On the Road Again
November 15-20 2016 Days 320-325
Summary: Cruise control, Texas deer, Pygmy Owl problems
Driving from Oregon to Las Vegas, Yuma Arizona, Laredo Texas, to Raymondville Texas.
New birds: Mountain Plover (AZ, 2) Ruddy Ground Dove (AZ, 3) Amazon Kingfisher (TX, 5)
Miles Driven: 2,586 Nights in Car: 6 Cheapest Gas: $1.84 Bird Count: 742 +2
Sunday November 20th Moving on Along
Another night spent in the Subaru on the road. I decided to explore the flats east of Raymondville, along the Sacahuistale Flats. After checking a few spots around the ranches, whistling owl calls and playing a tape once (I'm bending my own rules on finding this bird) I decided to focus on finding Sprague's Pipit, a declining prairie species. I successfully cruised some muddy farm roads, easily finding a Sprague's Pipit and a multitude of raptors including this banded Harris's Hawk.
I could spend a week in the Lower Rio Grande Valley- there's so many birds here to see, and a ton of potential habitat for vagrants. If I had already seen all the Code 1s and 2s already, I'd spend a week in the valley, but alas, I have more birds to find. Better bundle up and head north! This coming week should see a nice push towards my goal.
Saturday November 19th Texas is King
This year I avoided King Ranch as best I could- until today. Every Big Year birder seems to go there for one special bird- the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I'd read books, articles, blogs, all about finding this tropical species on King Ranch. It didn't sound too fun to me to a.) pay lots of money (over $120 usually) b.) have a guide drive me around and point out the bird, and c.) look at a owl in a nest box. I'm not criticizing anybody else, but that simply doesn't cut it for me. I wanted more of a search, an effort, and a story to see this special owl. After trying multiple times to find Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Arizona, with dim success (I had marginal looks at a small owl flying away I think was my bird) I got what I bargained for in a good story, spent effort, and came up short for a solid sighting. (I didn't want to count this bird as a "heard-only")
After spotting the Amazon Kingfisher the night before in Laredo, I knew I'd drive past King Ranch, relatively-speaking. I knew I needed this bird more than ever, to reach my goal of 750+ birds. After trying everything else I could think of, I stopped and asked the King Ranch staff about the likelihood of being shown an owl. It wasn't going to happen. I understood their reasoning, and set out on my own to bird surrounding habitat the best I could in search of this bird, before driving North again.
I slept in my car along the road going into the Norias Division of King Ranch. It was windy, lots of traffic was on the highway on a weekend, and I wasn't really close to the habitat on the other side of the fence, nearly a mile away- that had owls. I can't say I didn't try. The police woke me up sometime in the night and questioned me, but I supplied enough evidence I was a birder, and my Maven binoculars proved to be a free "don't-go-to-jail" card, metaphorically speaking. I fell back asleep, waking up in the night to play the call and listen- nothing, as I expected.
After sunrise, I birded around the area- checking spots for owls, raptors, and Masked Ducks. This species is overdue to show up in the ABA area, and I used eBird to check previous locations where Masked Ducks have shown up, and narrowed it down to locations with Ruddy Ducks reported there within the last week. I looked at a lot of Ruddy Ducks, but alas, no Masked Duck. Ill leave it to someone else to find on the Christmas Bird Count, perhaps.
Near Port Mansfield I ran into a large herd of deer, which distracted me from my owling mission. They seemed curious, walking up to me and following me around. I'm guessing people in town feed them, as they seemed very habituated to people. I saw several large bucks, including one who wanted to challenge me to a fight. I had to decline, seeing how an antler through my abdomen isn't on my needs list.
After sunset, I sat around at McDonalds long past my bedtime, figuring out computer issues, and logistics for the next half-dozen birds. It will be a couple weeks, but I'll make it to 750. My 1 TB external hard drive is full of pictures and video footage, my credit card company can't keep track of my whereabouts, and I'm loving every minute of it. Life is good.
Friday November 18th
After spending the night at a roadside rest stop in the middle of Texas, I stole a few hours of sleep before waking up and driving the remaining 300 miles or so to Laredo. It felt nice to be back in the land of Caracaras and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. New arrivals since I was last in Texas were scores of American Kestrels, some larger and broader then I've seen in the Southwest the last few days. I pulled a few U-turns putting my "merlin glasses" on, hoping to watch one of my favorite birds hunt, but with no luck. I arrived at the Amazon Kingfisher spot along the Zacate Creek, and spent the remainder of the day searching for it. I befriended a border patrol guard and we hiked along the river corridor together, talking about birds. He was working (on foot patrol) and I had a personal bodyguard, which was cool. We had a marginal look at what I think was the Amazon Kingfisher flying down the creek shortly after 1pm. After looking at a photo on my phone, the guard said "That's definitely it, you should count it". I was 95% confident in the I.D. and held off adding it to my list, as it wasn't dark yet and the chance for it to stick around and be re-seen by others was high. I wanted other birders to see it, and to for me to get in a look that would resolve 100% certainty in my identification before adding it to my list. I won't regret being the biggest critic of my own list, since I'm competing with myself, and I won't get better at bird identification if I cut corners. My patience was rewarded at a quarter after 5pm I got another fly-by look at the bird as it came up the creek, with other birders seeing it too! I took poor but diagnostic flight shots, and we ran up the hill to tell the other birders. Everyone shared great looks at the bird once it returned to the "normal spots" along the waterfall and rocks along the creek. I did a few interviews, took photos, and just enjoyed the positive energy flowing from everyone. What a relief! I was glad I didn't count it earlier and leave, for I would have missed a fantastic shared experience with the other birders. I indulged in an authentic Mexican dinner, courtesy of a birder who decided I shouldn't eat mac n cheese tonight. Thank you! I scarfed down my food, taking half the meal to go. I drove across the state to Kingsville... I had an owl to find.
Thursday November 17th
Waking up in a ditch has never felt so good. This time, it was a self-selected ditch- a seasonal gulch in the foothills of Organ Pipe National Monument. The goal was to get off the road and bird dusk then dawn, searching for Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. This bird is becoming a bit of a nemesis, but 3 times is my maximum effort for a bird this year in a spot, then I move on. It's not a hard-and-fast rule but I've kept it in mind and stuck to it so far I think. I checked out some spots near the park Headquarters and then bought a backcountry camping permit for $5, drove out into the middle of nowhere, and hiked further into the middle of nowhere. It was great. Just me, the stars, and a Great Horned Owl calling somewhere in the distance. I thought I'd attract scorpions and spiders in the night, sleeping on the ground without a tent, but woke up without a bite. I did see this spider, which bears an eerie resemblance to Brown Recluse. I spent the morning hiking desert washes with Ironwood trees and suitable habitat for the owls, spotting other things, but I could sense the changes in the desert since I'd been here a month ago. It was colder, and more quiet.
In the afternoon, I got my oil changed, tires rotated, and then drove 760 miles into the middle of nowhere, Texas. It was a long day of driving well into the night, but not setting my dashboard clock forward helped trick me into thinking it wasn't as late. I slept at a rest area next to a loud truck.
Wednesday November 16th
I slept in my car near a shooting range outside of Yuma, Arizona. I didn't know it, driving down a dirt road and pulling off into a dirt cul-de-sac in the dark until I heard shots during the night, and moved my car a little bit to somewhere that looked a little less prone to stray bullets. Who knew people shot guns on a range at night? In the morning, I followed an eBird pin to an agricultural area near Yuma, Arizona in search of Mountain Plovers. The pin was in the general vicinity, and I had no trouble finding a huge flock of them a mile or so away. I had great early-morning light and nice scope views of a new life bird! Next, I jumped on I-10 East to the town of Roll, which had some recently-reported Ruddy Ground-Doves. I'd searched close by this town a few weeks ago for this bird, based off some older eBird reports from previous years- i knew they'd be around here. A friend found them a couple weeks ago, and so I had a narrower search area to check this time, instead of flying in the dark. I checked the bridge on the way in, but didn't see the birds Olaf reported (they actually weren't on the bridge, I just thought it was funny he put the eBird pin there) I found a female amidst scores of Inca Doves, and met some nice folks while driving around town looking in people's backyards for birds. Mid-afternoon, I set my GPS for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and started eating all the cookies one of the ladies I met baked and gave me. I arrived before dusk, and spent some time checking a few spots for owls. Grabbed a backcountry permit and headed off into the foothills to sleep in the desert and look for owls, stopping only to whistle for owls and enjoy the sunset. This year is awesome.