Friday, May 18, 2012

A Dilly-Dally in Dallas

I spent this past weekend in Dallas, Texas. While the express purpose of Maria's and my trip there was not birding, I was certainly hoping to fit some in on Saturday. I had all my gear together and my routes planned out and my extra pair of socks and then...I remembered to check the weather. Dallas weather has a love-hate relationship with me, in that it loves to make me hate it. I was pretty dismayed to check the weather and see that Dallas would be getting it's Thor on, with thunderstorms predicted for most of Saturday. Even so, I grabbed an old buddy from college, Taylor Butler (how appropriate) Posey, and made him drive me out to Cedar Hill State Park for some overcast observing.

I logged seven new bird species for my life list, though to be fair most of the species were birds I had previously observed--Common Grackles, Chimney Swifts, American Crows, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds--stuff that, statistically, I must've seen, but wasn't recording at the time. These common birds were just the tip of the iceberg, and even though we were forced back into the car during a typical twenty-minute Dallas downpour, we had a lot of other great sightings.

The trip down to Cedar Hill State Park is a nifty drive, and along the Hwy 408 roadside we encountered one of the first signs that we weren't in Arizona anymore (other than the gratuitous rain). There were three cattle grazing in an adjacent field, and three Cattle Egrets grazing next to them. I'd seen Cattle Egrets in Texas before, but never next to cattle. It's great when a bird lives up to its namesake. I was hoping one would perch on the cow, but that would've been too much.

We didn't prepare much of a bird list for this trip, but Painted Buntings were definitely at the forefront. That being said, I wasn't very optimistic about our chances. I was mostly hoping just to get some good looks at the old Dallas regulars, but the Buntings were always at the back of my mind. Before heading into the state park, we parked at the Cedar Hill Audubon Center and walked the quick loop outside the building. The very first bird we saw, singing atop a soggy tree, was this lovely male.

With the heavy cloud cover, the bird's shyness, and their preference for staying high and singing or hiding in the thick hedges, the photographic opportunities were poor, but we did see near a dozen Buntings throughout the day. Success! What a preposterously colored bird! Who do they think they are, bringing tropical style colorations into the Texas plains!? The binocular looks were much better than the photos indicate. These birds are stunning.

After checking out the Audubon center we drove down to the nearby Cedar Hill Lake. The recent rain had really filled out the foliage. There were Cardinals all over, and we also had good looks at Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays, and Titmice. There were more Painted Buntings too, and we chased after these bodacious beauties with reckless abandon. Alas, the viscous Dallas clay was really starting to accumulate on our shoes, and as the rain came down with gusto.

Trying to walk with this thick, congealing mud is like walking in scuba flippers: comical but ineffective. We scraped off as best we could and headed back to the car.

Even my birding buddy Taylor, a rugged mountain man by all accounts, was in awe of the energetic earth.

Luckily for us, Cedar Hill Park has a paved road running a loop around the trails and the lake. We were able to clean off our shoes, grab some Sonic lunch, and then go into safari mode, getting some excellent birding done from the car. Birds weren't the only thing on display either. This Texas Brown Tarantula (?? let me know if not) was taking its time to cross the street.

Getting out of the car to take its picture, I faced certain death from ol' shelob. Luckily, I had a little crystal bottle full of illuminating elf water that kept the spider at bay. That's good photography fundamentals 101: always have mythical creature repellent available on your person. 

As we continued our loop, stopping to observe some Spotted Sandpipers and Red-Winged Blackbirds, a single Ring-Billed Gull showing off its fishings skills.

There were lots of Franklin's Gulls and Mallards floating on the lake, but only this Ring-Billed Gull dared to fly in the adverse conditions. It was rewarded for its bravery, as were we. From afar, we watched it catch fish after fish. It didn't have quite the grace or power of an Eagle or Osprey, but hey ya can't argue with the results.

To put some icing on this seagull fish cake (eww!) this was a new bird for me. They turn up in Arizona from time to time, but it was great to add another new bird in Dallas. From the small and colorful Painted Buntings in their bramble bushes to the large and dull Ring-Billed Gull out over the water, we saw both ends of the birding spectrum.

The most iconic Texas bird for me, and one of my all-time favorites, is the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher. This was the bird I longed to see the most. This was the bird that holds the fondest memories of Texas birding for me. Though not as numerous as the Kingbirds, they're still a fairly common sight in Dallas during spring. One of my main goals from this birding escapade was to come away with some good photos that did these awesome birds justice. I was bummed about the overcast conditions and then by the birds' initial shyness. Any sort of approach seemed to startle them away. : ::sniffle:: : it was like they didn't even recognize me. Calls of, "Hey guys! It's me, Laurence!!" didn't help at all.

But perseverance is the name of the game. While birding in 'safari mode' (from the car), we spotted a mated pair of Flycatchers near one of the fenced pull-outs by the lake's south shore. The grey weather put these usually-vivacious birds in a melancholy mood, but they were mercifully accommodating as we pulled in for a photo shoot.

Yep, his tail is pretty long. I snuck this male's picture while he stared forlornly out into the lake, perhaps with a wistful wish that his tail could actually slice things. This is just the beginning of my Scissor-Tail shots, most of which I'll save for a further post.

Logging new birds is always exciting, but the best part of this birding trip was reacquainting myself with old Texas regulars. Western Kingbirds can be commonly found anywhere west of the Mississippi, and Phoenix is no exception. In Dallas, I became very familiar with these birds in the spring time. They would adorn the trees and posts around soccer fields, parks--any open space with a bit of green--and were much more brazen than the Kingbirds in Arizona. I have more shots of the Kingbirds that I'm saving for a separate post. These regal ravagers-of-the-bugs share posts with no one...