Southern Texas in Spring

24 04 2017

I spent a fun time in Southern Texas last week with Alex Lamoureax and Wildside Nature Tours. It was a new time of year for me as far as the Rio Grande Valley is concerned and highlighted how great this corner of Texas can be at almost any time of the year. I still have the urge to get here in September to see what it is like when the Broad-winged Hawks are returning south, perhaps next year.

There were many highlights over the week, but if I were to pick just a handful they would be as follows:

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Common Pauraque and chick – Luke Tiller

Finding Common Pauraques with chicks One of my coolest sightings of my last tour to Texas was finding a Pauraque that wasn’t the most photographed Pauraque in the whole of the world. There’s at least one that everyone and their dog knows about, so it’s always good to find your own one. The coolest sighting this year was following up on that bird and discovering that this time it had two chicks snuggled up underneath it. We also saw the well known bird with chicks too. If there was just one good reason to go to Texas in April it would have to be baby Pauraques!

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Botteri’s Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Exploring Palo Alto Battlefield Whenever I find myself in Texas I like to try and find somewhere new to visit. It feels like a lot of visitors just hit the same old spots over and over again. Thanks to a tip off from a couple of ex locals I decided to check out Palo Alto Battlefield. Not only did it provide some interesting and different habitat to most of the other stops, it also provided some interesting history and a beautifully appointed visitors center. Highlight there was getting to see numerous Botteri’s Sparrows. They aren’t around during winter (at least according to most sources) so they were a new Texas bird for me. Their range is at best spotty between southern Texas and Costa Rica (up to nine subspecies) and so they were a real joy to see. What made the sighting even better was that, unprovoked, one of these usually skulky birds popped up and started singing vociferously, giving the group killer views.

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Broad-winged Hawk – Luke Tiller

Morning raptor liftoff Southern Texas is excellent for a bunch of species that are uncommon or even essentially absent from the rest of the country. Included in this are a couple of raptors. While looking for one of them, Hook-billed Kite, we were able to witness a bunch of raptor migration as hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites and some Swainson’s Hawks lifted off from forests on both sides of the border in order to continue their journey northwards to their breeding grounds. As a hawkwatching fan it was nice to get to see some raptor migration, something one gets a little starved of in Southern California!

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Least Bittern – Luke Tiller

South Padre Island migration It’s amazing what a little coastal habitat can produce in terms of migrant traps on South Padre Island. Even the most rudimentary drip and a couple of trees can produce wonderful migrant species like Painted Buntings, Summer Tanagers, Kentucky Warblers and more. Though we didn’t quite hit the fallout conditions that are possible there, we did get a wonderful mix of mainly southern US migrants. Throw in perhaps the most accommodating Least Bitterns on the planet and some great shorebirds at Boca Chica and you have yourself a pretty great day.

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Red-bordered Metalmark – Luke Tiller

National Butterfly Center The National Butterfly Center is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a little more expensive than most of the sites but the incredible butterflies, great feeders and numbers of great birds always make it worth a stop in my opinion. Last time it was a male Varied Bunting, this time it was killer views of a group of Groove-billed Anis (website here).

You can see some more photos from the trip on my flickr page (here). You can see a collection of Texas photos in another album (here).

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Photo Essay

13 04 2017
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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

While birding at Santa Fe Dam the other day I stumbled upon this fairly co-operative Anna’s Hummingbird. I approached it a couple of times for shots. I basically figured that it was somewhat guarding a patch of flowers and that it might be a little more tolerant of approach than usual.

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I have what I feel is a pretty decent setup for bird photography: a Canon 7D and the 300mm f4. Rightly or wrongly, I generally still take shots like I used to when I had my old 35mm Praktica as a teenager but will take bursts of shots when it seems appropriate (like when this bird stretched and preened).

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think the main thing about getting good bird photos is getting close to them, whatever lens you have. I think among birders (or maybe even beginner bird photographers) the thought is that a long lens allows you to get great shots from miles away, which in my experience is certainly not the case .

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think being a birder first, you can parlay your bird knowledge into good photography. This means using the field skills you would use to approach a bird to get close for shots, but also understanding how birds are likely to react and how sensitive different species might be, even tailoring that experience to dealing with birds in different circumstances.

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

In the end through slow and indirect approach I managed to work my way within about ten feet of this hummingbird. The overcast skies helped to produce a nice picture, as hummingbird gorgets tend to blow out in any direct sunlight. I tried to follow the few little bits of advice I have picked up along the way: shoot with the sun behind you and get to the birds level.

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I was also thinking about the background, but didn’t have much to work with. After taking a couple of shots against a pure sky background (not my preference) I moved a little to try get the hazy gray mountains behind the bird. I’m not sure it made a huge difference? The main thing was to try line up with the bird so that I was catching the flare of the gorget as he faced me. Anyway I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out.





Birding the Kill Bill Superbloom

3 04 2017
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Superbloom at dawn – Luke Tiller

This Sunday David Bell and I ventured out into the wilds of Northeast LA County to check out what was happening with this years superbloom. This year has been an incredible one for wildflowers across the Southwest.  As well as the flowers, I was intrigued as to what might turn up there bird wise. Adding to the potential interest was the fact that Jonathan Feenstra had found what appears to be Los Angeles County’s first record of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in over eighty years just a stones throw away on Edward’s Airforce Base, on a section that isn’t open to the public.

The thing I like about birding with David is that he’s always up for trying somewhere different rather than chasing birds or hitting the same old birding sites. It was for this reason that we found ourselves stopping at dawn amid a sea of yellow desert wildflowers at the Kill Bill Church (more here) in Hi Vista to see what might have stopped off in this one horse town during migration. It actually turned out to be a fairly productive stop with highlights including specialist local breeders like Black-throated Sparrow as well as a couple of out of place migrants including a beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbird.

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Kill Bill Church – JG Klein

We then worked our way north on East 200th Street past the Phacelia Wildlife Sanctuary to explore the very northern edge of the county, stopping only when the road would take us no further. Here at the end of the line, a gate blocked our entrance to Edward’s Airforce Base. It was a surprisingly productive end of the line however with singing Le Conte’s Thrasher (or LeConte’s Thrasher depending on what the AOS decide) and five species of sparrows that included three real beauties: Bell’s, Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrow.

We were soon stumbling on more birds as we worked our way through the Creosote Bush and Joshua Tree covered landscape. In my experience this habitat often seems to be pretty birdless, but today we kept stumbling upon little flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and in among them other birds would appear. Some expected, like the Rock Wrens and Verdins, some much less so like the migrants that seemed to have joined in these little roving flocks: Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and House Wren. It seemed like almost every bird freaked out the local eBird filters however, highlighting how little this area gets birded.

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Black-throated Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Of course usually this area is pretty barren desert, but this year there are plenty of flowers for these birds to enjoy, and looking carefully at my photos from the day, plenty of accompanying bugs. With the superbloom it makes me wonder how the usual desert migrant traps will fair this Spring. With the desert somewhat greener than usual I wonder if those places will be less of a draw for wandering birds or whether the abundance of growth in the desert may somehow end up helping waifs and strays survive and similar or greater numbers will find their way to those weird little desert oases? It will be interesting to find out.

As well as a fairly constant turnover of birds there was much else to enjoy including lots of neat flowers. Almost everywhere you looked was a carpet of yellow flowers mainly formed by millions upon millions of little California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) but there were other pretty ones in among them including the purple Phacelia that the nearby wildlife sanctuary is named for. You can find LA County Parks and Wildlife Refuges using their parks locator tool (here).

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Phacelia sp – Luke Tiller

The flowers were of course attracting insects and one of my main highlights of the day was not only seeing, but also photographing quite well a White-lined Sphinx moth. As well as poking around Hi Vista we also stopped at a couple of other spots that looked like they might hold potential for future exploration, but didn’t come up with anything particularly out of this world species wise.

It was a fun morning of birding and I’m hoping I can sneak out here for a little more before the bloom fades or I have to leave for a mid-April Texas Tour that I will be co-leading for Wildside Nature Tours. There’s still one open space if you are looking for a short but sweet adventure in that incredible part of the world (details here). There are some more photos from the day on my flickr page (here). Thanks to Naresh Satyan and Mickey Long for flower identification.

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California Goldenfields – Luke Tiller

Trip Species Checklist:

American White Pelican, Red-tailed Hawk, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Black Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, House Wren, Cactus Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Le Conte’s Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Bell’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow