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

Harris’s, Fox, and Grasshopper Sparrows, Granger Lake, January 21st

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Wide open spaces west of Granger Lake, near Austin, Texas, January 21st 2017. This area hosts several sought-after but hard to find specialties in winter.

One of the joys of birding is that you never quite know what to expect. In May 2015, a trip to Hungary gave me 8 species of woodpecker including the sought-after White-backed, Grey-headed, and Middle Spotted – but inexplicably we failed to find a Green Woodpecker, normally one of the commonest and certainly the most conspicuous of them all. Meanwhile, I have yet to see Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker at the summit of Doi Inthanon in Thailand after more than 15 visits – this is a bird that literally everyone else seems to connect with on their first or second try, and they all post nice close-up photos on Facebook to prove it.

On Saturday, I started early from Houston and headed over to Granger Lake to try for two regional wintering specialties – McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover. I missed them both, but instead came away with two completely different and relatively unexpected lifers. Such is birding.

Granger Lake lies to the north-east of Austin, and like almost all large bodies of water in Texas, was artificially created – in this case by damming the San Gabriel river. The area is of interest not so much for the lake itself, but for the open fields and prairies lying to the west. McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover both have fairly small breeding and wintering ranges restricted to the central U.S. They are found in flocks in winter, and range over large areas of wide-open habitat – meaning that birders are likely to find either a lot of them, or none at all.

Having driven around minor roads staring at empty earth fields for a while, I happened to stop by the San Gabriel unit, a wildlife protection area near the shores of the lake. An overgrown field here seemed potentially “sparrow-y”, and being keen to add some birds to the rather slow day list, I decided to thrash around in the field and neighboring scrubby woodland for a while. This turned out to be an excellent plan, with a nice range of sparrows popping up including Field, Swamp, Song, and – lifer number one – a Grasshopper Sparrow which responded to my “pishing” and gave prolonged views on a low bush. This is supposed to be a fairly common resident in Texas, but has a reputation for being rather secretive, so I counted myself lucky to get such good views.

Emboldened by my sparrow success, I continued a few miles to Willis Creek park, where a scrubby area near the boat ramp produced another good flock, this time including a Harris’s Sparrow – surely one of the handsomest of sparrows – and a second lifer, a smart red-and-grey Fox Sparrow.

I left the area feeling very satisfied with my haul, until later in the evening when I read another eBird report by a birder who had found both Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur, along some of the same roads I had driven down. It’s always a little galling when that happens – maybe this weekend I’ll get a chance to go back.

Lifers: Grasshopper Sparrow, Fox Sparrow (total 2,140).

2017 World Year List: 225

Thailand, February 2016

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Slaty-legged Crake at Lung Sin waterhole, Kaeng Krachan, Thailand, February 25th 2016.

Following a very productive trip to Vietnam in January, I was able to swing a full three weeks in Thailand in February before a return to the world of work and study eventually had to prevail later in the month.

I birded alone for two full weeks in the north, chasing some of the specialities that up until now had eluded me, with visits to familiar locations as well as a handful of new sites.

The third week was spent in the company of my good friend Tim Harrop, who although a very experienced birder, had not visited Asia before. With just five and a half days to play with, and with Tim’s number one target bird being Spoon-billed Sandpiper, we focused on the coastal Laem Pak Bia/Pak Thale area followed by three full days in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

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Male Siberian Blue Robin, Lung Sin, February 25th.

Main sites visited:

Doi Inthanon: Thailand’s highest mountain is a staple fixture on the North Thailand birding circuit, with several species found here that can be seen nowhere else in the country. My two main “gaps” from here are Black-tailed Crake and Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, both of which I failed to see yet again. As usual, the crake was heard calling at the campsite marsh in the late afternoon, but stayed resolutely hidden in the vegetation, while the flowerpecker was widely reported by other birders but failed to show for me. However, the summit marsh delivered ample compensation in the form of a fine Chestnut Thrush.

Lifer: Chestnut Thrush. Thailand tick: Yellow-browed Tit. Other highlights: Dark-sided Thrush, Rufous-throated Partridge, White-headed Bulbul, Pygmy Wren-babbler.

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Spot-breasted Parrotbill at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Lo rice paddies: This lowland area between Doi Inthanon and Chiang Mai has only recently been “discovered” by birders. It’s just a few minutes from Highway 108, making a convenient stop on the way between Chiang Mai and Doi Inthanon. Like many similar sites in Thailand, Doi Lo is absolutely bursting at the seams with lowland birds, making for some easy and enjoyable birding. The best birds during my two visits were the wintering Eastern Imperial Eagle and an Asian Golden Weaver, which although in non-breeding plumage was quite distinctive with its thick, heavy bill, quite bright yellow plumage tones, and prominent supercilium.

Lifer: Asian Golden Weaver. Thailand ticks: Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black-eared Kite, Pied Harrier, Common Kestrel, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Green Sandpiper. Other highlights: Ruddy-breasted Crake, Rufous-winged Buzzard.

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Male White-bellied Redstart, Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.

Mae Ping: The dry deciduous forest here contains several specialities, including White-bellied Woodpecker and Neglected Nuthatch, although curiously it lacks some of the birds found in similar habitat in Cambodia (eg. White-browed Fantail and Brown Prinia). Much less visited than other sites in the north, this large national park is well worth an early morning, although it can become rather hot and birdless by late morning.

Thailand ticks: Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Black Baza, White-bellied Woodpecker, Neglected Nuthatch, Two-barred Warbler. Other highlights: Grey-headed Parakeet, Black-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed Blue Magpie.

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Yellow-throated Martens on the road at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Angkhang: This has for a long time been my favorite mountain site in the north. Nowadays, it is sometimes overlooked by birders in favor of neighboring Doi Lang. However, this winter, Angkhang has really been producing the birds, with high daily species counts and good levels of bird activity virtually all day. The draw for many is the regular and confiding Rusty-naped Pitta at the Royal Project, but my personal highlight was a superb male Grey-winged Blackbird.

Lifers: Grey-winged Blackbird, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Buff-throated Warbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia. Other highlights: Grey-sided Thrush, Black-breasted Thrush, Rusty-naped Pitta, White-browed Laughingthrush, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Daurian Redstart.

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Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Lang: I spent two days on the west side (approached from Fang), and one day on the more difficult east side (approached from Tha Ton). The Fang side is easily accessible in any kind of vehicle, but the road up the east side of the mountain is in very poor condition, and not accessible by ordinary saloon car or minivan (you must either have a 4×4, or do as I did and rent a motorcycle for the day in Tha Ton). It is currently forbidden to complete the full loop in a vehicle, although I was allowed to proceed on foot past the top checkpoints on both the east and west sides of the mountain – birders with plenty of time and energy could presumably walk all the way around the loop.

Lifers: Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, White-bellied Redstart, Grey-crowned Warbler. Thailand ticks: Whiskered Yuhina, Black-throated Tit. Other highlights: Giant Nuthatch, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Sapphire Flycatcher, Crested Bunting.

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Male Ultramarine Flycatcher at Doi Lang – the same bird I saw here last winter. It is so used to being fed by photographers that it flies down from the trees and lands nearby, with an expectant look on its face, as soon as you get out of your car.

Chiang Saen Lake: This is Thailand’s most famous site for wintering ducks, and a number of rarities get found here every year. I was very fortunate to relocate the wintering male Baer’s Pochard after it had been absent for several weeks – this bird was subsequently seen by a number of observers and could fairly reliably be found in the company of around 40 Ferruginous Ducks on the south side of the lake. I found a pale-phase Booted Eagle in the same area, while a male Western Marsh Harrier in the roost at Wat Pa Mak No was also a very noteworthy Thai rarity.

Lifers: Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Grey-headed Swamphen. Thailand ticks: Baer’s Pochard, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Garganey, Eurasian Coot, Western Marsh Harrier, Booted Eagle, Striated Grassbird.

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Siberian Rubythroat at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, February 13th 2016.

Nam Kham Nature Reserve: This small reserve near Chiang Saen is famous for hosting Thailand’s first Firethroat, a male which is currently in residence for its second winter. The bird occasionally appears in front of the Cettia hide to bathe at a small pool – 9.00am seems to be a good time, but equally it is possible for it to fail to make an appearance all day. I was lucky, and the Firethroat emerged on cue for a 10-second showing at 8.55am. Nam Kham reserve contains a maze of paths through the reedbeds, and it is easy to get lost or disorientated – best arrive at the site very early to make sure you locate the correct hide by 9.00am!

There are plenty of other birds to see here in the early morning, and with luck and patience a number of secretive reedbed specialists may be seen.

Lifers: Firethroat, Baikal Bush Warbler. Thailand tick: Paddyfield Warbler. Other highlights: Red Avadavat, Spotted Redshank.

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Record shot of the male Firethroat, during its brief appearance in front of the Cettia hide at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, February 13th 2016.

Doi Phu Ka: This is a seldom-visited mountain in Nan province, famous for a small population of Beautiful Nuthatch, and several other species that cannot usually be found elsewhere in Thailand. I found birding here to be hard going, and only late on my second morning did I finally discover a trail leading into good high altitude forest, but I ended up seeing virtually none of the site’s specialities.

The traditional route up the mountain, a trail starting behind the shrine opposite the star-gazing area, seems to be completely overgrown, with a high risk of getting lost for birders without a GPS. A better option seems to be the trail starting on the roadside at Km 29.7, which climbs up into some good forest where Beautiful Nuthatch should be a possibility.

The roadside itself from Km 28-33 could also turn up some good species, although bird activity generally seemed rather low during my visit. I also spent some time on the trail leading into the forest from the top of the pass, at the high point of the road – this forest contains plenty of huge, old trees, seemingly suitable habitat for Beautiful Nuthatch and other forest species such as Green and Purple Cochoas. However, birding here was extremely difficult, with loud, crunchy leaves underfoot making quiet walking impossible, and the sheer size of the trees making it very hard to locate birds.

In general, Doi Phu Ka didn’t repay my investment in time and effort to get there – I got the feeling that a lot of time would be needed to get the most from this site.

Lifer: Indochinese Yuhina. Other highlights: White-browed Piculet, Crested Finchbill, Bianchi’s Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Small Niltava.

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Burning the rice stubbles in the late afternoon at Nong Pla Lai, near Phetchaburi, February 25th 2016.

Pak Thale/Laem Pak Bia area: The whole coastal strip from Wat Khao Takrao in the north to Laem Pak Bia in the south contains a fantastic range of wetland, farmland, and coastal habitats – the area scarcely needs any introduction as it is world famous for being the favored wintering location for a small number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, as well as upwards of 40 other shorebird species.

As well as focusing on the well-known locations of Pak Thale, the King’s Project, the “abandoned building” wetlands, and the Laem Pak Bia sandspit, we also visited farmland and grassland inland from Pak Thale, Wat Khao Takrao, and the Nong Pla Lai rice paddies, seeing a total of 132 bird species in the area in two days.

Lifer: Slaty-breasted Rail. Thailand ticks: Far Eastern Curlew, Heuglin’s Gull, Oriental Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Greater Spotted Eagle. Other highlights: Chinese Egret, Booted Eagle, White-faced Plover, Malaysian Plover, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Great Knot, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, Red-necked Phalarope, Brown Hawk Owl, Indian Nightjar, Asian Golden Weaver, Chestnut Munia.

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Bar-backed Partridge, Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

Kaeng Krachan National Park: Probably Thailand’s best overall birding location, this huge national park forms part of one of south-east Asia’s largest continuous forested areas.  Its strategic location in the middle of Thailand means that birds from both north and south Thailand can be found here, meaning a very high species total is possible.

In addition to the birds, mammals are a feature of the park, with White-handed Gibbon, Dusky Langur, Asian Elephant, Serow, Crab-eating Mongoose, Black Giant Squirrel, Asian Porcupine, Yellow-throated Marten, and even Leopard among the species regularly seen. During our visit, a Malayan Sun Bear was occasionally visiting the back of the Ban Krang restaurant for food scraps, but unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see it despite spending several hours waiting for it on consecutive evenings.

In three full days we recorded 155 species of birds inside the park gates, with another 10 or so recorded outside the gates at our accommodation at Ban Maka, and at the Lung Sin waterhole. Booking a spot in the hide at the latter site can be done through Ban Maka, and is highly recommended for close views of some normally tricky customers such as Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted Partridges, Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes, and for the lucky few – including us! – perhaps a visit from a Slaty-legged or Red-legged Crake. It’s also a great spot to observe and photograph mammals, for example Mouse Deer and Muntjac.

Lifers: Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Moustached Hawk Cuckoo. Thailand ticks: Blue Pitta, Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Pacific Swift, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Slaty-legged Crake. Other highlights: Violet Cuckoo, Crested Jay, Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, Black-and-Red Broadbill, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Long-tailed Broadbill, Common Green Magpie, Kalij Pheasant, Bar-backed Partridge, Besra, Black-thighed Falconet, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Red-billed Malkoha, Brown-backed Needletail, Red-headed Trogon, Orange-breasted Trogon, Bamboo Woodpecker, Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker, Collared Babbler, Great Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Alstrom’s Warbler, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Golden-crested Myna.

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Red Junglefowl at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

Notable records from other sites: Spot-winged Starling – five at a flowering tree in Mae Rim, near Chiang Mai. Chestnut-eared Bunting – two at Fang rice paddies. River Lapwing, Small Pratincole – on the Mekong River near Chiang Khong. Bluethroat, Citrine Wagtail – Tha Ton rice paddies.

Trip Total: 444. World Life List: 2,115. Thailand Life List: 625. 2016 World Year List: 713.

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White-rumped Shama at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.
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Rufous-bellied Niltava at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.

Tropical Birding in South Texas, December 12th-14th

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Common Pauraque at its daytime roost, Estero Llano Grande State Park, December 13th.

After two months in Texas, I finally had the long-awaited opportunity to head south – seriously south. The lower Rio Grande valley along the border with Mexico is a unique bird area, as it holds a wide range of tropical species at the far northern end of their range which are not found elsewhere in the USA. It’s arguably one of the most exciting places in the world to see birds – especially so in spring, but winter is certainly not without its delights, as I was to discover.

Along the way, what self-respecting birder could pass up the opportunity to visit Aransas National Wildlife Reserve – the only wintering site in the world for the rare and spectacular Whooping Crane? I was at the Aransas visitor center by 7.30am after a ridiculously early start from Houston. The weather wasn’t especially co-operative, being very windy and overcast with occasional outbreaks of rain. Considering this is December in the northern hemisphere, one might imagine some very unpleasant birding conditions, but not today in southern Texas where the temperature stayed pegged at an extremely mild 25C (78F) throughout the day.

Five gleaming white Whooping Cranes were easy to spot from the specially constructed viewing tower, albeit very distantly (a telescope is essential here). I also had to clear a path through the rows of Black Vultures, who like to use the railings on the tower’s walkways as perching and squabbling grounds, and in some cases were very reluctant to move – these birds are actually fairly intimidating when they are glaring at you from only six feet away!

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Up close and personal with a Black Vulture at Aransas – this photo was taken on my second visit to the site on December 14th.

I enjoyed some seawatching in the bay, although in less than ideal conditions with the wind and choppy seas making for difficult viewing. However, I did find about 10 Horned Grebes, perhaps a higher than usual total for this site, and at least four Greater Scaup among the large flocks of Lesser Scaup. Interesting fly-bys comprised a small flock of Snow Geese, and three cinnamon-colored Long-billed Curlews, but try as I might, I could not locate a Common Loon on the water.

Along the “auto tour loop”, I chanced upon a family group of Sandhill Cranes showing well not far from the car, and a lone Whooping Crane nearby, closer than the tower birds but standing in long grass so it was only visible from the neck upwards. White-tailed Hawk was another good sighting here, this bird is a speciality of the Texas coastal plain and is found nowhere else in the USA.

Although the Aransas area easily merits a full day – or even several days – of exploring, I had lots more birds to see and only limited time, so by late morning I was impatient to hit the road south. An eBird-inspired stop south of Corpus Christi was moderately rewarding, with good views of several Greater Roadrunner, a fine male Pyrrhuloxia, and three Say’s Phoebes at Chapman Ranch. I had been hoping for Burrowing Owl here, but the Say’s Phoebes provided excellent compensation – they are rare winter visitors this far east. I managed a very poor photo with my “punk” camera, but it’s enough to confirm the identification. I really need to invest in a decent camera, as photos are more or less essential these days in order to confirm sightings of rare species – and I was to find several other rarities before the weekend was out, neither of which I managed to photograph.

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Say’s Phoebe, Chapman Ranch, December 13th – a rare winter visitor in south and east Texas.

Vast agricultural prairies lie to the south and west of Corpus Christi, home in winter to very small numbers of Sprague’s Pipit, Mountain Plover, and Prairie Falcon, but finding any of them is locating a needle in a haystack, and on this windy and dull afternoon it was unsurprising when I came away empty-handed – although a fine flock of Sandhill Cranes provided modest compensation for my efforts.

With an early, wintry dusk fast approaching, the birding was more or less over for the day, and I drove south to Harlingen, where I treated myself to an overnight stay in a Super 8 motel. This was a bit above budget – I had been planning to sleep in the car – but I was exhausted after the early start and long drive.

I awoke to more of the same weather – extremely overcast, warm, windy, and damp. With so many birding options in the lower Rio Grande valley, it was hard to decide where to go – and with just one full day here, I had to be smart and eliminate any long drives. The original plan to visit Laguna Atascosa fell by the wayside in favor of the much closer Estero Llano Grande State Park, which turned out to be an excellent choice. A total of 76 bird species seen here in just 3.5 hours demonstrates the quality of this location. In fact, just sitting quietly and watching the bird feeders and garden at the visitor center produced such exciting birds as Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, and both Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, all at very close range. Along the trails, I was adding to my list every few minutes, with many south Texas specialities seen including Cinnamon Teal, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Green Kingfisher, Groove-billed Ani, Green Parakeet, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Indigo Bunting, a beautiful male Painted Bunting (a very rare bird in winter), and a perfectly camouflaged day-roosting Common Pauraque.

Halfway through the morning, the wind suddenly blew cold, and I was to learn later that the temperature dropped from 25C (78F) to 16C (61F) in just a couple of seconds. Sudden weather changes are a fascinating Texas phenomenon that we just don’t have in temperate Western Europe. All I know is that suddenly I was very grateful I had packed my warm sweater in my bag – other T-shirt wearing birders I encountered on the trails weren’t so lucky!

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Me in birding action at Chapman Ranch, in temperatures of 25C (78F) …. not the kind of December weather we ever get in the UK!

My second port of call for the day was the Santa Ana National Wildlife Reserve, where a long-staying Northern Jacana, a very rare vagrant to the USA from its breeding grounds in Mexico, was perhaps the outstanding highlight. The area didn’t seem quite as exceptionally rich in birds as Estero Llano Grande, but I added some excellent birds to the list including a skulking Olive Sparrow, a Harris’s Hawk, and one of my all-time favorite birds, Black-and-white Warbler. This charismatic bird is readily spotted by its striped black and white plumage, and its unusual habit of spiralling up and down trunks and branches, more like a nuthatch than a warbler. It’s common in the USA in from spring to fall, but only a handful winter in the far south of the country, with the rest heading to Mexico and central America. Not that this one was very far from Mexico, perhaps just two miles as the warbler flies.

I was to have an even closer encounter with Mexico at my final location for the day, the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. This site, also known as the World Birding Center, is legendary among birders, with quite a long list of very rare Mexican and tropical species seen here over the years. I arrived in the early afternoon to glorious sunny, cool and calm conditions, the incoming cold front having taken just a couple of hours to completely clear the overcast, windy weather away.

Birding the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park involves doing quite a lot of walking, as it’s a big park and cars are not allowed, presumably in a bid to make it harder for illegal immigrants to cross the USA-Mexico border which lies along the Rio Grande at the southern edge of the park. Despite the fine weather, birding was rather slow at first, although I wasn’t complaining as the numerous Green Jays at the park’s feeding stations were always on view and looking spectacular in the afternoon sunlight.

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Green Jays (with a Northern Cardinal behind them), Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, December 13th.

The main reason I was here was for the hawks, and I after nearly four hours in the park, and more than six miles of walking, I came away well satisfied with excellent views of two perched adult Grey Hawks (a site speciality), Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and good perched views of the long-staying juvenile Broad-winged Hawk. The latter species is a common summer visitor and passage migrant to the USA, but very rare in winter.

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Record shot of the long-staying juvenile Broad-winged Hawk, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, December 13th.

The habitat is rather dry and arid in the park, and bird density seemed fairly low. I figured that maybe if I headed to the distant reaches of the park next to the Rio Grande, there might be some damper areas with perhaps a wider range of bird species. This didn’t actually prove to be the case, but I had an interesting experience when I followed a small side trail and suddenly found myself on the banks of the Rio Grande. Across the river, perhaps 200 feet away, was Mexico, and on the opposite bank I could see a derelict building and beside it, a narrow path heading to the water’s edge. On my side of the river, a deflated inner tube lay in the shallows, no doubt previously used by illegal immigrants heading across from Mexico. It really would not have been hard to cross the river undetected in this spot, and disappear into the woods in the State Park – I wondered how many people used this particular crossing, and whether anyone was lurking in the bushes watching me at that moment!

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The Rio Grande at the edge of Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park – the opposite bank is Mexico.

As the afternoon drew to a close, I dosed up on some coffee, and drove north through the evening, finally arriving at the gates of Aransas NWR at around 11.30pm. I was well-prepared with blankets and pillows, and enjoyed a surprisingly refreshing sleep in the car, waking at 7.00am ready and raring to go for another morning’s birding.

It was one of those mornings when the world seems absolutely perfect. A clear, sunny, and cool day, with temperatures of 7C/45F at dawn rising to perhaps 17C/63F by late morning. A little mist lingered over the trees and I could hear the distant calls of Sandhill Cranes in flight, and one of the first sights to greet me at the start of the Heron Flats trail was a magnificent pair of Whooping Cranes on the saltmarsh close to the first viewing platform.

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A perfect dawn at Aransas NWR visitor center.

The Heron Flats trail was absolutely bursting with bird activity, with small songbirds and wintering warblers energetically feeding as the sun warmed the trees and bushes, making up for lost time after the recent windy, rainy weather. Yellow-rumped Warblers inhabited virtually every bush, calling constantly, and some usually secretive species showed well: two Sedge Wrens, three Grey Catbirds, and no fewer than five Long-billed Thrashers.

It was on this trail that I found a major winter rarity. Noticing a warbler quite low down in brushy scrub at the edge of the path, I raised my binoculars and immediately knew I was onto something good. It had a bright, vivid yellow throat and underparts, black streaking on the breast sides, a plain olive-green back with no discernible wingbars, and clear yellow crescents above and below the eye. The bird was feeding low down in the bushes, flicking its wings and tail, and showing very well in perfect light as I had the sun behind me. The all-yellow underparts and lack of wingbars ruled out Pine Warbler, the only realistically confusable possibility among the regular wintering warblers. I realized I could only have been looking at a Prairie Warbler, which is an exceptionally rare bird in Texas, especially in winter. A few days later, when perusing records of this species on eBird, I found that a juvenile female Prairie Warbler had been seen (and photographed) at exactly the same location in December last year. Could my bird be the same individual, returning for a second winter?

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Whooping Crane at Aransas NWR, December 14th – closer than before, but still a little too distant for my camera!

Full bird list, south Texas, December 12th-14th. Lifers in bold, 2015 year ticks in italics:

1. Black-bellied Whistling Duck
2. Snow Goose
3. Gadwall
4. American Wigeon
5. Mottled Duck
6. Blue-winged Teal
7. Cinnamon Teal
8. Northern Shoveler
9. Northern Pintail
10. Green-winged Teal
11. Redhead
12. Greater Scaup
13. Lesser Scaup
14. Bufflehead
15. Common Goldeneye
16. Red-breasted Merganser
17. Plain Chachalaca
18. Least Grebe
19. Pied-billed Grebe
20. Horned Grebe
21. Eared Grebe
22. Neotropic Cormorant
23. Double-crested Cormorant
24. Anhinga
25. Brown Pelican
26. American White Pelican
27. Great Blue Heron
28. Great Egret
29. Snowy Egret
30. Little Blue Heron
31. Tricolored Heron
32. Reddish Egret
33. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
34. Black-crowned Night Heron
35. White Ibis
36. White-faced Ibis
37. Roseate Spoonbill
38. Black Vulture
39. Turkey Vulture
40. Osprey
41. White-tailed Kite
42. Northern Harrier
43. Sharp-shinned Hawk
44. Cooper’s Hawk
45. Harris’s Hawk
46. White-tailed Hawk
47. Grey Hawk
48. Broad-winged Hawk
49. Red-tailed Hawk
50. Sora
51. Common Gallinule
52. American Coot
53. Sandhill Crane
54. Whooping Crane
55. Black-necked Stilt
56. American Avocet
57. Killdeer
58. Northern Jacana
59. Spotted Sandpiper
60. Greater Yellowlegs
61. Willet
62. Long-billed Curlew
63. Ruddy Turnstone
64. Sanderling
65. Western Sandpiper
66. Least Sandpiper
67. Long-billed Dowitcher
68. Wilson’s Snipe
69. Laughing Gull
70. Ring-billed Gull
71. Caspian Tern
72. Forster’s Tern
73. Rock Dove
74. Eurasian Collared Dove
75. Inca Dove
76. Common Ground-Dove
77. White-tipped Dove
78. White-winged Dove
79. Mourning Dove
80. Greater Roadrunner
81. Groove-billed Ani
82. Common Pauraque
83. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
84. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
85. Green Kingfisher
86. Belted Kingfisher
87. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
88. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
89. Crested Caracara
90. American Kestrel
91. Green Parakeet
92. Eastern Phoebe
93. Say’s Phoebe
94. Vermilion Flycatcher
95. Great Kiskadee
96. Couch’s Kingbird
97. Tropical Kingbird
98. Loggerhead Shrike
99. Green Jay
100. Tree Swallow
101. Cave Swallow
102. Black-crested Titmouse
103. House Wren
104. Sedge Wren
105. Carolina Wren
106. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
107. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
108. American Robin
109. Grey Catbird
110. Curve-billed Thrasher
111. Long-billed Thrasher
112. Northern Mockingbird
113. European Starling
114. Black-and-white Warbler
115. Orange-crowned Warbler
116. Common Yellowthroat
117. Yellow-rumped Warbler
118. Prairie Warbler
119. Olive Sparrow
120. Savannah Sparrow
121. Lincoln’s Sparrow
122. Swamp Sparrow
123. Northern Cardinal
124. Pyrrhuloxia
125. Indigo Bunting
126. Painted Bunting
127. Red-winged Blackbird
128. Eastern Meadowlark
129. Boat-tailed Grackle
130. Great-tailed Grackle
131. Altamira Oriole
132. American Goldfinch
133. House Sparrow

World Life List: 2,054
2015 World Year List: 1,108

Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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View from the observation tower at Sheldon Lake – an alligator-infested wilderness less than 15 miles from downtown Houston.

The city of Houston is a birder’s paradise. Gulf coast spots outside the city such as Anahuac, Galveston, Bolivar Island and Brazoria are well known, but what is perhaps not so often appreciated is just how many wonderful and well-managed birding sites exist within the city limits, ranging from small urban wildlife oases to sizeable wetlands. Today I decided to stay closer to home and explore a couple of these locations, with the prospect of encountering several uncommon wintering birds recently reported on eBird.

I have just taken delivery of a new pair of Zeiss binoculars, so I was anxious to get into the field and try them out – and my wife Jenna wanted to come too. On our previous birding outings together, Jenna has been without optics, but she has now “inherited” my old Zeiss 8×20 compacts. This made for a much more involving and enjoyable birding experience for her  – no doubt helped a great deal by the beautiful cool, crisp, sunny weather. We packed a picnic and made a relaxed mid-morning start, heading first of all to the Kleb Woods Nature Preserve in the north-west quadrant of the city.

The story of Kleb Woods is an interesting one. Elmer Kleb inherited the site in the 1930s, but had no interest in farming the land as his father had done. Instead, he planted trees and let the 133 acre plot grow wild, living as a recluse in the forest while suburban Houston relentlessly grew around him. Facing a huge unpaid tax bill in the 1980s, it looked as though the elderly Elmer Kleb would be forced to sell his beloved forest to pay his debts to the state – but fortunately, Harris County managed to acquire a grant to buy the reserve, pay the back taxes, and preserve the land as a nature reserve. Elmer Kleb was allowed to remain in his cottage, and was even paid a stipend by the state to live there, until his death in 1999.

These days, Kleb Woods is managed with the birds in mind. Reserve staff maintain bird feeders around the nature center and farm buildings, including a number of hummingbird feeders – this is Houston’s premier hummingbird site in winter with several very scarce species possible here. Recently, a Rufous Hummingbird has been a regular fixture, with several unidentified “Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbirds” also present. Females of the two species are impossible to distinguish except in the hand, whereas the males are separable with care. In all likelihood, almost all of the unidentified hummingbirds here are Rufous, as most – but not all – of them prove to be this species when caught.

One of the first birds we saw was a stunning Red-bellied Woodpecker, which although common is a very striking bird when seen at close range in good light – and this one was on a bird feeder in full sunlight less than 30 yards away, much to Jenna’s enjoyment. A few White-throated Sparrows skulked around, and I was pleased to locate a Dark-eyed Junco in the pine trees, a winter visitor to Texas which isn’t often noted in the eBird reports. Although there are many hummingbird feeders here, locating the hummingbirds’ favored area isn’t difficult as the birds are extremely territorial. We quickly found a female-type Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbird, which repeatedly flew high in the air and hovered for a few seconds, calling all the while, before swooping down on a low “bombing raid” to chase away a rival, finally returning to a nearby treetop. The rival hummingbirds here were both unidentifiable females, but we took a seat and waited, and before long located the male Rufous Hummingbird, which seemed to prefer staying perched low down inside the bushes close to the feeder and staying out of the bombing raids. We watched the antics of the hummingbirds while enjoying our picnic in the warm sunshine – casual birding at its best!

The icing on cake was awaiting us as we walked back towards the car – a gorgeous male Red-breasted Nuthatch, showing very well on pine branches and trunks next to the nature center. This is a scarce winter visitor to this part of the US – this bird had been reported at Kleb Woods on and off since mid November, but hadn’t been seen for a few days, so it was great to rediscover it.

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Jenna and her new binoculars – but no sign of a Greater Roadrunner despite the signs!

After a leisurely coffee stop – this was a “wife-friendly” birding day after all – we continued to Sheldon Lake, to the north-east of downtown, where we spent the last two hours of daylight walking the trail past the educational ponds, and back via the impressive John Jacobs observation tower. The tower is 82 feet tall, cost $1.3 million to build, and offers impressive views from its viewing decks – it even has a solar powered elevator! We had it all to ourselves, and from the top deck enjoyed panoramic late afternoon views of vast unspoiled marshlands to the north, smoking industrial chimneys to the south-east, and the skyscrapers of downtown Houston to the south-west. Incredible to think that such a tranquil, wild place can exist just a couple of miles from one of America’s busiest urban areas.

The birding here was pretty good too. Along the trails and beside the ponds, legions of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and smaller numbers of Orange-crowned Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets inhabited almost every bush. A couple of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers also showed well – this species is a quite beautiful shade of blue when seen in good light, while nearby a young American Goldfinch allowed us to approach very closely while it fed on a seed head. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in trees by the car park shared the area with a newly arrived flock of Cedar Waxwings, and small numbers of migrant Tree Swallows filtered through overhead. Rough meadows below the observation tower probably hold any number of rare sparrows in winter – Le Conte’s Sparrow is regularly recorded here – but we had to make do with good views of Swamp Sparrow, and a curious Sedge Wren. Probably the best sighting at Sheldon Lake wasn’t a bird at all, but a rather large alligator sunning itself at the edge of one of the ponds – my first sighting of an alligator in the US, although I am quite sure that it’s not the first time one of them has seen me, considering how much time I have spent in coastal wetlands during this Texas trip.

Just down the road from where I am currently living in west Houston is a small Audobon reserve, the Edith L Moore nature sanctuary, which I have been intending to visit for a while. According to eBird it seems to be a regular wintering location for a recent “bogey bird” of mine, Hermit Thrush, so when I found myself with a spare hour late on a gloriously warm, sunny Monday afternoon, I headed over there. The very first bird I saw as I walked away from the car park was a fine Hermit Thrush, feeding in the leaf litter, and I was to see two more during the course of my 40-minute visit. Halfway along the nature trail, I enjoyed a most unexpected encounter with a stunning Pileated Woodpecker, the largest extant North American woodpecker – it is not a common sight anywhere but seems to be fairly regularly seen in the well-wooded suburbs of west Houston.

Lifers: Rufous Hummingbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush (total 2,042).

2015 Year Ticks: Cedar Waxwing, Dark-eyed Junco, Swamp Sparrow (total 1,074).