December big Texas Road Trip (and a little bit of Arizona and New Mexico)

Guadelupe Sunrise
Sunrise at the Guadalupe Mountains.

To make absolutely sure I cleared 400 species this year in Texas, I reckoned a final trip out West was needed for some regular winterers in the plains, and a handful of mountain species in the Guadalupes. With a full nine days to play with, I figured I could also fit in my inaugural trip to the Panhandle for some more northerly wintering birds rarely found elsewhere in the state.

The trip got off to an excellent start with a very cooperative Sage Thrasher in Fort Stockton – which turned out to be the only individual of this species I saw.

Sage Thrasher3
Sage Thrasher, Fort Stockton WWTP, December 2017.

Next up was Lake Balmorhea, simply a gorgeous location today when the sun was shining, the air was cool and calm, and the water was like glass. Lots of birds were showing in the bushes including some nice western wintering species: Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Green-tailed Towhee. On the water, a Common Loon loafed near the expected Clark’s and Eared Grebes, and there was a party of three Common Mergansers, a nice bird anywhere in Texas:

Common Merganser
Female-type Common Merganser at Lake Balmorhea, December 2017.

I stayed overnight in Van Horn, and headed up to the Guadalupe Mountains before dawn the next day. In the plains, the outside temperature dipped as low as 19F (minus 7C). However, as I gained altitude on the drive up to Frijole Ranch, the temperature climbed, and by first light it was a much more comfortable 36F (2C).

Guadelupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains at Frijole Ranch, December 2017.

Frijole Ranch was a hive of activity with large numbers of birds coming to drink and bathe in the spring near the old stone house. Highlights included two Juniper Titmice, which visited the area numerous times, but always moved through quickly and did not oblige for a photo. The Mountain Chickadees also wouldn’t sit still for my camera, but I had more luck photographing Steller’s Jay and a female Cassin’s Finch. This is turning out to be a great winter for irruptive montane species in Texas – all of the four birds mentioned above would be much harder to find in the state in a “normal” winter.

Stellers Jay
Steller’s Jay, Frijole Ranch, December 2017.

Nearby at Pine Springs, a Golden Eagle passed high overhead, two punk-hairstyled Phainopeplas showed well, and a curious Canyon Towhee decided the floorwell inside my car would be a good place to look for food. He was completely unconcerned that I was standing beside the car, less than three feet away.

Phainopepla
Phainopepla at Pine Springs, Guadalupe Mountains, December 2017.

With most of my mountain targets safely in the bag, and my year list target of 400 already exceeded, I descended to the lowlands to try for some raptors around Dell City during the afternoon. This scruffy little town in the shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains, close to the New Mexico border, is surrounded by mixed farmland and is an excellent location for open country birds in winter.

Dell City Williams Road
View from Dell City looking towards the Guadalupe Mountains, December 2017.

During the course of the afternoon I had repeated sightings of my two raptor targets, with at least eight individual Ferruginous Hawks and three Prairie Falcons seen. Other sightings included a Merlin, several Sagebrush Sparrows, and singles of both Grasshopper Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow, both of which are notable here.

Prairie Falcon
Prairie Falcon, Dell City, December 2017.
Sagebrush Sparrow
Sagebrush Sparrow, Dell City, December 2017.

The next morning I gradually worked my way west from Van Horn to El Paso with a few target birds in mind, successfully adding Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher and Anna’s Hummingbird to my list:

Crissal Thrasher2
Crissal Thrasher in Hudspeth County beside FM192, December 2017. This is a super-skulking denizen of dense desert thickets. However, this individual was involved in a territorial dispute with two others, and perched up for just long enough for me to get this photo.

With an almost 100% success rate in hitting my target species, by early afternoon I had already decided to drive an additional four hours west to southern Arizona, where at least ten possible lifers lay in wait. By mid-evening I was within 20 miles of my chosen birding location, the Madera Canyon, and found a suitable spot to hunker down and sleep in the car.

The day dawned cloudy and a little breezy, but thankfully the forecast high winds never materialized. Before long I had ratcheted up many of my targets: Bridled Titmouse, Olive Warbler, Red-naped Sapsucker, Painted Redstart and Rufous-winged Sparrow.

Painted Redstart
Painted Redstart, Madera Canyon, December 2017.

The feeding station at Santa Rita Lodge is a fantastic place to while away a couple of hours watching the comings and goings of birds at the feeders – highlights here included Arizona Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch (a local rarity), and repeated views of several Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, although I have to say the old name Magnificent Hummingbird is more apt for such a large, impressive hummingbird!

Arizona Woodpecker
Arizona Woodpecker, Madera Canyon, December 2017.
Rivolis Hummingbird
Male Rivoli’s Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, December 2017.

Just up the road at the Madera Kubo B+B, I drew a blank with Elegant Trogon but a Hammond’s Flycatcher was seen well and there were several distinctively angry-looking Yellow-eyed Juncos among the numerous Dark-eyed Juncos:

Yellow-eyed Junco
Yellow-eyed Junco, Madera Canyon, December 2017. I was struck by how angry this bird looked!

An hour to the south near Sonoita, several Baird’s Sparrows had been reliably coming to a grassland water trough, but mid-afternoon was perhaps not the best time to look for them. I did repeatedly flush a likely suspect from the grass, which flew up from right under my feet but unfortunately disappeared into the grass each time without perching up, despite several attempts to drive it towards one of the few shrubs in the area! Flight views not being enough to clinch the identification, and not wanting to keep disturbing this bird, Baird’s Sparrow unfortunately has to remain “unticked”.

Sonoita Grasslands2
Late afternoon grasslands near Sonoita, AZ. There are probably a lot of Baird’s Sparrows hiding in this photo, unfortunately none of them revealed themselves for tickable views!

Another species here which never showed on the ground was Chestnut-collared Longspur. However, unlike Baird’s Sparrow the longspurs (about 90 of them in total, in  several flocks) showed for prolonged periods in flight in excellent light conditions, enabling most of the ID features to be seen.

The following morning I embarked on another long drive and by early afternoon I was in New Mexico, at a very famous spot where all three North American Rosy-Finch species spend the winter.

Sandia Mountains Views
View from Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

Birders make the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest House, a cafe at the summit of a mountain a mile above Albuquerque, where seed is put out for the birds, and with luck all three species (Black Rosy-Finch, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) may be seen in a large mixed flock.

Black Rosy-Finch
Black Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

All three Rosy-Finches are elusive, enigmatic denizens of the Alpine zone, and seeing them in summer entails going up to the often inaccessible peaks of North America’s highest mountains. In winter, they deign to descend a little lower, providing birders with a unique opportunity to catch up with them.

Nothing is ever simple in birding, however. After driving 450 miles from southern Arizona, I arrived at the summit of Sandia Crest at about 2.30pm to find the famous cafe closed. The sign on the door cheerily proclaims that the cafe is open every day of the year – apparently with the exception of the one day I decide to visit!

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

Moreover, it proved impossible to view the Rosy-Finch feeding area without entering the cafe, as the birds are fed on a high terrace. Slightly despondent, I wandered around until I spotted an empty bird table between the cafe and parking lot. I remembered I had some of Whole Foods’ delicious trail mix in my car, the kind with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Any self-respecting Rosy-Finch would be bound to enjoy that!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

And so it proved. Not expecting a miracle, I put out my bait on the bird table and suddenly, a mercurial flock of Rosy-Finches appeared out of nowhere. I was lucky to get all three species in the one flock, including one individual of the rare Hepburn’s race of Gray-crowned:

Hepburns Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch
Rosy-finches enjoying my offerings at a bird table at Sandia Crest. The only Hepburn’s Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch I saw is in this shot, the bird with an all-brown body and mostly silvery-gray head.

I celebrated my Rosy-Finch success with an overnight stay in the relative luxury of a Super 8 motel (luxury compared to car camping that is!), and the following morning I enjoyed a walk in the crisp mountain air lower down in the Sandia Mountains. I was heading for one particular spot where Evening Grosbeaks regularly come to drink at a water trough. I didn’t get the grosbeaks, but did have a surprise lifer in the form of a stunning male Williamson’s Sapsucker:

Williamsons Sapsucker
Williamson’s Sapsucker near Albuquerque, NM, December 2017.

Then I was on the road east again, passing back into Texas around lunchtime, and during the afternoon I started looking for some of my Panhandle targets. American Tree Sparrow and Cackling Goose made it onto the list, and a distant adult Golden Eagle was a nice bird to see in this area. My chosen location for the following morning was Lake Palo Duro, in the far north of the Panhandle just a few miles south of the Oklahoma border. This is a wonderful spot for birding, although the weather was quite seriously cold here with overnight lows around 19F (minus 7C) and a cold breeze blowing.

Ferruginous Hawk2
Ferruginous Hawk. This bird was at Dell City, but I saw this species at several locations in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Unfortunately, the wind increased just an hour after sunrise, making it hard to find any passerines, and perhaps unsurprisingly in these conditions I dipped the Golden-crowned Sparrow that had been reported here on and off for several weeks. All was not lost, however, with numerous American Tree Sparrows at this site, several Harris’s Sparrows, a big flock of Mountain Bluebirds, and nice views of several raptors active later in the morning in the breezy conditions including Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Merlin.

Harris Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow at Lake Palo Duro, December 2017.
American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow, Lake Palo Duro, December 2017. This is a Panhandle winter speciality which is rarely seen further south.

I devoted much of the rest of the day to a hunt for longspurs. Three species – Lapland, McCown’s, and Chestnut-collared – winter in the Panhandle. Longspurs are never easy to find or to get good views of, and although I did find flocks in several locations, the only birds I positively identified were all Lapland Longspurs. One flock in a stubble field numbered some 250 birds, but I managed good views of no more than 10 individuals within this flock, and only very poor photos, as they were very restless and would fly up very regularly and relocate far away. It is highly likely there were a few McCown’s Longspurs among their number, but try as I might, I could not find one.

Lapland Longspur2
Lapland Longspur near Amarillo. This was the best Longspur photo I could manage despite many, many attempts!

After another very long drive and a surprisingly good overnight sleep in the car, I found myself in suburban Arlington at first light, where I was lucky to connect with a small flock of regularly wintering Rusty Blackbirds in the parking lot. I then spent four very enjoyable hours at the excellent Fort Worth Nature Center, where several Tundra Swans and a Trumpeter Swan are wintering but often prove very elusive here. Such was the case for me and I didn’t see any swans, but I did enjoy great views of a number of birds I seldom see including Fox Sparrow, Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet. No year ticks among them but this is a superb site and I will be sure to return when next in this area.

Horned Grebe
Horned Grebe at Benbrook Lake, December 2017.

My final year ticks for the trip were Horned Grebe and Eastern Towhee on the way back to Houston. This has been an exceptional first full year of birding in Texas, and with a lot of persistence and dedication (and driving!) I have managed to see more birds (415 species) than many people have on their lists after years of birding in the state. With an end-of-December trip to the LRGV still to go, I have set myself a new target of 420 species – one which I doubt I will have the opportunity to beat in 2018, but watch this space!

Mexican Jay
Mexican Jay, Madera Canyon, December 2017.
Western Meadowlark
Western Meadowlark, Balmorhea Cemetery, December 2017.
Rough-legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk near Amarillo, December 2017.
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Sunday Chasing

Elegant Tern
Elegant Tern, Surfside Jetty, December 3rd 2017.

I made a dedicated (some would say crazy) attempt on Sunday to catch up with a number of year ticks and rarities scattered through the coastal Texas counties from Matagorda to Galveston. This involved making a 3.15am start and driving 180 miles from New Braunfels in order to be on the ground in rural Matagorda county at a traditional American Woodcock stakeout at first light. After that gruelling start to a Sunday, I thought that actually seeing the bird would be the easy part, but it was not to be. No sight nor sound of any Woodcocks in just over an hour of waiting and wandering around.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl, Matagorda turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

For a time, it also looked as if I would also dip my second target, Sprague’s Pipit, at a turf farm not far from the Woodcock site. Two hours of patient searching produced a Burrowing Owl and a ton of American Pipits, but no Sprague’s. I was on my way out of the area when I flushed a pipit from the verge which alighted on a nearby bare earth field, revealing its identity and pausing for long enough for me to reel off a couple of photos, before it flew high away uttering its highly distinctive squeaky call.

Spragues Pipit
Sprague’s Pipit, Matagorda County turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

One out of two so far, but I was back to dipping mode in Lake Jackson, my next stop. I bumped into Tony Frank and Brad Lirette as I arrived, who had seen the wintering Black-throated Gray Warbler in Lynn Hay’s backyard just minutes before my arrival. No such luck for me, and bird activity was so low in the area that after an hour I decided that my time might be better spent elsewhere. It was an odd kind of day, very humid and overcast, not the sort of conditions that encourage wintering warblers to be actively feeding or calling. Lynn Hay said that the bird visited the yard perhaps twice a day, and seeing as I had just missed it, it might be a while before it came back. Today I had neither the time nor the patience to settle in for a long wait, as the day’s potential star bird was showing well at Surfside jetty and I was impatient to go and see it.

Elegant Tern is an extremely rare visitor to Texas. The two individuals in July on North Padre Island were “unblockers” for a lot of seasoned Texas listers. I couldn’t find sufficient motivation back in the height of summer to make the eight-hour round trip drive to go and see those birds. Fortunately, fate (and finder Arman Moreno) brought many Houston-based birders an early Christmas present in the form of a first-year Elegant Tern fishing along the jetty at Surfside in Brazoria county.

Elegant Tern2
Elegant Tern, Surfside jetty, December 3rd 2017.

It was surprising to me how similar this bird was to the nearby Royal Terns in flight. Sure, there are subtle distinctions in size and build, and the bill of Elegant is definitely longer, thinner and a deeper orange-red compared to Royal, but overall it was very similar and I am sure a lot of birders would have simply overlooked it. No doubt it would have been relatively easy to pick it out among resting terns lined up on a beach, but this was an impressive find at this location as the bird was only ever seen in flight.

After getting my fill of the Elegant Tern, I drove north-east towards Galveston, stopping at San Luis Pass for a fairly easy encounter with the long-staying Fish Crow. The rule with crows is to look for the dumpsters and the local Great-tailed Grackle flock, and sure enough, my target bird was among them. It even posed for a photo while it took a late lunch of an item of trash. Not a year tick, the Fish Crow is fairly common at the edge of its range in easternmost Texas, but is almost unheard-of further west.

Fish Crow
Fish Crow, San Luis Pass, Brazoria county, December 3rd 2017.

The afternoon was becoming very gloomy and even foggy. I figured it was a waste of time sticking around on Galveston. Hindsight proved me wrong, and had I checked Texbirds or eBird I would have noticed that the Tamaulipas Crow had been relocated at East Beach. Instead I opted to head home via Randolph Park in Friendswood, where a Brown Creeper has been regularly seen for several weeks in the same small area of parkland. It felt almost like twilight when I arrived, with very gloomy conditions and almost no bird activity. However, after I while I managed to locate a very subdued mixed feeding flock, and several times I heard the distinctive high-pitched call of my target bird, but it took a good 20 minutes before I was able to catch sight of it. The ensuing record photo, in conditions of near darkness, is a contender for the worst bird photo I have ever taken, but with a little imagination the distinctive shape of a Brown Creeper can just about be discerned towards the right hand side of the image.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper (honest!), Randolph Park, Harris county, December 3rd 2017. Look towards the right hand side of the trunk, not far above the protruding branch.

Overall it was a cracking day with a lifer (Elegant Tern) and two year ticks (Sprague’s Pipit and Brown Creeper) putting me on 391 species for the year in Texas. All being well, next week’s West Texas clean-up should comfortably slingshot me past the magic 400 mark.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in New Braunfels, Comal county, December 2nd 2017.