Birding Coastal Virginia: Fleeing from the Snowstorm

Four homeschooling birder friends, my brother and I woke up at the crack of dawn on January third in Virginia Beach, having driven in late the day before.  Over our hotel breakfast we learned that up to eight inches of snow was forecasted to start around 7 PM, centering around the Cape Charles area, with only about two inches in Virginia Beach and Chincoteague.  Our plan had been to bird Virginia Beach that day and then head over the bridge into Northampton County the next day, but now the snow might make it impossible to get there.  We decided to skip VA Beach and bird Northampton County immediately instead, and spend the night in Chincoteague, so if we got stuck, at least we could walk into the National Wildlife Refuge there.

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Map of coastal VA.   The marker is Cape Charles.

It was just getting light as we drove across the 23 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT).  We spotted large rafts of surf and black scoters from our car, as well as two year birds, great cormorant and peregrine falcon.  Soon after crossing the CBBT, we came to Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, our first stop.  The leaves of the wax myrtles and grasses were frozen, with tiny ice shards coating them, creating a silvery glitter wherever I looked.  Yellow-rumped warblers flitted about everywhere, no doubt trying desperately to eat enough myrtle berries to keep them alive in the frigid weather.  As we turned a sharp corner in the path, an American woodcock exploded out of the brush by our feet, its wings whistling.  The trail continued into an old pine woodland, where we heard brown-headed nuthatches, before opening into expansive salt marshes lining Jones Cove.  We worked our way along the edge of the water, listening for salt marsh or Nelson’s sparrows and scanning all the waterfowl we could find.  I got on a flying female common goldeneye, but I couldn’t get anyone else on it before it disappeared.  A flock of fifteen common mergansers flew over us, more than double the previous county high-count for the species.  As we continued our search for sparrows other than swamp or song, a cacophony of geese honking filled the air, and nearly five-hundred Canada geese descended from the sky.  Mixed in with the geese were a few duck flocks, with northern pintail and American black duck.  Despite continued searching, the only marsh birds we could find were a sedge wren and an orange-crowned warbler.

Our next location was Cheriton Landfill, the site of Virginia’s first state record of Lucy’s warbler, which we saw last year.  Fifteen hundred Canada geese swam in the little pond next to the landfill, but there wasn’t one single rare goose among them.  Mixed in with the geese, however, were twelve species of ducks, including redhead, green-winged teal, American wigeon, and northern shoveler.  We walked down the road behind the landfill, seeing song and savannah sparrows, but not much else.  As we walked back toward the car, over fifty black vultures circled above our heads, catching the morning thermals.

As we were driving to the Cape Charles harbor, we got an update on the weather.  They were now calling for over a foot of snow, and up to eight inches in Chincoteague.  We also learned that our hotel in Chincoteague did not have a generator.  With much regret we decided it would be better to abandon the coast at the end of the day, and spend the rest of our trip in Northern Virginia.

As we walked through the dunes to the harbor, two pale white sparrows flew up onto a sign.  We quickly saw they were “Ipswitch” savannah sparrows, a range restricted coastal subspecies that was new for most of us.  Forty American oystercatchers rested on a long rock jetty projecting in to Cape Charles harbor, and purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and sanderling fed around their feet.

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American oystercatchers and purple sandpiper.  Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We watched bufflehead, surf scoters, greater scaup, and ruddy ducks fly around, and practiced getting flight shots of them.

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Bufflehead flight shot

As we were leaving, two flocks totaling 13 common mergansers flew over us, leaving us to wonder why there were so many of them in Northampton that day when they are usually fairly rare.

Our final coastal location before we had to head inland was the Kiptopeke State Park Fishing Pier, where two snow buntings had been hanging out.  The fishing pier is a rather dreary place, a large artificial projection into the bay with an inch of dead yellow grass on top.  From it, you can see a chain of ancient naval vessels out on the water, stripped of any useful material and left to rot.  Finding the white snow buntings in a flock of savannah sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers was not hard, and we observed these cute birds for a long time.

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Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) Photo by: Theo Staengl

Snow buntings breed in the high arctic tundra, and according to wikipedia have the farthest north distribution of any passerine.  In the winter they migrate down into boreal Canada and New England, and a few overshoot and end up in places like Virginia.

We were disappointed that we wouldn’t be going to Chincoteague, but our coastal birding had still been productive, and with any luck birding Northern Virginia would be too.

Loudoun County Piedmont Diabase Barren: A Rare Ecosystem Faces Threats from Development

I have been fascinated by plants and the natural world for as long as I can remember. Since I was a toddler, my mom would take my little brother and me to a nearby park almost every day to play in the woods, fields, and creeks.  These days, a fellow plant-loving friend and I meticulously research and plan trips all around the state to look for new plants and plant communities.  More than a year in advance, we planned a trip to the amphibolite outcrops of Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve to see hundreds of blazing star plants in bloom.  That trip was soon followed by an exciting late May trip to Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve to see the diverse southern piedmont prairie and search for rare tall Barbara’s buttons (which we found!)  Piney Grove Preserve, Chub Sandhill Natural Area Preserve, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park are some of the other preserves and natural areas that I have visited this year looking for plants.  

One reason I like plants so much is because they form the basic, tangible foundation for nature.  Native plants create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms, which have co-evolved with the plant species in the community.  Witnessing the seemingly never-ending diversity of plants and the rich multi-species relationships of native plant communities is a source of great joy and mystery for me.  There are few things I find more rewarding than researching and planning a trip to find a rare plant and then successfully discovering it growing where I thought it would.  I also love the challenge of learning and identifying the huge number of plants native to our state.  

I recently learned that Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is voting on January 18th on a proposal to raze a Piedmont Mafic Barren growing on a diabase formation on the banks of Goose Creek, in order to build a 750,000 square-foot data center.  These barrens consist of two small separated outcroppings of diabase bedrock.  Around the two barrens grows a stunted forest of eastern redcedar, white ash, eastern redbud, and fragrant sumac.  The outcrops themselves are covered in dense patches of mosses and lichens, and sparse herbaceous plants such as Appalachian phacelia, awned flatsedge, and the state rare Central Appalachian endemic, Kate’s mountain clover.  

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Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) © Lonnie Murray

I was greatly disturbed by this news, as there are only 10 documented occurrences of Piedmont Mafic Barrens in the world, all of them in the Piedmont of Virginia.  The Goose Creek site has the additional distinction of being the most northern example of this plant community, defining its range.  The Piedmont Mafic Barren plant community is ranked by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as G1/S1, which means that it is critically imperiled globally.

Virginia is broadly divided into five physiographic provinces.  From east to west, these are the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny Plateau provinces.  The landform, geology, and plant community types define the character of each of these regions in much the same way that historic buildings and architectural districts define the distinct character of cities and towns.  Loudoun County, of course, is in the Piedmont province.  Destroying the plant communities that make the Piedmont unique, such as the Piedmont Mafic Barren in Loudoun, degrades the essence and character of the Piedmont province.

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The Loudoun County Piedmont Mafic Barren, © DCR-DNH, Gary P. Fleming.

I hope the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will deny the rezoning application and do all they can to protect the Piedmont Mafic Barren area.  Whether I ever have the opportunity to visit it or not, its existence enriches my sense of place and offers an open invitation for exploration and discovery.  While I’m interested in all plants, the ones that grow where I live are the most important to me.  Knowing the plant communities of the piedmont makes me feel at home and helps give me a sense of belonging to the natural world.  It heightens my appreciation of my surroundings every time I go outside.

I think if more people had the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Piedmont they would appreciate it more, and work harder to protect it.  While we don’t know all the contributions any particular species or community makes to the ecosystem services we all depend on, we do know that each piece of the puzzle is valuable to the functioning of the whole.  I hope that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors won’t take away the opportunity to experience and learn from the Piedmont Mafic Barren from present and future generations.

Blue Ridge Young Birders Winter Field Trip to Northern Virginia

We stood shivering in the 22 degree early morning air, looking out on the partly frozen Potomac River.  To our left, we could see the smokestacks and apartment buildings of the District of Columbia, while across the river to our right the thick forests of Maryland loomed.  A thin coating of snow lay on the ground, extending out onto the ice of the Potomac.  Far out on the unfrozen parts of the river, a few-hundred ducks huddled, periodically diving or dabbling.  Occasionally, a group of common mergansers flew overhead, their green or brown heads contrasting sharply with their white necks and bodies.  A sleek, camouflage covered boat drifted out onto the river, carrying two duck hunters towards the distant rafts of ducks.  Stirred to action despite the cold by the fear that the hunters would scare the ducks out of sight, we resumed scanning through our scopes.  Two lesser scaup and a few ruddy ducks dove up and down near the sides of a large group of over fifty canvasbacks.  Mallards made up most of the second, larger raft, with other dabbling ducks like American black duck and gadwall mixed in.  Behind these ducks, on the very horizon of what we could see clearly, more diving ducks drifted and dove.  Logan said that he had a long-tailed duck, one of the rare species we were looking for here, in his scope.  I looked in his scope and saw it, but before anyone else in our group had the chance, a gunshot sounded out on the river and all the diving ducks lifted off and flew far across the river into Maryland.

We walked down the road to the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, where we hoped to see more ducks and other birds.  To our left stretched acres of the last freshwater tidal marshes next to the Potomac, and to our right grew a beautiful mature swamp forest.  As we walked in, the thickets and clumps of vegetation along the path were hopping with song, white-throated, and fox sparrows.  Swamp sparrows flitted and chipped in the marshes.  The path eventually emerged out of the woods and onto a little peninsula that stuck out into the river.  We saw many more ducks from here, mostly diving ducks such as lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, canvasback, redhead, and common mergansers, and of course, the ever present mallard.  Baxter, Shea, and my brother Theo decided to walk across the peninsula on a boardwalk to check the other part of the river.  They soon called that they had a long-tailed duck.  The rest of us rushed over the boardwalk, heedless of the slippery snow that coated it.  There turned out to be two female long-tailed ducks, quietly swimming about on the other side of a small cove, barely ten yards away.

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Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are typically a coastal species during the winter, so seeing one inland on the Potomac River is certainly note-worthy.

The diffuse winter morning sun lit the ducks from behind us, creating a gorgeous medley of rich colors.  One of the ducks seemed to have a belly itch, because it kept turning upside down in the water and preening its belly in a rather comical fashion.  It would sit upright in the water, and use its feet to keep it from falling over, making it swim backwards in a vertical position.  Here is a video Theo got of this preening behavior.

 

 

On our walk out of Dyke Marsh, we counted 10 fox sparrows, which is the most I have ever seen at once.

Our next stop was the Laurel Hill Equestrian Area, to look for a clay-colored sparrow.  We followed the directions we had been given from the parking lot back down the road, past huge clumps and tangles of blackberry vines and grasses.  Soon we came to one such tangle, which happened to be the one the clay-colored sparrow favored.  As we walked around it, we saw a flock of white-crowned sparrows foraging next to the road.  The clay-colored sparrow was immediately apparent, as it was about half the size of the white-crowned sparrows.  Whenever the clay-colored sparrow got too close to a larger white-crowned sparrow, there would be a brief scuffle, followed by a flurry of snow, and the clay-colored sparrow would have to move further off.  Despite its low status in the flock, it behaved fairly well for us, and we all got great looks and photos.

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Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), Photo by Theo Staengl

After a quick lunch, we headed over to Pohick Bay Regional Park, another place on the Potomac, where a Eurasian wigeon had recently been seen.  We walked out onto the river on a snow coated boat dock, set down our scopes, and began to scan.  Hundreds of gadwall formed the majority of the duck flock, with good numbers of American wigeon mixed in.  A humongous American coot flock swam a little bit further out.  Two horned grebes hunted behind the ducks.  We soon identified the Eurasian wigeon by its red head, and we all had descent scope views.

After a brief and uneventful stop at Occoquan Bay NWR, we drove to the Dulles International Airports parking garages, where we wanted to look for a continuing snowy owl and two rough-legged hawks.  From the top of the parking garage, we had an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the airport’s runways, but unfortunately this meant that there was no where to hide from the relentless wind.  Northern harriers and many short-eared owls hunted over the fields in the waning light.  Max soon found the snowy owl in his scope, perched on top of a distant airport terminal.  The 2017-2018 winter is shaping up to be a large snowy owl irruption, with birds already found in Franklin, Rockingham, Isle of Wight, Suffolk, King William, Accomack, and Loudon Counties this year.  It is very exciting to see these majestic northern owls so far from their home, using large farm fields and even airports as hunting grounds.  We stayed until the increasing darkness and the cold wind finally pushed us out, but despite seeing many red-tailed hawks, we could not find the rough-leggeds.  We got in the cars and started the long drive back to Charlottesville.

 

 

 

Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints

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The Quarry Gardens property was used as a soapstone quarry between the 1950s and 1970s.  After the soapstone industry abandoned it, the community used it as a dump until Armand and Bernice Thieblot bought it in 1991.  In 2014 the Thieblots embarked on a mission to create a publicly accessible native plant botanical garden, showcasing the unique local native plant communities of the quarry’s soapstone geology.  The Thieblots hired The Center for Urban Habitats (CUH) to plan and plant the gardens.

CUH has a very unique approach to landscaping, ecosystem modeling, which involves replicating naturally occurring plant communities in garden settings.  When CUH approaches an ecosystem modeling project, they observe factors such as geology, topography, elevation, drainage, existing plants, and lighting to help them infer from experience gained during prior surveys elsewhere what plant community is best suited to each exact location.  Their specialty is figuring out the “ecosystem trajectory” of an area based on these existing site conditions.   CUH studied the Quarry Garden project area for six months prior to planting, conducting an extensive biological survey to identify and map the distribution of existing plant communities.

Today, the 40 acre Quarry Gardens consists of nine main sections, each with numerous native plant gardens.  Two huge, semi-rectangular water-filled pits, the remnants of the old quarries, dominate the center.  If you look closely at the tall, vertical soapstone walls of these quarry pits, you can see the grooves in the soapstone left by the quarrying process.  Piles of giant discarded soapstone chunks are distributed around the property.  From the parking lot, the land slopes gently down towards the quarry pits. It continues to slope down on the other side of them, all the way to a small, meandering creek, which flows through a sunny, wet clearing just off the property.  Two gravel roads lead around the quarry pits from the parking lot, one traveling the parameter of the property, and the other forming an inner loop around the quarry pits.  From these roads, one can see most of the beautiful plant communities that have been planted here, from the bright flowers of the viewing platform prairie to the dull greens of the piedmont hardpan forest.  The planted gardens blend perfectly with the surrounding natural plant communities.

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Native landscape installation at the Viewing Platform, including niches for barrens, 
hardpan swales, and prairie.

CUH learned about the geology of Quarry Gardens mainly from observing sections of exposed rock and the existing plants.  They saw piles of soapstone boulders left over from the quarrying process, and the huge portions of rock that were revealed in the walls of the quarry pits.  They also studied the present plant communities to infer the type and location of the underlying geology.  They found that the plant communities could be divided into two main groups based on their tolerance of either ultramafic, a high mineral soil type with more magnesium than calcium, or acidic soil conditions.  Ultramafic soil is so high in magnesium that it is toxic to many plants.  CUH knew that soapstone bedrock, which includes many different types of ultramafic rocks and minerals, had to underlie plants that could tolerate ultramafic conditions.  Similarly, CUH inferred that the Charlottesville Formation, which consists of mineral poor sedimentary rocks, must underlie the observed plants in the “heath” community, which occur in acidic, nutrient poor soils.  Later in their process, CUH conducted soil tests, which provided more details about the geology.

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View from the prairie below the viewing platform. Monarda, Solidago,
Eupatorium, and Pycnanthemum command this view.

The soapstone bedrock that underlies most of Quarry Gardens supports some very rare plant communities, including ultramafic woodland.  Fragments of this nearly vanished plant community, dominated by old post and blackjack oaks over an understory of little bluestem, remain around the parking lot of Quarry Gardens.  The most abundant tree in the ultramafic woodland at Quarry is Virginia pine, a species that under natural fire regimes would have been less prominent.   Ultramafic woodland is so rare in Virginia because it can only be found on ultramafic rocks, like soapstone, and it requires periodic disturbance in the form of fire to keep less fire-adapted plants like the Virginia pine from encroaching.  Since soapstone is such a rare and commercially desirable rock, quarries have almost completely destroyed ultramafic woodland in Virginia.

Two other plant communities that grow over the soapstone bedrock at Quarry are piedmont prairie and hardpan swale.  Gardens showcasing these communities are prominently located in front of and behind a viewing platform that overlooks the large quarry pits.  Under the thin soils of the prairie and hardpan swale lie huge soapstone boulders, remnants of a filled in quarry.  The gaps between the boulders are filled with smaller bits of soapstone, such as pebbles and soapstone silt.  Due to this, the drainage in the viewing platform area varies extremely widely.  The piedmont prairie drains immediately and is hot and dry for most of the year, while the hardpan swale is virtually always wet.

The extreme drainage conditions and high magnesium levels of the prairie combine to make this area only inhabitable by the toughest species growing in piedmont prairies.  CUH chose species that could survive the extremely dry and high magnesium present by selecting piedmont prairie species that have been found growing on serpentine barrens and ultramafic barrens, which share these harsh conditions in an even more dramatic fashion.  Forbs chosen for their toughness and tolerance of magnesium include hoary mountain-mint, gray-goldenrod, tall thoroughwort, white colicroot, and glade wild quinine.  Important grasses included poverty dropseed and little bluestem.

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Center for Urban Habitats staff, Soizic and Rachel, inspect the prairie installation 
during its first season. Non-native grass seedlings and forbs are plucked out and replaced by 
dominant ultramafic prairie species like little bluestem.

Looking at the viewing platform prairie, one would never know how challenging a growing environment it is.  Most of the plants have flourished here, creating a colorful testament to the resiliency of native ecosystems.  Bold clumps of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort with feathery white plumes buzzing and humming with insects towered over smaller species.  Gray goldenrod, showy goldenrod, sweet-scented goldenrod, and wrinkle-leaved goldenrod all bloomed profusely.  Over to one side, near a quarry pit, the triangular leaves and strangely shaped flowers of spotted bee-balm accented the area.

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Silvery checkerspot butterflies, along with 40 other species of butterfly have been noted at Quarry Gardens.  Many of them enjoy the mountain-mints there, including narrow-leaved, hoary, and short-toothed mountain-mint.

Plants were selected for the hardpan swale that tolerate poor drainage, and that had been documented locally in magnesium rich hardpan swales.  Winterberry, golden ragwort, and blue mistflower were prominent.  The blue mistflower was especially noticeable in September, as it created brilliant cushions of blue flowers that seemed to float above the wetland sedges.  Lush longhair and sallow sedge blanketed the ground.

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Blue Mist flower is a guaranteed success in the harsh conditions presented by storm water 
management swales. It does well in the magnesium saturated hardpan swales at Quarry Gardens.

Mexican Butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

On our last day in Texas, we visited the famous National Butterfly Center (NBC), located near McAllen, to search for south Texas butterflies and odonates.  The NBC is a huge native plant garden, managed for the incredibly diverse butterfly fauna of south Texas.  To date, they have recorded 235 species on the one hundred acre property, which is probably more than anywhere else in the United States.  When we stepped out the back door of the center into the gardens, butterflies swarmed everywhere.  I watched more than one hundred queen butterflies clustered on a flower-laden bush.  Lesser numbers of monarchs and soldiers were mixed in with the queens.  Smaller sulphurs, skippers, crescents and hairstreaks darted through the air around us.  Many of the species that were most common there were nearing the northernmost extent of their range, making them special prizes for the butterfly enthusiast that doesn’t plan on going to Mexico.  All the new and exotic looking butterflies made it hard to concentrate on photographing just one species at a time.  As soon as one of the more abundant species, such as a little yellow, or a large orange sulphur landed, something else of interest would fly right in front of my face.

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The little yellow (Pyrisitia lisa) is not one of the “south Texas specialty” butterflies, having a range that extends across much of the East, but it was still the first time I had seen one.

We wandered through the garden towards a trickle of water coming out of the woods, which we hoped would hold some dragonflies.  Sure enough, as we approached we saw rosette and carmine skimmers flying long fluid loops above it.  When we inspected the pool more closely, we found a desert firetail perched on a rock.  I slipped my leg into the pool to get closer for a photograph of this completely red southwestern damselfly.  Suddenly, I began to feel movement on my legs.  Looking down, I realized I’d stepped in a fire ant nest for the second time in two days.  I was able to get them off me before they really started to hurt, but so much for my desert firetail photos.  A dazzling mallow scrub-hairstreak perched in perfect lighting nearby quickly made up for it, though.

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Mallow Scrub-hairstreaks (Strymon istapa) can only be found in the United States in south Texas and south Florida.

We turned away from the open gardens, onto a sand trail that led through subtropical hackberry woodlands.  We saw logs, coated in some sort of sugar goop, propped up next to the trail every hundred feet or so.  These logs were always swarming with tropical leafwings and hackberry and tawny emperors.  Occasionally, a three-inch long, iridescently colored wasp would buzz by or land on one of the sugar logs.  A sign farther on advertised them as tarantula hawks, (Pepsis sp), capable of the second most painful sting of any insect in the world.  They apparently prey mainly on the Texas brown tarantula in North America.  Off to our right, a brilliant blue flash caught my eye.  Turning, I saw a medium sized blue butterfly flitting about, the filtered sunlight glinting off its wings.  It was a Mexican blue-wing, one of the species I was most excited about seeing.

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Mexican blue-wings (Myscelia ethos), live no where else in the U.S but the Rio Grande Valley.

Soon, we approached a group of people standing on the trail and looking at something in the trees above them.  They pointed us to a malachite, a huge spectacular butterfly, the color of the mineral it was named after.  Black mottling accented its light green wings.  Unfortunately, it flew off before I could get a picture.  We came out of the woods on the other side into more gardens swirling with butterflies.  Someone showed us a clytie mini streak perched on the tiny flowers of a bush.  Hairstreaks are my favorite group of butterflies, so this little gem was a special treat.

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Clytie Ministreaks (Ministrymon clytie), are another Rio Grande Specialty.

We wandered back through the gardens, stopping every now and than to photograph something new.  When we reached the NBC building, we stopped at a little concrete lined pond in front of it.  We knew a damselfly called the Caribbean yellow-face could be found around here somewhere, but we weren’t sure exactly where.  We checked the pond, and to my surprise, we saw a tiny blue damselfly with a bright yellow face zipping away from us.  By mid afternoon, I was feeling ready to fall asleep in the heat, especially after getting up at four AM for the past five days.  We had seen forty-one species of butterflies.  Most of them were new for me, and many of them were very rare in most of the country.  I wasn’t able to include all the pictures I took at the NBC, but if you are interested, you can look at more of them here: RGVBF 2017 flickr.

Birding the Upper Rio Grande Valley

We drove into the parking lot of the Harlingen Convention Center at 4:30 AM.  The huge fifty plus person bus that would take take us west along the Rio Grande Valley into Starr County idled at the curb.  We grabbed the lunches the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) had prepared for us, and hurried to join our friends on the bus.  We were very excited about this festival field trip to the “Upper Rio Grande Valley” because that area hosts some rare specialties that can’t be found closer to Harlingen.  Particularly, we were hoping to see white-collared seedeaters, red-billed pigeon, and wild muscovy ducks.  Despite these birds being very rare and local Rio Grande specialties, we figured we would get at least one.  In addition, Starr County has large stretches of desert, which host an assortment of southwestern desert species, such as greater roadrunner, black-chinned sparrow, cactus wren, and pyrrhuloxia.

The overcast sky began to brighten as we neared our first birding location, a preserve along the Rio Grande called Salineño.  We walked down an old, cracked road, through thick, green vegetation.  The cool morning mists drifted off the ground, obscuring the old buildings and trees that lined the road.  Our guides told us that we would have to split up into groups to seek the seedeater, because too many of us would scare it.  As another group branched off, we continued down toward the river to watch for red-billed pigeons.  We came to a small boat launch, where we set up our scopes and waited.  Mist rose off the muddy waters of the Rio Grande in front of us.  Audubon’s and altamira orioles called from the feeding station behind us.

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Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis)

Green jays constantly flew over the river in front of us.  Double-crested and neotropic cormorants flew overhead.  We saw northern pintail, gadwall, blue-winged teal, lesser scaup, and the “Mexican” subspecies of the mallard on the river.  We waited patiently for the seedeater group to come back, without seeing a pigeon.  When the first person from their group wandered into view, we asked them if they’d seen the seedeater.  They nonchalantly replied that they had.  We asked our guide if our group could go and look for the seedeater.  He said he didn’t personally have much interest in it, but eventually led the way.  We walked up a trail over sandy bluffs overlooking the river, scanning the cane patches where our guide said the seedeaters liked to hang out.  As we worked our way upriver, we encountered a mixed flock, mostly blue-gray gnatcatchers and orange-crowned warblers, but we also found a Nashville warbler, a Bewick’s wren, and a verdin.  We stared down into the thick cane for hours, not daring to move for fear of scaring off the supposedly super timid seedeaters.  Every few minutes someone would raise their binoculars, and invariably they would mutter “common yellow-throat” as the bird slid back out of sight.  At noon our guide announced we had to return to Harlingen.

The next day, my friends and I decided to make the two hour drive back to Salineño one more time, in hopes of seeing the seedeater with a smaller group.  My friend Max also knew a place nearby where we could get scaled quail, and other desert birds that we had been hoping for on yesterday’s trip.  When we arrived at the boat launch, we were glad to find we were the only ones there.  We walked slowly up the path toward the cane stands, listening for unusual calls and watching for unaccounted movement.  As we stood staring intently at the largest patch of cane, my friend Ander said he thought he saw one.  We turned, and not twenty feet away, in a small mesquite bush, sat a tiny, cinnamon brown bird.  At long last, a white-collared seedeater!

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White-collared Seedeaters (Sporophila torqueola) have become increasingly hard to find in Texas, despite being reasonably common as recently as the 1940s.

Just as we all got on the bird, it flew out of the bush, flashing it’s white wing-bars and small tail.  We followed the bird away from the river, into a small, rocky gully, where we suddenly heard a whistled down-slurred “chew” call from the trees above us.  Looking up, we saw the White-collared seedeater perched in another tree.  No wonder we hadn’t found them the day before by looking in the cane stands.  At the sound of another “chew,” we looked down to see a second bird hoping on the rocks.  We watched the two birds forage and chatter for a while, before they flew off across the river.  It was amazing how much easier they were to find without a huge group of people.

As we drove toward our next stop, a nursery specializing in the plants of the south Texas desert called Rancho Lomitas, the landscape became increasingly desolate and arid.  Huge cacti and thorny bushes grew next to the road.  Black-throated sparrows perched on emergent vegetation.  When we stepped out of the cars onto a soil of hard-packed sand, we were greeted by a man named Jim, who told us about the Ranch and showed us to chairs in front of his trailer that looked out on a well-stocked feeding station.  He told us that if we waited long enough, we should be able to see cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxias, and scaled quail right there.  As soon as we sat down, green jays began swooping in five feet in front of us.  The incredibly close proximity allowed me really appreciate their intricate and gorgeous blue, black, and green patterning.

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Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)

After about five minutes, a movement behind a large flower pot next to me caught my eye.  A cactus wren hopped out from behind the flower pot, and flew up to a platform hanging from a huge cactus, right in front of my face.  It was a life bird for many of my friends.  Suddenly, something moved in the dense brush behind the feeders.  Than a cute plumed face came out into view.  Before long, there were five scaled quail scratching on the ground right under the feeders.  When someone walked past, they would fly up into a tree above our heads, and slowly come back down.

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Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

We watched the birds at the feeder for a while longer, and than decided to bird the nearby roads to see if we could find a pyrrhuloxia.  Sure enough, just on the other side of the clearing from Jim’s trailer, we found the desert cardinal perching in the top of a dense, thorny bush.  Pyrrhuloxias are mostly a waxy gray color, with a bright yellow bill and a red crest and face, and red flight feathers.  As we continued down the road, we heard a Bewick’s wren chattering in the grass.  As we paused to watch it, I saw another bird fly across the road.  As it flew, it flashed white edges of its tail.  When it landed, we saw it was a female lark bunting, a lifer that I had not expected on this trip.

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Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)

When the lark bunting finally disappeared back into the grass, we turned and saw a great horned owl perched on the power line farther down.  We approached as much as we could without bothering it, and photographed it.  What a great end to a great day of birding.

Birding Big Day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Thick mist rolled off the spiny limbs of unfamiliar tropical vegetation as strange calls pierced the stillness of the early morning.  We crossed over a small channel of water, watching for green kingfishers, and then walked into the woods on the other side.  Large oak branches draped in Spanish moss hung over the trail.

We were at the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, located in the very southern tip of Texas.  Birding at Santa Ana and other locations in southern Texas had been a long awaited dream for me, and it felt unreal that it was finally happening. My friends and I were participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF), and had scheduled this day to be a “big day,” an attempt to see as many species as possible in 24 hours.  We had all agreed in advance that we would be extremely relaxed about the pace, as we wanted to have as much time as we wanted with each new species.

As we continued walking through the old, tropical woodland, we heard the calls of great kiskadees, plain chachalacas, long-billed thrashers, and golden-fronted woodpeckers.  Mourning, white-winged, and Inca doves foraged on the ground.  Up ahead the trail opened into a large, wet marsh, called Pintail Lake.  As we walked out on an elevated dike towards the water, we heard American pipits, and spotted a vermillion flycatcher and two tropical kingbirds perched on projecting sticks.  We set down our scopes and started scanning the many ducks on the water.  We quickly found 11 species, including black-bellied whistling duck, mottled duck, redhead, and the lakes namesake, the northern pintail.

As we were about to get back into the cars, a small, gray Buteo flew low over the parking lot and landed in a nearby tree.  It was a gray hawk, a lifer for most of us.

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Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus), photo by Theo Staengl

I had never been to our next stop, a small city park called Anzalduas, before, but I had heard it was a good place for zone-tailed hawk.  We drove there on roads on top of high dikes overlooking the Rio Grande.  Border Patrol vans were everywhere, but most just waved at us as we drove past.  When we finally got to Anzalduas, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  A far cry from most of the natural areas we were birding in the Rio Grande Valley, Anzalduas was a large expanse of sparse grass under periodically spaced trees, broken only by decrepit playground equipment.  The only other people around were twenty or so border patrol agents.

A local constable drove up and unpleasantly informed us that the road we had driven on into the park was closed to the public, despite the complete absence of signs saying so.  He warned he’d give us a citation next time.   We walked up a side road to another dike, across the park from the Rio Grande that was supposedly a very reliable spot for zone-tailed hawk, and possibly for hook-billed kite.  After several uneventful minutes, two things happened very quickly.  First, I noticed the constable’s car coming up the road toward us, and a large, thin-winged, mostly black raptor, a zone-tailed hawk, flew low over us.  We ignored the constable, and had beautiful looks at the hawk.

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Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)

When we looked down from the hawk, we saw the constable talking with my mom and our unofficial guide, who knew the local area well.  The constable pointed to two huge signs in front of the road we had just walked up, that said “no public use.”  We had honestly missed the signs because we had approached from the side, but from the constable’s perspective it sure looked sketchy.   In the end he let us go, and we hurried quickly off the dike.  The only other notable bird we saw at Anzalduas was a house finch, locally uncommon in the Rio Grande Valley.

Forty minutes later, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Frontera Audubon Center’s small tropical reserve.  We walked the short, dirt trails through dense undergrowth, scanning the bushes around us for warblers and clay-colored thrushes.  As we neared a small feeder station near the visitor center, we found our first thrush flock, with about five clay-colored thrushes.

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The range of the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) just barely extends into the United States in the very southern tip of Texas.  Clay-colored thrushes and many other predominantly central American species that just extend into the southern Rio Grande Valley are what makes south Texas such a birding hotspot.  These species are often referred to in the US as Rio Grande specialties, even though many of them are much more abundant further south.

We continued on the trails deeper into the woods, listening and looking for warbler activity.  That morning, someone had spotted a tropical parula there, which would be a life bird for all of us.  Soon we came to a wooden platform overlooking a small lake.  Warblers, mainly orange crowned, chipped and flitted in the dense willows.  We scanned the flock to the best of our ability, and were able to add Nashville, black-and-white, and black-throated green warblers to our day list.  We spent another hour roaming the trails looking for the tropical parula, but it proved to be a waste of time.  I was able to photograph a buff-bellied hummingbird, another fairly range restricted species, at one of the feeding stations, though.

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Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis)

As we got out of the car at Estero Llano Grande State Park, I was beginning to feel worried we had spent too much time at Frontera, and we wouldn’t have enough day-light at South Padre Island, an important shorebird spot, later in the day.  Evan so, I couldn’t help enjoying the bountiful ducks at the visitor center lake at Estero.  Wild ducks swam peacefully about, clearly used to humans being nearby.  A vermillion flycatcher foraged from a dead stick over the marsh, its brilliant red belly and crown contrasting beautifully with its brown back and eye-line.  We added cinnamon teal and least grebe to our day list.  One of the birds I was personally most excited to see here was the common pauraque, a large tan nightjar of Central and South America.  While it is locally extremely common in south Texas, it is so cryptically patterned that one could easily walk within a foot without seeing it.  We were walking along a dusty dirt road near where pauraques have been known to roost when I almost stepped on one.  Once we noticed it, we were so focused on photographing it, we failed to see two others within a yard of it until some kind older birders pointed them out.  What a weird looking bird!

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Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

We raced along the highway as the sky became cloudier and the sun sank ever lower toward the horizon.  Our rental car’s tinted windows probably did not help our feeling of impending darkness.  When we stepped out of the car at the mudflats above the South Padre Island Convention Center, wind coming off the Laguna Madre buffeted us and tore at our clothing and scopes.  We hurried over the muddy sand toward distant shorebird flocks, hoping the incoming tide wouldn’t strand us.  As soon as we could, we put down our scopes and started scanning.  We quickly found most of the common shorebirds we needed, along with two piping and snowy plovers.  It was only the second time I had ever seen a snowy plover, and it was a lifer for some of my friends.  We ran back to the cars across what were now inches of water, soaking our shoes.  We spent the rest of the daylight birding around the slightly more sheltered trails of the convention center.  Our list for the day was 126 species, the most I have ever seen in a day.