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I often tell my friends that going to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) is like going to a family reunion with folks who you really like, but aren't related to. I come away from each trip the Valley having made new friends and strengthening bonds with old ones. This year's festival was the most fun yet in this regard.
As always, our week in the Lower Rio Grande Valley starts with a two-night stay at the Alamo Inn and Suites, in Alamo, Texas. Upon arriving on Sunday evening, the familiar face of innkeeper Keith Hackland was there to greet us. We quickly learned that long-time festival leader Bob Behrstock was also staying at the Inn, so we dialed him up and invited him to join us for dinner across the street at the El Dorado Restaurant, where the food is always a treat and the Negra Modelos are always cold. Bob had already eaten, but joined us anyway and kept us laughing as we ate and traded stories.
The next morning we made the short drive to Santa Ana NWR, where we met Eric Antonio Martinez, who would be a virgin leader at this year's festival. Mary Gustafson, who coordinates all the field trips for the RGVBF, had met Eric in his native Oaxaca, Mexico two years earlier when she needed a local guide. Utterly impressed by Eric's birding and guiding skills, Mary invited him to come to the festival as a leader. After more than a year spent navigating the process, Eric obtained a visa to visit the U.S., and he'd just arrived arrived the day before. Mary had asked Shawneen and me in advance if we might show Eric around and take him birding before the festival started. We happily obliged and in retrospect, we got the better end of the bargain.
We birded all day Monday with Eric. Starting at Santa Ana, we scoured the ponds along the Pintail Lakes Trail in hopes of relocating a Northern Jacana found there two days earlier. While out on the trail, we ran into J.D. Cortez, who is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist and Oil and Gas Specialist who oversees Oil and Gas exploration and development activities on the National Wildlife Refuges in the Valley. He and I led a big day trip at the 2011 festival and we were scheduled to lead a similar trip on Wednesday this year. We couldn't turn up the jacana, but enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with a host of local specialty species.
About 9:30AM vultures started getting up and filling the skies to the south, so our attentions turned to finding unusual raptors as kettles began to form in multiple directions. I picked out a distant soaring hawk with a wing shape that seemed to fit Hook-billed Kite and then got on another all-dark hawk that may have been a Zone-tailed Hawk. Both birds we were beyond the limit of identifiability, so we focused on closer kettles. A few minutes later, a kettle of vultures formed almost immediately over our heads. We noticed an all-black hawk with a single white tail band in the group, which we initially assumed would be a Zone-tailed, but something didn't look quite right. Shawneen then said, "look at the wing shape." Simultaneously, the three of us realized that we were looking at an adult dark-morph Hook-billed Kite. Light-morph Hook-billeds are seen regularly along this stretch of the Rio Grande, but dark morphs are rarely seen in the U.S. The dark-morph bird was soon joined by a light-morph Hook-billed and the two circled lazily a mere 200 feet overhead. Eric got nice photos of the dark bird, which I was thankful for, as my camera lens had picked this day to have mechanical issues. We concluded that these birds were likely the two that we had not been able ID earlier.
After Santa Ana, we made our way to Estero Llano Grande State Park. Along the way, we made a quick detour through the sod farms near Progreso. Aside from a large flock of Long-billed Curlews and a White-tailed Kite, the sod farms were pretty quiet. I dropped Eric and Shawneen off at Estero, then made an emergency run to the only reputable camera repair shop in the area, which was 20 minutes away in McAllen. I opted not to leave my lens there after the woman behind the counter informed me that it might be 2-3 days before they could get me an estimate on the repair and likely be more than a week before they could get the work done. Since my lens had been acting a bit funny just before I left home, I'd prudently brought along my trusty old Panasonic Lumix just in case. I could use it and wait until I got home to get my Canon lens repaired.
Back at Estero, I met up with Shawneen and Eric who had been combing the "tropical area" in my absence. Nothing too fancy about, but good birding nevertheless. We checked out the main pond by the visitor's center and then succumbed to hunger. Coming back from McAllen, I had noticed "Fat Daddy's Barbeque" along F.M. 1015 Rd. just a mile or so north of the entrance to the park. A full parking lot during the lunch hour is typically a good sign, so we decided to give it a try. Eric sampled the chicken-fried chicken, which came complete with mashed potatoes, white gravy and white bread. Initially overwhelmed by the mountain of food before him, he rolled up his sleeves and plowed through the entire plate. Eric's not a big guy, thus Shawneen and I were duly impressed when he scraped his plate clean. Shawneen opted for the daily special, which was a pulled pork sandwich and I had a combo plate with brisket and pork tenderloin. It was clean plates all around.
It was going on 4PM. We remained determined to show Eric a life bird, which would be a tall order in these parts where most of local birds are common in Mexico. Eric has a life list in excess of 800 species in his home country. We realized that he might not have seen Sprague's Pipit and when asked, he confirmed that it would be new for him. Off we went for the Sebastian area in southern Willacy County, where Shawneen and I had seen and heard dozens of pipits the previous year. Mere seconds out of the car, we started hearing pipits calling overhead along Co. Rd. 375. At least two dozen birds flew back and forth across the road, but none would land nearby. We got the scope on one distant bird on the ground, but still hoped for a better view.
It occurred to me that our presence in plain view on the road might be keeping the pipits from landing close. There was a single tree along the fenceline, so we crowded underneath it in hopes that if we were less visible the birds would land nearer the road. As the light began to fade, a single Sprague's Pipit alit in the short grass about 40 feet from where we stood. Eric got the spectacular views we'd hoped for as the pipit nearly filled the field of view through our 85mm Nikon EDG scope. We lingered along the roadside for another ten minutes as the sun set. We estimated that there may have been upwards of 40 pipits in the area, and a large flock of about 65 Eastern Meadowlarks flew from one side of the road to the other.
During the drive back to Alamo, we got a call from Bob Behrstock, who invited us to join him for dinner. Still stuffed from our late lunch, we picked him up and headed for Willie's Barbeque just a few blocks from the Alamo Inn. On this night, Bob ate while we only had cold drinks. After dinner, we returned Eric to the guest compound at Santa Ana. Over the course of one fabulous day we had bonded with our newfound friend from Oaxaca and we would spend the next seven days watching him transform before our eyes as he connected with other leaders and assimilated into the fabric and culture of the RGVBF family.
7:30AM Sunday 30 September
I give Shawneen a nudge to wake her up. "We need to get up and get going." She smiles as she recognizes the look in my eye. "I wondered when you were going to change your mind."
I had gone to bed thinking that today would be relaxed in pace and that we would sleep in and then start making our way north for Humboldt County and then home. As the sun rose, I woke up to the realization that I had no idea when I might next be within two hours of a Common Cuckoo. I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity. I could envision reading about the continuing presence of this bird for weeks and kicking myself for not going to see it when I was nearby. We quickly packed, grabbed some breakfast, bid our gracious host Betsy and her wonderful dog "Pepper" goodbye, and we were on our way.
As we wound our way through San Francisco and the south Bay Area, Shawneen pointed out the landmarks of her youth. Driving through open country along I-280 near Palo Alto, she showed me where she used to ride her horse. It was exciting for her to be able to share her home turf with me. It was clear that in her heart, this still remains "home."
It was after 10:30AM by the time we reached Watsonville Slough and found the park and slough-side trail where the cuckoo was being seen. The area was teeming with hopeful and already satisfied cuckoo chasers, but no one had seen the bird in nearly an hour. We encountered several familiar faces. It was starting to get hot, thus we quickly grew concerned that the heat might cause the cuckoo to find a cool spot and sit tight. Over the next two and a half hours we worked up and down the path and scoped the slough in the increasingly baking heat. We racked up an impressive list of birds that included vagrant Blackpoll and Chestnut-sided Warblers, but no cuckoo.
By 1PM the temperature was nearing 90F, so we headed back to the car to shed some layers and change into shorts. As we altered our attire another group hurriedly approached the parking area and started loading into the car next to us. Thankfully, they mentioned that the cuckoo had just been seen off of Ford St. on the far side of the slough, near where it discovered two days earlier. We pulled up our GPS, figured out where to go, and made the short drive to where the bird had just been relocated.
We parked, grabbed cameras and a scope, and hastily made our way down a trail along the side of the slough. A gathering of 15 other birders had just seen the cuckoo, but lost track of it when it flew up into the trees. Earlier in the day Sophie Webb had casually mentioned watching a flock of bushtits scolding the cuckoo. I recalled this as I heard a flock of scolding bushtits about 30' overhead. I located the source of the commotion and infused the group with joy when I readily refound the cuckoo quietly sitting near the crown of willow tree amid the scolding mob. We put the bird in Shawneen's scope. Over the next 15 minutes at least three dozen birders took turns at the scope. I took a couple passable photos, but the bird was really buried in foliage.
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. After several minutes of helping others get on the bird, I moved over to a position slightly to the left of the main group, where I kneeled down in hopes of getting a better photo angle. Then came a gift from the birding gods. The cuckoo fluttered down out of the treetops and landed on an exposed branch in small open area about 40 feet away. I was low enough that I had the only clear view of the bird, while those standing to the right and behind us had lots of branches and low hanging foliage partially blocking their sight lines to the bird. Knowing that good rumps shots were needed to confirm that this wasn't an Oriental Cuckoo, I snapped off several quick photos. The cuckoo sat on this perch with its back towards us for about a minute before flying back into the dense vegetation behind the small opening.
Marc Fenner had fortuitously squatted down right next to me, so I briefly leaned out of the way, enabling to get some good photos of his own. He was most appreciative. I was happy to share my good fortune with an old friend. Marc spent about three years living in Portland, Oregon back in the early 1980's and we occasionally birded together in those days. Neither Shawneen, who often birded with Marc after he returned to California in the mid-1980s, nor I had seen him in many years. So it was fun to combine a reunion with the joy of sharing this amazingly rare bird.
Satisfied that we'd gotten the best looks at the cuckoo that we were likely to get, and still facing a 6-7 hour drive back to Arcata, where we would spend the night, we decided to start north. Shawneen gave me a welcome break from behind the wheel, driving most of the way north to Arcata. We arrived at Jude Power's home (Jude was still in the Bay Area visiting family), where we were welcomed with a hot meal served up by our dear friend David Fix. Tired, but joyous, we spent the remainder of the evening sharing tales of our trip.
I'm sure that Shawneen questioned my sanity when I repeatedly dismissed thoughts of making a Saturday chase trip to Watsonville for the Common Cuckoo, even though it would have been a lifer for me. She had seen this species on multiple occasions during trips to western Alaska, so it would not be a lifer or even a new ABA bird for her. I had really enjoyed out visit to Point Reyes on Thursday and I really wanted to spend another full day exploring the vagrant traps on the point. While the cuckoo was enticing, I couldn't get excited about the prospect of spending more than half the day in the car and really only birding while we were at the cuckoo site. The idea held little appeal.
On Saturday morning we were up and on the road to Point Reyes National Seashore before it got light. We found a grocery store that opened at 6AM, grabbed some provisions, and then commenced the 50+ minute drive out Sir Francis Drake Hwy. Our first stop would be at the Mendoza Ranch, where two days earlier we'd found a Philadelphia Vireo. While searching for our vireo on Friday, Cole Wolf of Albuquerque, New Mexico turned up a Connecticut Warbler feeding on the ground underneath the Monterey cypress stand at the ranch. We know Cole well from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, where all of us lead trips each year.
When we reached the ranch, several other birders were already milling around in the semi-darkness created by the dense cypresses. The Connecticut Warbler was still present, a welcome relief after spending the day looking for the Humboldt Bird earlier in the week. This bird was comically tame. As it walked about in a lurching and jerky fashion on the bare dirt under the trees it was rarely out of view and often times walked to within a meter or so of the feet of birders gathered in the grove. There was also an Ovenbird in the grove, but it was quite stealthy and only occasionally hopped into view. We enjoyed these two birds for awhile and then left to check out the rest of the string of trees. Not five minutes after leaving the Connecticut and the Ovenbird, Shawneen picked out a fairly bright yellow-breasted bird in the treetops. It was a Tennessee Warbler, our fourth vagrant at this ranch.
We continued on to the Nunes Ranch, where we ran into Nevada Bird Records Committee secretary Martin Myers. The Pacific-slope Flycatcher we'd seen there two days earlier was still present, but the numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches had dropped off a bit. After chatting up Martin and his birding companion, we headed on to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Dense fog engulfed the point, which made the lighthouse trees almost unbirdable, and wet too as the condensing fog was dripping heavily off of the cypresses. As we walked back towards the parking area, another group of birds called our attention to a male Rose-brested Grobeak that was feeding along the edge of the road by the radio tower. Oddly, it had no tail. It was ridiculously approachable. Seemingly, its hunger trumped its fear of humans. We watched it for quite a while and got some fantastic close-up photos, which showed molt limits that allowed us to determine that it was a second-year (SY) male.
From the lighthouse, we continued on to the Fish Docks, where we'd heard that both Blackpoll Warbler and Orchard Oriole were being seen. We managed to refind both of these and saw another Blackpoll at Drakes Beach. On our way out to Drakes Beach, a Broad-winged Hawk flew over. On Friday there had been spectacular flight of Broad-wingeds over the Marin Headlands, with nearly 300 birds seen. Other we'd run into had seen a couple of small groups over the point on Saturday.
Ultimately, our decision to spend another day at Point Reyes paid off. The weather was mostly nice, with patches of fog limited to the outermost reaches of the point. It was sunny and warm at the Fish Docks and Drakes Beach and we had a nice assortment of vagrants, including the prized Connecticut Warbler, which made up for our miss in Humboldt.
We birded as long as we could before we needed to head back to Petaluma for the banquet and keynote presentation on the research work being conducted on Southeast Farallon Island. We enjoyed a hearty meal, good company, and nice program by Russ Bradley.
Friday 28 September was the only day of our Western Field Ornithologist (WFO) Conference trip that involved no birding. Shawneen attended a sketching workshop led by Keith Hansen, while I took a molt workshop taught by Peter Pyle. Both sessions were informative and helpful in building our birding skills. After lunch, we spent the afternoon enjoying the Plenary/Science Session which involved several folks doing short presentations about the research work that they are conducting. Arguably, the most entertaining presentation was Peter Pyle's talk about the discovery and subsequent investigations that resulted in Bryan's Shearwater becoming a recognized species. The human sub-plot and unforeseen connections to Pyle's own family tree were at least as interesting as the study of the bird itself.
One hardly expects to be jolted out of their seat by a bird discovery during an indoor meeting, but that's exactly what happened about 2:15 on Friday afternoon. During the last presentation before a mid-afternoon break, Kimball Garrett was reporting on the annual proceedings of the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC). During the course of reviewing the 2011 additions to the California state list, he noted that one of the new birds, a Common Ringed Plover found in Davis, CA during August 2011, had been discovered while many of California's top birders were attending the previous year's WFO Conference in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Then Garrett dropped a bombshell, "We may be having a similar occurrence right now." Right on cue, John Sterling entered the large banquet hall through a door in the back of the room and announced. "I'm on the phone with them right now, and they are sure that it's a rufous morph Common Cuckoo at Watsonville.
Garrett had clearly lost his audience, thus he hastily concluded his report and the meeting was adjourned for a 15-minute break. Finding a seat for the afternoon session was not going to be a problem. With nearly five hours of daylight remaining and Watsonville a mere two hours down the road, there would surely be a mass exodus by those anxious to tick off this astounding rarity. The only other Common Cuckoo ever found in the Lower 48 had been at Martha's Vineyard, MA in 1981. So for those not inclined to spend days stationed on the various island off of w. Alaska, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this bird in the ABA Area.
We chatted with several in the departing horde and got the details and the exact location of the bird. It had been spotted by Lois Goldfrank during a Santa Cruz Bird Club walk being led by Steve Gerow. Gerow was able to confirm Goldfrank's initial impression, which led her to conclude that the bird was an Old World cuckoo. They suspected it was a Common, but were not certain that the very similar Oriental Cuckoo could be eliminated. Over the next few days the bird was seen and photographed by hundreds of birders and after consultation with several experts familiar with both species, it was determined to be a hatch-year female Common Cuckoo.
Shawneen and I considered abandoning the meeting, but thought the better of what would end up being a four-hour round trip drive since we were staying in Mill Valley. Later in the day, word filtered back that the cuckoo was cooperative and being seen by everyone who went to look for it. We would have a decision to make about where we wanted to bird the following day.
Prior to 27 September 2012, I had ventured out Sir Francis Drake Highway to outer Point Reyes only once in my life, and that was in June 1983. The 1983 visit merely whetted my appetite, but if one is serious about finding vagrant passerines, Fall is the season to visit this iconic birding site. We didn't exactly bound out of bed at the crack of dawn, thus it was well after 10AM by the time we reached the "Lunny Ranch," which is the first in a series of historic ranches once you leave the heavily-wooded inner section of the Point Reyes National Seashore. It was overcast and cool, but we were encouraged when we found seven Yellow Warblers and a Wilson's Warbler at our first stop. Unlike the more famed ranches farther out on the point, the Lunny Ranch lacks any large trees and has no stand of Monterey cypress, so it has a rather paltry history when it comes to producing rarities. We didn't linger.
Our next stop, the "Mendoza Ranch" (historic Ranch B), features a beautiful line of tall cypress trees right along the road. Stands of cypress serve as beacons to arboreal passerines as they look for trees in the sea of grassland that is Point Reyes. Once found, dense clumps of willow understory and patches of fennel provide both cover and food sources that can hold stray songbirds for days. Almost immediately after getting out of the car at the Mendoza Ranch, I heard a warbler chip that did not strike me as being one of the expected "western" species that I know well. I spotted the bird in flight and watched it land on a utility wire. It was pumping its tail, which helped me recognize that it was a Palm Warbler. Nothing special as vagrants go, but an encouraging start.
As we worked our way along the upper third of the patch, we ran into another group of birders, who told us about seeing a Black-throated Gray Warbler and another unidentified warbler with yellow underparts and a noticeable eye stripe. After sharing this tidbit, they piled into their car and drove off. Intrigued by their brief description, I collected Shawneen and we walked down the road to the lower section of trees. After a minute or so of pishing, a yellowish bird with an eyeline popped into view. Shawneen didn't get on it right away, but I got solid look and realized that it was a Philadelphia Vireo. The bird was really active and it was yielding only occasional brief glimpses in between extended periods when it was buried in the cypresses. Eventually, Shawneen got some extended looks at the bird and concurred with my initial assessment. It moved down out of the canopy and was feeding in the lower vegetation, which allowed me to get some marginal, but diagnostic photos.
Shortly after we eliminated all doubt about the identity of the vireo, a field trip group from the Western Field Ornithologists arrived. I did not recognize the leader and neither did Shawneen until she heard him start talking to the group. It was Rich Stallcup, who remains legendary in these parts. Stallcup has spent nearly his entire birding life living on or in close proximity to Point Reyes and he has surely spent more days and hours birding the point's vagrant traps than anyone alive or dead. His life list for Marin County borders on unbelievable. According to Joe Morlan's website, Stallcup had seen 96% of all of the species ever recorded in the county–467 of 485–when the tally was last updated in 2009 (http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/jmorlan/mrn.htm).
When I first heard of Rich back in 1977, he had already cemented his status as one of North America's top birders. Over the past three decades his birding efforts have rarely taken him away from central California, thus he isn't the birding celebrity that he once was. After meeting him, he struck me as one who neither wants or needs to be in the limelight. Over recent decades he has quietly focused his energies in support of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO), which he founded in 1965 (http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/CAwhoRS.html). After a quick round of introductions, we helped Rich and those in his charge relocate the vireo, which honored us with even better views than we'd had earlier. We hung with Rich and his group until all of us were ready move on to the next ranch.
We forged on, making stops at the Nunes Ranch, the Fish Docks, and Drake's Beach before it was time to head back for a welcoming reception at the PRBO offices Petaluma. Over the course of the afternoon, we saw a stakeout Chestnut-sided Warbler at Drakes Beach and found two more Palm Warblers. We were a bit surprised to a find a somewhat scruffy hatch-year Hutton's Vireo at the Nunes Ranch. Drakes Beach still had quite a few Elegant Terns and we watched as a Parasitic Jaeger chased terns offshore.
Before leaving home in Portland, it had become apparent that a major flight of Red-breasted Nuthatches was moving down the West Coast. Reports of up to 50 birds had come from Cascade Head in southern Tillamook County, Oregon. Nearly every place we stopped on Point Reyes, we encountered nuthatches in the cypresses. At least a dozen enlivened both the Mendoza and Nunes ranches, and smaller numbers were at Drakes Beach and the Fish Docks.
The day ended with a fine reception at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory offices in Petaluma. Shawneen enjoyed seeing many of her old California birding friends and after hearing Guy McCaskie stories for decades and exchanging several emails with him over the past few years, I finally got to meet him in person.