yucca treculeana) at Laguna Atascosa NWR

We had intended to drive the auto tour route to check for falcons on the nesting platform there, but access to this area had changed in 2013 to protect some of the U.S.'s only Ocelots, so a long ride on a tram was the only option. We looked at the overcast skies and decided to pass on this, instead spending some time around the Visitor's Center and the photo blind, reacquainting ourselves with some of the Rio Grande specialties, including Green Jay and the always difficult to photograph, White-tipped Dove.
Green Jay at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas

White-tipped Doves like to stay on or near the ground, move around a lot, and stick to the shadows and undergrowth. I was happy with this one image, the best I've gotten so far from a few trips to this region over the past three decades.
White-tipped Dove at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas.

And a butterfly also put in an appearance; a welcome sight after a long winter in Michigan, and a long rainy drive down to South Texas. It was a new species for us, a Mazans Scallopwing.
Mazans Scallopwing at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas

Another option for possible Aplomado Falcon sightings was at the freshwater Laguna Atascosa for which the refuge is named. So we started down the Lakeside Drive, encountering a Northern Mockingbird just outside the car window. It is a common species, but it pays to take photo opportunities when they present themselves.
Northern Mockingbird at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas

At the parking area for Alligator Pond, about 3/4 of the way to the Laguna, we noticed a Greater
Roadrunner looking for prey in the grasses along the trail. He/she was so intent on hunting that we were ignored, which was great for photography.
Greater Roadrunner at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas

Greater Roadrunner at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas

Just as we were arriving at the observation deck at Laguna Atascosa, it started raining. There were no falcons visible, and only a few coots on the big lake. Then it REALLY started raining HARD. Time to go. We headed south of the refuge, hoping to get out of the rain, planning to check along highway 100 west of Laguna Vista. We had an approximate location where the nest was to be found, but we ran up and down that part of the freeway (the center line blocked for several miles by concrete barricades) without finding the nest, or the falcons. A Ringed Kingfisher was a nice consolation prize though. It was still raining hard, so we decided to call it quits for the day and get into a motel in Weslaco. Unfortunately, on our way we got a flat tire, and had trouble getting the tire off the vehicle. After a couple hours of messing around, and some very helpful locals, we got a temporary replacement tire and got to our motel in Weslaco.

On Sunday, March 22, we turned our attention to another target species, the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat that had been seen at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Our first stop was the feeders, which had very little except Great-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a rodent that looked like a Norway Rat, but we were told it was a Hispid Cotton Rat.
Female Great-tailed Grackle at Estero Llano Grande SP

Hispid Cotton Rat (Sigmodon hispidus)

Next we checked the small lake near the visitor's center where there was a good selection of waterfowl, including Green-winged, Blue-winged, and Cinnamon Teal, and a good number of Black-necked Stilts.
Green-winged Teal at Estero Llano Grande SP

Black-necked Stilt at Estero Llano Grande SP

Unfortunately, we were told that at the visitor's center that the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat had not been seen in over a week. It had been singing before that, and was easy to find. But since the rain started a few days ago. the portion of the trail where it was being seen was now under 3-5 inches of water. There were several of us there anyway, standing in the water, waiting to see or hear the bird. But nobody has seen it again. Another may turn up in a couple years, as this species does turn up fairly regularly (the only problem is that it is 1650 miles to get there from home!). Another objective here was to photograph a Common Pauraque, which I'd never done before. Without knowing it at the time, but the Egyptian Goose in Florida back in January was my 600th ABA species photographed (yes, there are lists for everything!). The Pauraque would be #602, and the one stakeout spot for them did not produce, as the birds apparently roosted somewhere else today. But a very kind volunteer took us back to an area where another was reliable, though among some obscuring brush. But it was there!
Common Pauraque at Estero Llano Grande SP

And the last bird in the park, at the narrow, quiet stream crossing under the entrance road, was a male Green Kingfisher, which I was able to photograph with my 800mm telescope attachment (effective focal length of 1200mm, at f/11).
Green Kingfisher at Estero Llano Grande SP

With everything relatively close together in the Rio Grande Valley, it is easy to alter plans. After getting some good information on the exact location of the nest along Highway 100, where we'd tried unsuccessfully yesterday for Aplomado Falcon, we decided to try for it again. Perhaps you've noticed that I haven't mentioned rain for this day. It was a dry day, and even partly sunny! But first, just a couple miles up the road, we heard about a farm field that held a few hundred Whistling-Ducks. Most were Black-bellied, but I wanted to try to get a better photo of Fulvous Whistling-Duck than the lousy ones I'd gotten more than 25 years ago. There were perhaps 900 Black-bellieds there, and I counted 11 Fulvous. Even with the interfering vegetation, this photo is much better than the distant specks I got before.
Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.

Back east, at the Aplomado Falcons along Highway 100, when we got there it was really easy to see the nesting structure, which was about a mile away from where we were looking (but in the low visibility of the heavy rain it was certainly impossible to see it yesterday). Putting the scope on it, we easily saw there was a female Aplomado Falcon sitting there.
Female Aplomado Falcon, west of Laguna Vista, Texas

It is impossible to visually distinguish the sexes in this species, but within a few minutes it was clear she was female because a male, previously hidden behind the nest structure to her left, mounted and copulated with her (males are always on top in birds!).
Copulating Aplomado Falcons, west of Laguna Vista, Texas.

So this was a great way to end the day, with species #694 now ticked. But it wasn't the end of the day; it was early afternoon. So we headed back west, stopping at a newly opened park, Resaca de la Palma State Park. We chased a few birds and butterflies around, but got no decent photos, and a huge flock of mosquitoes chased us around, so we didn't stay here long.
Resaca de la Palma State Park, Texas

We continued west to the Progresso Lakes area, where flocks of blackbirds were known to congregate around the grain silos there. One objective was to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird, which we did see though all were in flight. Among the impressive numbers of blackbirds here were Bronzed Cowbirds; formerly known as Red-eyed Cowbird, which makes sense if you enlarge the photo below.
Bronzed Cowbird at Progresso Lakes, Texas

They mostly ignored us, and were engaged in courtship activity right there on the utility wires.
Bronzed Cowbirds at Progresso Lakes, Texas

But the show still wasn't over. At sunset (around 7:30 p.m.), we noticed large flocks of larger birds back near the silos.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Progresso Lakes, Texas

Amazingly, they were ALL Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks!
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck at Progresso Lakes, Texas

They just kept coming and coming, mostly from the west and southwest. Try as I might, I could not see a Fulvous Whistling-Duck in the bunch, and my final "count" (guesstimate really) was over 4000 of them!
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Progresso Lakes, Texas

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Progresso Lakes, Texas

Now THAT'S a great way to end the day! The next installment of this blog will cover birding sites in the McAllen area of the Rio Grande Valley.

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