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

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