Thursday, November 29, 2012

Miles and Milestones, Photo Giveaway

It is hard for us to believe that this is our third winter in Marathon. Never mind that the high on December 1st is supposed to be pushing 80 degrees (it was cooler in July!)'s technically winter enough by Texas standards (fake snow in stores = winter, right?)

We moved out here as a back-up to a back-up to a back-up plan D or E or F or something, and anticipated no more than three months out here. My, how plans change. After living with Aplomado Falcons for a while, and with a small town that had no stress and less traffic... well, we're still here. Sometimes we wonder why, but then we realize that we know - and like - the neighbors!

Aplomado Falcon, ~1 week pre-release. July 2010.
For those of you who have offered words of encouragement, support, and gratitude for our coverage of the region; thank you. It has really meant a lot to know that people gain something from this mad experiment we're calling life - we've met some fantastic people who have passed through the region and taken the time to look us up. Admittedly, it's a small enough town that folks passing through have been easy to track down as well... some of y'all have kind of become familiar, if not family (many of you we see more often than our own families!)

Mexican Metalmark (Apodemia duryi)

Just for kicks:
Since adding Site Meter (Nov. 2010?), we've had over 26,600 page views and 43,400 page hits. I'm sure a few of you just sit in front of the computer and hit "refresh" constantly (hi, Mom!) but that's still really cool. To further amuse you, we've recently added the little spinning globe from revolvermaps (it's a bit over 1,800 at the moment).

Regardless of the reason, we'd like to thank y'all - the readers, commenters, lurkers, friends, neighbors, family, strangers, birders, butterfliers, naturalists and those of you who accidentally googled your way over. I don't think we ever quite expected to have more than three or four followers on this blog, yet we're inexplicably up to 39! We've even ended up on our local NPR station twice as a result of the blog (if indirectly on the second round).

So between now and New Year's we'll giving away a few 8x11 prints of our images (some images are from the blog) as a "thank you" to our blog supporters, one or three of which will go to a randomly selected name from the comments (unless only one person comments, though I guess sending three prints to one person would save on postage!). Only one comment per person, please! Once we have the names, the choice of a bird, a butterfly, a moth or "other" print will be given. To give folks plenty of time to comment, we'll leave this thread open through at least Dec. 15th.

For our most frequent commenter, one has been set aside for you - Laurence, please send your contact info to heidi at!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Type 2 Red Crossbills - the Texas Crossbill Conundrum

11/29 UPDATE - Steve Collins was able to record the Lubbock cemetery Red Crossbills:
Those of you unfamiliar with Texas and/or the Trans-Pecos region, Lubbock is several hours NNE of us. Here's the triumphant Facebook post (screenshot - no link) from around 7:30 pm.

11/28 UPDATE - Williamson's Sapsucker still present at the Marathon cemetery. Ferruginous Hawks, McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs still present at Prairie Dog Town. Green-tailed Towhees at Post Park in several spots.

Back to your previously scheduled post:

Apparently the ultimate crime against ornithology is failing to record a Red Crossbill... well, it's up there on the list at least. Maybe. It seems that of all the crossbills being reported in Texas so far, not one report has attempted to determine the 'type' of Red Crossbill, or noted the calls, much less gotten recordings.

eBird has a lovely post from Matthew Young on the mess of Red Crossbill identification.

I suspect that most Texans are simply too overwhelmed with the sheer joy of "RED CROSSBILL!!!" to get the recording thing figured out - or even if we're keenly aware of it, it's just not an immediate kick to the brain's priority list. Next time...

Regardless, here's a snippet of correspondence that may or may not be helpful, seeing as the previous post covers the loud, clear "tew tew tew" just about as well as this one.

...from three separate enthusiasts:

Which call type? / Record that sucker! [description/link] I'd guess type 2 based on that description and likelihood there.

What call type is it?  No one has mentioned the call type for any of the Texas Red Crossbills.  I know more about the ones in New Jersey!!  I hope you can record it.  Apparently even an iPhone will do, but an external mic would be an improvement.  A videocamera will also have a good mic.

[Note, we managed better recordings of Nutting's Flycatcher from a point-and-shoot than with a 'real' video camera.]

I noticed that you had a Red Crossbill and was wondering if by chance you recorded the bird with an iphone? The Red Crossbill complex is made up of 10 distinct call types with some perhaps being good biological species.


Given bill size and description of call as a tew-tew-tew, a very likely type 2. This type says it's name. Usually there's a husky quality to type 2, but occasionally they can have more of ringing quality to them.


So until further notice, we've had 4-5 quiet birds (making crunching noises on pine cones) around 11/15 or so and 1 very loud bird on 11/27 that falls into the type 'tew' category.

Next time, crossbills.... next time.....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Texas Red Crossbills, Marathon style

Oh, we do have "winter finches" in Texas... we have American Goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches, Pine Siskins and a smattering of not-so-finchy Dark-eyed Juncos when we're lucky (Slate-colored, for much of the state).  But crossbills of any kind? They're an irruptive treat. Matt saw Brewster Co's first reported Red Crossbills of the season back on November 14th but we've seen nothing of them since then, until today.

The image below? Taken just to the east of the house, yard bird #101 for the Double Bacon. No idea if it was a dull first year male or a super bright female, but check out the shadow of the crossed bill!

Red Crossbill, 27 November 2012, Marathon, TX
My first encounter with the Red Crossbill craze was when they descended upon Buffalo Gap, TX in the winter of 2007-2008. The town lies about 30 minutes south of Abilene, where I was living at the time, and our close little group of Big Country Audubon Society (BCAS) birders kind of went nuts. For one, Red Crossbills aren't your standard winter finch fare in Texas. Prior to the 2007 sightings, the Abilene area had not harbored Red Crossbills since 1997.

There may be a need for tissues, starting with the next paragraph.

Laura Packer, my friend, mentor, and all-around mother-figure for my time in Abilene captured some breathtaking images of Red Crossbills that winter. It was her second-to-last winter with us, and her images live on through the Big Country Audubon page. One of these days, after student loans have been paid and the world of employment catches up to the rest of us, I'd like to set up a pile of gift student memberships for BCAS in her honor... I think Laura covered my membership the entire time I was out there (and only a student for a year of it - during that year, she was an absolute godsend). Her presence in the birding world - especially her bluebird monitoring at Dyess Air Force Base - has left a lasting impression on those of us fortunate enough to have known her.
Click here to see Laura's photo of a male Red Crossbill.
Click here to see Laura's photo of a female Red Crossbill.
Heck, click here to see a pile of BCAS crossbills.

After feasting your eyes on those, you can use your imagination on these - mostly taken from half a block or a block away and heavily cropped. No sign of the rest of the flock from earlier this month, just a single bird that, for roughly 45 minutes, circled the block to the SW of our house.

Red Crossbill, 27 November 2012, Marathon, TX
The bird was very active and calling incessantly (rather clear compared to other recordings, almost a shorebird whistle in clarity and quality of 'tew-tew-tew' for what it's worth). Unfortunately, it was silent and/or absent by the time the first chaser showed up. Figures!

Red Crossbill, 27 November 2012, Marathon, TX
In all its grainy glory, the photo above shows a pretty rockin' eyebrow for an otherwise bright, yet muted bird. Photo below shows what it looked like when photographed without the sun cooperating (because one can never fault a bird for its location - the sapsucker at the cemetery prefers shade, you just have to time your visit and/or angle better!)

Dark and grainy, just the way we like 'em. Red Crossbill, 27 November 2012, Marathon, TX.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving in the Trans-Pecos

From Willie Sekula, with permission... and a note of "The sparrow numbers were amazing especially on FM 1832!" 

Date has been modified to reflect the 25 Nov post, so it may appear out of order for the RSS feed.


Derek Muschalek, Tim Lenz and I birded West Texas over an extended Thanksgiving.  We birded Marathon, Big Bend National Park (Rio Grande Village, Dugout Wells, The Basin, Sam Nail Ranch, Cottonwood Campground, Santa Elena), Carolyn Ohl Johnson's Christmas Mountain Oasis (Many Thanks to Carolyn!), Alpine, Davis Mountains (Lawrence E Wood Picnic Area, McDonald Observatory), FM 1832, Balmorhea (Cemetery & Lake).  We also made numerous stops along the various roads whenever we saw birds.

Overall the birding was very good.  The number of sparrows and diversity was excellent with FM 1832 producing incredible numbers of Clay-colored, Brewer's, Vesper & White-crowned Sparrows along with Cassin's, Savannah & Grasshopper Sparrows. Overall we recorded 17 species of sparrows!

It was pretty exciting to arrive at Panther Junction on Wednesday afternoon while it was raining!  A pretty rare sight in November. I think The Basin received 0.18" of rain that day/night.

There were still lots of blooming wildflowers (for Thanksgiving) with an amazing variety and number of butterflies (including a Mexican Silverspot at Rio Grande Village) along with a decent number of odonates.

Birds of Note:
Montezuma Quail (several calling birds at Lawrence E Wood)
Wild Turkey 4 (Lawrence E Wood)
American Bittern 1 (Lake Balmorhea)
Snowy Egret 1 (Lake Balmorhea)
Osprey 1 (Rio Grande Village)
Bald Eagle 1 adult (Lake Balmorhea)
Greater Yellowlegs 1 (Rio Grande Village)
Common Poorwill 1 (calling at Rio Grande Village)
White-throated Swift 24 (Casa Grande)
Anna's Hummingbird 4-5 (Rio Grande Village); 1 (old sewage ponds - The Basin)
Selasphorus sp. 1 (The Basin)
Williamson's Sapsucker 1 male (Marathon Cemetery - initially spotted by Derek) & another male (Lawrence E Wood)
Gray Flycatcher 1 (Cottonwood Campground)
Western Scrub-Jay 1 (The Basin)
Nine species of Wren (Thanksgiving Day):
Sedge (Rio Grande Village)
Varied Thrush 1 (Christmas Mountains Oasis)
Chestnut-collared Longspur 35 (Lake Balmorhea)
Black-throated Gray Warbler 5 (Rio Grande Village)
American Redstart 1 female (Cottonwood Campground - seen along Rio Grande River)

I may have left out some birds of note due to being very tired from a lot of driving!  We ended up with 153 species for the trip.

Willie Sekula
Falls City

Williamson's Sapsucker, continues in Marathon

*Update:  sapsucker continues in PM, 25 Nov 2012.  Same location on same pine.
26 Nov 2012, seen in AM at same location. (Bill Sain)
27 Nov 2012, seen in AM, "one tree to the left" (that would be to the west) of the previously preferred tree - Alton Patton.
28 Nov 2012, present.
29 Nov 2012, present.  It was successfully fending of a male Red-naped Sapsucker when I arrived at 1242 hrs.  I was then flitting between the 3 trees to the left/west of the short pine.
30 Nov 2012, present.  Seen by PM observers.


Updated Marathon: Williamson's Sapsucker-- first sighting: Nov 21; last update: Nov 25
On the afternoon of Nov 21 Willie Sekula found a male Williamson's Sapsucker in the cemetery at Marathon.
Latest ReportsNov 22: continues. Last report at 5:30pm by Joe Fischer. Nov 23: present early morning. Nov 25: 9:45am, present until 10:15am when was flushed & pursued away by overly aggressive photographer.

**when was flushed & pursued away by overly aggressive photographer.

**this was not the two of us (myself and Heidi), however I will make brief mention at the end of this post.

Willie Sekula told me it was actually Derek Muschalek that found it.  Nice, Derek!

This bird is generally found in higher elevation, mixed-pine forests.  They do come down in elevation in the Winter.  The "best" spot to generally see a bird or two in Winter months in Texas is at Lawrence E. Wood Picnic Area in the Davis Mountains (Jeff Davis Co.). That's on the scenic loop a few miles past the McDonald Observatory.

What often happens when Heidi and I leave to visit my grandparents during Thanksgiving is that cool stuff shows up.  Sure enough...

A male Williamson's Sapsucker rolled down the hill and was reported by two aforementioned knowledgeable birders on 21 November.

Here are a few pics from this morning, 25 November, when Heidi and I finally returned to observe:

Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus), male

Sapsuckers are woodpeckers, Family Picidae, that specialize in drilling evenly spaced holes in trees.  They then re-visit these trees for the sap and the insects attracted to it.

This guy has been working this particular tree for days, as it was this morning.

This bird was focused in on this shadow-side of the pine.  It was also well sheltered.  Limbs and pine needles obscured a clear, open photo.  However, our 40 minutes of observation were absolutely perfect.  Watching a beautiful male Williamson's Sapsucker do what it does best, in fact, do what it MUST do.

It found a portion of that pine's trunk that was (must have been) entirely suitable for it's specialized methodology to obtain food.  It was working on that little, shaded, somewhat obscured nook for our entire observation.

**As we departed we noted a periwinkle SUV parked directly beneath the bird's favored tree.  The two individuals in the vehicle preceded to flush the bird several times, as we were leaving.  
The man's camouflaged lens, a huge lens the size of a small child, was wielded out the vehicle.  So as not to go into a complete rant of a vignette I'll keep it short. 
The couple flushed the bird from its favored pine.  It was then pursued to a nearby pine where it was flushed again.  The man, with the Light Anti-tank Weapon of a lens, walked toward the new pine it flew to.  Never stopping his progress toward the base of this pine or any other, the sapsucker was flushed again.

As birders, as ehem.. photographers (we carry a camera, too), as those interested in the native wildlife around them, we have some moral obligations.  It all comes down to not harassing the very subjects we are so interested in.  

Sometimes our moments of observation are not as desirable as we would have hoped:  that's how birding goes.
Sometimes our moments of nature/bird photography are not as desirable as we would have hoped:  that's how nature/bird photography goes.

Anyhow, what a beautiful bird to observe.  We hope it continues to stick around.  There exist plenty other pines in that cemetery should its noted "favored" tree be left behind.  
I would still listen for the light tappings and point your optics toward that particular tree for starters.

We found that parking in the bare area near the center of the cemetery gave us ample room to begin scanning and listening.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Williamson's Sapsucker, Marathon Cemetery


Updated Marathon: Williamson's Sapsucker-- first sighting: Nov 21; last update: Nov 23
On the afternoon of Nov 21 Willie Sekula found a male Williamson's Sapsucker in the cemetery at Marathon.
Latest ReportsNov 22: continues. Last report at 5:30pm by Joe Fischer. Nov 23: present early morning.

Edit: please check recent posts for further updates!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Balmorhea Lake's constant beauty

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis), Balmorhea Lake, Reeves County, 31 October 2012

Along with its genus-mate the Clark's Grebe (A. clarkii), Western Grebes are year-round resident eye-candy at the lake though fewer in number in the summer months.  We shouldn't take these birds nor the lake for granted.  We in the region are fortunate to have them.

I snapped this photo as an afterthought while enjoying the Red Phalarope rarity back in latest October.  Cleaning up our camera card, I had forgotten about it.  Shame on me.

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival...

ALL the way down the rio to farthest-South Texas.
This past weekend, 7-11 November.
Click here for a link to the RGV Birding Festival.

Fulvous Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Weslaco,  TX
Heidi and I helped lead a couple of field trips for the festival.  Heidi led at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  I led at a closed-to-the-public tract of Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

It was great to see old friends and counterparts and nice to meet new ones.  This festival is becoming a big extended family for us.

However, we are now back up at the big bending of the river.  Glad to be home and back helping folks find, identify, and otherwise enjoy the bird life here in Brewster County and elsewhere in the region.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:  BIG BEND of far-West Texas!

Edit: the "Lend a Hand" field trip, led by JD Cortez (far right) and Matt (second from left).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Red Crossbills, Marathon, Brewster Co.

**NOTE:  Red Crossbills not seen at this location during following days.  But, keep your eyes out for them this year.

Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is considered an "Irruptive" species in the trans-Pecos of Texas. Irruptive:  with a meaning in this context as "might be seen, at times abundant, in some years but absent in all others."  Even in irruptive years, its abundance is not Common but Occasional.

Already this fall Red Crossbills have been reported in El Paso, Frijole Ranch in Guadalupe Mtns Nat'l Park, and Van Horn.

As the sun was quickly heading toward the Del Norte mountains (from my vantage point), I spotted at least a flock of 5 in Marathon.

Two of which are below.  I hope to have time for better photos and just more personal enjoyment with them tomorrow.  All this rather than racing my favorite star.

Red Crossbill, male

Red Crossbill, female

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sightings around the region

Since we're heading to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival as of 4:30 am, we thought the site could use some distractions in our absence. A few reports have been trickling in from around the region, so here's a batch from Jeff Davis Co.

L.E. Woods Picnic area:
Williamson's Sapsucker
Red-naped Sapsucker

Davis Mts State Park:
Fox Sparrow

Posted with permission from Kelly Bryan -


FYI, Marc and Maryann photographed four Evening Grosbeaks at their feeders in the Davis Mountains on October 28. They only stayed a couple of days. Also, a female visited a feeder here in Fort Davis for at least two days this past weekend. For those planning to visit west Texas in the next couple of months keep you eyes pealed. Hopefully, there are more coming down the pike. There appears to be a large influx of Red Crossbills and Western Scrub-Jays are pushing out of the mountains and foothills into the lower desert. May be a good winter overall out here. KBB

And from the Christmas Mountains Oasis in south Brewster Co, where the Varied Thrush continues, also via Kelly Bryan -

Once again the Christmas Mountains Oasis in south central Brewster County has produced an outstanding bird for Texas. If you have never been there then you do not know and cannot appreciate the amount of work it took over the past 20 years or so for Carolyn Ohl to produce the "habitat" there.

I made my weekly stop there this morning to sample her hummingbirds as part of my overall banding study here in west Texas. The first bird in the trap this morning was a male Costa's Hummingbird. He had completed his flight feather molt and was in the process of completing his body molt including his head, gorget and crown. Carolyn will provide an update on this bird on her website and/or on Texbirds later today including the status of the Varied Thrush there. She will have some pics posted to later today.

Save for one juvenile male that we likely banded last week because it was trap shy, there was a complete turnover of hummingbirds there today from last week. We caught four Anna's Hummingbirds including two new birds and two returns. One adult female was previously banded on 12/12/11 (our last Anna's banded last year) and the other, also a female, was banded as an adult on 11/13/09 at CMO. KBB

(The Costa's was at the feeders all afternoon at CMO after it was banded.)