A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

Good grief, where do I even begin? I just spent a week down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and my head is still spinning from all the beautiful birds I saw. It was so nice to escape the cold of northwest Ohio for a few days, even though the weather down in the McAllen area wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped. Most days we saw high temps in the upper 60s, with quite a bit of cloudiness and some scattered rain.

Roseate spoonbills lifers w sig
Roseate Spoonbills, one of my most-wanted species!

But that didn’t have much of an impact on how much I enjoyed this trip. My only other visit to this area was in November three years ago, and I didn’t have a very good time on that trip, so I was eager to give Texas a chance to redeem itself. And it did that in spades, with the help of my friend Rick Nirschl.

Rick is a Toledo resident who spends winters in the Rio Grande Valley. He has an amazing ability to find any bird you might want to see, whether it’s in Ohio or Texas. He’s well-known for finding new bird and dragonfly records in both states, and even discovered a dragonfly that had never been identified before (It has since been named the Sarracenia Spiketail, Cordulegaster sarracenia). So with Rick as my world-class tour guide this week, I got to see almost every bird I’d hoped to find, as well as enjoying great conversation and soaking up as much of his knowledge of the natural world as I possibly could. Nature experiences don’t get much better than this.

Places we visited included Quinta Mazatlan, Estero Llano Grande, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Falcon State Park, and the National Butterfly Center. Rick also knows lots of special spots along various roads and on the private property of his many friends in the area.

Pyrrhuloxia w sig
Pyrrhuloxia, a desert relative of our cardinal

One of the things that made a big impression on me down there was that there were birds everywhere, as contrasted with right now in my part of Ohio, which sometimes feels dead and barren because the birds are so scarce.

And in Texas many of the birds are vocal now, whether it’s the noisy chatter of a large flock of blackbirds or parakeets, or the calls of songbirds in the woods. It was just so refreshing to see and hear so much bird activity at a time of year when I’m not able to do that at home. It’s always fun to be down south in winter and see some of “our” birds on their wintering grounds. I saw more Orange-crowned Warblers on this trip than I’ve seen in my entire life!

Each of these photos is more than just a record of the physical presence of a bird. A photo serves as a memory trigger, reminding me of where I was, what I was searching for, who I was with, and even what we were talking about while we watched the birds. When I get to the point in my life where I can’t travel anymore, I’ll be able to re-live these experiences just by looking through my photos.

But I do have a couple stories to tell you about a few photos. Let’s start with one of my favorites, these American White Pelicans. While planning my trip I’d talked to Rick about some birds I’d like to see. But somehow I didn’t even think about pelicans, so of course he didn’t make any special effort to show me those birds. One day he took me to the home of a friend who lives on a resaca, which is a lake formed when an oxbow of the Rio Grande River gets cut off from the main river and becomes a separate body of water.

We got out of the car and started walking toward the back of the house, toward the resaca. Even from a distance I could see the hundreds and hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling ducks out there (I eventually estimated 1,000). That was really neat, because I’d only seen a few of those beautiful ducks in Ohio a few years ago.

Black-bellied Whistling ducks w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Black-bellied Whistling-ducks

But as we got closer to the bank of the lake, I noticed a few pelicans very close to shore, and my jaw dropped as I absorbed their enormity. I quickly stepped behind a large palm tree to try not to spook the birds, and leaned over slightly to start taking photos of them.

American White Pelicans w sig - copyright Kim Smith
American White Pelicans

Meanwhile, from about 10 feet to my left, Rick was trying to get me to come look at a Ringed Kingfisher. I continued shooting the pelicans and said, “Okay, just a sec, I’m watching the pelicans!” A minute or so later I walked over and looked at the kingfisher, and then went back to watching the pelicans. I just couldn’t get enough of them! In addition to the ones already on the water, I got to see a few more of these colossal birds fly in, a spectacle in itself.

Pelican in flight w sig

After we were done watching the birds, we got in the car and had a good laugh when Rick said that lots of people come here specifically to find a Ringed Kingfisher, and I was more fascinated with the rather ordinary pelicans. Don’t get me wrong, that kingfisher was pretty neat. But the pelicans were extraordinary. Oh man, I still smile when I think of those enormous birds with buckets on their faces.

Another day we stopped to watch a large flock of Green Parakeets on power lines in the city of Mission. We also saw Monk Parakeets in the town of Hidalgo. As my friend Ryan says, there’s something so cool about green birds. That bright green almost glows on an overcast day, as does the red of a Vermillion Flycatcher, of which we also saw a few.

Monk parakeets in Hidalgo city - cropped w sig
Monk parakeets

And speaking of bird colors, I finally got to see a Painted Bunting. This clownish bird is aptly named, because he looks like someone spilled several cans of paint all over him. He makes me smile.

Painted Bunting w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Painted Bunting

Another excellent experience was finding this Cactus Wren, a life bird for me. (I haven’t tallied up my life birds from this trip, but I probably added twenty species.) Rick walked up to a row of cacti along a fence and said we could probably find a Cactus Wren there, and boom, this one popped up and started singing directly in front of us. We both slow-walked closer and closer, shooting photos as we moved, and we eventually got up to the fence, which put us about 15 feet from the bird. We both got incredible views of this strikingly-marked wren, and he watched us calmly until we started walking away and then he dropped down to the ground and resumed his business.

Cactus Wren w sig
Cactus wren

This Blue Bunting is normally a bird of Mexico and northern Central America, but this species occasionally shows up in southern Texas. This particular bird had been frequenting the feeders at the World Birding Center at Quinta Mazatlan, and after a couple unsuccessful stakeouts, we both got to see it. Unfortunately our sightings were in poor lighting and, combined with the dark color of the bird, made for difficulty getting high quality images. But even a poor image can be a fantastic memory.

Blue Bunting lifer at Quinta Mazatlan w sig
Blue bunting, an unusual find

One day as we arrived back at my hotel, I saw this White-tailed kite hovering above the adjacent field. This was the first time I’d seen this species in the U.S., and I was excited to try for a photo. I knew the chances of getting a good photo were low because of the white bird against a gray sky, but I took several shots anyway. As I clicked through the series of photos on the computer later, I was struck by the varying wing postures I’d captured as the bird hovered in the air searching for small mammals below. I decided to paste two of the different shots together, and this is the result. Isn’t this bird gorgeous?

White-tailed Kite at my hotel - two postures merged into one photo v2 w sig
White-tailed Kite, 2 images of the same bird

One of the birds I’d wanted to see the most was the Burrowing Owl. And, as usual, Rick knew exactly where to find this one.

Burrowing Owl w sig
Burrowing Owl

One bird I hadn’t even considered finding on this trip, however, was a Great Horned Owl. These birds are year-round residents in Ohio, and I was focused mostly on seeing birds I can’t see at home. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at Estero Llano Grande one afternoon and saw this beautiful silvery-gray owl sitting among the wind-tossed fronds of a palm tree.

Great Horned Owl in palm tree and blowing wind v2 w sig
Great Horned Owl, gray morph

We don’t have this gray color morph up north, as far as I know, so it was a real treat to see this bird. And we were told that there’s another owl in the park, perhaps the mate of this one, although it’s not a gray morph. Despite the name of the bird, those pointy things on top of the owl’s head are not horns. They’re not ears either. They’re just tufts of feathers. I love how they’re blowing sideways in this shot.

I didn’t take many photos of things other than birds on this trip, but I did grab a quick shot of this cow as it emerged from the vegetation on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande River at Salineño. I noticed that the river had been much lower the last time I’d visited this location, and I wonder if the river ever gets low enough for livestock to cross the international border, and if so, how do they deal with that issue?

Cow standing in the Rio Grande River - Salineno Texas

Okay, that’s enough for this time. 🙂 Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Texas trip stories and photos coming up shortly.

Insane Winter Birding

This weekend we drove up to Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) for a group birding event with a guide from Michigan Audubon. If you had told me five years ago that I would (a) pay money and (b) willingly (c) drive north (d) in February (e) in Michigan (f) to see birds….I would have said you were nuts. As it turns out, I might be the one who’s nuts, because that’s exactly what we did this weekend.

Red-breasted Nuthatch posing for me in bright sunlight on Sunday morning.
Red-breasted Nuthatch posing in bright sunlight on Sunday morning.

We signed up for this a couple months ago, before we knew what an extremely cold and snowy winter we were going to have. And when it’s cold in southeast Michigan, it’s really cold in the Soo, a 5-hour drive toward the north pole.  We started birding on Saturday morning when the temps were well below zero, and I don’t think the temperature got above 10°F the entire weekend. I’ve never been so cold in my life!

Despite the difficult conditions, other birders had found some great birds in the area recently, so I had high hopes before we drove up there. Some of the birds I was hoping for were Great Gray Owl, Northern Shrike (which is becoming my nemesis bird), Evening Grosbeak, and Gray Jay.

Getting an early start.
Getting an early start.

Our group of about 15 people met at 7am on Saturday to carpool. The temp was below zero when we started — I think it was minus 13°F. We took another couple in our car and our caravan of four cars hit the roads of Chippewa County. Our guide was Skye Haas, a very experienced birder who knows all the best places to find birds in the U.P.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle looking down on the ducks in a small section of the river with open water — maybe looking for lunch?
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse

I’ll spare you a play-by-play description of the places we went, but just know that we probably drove 150 miles on Saturday looking for birds. And it was the hardest birding I’ve ever done. Imagine freezing your butt off (and that’s while you’re IN the car), driving around farm country for hours and hours, with everyone in each car scanning every tree and snow-covered field, hoping against hope for something, anything, to be alive and moving out there.

We started the day with a stop at the feeders at Dunbar Park, where we saw lots of Purple Finches, a really great species to start the day with. A Bald Eagle flyover was fun too, and it proved to be the first of many Baldies we’d see on the trip. In fact, at one point we were standing along the river at the Sugar Island Ferry landing watching the awesome Red-necked Grebe, and Skye said in an offhand manner, “Oh yeah, if you’re interested there are some Bald Eagles in the trees down there.” If you’re interested?!  And sure enough, there were five Bald Eagles perched in the trees on the bank a couple hundred yards away from us. I loved that. We also saw a lot of them mixed in with crows, ravens, and Herring Gulls at a local landfill we visited in the afternoon.

Young girl in pink preparing to take the plunge
Young girl in pink preparing to take the plunge
Same girl after her dip. Notice Fred Flintstone waiting his turn.
Same girl after her dip. Notice Fred Flintstone waiting his turn. (Click the picture to get a better view of her shocked face.)

While we were at the Sugar Island Ferry landing we noticed a crowd of people about a hundred yards away. We turned our binoculars and cameras on them to see what they were doing, and believe it or not, they were jumping in the water. Yes, it turned out to be an annual fundraiser for Special Olympics called the Polar Plunge, where people dress up and jump in the icy water. I had to take a few pictures of these insane courageous people. That craziness is not for me….no sirree!

One thing that surprised me, on my first ever trip to the U.P. in wintertime, was how many people were out and about in the cold. There were crowds of snowmobilers in every restaurant, and some restaurants even had lines to get seated. I guess life can’t just stop when it gets cold, but it still amazes me that so many people (including us!) were out playing in that weather.

We checked another section of the river and found a flock of Common Goldeneye feeding on open water.
We checked another section of the river and found a flock of Common Goldeneye feeding on open water.
Common Goldeneye male flying low over the river.
Common Goldeneye male flying low over the river.

On Sunday morning we were delayed when Skye’s car got a flat tire before our 7:30 rendezvous. He insisted we go off and try to find some birds on our own while he waited for AAA to get him back on the road, so that’s what we did. And in two hours we found nothing but two Mourning Doves, a Downy Woodpecker, and some crows. Luckily he was able to rejoin us about 9:30 and we headed off to the west to bird at Hulbert Bog. Which turned out to be where I saw my favorite birds of the weekend.

Some of our group looking for birds at Hulbert Bog.
Some of our group looking for birds at Hulbert Bog.
My first ever Gray Jay!
My first ever Gray Jay!

It was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature up to about 8°F in the late morning. Skye had put out some bird seed and suet ahead of time, so we saw a lot of chickadees taking advantage of that easy food source. That’s also where we saw the Red-breasted Nuthatch pictured above. And when Skye played an audio recording of the Gray Jay calls, we were thrilled that three of those adorable birds came in to investigate. Gray Jays are known to be very unafraid of humans, and I wished we’d had some seed to offer them from our hands. But they gave us some good close looks before taking off into the forest.

Alternate view of the Gray Jay. A friend said he looks like he's dancing and I said he's copying me while I do my "Lifer Dance"!
Alternate view of the Gray Jay

Then we drove back down the road to a house with some feeders that are known to attract Evening Grosbeaks. We stood in the road and heard them chattering, but couldn’t find any of them. After we’d been waiting for about 15 minutes, another caravan of birders pulled up behind us, and then another couple of cars behind them. It was starting to get uncomfortably noisy for me, with people chattering and crunching the snow as they walked up and down the road, making it really hard to hear the birds. And even worse, they told us they’d found a Boreal Owl in one of the spots we’d been the day before. A Boreal Owl is very rare for that location. They’re usually found only in Canada/Alaska and the mountains of the western US.

Anyway, this was to be our last stop on the tour, so our group slowly intermingled with the other birders and people started saying their goodbyes and driving off. Just before we left though, I noticed that a small group had gathered down the road and it appeared that they had spotted something up in the trees. I quickly went down there and got a few seconds to see the most beautiful bright yellow Evening Grosbeak! I wasn’t fast enough with my camera and only got him in the corner of the photo as he flew into the woods, but I had a good look at him through my binoculars. He was stunning. A perfect bird to see on a cold winter day, he cheered me up instantly. Now I’m eager to find more Evening Grosbeaks so I can have a better look. What a gorgeous bird he was. My gosh.

Evening Grosbeak -- I wish I'd been able to get a better pic of him...he was beautiful!
Evening Grosbeak — I wish I’d been able to get a better pic of him…he was beautiful!

I added four birds to my lifelist on this trip: Sharp-tailed Grouse, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Jay, and Evening Grosbeak. My total species list was 27 birds. If we hadn’t left the group 2 hours early on Saturday we would have seen Northern Shrike and Ruffed Grouse too. The four of us in our car were so completely exhausted by 4 pm on Saturday that we wimped out and went to take a much-needed nap before dinner. As we were driving away from the group we knew that they’d find something really good after we were gone. That’s what always happens, isn’t it?

Searching for the Great Gray Owl near sunrise on Saturday. No luck.
Searching for the Great Gray Owl near sunrise on Saturday. No luck.

So to summarize, I’ve never been so cold or so tired in my life. But I’m glad I went on this trip, if only to see what it was like up there in winter. I made some new friends, heard some good birding stories, and got lots of fresh air. Would I take this trip again? Not sure right now, but that’s probably because the memory of the cold is still so fresh in my mind. By next November I’ll probably forget the worst of it and who knows, I might do it again. Maybe.

A Bird in the Hand…

On Friday we finally–FINALLY–had temperatures above freezing, so I decided to take advantage of the heat wave and go try my hand at hand-feeding the birds at Kensington Metropark. This park is well-known around here for its brave feeder birds, but since it’s all the way on the other side of the metro area, 45 miles from me, I’ve never made the trek over there. But thanks to a bad case of cabin fever, my desperation drove me to jump in the car and head over. I texted my friend Janet and suggested she meet me there and I’m so glad she was able to come, because we spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads and in our hands.

A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat!
A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat! (Photo by Janet Hug)

I’m still amazed at the thrill I got the moment the first chickadee landed on my bare hand. Its sharp little claws gripped the tips of my fingers, it looked up at my face as if to make sure it was safe, then grabbed a seed and flew to a nearby tree to crack it open. In the next 15 minutes dozens of birds came down and took seeds from my outstretched hand. At one point I had three birds on my hand at once, so I decided to put some more seed on my head so they could spread out a little bit. Immediately I felt them landing on top of my hat, their wings stirring the air beside my head as they landed and took off again with their bounty.

Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo copyright Janet M. Hug)
Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo by Janet Hug)
Janet feeding a Chickadee.
Janet feeding a chickadee.
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse (Photo by Janet Hug)

I cannot believe I let so many years go by without having this magical experience! Often here at home our chickadees will chatter at me as I refill the feeders, sometimes even buzzing my head as they land on a feeder beside me as I’m filling the next one. I’ve tried many times to get them to eat from my hand, but always ended up frustrated when they were too timid. But the Kensington birds had no hesitation at all. I had Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and–get ready for this–a Downy Woodpecker, all eating from my hand and head. Here’s a video of the Downy Woodpecker on my hand:

And here’s a longer video of the titmice and chickadees:

I already knew that birds weighed very little, but if I hadn’t felt the claws of those chickadees on my fingers, I wouldn’t even have known they were there. It gives the phrase “light as a feather” a whole new meaning for me. What precious little creatures they are! A chickadee weighs less than a half ounce. That’s less than 14 paper clips, or a half of a slice of bread. Heck, you could afford to mail two chickadees for a first class postage stamp (not that I’m suggesting you do that, of course).

Hey Janet, what's that on your head?
Hey Janet, what’s that on your head?

Along with the birds eating from our hands, we were lucky enough to see a Field Sparrow that has been hanging around there, very unusual for this time of year. We also saw a Song Sparrow, lots of Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and even some Wild Turkeys trotting along the snowy path through the woods. And this is funny: Just before we got in our cars to leave, I’d mentioned my recent sightings of a Pileated Woodpecker in my yard, and said how I wished I could predict its visits so I could share it with our friend Dr. Bob, who is very eager to see one of those large woodpeckers. We said our goodbyes and I left as Janet was loading her camera gear into her car. If I’d only stayed a bit longer I would have seen the Pileated Woodpecker that flew right over her head in the parking lot, can you believe that?

Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area
Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area

I am so grateful to have had this amazing experience. It was exhilarating, but at the same time it also gave me such a sense of peace. And I really really really needed that. Now I’m feeling better about making it through this difficult winter. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I need another dose of ecotherapy at Kensington Metropark in the very near future.

Winter Birding in Michigan

I’ve never liked winter very much. Sure, the first snow of the season is pretty, but after a couple days the charm fades away and it turns dirty and slushy. And all the leaves are gone on the trees, making our home less hidden from the busy road. And it’s so cold. No thanks.

But all that changed when I discovered the thrill of winter birding. Early winter is a time for taking my spotting scope out to Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron to scan the migrating ducks that sometimes float on the lakes in rafts of thousands at a time. It took me several years to get motivated to go looking for ducks, and a couple more years to commit to it after I found out how brutally cold the winds can be on the shores of the Great Lakes in January and February. I had no idea that icicles could hang from my nostrils. Seriously.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that's sometimes mixed in there.
The trick is to look for the unusual one that’s sometimes mixed in there.

But now I’m prepared for the weather–stocked up on long johns, hats, mittens, and wool socks–and I enjoy the challenge of learning to identify the ducks. I’m even getting pretty good at it (except for the Greater and Lesser Scaup that still give me fits). I’m still not too keen on learning the complexities of gull identification, but the ducks are much easier.

It may sound crazy if you’ve never done it, but it’s surprising how invigorating and refreshing it can be to brace yourself against those cold Canadian winds.

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings
A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

And then there are the songbirds that come for the winter. The first to show up at our feeders are the lively flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one I showed you in last week’s Wordless Wednesday photo. But other birds feed in winter flocks in farm fields and along country roads, like the American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. (Actually the Horned Larks are here year-round in Michigan, but they feed in big flocks with the buntings and sparrows in wintertime.) I just found my first Lapland Longspurs today, mixed in with one of these flocks feeding on a snowy road east of Ann Arbor. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them.

I was also surprised to find a lone Rusty Blackbird in that flock, standing a couple inches taller than everyone else. I had to use my amateur Photoshop skills to selectively lighten up the bird in this photo; I have a lot of trouble trying to photograph birds on snow.

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013
Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

The pièce de resistance of today’s birds is, of course, the coveted Snowy Owl:

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

That photo was taken with a 400mm lens from a distance of more than a hundred yards. I was driving around the service roads at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, where Snowies have been hanging around lately. I had never been there before and didn’t know exactly where to look, and the way I found this owl was amazing. I’d stopped behind a car that had paused to watch a flock of Snow Buntings on the road. I couldn’t see the birds from my vantage point, but I didn’t want to drive past them and ruin their viewing experience, so I was using the time to look around me at the barren fields and roadways. There was a tall snow-covered hill on my left, probably 50 or 60 feet high. As I scanned the top of the ridge, something caught my eye. I’d been fooled several times already on this outing by big chunks of snow in cornfields, but something about this one made me pull up my binoculars. And I couldn’t believe my eyes — a Snowy Owl, sitting in plain view on the top of the hill! Well, actually he was very-well camouflaged, as you can see in this uncropped photo:

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl
Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

I jumped out of the car to set up my spotting scope for a better view. And since there were other birders driving around the airport on this same quest, it didn’t take long before someone else pulled up behind me to see what I’d found. I was jumping up and down and giggling, amazed that I’d found a Snowy Owl all by myself! I was like a kid who thought she deserved a gold star from the teacher. It’s one thing to read emails about an exact location where people are watching an owl and go there to have a look; it’s another thing entirely to stumble upon one before anyone else has spotted it. I’m still on a high from it as I write this, hours later.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a juvenile male. They say most of the owls who come this far south in winter are the juveniles. And while adult male Snowy Owls are almost pure white, the females and juvenile males have the brown flecks you see on this owl. But because he seems to have the beginnings of a pure white bib, I’d guess this is a young male. I’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s nice to say “him” or “her” instead of “it.”

Now I can relax, I’ve seen my Snowy for the year. I try not to be competitive about my bird list, but it’s hard not to want to chase down one of these when the talk on birding lists is so focused on these fascinating owls every. single. day. I just want to share in the fun, that’s all.  If you’re curious about these visitors from the Arctic, I highly recommend “Magic of the Snowy Owl,” an hour-long documentary about how they survive in that frigid climate.

After a day like today I’m reminded, once again, of the impact birds have had on me. They have completely changed my outlook on life. Just as my discovery of the spring warbler migration blew my mind, now my enjoyment of ducks and other winter birds has made the depths of winter tolerable for me. I’m convinced that the birds are the reason I haven’t suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in two years; I’m getting more fresh air and natural Vitamin D because I go out looking for birds. They bring wonder and joy to my world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to those little feathered creatures.

Have a happy and safe holiday season, everyone. See you in 2014.