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I just received an e-mail from Washington state eBird reviewer Charlie Wright that included this photo. This bunting was photographed at Seven Devils Wayside in Coos County, OR on 25 November 2011 by Karen Olsen. She sent it to Charlie requesting help identifying it. I've seen just one McKay's Bunting--30 years ago here in Oregon--and I don't see Snow Buntings but once every few years, so I'm hardly an expert on the variability shown by Snow Buntings.
The constrained black in the tail and the very pale rump and mostly white upperparts caused Charlie to wonder if this might be a McKay's and I can't see much on this bird that dissuades me from that same question.
I will be posting notes about this bird to ID-Frontiers and other listservs that might bring forth some folks who can offer expert opinions on this bird. Please post any commentary you have about this bird to BirdFellow so that we can have an archive of comments that accompanies this photo.
"This tour is a mix of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Storm Chasers." (Parrot trip leader Jen Brumfield overheard this comment from one of our participants)
One of my highlights from this year's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) was leading three late afternoon/early evening "parrot trips." These two-hour forays into the urban neighborhoods of Harlingen, Texas are more like SWAT raids than birding as most of us know it.
Each afternoon Michael Retter gathers and briefs the participants and van leaders before heading out to look for flocks of our target birds--Green Parakeet and Red-crowned Parrot. These trips are always popular, since the Rio Grande Valley is the only place in the U.S. where one can see "countable" populations of these two birds.
For several years Retter has shouldered the responsibility of organizing the RGVBF parrot chases and more importantly keeping track of where roosting parakeet and parrot flocks are consistently hanging out in Harlingen. He passes out maps, leaders exchange cell phone numbers, and we divide up the participants into three unmarked white 12-passenger vans. Shortly after 4PM we leave the Harlingen Convention Center and head for the heavily-urbanized area near the massive Hwy 77/83 interchange in the middle of Harlingen. Over the past year this landscape, which is dominated by concrete, asphalt, chain motels, "big box" retail outlets, and strip malls, has reliably produced flocks of Green Parakeets.
I steer my van towards the Holiday Inn Express, where Shawneen Finnegan and I had seen a flock of 24 parakeets two nights earlier. Nearing the general area, a distant flock of 12 flying parakeets is spotted about three blocks away. We watch helplessly as the flock continues south, passes over the freeway and disappears. We don't bother to call the other vans, convinced that relocating this flock would require battling rush-hour traffic around the chaotic interchange and then trying to find a needle in a haystack once the birds landed.
Within a couple minutes we get a call from Retter's van, which gets on the same flock of parakeets and sees them land on a powerline behind the local Walmart. Within five minutes three empty vans and 30 birders are lined up behind the Walmart. The loudly chattering parakeets, many in obvious pairs, sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a utility wire grooming one another and occasional engaging in some interesting gymnastics as they squabble over a particular perch. Eventually, most of the flock moves onto the Walmart building where they drink from the rain gutter, which is flush with water after a pre-dawn downpour. We linger with the flock for about 15 minutes as many pictures are taken and scope views of these charming bright green birds are savored.
Phew! "One down, let's go find some parrots."
We pile back into the vans and set off in pursuit of Red-crowned Parrots. Retter has the the roost area for these birds staked out, but they don't typically show up there until about 5:30. It's only 4:40, so I opt to leisurely cruise through west Harlingen as we make our way to roost neighborhood near 7th and Williamson. A quick stop at Lake Harlingen in the middle of town yields about a dozen additions to the species list for this trip. Hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks graze on the lawn in the park. Then, Cole Wolf, my co-pilot/navigator for this trip, spots a bright male Vermilion Flycatcher perched along the iron fence on the south side of the lake, which all enjoy, particularly Cyndi Routledge, for whom the flycatcher is a lifer!
We continue on, occasionally crossing paths with the other two vans, which are hopelessly conspicuous as they poke along through otherwise quiet residential neighborhoods. Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, and Lesser Goldfinch are added to trip list, which ultimately reaches nearly 40 species. Eurasian Collared-Doves, Great-tailed Grackles, European Starlings, and Rock Pigeons are ubiquitous as we double-check every flock of birds perched on wires. As we pull up to one stop sign, we notice a group of egrets, mostly Snowies with one Great Egret and a White-faced Ibis feeding in a drainage canal. Closer scrutiny yields two Mottled Ducks, a Least Sandpiper, and a Wilson's Snipe.
Our broad circles around the area gradually become tighter as it becomes apparent that we aren't going to find the parrots until they come into the roost neighborhood. By the time we reach the baptist church at 7th and Williamson, the other two vans are already parked and off-loaded. We join the assemblage and then mill about anxiously for a few minutes, with some in the group surely wondering if this would be the evening when the parrots no-showed.
Then, without the slightest warning, there is a jolting cacophony of unmistakeable parrot noises. Within seconds a large flock of Red-Crowned Parrots materializes over the top of the church. They circle around overhead for a few moments, then land in some trees in a yard across the street. Eventually, the entire flock--about 175 in all--takes flight again before landing on the powerlines right in front of the group. We start looking through the flock for other species of exotic (non-native, non-countable) parrots. We pick out a few yellow-cheeked birds with restricted red on the crown. These are Red-lored Parrots, the most expected exotic in this flock. As we work through the birds on the wires, two late-arriving birds fly in. They are a bit larger and have mostly yellow heads. Retter yells out, "Yellow-headed Parrots!" They seem a bit nervous about joining the main flock, but eventually settle in on the wires with small sub-group of Red-crowneds down the street.
No one in the group is in any rush to leave, as most of us realize that it will be at least a year, if not several, before we encounter these quintessential tropical birds again. They are charismatic creatures, seemingly disinclined to ever sit still. Like the Green Parakeets earlier, most of the birds in this flock are in obvious pairs. Their perpetual motion involves much grooming, bill contact, hanging upside down, and mini turf disputes that never become too serious. Several in our group continue snapping photos until the light is so meager that only dark grainy images can be had.
I led parrot trips on three successive evenings and thankfully we managed to find both parakeets and parrots on every trip. All were high energy affairs fueled by the anticipation and excitement of each new group of participants. We even had some repeat customers who apparently signed up for multiple trips to ensure that they would get both target species. These parrot trips are truly a unique and fun birding experience, as evidenced by the fact that folks will come out and do it all over again even after a successful outing. I'm already looking forward to leading again next year.
To see more of Debby Kaspari's artwork, visit her website at: http://drawingthemotmot.wordpress.com
For birders, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas offers innumerable must visit destinations. As you explore lodging options in Valley, I highly recommend the Alamo Inn B&B and Outdoor Store. This quaint inn and nature store is conveniently situated in the heart of one North America's birding meccas and, more importantly, innkeeper Keith Hackland and his wife Audrey Jones have targeted birders and eco-tourists as their primary clientele.
The Alamo Inn, located in the town of Alamo, is less than 10 minutes from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Other local hotspots such as Estero Llano Grande State Park, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, Anzalduas Park, and the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco are all within 30 minutes of the inn. If you want to bird along the Gulf Coast, Brownsville, South Padre Island, and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge are a mere 90 minutes away, with lots birding opportunities en route.
The original building, erected by the Alamo Land and Sugar Co. in 1919, was purchased by Audrey in 1998. After 18 months of remodeling, the inn opened for business in November of 1999. It features themed suites that are clean, comfortable and plenty spacious if you intend to settle in for a multi-day stay. Seven additional apartment suites are available in a separate complex just down the street from the main inn. The apartments, which can be rented for extended stays of up to a month or more, feature full kitchens, which are stocked with dishes, pots and pans, and cooking utensils.
The nightly rates for most of the suites and apartments, which range from $55-70, are a bargain compared to what you will pay for a cookie-cutter room at one of the national chains and the amenities offered at the Alamo Inn far outstrip those that come with such accommodations. I'm consistently underwhelmed by the "breakfast" options at most motels/hotels and invariably the person charged with putting out the continental breakfast is late in doing so. Not the case at the Alamo Inn, which features a wonderful little dining area with real dishes and silverware, and the kind of food you might eat at home. Choose from a variety of juices, fruits, yogurts, and a hearty and healthy assortment of cold and hot cereals. Milk options are many, with everything from skim to whole and even soy milk. The inn features locally-baked artisan breads and a nice array of local jams and jellies (including jalapeno) to spread upon them. All of this is available self-service round the clock, so if you want to start your day at o'dark thirty, you won't have to wait around for the food to be put out. If you need a lunch for the day, the refrigerator is stocked with cold-cuts etc. There is even a white board hanging on the wall, with postings about rare birds in the area.
Talk to virtually anyone who has experienced the Alamo Inn and they'll convince you that it's the place to stay when you visit the Valley. These days, nearly all of the inn's business comes from word of mouth advertising or repeat customers, so you'll want to book your stay well in advance.
As the sign over the door at the Alamo Inn B&B and Outdoor Store says:
Dave and I reviewed the BirdFellow "camera-shy" list this morning. We have a number of birds missing photos, many rarities. However, there are many birds that are regularly observed and photographed, for which we have zero photos.
Can you help? If you can, lets us know!
I've provided the list of the missing birds below.