Yard Owls

Saturday, November 25, 2017 0 Comments A+ a-

In the April 2016, I got an itch to put a screech-owl box up in my backyard.  I knew the odds of getting an owl were slim, but I had seen Western Screech-Owl in the yard once at night.  The biggest issue was our house is set back on our property, so we have a big front yard, but a narrow backyard, meaning that if we put the box in our backyard it would be very close to the house.  On the upside,  if it ever got used, we would be able to see it very easily from our deck.

Our largest tree sits in the northeast corner of the backyard and stood about 50' tall.  During the summer, it is thick with foliage and would provide good cover.  And during the winter it would be easy to see and provide a southwest facing cavity for lots of sunlight.

So one Saturday I ran to Home Depot, snagged a board and built a Screech-Owl box to spec using a Kestrel/Owl directions form the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:


The directions are super easy to follow, and I figured I would build a couple more to throw up in the mountains for Flammy, and Saw-whets.  But the first one was going to end up in the yard--and perhaps give the family a great learning and watching experience


The end view from our dining room would make it easy to keep an eye on...



So up the box went and then it was the waiting game.  And we waited and waited, and check and checked.  Every time I let the dog in or out of the house.  Every time I went out to use the BBQ, get firewood, pick tomatoes from the garden, play baseball with Cam, etc etc etc.  I checked.  And nothing.

But one-day this February I found some walnuts sitting on the ground under the box.  Looking up I could see what looked like more in the drain slots on the bottom.  So out came the ladder and up I went to see what the deal was.  Sure enough, there were a handful of walnuts in the bottom.  A squirrel was using the nest box as a cache!


So while the box was being used, it was unfortunately not by a squirrel.  Eventually, as spring wore on the nuts disappeared, and the squirrel moved on.  The box was back to being just an owl box.  And the waiting game continued.  The checks o the empty entrance hole were ritualistic.  Every morning, every evening, and anytime I walked by the back door.

On Thanksgiving morning, I was in the yard smoking our turkey and peeked up at the box--still empty.  Last night I let the dog in and looked up--and again nothing.  It was expected.  Today I was sitting in our dining room working on something when I got up to grab a drink.  I peered out at the next box and had to do a double take.  There in the entrance hole was a WESTERN SCREECH-OWL!


I was so excited are started freaking out to get Sam to come take a look.  This was, after all, more than 18 months in the making!  We admired the little owl, excited that it was using our nest box.  And luckily, Cameron woke up from his nap and got to see his first day time Screech-Owl.

My hope is that tomorrow he/she will return to the roost and maybe use it all winter long.  I would be more excited about it getting used as a winter roost due to the visibility from our deck since the leaves mostly hide the box all summer.

It might have taken a little while but the owl box is at least a small success!  And in reality, it could've taken years to get used--or perhaps never.  Yard owls are pretty hard to beat!

Texas Part 2: Santa Ana NWR and Brownsville

Thursday, November 02, 2017 0 Comments A+ a-

When my alarm started blaring in the dark, I wasn’t sure I had slept more than a few minutes. It had roughly been 8 hours but didn’t seem that long. After composing myself, and everyone making their way to the vehicle w were off for day 2 of our south Texas birding trip. The first stop this morning was the McAllen GREEN PARAKEET roost--at the local Home Depot. How majestic. We made our way through Friday morning traffic to find a raucous flock of parakeets across the street from the store taking up positions on power lines.

Green Parakeets at their roost wire

We drove past the birds to get the morning light at our backs and only spent a few minutes enjoying their show before something spooked the flock. A SWAINSON’S HAWK was flying in the area and that seemed to be the likely culprit. In any event, the birds were mostly gone in less than 10 minutes, and so were we.

Before the remainder of our morning birding commenced there was one important stop to make. I had been told about a local donut shop that we had to try--so Shipley Do-Nuts was a must.

THE Shipley Do-nuts to visit!

We pulled into what looked like a relic of the 50’s--as we found out this was the original Shipley’s, and based on our experience and what I’ve been told by others--this is the one to visit. The manager was super friendly and after talking for a few minutes he told us that his son went to school in Utah, and he enjoyed visiting our part of the country. The feeling was mutual. With ½ a dozen donuts in hand each--we headed back to Santa Ana for round 2--and high hopes of a rare kite on the morning hawk watch from the tower.

Best donuts I've ever eaten

If you had told me the biggest checklist I had ever submitted in the ABA was going to be on April 14th, 2017 at Santa Ana NWR, I wouldn’t have probably thought too much about it. I knew that mid-April produced big day lists from the park and that 80-90 species would be likely if we spent most of the morning here--as we planned. But numbers really didn’t matter we were focused on birds, and so we set out with high hopes of finding some good species. Our first stop was to be the tower--where we planned on spending at least an hour--or maybe 2 in hopes of catching a HOOK-BILLED KITE lifting off and gliding over the trees. This highly sought after species had been seen somewhat regularly over the past couple weeks and we wanted some of that kite action.

The morning on the tower was productive, with HARRIS’S, BROAD-WINGED, SWAINSON’S, COOPER’S, and SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS making passes. Numbers were low as it was early, but it was our best chance at the kite early in the day. We were getting close to giving up when a young birder pointed towards Mexico, and said, "I think I’ve got the kite". Sure enough, low over the trees, the HOOK-BILLED KITE was gliding. The whole thing lasted maybe 15 seconds, and the bird dropped back into the canopy--gone for the day. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying of a look as I had hoped. But it was a new ABA bird for me, so I can’t complain.

The brief glimpse at a Hook-billed Kite

Aside from the kite, the tower was fun as a lot of birds were very active in the treetops during the first couple hours. We had killer looks at PLAIN CHACHALACAS that were calling up a storm from dead snags high above the ground. There were several COUCH’S KINGBIRDS singing and a LONG-BILLED THRASHER that put on an epic solo for quite some time. Our lone ANHINGA of the trip was a flyover from the tower, and there was the constant call of a NORTHERN BEARDLESS TYRANNULET below. It was a fun experience.

The lone Anhinga of the trip

We descended and set out to look for songbirds. Warblers were scarce but we tracked down 5 species including NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, KENTUCKY WARBLER, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, BLACK-AND-WHITE-WARBLER, and NORTHERN PARULA. Along with the expected SUMMER TANAGERS, we had a WESTERN TANAGER and a ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK. We tracked down ALTAMIRA, BALTIMORE, and BULLOCK'S ORIOLE. And a single DICKCISSEL was a welcome find. And a Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake was a new reptile with a striking pattern.

Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake taking a swim

We scored killer looks at a RINGED KINGFISHER as well as a cooperative group of LEAST GREBES. Both new for everyone's ABA list. On one pond after we found a handful of BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCKS, we picked out several FULVOUS WHISTLING-DUCKS. This was a long sought-after life bird for me--I was stoked to have finally seen it.

Least Grebe was the last breeding grebe I needed in the states

We did a loop out through the Pintail Ponds to check for shorebirds and had a few sandpipers, dowitchers, yellowlegs, and stilts. Kenny pointed out a bird singing from the thicket along the trail--it was a CLAY-COLORED THRUSH. At the time I didn’t know, but this was my 600th ABA species! I took a recording since I couldn’t see the bird--it wouldn’t matter as we got good looks at one a little later near the visitor center.

Obscured photo of a Clay-colored Thrush

We also picked up some good wading birds here including TRICOLORED HERON, LITTLE BLUE HERON, ROSEATE SPOONBILL, and WHITE IBIS. The birding was simply phenomenal. At every turn, there were new birds and we were having a good time. We planned on spending the whole morning here, and it was already well after noon.

Photogenic Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

Deciding that we needed to move on to other targets we decided to head back--only to have the skies open up and start dumping on us. Pretty soon the trail turned to a sticky muddy mess and people were losing shoes, flip-flops were breaking, and it was a slow walk back to the HQ. Eventually there we cleaned off the mud and headed to the parking lot. As we tallied up our birds the list crept up and up all the way to 99 species. Holy crap--that was a big morning, but we were 1 short of an awesome even 100. As we pulled out onto the road towards the highway we spotted a raptor out over some nearby fields--it was a CRESTED CARACARA, the 100th species for our morning refuge list.

Trio of White Ibis right next to the road

As of the writing of this post, the Santa Ana hotspot sits at 342 species. In one morning we saw roughly 30% of those birds. In the time since the trip, Santa Ana has sat at the center of controversy due to the dolt in chief deciding a border wall needs to cut the refuge essentially in half. What a stupid plan that won’t fix our illegal immigration plan--but will make a handful of American racists happy. We as humans are so short-sighted and selfish in our beliefs. Places like Santa Ana and the wildlife it protects will bear the brunt of our stupidity.  And as an American, if you support Trump and these policies, you can't call yourself a birder, or care about wild things--the two just don't go hand in hand.

#endRant

Okay back to birds. In the heat of the Texas sun, we made our way to the Progresso Sod Farm in the middle of nowhere. After debating the best way to bird the farm, we opted to drive up the main road. There was no office, no “no trespassing” signs, and a road without a gate. We figured it was okay and we didn’t run into anyone while we were there. So you might be asking, why go to a sod farm in Texas in April, with all those awesome border hot spots to look for birds? Well, sod farms are notoriously wet--and provide habitat for a number of migrant shorebirds, and songbirds that you won’t really find in other South Texas habitats. First and foremost on that list is the BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER, which we picked out in the distance. More expected an more common were several UPLAND SANDPIPER, as well as AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER, and several PECTORAL SANDPIPER.

Upland Sandpiper on the sod

The actual highlight though wasn’t the shorebirds--instead, it was a tiny, non-descript songbird that shows up here during migration, before heading to the prairies of the upper midwest. As we drove up the road we flushed a pipit and with windows down we freaked out as it clearly sang out the SPRAGUE’S PIPIT song! We jumped out of the vehicle and eventually found where the bird landed in the fields. We watched it through scopes as it meandered through the grass. Too far for great photos, but close enough that we enjoyed a great new trip bird.

Phone scoped Sprague's Pipit

After running up the middle of the farm we also traversed the west edge--getting much closer to some of the shorebirds. Unfortunately, we couldn’t relocate the Buff-breasted Sandpiper for closer looks, and on a schedule, we decided to head out to make sure we fit in the rest of our afternoon stops. We made our way to the Frontera Audubon Center which was actually quite a letdown. Although this Texas Spotted Whiptail was certainly a cool lizard to see.

The impressively colorful Texas Spotted Whiptail 

 I got good shots of WHITE-TIPPED DOVE here, and a super cooperative YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON--but other than that it was slow in the muggy afternoon air.

White-tipped Dove at a Frontera feeding station

We figured we could fit in one more afternoon stop before making it to Brownsville for the evening parrot show at Oliveira Park. Having thoroughly cleaned up on target species the past day and a half we decided to try our luck at an out of the way marsh called Tiocano Lake, where King Rail had been sighted in the past week. Unlike the other locations we’d been most of the past two days, there was no one at Tiocano. It only took a couple of minutes before we heard a KING RAIL, and then another--and another. 3 King Rails! Pretty soon we tracked one down and were able to get photos and recordings as it went nuts just 30’ from the road.

King Rail peeking out from the rushes

We also scored a handful of waterfowl and waders here, including great looks at ROSEATE SPOONBILL. This out of the way and unassuming lake turned out to be a fruitful stop adding 3 species we wouldn’t otherwise get during our visit, and eating up some time that we didn’t really have a great plan for. Initially we thought about visiting Sabal Palm before dark but based on checklists at the time, it looks like we made the right choice.

Very colorful Roseate Spoonbill

With afternoon giving away to evening we sped off for Brownsville. It was about an hour drive to where we were going, and we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time for the parrot show. Oliveira Park has been on the radar for a while now for a large flock of mostly RED-CROWNED PARROT that roosts here most nights. Along with the Red-crowned a handful of other species are often reported including: RED-LORED, YELLOW-HEADED, WHITE_FRONTED, and LILAC-CROWNED PARROTS--and GREEN PARAKEET. And during most of the year, whether 30 parrots a night or 200, there is almost always activity, providing quite the experience for visitors.

A post shared by Tim Avery - MWBirdCo (@piranga) on

Now, technically speaking most of these birds aren’t countable by ABA standards. What is wild, what is escaped, what is introduced, and what is established? The Red-crowned seems pretty darned established, and I believe is the sole countable species, aside from the parakeet. But for non-serious listers like myself, a bird is a bird is a bird. And these parrots represent something worth seeing--and my cohorts agreed. So off to Oliveira we went. We arrived well before sunset. Most checklists seemed to start between 6:30 and 7:00 PM, meaning we had some time to look for other birds.

Still feeling the effects of the 40 hour day I hung out at the vehicle why the rest of the group headed off to see if they could find any migrants. They, in turn, found a WORM-EATING WARBLER while I enjoyed a cooing INCA DOVE. Sometime after 6:30 we had our first flyover of parrots in the distance calling--it was a small flock of GREEN PARAKEET. The was old news after our morning in McAllen. The next parrots to make a pass were several RED-CROWNED PARROT, a species that shortly would fill the skies. The first ones landed in a nearby tree, and then the cacophony started to rise from the southeast--and then the lines of parrots appeared in the sky. The spectacle had started.

The most abundant species--the Red-crowned Parrot

In waves the birds flew over, circling, and chattering as they looked for places to land. Some ended up in trees, others on fences, and others on power lines. Others just kept on flying. This continued for some time as we started to focus in on the birds to pick out the oddballs. The first ones we spotted were several YELLOW-HEADED PARROTS that perched in the fading sunlight providing excellent looks.

Yellow-headed Parrot in the last of the days light

Pretty soon we had picked out RED-LORED PARROTS--smaller and with a more soft shaped head. We picked out 7 of these parrots, which made up the 2nd most common species in the group.

Red-lored Parrots were easily picked out from their bigger cousins

We finally picked out several LILAC-CROWNED PARROTS and a single WHITE-FRONTED PARROT as it was getting dark.

Flyover Lilac-crowned Parrot

We kept watching as flocks came and went long after we could identify anything by sight. It was a thrilling ending to a fantastic day of birding that added 57 species to my Texas life list and 14 new ABA birds. By the end of day 2, we had surpassed 160 species and the ½ way mark on our whirlwind tour of South Texas.

Checklists from today:

McAllen Green Parakeet Roost
Santa Ana NWR
Progresso Sod Farm
Frontera Audubon 
Tiocano Lake
Oliveira Park

Photos from today:

McAllen Green Parakeets
Santa Ana NWR
Progresso, Frontera, & Tiocano
Brownsville Parrots

Other Posts in this series:

Texas Part 1: Salineño and Bentsen State Park
>> Texas Part 2: Santa Ana NWR and Brownsville
Texas Part 3: South Padre Island and Laguna Atascosa (coming soon)
Texas Part 4: King Ranch and Hill Country (coming soon)

Texas Part 1: Salineño and Bentsen State Park

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 0 Comments A+ a-

The trip got off to a rocky start when 3/5 of our group was stranded in Houston after our flight to San Antonio was delayed 90 minutes. Our already late 10:30 PM arrival was now pushed back until after midnight, meaning it was going to be a long night... Eventually, we did arrive in San Antonio and met up with the rest of our group, got our bags, and picked up our Mini-Van. A quick stop to try for Barred Owl at a local park didn't turn up any owls, but did provide our first NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD of the trip, as well as several calling BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON. We made a quick pass by The Alamo--I wanted to see it--and made a supply run before jumping on the highway and leaving the city behind. It was nearly 2:00 AM...

The drive seemed like it took forever. I got a look at a BARN OWL cruising across the otherwise barren road. Cars were far and few between--as were towns, and people. About 45 minutes out from Salineño the air pressure gauge lit up. Aw shit... Kenny and I checked the tires and everything looked alright. The light was still on but did shut off about 15 minutes later. We didn't end up having any tire problems the rest of the trip so I guess we got lucky! We rolled into the dusty town on the edge of the Rio Grande around 5:30 AM. and passed a border patrol vehicle idling in an alley. Down the dirt road, we bounced, seeing the mighty river for the first time, and parking. I was relieved--we were finally there and about to start birding.

Full Moon over the Rio Grande

Outside, COMMON PAURAQUE called from various locations around us, while chirping crickets filled the warm air. The mosquitoes were horrendous. Out came the deet, and while we prepared for the day, here came the border patrol lighting our group up as it approached. The agent was a nice younger guy named Eli, he just wanted to let us know that if we saw anything, or needed help he was right up the road. Sure enough, he was in the same place a few hours later when we rolled out.

Sunrise over the Rio Grande

In the meantime, our group set off to look for birds. COUCH'S KINGBIRD, GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, and NORTHERN CARDINAL all could be heard while the nearly full moon lit up the river bordering our southern view. I set out to find a pauraque on the ground and eventually got lucky. I thought my camera had malfunctioned only to realize at the end of the day that I caught a shot of the bird before it had flown off!

Common Pauraque along the the trail at the river

As the light slowly crept up to the east the environment around us began to come to life. The dawn chorus filled the air, and I could now make out our surroundings much better. We started rattling off new birds left and right. There were no shortage of OLIVE SPARROW, and BLACK-CRESTED TITMOUSE. Overhead MOTTLED DUCK started passing down river. GULL-BILLED TERN, SNOWY EGRET, and OSPREY were all seen in quick succession. Life birds were few and far between as I had seen most of these species south of the border--but the titmouse and sparrow were both new.

One of the many Olive Sparrows we heard and saw

After a couple of hours we’d tallied 50 species, and I added more than 30 to my Texas life list. The best bird was a WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER which has become fairly regular here but is heard more often than seen. We left the river behind and took the Salineño Dump Road towards Starr County Park. Along the road, there were several PYRRHULOXIA--although none were cooperative for photos. WHITE-TAILED HAWK and GRAY HAWK were both new trip birds, and the dry desert habitat along the road was a stark contrast to the lush habitat along the river

Distant Gray Hawk on the Dump Road

At Starr County Park we set out on foot to see if we could track down the RED-BILLED PIGEON which were getting harder to find as spring progressed. A few familiar southwest species greeted us including BULLOCK’S ORIOLE, VERMILION FLYCATCHER, and CACTUS WREN. Eventually, I heard yelling and pointing at three birds cruising overhead--it was the pigeons! We watched hoping they would circle back, but instead they flew off to the northwest until they disappeared out of sight.

Best photo of a Red-billed Pigeon in the history of bird photography

It was just after 10:00 AM when we headed southeast following the river into the Lower Rio Grande Valley--most of us had been up more than 24 hours at this point. The excitement of new birds kept everyone on edge and while they were far and few between during the 90-minute drive to Bentsen, just being in south Texas kept us wide awake. The Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park has long been recognized as a top birding destination in the states. I didn’t quite know what to expect but was surprised at how dense the habitat was.

Bentsen State Park in the Rain

I had this vision of a wide open campground, with a few patches of trees--but this was not the case. The actual state park is closed to vehicles--foot traffic, park tram, and bicycles only. The campsites were all walk in, and the place reminded me more of the Yucatan Peninsula than what I expected of south Texas.

Plain Chachalaca at the feeding station

We walked into the park as the clouds descended on the area. In a matter of 20 minutes, it went from sunny to a downpour. But not before we saw some great birds. The PLAIN CHACHALACA at the entrance feeders were overly cooperative, and several GREEN JAY provided amazing looks.

Green Jay at the feeding station--an iconic south Texas bird

As we made our way to the Kingfisher Overlook are we found several ALTAMIRA ORIOLE. This was one of my top wants for the trip (ABA area) and I spent about 15 minutes following a pair through the trees trying to get a nice shot--despite the poor lighting.

This Altamira Oriole was certainly a highlight of the day

Over the next 2 hours we slogged through the rain--ducking into the cover of picnic sites, and trees when the deluge was over the top. By the time we got back to the car with less than 10 new trip birds everyone was thoroughly soaked, and hungry.

Waiting out the rain under some trees

It was time for some food and I had tracked down the best taco joint in McAllen. We headed to Taco Palenque where we expected short lines by mid-afternoon--we were wrong--the place was slammed, which was a good sign for how tasty the food would be. We feasted!

Lunch at Taco Palenque

After fueling up on delicious Mexican food we had a packed afternoon of birding planned that would loop us down to the border, over to Santa Ana NWR, and back to Bentsen for owling at sunset. We had one stop in Hidalgo, in a residential neighborhood which has become a regular hangout for MONK PARAKEET. It only took a couple minutes to track down the birds and we were once again on our way.

One of the Monk Parakeets we saw in Hidalgo

By the time we arrived at Santa Ana at 4 PM it was hot outside and the birds were mostly quiet. I’m used to things slowing down in the heat of the day, and that was no exception here. I had an expectation of birding being more like the tropics with activity continuing throughout the day in the forest as long as you could find food sources. After a quick trip to the hawk tower where a GRAY HAWK put on a nice show, our group split. I headed back to the visitor center to see if I could photograph BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD, while the rest of the group headed out to the ponds to see what shorebirds were around. They had a productive hike, and added 29 species to the 31 we had in the forest.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird near the visitor center

We turned the car around and headed back to Bentsen--we wanted to be there about 30 minutes before sunset to see if we could catch the Elf Owls emerging from their cavity. We parked right as the sun was starting light up the sky in orange--and just in time to watch 125 MISSISSIPPI KITES coming into the trees to roost for the night. It was incredible watching a flock of kites swirl over the trees then descend as the sun disappeared to the west.

Mississippi Kites coming in to roost for the night

We headed to the nest cavity where there was a small crowd gathered in waiting. We joined them and waited as well. Pretty soon the expected emergence time came--then passed, with no owls. So we waited. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. I was beginning to think something was up, when a face peered out of the nest. Pretty soon the owl flew out and landed on the telephone wire--and then another--both of the pair of ELF OWLS were giving the group great, albeit low light looks. The photos were garbage, but the experience was fun.

One of the Elf Owls after emerging from the cavity

We decided to head into the park and see if we could track any other night birds down. Playback is prohibited in the park so imitations would have to suffice--not that finding singing night birds was all that difficult. Pretty soon we could hear more Elf Owls calling from various places. We made our way to a thicket near a building where one seemed to be calling at almost eye-level in the trees. After a few minutes of searching I found him--and he was so close I couldn’t even take a picture--I backed up, and managed a frame-filling shot of our smallest owl!

Ultra close-up of an Elf Owl we tracked down in the park

Thrilled with the success we set out to track down an EASTERN SCREECH-OWL. Pretty soon we had a bead on one singing down a side road, so we followed. It wasn’t long before we locked in on the huge tree it was in--but finding the tiny owl took a bit of work. Finally we spotted the bird deep in the tree, visible from one angle through a small opening. Just enough to catch a photo before it flew off.

A "McCall's" Eastern Screech-Owl

An interesting side note is that the subspecies found in south Texas--the McCall’s Screech-Owl has a distinctly different song than any other northern race of this owl. It also looks more like a Western Screech-Owl (in my opinion) than any typical Eastern Screech. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one gets split at some point in the future…

After owling, we headed to our hotel, everyone running on empty.  After nearly 40 hours without sleep the adrenaline had worn off and I was in need of a good nights sleep.  I'm not sure how many species we tallied on the first day, but it had to have been around 100.  I know that I added 66 species to my Texas Life List, and a whopping 20 to my ABA list. It was the best day of birding in the states that I had had in terms of lifers--ever.

Checklists from today:

Santa Ana NWR
Bentsen State Park Owling

Photos from today:

Salineño & Starr County Park
Bentsen State Park
Monk Parakeets
Santa Ana NWR
Bentsen State Park Owling

Other Posts in this series:

>> Texas Part 1: Salineño and Bentsen State Park
Texas Part 2: Santa Ana NWR and Brownsville
Texas Part 3: South Padre Island and Laguna Atascosa (coming soon)
Texas Part 4: King Ranch and Hill Country (coming soon)