Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Digging the Texas Two-step in Refugio

Refugio-Aransas TX

Big Year Day 12

Big Year Total:  306
Coded birds:  15
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal
Miles driven.  4950
Hours at sea: 4
Miles walked 29
states/ prov. birded:6
Flight miles:10100

I am now embarking on a phase of my Opening Gambit, that to be totality honest, I was not looking forward to.  I still had a week to go in what is arguably the most grueling physically demanding three weeks in birding, possibly for me, the toughest period since I was an intern.  Initially I had scheduled myself to drive to Los Angeles and then home.  However, things on the feathered variety were taking location that would intensify even what was already intense.
The flight back to San Antonio and the trip down to Refugio to dig out a bird that appeared to need some serious digging.  The golden-crowned warbler was notoriously skulky and all this in a park that, well, wasn’t Frontera Audubon thick, but thick none-the-less.  What would inspire during the six hours to follow wasn’t so much a stakeout, it was, but an attempt to dig out of the underbrush and little bird that preferred to not ever being seen, and it would try my and anyone who looked for it’s patience.
            This wasn’t my first rodeo in this town I can’t pronounce correctly and in a lion’s park that, to me, seems like an oddly designed place.  It is sort of a locked mobile home park that really isn’t locked.  It is a city park that, well, appears to be a wildlife refuge.  It has a basketball court but elderly retirees who live at the park who don’t appear to like the sport or those that do.  Back in 2014, I got the bright idea I wanted to go see this locally famous flamingo, a wild Yucatan bird that befriended a zoo escapee from Kansas and they had been found in nearby Lavaca Bay.   Alas, I was woefully unprepared and the flamingo flew when I was literally being backed out of the gate on my flight to Austin, well that was when I was notified from a nice guy who sent me the text, oh well, away I had to go to Austin.  I saw a report of an Audubon’s oriole in this park and went to dig it out but alas…no luck.  It wasn’t the only bad luck I’d have on that trip.  I did a lot of driving for 3 lifers, all pedestrian birds by many standards. The best being an out of season grove-billed ani in Santa Ana NWR.  The past, as they say, is past and that was very ancient history, in fact, even a week ago when I left Texas, seems like ancient history.
            I was also plagued by yet another rare gull report, this one in Illinois near St. Louis and a just as rare black-tailed gull, and just like the ivory or the kelp, I had no real way to get it and fit in the schedule but fit this one in I must.  I was reminded of that as the ivory gull had apparently flown the coup last night and was now nowhere in Duluth or Superior to be found.   Hopefully it wasn’t in the DNA of the gyrfalcons that had moved into Duluth for the winter to hunt.
            Jim and I wouldn’t arrive to way late in San Antonio after a two stop-over flight from Victoria and all that after an 0530, owl calling adventure that yielded no owls, and for that matter much of anything, that is until the sun came up.  So what to do, and how to get there.  I had a Volvo in Texas.  I had a pelagic in Dana Point, California and I had two rare gulls flying around the Midwest and in between 10 key birds I needed to get and all before my wife and daughter arrived in Orange County airport on Friday evening.  It would be a long week and my easy day, Monday, I had made intolerably difficult by going owling and pushing ourselves to get every bird out of the Victorian countryside we could.  
            We couldn’t drive any farther and pulled off of the road onto a ranch road near Beeville, TX.  It was difficult to sleep due to the bin of great-horned owls in the tree above us, bird number 294.  It was also difficult to sleep when at first light we were being stared at by the rancher, none too pleased at our location to take a rest no doubt.  We drove on, arriving into Refugio after finding some coffee and the only Stripes apparently that didn’t sell burritos on the east side of Beeville.
            I got a rather odd ebird notification that a flamer-colored tanager had been seen at the very same place we were going…coincidence or providence?  It was just getting sunny as I tried to put all the pieces of my birding equipment together in the parking lot after realizing that the bathroom I tried to get into in 2014, was still locked.  Jim and I trudged into the forest and I began to slowly wake up, trying to look in vain for a little ground loving warbler.  It was a lost cause, I could feel that.  I saw a little bird in the brush, it was bird #295, a winter wren, then another #296, a Carolina wren, so it wasn’t so bad.
            I maximized the slog and stand, as I could describe this.  Bird #297 was a Carolina chickadee, and #298, a Couch’s Kingbird, a bird I should have seen near McAllen but didn’t.  

Jim then called me, had he found the warbler?
            No, he had a greater peewee in a tree.  Calling a bird a greater peewee is like calling the Cookie Monster the toughest Muppet.  It was bird #299, though and it was not supposed to be anywhere near here.  Why Refugio?  I kept asking myself.

            I had always thought bird #300, and that is 300 in 12 days would be an important milestone like bird #300, the hoary redpoll was in my nude Big Year but alas now 300 wasn’t halfway to anything, and just as unexciting was bird #300, a drab American goldfinch, so drab and unexciting, I didn’t even photograph it.  I then successfully found both a Wilson’s warbler, which had been associated with the Golden-crowned but possibly it was a different Wilson’s, and a did a mini-chase of a hundred yards and got a Louisiana waterthrush bird #302.

            By 1:30, Jim was birding the picnic table and my legs were sore so we headed out to rethink it all.  I switched hats, we ate McDonald’s the birders culinary delight and I decided to make a run for the Whooper, the Whooping Crane, maybe 40 miles away.  Jim was too bored to say anything but okay.
            I drove hard the 20 miles to Highway 35.  Last time I was here, I learned something, I learned is was quicker avoiding Aransas NWR and going to Gray Island State Park, IF and a big IF the whoopers were there.  I took a big breath and headed south at 80 mph.  If I failed, the day was shot and I’d have to go to Aransas anyway and possibly dip out.  It is amazing how doing the oddest thing like having a fish sandwich can make things sometimes change drastically.  I ate the sandwich and It make things unsteady inside so quicker, might, and I repeat might be better.  There is no gas station and more importantly not even cover on this route.  As such, I drove hard.  I saw a sign for a picnic area and then forgot, it didn’t have a bathroom when Jim calmly said, “Aplomado.”  He didn’t say stop, ro shout and we were 150 miles from prime Aplomado country.  I casually pulled into the picnic area hoping I had missed the outhouse.
            “I think I saw an Aplomado.”  Jim said.
            “Flying?”  I asked not believing him and them Jim pointed.
            “No in that powerline.”

            Wow, were we lucky.  I great look at a rare bird as it was being buzzed by an angry kestrel.  I shot my card full of pictures.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and then as I was switching cards, it vanished like it wasn’t even there.
            If I hadn’t invited Jim along, I would have never gotten this bird and if I had ordered what I order 95% of the time at Mickey D’s, two cheeseburgers, I would have not even been here.  The funny thing was that my sudden urge, with the arrival of the code 3 bird, had like the bird now, vanished. 
            I pushed us through the Gray Island area and we quickly saw the whooping cranes off in the usual spot.  There were six of the rarest breeding birds in the country. 

Somewhere near 400 walked the earth and here were about 1.5% of the population feeding but unlike many birders who would watch the majestic creatures, we took off because I had this bright idea we should go back to Refugio, why?  I got a feeling.
            Bird #305 was an eastern meadowlark, drive-by and in the fastest 35 miles in birding.  I barely slowed down for the stoplight in town as it seemed I had to be there.  We were parking at Refugio, like we had never left.  It was just like we had never left because we hadn’t even got to the pavilion, and a birder we had met, Petra Hockey and a member of the Texas Rare bird Committee comes running at us.  It was a run that could only mean one thing a RARE BIRD!
            I will forever be grateful for Petra, who came back for us, even though, in reality, we weren’t there, or shouldn’t have been.  Her and two Oregon birders had assumed we hadn’t left because, well at a crucial stakeout like this one, only a fool would have.  We followed her back to the overlook of the river and they had found the tanager, a probably 1st spring male.   I photographed and studied it.  Wow! 

            This bird is notorious for hybridizing especially with western tanagers but this one looked good, the bill, the back, the tail, the face.  It was bird #306, and I’m sure the records committee will review this bird so let us say #306 with an asterisk but it helps to have seen it with a voting member. We'll see what is decided, if they say no I'll pull it off the list.
            This is how a food run and a choice to buy something with a little MSG in it added two coded birds, it was an odd Texas two-step, but at least, it wasn’t the runs, which a lot of MSG can do and here without cover, there is nowhere to run to.  Whew!  It was lucky, lucky me, the world’s luckiest birder at work again, and for Jim, his fifth lifer in a week and he didn’t even get the accentor.
            We got to Austin and deciding to go for broke and maybe it would cause me to go broke, we took the Opening Gambit a step further and booked passage for the St. Louis and the gull.  If I owned a pirate ship, I would either name it the Black Tern or the Black tailed gull.  Why a Japanese gull was in central Illinois was beyond me, maybe it came to pillage and rape, but I would have to find it first.  Day 12 over, 306 birds in the bag.  Again, thanks Petra for finding us.

Meanwhile, Jim and I were still doing the Texas two-step.  Two happy male birders can dance together, can’t we?  Two days ago, I was hugging a tree.  I’m open minded, are you?

Olaf at large over Missouri

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This is not a bird trip organized for sissies.  Seeing the King aside, this almost seems like work.  The typical day is up at 0530, load up ...