Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Break - March 17th Birds

Be forewarned, I wrote this blog to remind myself of March 17th birding memories on the fourth day of the Texas Road Trip. Amazingly I only planned to bird a small portion of the day, the rest of the day fortuitously fell into place. With this information in mind I can almost guarantee that I ramble on and add more information than is ever going to be desired by even my closest of birding friends and family in this blog post.

Double Bayou Park

During our first night camping my inflatable mattresses did not hold air very well and I was up often throughout the night falling out of bed. When I was awake hearing a couple of owls (eBird list) was a nice consolation prize for the lack of sleep. With heavy fog present when I awoke I didn't feel a rush to get to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge; instead the girls slept in and I had a nice walk around the water soaked city park. The white-eyed vireos (eBird list) could be heard singing at first light and it was wonderful seeing them up close during my morning walk.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

As we left camp the fog was so heavy I only felt safe driving 10 miles per hour, but fortunately it thinned a bit right before we completed the 5 mile drive to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

We stopped at the main entrance's visitor center and I spotted the first surprise and lifer of the day....a VERMILION FLYCATCHER! This species summers in the South-West and is found in eastern Texas during its wintering range.

We walked around the Willows boardwalk and found more spider webs than birds. We did see a bullfrog, northern mockingbirds, and few others (eBird checklist is here). The surprise of this walk was getting my first view of  a VIRGINIA RAIL. Danielle wanted to see what I stopped to look at and hoped on top of my shoulders. She was able to see this beautiful little marsh bird at less than 10 feet. I couldn't manage a sharp photo with the heavy fog and slow shutter speed, but the photo to the right is the best I've got so far. 

We considered heading to the coast due to the heavy fog and returning early the next day for birding, but decided to check out the Shoveler Pond drive since we were there. The girls loved seeing a raccoon lumber down the road as we turned the corner and we stopped to reposition the van's inside when we saw the first alligator. With cameras in hand and a repositioned front of the van the girls could stand and look through the windows. While we were stopped a group of lifer Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flew over and we soon saw my lifer Mottled Ducks. The later is a species quite similar in appearance to Mallards, but is most regularly found in Texas and Florida.

We didn't very close to either of these species and a 300mm lens leaves a lot to be desired.
While scanning a mudflat for shorebirds I struck up a conversation with Mike from Buffalo, later referred to as Buffalo Mike in this post. He was visiting his girlfriend in Houston but she was unexpectedly called away for work and left him to bird three days around the coast by himself. Mike didn't use eBird nor did he keep an online life list (mentioning why should I spend time on a mobile device rather than looking at birds), but recalled many birds traveling the world the past 20 years. He was knowledgeable both of the area and birds, shared my passion for looking at birds, and seemed to care less about listing totals than just enjoying the moment. I shared my scope and I pointed out semipalmated and pectoral sandpipers, two species he had not seen the previous days with only binoculars.

Overcast skies, rain, and fog made obtaining "good" photos a challenge.
We started chatting about  target species see and I mentioned how Ruddy Turnstones has eluded me for nearly 7 years. Buffalo Mike urged me to check out Bolivar Flats. I listened intently as his recommendation mirrored Mike Stewart's (another wonderful birder I only briefly met in Kansas). We already had plans for the next three days but I filed the information as we parted ways. Along the rest of the drive we saw White Ibis and Common Gallinule completing the eBird list.

Leaving the Wildlife Refuge we saw our first White-tailed Kite....adding four lifers to my bird list while at Anahuac. The drive around Shoveler Pond was amazing in itself without the birds and was one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. Christine stood between the seats taking pictures through the van's moon-roof, the girls alternated between the windows of the front passenger and middle seats, and seemingly all three of them pointed out every bird and animal with genuine smiles.

Smith Oaks Sanctuary and Rookery

It was lunch time when we left Anahuac so we only stopped at Smith Oaks Sanctuary briefly to check it out.  I grabbed a single camera while we left the others behind and was lucky enough to get the photo of a Neotropic Cormorant below. Heavy fog was still present however and we decided to head toward the beach after a short walk. I contemplated whether to ask Christine to create an eBird list or not, but with limited species at this highly visited location I decided against it on our drive out. I turned the corner and I saw Buffalo Mike turn toward the Rookery; we gave each other a quick wave and I smirked thinking that my decision not to enter an eBird list was influenced by Mike's position on the topic. We were off to find the ocean.

Neotropic Cormorant
This is my third favorite bird photo from the trip!  The first was in the last post and second is yet to come.

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

Royal Tern
Royal Terns are so neat. 
Four miles from Smith Oaks Sanctuary to the gulf seemed to fly by and before we knew it the road turned east and we were at the ocean. Unfortunately the fog was still so heavy we could not see the water 100 yards away. The girls were watching a movie, Christine had food in her belly, and I received the go ahead to find a location on the ocean I wanted to the girls would be able to go swimming anywhere (or at least we thought). We check BirdLog for hotspots and decided to check out any hotspot heading west toward Bolivar Flats, but with heavy fog at each location there seemed to be no reason to turn away from fate and we continued on toward the Houston Audubon Society bird sanctuary. 

With no other locations to check we parked at the end of the service road on the beach and decided to take a bike ride. I grabbed binoculars and scanned a flock of gulls/terns (eBird list), quickly picking out lifer Royal and gull-billed terns. 2 more lifers and 6 for the day!

I tried to ride bike with binoculars, tripod, and backpack....but quickly rectified my hubris and turned back. I grabbed the Van and drove to the end of the beach, where the Sanctuary began while the girls went for a bike ride.
Wilson's Plover have thicker bills than other US plovers.
Unfortunately biking on the beach sounded better in our minds than reality and the bikes soon were back on the trailer. After some indecision I chose to walk the sanctuary and the girls chose to swim.

Within feet of telephone pole barricade (the sanctuary was open to foot traffic but no motorized vehicles), I picked out yet another lifer with a Wilson's Plover. The heavy fog had persisted all day and makes the photo to the right appear gray.

For some reason the girls wanted to walk along rather than swim after a couple of minutes, so we slowly made our way along the shoreline.  Shorebirds appeared to materialize out of the fog. It was at this time I was extremely grateful for studying the O'Brien Shorebird guide and focusing on shorebird body structure rather than color or fieldmarks. After a short while the girls decided to swim again and who should I see walking down the beach but Buffalo Mike. We were both surprised to see each other yet again, and hiked part of the sanctuary as if we were old birding pals. We bounced identifications off of one another and discussed varying opinions, working through the shapes to identify as many as possible.  The entire eBird list detailing lifer Long-billed Curlew, Red Knot, and Ruddy Turnstone seems to miss most of amazing feeling of the fogging shoreline!! These three shorebird lifers brought the daily tally up to 10!

Long-billed Curlew Ruddy Turnstone
Long-billed curlew (TL) and Ruddy Trunstone (TR) were lifers, snowy plover (BL) and sanderling (BR) are just cool.
Snowy Plover Sanderling
We decided to head back toward camp, hoping to find anywhere away from fog. Within half a mile of the beach the sun almost popped through the clouds. A perched Osprey caught my eye and I parked the car underneath it as I urged Christine to take a few photos. I'm glad she did as she snapped the photo below.

My second favorite bird photo from the trip. Depending on the I often think this is the best of the entire trip!!

Back to Camp

The hour and half drive from camp to Bolivar Flats was too long in the car and we all needed something more relaxing in the coming days than what we had previously planned. Christine and I discussed a bunch of ideas while the girls watch a movie. This was the first time in two days we had allowed them to watch TV and we slowly pulled onto the paved road heading back toward camp as Christine mentioned the idea of Pleasure Pier and hotel in Galveston.

For whatever reason I remembered at that precise moment we had left something on the bike trailer and pulled the van over. As I jumped out of the pulled-over van I looked north onto a small pond and saw lifer Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (eBird list).

I hoped in the car with a big smile and shared the sighting with Christine, taking it as a sign that we should definitely pursue her wonderful idea and ditch our previous plans of visiting museums in Houston. This decision worked out quite well as the 18th turned out to be the favorite day for everyone. The sun finally poked through the fog and we had sunshine for the first time at 5 pm. We made plans to stop at the Rookery again on our way back to camp but then Christine asked the question. "Did you see everything you wanted to at the Sanctuary?"

I responded "It was amazing. I found a ton of birds but didn't find a Sandwich tern."

As we crossed Rollover Bay pass I lamented how the gulls, terns, and pelicans appeared to call out to me and take their picture. They were sitting on top the pilings as people fished nearby and were the first birds I saw that day in sunlight. Christine told me to stop and we pulled into the parking lot. All intentions changed as we turned around a corner and saw the bay filled with shorebirds, gulls, terns, and pelicans.  Christine told me to go find a Sandwich Tern while the three of them relaxed in the van, photos would have to wait.

I scanned through the birds (eBird list) and yelled out there were lifer Black Skimmer and American Oystercatchers out there! This brought the tally of lifers up to 13 just for this one foggy day! By the time we got back to the rookery the fog had returned and we decided to head back to camp. As luck would have it we stopped at the Rookery the next morning in between rain showers and were able to take photos.

Daily Overview

The eBird website is free for everyone and keeps a running list of all species seen as well as the first date of observation for each of them. The list below is a screenshot from eBird and reveals the 13 lifers from March 17th. The software fails to convey the story behind them and thus this blog post. In addition to the lifers I saw species seen only days before for the first time as well as others never viewed before. I saw a total of 121 species on March 17th. 

In the eight years of birding, I've only added more than 13 lifers within one day twice. On April 5, 2008 when I added species #68 (Wood Duck) through #89 (Tree Swallow) and on May 13, 2008 when I added species #137 (chimney swift) through #156 (indigo bunting). A bit surprisingly I didn't add this many species in one single day during our trip west in 2010 when I cracked 300 lifers and added 51 lifers over two weeks.

The one that got away

Amazing as March 17th was for birds, there was one species that got away. Can you guess what species I am referring to? Look at the my photo below and try to identify all the species. Click on the photo to see what I found after returning home.

I was oh so close to having 14 lifers on the 17th. Instead I added 13 and this species is left off my list until next trip.  Yes I saw this species but I didn't identify it on that day. Everyone keeps their own list, but I know I'll get more enjoyment seeing it for the first time in the future if I can identify it in the field compared to checking it off my list by finding in a picture three weeks after getting home. 

Great Birding!

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