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Have you ever had one of those moments when you look at a word that you use and write/type all the time and it just doesn't seem to be spelled correctly? Funny how once you get derailed thinking it isn't right, you are stuck on that path. This can happen in birding when you stop and take a good look at common birds. Red-winged Blackbird is among the species that might confound you, particularly in the western U.S., where we have to contend with the very similar Tricolored Blackbird and extensive subspecific variation in Red-wingeds.
Virtually no one gets fooled by an adult male Red-winged Blackbird, except in west where the potential for Tricolored Blackbird and "Bicolored" Blackbird come into play. Even a non-birder can accurately describe one for you. I saw this black bird with red on its wing. To which you might respond: "Strangely enough, it's called Red-winged Blackbird."
However, immature male Red-winged Blackbirds and females of all ages might be confused with a variety of species, even themselves. Their general pattern–brown and streaky–often cause those seeing a female Red-winged for the first time to think that they are looking at some sort of sparrow.
With experience, these smaller, browner, heavily-streaked blackbirds, which don't look much like blackbirds at all, become readily recognizeable. Red-winged Blackbird is a widespread and conspicuous species across most of North America. And yet, if you haven't spent some time combing through blackbird flocks and familiarizing yourself with the plumage variations in this species, it can come up and bite you. For the purposes of this article, I'll focus mostly on female types and some of the variation you might see in first-spring males.
Let's start with females. At all ages, female Red-winged Blackbirds can be described as dark brown and buffy and heavily streaked, with adults being a bit warmer in tone and more colorful on the scapulars and coverts, while immatures are generally duller overall and are sometimes colder in tone. It is important to note that subspecific variation and potential geographical variation in molt patterns (Unitt 2004) need to be taken into consideration as one attempts to age female Red-winged Blackbirds and differentiate them from Tricolored Blackbirds.
Here's where the trouble starts. If you look at the illustrations in popular field guides, adult female Tricolored Blackbirds are, in my opinion, often depicted as being a bit more streaky than they look in life. Further, they are described as being "colder" and more ashy and grayish in coloration and the illustrations normally show them to have a whitish or pale gray supercilium, while female Red-wingeds–both adults and immatures–are shown with warmer buffy supercilia.
So, if you happen onto a female-type Red-winged Blackbird that looks colder and grayer and/or shows a whitish or gray supercilium, you might reasonably conclude that it's a Tricolored based on what you find in your field guide. Not necessarily. The photos below show a grayish presumed second-year female Red-winged Blackbird, first by itself and compared to adult female Tricolored Blackbirds, then side-by-side with a more colorful and buffy-faced adult female Red-winged.
Historically, it was thought that no prealternate molt occurred in Red-winged Blackbirds, however during research conducted in Quebec 1979-1981 some degree of prealternate molt was noted in 86% of second-year (SY) females, 69% of after second-year (ASY) females, and 79% of SY males (Greenwood, Weatherhead, and Titman 1983). Conversely, Unitt (2004) noted that he found no "signficant" evidence of prealternate molt during his examination of 600 Red-winged and Tricolored Blackbird specimens; all the Red-wingeds examined by Unitt were of western subspecies, thus he attributed fall to spring changes in appearance to feather wear and subspecific variation.
Though seemingly less-confusing than females, first-spring male Red-winged Blackbirds may also exhibit variations in appearance that raise questions. After hatch-year males typically show red or orange epaulets in flight, but the red/orange is often not visible when they are perched or feeding on the ground. There may be significant variation in the amount of black seen on first-spring males, which is likely attributable to the extent of wear and starting condition of feathers acquired during the previous fall molt (A. Jaramillo pers. comm.). Jaramillo further suggested that differences in the timing or extent of prealternate molt are unlikely–to the extent that spring molt occurs in western populations. Hence, he concluded that it is the starting point or condition of feathers acquired during a hatch-year male's a near complete fall molt (first prebasic/preformative) and the wear on those feathers that produces the variations one sees in first-spring males. All sources cited agree that there is essentially no prealternate molt in male Red-wingeds that are ASY or older, thus subsequent prebasic molts and feather wear produce the variations one sees in the appearance of males ASY and older.
This piece is not intended to be the last word on the plumage variation within Red-winged or Tricolored Blackbirds, just a contribution to an ongoing discussion. As Unitt (2000) suggests, the more you look, the more variation you'll see. For the most detailed coverage of this topic, the sources listed below are all recommended reading. In preparing this short photo essay, I sent my images to Peter Pyle and Alvaro Jaramillo, who were both extremely helpful in confirming the ages of the birds in those photos and directing me to authoritative papers on this topic.
Greenwood, H., P. J. Weatherhead, and R. D. Titman. 1983. A new age and sex-specific molt scheme for the Red-winged Blackbird. Condor 85:194-105.
Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.
Unitt, P. 2000. Focus on Red-winged and Tricolored Blackbirds. http://www.sdnhm.org/archive/research/birdatlas/focus/blkbirds.html
Unitt, P. 2004. Featured Photo: Effect of plumage wear on the identification of female Red-winged and Tricolored Blackbirds. Western Birds 35:228-231
Photo Credits: Unless otherwise indicated, all Red-winged Blackbird images and the photo of the juvenile Tricolored Blackbird were taken by David Irons. The other Tricolored Blackbird images were provided by Scott Carpenter.
by Ann Nightingale
Most naturalists know that flowers often sport ultraviolet (UV) trails to lure birds and insects to visit and pollinate them. However, even experienced birders are usually surprised to find out that birds also display UV patterns in their feathers. Even the often-criticized European Starling can rival its more spectacular tropical counterparts under UV light. But who would have ever guessed that a nocturnal bird would also display an impressive UV wardrobe?
The strictly nocturnal Northern Saw-whet Owl is one of the least commonly seen common North American birds. It's a rare treat when birders happen onto a day roosting Saw-whet hidden in dense foliage. A few lucky landowners may have a nesting pair on their properties. Otherwise, the best chance to see this owl is after one has hit a window or been struck by a car. For a fairly abundant bird, this species can be maddeningly difficult to lay eyes on. But owl banders, who face the dark and sometimes cold nights to study this charismatic owl, know one of this bird’s best kept secrets.
At Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) in Victoria, BC, we have been monitoring the fall passage of Northern Saw-whet Owls over the southern tip of Vancouver Island since 2002. In fewer than a total of 60 weeks of banding, we have netted and collected data on more than 4100 passing owls, including 850 from mid-September to the end of October in 2012 alone. Saw-whets are believed by many to be more nomadic than migratory, but there is a somewhat organized southbound movement in the early fall. With a dearth of banding stations in the west, we’re still in the process of determining the primary migration corridors.
One of the most important pieces of data we collect when banding birds is the age of the individual. For most species of birds, there are two choices in the fall: a bird hatched this year (hatch-year) or an adult of indeterminate age (after-hatch-year). Adult birds of most species typically molt all of their feathers after breeding, making it difficult to impossible to determine a more precise age. Owls and other raptors, however, do not follow this pattern. They molt only some of their flight feathers each year, often in a predictable pattern, making it possible to determine their age more accurately–up to several years in some cases. Since Saw-whets are fairly prolific breeders–laying between four and seven eggs in each nest–we expect to see a much higher percentage of hatch-year birds than adults in the fall. Typically, 70 to 90% of the RPBO captures are hatch-year birds, but we’ve had the proportion of young birds drop into the 50% range during some monitoring seasons, suggesting a poor breeding season or low fledgling survival. This kind of information can sometimes be correlated to food supply, habitat changes, or weather, and may provide insight into potential conservation measures.
You can imagine that trying to assess the quality of feathers under dim light from headlamps, incandescent or fluorescent bulbs is something of a challenge, but until the mid 1990’s, this was simply how it was done. In 1982, researcher, Bruce A. Colvin discovered that porphyrin in the newly molted feathers of Barn Owls fluoresced under UV light. This organic compound fades over time and with exposure to light, making different generations of feathers easily identified using a UV light. Colvin’s discovery was shared among researchers and wildlife managers and ultimately came to the attention of David Brinker in the mid 1990s. He and other Saw-whet Owl banders along the Eastern Seaboard tried it on their smaller owls, and found that the light showed clear differences in the age of feathers, especially in detecting the differences between one- and two-year old feathers. Peter Pyle had published the expected patterns of molt in his Identification Guide to North American Birds—the “bible” to most bird banders, but using UV light made a difficult task much easier and more accurate, even for less experienced banders. Many of the stations operating under the loose affiliation of Project Owlnet are now using this tool to speed up and verify ageing during the banding process.
As helpful as this is for us, we’re pretty sure that the development of UV patterns was not for the benefit of bird banders. So how could this flashy pink signal be useful for the owls? The jury is still out on this one, but there is speculation. Since a young bird shows fluorescence across the whole wing, its age is revealed not only to banders, but to potential mates that can also see the pink porphyrin glow. During courtship, the male literally flies circles around the female, often repeating its flight display more that fifteen times. This would give the female ample opportunity to view the bright pattern of a young bird or the more muted and varied pattern of an older, more experienced bird. Even young birds are able to secure mates and raise young, though. We’ve also noticed that the intensity of the glow varies, even among birds of the same age class. It may be that the intensity is some kind of an indicator of overall fitness. We can see how this could be useful in mate selection.
However, larger owls, such as Barred Owls, also show the same kind of UV patterns, so presumably can see the glow of the new feathers as well. We also know that larger owls prey upon smaller owls like Northern Saw-whets. Is it possible that since the older birds show less color, they could be less likely targets of predation? Does the UV pattern offer the established breeders a bit of protection while sacrificing the young of the year? There are no guarantees, though, and recently the band of a third-year Saw-whet banded at Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory in British Columbia was found in a Great Horned Owl pellet 100 km south of Spokane, WA.
If you know where to look, Northern Saw-whet Owls can be found throughout the year in the Pacific Northwest. Despite being one of the most studied birds in North America, there is still much to learn about this secretive little owl!
Prior to the mid-1990s, when I first noticed advertisements extolling its virtues as a birding hotspot, I had never heard of Harlingen, Texas. At that time, Brownsville to the southeast and McAllen to the west, were the towns that came to mind when one talked about birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV). Over time, Harlingen has become known to many as the gateway to RGV birding. How and why did this come to be?
If you drive northwest from Brownsville on Hwy 77 and then west on Hwy 83 to McAllen/Mission, you'll pass through Harlingen at about the halfway point. Through the windshield there is nothing that might cause you to think that it's different from the many other communities along this corridor. Its regional airport, one of three in the Lower RGV, has several incoming and outgoing flights daily, most connecting with either Houston or San Antonio. Otherwise, its only discernible advantage is that it lies at the intersection of the region's two main highways. If you are coming to the Valley from Corpus Christi or points farther north, Harlingen offers a welcome break after a long drive through mostly unpopulated farm and ranch lands. Lodging options and places to eat are plentiful. More importantly, many of the Valley's premier birding sites are less than an hour away. Turn left (southeast) and you're on your way to South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa NWR, and Brownsville. Turn right (upriver) and Estero Llano Grande State Park, Santa Ana NWR, Bentsten-Rio Grande Valley State Park, along with various other upstream sites await exploration. It would be easy to conclude that Harlingen benefits mostly from the advantages that come with being the town at the crossroads. However, a closer look reveals that Harlingen's rise is the result of a concerted effort by civic leaders, the chamber of commerce, and local birders.
Over the past two decades, the increasingly popular Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) has cemented Harlingen's status as the hub for birding activities in the Valley. When the festival started in 1994, the notion of eco-tourism as an economic engine was relatively new, but the concept was gaining traction world-wide. Forward-thinking Harlingen civic leaders, most notably Nancy Millar, who headed the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and Janice Wyrick, who sat on the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce executive committee in the early 90s, recognized that birders already represented a significant portion of the Valley's visitors and came to understand that the Valley offered some unique avian attractions. Upon returning from a CVB conference where there had been a major buzz about "eco-tourism," Millar was anxious to find a way to put Harlingen on the eco-tourism map.
When Millar first presented the idea of sponsoring a birding festival to the Chamber of Commerce executive committee, only Wyrick, the committee's lone female member, was intrigued. Through her long-time friendship with local birder/bird artist Tony Bennett and his wife Liz (now Liz DeLuna Gordon) Wyrick had been made aware of the Valley's birdlife and the need for habitat conservation. As early as 1988, the Bennetts had written letters to community leaders in hopes starting a birding festival. Their enthusiasm helped inspire Wyrick's confidence in Millar's efforts to create such an event. So she volunteered to chair the organizing effort so long as they could find a local bird expert to help out.
That expert would be Tom Pincelli, a Catholic priest who has been a fixture in RGV birding community since arriving in south Texas in 1980. In birding circles, all you need to say is "Father Tom" or "Father Bird," and many in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond will know exactly who you are talking about. Pincell is a Connecticut native, who started birding in 1972. By the time the church offered him a congregation in Harlingen in 1980, he was well acquainted with the special birding opportunities in south Texas. For a birding priest, this assignment must have been like winning the lottery. Ever since, Father Tom has tirelessly promoted birding and bird habitat conservation in the Valley. When the festival organizers came calling, he was arguably the region's most well-known birder, thus his involvement brought the fledgling event instant credibility.
After clearing the initial hurdle and gaining the support of the Chamber, the five-member founding group, which included Pincelli, Jan Wyrick, Terri Bortness, Nancy Millar, and Liz DeLuna Gordon (then Liz Bennett), formed a 501-3c non-profit organization, picked a name for the festival, and elected Pincelli president and Wyrick as vice president of the event. Pincelli and DeLuna Gordon would organize the birders and work on the schedule of field trips and other activities, while Wyrick and Millar worked their connections in an effort to secure corporate sponsorships and support from the business community. Bortness, who worked under Nancy Millar, was the Chamber of Commerce liason to the festival and perhaps best described as the dotter of all I's and crosser of all T's when it cames to things involving money. She managed event tickets, name tags, filed all the required financial reports and generally assisted Millar in maintaining the Chamber "umbrella" over the event. In addition to this core group, Tony Bennett was the festival's first artist in residence so to speak. He illustrated the first t-shirt and created the festival's logo.
Liz DeLuna Gordon, then a 27-year-old hairdresser and self-proclaimed "big mouth," was just getting started on a career as the "Jill" of all trades. She worked to line up vendors for the trade show and pushed for a kids program that remains one of the centerpieces of the festival. She also helped coordinate field trips, and was involved in procuring festival souvenirs. As she tells it, "I was running all over town telling people this thing was cool!" Even though she hasn't lived in Texas for several years–first moving to Lewes, Delaware and then to Colorado Springs, Colorado with her current husband (and ABA President) Jeff Gordon–Liz returns to the festival each year to don her red "volunteer staff" t-shirt and lend a hand where needed. More often than not, you'll find her surrounded by school-age children who are drawing birds, painting birds on their faces, and creating bird-related crafts in the kids area.
Support from the City of Harlingen would be vital in staging the festival. Without free use of the city event buildings, okays to place signage around town, and other infrastructure considerations it would have been near impossible to pull it off. Father Tom arranged a meeting with the mayor and took along a stack of Roger Tory Peterson's books in an effort to demonstrate that having Peterson as the festival's first keynote speaker would be a major draw. Peterson's involvement probably did little to sway the mayor, as he didn't know who Peterson was. What the mayor did recognize was the overwhelming passion and enthusiasm of the local organizers. Taking what might be considered a leap of faith, he 'green lighted' virtually all of their requests. In hindsight, his decision to endorse the inaugural event might be among the most important choices of his days in office and after that first year, the mayor became one of festival's staunchest advocates.
The initial Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (1994) drew a remarkable 750 attendees (http://www.rgvbf.org/about/). With many of the festival goers coming from outside the area, there was an appreciable economic boon to Harlingen-area motels and restaurants. This grabbed the attention of local politicians and business leaders. Although the RGVBF has been organized and run entirely by volunteers (no paid staff) from the start, it continues to thrive in large measure due to the financial support of the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau and the City of Harlingen (http://www.rgvbf.org/about/). The success of the RGVBF has been used as a model by similar events that have sprouted up all over North America and elsewhere in the world. The earliest birding festivals were often the brainchild of a birding club or conservation organization. Nowadays, these events are mostly started by non-birder community and business leaders who are anxious to tap into the economic benefits of eco-tourism.
Beyond the obvious economic impacts, the RGVBF has helped local residents recognize that they live amid a unique (to the United States) and diverse collection of birds, butterflies and habitats that merit protection and "stewardship" (Texas Legacy Project, Pincelli interview 2000). The festival has became a source of civic pride, even among those who are not birders. Community members who come to the daily exhibits and trade show at the Harlingen Auditorium now make up a big chunk of the festival's overall attendance. Civic pride, combined with the realization that "birds equal dollars," has driven the political and business support needed to keep the festival going strong for nearly two decades.
The festival remains vibrant by offering an ever-evolving slate of field trips designed to introduce participants to the specialty species of the region, many of which can be found no where else in the U.S. In addition to highly specialized explorations for target species, like the evening "parrot trips," there are "big day" tours where one can expect to see in excess of 140 species during ten hours in the field. There are hawk-banding workshops, butterfly walks, and even "easy" trips that are a popular alternative for those whose physical condition necessitates bird outings that don't involve much walking or physical exertion.
Most of the field trips are half-day, which leaves the afternoon open for participants to take in programs, a wonderful exhibition of bird art by kids from local schools, and the trade show. All of these events are held inside the air-conditioned Harlingen Auditorium. Even in November, daytime temps in the Valley often climb to well in excess of 80F.
Those wishing to maximumize their time in field often use the afternoons and early evenings to further explore some of the 86 U.S. locations that appear on the Rio Grande Valley Birding and Butterfly Map. More than half of these sites are within 45 minutes (driving) of Harlingen. All nine of the nearby World Birding Centers are manned by knowledgeable and friendly staff and volunteers who will not only help you find your way around, but more importantly assist you in locating sought-after birds.
As an out of town leader at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival over the past three years, I have come to associate the festival with two things. First, there is a sense of family and belonging that is bestowed upon everyone who lends their efforts to making this a first-class event. From my first day in the Valley, I was welcomed like an old friend. Each year I make new friends and strengthen the bonds I've created since that first year. Further, I never cease to be amazed by the undeniable pride that blazes across the faces of the festival's volunteer staff and a community that has clearly claimed this festival as their own.
My words don't begin to capture the civic pride that this festival brings to those who call the Valley home, so I will defer to Jan Wyrick, who sent me lengthy answers to a series of questions that I posed to her about the early days of the festival. The paragraph below is excerpted from her answer to my question about how the community views the festival and the number of birders visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
One of the most rewarding things about having been a part of the "birthing" of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, aside from being in on the ground floor of something so powerful and so life changing, is knowing that those untried and untrue hunches of ours way back when were SPOT ON! I was 4o years old when we embarked on the road to our first Festival. I knew in my heart that we had struck major pay dirt, not only for the City of Harlingen, but for the Valley overall and most importantly for our Valley birds and efforts to conserve their habitats. For me, life really did "begin at 40." When I look around today, as opposed to what I saw when we started in 1994, I see a community that has wholly bought into the Festival and one that is fully invested in supporting it. We have become a household word. By the looks of things today, we can't foresee the community losing interest or abandoning the festival anytime soon. We touted two things when we initially reached out to the City, the community, and the media in the early stages. One was quite simply, "birds=$$$. Secondly, we adopted a quote, "In a world where money talks, our land needs value to give it a voice." We've proven both of these premises to be SPOT ON! By investing our money where the birds are, we have created both tangible and intangible returns to the City and community coffers. In doing so, we've also inspired a growing community of local birders (like me) who are excited by the chance to get behind the most successful community-based endeavor to hit Harlingen and the Valley over the past 20 years.
Prior to the volunteer party at the end of this year's festival (November 2012), I had never met Jan Wyrick. After a quick introduction from current RGVBF president Marci Madsen-Fuller, I told Jan that I was working on this article, which I'd started before I left for Texas. I asked if she might answer a few questions about the festival's early days if I sent them to her in an email. My request was met with a gush of enthusiasm. We chatted for a couple of minutes, then I excused myself so that Jan could get back to enjoying the many long-time festival friends who were waiting to talk to her. Despite the brevity of our initial exchange, she closed her first email response to me with the following:
Until Next We Meet, Be Well My Friend!! Jan
Jan's spirit and the spirit of the festival and all of the volunteers who live up and down the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is truly captured in these eight words. When you come to the Valley, expect to be treated as a friend. They know you'll be back.
The answer to "Why Harlingen" has little to do with the birds one might see in Harlingen proper. The answer lies in the choices made by a small group of dedicated and enthusiastic people (some of whom are not even birders) who saw an opportunity and seized it. It was folks from Harlingen who creatively marketed their town as a birding mecca, when in reality it was not at the time. They claimed the name "Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival" and then created an event that lives up to the billing. They inspired the City of Harlingen and its leaders to believe in their unproven idea, and then convinced them to donate the use of buildings and provide the vital support that allowed them to pull if off...and pull it off they did! Collectively, these folks embodied the notion of "fake it til you make it."
Why Harlingen? Because a few dared to ask, "Why not Harlingen?"
Author's Note: While this is not my story, my association with the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival over the past three years has enriched my life in ways that have given me cause to want to share the magic of this event with others. It's a story that could not have been told without the contributions of Jan Wyrick and Liz DeLuna Gordon, who patiently answered questions and set me straight when my narrative strayed from their recollection of events. Father Tom Pincelli also reviewed this account and thankfully found only one factoid that needed attention. I also want to thank current RGVBF Chairperson Marci Madsen-Fuller, who introduced me to Jan Wyrick and who continues to be a stalwart steward of the culture and spirit that has accompanied this event from the very beginning. Finally, I have to acknowledge Mary Gustafson, who took a leap of faith of her own back in 2010, when she took on a new leader for the festival who never before even birded in the Rio Grande Valley, or anywhere in south Texas for that matter. That new leader was me. I had never seen a Green Jay, nor had I heard my first Great Kiskadee, and I spent that first trip to Harlingen being utterly confounded by the Hwy 77/Hwy 83 interchange and the spiderweb of associated frontage roads. Thanks Mary, for letting me fake it til I figured it out and for all the subsequent joys that have come via my association with this festival and the fine folks who make it so special.
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 ideal of 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.