Tag Archives: rare bird

Deep in the Big Toe of Texas

If the Hill Country is the Heart of Texas, then the area around Brownsville and South Padre Island (in the extreme southeastern part of the state) is its Big Toe.  You know the one I’m talking about – that toe that always peeks out from the sandal, loves getting a good tan, and enjoys digging in the wet sand?  I’ve spent the last couple days exploring the Texas Toe, and seeing what it has to offer.

One of my first stops was the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, south of Brownsville.  There is not a lot of land in Texas south of Brownsville, but there is a thin little strip, and Sabal Palm is located there.  In order to get there, I’d have to take the most appropriately named Southmost Blvd.


It was here that I came face-to-face with the famous (or infamous) Border Fence that the US Government has been building along our shared border with Mexico.  The fence is a scary monstrosity.  It is very tall, made of rusty-looking iron, and topped with spikes.  Trees, habitat, and farmland on either side have been cleared.  South of Brownsville the fence is actually built quite a distance from the Rio Grande, essentially sealing off a sliver of US land south of the border wall.  Sabal Palm Sanctuary is south of the fence, and you have to pass through a kind of checkpoint to reach it.

Border fence

border fence

I tried to put this unsettling experience behind me for now, and enjoy my time at the Sanctuary.  Sabal Palm is one of the few remaining tracks of wild habitat left in the eastern end of the Rio Grande Valley, and it is home to a forest of rare native sabal palm trees.  It is also a magnet for rare and beautiful birds.

I saw the rarest one first, a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak.  Common in parts of Mexico, this bird only very occasionally ventures as far north as the Brownsville area.  This particular individual liked to skulk deep in the brush while I was there, so all I managed was this less than serviceable photo:

CC Grosbeak

As you can see, her collar is green.  Only the male’s is crimson.  Her shy attitude and my persistent efforts to snap a photo made me feel a bit like one of those annoying photographers who is always trying to take a picture of some poor celebrity while she tries to get an ice cream with her kids.

The more common birds were more cooperative, like Green Jay and Hooded Oriole.  Bird snacks, provided by the refuge staff, helped them feel at home near the human visitors.

Green jay2

Hooded Oriole

That apple that the oriole was munching was popular, and as soon as he left a rare Clay-colored Thrush came in to have a bite.

Clay-colored Thrush

After spending a couple of hours at Sabal Palm, I negotiated my way back through the border fence and headed east to the coast.  Along the way, I scanned for Aplomado Falcons.

Aplomado Falcons used to be fairly common from south Texas to Arizona in the 19th Century, but perhaps because of cattle grazing, land clearing, and/or hunting, the birds were essentially extirpated (i.e. eliminated) from the United States.  In the 1980s, a re-introduction effort was launched, with captive-raised birds being released in southeast Texas.  The re-introduction seems to be working, and there are now a couple dozen Aplomado Falcons roaming wild in the area.  I have searched for Aplomados on every trip to Texas over the last ten years, including back in February when I was here.  This is my seventh trip overall, and I’ve missed seeing them on the previous six.  Birders call species that they miss repeatedly “nemesis birds” – and Aplomados were probably my #1 nemesis.  Needless to say, I wasn’t too hopeful.  There just aren’t that many of these falcons around, and they range over a wide area.  They are also relatively small, and they are fast flyers – easy to miss.  So when I saw a dark raptor zipping by me on Highway 100, I tried not to get excited as I pulled off the highway into the grassy shoulder (I had previously stopped for a distant Caracara and a couple of Chihuahuan Ravens, thinking they might be falcons).  Focusing my binoculars, I caught a quick glimpse of a sharp-winged falcon blasting by at perhaps 60 mph – in hot pursuit of some Horned Larks, one of which was about to become lunch on the wing.  It was an Aplomado Falcon.

Crappy Aplomado Pic

It was too fast and too far away to get a good photo, but here is a super blurry picture of this magnificent creature.  I watched it devour a Horned Lark, and then fly up to an electrical tower where there was a nest made of sticks.  And poking up from inside that nest was the tail of a second Aplomado Falcon, presumably sitting on eggs (or chicks!).  I had found an Aplomado nest!

Aplomado Nest and Tail

Aplomados have extremely long tails, mostly dark with thin white stripes – as you can see in the photo above!  I was thrilled.  I also decided I shouldn’t linger.  Even though I was still almost 200 yards away, birds of prey can get antsy when people get too close to their nests – and Aplomado Falcons are an endangered species.  So I did a little fist pump, put the car in gear, and headed for South Padre Island.

There’s more to tell about this leg of the trip, but it’s late and tomorrow is another early morning.  I doubt it can possibly top today, though.

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Deep in the Heart of Texas

I’m on the road again, this time for my final spring blitz.  My Big Year is officially over in two months and two days, so I’m getting ready for the grand finale.  Spring migration is in full swing, and I am going to follow the birds north from the US/Mexico border all the way  to the Arctic Circle over the next couple of months.  I will also range as far east as Florida, and as far west as Gambell, AK (within sight of Siberia).  It should be crazy, and I hope also great.

Right now I’m deep in the Heart of Texas.  I’ve spent the past few days traveling through the Hill Country on the Edwards Plateau, north and west of San Antonio.

Hill Country

It is a beautiful area, full of spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife.  I travelled out to this remote area to see two endangered species that only breed within a hundred miles or so of this spot: Golden-Cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

Hill Country2

My first stop was the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, about an hour west of Kerrville.  I arrived at dawn, only to find that the main road through the refuge was closed because they were holding a spring turkey hunt – for the next three days!  My very carefully laid plans were foiled by a turkey shoot!  There are other places to see these vireos, but this was the best and closest one, and I didn’t have a lot of extra time.  I did discover that one of the side roads on the west edge of the refuge was going to be open, so I decided to give that area a go.  Forty five minutes later, I was watching a male Black-capped Vireo singing away from the top of a small cedar tree.  Success!

Driving on, I discovered another wrinkle in my plan.  The narrow two-lane highway that I intended to take to my next destination was under construction. Seriously under construction.  Like, “follow a pilot car for 15 miles along a dirt road at 10 mph” under construction.

Follow Me

I’m pretty sure my rental contract says I’m not supposed to drive off the pavement, so let’s keep this between you and me, ok?  After a slight delay, I was back on track, and arrived at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

Lost Maples2

This park is absolutely gorgeous – one of my favorite places to visit in Texas.  And it also hosts dozens of endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers, several of which obligingly popped into view during my hike along the East Trail.

Lost Maples

Lost Maples is a stop of the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail, another example of the birding/nature trails I wrote about during my last visit to Texas.

Heart of Texas

I don’t have any pictures of the warbler or the vireo because they are hard to photograph, and I didn’t want to bother or harass them (they are endangered species, after all!).  But I did manage to snap a quick picture of this cool Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but his tail is longer than his body (it’s right in front of the barbed wire).

Scissor-tail Flycatcher

My last stop in the Hill Country was at Neal’s Lodges in Concan, TX.  The owners have done a terrific job making their property bird and wildlife-friendly.  I was there in the heat of the day, so I didn’t see a ton of different species, but I did find a (previously reported) Tropical Parula, an very rare bird north of Mexico.


Tonight I went owling at Bentsen State Park.  I got a tip from the rangers about the location of an Elf Owl roost.  The owl sleeps inside an old woodpecker hole – the top hole in the middle (broken off) trunk in the picture below.

Elf Owl Tree

Elf Owls are the smallest owls in North America – a mere 5.5 inches long and an ounce and a half in weight.  Three Elf Owls combined weigh less than a single iPhone.  I watched the roost hole from about sunset to dusk (half an hour or so), and finally saw him peeking out to check things out.  He stuck his head out several times, only to disappear again into the hole.  Finally when it was almost dark, he launched himself out into the night.  What a treat.

In my Texas travels, I have found many amazing sights.  But I haven’t found Utopia yet.  I think it might be just up the road, though.



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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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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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99 Degrees Colder

I’m back in Arizona, one of my favorite places.  Driving through Saguaro National Park, I just had to stop by the side of the road and take a few pictures (and admire the Gilded Flickers posing on a cactus).

Sonoran Desert

The saguaros themselves are pretty amazing.  They can grow to be 50-60 feet tall and weigh up to 6 tons.  Saguaros are very slow-growing, and may only grow an inch total in their first 8 years of life.  They are considered fully mature by the time they reach about 125 years old.


These sunny photos might give you the impression that it’s warm and toasty down here in southern Arizona.  Actually nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, it’s 99 degrees colder than the last time I visited the desert southwest.  When I was here in July, the highest temperature I recorded was 116 F (near the CA/AZ border).  Here’s the snapshot of my car’s thermometer from back in July reading 111 F after sunset:

111 F

And here’s what my car was reading this morning south of Tucson about half an hour after sunrise:

17 F

What a difference a few months make!  Needless to say I am differently attired than when I last explored the canyons of Arizona.  In fact, hiking up Florida Canyon this morning there was more than a dusting of snow on the ground.

Snow in the canyon

Florida Canyon is one of the only places in the United States to see Rufous-capped Warblers.  There are currently at least two individuals wintering there, making this warbler one of the rarest birds in the US.  Ok, so they’re very rare in our country, but they are fairly common from Mexico down through all of Central America and even into Columbia.  Three hours of hiking through the frozen canyon eventually produced excellent looks at this pair of warblers, and one decent photo.

Rufous-capped Warbler

In the afternoon I explored Madera Canyon (one canyon to the southwest from Florida Canyon).  By this time it had warmed up to near freezing, and this White-nosed Coati was on the prowl looking for something good to eat to keep his energy up.


Normally Coatis are most active at night, venturing out during daylight hours perhaps only near dawn or dusk.  But the cold weather must have encouraged this one (and his buddy, not pictured) to look for extra nutrition during the day.

Also trying to stay warm was this Rosy-faced Lovebird, perching in a mesquite tree near Phoenix.  Lovebirds are native to the southwest – southwest Africa, that is!  They were completely unknown in the Americas until the 20th Century.  However at some point they were introduced to the US as pets.  A few decades ago, some of them escaped in the Phoenix area, and a feral population has become established here.

Rosy-faced Lovebird

Now, you can’t count your neighbor’s escaped parakeet as a wild bird.  But non-native “exotic” species can become permanently established here (think House Sparrows, Starlings, and Rock Pigeons – aka pigeons in your local city park).  And when escaped birds form long-lasting stable populations over the course of several decades (which could be dozens of generations of birds), they become countable.

I realize that I spend a lot of time blogging about very rare or unusual species.  I think it’s natural to be drawn to the rare or special birds, and to spend time looking for them at the expense of the common critters in your back yard.  Most people find a thrill in seeking novel ideas and experiences.  But I thought I would close tonight with a shout out to a decidedly common, not-very-glamorous, but still handsome bird – the Ring-necked Duck.  I saw this one in the same Phoenix park where the lovebirds where hanging out.

Ring-necked Duck

Yes, a much better name for this bird would be Ring-billed Duck.  It does also have a ring around its neck, but it is very hard to see unless you are holding the duck in your hand.  Don’t try this at home though, because ducks bite.  Alas, the “ring-necked” name is a hold over from the days in which most ornithology was done with a shotgun instead of a pair of binoculars.  Naturalists would “collect” a specimen, study it, describe it in a scholarly article, and name it.  Because they studied it “in the hand,” these naturalists often gave birds names that refer to characteristics that are not so obvious to a more distant observer of actual live critters.

I only have a couple more days left of my trip, and then I get to go home and spend some time with my family – which I am very much looking forward to.


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California Hills and Harbors

I’m finishing up my brief stay in California.  Yesterday, I drove through an area called the Panoche Hills (west of Fresno).  It was beautiful country, and I didn’t capture any photos that did the magnificent scenery of the area justice.  Here’s my best one:

Panoche Valley

My main reason for visiting this region was to stop by Mercy Hot Springs, a local resort.

Mercy Hot Springs

In addition to hot and cold pools of mineral water that you can soak your body in, Mercy Hot Springs is also home to a wintering colony of Long-eared Owls.  I had already tried to find Long-eareds in four other locations in Washington and California, but they had eluded me thus far.  This time was different.  I found both owl pellets and the owls that crafted them.  True to form, these Long-eared Owls were nestled up in some fairly dense foliage, but I was able to get good looks at them through my telescope and also get a few photos.

Longeared Owl2
Long-eareds are the tenth different species of owl I have recorded on my big year – and I’ve actually posted pictures of seven of those species on this blog.  Not too bad, if I do say so myself.  Most species of owls are hard to find and hard to see.  There are nine more species that occur annually in North America, and I’m hoping to find at least a few more before the year is up.

Today I drove down to Monterey.  I had never visited this area before, and was impressed with its natural beauty.  I spent a couple hours just watching the wildlife in the Monterey Harbor.

Monterey Harbor

Highlights for me were two Sea Otters lounging on their backs munching something (sea urchins?), dozens of California Sea Lions, about 100 dolphins frolicking just beyond the jetty, a quick look at a Gray Whale (inside the jetty!), and a couple dozen species of birds.

Sea lions

Unusual birds for the area included Northern Fulmars (usually seen out in the pelagic zone miles from shore) and an Arctic Loon (that should be wintering in Siberia right now).  I got a few photos of the Arctic Loon:

Arctic Loon1

Arctic Loon3


This Common Murre also swam by close enough to have its picture taken.  It is already molting from its winter plumage into its breeding plumage.

Common Murre

Most birds molt twice a year, and some (like the Common Murre) actually grow different colored feathers depending on the season.  In the early fall, this Murre replaced many of the dark feathers on its head with white ones, so that the chin and throat area were snow white.  Now you can see that most of the white feathers below the bill have been replaced with dark ones for the spring and summer.  The mottled appearance indicates that the replacement process is not yet complete.

After spending much of the morning watching wild animals, I drove over to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It was impressive – I especially enjoyed seeing a school of one-ton tuna race around the open ocean tank.  The leafy sea dragons and the sand dollars were pretty cool too.

Sand dollars

Tomorrow I’m taking the 6:10am flight to Phoenix.  Gotta get some rest…

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