Monthly Archives: February 2013

Texas Wrap-Up and Silly Signs

Little Blue Heron

My February trip to Texas was a success, and I am now enjoying some time at home.  Here is my customary end-of-trip report:

Miles by car: 1799

Miles by foot: 20 (approx)

Total species seen: 169

New Big Year Birds added: 40 (I’m currently at 544 total since I started on June 12, 2012)

Total number of individual birds seen last week (according to my eBird summary): 3560 (approx)

Highlights: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Audubon’s Oriole, Common Pauraque, Whooping Cranes, Flammulated Owl

Rarest bird: Bronzed Kingfisher (see photo below)

Bronzed Kingfisher

Nosiest Neighbor: The guy who kept peering over the fence the whole time I was at the Valley Nature Center

Nosy Neighbor

Scariest Thing I Saw: Chachalacas racing out of the forest at me, screaming “Chachalaca!”


Scariest Thing I Saw if I Were a Minnow: A flotilla of 80+ Horned Grebes swimming in close formation at the Texas City Dike

Eared Grebe Flotilla

Most Ridiculous Sign: You decide.  Here are some contenders:

Watch for Pelicans

Ok, I’m in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a narrow bridge with a concrete barrier to my left and traffic cones on my right.  How precisely should I react if I see a pelican coming at me at 45 miles an hour?

Pronto Insurance

I’ve never really contemplated the strength of a chorizo stain before…

Chacha Crossing

I know enough to stay out of their way!

Beware Sign

Agapanthus, eh?

Agapanthus sign

And that’s the news for now.  I’ll be mostly around the Pacific Northwest for the next 6 weeks or so, until I begin my Spring of Absolute Craziness: a 10-week period in which I’m traveling to Florida (including the Everglades, Keys, and Dry Tortugas), back to Texas, back to Arizona, back to Texas again (Big Bend!), and wrapping up my Big Year the first week of June in Alaska.  Stay tuned….

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Specialists Live on the Edge

I’m wrapping up my trip to Texas.  It’s been a great trip, but I’m ready to go home and spend some time with my family.  Before I flew back to Seattle, though, I had some unfinished business with a woodpecker.  There are 22 regularly occurring species of woodpeckers in the US and Canada.  I’d seen 21 since my big year began last June.  The remaining one is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered species found in a few scattered pockets around the southeastern US.  One of those pockets is in the pine woods of W.G. Jones State Forest, north of Houston.

Jones State Forest Sign

Like many endangered species, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a habitat specialist.  It only lives in relatively mature pine forests, preferring areas where red heart disease (a fungus) has weakened some of the older trees so that nesting cavities are easier to excavate.  At Jones State Forest, nest trees are clearly marked with green paint.  This is not the nesting season though, so no peckers were pecking at this tree.

Nest Tree

Habitat specialists have evolved to thrive in their own unique habitat, making them very successful – until that habitat is altered or destroyed.  Large scale deforestation of the South to make way for agriculture and urban growth in the last three centuries has cleared almost all of the RC Woodpecker’s preferred habitat, resulting in a population decline of about 99%.  The Woodpecker holds on in a few areas, with the pine forests north of Houston being one of them.  This story is unfortunately similar to that of Kirtland’s Warbler, another habitat specialist I visited last summer in Michigan.  Kirtland’s Warbler needs fire-regenerated young Jack Pines forests, which were all but eliminated due to 20th Century forestry policies of extinguishing all wildfires.  Controlled burns are helping to bring the warbler back.

Controlled fire is also being used here at Jones, not to regenerate young trees (this woodpecker needs big, mature ones) but to clear out underbrush and new deciduous growth that could crowd and choke the open pine forest.

Controlled Burn

I enjoyed walking through the damp woods.  The weather had turned cool and misty, a nice change from the 90s of the Valley.

Something told me I was getting closer.

RC Woodpecker Sign

It was this nice yellow and black sign.  And soon I could see them, a group of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers chasing each other through the forest.  The red ‘cockade,’ a small mark on the head, is all but invisible.  But I had pretty good looks at the rest of them as these charismatic little birds chipped and pecked their way around a cluster of trees.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

I didn’t get close enough for a good picture (these are endangered birds, after all, and I didn’t want to bother them).  But they were plenty close to enjoy through binoculars.  After 15 minutes of watching this merry little group, the woodpeckers flew off to another part of the forest and the rain began to strengthen.  I beat a hasty retreat to my car, having seen all of the woodpeckers of North America within the last year.

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Protecting and Celebrating Wildlife, Texas Style

I live in the Seattle area, a place known for its liberal politics and conservation-minded outlook.  The stereotypical Seattleite drives her Prius to the grocery store and packs local, organic produce and ‘green’ cleaning supplies into the re-usable hemp bags she brought from home.  Her friend is scrupulous about composting food scraps, riding his bike to and from work, and replacing all of the incandescent lights in his home with compact florescent bulbs.  Don’t get me wrong, I applaud these efforts to reduce, re-use, and recycle.  But what bothers me sometimes is the smug attitude that some Northwesterners have about their eco-friendly lifestyle, and the thought that if only the rest of the country were “more like us” we’d all be a lot better off.  Well, Seattle, I have news for you: you could learn a lot about protecting and celebrating nature and wildlife from the great state of Texas.

While much of the Seattle ethos of conservation centers around reducing our environmental footprint, the Texas approach I’ve seen on display here this week is all about getting people excited about nature.  They want people to experience the joy and wonder of the great outdoors, to educate them about the fascinating habitats and wildlife that surround them, and to help them forge deep connections with nature.  And one of the logical outgrowths of loving nature is a desire to preserve and protect it, a motive that is woven into the Texas strategy.  How do they manage to accomplish all of this?  They’ve done it through an ambitious program of education and marketing, and by partnering with businesses and communities to demonstrate that conservation can be great for local economies, businesses, and families.

One of the first steps down this path was the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.  People had been coming to the Texas coast to watch birds for decades, and at some point local birders got together with area business leaders and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create an official ‘birding trail.’  The trail consists of a compilation of the most interesting bird watching locations along the coast.  A description was written about each location, and beautiful full-color maps were printed showing how to get to each place.  Physical signs were also placed at each location, to help birders find the place and to attract the attention of nature-loving passers-by.

Great TX Birding Trail

The trail was a hit, and helped to cement Texas as one of the most popular spring birding destinations in the country.  Over time the program has expanded to include the rest of Texas.  There are now nine different birding or wildlife trail sections encompassing nearly 1000 different sites around the state.  You can still order the gorgeous printed maps, but of course now the entire statewide Trail is available free online.

In the late 1990s, a new venture to promote birding and nature tourism in Texas was launched: the Texas Birding Classic.  This event is basically a bird-watching competition.  Teams compete to see who can see the highest number of species in either a 24-hour period, or in a several day extended event.  There are many different categories for the competition – some for young people, some for folks who wanted to stick within a certain geographic area, and some for nuts who want to run the entire Gulf Coast seeing as many birds as humanly possible.  The Classic is fun and promotes the wonders of Texas wildlife, but it is also a conservation fund-raiser.  Teams collect donations for the event, and the winners in each category get to help decide which conservation project along the Texas coast gets a conservation grant.   To date, almost $800,000 has been distributed to over 60 projects, including the new marsh habitat and boardwalk (which I love!) on South Padre Island.

SPI Boardwalks


Birding Classic Conservation

The Texas Birding Classic has become so popular that this year it is expanding from a week to a month, and geographically from the Gulf Coast to statewide.  You can find out more about it at the GTBC website.

At this point, Texans began to really see the great potential of birding in Texas.  Businesses saw tourist dollars, communities saw potential infrastructure investments and tax benefits, and nature-lovers saw a new interest in conserving wildlife and protecting important habitat and resources (like water).

The Texas Coastal Management Program commissioned a study in 2004 on the impact of ecotourism in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  The results were stunning.  According to the report, as many as 50,000 people came to the Valley every year primarily for watching birds and butterflies, contributing as much as $170 million and “several thousand” jobs to the local economy.  In an area of the state that suffers from high rates of poverty and unemployment, the influx of nature-tourism was a substantial boost to the local Rio Grande Valley economy.

In response to this report and other similar studies, RGV business leaders and elected officials got together with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to form what is ambitiously (and a little ridiculously) called the ‘World Birding Center.’  Despite its overly-grandiose name, the WBC is a really cool project.  They aim to identify and/or create great places for birding in the Valley, and then publicize them to entice nature lovers to come on down and visit.  How exactly do they do this?  As an example, let’s take one of the WBC sites I visited a couple of days ago: Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the first new properties developed in cooperation with the WBC.

EL World Birding Center

The first thing they did was create some great new wetland habitat:

Estero Llano


They built a cool new visitor center and gift shop.  Inside you can buy snacks and educational gifts and books.  They also have a huge whiteboard outside devoted to wildlife sightings:

EL Visitors Center

(Check out the note on the lower right of the whiteboard in the picture above – I have photos of that Flammulated Owl!)

The WBC also added lots of interpretive signs detailing information about the plants and animals that live at Estero Llano.

EL Signs

They added a beautiful full color map and detailed information about the park:

EL Map

And they created a spacious covered deck that looks out over one of the lakes.  The space was designed so that it’s easy to look out, but harder for the ducks and water birds to see in – which means that many critters swim right by the viewers.

EL Deck

The bathrooms are modern, large, and clean.  Cool bird-themed art done by local artists decorates the wall:

EL Bird Art

One of the things that I love about Estero Llano is that it doesn’t just cater to the hardcore birder or nature expert, or the upper middle-class ecotourist.  There are binoculars to rent (at extremely reasonable rates) in the visitor’s center for people who don’t have them, and a telescope is set up on the deck for use by visitors.  Docents and volunteers are on hand to answer questions and lead bird walks.  Many visitors are casual nature lovers who are just out for a stroll and thrilled to see a heron or egret up close.  Most of the newer signs are bilingual, reaching out to many of the local Valley residents whose first language is Spanish.  But the very best thing about Estero Llano is that they have great birds!  The biologists and naturalists who helped plan the park did a fantastic job creating excellent habitat.  During my visit I saw a huge assortment of ducks and shorebirds, some of the valley’s specialty kingfisher species, a dozen night-herons, and the Pauraques I wrote about recently.

Estero Llano is a win-win-win-win.  Wildlife is protected and habitat is improved, the community gets a great new space to enjoy, serious birders get to geek out on cool birds, and local businesses get increased revenue from tourist dollars.  Estero Llano had dozens of visitors the day I was there, but since it is a relatively large place it didn’t feel crowded.


You can really see that at Estero Llano, the WBC is reaching its ambitious goals: “The mission of the WBC is to protect native habitat while increasing the understanding and appreciation of the birds and wildlife. Our project is a global model for conservation and ecotourism development.”  You can read more at the WBC website.

All around the Valley, similar scenes are playing out.  The Valley Nature Center in Weslaco is not affiliated with the WBC, but they are using some of the same strategies towards some of the same ends.  They have a six-acre site that they are protecting and restoring with new trees and native vegetation.  They have also set up several bird feeding stations and water drips to attract birds and other animals.

Feeding Station

Their efforts are paying off in many ways.  The improved habitat has attracted new wildlife (like the Clay-colored Thrush I wrote about), and the new wildlife has attracted new visitors.  New visitors have helped attract funding for a brand new education and nature center building for the site.

Construction Sign

And a new building means new construction jobs for the Valley, and another economic reason to value conservation – completing the virtuous circle.

This idea that conservation can have powerful economic benefits is catching on all over Texas.  I noticed that the new Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce offices have a large Whooping Crane statue prominently displayed.  And the Captain of the Skimmer, who makes a living guiding nature lovers to see the Whoopers at Aransas NWR, had on-board as his co-leader this time a biologist from the non-profit International Crane Foundation.

Skimmer Sign

I also noticed on my trip to Texas a proliferation of “birding festivals” – events that bring tourists to town for organized field trips, seminars, speakers, etc.  I think there are something like 20 birding and nature festivals scheduled in Texas this year, from Featherfest in Galveston to Eagle Fest in Emory.

EL Birding Festival

In fact, I ran into a couple of tour groups from the Laredo festival two days ago.

All of this is not to say that the Texas approach to conservation and ecotourism is perfect, or that it is a “magic solution” to any problem.  I think it is fair to say that it is a work in progress.  But I do think it’s a pretty nifty idea.  And it really got me wondering: where the heck is my Washington state World Birding Center?  How come we aren’t doing more things like this in the Puget Sound area?

Now Washington state doesn’t have 600+ species of birds like Texas, but we do have more than 500, including some relatively rare and sought-after ones.  We have Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge located an hour south of Seattle, a real gem of place that hardly anyone (even in Seattle) knows about.  Texas advertises their nature hotspots on TV and on paper brochures, on giant billboards and in nature magazines, on the internet and in the newspaper.  And we… don’t.  The Olympic Peninsula is one of the premier birding spots in the United States, where you can get great close-up views of Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Tufted Puffins.  Yet when I meet birders from other states, no one has visited there.  Everyone has been to Texas.  When you drive the backroads on the Olympic Peninsula, you see bumper stickers that say “Save a logger, shoot a Spotted Owl.”  The folks in the Rio Grande Valley have bumper stickers for the WBC.  Local groups have been trying to save Skagit and Samish farmland from development an hour north of Seattle, but land there is under significant threat from development.  Maybe if nature lovers around the country actually knew about it – that you can go there and see thousands of Snow Geese, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, and five species of falcons – there might be more support to keep the area protected.

Yes, we do have a Washington Birding Trail (featuring art by my favorite Washington artist, Ed Newbold).  And there are a few Washington birding events, like the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival in eastern Washington.   But these were things that Texas was doing decades ago.

So, progressive eco-groovy Seattleites, I have a question for you.  Put down your organic soymilk latte (in a compostable cup!) for just a minute, and think about this: can we learn some important things about conservation and ecotourism from our friends down in Texas?  And what Texan lessons can we apply here in Washington state?




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Hidden Beauty

Nightjars, also known as goatsuckers, rank pretty high up on the list of birds with unusual or silly names (other strange favs include Bushtits, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and the tiny Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet).  One April my wife and I were on a beautiful Texas Gulf Coast beach.  Most people were sunning themselves in their swimsuits or splashing in the waves, but we were studying some distant seabirds through our telescope.  A woman came by and asked us what we were looking at.  I replied absently “Brown Boobies,” at which point she shot me this really disgusted look and stalked off.  By the time I realized what she must have been thinking, she was gone down the beach.

Anyhow, back to nightjars.  We have a number of different species in the US (including Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-widow, and various Nighthawks), but the only one commonly found in Texas in the winter is the Common Pauraque.  Pauraques, like other goatsuckers, are active at night – mainly feeding on insects.  During the day they find a place to roost on the ground, usually in or near some brush or undergrowth.  Of course, sleeping on the ground during the day can be highly hazardous to one’s health, particularly if you are a plump, tasty-looking Pauraque.  So they have evolved an incredible camouflage to blend in with the forest floor.

Here’s a shot of a Pauraque hiding from me in plain sight (from Estero Llano State Park).  Can you spot it?

Pauraque Hiding

Pretty tough to see, huh?  It was sleeping less than five feet from the trail, yet I totally missed it from this vantage point.  Ok, there are a few distracting sticks in the way.  Here is a less obstructed view:

Pauraque Hiding1

The Pauraque doesn’t blend in quite as well from this angle, and you probably saw it there on the left side of the photo.  With this in mind, can you go back to the first photo and find it now?

Here’s a close-up showing the exquisite plumage details.  Amazing.  I was careful to stay on the main path so as not to flush this sleeping beauty.

Common Pauraque

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Flammulated Wowl

Readers of this blog know that I have been able to capture photos of a great many owls this year, and that the photos themselves are often ridiculously bad.  The owl is usually underexposed, blurry, mostly hidden inside a tree, or largely obscured by branches.

Well, get a load of this beauty.

Flammulated Owl

This is a Flammulated Owl, so named for the ‘flame-like’ markings near the eyes (ok, use your imagination a bit!).  It’s about 6 inches long, and weighs about 2 oz (half the weight of the Least Grebe Quarter-Pounder).  Normally they winter in southern Mexico and points south, and come north to breed in summer in the Ponderosa pine forests of the American Mountain West.  In 15 years of birding, I’ve only see one other one – and that was at 3am along a deserted forest road in central Washington miles and miles from nowhere.  They are one of the most difficult North American owls to see.

This one is hanging out in some bushes, about 100 yards from the beach on South Padre Island.  What’s it doing here?  I didn’t have a clue.  Until I hung out on the beach myself for a bit … and then I began to see the appeal.

Flammulated Owl

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The Lower Rio Grande Valley

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a thin strip of green that runs for 100 miles or so along the Rio Grande River through Mission, McAllen, Weslaco, and ending at the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville and South Padre Island.  It’s not really a valley – it’s more like the ancient floodplain of the Rio Grande.  Of course these days the river has been penned in by a series of levees and water is removed for irrigation, so there aren’t typically seasonal floods anymore.

Still, the Rio Grande provides life-sustaining water to this otherwise dry region, which is one reason why it is so productive for birds (and for agriculture).  There are many places along the Lower Valley that you can walk along the Rio Grande, like this spot in Bentsen State Park.

Rio Grande at Bentsen

The birds here are a mix of wintering species who spend the breeding season much further north, and also tropical species from Mexico and Central America who reach the very northern edge of their distribution here.  Birds like Green-winged Teal and Cooper’s Hawk can be found at various times throughout much of the US and Canada:

Green-winged Teal

Cooper's Hawk

But the Valley also holds many species that are rarely or never found further north, like Least Grebe – the smallest grebe in the world:

Least Grebe

Weighing in at only 4 oz, you could put the whole thing on a bun and call it the Quarter-Pounder Grebe Sandwich.  People would probably complain, though.

My other favorite Valley birds include some colorful and charismatic ones, like Green Parakeets, Green Jays, and Great Kiskadees:

Green Parakeets

Green Jay

Great Kiskadee

I also love the many great expanses of nature that have been preserved in the Valley, from small spots like the Frontera Audubon Thicket to much larger tracts like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen State Park.  Crossing the rope bridge between the hawk towers at Santa Ana with the tropical forest cloaking me on all sides always makes me feel a little like Indiana Jones.

Santa Ana Hawk Tower

You can hear the Chachalacas screaming their name at dawn, before they venture out of the brush to say hello.  Anyone who has seen both the movie Jurassic Park and also real-life Chachalacas can’t help but notice these little critters behave exactly like mini-Velociraptors.


I’m pretty sure these Chacha’s would tear me to shreds and gobble me up if they could.  It’s an interesting reminder that birds are basically the living descendants of the dinosaurs.

Other highlights from my first few days in the Valley include ducks that perch in trees (Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks),

Black-bellied Whistling-duck

A few rare birds, like this Clay-colored Thrush, the tropical cousin of your backyard American Robin,

Clay-colored Thrush

Sleeping Yellow-crowned Night-Herons,

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

And a panoply of cool butterflies and other insects, all of which I remain blissfully ignorant about both their identities and life histories.


Hey, one thing at a time, ok?


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The Brink of Extinction

I’m in Texas.  All serious birders end up in Texas sooner or later.  Over 600 species of birds have been recorded in Texas, making it the US state with the highest avian diversity.  Texas is home to many species that aren’t usually found elsewhere in the United States such as Least Grebe, Altamira Oriole, and Plain Chachalaca.  It’s also the winter home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the Whooping Crane.

I’ve discussed rare birds before, like the Northern Lapwing in Massachusetts or the Rufous-capped Warblers in Arizona.  But those birds were merely out of place – rare within the bounds of the US, but commonly found elsewhere in the world.  Whooping Cranes are critically endangered, with only a few hundred left on the planet.  I visited the largest concentration of wild Whoopers at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Texas gulf coast.

While never as abundant as their widespread North American cousins, Sandhill Cranes, Whoopers used to live throughout much of what is now the southeastern and midwestern United States, numbering more than 10,000 individuals at the time of the European colonization.  Habitat destruction and hunting for meat and plumes drastically reduced the Whooper’s range and population until there were only 21 individuals left by the early 1940s.  Protecting the species’ remaining habitat and a captive breeding program have brought the species back from the brink of extinction.  Decades of conservation work have resulted in a flock of around 270 birds that winter in Aransas and breed in far northern Alberta.  A second migratory flock is being established that winters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin (you might be familiar with this project – they teach the cranes the migration route by training them to fly behind an ultralight aircraft flown by a guy in a crane suit).  A few non-migratory populations have also been released in Florida and Louisiana.

But most wild Whooping Cranes winter at Aransas, and that was where I caught up with them aboard the Skimmer, a boat that takes nature enthusiasts to see the Whoopers out on the refuge.  They are spectacular birds, immaculately white and standing 5 feet tall.  They have a long probing bill that they use for catching blue crabs (their favorite winter food) and other goodies, a red facial mask, and black wingtips that can be seen when they show off their 7-foot wingspan.

Whooping Crane

The cranes maintain their pair bonds throughout the year, and each pair stakes out a small feeding territory at Aransas.  If the pair was successful at raising a chick, the young bird will also stay with them the first winter.  The Skimmer cruised up and down the shallow coastal bay, coming upon family groups of two or three Whoopers every quarter mile or so.  In three hours, I saw roughly 5% of all of the wild Whooping Cranes in existence.

Whooping Crane

While Whooping Cranes have a lot of things going for them, everything is not completely rosy.  Texas has been gripped by a terrible drought for the past three years, and a dozen cranes starved to death several winters ago.  The Wisconsin flock has not had good luck actually hatching and successfully raising chicks (this 21-minute excellent and heart-breaking podcast sums up the problems).  The Florida non-migratory flock has suffered terrible losses due to bobcat predation.  And several cranes have been shot dead in recent years by idiots with guns.  Whooping Cranes are back from the brink of extinction, but much work remains to secure the long-term survival of this amazing species.


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