Monday, April 9, 2012

Transfixed at Tres Rios

 For once I decided to be a really dedicated birder and actually try to be at my destination at sunrise. I was successful in that enterprise, but was regretting the choice of wardrobe as the temperature did not rise above 40 degrees for an hour, and I was in shorts. But it was another fantastic morning of birding at the Wetlands nonetheless. Pops met up with me a little later and between the two of us we saw sixty-six species and each got two lifers.

The day started off in an oddly presidential fashion. One of the last streets one crosses while heading down to Tres Rios is Van Buren. While heading south past Van Buren I was driving behind someone with a Washington license plate, and when I parked and exited the vehicle, I was greeted by my first Tres Rios bird, a Lincoln's Sparrow.

Pretty auspicious beginning eh? Well, things only got better. Roosting Great Blue Herons and American White Pelicans maintained constant air traffic up and down the pedestrian stretch, while the handsome Yellow-rumped Warblers and Orange-Crowned Warblers abounded in the low-canopy trees. There were still some wintering ducks on display, including a pair of Buffleheads, six Cinnamon Teal, and this single male Blue-Winged Teal--a species which I don't see enough.

Certainly the most conspicuous residents at Tres Rios were the Red-Winged Blackbirds. There were some Yellow-Headed too, but this time the Red-Wings stole the show. Their numbers continue to increase by the week, and the males are growing steadily more boisterous and belligerent. Of course, this means great viewing for the non-partisan bystander. From 6:30am to about 11am there was a constant cacophony of caterwauling Blackbirds. It was lovely at times, annoying at others, but unfalteringly impressive. Maybe the females felt the same way?

The males would only pause to catch their breath, maybe shift their weight, and then begin the chorus once more. Bulkiness and Braggadocio: the key to a Blackbird's success.

It wasn't just the loud birds out and about either. Of course, Sparrows and Finches abounded in the more arid regions of the trail. The Common Yellowthroats still taunted me with their ephemeral presence, and Common Gallinules slipped in and out of the reedy bank with deliberate silence.

If one really wants to see everything offered at the Tres Rios habitat, one must zig-zag between the river bank on the north side of the path and the woody margin on the south side. While the Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows dominated the north side, more muted birds like this Ash-Throated Flycatcher quietly went about their morning routine across the trail.

It was great to reacquaint myself with this confident and composed myiarchus flycatcher. They're often described as a common bird, but I do not see them very frequently. And seeing this bird up close, especially since I had never photographed it before, gave me the same sense of jubilation as when I first discovered it years ago.

But the Ash-Throated was just an appetizer for the awesome flycatcher to come. After rendezvousing with Pops and chasing after some Yellow-Rumped Warblers, we saw a Kingbird perched on the retaining fence across the water.

At first glance, it looked like a Western Kingbird--a cool but fairly common sighting once the weather warms. But, there were also lingering reports of a Tropical Kingbird in the area, and that alone merited a second look. The Kingbird alighted from the fence and treated us to a fine show of airmanship, capturing and subduing a large grasshopper for its brunch. As it resettled and we were able to a closer look...Sure enough! The darker yellow breast extended almost to the chin, and the tail was noticeably notched, whereas the Western Kingbird tail is squared at the end.

"So...come here often?"
New Bird! Very cool. Unfortunately, not all of the new birds for the day were so lively. I still have not seen a wild Barn Owl (nor, more embarrassingly, a Screech Owl). About 3/4 of a mile down the Tres Rios waterway I stumbled upon this once-mighty specimen, deceased for some time. A terrible shame.

Despite that morbid moment, there was still some great birding to be done. Pops and I had earlier been treated to fly-by sightings of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks (new bird) and White-Faced Ibis. The birds were flying low over the water and disappeared into one of the occasional holding ponds. When we caught up, there was a representative of each species standing vigil on the cement walkway. 

With American Coots and Black-Necked Stilts also present, it made for a very cosmopolitan gathering.   The Whistling Ducks had been on the must-see/should-have-seen list for a while. They were far more beautiful than I expected, with their neatly colored and cropped plumage complemented by perfect posture.

It was a little bit unfortunate to be photographing perpendicular to the sun, but our view of the birds was most excellent. It was great to finally wet our Whistle. Oh and the Ibis? Yeah they're pretty great too. I'd never personally gotten such a good look at the glossy sheen, like mother-of-pearl.

But I think the award for best bird of the day goes to the Whistling Duck, even if the Tropical Kingbird is the rare one. It's unusual for me to see a new bird and get some presentable photos in the same instance. Additionally, the duck was totally stunning, and judging from that oozing-with-self-respect-posture, I'd say he knows it. Also, I guess the Grackle is cool...

With the afternoon getting underway, it was time to eject ourselves from the bird world and make our way back to the cars. Of course, we were birding on the way back, but perhaps the most interesting find was this antique television. It only had one channel, but it was a good one.

We'll have to return to Tres Rios soon for some more outstanding, commercial-free bird watching. I daresay the birding show at Tres Rios is an excellent program, viewable every day.