Monday, June 30, 2014

Texas Birding: Turning South and Turning Tropical

The Butler's Birds Texas Adventure started out with a delectable appetizer of Painted Buntings outside San Antonio and then continued the next morning with endangered Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. After recording a clean sweep pretty early, I headed south to what is both harshly and accurately called the a**hole of Texas: Laredo. 
Of about three sites ID'd as good for White-collared Seedeater--the main reason to go to Laredo--Zacate Creek seemed like the most contained and easy to find (anyone else get overwhelmed when you're at a massive new site with 50 trails? So much nagging and doubt...). 
The place was totally trashy, with trails in disrepair and garbage all along the river banks, which served to accentuate the miasmic air blowing through the tall cane on the banks. Plus I was accosted several times by ICE agents, one of which ruined a perfectly good Green Kingfisher stakeout that was about to pay dividends for me, and one of which involved a fellow gun-in-hand (not pointed though). But damn, the birding here was phenomenal, and I caught a break from the cloud cover in the late afternoon (coincidentally, the hottest time of day). 
White-collared Seedeater was actually the third bird I had by the Zacate River, behind MODOs and GTGRs. Hearing and seeing these tiny birds would prove to be pretty easy. Photographing them was another beast entirely, a sweaty, smelly, swampy beast.

Since the Seedeaters were a relatively easy find, I spent more time exploring the trials and other habitats around Zacate Creek. Green Jays, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and a couple of Green Kingfishers made for exciting year birds and solidified the tropical feel of the area. Great Kiskadees were sounding off from the trees, their boisterous betraying how shy of birds they really can be, and a couple of Olive Sparrows further boosted the day's species list.

Exploring the thicker palm groves yielded fewer birds overall, relative to the thick riverside tamarisk and cane, but this unique vegetation provided the only Audubon's Orioles of the trip. Including the birds from Kerr WMA in the morning, this added to seven lifers, probably the most I've recorded in a single day in several years. Zacate was a dank and dirty place, but it was productive.

Although it was late in the season, a lingering Black-throated Green Warbler was feeding in the mesquite canopies at the end of the trail--the first Texas bird that would flag and require an eBird justification, given its tardiness. These are, I will somewhat ashamedly and somewhat unashamedly admit, my only photos of the species to date. To all haters out there I simply say...zee zee zee zoo zee!

The Seedeaters stayed high and far throughout the afternoon, offering poor photo ops and better binocular views. As the sun started to descend the number of ICE agents in the area increased, anticipating the push of immigrants that comes every evening.
At this point in the day I was pretty tan and had left my wallet (and ID) in the locked glove compartment of my car as a precaution. Not wanting to be profiled and rounded up, I decided to call it a night, after finding some public showers, because using the Zacate River would've exacerbated things.

The next morning saw the first big busts of the trip, which luckily had nothing to do with windows, tires, or other parts of the car, nor my face. I had hit all the Laredo targets--and then some--at Zacate the first afternoon, but figured I'd try a few more sites recommended form the Texas Birding Trails website. 
It turns out that site was a bit out of date. One of the areas has since been totally leveled and turned into a gated community with no surviving wetlands (except a duck pond) and another required advanced notice and a $40 entrance fee. 
Instead of doing that...I went to the beach. 
Driving across the Texas fin from Laredo to Corpus Christi, there were several dozen Crested Caracaras adorning various pedestals. While I didn't stop to photograph them (high, telephone poles, etc.), I must say this is probably the best highway roadside bird one can ask for in the U.S. 

When one arrives on the Texas/Gulf Coast in June, one is beset by Laughing Gulls. Hundreds and Thousands of Laughing Gulls. Try to pick out the occasional late Franklins, even a Ring-billed--I did a couple of times--but you will also go mad and begin laughing manically too, just like the Gulls that have hounded and driven you to this point wherever this sand and/or garbage. 
Still, they're pretty good looking Gulls.

There was some time to kill in Corpus before picking up The Iowa Voice in the evening for several days of joint birdventuring, so I used it to scan the Corpus Christi tidal flats and pick up some more diarrhea. I didn't know it at the time, but Corpus really is a great birding area with many more sites where at I could've better spent time. Relaxing around the easy-access beaches was nice though, no doubt, and still provided some nifty birds. Willets are an uncommon but reliable find in Arizona. Of course in Texas, they're among the most common shorebird in June.

The lifering continued via some Wilson's Well-Endowed Plovers. With their slightly but noticeably longer beaks, this species will eventually drive all other similarly sized Plovers to extinction.

Daylight was fading, as was the fast-food-fueled stamina. There was still some time to explore the area, but with no particular Corpus Christi specialties on my radar cruising around a new town--which wasn't as riddled with billboards as most other Texas towns--was a nice way to see off the sun. Driving over the Oceanfront bridge from Corpus to the naval base even yielded another lifer, one I wasn't expecting or really pursuing until later on in the trip, one that, I admit with mild embarrassment, I should have picked up earlier in life. Unfortunately I had already finished my dinner sandwich before crossing this frost-capped specimen of Tern. Of course, it would have been somewhat reckless, even inconsiderate, to simply pull onto the narrow highway/bridge shoulder and photograph the bird. Of course, a lifer is a lifer, and Butler's Birds sets high standards for such affair, so I did it anyway:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Texas Revisited: The First Inkerrsion, Government Canyon and Kerr WMA

Alright alright, guilt has finally caught up to and surpassed my frustration with this post. The birds are too good, and in many cases my photos not good enough, such that more explanation is warranted. 
When I first tried to start off recounting The Butler's Birds Texas Adventure, blogger liked it so much it decided to swallow the whole thing. It was, perhaps, the nadir of my bird-blogging tenure.
I felt like a trans-universal Cardinal coming out of Warp, grumpy and exceedingly profane:

But Butler's Birds owe it to the birds, posterity, and probably some other third thing to do this right, even if with considerably more brevity than before. Thus on a similar note I want to apologize, dear reader, for the earlier, text-less post, and thank you for your forbearance in seeing the same stuff again.

Driving in Texas--almost any part of Texas--is one of the most soul-killing things in the entire world, maybe even worse than going to a Walmart at 2am. Upon arriving in San Antonio and getting a smoking deal on my rental from Budget ($244 total for 11 days? Yes I will tattoo your company's name on my chest.), I quickly tried to get out of the city. 
San Antonio, like Dallas, Houston, and all the southern towns, is beset with gigantic, unregulated, trashy and terrifying billboards all along its highways. They block out the sky, block out the vegetation, and bombard both the conscious and subconscious mind with tawdry cliches and turns of phrase all geared to get one buying some special form of junk, or jazzed about a special strip club. 
Anyhow, they way I knew that I was past the unpleasant part of Texas was when the flashy and obnoxious roadside advertisements were replaced with flash birds being obnoxious to each other. 

"Lock x-foils in attack position"

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, even from a distance, officially rank as one of North America's Top Ten Best Birds, which is pretty friggin' prestigious. It's not just the crazy plumage dimensions or the pugnacious attitude; it's the coloration on the flanks. Salmon-colored armpits, which actual salmon don't really have, are what's up.

The first stop was a spot about 20 miles northwest of San Antonio, a place called Government Canyon. As one might expect from such a Canyon, this place was heavily regulated, so heavily in fact that it was closed on all Mondays and Tuesdays. Since I arrived on a Monday, this was one of my least favorite things about this Canyon. Another was that I had to leave my impressive alcohol collection in the car, though I guess with the park being closed I wouldn't have had many people to which I could've proudly displayed it. 

Eastern Phoebes were well-represented at Government Canyon, the 3rd best Phoebe in the United States. In addition to the conspicuous Phoebe, the heat at Government Canyon was also impressive, given the direct sunlight. I was quickly down to an ill-fitting tank top and shorts with loafers--the last vestiges of my airport clothes--which I may revisit in the future to better establish a Birder Bro typecast inline with's recent whiney birding-related article. The heat was oppressive at the time, but it would prove to be my only day of direct sunlight (tis' the season), and I took it for granted.

The main target at Government Canyon was a fairly common bird by Texas standards, a common bird that has been melting faces since it's invention back in 1803. If you gave an adult a generic outline of a songbird and asked them to try and color it in a natural-looking way, they'd probably involve some reds and grays, maybe a bit of red or yellow, and end up coloring something like a cardinal sparrow. A small child would take blue, red, and green highlighters and create a Painted Bunting, and, rather improbably, they would be more accurate. It's amazing. It's unnatural.

Plenty of the San Antonio birds were also familiar sights from Phoenix. Greater Roadrunners were a fairly common sight along the grassland borders. But they were also often up in trees and vocalizing, which is much less common in my central AZ experiences.

Common Ground Doves were another carry over from Arizona, but in in much greater numbers. In the arid southwest, I'd label them as uncommon, but with much more expansive habitat in central Texas, these birds lived up to their namesake. They were also a fair bit more crushable.

The male Painted Buntings were singing in high numbers and showed very well. It made all of my reluctant misdemeanoring (Butler's Birds does not condone trespassing, especially not on private property) well worth the risk. The Painted Bunting and the 5th Amendment, two beautiful things.

I left Government Canyon at sundown, got diarrhea at a Cracker Barrel, and camped out by the Kerr WMA farther northwest from San Antonio. The camp out left me with a stiff knee, a few heard-only lifers, and one awkward encounter with a well-meaning motorist who pulled over and hit me with the high beams while performing my necessaries off from the side of the road.
Under cover of night, heavy clouds rolled in, keeping the temperatures, as well as the photogenic light, lower than expected. The cruel irony, of course, was that the birds loved it.

Kerr WMA held two big and endangered attractions: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Black-caps like some low-lying oak/juniper scrub while Golden-cheeks prefer the taller juniper. Both birds are declining in population and cannot be found outside of central Texas.
Chasing and photographing these species was a tricky prospect.
Black-capped Vireo is a very cool-looking bird, but they're flightly little buggers and chasing them/encroaching too much, as well as using play back, is out of the question, both ethically and federally. I found them early in the morning, but had to remain satisfied with distant and fleeting looks. Tis' better to have seen from afar, than never seen at all.

A positive externality of the Black-cap birding was that oak scrub is pretty great habitat. Black-crested Titmice, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Buntings, and Flycatchers were exceedingly numerous, and I finally laid the crush on a Field Sparrow.

Field Sparrow did not make it into the Butler's Birds Salute to Sparrows, since it is not a western/Arizona-occurant species. If it did make it into the list, it would score mediocre at best, but as the poet once said, photographing birds is difficult, especially in low-light conditions, so enjoy the crush when you've got it, man (it's unclear from both historical and lyrical context whether or not the poet was referencing photography or orange soda).

Any outing with lifer Black-capped Vireos, any outing where Painted Buntings are no longer the highlight, is a good one, but that was only half of the objective. Golden-cheeked Warblers breed exclusively in Texas, and even though it was a bit late in the season for these early arrivals, they were a 'must-see' target at Kerr WMA as well.
Seeking these birds, especially as they were no longer singing for mates and territory, was an intimidating prospect with so much juniper habitat. After utilizing the much-needed public showers (maybe they weren't public, I dunno. Every zoo in life is a petting zoo if you're bold enough) I picked a direction on the Springs Trail and started off through the trees. It was only a few minutes before chittering in the trees grabbed my attention. A mixed flock? Any bird is a good bird in a new area. There was far more fortune than that--fortune, like publicly accessible showers also favors the bold, as Erasmus tell us--not one nor two, but four Golden-cheeked Warblers, a male and female with their two fledglings, were having Tuesday brunch.

As with the Black-caps, photographing endangered species in low-lighting while trying to keep a respectful distance is both a lesson in patience and self-control. The adults were busy foraging and never really came down from the canopy, but one of the immature birds, told by it's wonky plumage, ruddy acne, and crass jokes, was intrigued by my pishing and came in for a close inspection, too close even for Johnny Cloud Cover to mess things up. 

By 11am I had all of my targets in the San Antonio area. I'd like to say I played it cool and that everything had gone according to plan, but the truth of the matter was that I was wigging out and couldn't believe my luck (and, in a small way, a bit of birding skill/discernment; it's ok to admit these things are also improving). 

I left for Laredo several hours ahead of schedule, eagerly hoping to continue what would be one of the most productive days of birding in Butler's Birds history. Stay groomed and stay tuned! 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Wipe Your Heels: Sweet Carolina Birding Pt. 1

The great ire over my great Texas post being great Bloggerized (erased) has almost subsided, and I think I'll be able to get back to those tales and photos soon (and will also try to re-write the preceding post to do those sites and birds justice). 
In the mean time, Butler's Birds has expanded to include North Carolina in its repetoire. While the Carolina trip is not geared towards birding necessarily--there are too many breweries and such--hanging in a place with such sumptuous bird offerings will result in some birding, even if it's a bit hung over.
Barn Swallows are the least common of the resident Swallows in central Arizona. In central/east Carolina, they are by far the most common. Never has a nest made of spit, mud, straw and poop looked so comfortable.

Of course, there are some noticeable differences birding in Carolina. There is water, a lot of water. It hangs in the air, it condenses on everything, and it seems to flow into and out of every wooded thicket between the Research Triangle and the coast. Subsequently there is dense vegetation where there are not tobacco and corn fields, and plenty of tall hardwood trees. In these woods one finds expected and unexpected things. 
A Blue Jay seems very fitting, clearly in its natural habitat...

...a pay phone is not so much in its natural environment.

There are also many under-birded counties in North Carolina (and many more counties in general). In Wayne County, where Butler's Birds is based for the next little while, the highest eBird total is 56 species, of only 16 or so registered reporters.
If some of the county listing dynamics are different, some of the birds are still the same. Killdeer abound near open fields, and also still insist on nesting in the most impractical of areas.
I had one nesting in a tiny, 5 square-foot parking lot planter at work in Phoenix. This one picked a gravel driveway to lay its four eggs.

Most importantly, new regions offer delicious new birds, fantastic visual and audio beauties such as this Fish Crow, which was conspicuously cawwing in its unique nasally way.

I do not think there are any records of Fish Crow in Arizona, whereas Brown Thrashers occur in small numbers at least every other year. Nonetheless, I'll pick this as the more exciting of the two. Good looking bird!

Both of these birds are welcome sights for the out-of-state interloper, but by Carolina standards they're pretty pedestrian. To get the birders' birds of Carolina (you know what I mean), one has to get out into this stuff, the pine forest/grassland savannah. 

The lower brush yields expected Wrens, Cardinals, and mournful Pewees. Young House Wrens are very crushable. Curiosity claims more House Wren lives each year than domestic cats (both meanings/interpretations intended).

Speaking of susceptible birds, Prairie Warblers are always good for a pish. They don't dwell in the low stuff quite as faithfully as the HOWRs, but they can be brought down with some enticing clicks and whistles. Unfortunately, this one was also one the other side of a stream and it was only curious so far.

Other birds that dwell in the intermediary heights, like the Prairie Warblers, include the flycatchers. Eastern Kingbirds are loud and energetic, a handsome and easy sighting on many the eastern birding trip, a bird that never bores.

Juvenile Great-crested Flycatchers are the total opposite. They just sit and space out, as if trying to blend in. This bird did not budge the entire time I observed it, and not having adult flight feathers is no excuse for being slothful and laconic. I have no feathers and still manage to shout and gesticulate wildly, especially when people are observing!

Follow the woodland streams closer to the marshy drainages and a sweet sugary call may also join the chorus. Another immature bird (an unintended theme) in this post: Prothonotary Warbler.

Farther away from the marshes, Eastern Bluebirds and Pine Warblers populate the pine and palm savannah (is that a habitat name?), and every once in again a Bachman's Sparrow will make an appearance. Poor Pine Warbler. They're very industrious, resilient, and adaptable birds, real go-getters, but they're just not very good-looking by Warbler standards.

As was frequently the case (and always is this time of year) the young birds of the species gave better looks than the older and wiser. Here's an immature Pine Warbler, told by its acne and petulant, rebellious attitude as well as its dumb jokes, and also everything else that's incomplete with its plumage.

All of the Warblers and Flycatchers were photographed at Croatan Natural Forest, on the Millis and Pringle Road trails. The warblers were rewarding, but the biggest draw of this massive coastal forest is its local populations of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, many of whom are sporting jewelry. 

It was very cool to get prolonged looks at this American endemic. The bird itself is somewhat underwhelming, as far as woodpeckers go, but seeing a third endangered species in as many weeks brought an extra air of importance and satisfaction to the occasion. The birds, 5 or 6 in all, were very vocal and foraged actively when not busy chasing each other around their pine pedestals. 

Red-cockaded is an uncommon, somewhat bland woodpecker, but a special bird nonetheless. Red-headed Woodpecker is a fairly common, somewhat breath-takingly face-meltingly gorgeous woodpecker that is also a special bird--probably the one I have enjoyed seeing most on this trip, because nice male warblers have thus far denied me many good looks. 


If I were this dignified head-banger I would resent Woody Woodpecker being based on my visage. In fact, I'd become so totally vain that I'd resent probably everyone everywhere. GAZE!!! GAZE AND BURST OUT OF YOUR SKIN!!!

One final draw of North Carolina, one that has little to do with birds, is that it also hosts one of North America's best and most musical crustaceans. This fellow has been single for a long time. He ain't even ashamed.

With the right combination of brackish water, methane, and salt, these highly specialized critters can accumulate in numbers...

...very large numbers.

So hopefully some time in the mountains and local birding in Carolina will turn up some cool finds (and the very nifty possibility that I'll be a #1 county birder, with enough vanity to match a Red-headed Woodpecker and maybe contribute something useful to eBird for once). In the mean time there is much, much more to come from Texas, so it'll be alternating tropical birds with temperate, topical posts with temperamental.