0 out of 5, February 18th-19th.

I set myself an ambitious target of 5 lifers from this weekend, but despite plenty of effort managed to see none of them at all. However, in between the numerous moments of frustration there was still lots to enjoy, notably the first field outing for my new camera. Last week, I finally took the plunge and invested a small amount of money in a used Canon SX50HS “superzoom”, which has been receiving glowing reports from birders since it came onto the market in 2012. My first weekend with it was somewhat experimental, but resulted in a few pleasing photos – and of course a lot of out-of-focus dross!

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Balcones Canyonlands, February 18th 2017.

Saturday was one of those picture-perfect days that seem to be happening a lot during this non-winter we’ve been experiencing in Texas: crystal clear air, mostly blue skies with a little high cloud, and a cool start to the day but warming up to an afternoon high of 84F (29C).

By first light I was already at the edge of the Balcones Canyonlands reserve in the “hill country” outside Austin, with my target lifers in this area being Black-throated Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee – all of which are no doubt fairly common further west, but are at the far eastern edge of their range here. It seemed from my reading that these kinds of species prefer arid, rocky slopes and canyons, and my main problem – as often seems to be the case in Texas – was actually getting to this habitat in an area where so little of the land is accessible to the public.

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Field Sparrow, Balcones Canyonlands, February 18th 2017.

Nonetheless, I had a most enjoyable start at the Doeskin Ranch, one spot to which the public have been granted access. I didn’t see any obvious habitat for my target birds, but a couple of hours here did produce 10 sparrow species within just a 300-yard radius of the parking lot (Grasshopper, Le Conte’s, Lark, Fox, Song, Lincoln’s, White-throated, Vesper, Field, and Savannah). I even managed record shots of both of the Ammodramus sparrow species on this list – surely it is a good omen to get these tricky skulkers on my “photographed” list on my very first morning with my new camera!

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Grasshopper Sparrow, Balcones Canyonlands, February 18th 2017. My photo of its relative Le Conte’s Sparrow was even less impressive, but nonetheless getting two Ammodramus species on camera in one day is not to be sniffed at!

If getting the sparrows on camera is a good omen, the karma must be coming at a later date because my luck deserted me for the remainder of the weekend. Several more hours in different areas of the canyonlands turned up just two Dark-eyed Juncos, a flock of eight Lark Sparrows, and a pair of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays of note – and they wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of getting in front of my camera lens.

With the temperature rising but the winds still nice and light, I drove an hour east to try yet again for the elusive flock of McCown’s Longspurs near Granger Lake. Finding these birds is becoming something of an obsession. A flock of over 100 McCown’s Longspurs – plus another 100 unidentified longspurs, probably all McCown’s but conceivably also including Lapland and Chestnut-collared – had been seen the previous day along road 378, and with such good viewing conditions today I really did fancy my chances.

A distant flock of small birds disappointingly turned out to be American Pipits on closer inspection, but otherwise there was little of interest to be seen, with a faraway and very un-birdlike Coyote loping across a bare earth field being the highlight. Another birder gently informed me that I was probably a bit too hung up on these McCown’s Longspurs, and that I should consider quitting – but I reckon I have one more Granger Lake session in me before the winter is over. Satisfaction is doubled when one finally finds a bird one has looked for so hard.

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Hermit Thrush, Southside/Lions Park, San Antonio, February 19th 2017 – getting this one on camera was the high point of rather a birdless visit.

Dip number 5 was perhaps even harder to take than my ongoing failure with the longspurs. I spent (wasted?) most of a perfectly decent Sunday hanging around in the woods beside a small creek in a San Antonio park, the favored location of the male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been showing to all-comers literally every single day since the last time I dipped it here two weeks ago. But it seems it chose Saturday night to disappear, with no sightings since then. Whether it departed of its own volition or was murdered, we will never know …. although my suspicions were raised when this guy turned up at the exact spot favored by the warbler:

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Cooper’s Hawk, Southside/Lions Park, San Antonio, February 19th – a prime suspect in the unsolved case of the missing Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Around lunchtime I took a half-time break from Lions Park and headed to nearby Mitchell Lake for some light relief, which came in the form of lots of photographic opportunities for common birds around the visitor center:

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White-crowned Sparrow, Mitchell Lake, San Antonio, February 19th 2017.
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Loggerhead Shrike, Mitchell Lake, San Antonio, February 19th 2017.
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Northern Cardinal, Mitchell Lake, San Antonio, February 19th 2017.

It’s hard to know what to make of last weekend. I got some satisfying photos but all I know at this point is that I’m getting fed up with long drives “out west” and coming back with little in the way of new birds to show for it. So where to go on Saturday? The previous weekend yielded Palm Warbler and Clapper Rail in Galveston, so maybe I’ll stay relatively local. On the other hand, there is also a Henslow’s Sparrow to go for at Big Thicket National Park, towards the Louisiana border. I guess I will decide how I feel on Friday!

2017 World Year List: 291

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Mountain Plover and Burrowing Owl, February 4th-5th

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Burrowing Owl, near Granger Lake, Austin, Texas, February 4th – about 4 feet from the car!

After failing to see any of my main targets at Granger Lake a couple of weeks ago, I suppose it was inevitable that I would return and try again. Saturday was pretty much a carbon copy of my previous attempt, involving a very early start from Houston for the 2.5-hour drive to Williamson County. I felt a certain sense of deja vu during the first few hours of daylight as I drove around staring at endless empty fields. At about 11.00am a carload of birders stopped to tell me they had also seen no Mountain Plovers, nor McCown’s Longspurs. A passing redneck tried to sell me a child-size broken telescope for $10. To cap it all off, it was cold – not England-in-winter cold, but definitely on the chilly side for Texas with daytime temperatures hovering around 10C (50F).

There is only so much staring at dirt a man can take, so in what felt like a pathetic holding pattern, I returned again to the San Gabriel Unit to look for some sparrows. The overgrown field near the parking lot still held several Field Sparrows, and this time not one but three Grasshopper Sparrows popped out of the grass in response to my “pishing” them.

Back to the dirt fields yet again, and finally just before 1.00pm I picked up a small group of Mountain Plovers in flight, which alighted on the ground miles away. Views were far from great, but relief turned to delight just a couple of minutes later when I found another much closer group on the opposite side of the road, for a combined total of 25 birds in both flocks. Shorebirds are one of my favorite families, and having seen most of the Old and New World migratory species, I don’t get to add one to my list very often. Mountain Plover is a really good “world bird”, declining in numbers with a breeding and wintering range confined to central North America. As a nice bonus, the closer flock also sheltered a group of 15 Horned Larks, always a great bird to see.

The birders I had met earlier had given me a location to try for Burrowing Owl. These small, nocturnal owls perch prominently by day at the entrance to burrows and natural holes, and also their man-made equivalents – roadside storm drains, bridges and culverts. However, they are very scarce, with just a few individuals typically scattered over an enormous area. I went to where I had been told, and slowly cruised up and down the road for several miles, checking all likely spots, seeing nothing. I returned later in the day, and was about to give up when I suddenly spotted a Burrowing Owl right beside the road. And by right beside the road, I mean just four feet from the car, standing at the edge of a culvert. He lazily squinted at me as I took a photo.

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Long-tailed Duck, Braunig Lake near San Antonio, February 5th.

I stayed in New Braunfels on Saturday night, and on Sunday decided to check out somewhere a bit more local. Birding in Texas often seems to involve covering huge distances, and I don’t seem to have the stamina for endless driving any more. Teaming up with Martin and Sheridan, and later with Willie Sekula, we made our way to Braunig Lake on the outskirts of San Antonio, where a Long-tailed Duck has been in winter residence for some time. We found the bird without too much trouble, as well as a drake Greater Scaup, a scarce bird inland in Texas (and none too common on the coast either, being heavily outnumbered by Lesser). A moment of pure luck with my point-and-shoot camera caught the Greater Scaup with its wings open, nicely showing the diagnostic white wing stripe extending almost all the way to the end of the wing.

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Greater Scaup, Braunig Lake, February 5th. Note the white on the wing extending almost to the tip.

Our luck seemed to run out at this point, for we then spent several fruitless hours looking for a male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been videoed in a private garden early in the week. However, a Grey Catbird (rare in this area in winter), and some good-looking “common” birds including Pine Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo enlivened proceedings while we waited near the overgrown garden in which the warbler had been seen.

After lunch, we embarked on a final mission to an area of dry open country and sod fields to the south-west of San Antonio, and despite dipping on our target bird (Ferruginous Hawk), still enjoyed some real stunners including a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, Green JayHarris’s Hawk …. and a flock of 30 Mountain Plovers on a sod field. It never rains but it pours. I’ll have to return to Granger Lake one final time in March, and hopefully nail my final target McCown’s Longspur in its full breeding finery.

Lifers: Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl (total 2,144)

2017 World Year List: 269

Tropical Parula and Broad-billed Hummingbird, South Texas, January 28th.

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Green Heron, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, January 28th 2017.

Today, I joined forces with Martin Reid and Sheridan Coffey, two birders I originally met last February at “birder ground zero” in Thailand – the Ban Maka resort just outside Kaeng Krachan national park. At the time, we made vague arrangements to keep in touch, little realizing that within a year I would find myself moving to their home state. As much as I enjoy solo birding, today proved that having company can make for an even better day. Martin and Sheridan are familiar faces on the Texas birding scene, and genuinely lovely people to spend time with.

I met them at some unearthly hour at their home in San Antonio, and we immediately hit the road to Refugio, with just the briefest of stops for breakfast tacos and strong coffee en route. The main target was the Golden-crowned Warbler, a bright yellow denizen of the Neotropics which had returned to the Lions/Shelley Park in Refugio for its second successive winter. Having already tried for this bird last year and dipped, I was keen to get it on my list, despite the fact that it’s not an out-and-out lifer (I’ve seen plenty of them in Central America).

Lions/Shelley Park always has some interesting lurkers in winter, and personally I was doubly keen to see the Tropical Parula and Louisiana Waterthrush that were also present in the park, both of them being potential lifers. We arrived at 9.00am to overcast but calm conditions, and quickly ascertained from other birders that none of the “special birds” had been seen so far this morning. Still, birding was productive with lots of interesting things around, including a wonderful day-roosting Barred Owl, a Green Kingfisher (an excellent addition to my “seen-while-peeing” list), several Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds, a Black-and-White Warbler, and frequent views of Green Jay and White-eyed Vireo.

About three hours into our visit, someone spotted the Tropical Parula near the car park, and about 30 birders quickly assembled to enjoy great views of this brightly-colored wood warbler. It turned out to be a male, a really lovely bird, and while not infrequent in Texas (and widespread throughout the Neotropics), could hardly fail to elicit genuine appreciation from its crowd of observers.

With the Golden-crowned Warbler still flying under the radar (it was eventually relocated by Willie Sekula much later in the afternoon), we decided to hit up another of the day’s targets. Not too far away, in Fulton, a male Broad-billed Hummingbird had been visiting a garden bird feeder for several weeks. We got into position in the car, peering into someone’s private garden, and waited. On the plus side, no angry householder emerged – but unfortunately neither did the hummingbird. After half an hour, we were just debating whether to grab some lunch and try again later, when our target appeared for all of 8 seconds at its chosen feeder – so briefly that another nearby birder missed it completely. Tickable views, but not the kind of prolonged observation I would have preferred for a lifer. Still, it was safely on the list and with time at a premium we decided to head to the coast.

Birding with people who know the turf has definite advantages, and stopping here and there at likely spots produced lots of typical Texan coastal species, among them Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Long-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Curlew, White-tailed Hawk, Common Loon, and Black Skimmer.

Our final such stop was exceptional for some quality observations of normally secretive species. At the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, a short boardwalk cuts through the marshes to a tower offering panoramic views of a lake. This area is heavily trafficked by birders, photographers, and general day-trippers – with the result that the resident birds lose their fear of humans and can be stunningly tame. First of all, we stumbled upon a Green Heron, which was standing just below the boardwalk less than six feet away from us. It was even within range of my iPhone’s camera, a good thing because the battery in my regular camera was dead. Then an American Bittern stepped out of the reeds and proceeded to spend 20 minutes in the open in perfect light, preening. Finally, a Cooper’s Hawk in a small tree cared not a jot about the excited photographers snapping it from below. What a day – and there was still time to head to the beach at the “magic hour” for views of an Eared Grebe diving among the breaking waves and an adult White-tailed Hawk on a pylon. I wonder what next weekend will bring.

Lifers: Tropical Parula, Broad-billed Hummingbird (total 2,142)

2017 World Year List: 252

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Martin scanning for Northern Gannets at Mustang Island, January 28th 2017.