Monday, September 14, 2015

Final Tune-up Texas

September 14, 2015

Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas

I couldn't stand it anymore.  I had friends in Alaska seeing cool birds, one of which, Chris Feeney was inching towards my year total of 516, crossing 500 for the first time CONGRATS Chris!
Chris is 65 lifers ahead of me so since I can't beat that for a long time, I can at least beat him this year...LOL...He was getting uncomfortable close to me for the year.  I'm not competitive..but...hell I'm too competitive!

I was getting the birding itch.  I had spent all of last week doing depositions, (one for a south Texas issue, coincidentally), taxes, malpractice renewal, finishing a novel, a garage sale (off all things) which, I might add, my wife traded a piano for a box of cookies (we got rid of the piano!), yes we really did trade a piano for a box of cookies...really...............

it was time to get my go bag and go...go birding

Unfortunately, I was forced to fly United, but well, they didnt do all that bad, well if almost dying isn't bad...?  As I write, when in doubt don't fly United!.  Delta doesn't do south Texas and with only 48 hours, I have to get as far south as I could so Harlingen was the ticket.  I sat by a woman squeezing Rosary Beads on the way down and she looked scared, she squeezed them so hard they left marks in her hand and it was a smooth flight.  I sat next to a prisoner from Jamaica on way north, he wasn't scared at all.  I think he was getting deported.  How he got to Texas was anyone's guess.  He had his personal belongings in an empty Orange bag.  It was rough near Minneapolis, about as rough as I've seen it ever...shit.  Did I write that?  I needed the woman with her beads.  For the second time in my life, I wrote a good bye note to my wife as despite the heaving of the plane, we had internet.  What do you say to a wife of 25 great years?  "I love you and goodbye," was all I came up with.  The plane turned 30 degrees, the guy next to me tighted his seat belt and then the captain came on and said, "as you can see, we didn't die.  That big thunderstorm kind of caught us by surprise."  Really? Glad I don't get air sick.  Whew!  My wife was watching football and ignored my final message.  The other problem of a long life together, she knows I over react.

I landed at 1015 on Saturday, by 11, I had eaten my first Stripes Fajita and in 5 minutes was busy birding and then 5 minutes later I had a year bird, a Green Kingfisher

I worked over to Laguna Atascosa NWR, the loop trail is still closed due to ocelot vehicular carnage, and as such there is doubt now it will ever reopen, the highlight of Texas road birding and it is still closed due to the exploits of a couple of idiots....hence my description of ocelot speed, the speed in which you could hit one and it wouldn't matter, in other words....damn slow!!

I drove slow and didn't see an ocelot but I almost hit a family of pigs, damn feral pigs!  This big sow butt would have left a mark, on my Yaris!

Nothing like the east side of a west bound pig.  I was safely stopped and then I realized that Groove-billed Anis were everywhere, I took a couple of pics.

I was basically looking for a Aplomado falcon and none had been seen by the ranger recently including I headed down to highway 100 and looped back to Harlingen

The road in this area is very heavy with traffic and divided so you can't do a U-turn and really there is no place to stop but I didn't care and when I saw the target bird on a platform near the cell tower.  I got beeped at by a truck as I swerved, I gave him the finger.  Yaris versus Volvo truck.........hum.

I didn't care, I had the falcon, My life bird 710, The photo wasn't so good but heck, a lifer is a lifer.  It is identifiable.  I should have got out my scope but alas, it started to rain.

Hargill Playa was my next destination 20 miles or so west of Raymondsville, and away from the squall, but 50 miles west from the Falcon sighting and so I decided to scout for the target bird, it was too wet to stay here.  So off I went to scout for the Collared Plover.  This bird had been here for over a month, the second year running, if it was the same bird,  Unfortunately, as I would learn, the day before I got here, Hargill was hit with a big soaking rain and the playa flooded.  I arrived at 4 and stayed until 7, but no plover.  Three other guys looked in the period I was there and they didn't see it either.  I did get a Snowy Plover and this will be a good spot for them I think come winter.
I returned the next morning, and then also on the morning of the 14th.............notta, dipped out, crap, no show, oh well it WAS a code 5, I'll save one for next year...........

I cruised around to Estero Llano Grande, since I found myself on Texas Avenue, Hwy 88 to look for anything I needed for the year.  I spotted an overhead Mississippi Kite (needed), and then spotted a Common Parauque (didn't need) looking like a turd in the woods

this one less turd-like than many.  I am happy to report they are back at the old spot on Alligator pond.

soras were everywhere, too, I saw 15.

It was late and so I drove to find my hotel which turned out I ended up at the wrong Super 8, note to self, make sure you are going to the correct hotel.  Twenty miles later, I found it, crawled in and I slept like the dead which it seemed I could have been as this wasn't so nice a hotel.  Another note to the trip reports.  I sneaked out at 6am avoiding the criminal element.  I guess having street walkers nearby is a selling point, if one needs such a thing.

I awoke and after dip out #2 in Hargill, I went to a place called the National Butterfly Center, which was surprisingly a good birdy spot, down by Bentsen State Park.  They had 4 guests, one other birder who liked to sit and watch a water hole, she happily saw a mourning warbler, so I had the place mostly to myself on a Sunday.  Now I say I liked the 120 acre property BUT they had a million dollar visitor center, brand new, and they took in $20 today?  Who pays for these things?  This guy at least knew butterflies unlike most people who work at these spots who don't seem to know anything.  This is unlike some places farther west that could use a lawn mower, and $20 may be the weekly buidget.  Who gave them a million bucks I ask again?

Ir was muddy looking for a stale report of a Tropical Parula.  I saw nothing of note that I could identify, save a Gray Hawk fly over but they did had lots of butterflies flying around.  I may take the family here next time I blow through.  It was buggy and muddy and I'm sure despite the best precautions, I got a chigger bite.  I spray my boots with DEET and then immediately showered off when back at hotel but 8 hours can get you chiggers.

I headed west into the decrepit county of Starr.  Gosh I hate this area.  Starr county is filled with:

a) 200 State troopers on US hwy 83 in some cases 1/4 mile apart
b) absolutely neglected parks and outdoor areas, some of the worst campgrounds anywhere
c) Falcon Dam and Lake which is the worst thing ever devised by the US Army corp of Engineers
d) all of the above

Answer D

Roma WBC of course was closed until October, why it existed in the middle of town puzzled me and I didn't run into a birder anywhere out here, but having not been in it I shouldn't comment.  I barely saw a human anywhere out of a shop or a store.  I was looking for red-billed pigeons.  This is about the first location one can find one.  They are easier found in spring.

I finally figured the birding area was just the overlook?  It is an odd birding location.  State trooper to my right, two vans of border guards to my right and one to my far left.  Two trooper-mobiles behind me, all the while a joyous Sunday crowd of Mexicans 200 feet away playing music, being macho, some guy with a cooler selling Cervesa.   One guy in a Jeep drove across the river to a sandy island probably on our side

I may have actually seen the pigeon but wasn't sure.  It didn't seem like anything else but I didn't count it. I was getting sick of the patrol and left.  We have an odd border situation and it is perpetuated by those who don't come down here and see what is real and what is hype.

I was composing a novel in my mind about the Goddess Kali and Kali worshipers gone bad, something I started in Newfoundland but luckily was interrupted by Alvin Buckley going birding with me.  Tough to keep one's mind from wondering, so I did the next best thing, I start composing novels.  I started writing many of the murder scenes on the plane home.  I will take my time with this one.  I want the gore and the sex just right.  I tried to find a friend but all that was around was cops, maybe I shouldn't have rolled my window down?

I got cocky with all the cops running round and when one pulled over to harass...I mean ask me if I needed help on old 83 north of Roma, I told him the truth.

"Yes officer, I'm lost.  I'm looking for a bird, it is a dark pigeon with a reddish bill,"  I kept a straight face and feigned a helpless look.  The officer told me a good birding road was just behind me.  I asked for directions to Saleneno, they had no clue, yet I was 4 miles away.  Idiots!

One of the places Chapeno (sp?) is now for sale, the RV campground in the veritable end of the earth would be a great place to buy, maybe for nude birding...well a good spot is in Starr County.

I was actually scared to go in, it advertised birders but ....don't ask.

I drove around the Falcon Cty Park, which a guy cant even describe.  In the middle of the park was a bookshelf with videos on it, a sign, free for the taking.  You could hardly drive a car in here, the roads were that bad.  90% of the picnic tables were so overgrown you couldn't sit at them and this park is huge...??  I actually met a caretaker taking the garbage, you'd have to be insane to overnight here.  It doesn't even seen usable to me, but alas I did flush a Barn Owl and as such maybe it has uses.

I drove back to my next Super * (I omitted the 8 on purpose) this one in Mcallen and Again, I got lost and turned around and ended up at the wrong hotel.  15 miles later I found the hotel in the middle of nowhere so far south of town nothing is there...except a convention center and no food.  Whose bright idea was this?  This hotel, though was a nice one but I assume it will close as nobody can be staying here.  They had 8 guests when I was there.  Super 8 = 8 rooms filled?  I watched an improbable Cowboy NFL win so improbable, I was again thinking the fix was in, but IDK, they say it ain't so.

I got up early and dipped out at Hargill again, then I decided to work on my year total, I was up to 528 with only one getable bird in the valley for the year and that was the Ringed Kingfisher.  I had only ever seen this species nude before at Donna Sewage ponds in 2013.

I drove into Edinburg Wetlands.  It seems everything here is a “World Birding Center” except that they aren’t.  They all have huge buildings that cannot pay for themselves and except for the National Wildlife Refuges, nobody much seems to know much of anything birdwise.  I was the first person to arrive at 0930, and there were three people working.  I could have hiked the whole place naked and nobody would have been the wiser.  I asked about any sightings of Ringed Kingfishers and got a puzzled look which is odd since that is probably the marquis species for here.

Another lady overheard me say kingfishers and then showed me one that had hit the front window, a smaller green kingfisher…so another reason to not like these WBCs, they hurt birds.
Maybe it is all about the gift shop....too many retired armchair birders....?

It took me ten minutes to find the largest kingfisher and tally it for the year.  They had no overlooks cleaned out for the long pond to the west so I couldn’t photograph it and was lucky to even see it. I hiked around and then found something odd.  I always see odd things but what the heck is this pair of statues about?

The girl seems to be screaming to get the male and female crossbills off her arm while the boy looks to be making a pipe bomb to blow her and possibly this WBC up....?  Again I ask WTF.  Maybe the artist don't like world birding centers either...?

I took a picture of a photogenic buff-bellied Hummingbird and decided to bug out

I had seen a report of a Tropical Parula back at Laguna, that looked legit and I had blown through everything I needed to find for the year and had 6 hours until departure, besides, I was flying out of Harlingen and to get to Laguna one drives right past the airport.

I arrived to Laguna at 11.  I asked around and the ranger who really wasn’t a birder reported it was spotted right out front the door to the visitor center.  The young ranger said he tried to shoot video but couldn't. No one had seen it today as I was the only and probably remained the only visitor for the day to the refuge.  There were just so few birders around no wonder no rare birds are reported in the valley.  Again, they looked shocked at my having a new duck stamp (the crew on Saturday looked perplexed by a new duck stamp) and one guy even told me waterfowl season was closed until someone else told me I get in free with the stamp and since I had a camera and not a gun I looked okay.  This comment did help me understand why i chase birds.  I grew up a hunter and was trained to hunt and trap but when I was young, I switched to catch and release fishing.  Killing animals sort of got to me.  I have shot 23 white-tailed deer and I began to realize that these animals are pretty until you pull the trigger, I even shouted bang at one I began "catch and release hunting"  and I think my refocus on birding is just an offshoot of this.  Birding is perfect catch and release hunting.  I stalk, I sneak, and I plan, and then I snap a picture, sometimes taking a picture ruins the moment so I don't even do that.

Here I stalked for a very tiny blue, yellow and greenish gold quarry.  This bird is something so small even a sharp-shinned hawk would only consider it a small snack.  I worked the area for two hours sneaking around looking, and listening.  Finally, I needed to become the bird.  I was in full stalking mode.  Where would I go if I could fly and ate insects?

I decided that if I was a parula, I'd go to the ravine, maybe 100 yards from where it was first spotted.  It had lots of cover and lots of bugs.  I realized this as the bugs found me.  Warblers like forest edges and water.  It is very thick there and this is the location of an alligator that didn't look real in 2013.  I almost stepped on that gator thinking it was a garden statue.  Finding this little bird in this large region is like finding a pin in a supermarket but I had nothing else to do.  Finally, I spotted a small warbler, yellow underneath and dark on top...could it be..?.....NO drat just a Canada Warbler, one of my favorites, though.

I sighed and then I saw a flash to my right.  There it was, the tropical parula!  Right off the bridge, cool. Lifer, lucky me.  I mean I was really lucky.  It was three feet away from me.  Too close to photo and it was bouncing in the leaves.  Finally I took a picture.  The photo sucks but it is IDed by the photo.

I was hot and elated and so I went and had a celebratory coke and ice cream sandwich at the visitor center with the "master" naturalist, who talked about Ft Davis and Montezuma quail for some reason, but it was a social interaction.

It was time to go home.  I watched a last bird for a moment, a roadrunner....

It had been a quick 48 hours.  I saw a couple of new spots, and got a good snowy plover spot I had never heard of, and my only stop by police, I initiated.  My totals, I saw 114 species of birds, my year total now at 530, which wasn't so bad and I noticed on the ABA site, someone I had never heard of had finally passed me for the year, he was at 547.  I will finish very close to 530 unless I got to California.  I havent birded in that state but I dont plan on going.  This loss of the lead didn't surprise me.  530 wouldn't win a year, but I had seen a lot of birds.  I ate 8 Stripes fajitas, and had two lifers in 48 hours, and I got a little rust off my bins from two months of inactivity.....and as it is said....the indigestion...PRICELESS.

3 1/2 months to go..........


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Big Year Preparations are underway!

It is September!

4 months to go and I can't put my head under the water, I need to get ready for my BIG YEAR!
so I decided to review my whole preparation for this big year

I am getting this blog template figured out and now know how to get pictures up on it, and becoming more savvy but that is only a start to the process

I am well on my way in other items in getting prepared for my Big Year and below is the list of items I have to get done ahead of time for me to succeed.  I write this here and now for all of you to understand the commitment and effort planning an adventure like this entails.

This is what i think is needed besides too much spare cash for the actual budget, as really there can't be a budget for this adventure, it costs what it costs, you do what has to be done, but the first thing is once admitting that is you still need to......

1.  Get a plan

I have developed a plan and along the way have pre scouted most places that seemed difficult so that I got a few bugs worked out and I know where to go
Since January, I have been to, Newfoundland, Hatteras,NC, Florida, Nome, Alaska, Colorado, Texas, Montana/AB/BC and Arizona, seeing 516 species without putting much effort into that.  I have my massive opening salvo, a South Texas sprint done as a dress rehersal with my daughter in January so I can recreate it

My plan is NOT foolproof as i don't know how to account for el Nino, nobody does and I have started making reservations for things already

You cant say that I will expect to get a Northern hawk owl in Eau Claire WI in January

But I bet I will get a black-whiskered vireo within 20 feet of where i got this bird in Long Key State Park in April, but one can only plan so much, although going to Nome was really helpful, as was Newfoundland

2.  Get the most up to date checklist from ABA

This seems simple but the ABA lists change, both with new appearances of vagrants never before seen and how they handle exotics

will they add the Mitred Parakeet?
Not that this is a big deal as finding one in Miami is like finding humidity but as of this second, it doesn't count.  Last year they added the near-extirpated birds back in.  These birds include the California Condor, the Wisconsin resident Whooping cranes,

 and the Aplomato Falcon, which has always been an issue for Big Year counting, but it now counts for sure, I have to go and get the condor, the falcon counts, and I know that I can always get the crane in Wisconsin if needed, luckily that was the 2014 change so I can plan on these treks.

Maybe they will add another exotic and what if I don't know where to find it?  Finding a Hill Myna isn't always so easy.

3.  I need to get angry but not too angry.

In general my feeling in life is a bit like Rodney respect.  I have been marginalized and scoffed at from my Falun Sucker Club days (is that a long story), school sports, academics, medical school residency, to business, to college, to even finding someone to marry me.  But somehow I  Tell me I can't do something or that I have no place to do something and it makes me mad, then I just put my ears back and can literally go 24/7 towards a goal, almost any goal.  I can be very competitive.

But.......I don't always like it when I get this driven and part of me hopes this doesn't happen with this, I have learned success is all right and well and good but life is about the journey and not the end.  I have many examples like this, I built a large company on spite alone, but I remember my summer between college and high school.  Back then I was golfing sometimes 4-5 rounds (first light until after dusk) a day to get my handicap down to make the college golf team, yes I won a trophy at a tourney at the end of that summer after all of that golf. I actually made the team as a Freshman but when I got there I didn't like the team and I got sick of golf, so I ended up hanging up my golf cleats after my first college tourney and totally stayed away from the sport for 6 years, and then afterwards golf has only been something of an occasional occurrence.  I did 9 holes for my first swings in 3 years last week.  It is probably not a good to do this for birding and right now I have nothing against anyone who I need to leap-frog to get the record, I'm not sure I want to do that.  I have to decide if getting 720 species will make me feel complete, or if I have to find someone to motivate me is too short to let others get you, so I need to work on keeping this in check

4.  Ask wife if really okay to do this and convince my 15yo daughter to do a "Junior Big Year"

There is never a good time to do this but I will be 50 next year and well, I'm not getting any younger.

Wife approves! Now Lauren has also fully committed, finally so at  least if she is hanging out with me, I wont loose a year of her life.  Kids are only around for so long.  Unfortunately my wife, Silja can't handle boats with severe motion sickness so she cant come along on many of the trips and she has to supervise my teenager so if said teenager comes with I wont get too lonely.  I think the loneliness of the road is my biggest obstacle to completing this adventure.  Kids grow up way to quickly and this adventure will make great college admission essay material.

Her big year will cost me money but well the memories...priceless?

5.  Make travel as easy and painless as possible, and as cheap as possible.

Gold Elite
I need one more flight to get Delta Gold Medallion status to avoid regular check-in, and security lines and the status also allows me upgrades to better seating.  I get a free checked bag.  Living where I live, Delta is the best for flight options, it also works for WestJet and Alaska, but you have to be at least Gold status.
I also have Platinum AMEX card for free lounge access and occasionally I still will have to fly United to Midland, McAllen TX or Denver, so I have a United Visa for free luggage there, and maybe I'll even have enough miles for a free flight

FFlier Miles
I have nearly 800K miles for Delta now, allowing me to book expensive Alaska Airline flights using miles and allowing me last minute flights on the cheap for the year.  I can probably milk this for at least 20 flights, I hope

Hertz Gold
The line in San Antonio and Phoenix to get a rental car has taken me up to 2 hours, with Hertz gold, I think I can save 12 hours in line during a calendar year

6.  Proper decked out birding-mobile

Now of course as you can see my car needs a bath, but this Volvo XC60 is the best birding car.  My biggest mileage year for a car was some time back when I rolled 76,000 miles on a new car, eclipsing the warranty in only 4 mos!  This car is easy to drive, good clearance for bad roads, AWD, and has comfy seats, it is usually quiet although if it gets hot, its one drawback is it has a really noisy cooling fan you cant turn off.  This current car (2013) just turned 50K and I will undoubtedly not need 76K miles to complete the big year but to live out of it for at least some time, one needs about 4,000 worth of stuff.
-  small tent, camping stove, sleeping bag, pillow 
- Yukon Cooler, these things can keep a sandwich cold for a week
- plug in air compressor for flat tires
- XM-Sirius radio, so if no local stations, no problem
- The tires for this car are hard to find so I bought a new set and plan on keeping a tire in the car in case I get the same problem I had in Alberta, any yahoo can mount it, but I cant be sitting around waiting for a tire

- New Bicycle and bike rack for the back of my car, and to put this on my volvo I need a new receiver hitch.  My last Bicycle was a 1991 Trek, this shift 3, Trek is more upright and better to bird off of and it will me allow to bird the road at Laguna Atascosa in Texas, which is currently closed to autos, damn ocelots or damn drivers hitting ocelots. 

my daughter's Volvo also needs a bath, but that is another issue.
-state road atlases for Texas, AZ, Oklahoma, California, Florida, and Colorado for sure are all on my Christmas list, I have Montana, Alberta, South Dakota, and Saskatchewan

7.  Birding equipment

here is my list....
-quality spotting scope, digiscoping equipment, bins, tri-pod, camera, telephoto lens, ibird and Sibley's iphone app, an iphone checklist program, field guides, hiking backpack, water bottles...I all have and I really like my new Tamron 150-600 lens, cheap, lightweight and if destroyed...insured and not that much of a loss.  I need a new skylight for it as screwed that up in Canada, I may also need a newer Iphone since my i5 was replaced in 2013 when previous version was run over in western Texas by a Halliburton truck.  

I also need a new head for my tri-pod, I will look at that tomorrow in Minneapolis after getting my hitch.

8.  Get in shape

I'm in pretty good birding shape as having birded quite a bit this year all over, but I need to get my Fat bum back into shape.  Hiking and Biking whatever so when I go to Texas in December I don't die. The real reason I'm doing this big year is that it may prolong my life a year by being more least one can hope.  This is a work in progress 

9.  Attire


An army can only go as far as their feet and stomach's carry them at least according to General Patton. Footwear is the key.

 My snake boots are legendary, they work well in Alaska (waterproof), protect legs from biting bugs, of course mandatory in snake country, and well even up here in the cold (warm).  I can hike all day in them any temp and well they are me. Sometimes, literally, like this Attu photo, they are all I wear

Now I am also breaking in a 2nd pair of hiking boots
my daughter needs to get a pair of these this fall and break them in.  One has to remember your feet.  I didn't wear them one day on Attu and I screwed up my big toe which still bothers me.

the same vein is Clothing

Did I say that?  Really?  This is a clothed big year and as such, I need a better rain coat and wash and wear shirts, lots of long wool socks 'skiing' for hiking...wool it breathes.  I think I like my collection so I think I'm ready.

10.  Finally, get the other stuff done this year

I got my 25th Anniversary out of the way this year as well as my parents 40th. in October

Get all the big fish caught and out of your system

I'm trying to get all of my pending fiction done and out to publisher, like I secured the rights to this photo for my Sjofn book will be the last of my unfinished fiction to get done

Book events...?  Not next year, I have two in September.

Get all the travel out of the ABA area done, we are doing St.Martin in October as wont be able to go in 2016, sniff sniff, tear tear

Get my co-ed nude sand volleyball playing out of me as I will be in St Paul Island in Alaska when the tourney goes around in 2016

No art auctions, get the art restoration work done, don't start any new hobbies, no new novels..etc.

Take care of my business and sell unwanted crap, like the extra mower now, take care of painting in 2015, buy the new car for wife in 2015, get the counter tops done now etc, 

Get all my dental and medical work done this year, Colonoscopy..?..2017, tooth implant...October

Well that is the list, it is going to be a long year.....almost as long as the wait for it to start........

one cant plan for everything but I am at least planning for some contingencies, I have Canadian cash in my go bag, passport is cool, I will have evac insurance for Alaska, somebody told me I should even buy a handgun....that may be overkill


Golden dreams and memories

  Today brings me to the north suburbs of Chicago.  Although not for a bird even though a lifer bird had been flying tantalizingly close to ...