Photo Essay – Swainson’s Hawks in Bakersfield

12 09 2017
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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

This weekend I drove up from Los Angeles to Sonoma for the Sonoma Birding Optics Festival to go talk about optics for ZEISS Birding (blog here). Though I love the incredible diversity of habitat and species in Los Angeles County the one thing it doesn’t have much of is raptor migration.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

The lack of raptors in migration is almost made up for by the incredible winter raptor spectacle that can be found out in the Antelope Valley in winter (see post here), but for an ex-professional hawkwatcher there is nothing that quite competes with watching raptors on migration.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Last Friday I was winging my way north along the somewhat desolate I5 when I spotted some hawks kettling in some Ag fields by the side of the road. I of course got off at the next exit and was excited to find a few Swainson’s Hawks loafing in a field just next to the off ramp.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Though it was almost exactly hot high noon and the heat haze and bright sunlight wasn’t exactly optimal for photography I couldn’t pass up grabbing my camera and getting a few record shots of the moment.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

It’s amazing the individual variation in these beautiful birds and it was nice to be able to study them fairly close up rather than watching them way up in the sky as often happens at a hawkwatch. A few birds even drifted close enough to the roadside for me to capture at least a few different individuals somewhat well with the camera.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

In October I’ll be in Panama for the peak of this species migration through the country. I wonder if I’ll unwittingly connect with any of these birds again. Other highlights of the weekend trip to Sonoma included Black Swifts, Black Rail, Tule Elk and best of all getting to see some old friends at Hawk Hill Hawkwatch.





Los Angeles: Summer in the City?

12 07 2017
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San Gabriel Mountains at dusk – Luke Tiller

Though breeding season everywhere tends to be somewhat slower for birding than most other times of year, there is still plenty to like when it comes to birding in Los Angeles. When it comes to summer birding here it’s hard to beat the San Gabriel Mountains, and not just because the elevation tends to provide a little relief from the warmer temperatures to be found down in the basin.

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White-headed Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Though most people know Los Angeles is in a basin, not many people realize quite how amazing the mountains that surround that basin can be. Less than twenty miles from Downtown, and just about thirty from LAX, one can find oneself seemingly well away from the hubbub of the city. Quickly climbing up in elevation, one can start to find an array of exciting mountain specialties including Bell’s Sparrow, White-headed Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and more.

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Northern Pygmy Owl – Luke Tiller

At night the mountains and foothills can come alive with owls and goatsuckers, which when you include rarities, can include up to seven species of owl. As well as the more common species these might include such sought after goodies as Spotted Owl and Flammulated Owl. One owl often more easily found during the day is the tiny, but fierce, Northern Pygmy-Owl. I love pygmy-owls anyway, but the potential for this bird to be split from those Northern Pygmy-Owls found in the Rocky Mountains adds to the interest.

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Black Swift – Luke Tiller

One of North Americas most enigmatic and sought after species can also be found in the Los Angeles area: Black Swift. This highly specialized aerial acrobat breeds in just a handful of spots in Southern California, due to a reliance on waterfall nesting sites in what is a relatively dry region, but at least one pair is relatively accessible from Los Angeles. Every July I take a group out from the local Audubon group to enjoy seeing this neat species.

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Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Perhaps even more elusive and desirable, summer is not the worst time to be looking for Mountain Quail. Though they are a little easier to find earlier in the year when the birds are still vocal, they can be found in the warmer months too. In fact the best photographs I ever captured of these sneaky little quail were in July. This may just be a coincidence, but I suspect it was because the birds were at least somewhat focused on maintaining contact with chicks at the time rather than what I was up to.

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Lawrence’s Goldfinch – Luke Tiller

Though I love migration more than any other time (who doesn’t?), I have to say I’m thankful for all that summer birding in Los Angeles has to offer. It’s always amazing to me that you can escape a population of 19 million people and find yourself alone and surrounded by birds just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Los Angeles.





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).





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





Anza Borrego – Superbloom Hawkwatching.

27 03 2017
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Desert Sunflowers – Anza Borrego

This Saturday I headed for Anza Borrego for Pasadena Audubon’s annual trip to the hawkwatch there. After a very early morning start I arrived in Borrego Springs for our dawn rendezvous. Our first port of call was the Mesquite woods in town which are usually home to Crissal Thrasher and historically it seems now to Lucy’s Warbler. Though we did find some nice desert denizens including Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow and Black-capped Gnatcatcher we struggled to turn up any of the rarer species hoped for here. Still none of the above are very common in LA County so it’s always a treat to see them. The other highlights here were numbers of Western Kingbirds, including groups of migrants passing overhead and a couple of rare Lawrence’s Goldfinch that dropped in next to the group!.

Next stop turned from opportune bathroom break into an intensive birding stop. A stop in town lead us to both a nesting Great Horned Owl and from there we started to find a few interesting species dotted around town including a nesting Costa’s Hummingbird, White-winged and Common Ground Dove. The thing I’ve always loved most about birding is migration because you just never know what you are going to find next and as we walked around the block back to our cars from the owl nest we found ourselves a little flock of migrating passerines. In the mix were a decent number of birds and a mix of species including warblers, vireos and orioles. Highlights were almost certainly the stunning male Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles with runner up prizes going to Wilson’s and Nashville Warblers.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Unfortunately the predicted winds that were forecast for the afternoon kicked up a little earlier than predicted which made both bird and bloom watching a little harder than anticipated. Still, we managed to find a nice couple of fields of flowers out on Di Giorgio Rd and Henderson Canyon Rd and a nice mix of different species out at Old Spring Rd. Though the winds were roaring luck was on our side and I randomly spotted some Swainson’s Hawks coursing out over a field and the group managed to walk out towards them for better looks. It was nice to be able to show people the differences in plumage between adults and juveniles and compare the different morphs too. We also pulled out a Red-tailed Hawk from the group as well.

Next stop was a quick lunch break over at the Tamarisk Grove campground. Here among the throngs of campers and visitors enjoying the wildflower and cactus show we managed to stumble upon a beautiful Long-eared Owl. The bird, though not more than a few feet from a busy parking lot, seemed very relaxed apart from when an Anna’s Hummingbird came buzzing around his head at which point he immediately opened his bright yellow eyes and stared angrily at this buzzing interloper.

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Long-eared Owl – Luke Tiller

The last portion of our day we hiked out to Yaqui Wells. A mile and a half round trip from Tamarisk Grove campground that takes you through a mix of beautiful cactus dotted habitat before it eventually opens up on this natural seep. This year round water resource attracts all kinds of animals including a mix of birds. The further we got from the campground so it also allowed us to escape a little from the hordes of campers and even better we were also pretty shaded from the howling winds.

It was beautiful and quiet here and we eventually started to run into some birds here including locally breeding specialties: Phainopepla, Rock Wren and the incredibly stunning Scott’s Orioles, as well as small mixed flocks that included a nice variety of migrants. As we slowly worked our way along the trail we found groups of early arriving species that included Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers.

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Tiny Checkerspot – Luke Tiller

As well as the birds, Yaqui Wells also provided us with a bunch of pretty butterflies among the blooming flowers including Desert Orange Tip, Arizona Powdered-Skipper, Becker’s White, Tiny Checkerspot and sadly, a recently deceased Sleepy Orange. The finale of our trip was highlighted by two beautiful orioles, Hooded and Bullock’s, that we found feeding on a stunning Ocotillo – a real cacophony of color!

We ended our day with a respectable 53 species of birds including two species of owl, three species of oriole with Lawrence’s Goldfinch and the Scott’s Orioles probably among the highlights. We also enjoyed the beautiful scenery, this years much lauded superbloom (even if things were a little past peak) and some attractive butterflies. It was sad to have to head home and I can’t wait to do it again next year. Next time I definitely need to make sure I schedule more time in town!

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Ocotillo – Luke Tiller

Thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a fun day, especially Naresh for his wildflower knowledge and Hilary and Steve for providing our own private bathroom facilities on the day. I have posted a handful of shots from the day on my flickr page (here) and Naresh has kindly shared his photos from the day (here).

Bird Species List:

American Wigeon, Mallard, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher,Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Common Raven, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Phainopepla, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Scott’s Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch





Winter Rio Grande Valley Tour 2017

19 03 2017
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Great Kiskadee – Luke Tiller

Late this winter (2017) I was lucky enough to take a couple of friends on a private tour of Southern Texas. February is peak time for vagrant Mexican birds in the valley and so there were a number of nice birds out there to look for. My friends had a great relaxed approach to the tour in that they just wanted to see the birding sites of the Rio Grande Valley and pick up what birds we could along the way. Having a small group kept us flexible allowing us to adjust plans on the fly.

Day 1:

Upon arrival at the first night’s hotel in San Antonio I ticked off a couple of year birds including my first Blue Jays of the year – a real treat for this westerner. After a night in San Antonio we got on the road towards Refugio hoping to run into a couple of rare warblers that had showed up in a little park there. On the drive down we picked up a few birds for our Bee County list including Vermilion Flycatcher and a number of Crested Caracaras. Also on our list was American Kestrel, which thanks to its abundance in Texas and proclivity for roadside telephone wires became a regular feature of our driveby county lists.

Our first stop was Lions/Shelly Park in Refugio where we were hoping for a couple of special warblers. Our first hour or so of birding turned up a Barred Owl, but the only rare (by date) bird we had stumbled upon among the mixed flocks was a wintering Louisiana Waterthrush. For a couple of first time Texas visitors, however, there were plenty of local specialties to enjoy including Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Black-crested Titmouse and Great Kiskadee.

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Tropical Parula – Luke Tiller

Just as I was starting to think about what time we needed to start getting on with the rest of our day, we ran into another mixed flock and there among the Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcathers and Yellow-rumped Warblers was a stunning male Tropical Parula! We enjoyed great views and captured a couple of nice shots of the bird as it flitted across the stream to alight in a tree just above us. With spirts lifted we started to hunt anew for our other target Golden-crowned Warbler. After a couple of brief sightings or hearings we eventually tracked the bird down with the help of some other birders – watching as it moved surreptitiously though the shadows of some streamside brush. First stop completed with two great ABA birds and a couple of Texas specialties under our belts too.

Swinging our way west now from Refugio we birded mainly from the car, picking off a bunch of roadside species for our Duval, Webb and Live Oak County lists and made a few opportune stops to pick off Carolina Chickadee, Redhead and White-tailed Hawk among others.  Highlight had however to be getting our first Green Jay of the trip – incredibly beautiful birds that it is simply impossible to tire of!

We ended our day all the way west in Laredo Texas. Arriving just in time to end our day along the Rio Grande at the Max Mandel Golf course. We started by taking a drive around the course in a golf cart (which as always was great fun) to pick up White-collared Seedeater (an obliging breeding plumaged male putting on a bit of a show) and enjoyed a few other species along the way. We then headed over to the club house to sit on the veranda and look for Red-billed Pigeon. As we were about to second guess that approach and head out onto the links to look for them two flew right past us on the US side of the river before heading across to the Mexican side. Here we sat watching them at our leisure as they perched up in some riverside trees allowing us prolonged scoped views. A simply fantastic end to a great first day.

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White-collared Seedeater – Luke Tiller

We rounded off our day with incredible Korean BBQ and a couple of cold beers at BBQ Park in Laredo. If you find yourself in town go check them out (link here). Over great Bulgogi I joked that maybe we should just quit while we were ahead and go home the next day!

Day 2:

Our next day we headed southeast to Falcon Dam State Park. With the drought that had hit this part of Texas the birding was noticeably harder than previous years, with sparrows and other regular winterers much harder to find. Still we enjoyed our time, especially enjoying the hospitality of a couple of RVers who were kind enough to let us enjoy their bountiful (and marshmallow festooned feeders). As well as the regular feeder birds, we also picked up a few nice species including a couple of accommodating Olive Sparrows and our only Gray Catbird of the trip. There were lots of nice “desert” passerines around to enjoy like Black-throated Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia too.

We birded our way west back towards Laredo over the day eking out species as we went. Highlights included great looks and listens too Cactus Wren at a park that’s a little off that beaten track where we also ran into RGV birder extraordinaire Mary Gustafson, Purple Martins and Neotropic Cormorants.

We ended our day poking around a couple of off-the-beaten-track parks in Laredo, adding to their eBird species lists, before hitting up a small roost of Green Parakeets and Monk Parakeets. Not quite as action packed as the previous day, but with plenty of nice birds enjoyed through the day

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Red-billed Pigeon – Luke Tiller

Day 3:

We started our day heading south and east. First stop was Salineno where we picked up our first Plain Chachalacas and had another encounter with Red-billed Pigeon.  The (eight!) Red-billeds were perched upstream from us on an island a good mile away I would guess. They however did something I’ve never seen them do before when they took off heading right past us cutting across the boat launch directly behind us on the US side. Allowing me to fire off a handful of shots to document the moment, magical!

After spending a while along the river we decided to head over and check out the feeders. Between the near incessant forays of a couple of Cooper’s Hawks and the near constant din of many Red-winged Blackbirds we eventually picked off our target here: Audubon’s Oriole. While awaiting our quarry, we enjoyed other species and relished the wonderful photo ops the new setup here produced, including Altamira Orioles, Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and more.

After a quick stop in Roma we made our way over to Estero Llano State Park. Though ostensibly here to look for a reported becard, with the strong winds hampering land birding we eventually focused on picking up a few of the more regularly occurring species including Anhingha, Common Pauraque, Least Grebe, Mottled Duck and an impressively huge American Alligator. Our time patiently seeking out the becard not completely wasted as we picked up a nice consolation Ovenbird attending a sheltered drip.

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Common Pauraque – Luke Tiller

We ended our day heading to dinner just a stone’s throw from a huge blackbird roost. Here we ran into a group of young Canadian birders who helped us find a White-winged Parakeet among a good number of Green Parakeets and we returned the favor by finding them some Bronzed Cowbirds among the thousands of Great-tailed Grackles. The Grackle roosts are quite spectacular and to me an integral part of the birding experience here. A fun end to the day!

Day 4:

With limitations on access to the dikes as Anzalduas and Bentsen it feels like Hook-billed Kite has become a much tougher find in Southern Texas these last couple of years. With just the one random sounding report in 2017 prior to our visit it wasn’t high on my list of expected species for the trip. It was therefore thrilling to find ourselves watching one fly overhead during our early morning hike out to the Kingfisher Overlook at Bentsen. Unfortunately focusing on getting everyone on it meant I didn’t have time to unpack my camera for a shot – not that I’m complaining as this was a most welcome and unexpected addition!

Next stop was at Anzalduas Park. Though our main target here was Sprague’s Pipit we initially had our focus drawn by a nice mixed flock of passerines that when carefully scrutinized finally yielded both Myrtle and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. We really enjoyed our time working through the flocks just picking off species as we went.

Eventually we settled into a designated hunt for Sprague’s Pipit. Though we were a small group we spread out across the pipit field as best we could in an attempt to flush up our quarry. Eventually we managed to locate a few (steadfastly ignoring Savannah Sparrows as we went) and eventually worked decent flight views of the birds as well as a few glimpses as they landed. The grass length was long enough however that they quickly disappeared upon touching down. That said the distinct “step up”  flight style was interesting to watch and pleased with views we left them to their day.

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Plain Chachalaca – Luke Tiller

Next stop on our day was the awesome National Butterfly Center. Here upon arrival we were informed that someone had just captured a photo of a male Varied Bunting near one of the feeding stations, so imagine my surprise when we pulled up, got out the car and it was literally the first bird I laid my eyes on. Though views were somewhat obscured we finally worked decent views of this incredibly beautiful bird. Crazily we were the last people to see it that day. Though it did appear later in the week it was unreliable at best making our sighting even more fortuitous. As well as the Varied Bunting we enjoyed some photography time at the NBC’s feeders (picking off Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee and accommodating White-tipped Doves) and also enjoyed chatting to the groups of arriving birders.

We ended our day at a parrot roost in McAllen where among a group of about 80 Red-crowned Parrots we also picked out a handful of Lilac-crowned Parrots and a couple of Red-lored Parrots. We were also hoping for roosting Turkey Vultures, and maybe a similar flying buteo, but only one large kettle of vultures materialized and seemed to rapidly disappear to roost somewhere else.

Day 5:

Our day started easily enough as we picked up a pair of Aplomado Falcons over at Old Port Isabel Rd, which was as dry as I have ever seen it. We drove out much further than I would have usually exploring a little but only came up with a handful of the regular species expected here and missed a few others. A flyby Peregrine was nice as was a Long-billed Curlew and a White-tailed Hawk hunkered down on a nest, a well spotted bonus.

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White-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

Santa Ana was our next stop and it was as I often find it, somewhat birdless. Not that there weren’t nice birds to have here including nice views of a Sora sat in the open, but we had to work hard for our birds. It was quite an effort to finally track down a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, but once found it at least had the graciousness to show nicely for us. Weirdly one of the birds still missing from our trip was Green Kingfisher and I was shocked to only find one species of kingfisher in the whole park: Belted Kingfisher!

On the way to Santa Ana we had witnessed a sugar cane burn in progress, and upon leaving we found another burn that had been harvested already. Here we found huge numbers of circling Turkey Vultures and White-tailed Hawks but the heat haze made picking out species in the fields tough.

Our next stop was a return to hunt for the Rose-throated Becard. It had been on our itinerary for the day already but a lunchtime report meant that we wolfed down our lunch at Nana’s with a little more gusto than usual! We arrived at the park and within a few minutes I had located the beautiful young male perched in one of his favored trees. Incredible the difference a couple of days and about 20mph of wind makes when looking for passerines. We even managed to share it with a few other birders there on site and got a few decent photos too. Another mission accomplished. Seeing as we were there we decided we might as well use the opportunity to explore Estero a little more and we were blessed with some more great birds here including: Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and White-faced Ibis.

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Clay-colored Thrush – Luke Tiller

We ended our day at Frontera looking for Turkey Vultures and Zone-tailed Hawks coming in to roost but had to suffice with our first Black-bellied Whistling Duck (multiple flybys heading to roost) and Clay-colored Thrush.

Day 6:

With Green Kingfisher still not under our belt, we started our morning at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands where we soon picked up their resident pair in a nearby canal. We also added to our trip list a few nice and less expected species including Common Ground-Dove and a “rare at this time” first winter Orchard Oriole (another one for the rare bird alert). We also enjoyed good views of both thrasher species and a spanking male Lesser Goldfinch of the Black-backed variety.

Next we headed back to the spot where we had seen the raptors at the sugar cane burn the previous day, however, though viewing conditions were better we still didn’t manage to add anything new to our trip list there. An exploratory drive through some potentially interesting habitat did though earn us our first White-tailed Kites of the tour of which at least one proved somewhat photogenic.

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Inca Dove – Luke Tiller

Our next official stop was Frontera, where of course we ran into another Green Kingfisher. We also enjoyed good looks at a couple of previously encountered species like Clay-colored Thrush and Inca Dove and added at least one new one in the form of a big Amazilia hummingbird: Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

McAllen Nature Center finally afforded us the sight (but more importantly the sound) of Tropical Kingbird. Here we also picked up another White-tailed Kite and two pretty smart looking Red-tailed Hawks including a nice rufous morph bird and one very pale individual. Our next brief stop was spent looking for kingfishers on a nearby canal but we were only rewarded with the odd sight of a young Cooper’s Hawk trying to attack ducks on the water – a seemingly fruitless task.

We ended our day back at the same parrot roost as the other night. Here we picked up a few nice species while we waited including a large group of kettling Anhingas, a couple of Lesser Goldfinch and another Yellow-throated Warbler. As the first parrots started coming in towards the roost (including at least one Yellow-headed Parrot) they were spooked by the attack run of a Peregrine Falcon that was roosting on a nearby radio tower. It took the parrots a while to recover from that shock and so it wasn’t until just after 6:00pm that they returned. We had already pretty much given up on the chance of seeing a Zone-tailed Hawk by that time, as it was almost dusk, when dramatically one suddenly appeared as the sun just began to set – amazing! We then enjoyed sharing the parrots with a group of Elderhostel birders that had appeared for the parrot show just in time to get all four species. A great end to our last full day.

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Green Jay – Luke Tiller

Day 7:

Our last day of birding together started on our way north through Edinburg when a group of Northern Bobwhite hustled across the road in front of the car. We were ostensibly exploring an area which has held Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in the past though our chances of finding one were slim. Still nothing ventured… Our next roadside stop produced a bunch of amorous Wild Turkeys, which was a treat and further poking around produced an uncommon Ash-throated Flycatcher and a couple of Lark Sparrows. It seemed however that the drought was having a similar effect here as it was in Zapata with mixed flocks hard to come by.

Winging our way north we stopped in Falfurrias as you do but turned up just a handful of the regular species. Continuing on our route we had a field with about 75 Sandhill Cranes feeding in it as well as the regular raptor show.

From there we made a handful of stops adding to our Jim Wells, Atascosa and Brexar County lists as we went. Lake Findley added a Cattle Egret or ten to our trip list but that was about it. Choke Canyon was however a little more profitable adding Common Gallinule and Forster’s Tern to our growing trip list> Highlight here was certainly a Great Horned Owl that was perhaps trying to draw our attention from a nearby nest which allowed for a couple of decent looks and a couple of in-flight photos too.

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Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

We finished our trip together at Braunig Lake where we picked up a handful of nice species including a few new ones including Song Sparrow and Greater Scaup. I then packed up my optics and we headed to San Antonio airport for the flight home while my friends headed to Rockport to take the boat ride out in the morning for Whooping Cranes before catching their flights home the following afternoon.

All in all, a wonderful trip in which we picked up pretty much everything you might hope to. We got lucky with a couple of great birds too like the Varied Bunting and Hook-billed Kite. You just never quite know what you might find in Southern Texas in February and that is surely part of the allure. You can see a few more photos from my trip on flickr page (here).