In Search of a 5-Star Rated Vermillion Flycatcher Photo

After seeing several recent excellent photos of the returning Vermillion Flycatcher by Doug Krajnovich at Lake Yosemite County Park In Merced County, CA., I decided I ought to try and track it down and shoot it. Digitally that is!

ABOUT THE PARK

Lake Yosemite is a freshwater reservoir built in 1888 for irrigation purposes and is currently owned and operated by the Merced Irrigation District. It is located about 5 miles east of Merced, CA.

Lake Yosemite Park Entrance
Lake Yosemite

VERMILLION FLYCATCHER BACKGROUND

Doug Krajnovich first discovered a first fall male Vermillion Flycatcher on 10/10/2019 at the south end of the park along the Fairfield Canal. Generally, they are rare across the Central Valley, but they seem to be occurring more frequently in Merced County over the past 20 years. At one point last year in the winter of 2020/2021 up to 3 were seen at the same time at Lake Yosemite County Park.

Vermillion Flycatcher at the Merced NWR 1/17/2021

THE DIGITAL MEDIA EXPLOSION

When I first started photography, shooting images often came at a steep price and as a beginner I found myself in a quandary. Did I use Ektachrome 100, Kodachrome 64, or Fujichrome Velvia 50 when in the field? It was expensive to buy and then develop. And the worst part was not knowing if you nailed the shot or not until you got them back several days later. With the advent of more reasonably priced equipment and an almost endless number of images that can be captured on one SD Card, I often take upwards of 500 images in a morning’s outing. The challenge then becomes one of which image is the best.

RATING A PHOTOGRAPH

As a birder turned photographer, I strive to both capture an image that will serve to document a bird sighting and to satisfy my artistic expectations of a high quality reproduction. This typically involves taking the first image at a distance and steadily getting closer and capturing more and more images.

eBird Ratings

eBird is an online database of bird observations providing scientists, community scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance. Today, the vast majority of birders record their location sightings using eBird. Along with recording numbers of each species encountered, users can submit images, audio recordings and video snippets to help document what they found. Each image that a user submits can be rated to help with the greater community science needs. According to their website, “Ratings increase the utility of Macaulay Library media for everyone, enabling the best images, audio, and video to be discovered and used in projects such as Merlin and Birds of the World, as well as Illustrated Checklists and external research applications.

From my perspective, getting a good image has helped me to either cinch or reject the identification of a challenging or unusual bird species.

They use a 5-star rating system, with 5 stars being the highest quality. They specifically state that the ratings should be strictly technical in nature and not to take in account the rare status of a species. A great photo of a common, drab bird should still be 5 stars and a poor photo of a very rare or hard-to-photograph bird could still be only 1 or 2 stars.

Drab, common 5-Star Northern Mockingbird

Key Points to Consider When Rating a Photograph for eBird

From the eBird Support Site “How to Rate Media

Sharpness: Is the primary subject in focus? Is the image blurred or grainy?
Visibility of bird: How well can you see the bird? If the bird is very small, partially obstructed from view, or backlit in the photo, the rating should be lower than it would be otherwise.
Size of photo: Lower your rating of any photo that has a noticeably small resolution. Uploading full resolution files is always encouraged.

Descriptions of star ratings for photos: (Remember the rating is a technical rating and does NOT take into account the rarity of the bird.)
1 Star: Very poor quality. Very low resolution or very poor focus; bird may be very small or obscured in the frame or have extremely bad exposure. In general should only be uploaded as record shots, if still identifiable.
2 Stars: Poor quality. Could be a good image but at a noticeably low resolution, or high resolution but with significant flaws. Lighting might be severely backlit or poorly exposed. Image might be good but the bird is extremely small in the frame or mostly obscured.
3 Stars: Decent quality. High or medium resolution with decent focus. Lighting might be less than ideal; bird might be smaller in frame or somewhat obscured. Might have several factors that prevent it from being rated higher.
4 Stars: Very good quality. High resolution and in good focus, at least decent lighting, and bird reasonably large in frame. One or two of these factors may be less than ideal and prevent from achieving 5 stars.
5 Stars: Excellent quality. High resolution and in sharp focus. Lighting should be good and the bird at least fairly large in the frame and not significantly obscured.

HUNTING MY PREY

After downing my morning latte, taking the dog out to use the front lawn and double-checking that I actually had a charged battery this time… I was off to the park. I made a brief circle around to the back of the park and then parked near the entrance. I soon spotting the famous, aforementioned Doug Krajnovich peering intently into a tree not far from the Fairfield Canal. We exchanged salutations and he promptly informed me that he had not yet found the target bird, but he was full of optimism that we would find it eventually. We split up a bit and I went east and he west. I took photos of a California Scrub-Jay, an Osprey and a Black Phoebe while I worked my way back towards Doug.

Soon I could see him waving frantically at me. Alas, the hunt was afoot! As luck would have it I heard those too often vocalized words, “You just missed it!” SIGH… But the morning was young and I was keen on capturing my prey. Barely 5 minutes passed and I saw movement in a tree about 60 yards away and I was certain that I had seen a flash of red! Now the adrenaline was kicking in and I promptly noted the best sun angle and I slowly crept at an angle with my back to the sun while I scanned the tree for further movement. Then I saw it. For certain this time! As most birders that are photographers do, I wanted to get that first 1-Star, record shot. Something that would prove that I had seen it. Click, click, click and I was sure I had to have gotten some type of record. Well, I did, but as you can see below… YUCK!

1-Star Record of Vermillion Flycatcher

Before I could get closer, it flew off, caught an insect and moved farther away. Using my most predator-like stealth techniques, I slowly and quietly moved in for the kill. Killer shot I mean. It allowed me to get a little closer and I snapped off some more images (OK, so maybe a lot more!). But hey, they’re free.

REJECTS VS KEEPERS

When I post an image online, viewers don’t ever see how many never make it to the Keepers folder on my computer. In reality, I may only edit 5 % of the images I capture. However, for your entertainment, here are a few of the typical shots that viewers will never see.

So Far Away… 2-Star Rating
Baby got Back
Peek-a-boo
Peek-a-boo From the Other Side – 3-Star Rating
I’m Hiding – 4-Star Rating

FINALLY – I GOT MY 5-STAR PHOTOGRAPHS – Click to view full-size

The Laguna Madre Mudflats

Post #8 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #7 A Convention Center for Birds and Birders

Just north of the Bird Center and Convention Center, the Bay Access provides easy access to the extensive mudflats of the Laguna Madre during low tide.

If one is cognizant of the nesting birds along the perimeter and of the ever-changing water levels, birders can drive out a good distance for easy access to the hundreds of gulls, terns and shorebirds during migration.

Least Tern
Least Tern in Flight
Black Skimmer
Royal Terns
Royal Terns and a Sandwich Tern
Black-bellied Plover
Sanderling

Next Post – Bolsa Chica and the SpaceX Facility

A Convention Center for Birds and Birders

Post #7 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #6 Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have you any Birds?

About the Area

The South Padre Island Convention Center grounds include three main attractions for birders.

Laguna Madre Nature Trail

The Laguna Madre Nature Trail head starts right next to the whaling wall. This 1,500-foot boardwalk is spread across acres of marshland, where many coastal and migratory birds can be seen year around. The boardwalk allows birders and photographers to get up-close and personal to the birds. Birds here are generally accustomed to people walking near them.

Water Feature

With limited nearby freshwater, the water feature is a much visited spot for migrating birds.

Woodland Habitat

Providing a safe spot to rest and hunt insects, the clumps of trees in the back of the Convention Center can be hopping with warblers, flycatchers, buntings, orioles and vireos during migration.

Birding the Convention Center

A WARBLER IN MOURNING

As we walked from the parking lot (no fees, free parking), the first group of birders we encountered shared that there was a Mourning Warbler being observed in the back. My expectations for LIFE BIRDS on this trip was not very high and Mourning Warbler was one that I thought I might have a possibility of seeing. With adrenaline pumping I scurried towards the back while trying to get my binoculars strapped on correctly and getting my camera settings checked. As frequently happens in these situations, there were lots of people pointing in different directions and just as many people saying, “Where is it?“. Being a birder first, and bird photographer second, I NEEDED TO SEE IT FIRST, then try to photograph it. I got on the bird fairly quickly with my bins (SCORE #3 for the trip) and then attempted to get my camera to focus on this tiny, continually in motion, hiding behind twigs and leaves, bundle of yellow, green and gray feathers. I alternated between auto-focus and manual-focus trying desperately to get this treasure. After it finally flitted away, not to be seen (by me) again, I scoured through the images on the tiny LCD panel on the back of my camera. I was not very optimistic, but I hoped a little cropping and contrast adjustments might get me at least an identifiable shot of this life bird.

Mourning Warbler

We spent another 30 minutes looking through the trees to try and refind the Mourning Warbler and did manage to see some other species.

White Ibis
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Next, we headed out the Laguna Madre Nature Trail boardwalk and immediately found a Northern Waterthrush creeping along the edge of the water.

Northern Waterthrush

As we watched the Waterthrush, a group of Black Skimmers flew right over us. We watched as they banked and flew right back again, skimming along the water. While I have seen hundreds of skimmers, I never get tired of watching them slice through the water in search of something tasty to eat.

Black Skimmer

As we walked along the boardwalk, we could see several shorebirds working through the exposed mudflats including Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper. The WRSA was lifer #4 for the day and trip and would be the last lifer for me on this adventure.

Other birds seen along the boardwalk included Neotropical Cormorant, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron and a couple of Least Terns.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the Convention Center, but it was now low tide and we wanted to see the mudflats of Laguna Madre and access to it was just north of us.

Next Post – The Laguna Madre Mudflats

Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have you any birds?

Post #6 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #5 South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

Smallest of the South Padre Island (SPI) Big Three birding spots, the Valley Land Fund Lots on Sheepshead Dr. seems to have the biggest concentration of birds. The fact that the dense vegetation is at the southern end of the island and birds would head for it first.

preservation efforts of The Valley Land Fund and its volunteers. These wooded lots serve as an oasis to the birds struggling to make it across the Gulf of Mexico during spring migration.

The Valley Land Fund

South Padre Island is located at the confluence of two major flyways: migration routes on which birds travel during Spring and Fall to and from North, Central, and South America.. In the Spring, SPI is a crucial first landfall – a lifesaver – for birds making the arduous cross-Gulf migration. For many years, the 12 lots owned by the Valley Land Fund and private landowners between Pompano and Sheepshead along Laguna Blvd., have been a crucial location for these worn out migrants to stop, rest, feed and regain their energy. Serious birders have long known what an important area this is, and flock there to view some of the 350+ species of birds which have been identified in South Texas. – From The Valley Land Fund Facebook Page

The Birds…

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Summer Tanager – male
Summer Tanager – female
Magnolia Warbler
American Redstart – male
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Great Kiskadee
Dickcissel – male
Indigo Bunting – male
Orchard Oriole – male
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Scarlet Tanager – 1st year male

Over the course of the next 4 days, we visited Sheepshead Dr. location 6 times.

eBird Species Link for South Padre Island – – Valley Land Fund (45 species over 6 visits)

South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

Post #5 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #4 Laguna Vista – A Nature Trail and Fish Tacos

After a most excellent fish taco lunch and short stroll in Roloff Park in Laguna Vista, we decided that we wanted to explore the other side of the bay. While there are a number of “Must Visit” birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, when it comes to seeing migrating birds from the tropics (neotropical migrants), none is higher on the list than South Padre Island.  

©Dr. Hal Needham
hal@marineweatherandclimate.com

THE ISLAND

Geologically speaking, Padre Island is a young island, having formed in just the last several thousand years. It is one of 300 barrier islands stretching from Maine to Mexico. These natural barrier islands act to protect the mainland from the direct onslaught of storms. Padre Island began forming as a submerged sandbar some 4,500 years ago, while the actual emerged island may be only 1,000 to 1,500 years old.

Image by heydere

The island is mostly prairie/grasslands with ephemeral marshes and ponds bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and on the west by the Laguna Madre. The highest elevation is approximately fifty feet.

Most of the seashore is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Gulf beach is composed of white sand and is less than a hundred feet wide.Bordering the beach is a narrow dune ridge running almost the length of the entire island. West of the dune ridge are the grasslands and marshes. Few trees exist on the island. Those that do are mostly mesquite, live oak, or willow. On the western shore of the island are extensive mudflats.

THE MOTHER LAGOON

The Laguna Madre Bay is a “hyper-saline” bay meaning the salt content is higher than the rest of the ocean. It is one of only six hyper-saline bays in the world and is the largest with an average depth of only 3.3 feet. Laguna Madre is composed of extensive mudflats, which are considered environmentally sensitive. Because there is little flow of sediments along the Laguna shore, damage to the mudflats can last a long time. Tire tracks and footprints left over twenty years ago can still be seen in some parts.

HUMAN HISTORY

South Padre Island was a beautiful, desolate place where native Karankawa Indians, migratory birds, and sea turtles were the only residents. The Island was granted to Nicolás Ballí from King Carlos III of Spain in 1759 and later passed to Ballí’s grandson, Padre José Nicolás Ballí. Soon after, Padre José brought the first permanent settlers, establishing a church and teaching Christianity to the Karankawa Indians.

When Padre Ballí owned the Island, it was known as the Isla de Santiago. Due to the Padre’s reputation as a kind man, the people to whom he ministered affectionately referred to the Island as La Isla Padre – Padre Island. 

Five nations have owned Padre Island at different times. First the Karankawa people, followed by Spain until 1820, then Mexico until 1836, Republic of Texas until War with Mexico in 1848 and currently, the United States. Throughout these times, the island has been known by several names, with Padre Island being only the most recent. It has also been known as “la Isla Blanca” (White Island) and “Isla de los Malaguitas” (Island of the Malaquites, a band of the Karankawa people).

Today, tourism is the leading economical venture on the island, mostly confined to the south end of the island.

THE BIRDS

Bird species found on the island mostly fall into two groups; the Residents and the Migrants.

RESIDENT SPECIES – Resident species include various waterfowl such as Blue-winged Teal, Mottled Ducks and Redheads. South Padre Island is also home to several heron and egret species like Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Also hundreds of Laughing Gulls, Elegant Terns and Black Skimmers can be found year round. Skulking around in the seasonal wetlands, the more secretive rail species may be encountered.

NEOTRIPICAL MIGRANTS – During the seasonal push of migrant birds from the tropics, the number of birds stopping along the island can be staggering, especially during fall out conditions. The list of Neotropical migrants is quite impressive with birds ranging from the Yellow-billed Cuckoo to the brilliant Indigo and Painted Buntings and 44 species of warblers. The list goes on and on.

WHAT IS A BIRD FALLOUT? Are we there yet?

Bird fallout or migration fallout is the result of severe weather preventing migratory birds from reaching their destination. This can occur while birds are traveling south or returning to their breeding grounds. Due to the distance travelled, birds will not have enough energy to continue flight when encountering high winds. This exhaustion results in many birds resting in one area. While South Padre Island isn’t the answer to a bird’s Are we there yet? question, it often is a much needed pitstop along the way towards their final destination.

TOP EBIRD HOTSPOTS ON THE ISLAND

Isla Blanca State Park

  • 212 Species Observed
  • 386 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Valley Land Fund lots – Sheepshead Dr.

  • 291 Species Observed
  • 5,666 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Birding and Nature Center

  • 360 Species Observed
  • 7,398 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Convention Center

  • 365 Species Observed
  • 10,957 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Bay Access mudflats

  • 236 Species Observed
  • 1,607 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

As one advocate put it, Padre was a “vast wilderness of sea, sand, and surf where it is possible to escape the anxieties, tensions, and complexities of our time.”

Next Week’s Blog Post #6 – Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have You Any Birds?

Laguna Vista – A Nature Trail and Fish Tacos

Post #4 of The Great South Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #3 What a Dump!

After a brief, but successful stop at the Laguna Atascosa NWR Bahia Grande Unit, AKA Apolmado Falcon Viewing Area for the … Aplomado Falcon, we headed to a little spot that came highly recommended from the Rio Grande Valley Birding facebook Group. It really was a hidden gem and we weren’t really sure we were at the correct location until we saw the entrance sign.

The Nature Trail is nicely set up and very clean.

It has several rest benches and 3 observation blinds, each with its own water feature.

Green Jays

In addition to many new birds, there were a couple of reptiles lurking nearby.

Texas Horned Lizard
Yellow-bellied Eastern Racer
White-tipped Dove
Golden-fronted Woodpecker – female
Long-billed Thrasher
Olive Sparrow

eBird Checklist for Laguna Vista Nature Trail

By the time we finished up exploring the Nature Trail, we began the search for something to stop the rumblies in our tummies, it was time for food! We happened upon what was perhaps the best lunch of the entire adventure, The Bay B Boomers Bar & Grill in Laguna Vista, 717 Santa Isabel Blvd, Laguna Vista, TX 78578. Best fish tacos EVER!

Bay B Boomers Bar & Grill

Feeling fully restored and anxious to keep rolling, we spotted Roloff Park and beyond it, the famous Laguna Madre.

Image of Laughing Gulls, Caspian Tern and Elegant Tern
Laughing Gulls, Caspian Tern and Royal Tern

With a few more species checked off at the park, we succumbed to the lure of the famous South Padre Island and headed east.

Next Week Blog Post #5 South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

What a Dump!

Post #3 of The Great South Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #2 Why Birders Flock to the Rio Grande Valley – Lists and Photographs

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of the World says it best.

Tamaulipas Crow is generally found below 300 m, where it inhabits scrubby farmland and open woodland, as well as habitation, where it regularly attends rubbish dumps.

https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/tamcro/cur/introduction

Listed by the American Birding Association (ABA) as a Code-3 Rare bird, the Tamaulipas Crow occurs annually, but in very low numbers in the US. As many as 6 had been photographed by birders at the ubiquitous Brownsville Landfill in recent weeks, and this was our highest priority bird of the entire trip. The one bird that would be a life bird for all three of us.

As we followed the Google maps directions, our noses told us we were close before we could even see the entrance. The air was a swirling mass of Laughing Gulls with Great-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Turkey Vultures mixed in. As we approached the Brownsville Landfill Information sign, Jim R called out “Hooded Oriole!” and we all spotted the bright orange Icterid flitting around the entrance shrubbery.

Not knowing where to look amid the giant landfill, we asked one of the employees at the entrance booth where to go. With a pair of binoculars in hand, he stepped out and pointed up the road.

Over the course of the next 2 hours we carefully scrutinized every black-colored bird, including one likely candidate that turned out to be a piece of trash! We added Black Vultures, Crested Caracaras, Harris’s Hawks and Herring Gulls to our growing checklist.

Laughing Gull
Crested Caracara
Black Vulture

As we back-tracked to the most likely spot, we found a Chihuahua Raven that got us excited, briefly. But not the crow…

Chihuahua Raven

We chatted with other dump birders, all unsuccessful in our quest to find the Rare Tamaulipas Crow.

And then the call rang out, loud and clear; “TAMAULIPAS CROW ON THE FENCE!!!” Did we finally have our treasure or was it just another close call? A quick survey; small size – check. Small bill – check. Funky squawk – check!

Tamaulipas Crow

This was it! And it posed for us for several minutes, calling and calling the entire time.

Tamaulipas Crow
Tamaulipas Crow

Jim R and Rich posed and celebratory photos were captured as Jim R got his only trip lifer ON HIS BIRTHDAY!

Rich and Jim Celebrate a Great Find

What a great way to start our Great South Texas Birding Adventure!

eBird Location Information – As of 5/30/2021

Our eBird Checklist for Brownsville Landfill 2 HOURS 7 MINUTES 22 SPECIES

Next Blog Post #4 on 6/12/21 – Laguna Vista – A Nature Trail and Fish Tacos

Why Birders Flock to the Lower Rio Grande Valley – Lists and Photographs

Post #2 of The Great South Texas Birding Adventure Series
Link to Post #1 The Great South Texas Birding Adventure Begins

Why would the three amigos from The Great South Texas Birding Adventure choose South Texas as their destination for this grand escapade?
Two things, Lists and Photographs!

Astronomical Growth of Birdwatching

Huge numbers of people are bird-watchers; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that something like forty-eight million Americans watch birds. In fact, birding is one of (if not the) fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the country.  Birdwatching is the second most popular hobby in the US (behind gardening) and has become the fastest growing recreational activity among young people in the United States.

Waiting for the Elf Owl @ Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP, TX

What’s the difference between birdwatching and birding?

So, although the interest is the same, what separates birdwatching from birding is the level of commitment. While birdwatchers may have a field guide and pair of binoculars to identify yard birds, birders are slightly more obsessed and are prone to actively travel distances (sometimes great) to see a new bird to add to one or more of their lists. Birders are obsessive about keeping a life list, and often maintain country lists, state lists, county lists, and even zoo and tv lists of the birds they have seen or heard.

Birding the Rio Grande River – eBirder Extraordinaire – Jim Rowoth

Advent of the Photobirder

On the birdwatchingdaily.com website is a story about how birding has changed in the 2010s. In his article “How birdwatching changed in the 2010s“, Matt Mendenhall lists bird photography as the number one factor that changed birding the most.

On the Geographical website Paul Jepson shares that bird photography is broadening public engagement with birds and is central to the design and development of social media and Web 2.0. Blogs, in particular, also create connections between bird-photographers and birders.

Photographing a Common Pauraque family from a safe distance, Estero Llano Grande SP, TX

Just as there is a distinction of dedication between the birdwatcher and birder; there are different inclinations in bird photographers. Bird-photographers, or photobirders come in different flavors and distinctions.

Jim Rowoth and Rich Brown digitally shoot birds at the Laguna Vista Nature Trail, TX

Photobirder Type 1 – the Photo-IDer
While in the field recently, I overheard a photographer comment: “I am a photographer first, birder second. I photograph a bird I see it, and then ID it later while editing my photos with the field guide next to my computer.

I feel sorry for true birders that have to ID the bird in the field without the benefit of a dozen photos to confirm the ID.

Photographer’s comments in the field

Photobirder Type 2 – the Photo-Lister
The Photo-Lister tries to get a photo of every species and is not too concerned with quality

Photobirder Type 3 – the Trophy-Hunter
The Trophy-Hunter is looking to get an outstanding action shot with the best photographic composition and exposure possible.

What’s so Special About the Lower Rio Grande Valley?

#1 Birding Destination in the US

The Lonely Planet

Top 10 Best Spots for Bird Watching in the U.S.

Condé Nast

Nowhere else in the United States can the pulse and excitement of spring migration be felt more keenly than in South Texas! Birds funneling up from the Tropics to their summer breeding grounds pass through coastal South Texas in numbers and varieties that stagger the imagination. Adding to that excitement are almost two dozen Mexican northern limit species, plus a slew of regional desert and plains birds.

Santa Ana NWR, TX

The second-largest U.S. state boasts a whopping 639 bird species, and perhaps the hottest birding hot spot in North America: The Rio Grande Valley. In South Texas, you can expect to see many species at the northern limits of their global range.

  • Lower Rio Grande Valley Specialty Birds
    Species at the northern limits of their global range
    • Plain Chachalaca
    • White-tipped Dove
    • Groove-billed Ani
    • Common Pauraque
    • Buff-bellied Hummingbird
    • Green Kingfisher
    • Ringed Kingfisher
    • Aplomado Falcon
    • Great Kiskadee
    • Couch’s Kingbird
    • Green Jay
    • Long-billed Thrasher
    • Clay-colored Thrush
    • Olive Sparrow
    • Altamira Oriole
    • Audubon’s Oriole
  • Southern US Resident Birds – includes birds typical of the Gulf coast, plains and desert habitats found across the southern US. This includes beautiful birds such as Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, Crested Caracara, Curve-billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren and so on.
  • Migrating Neotropical Birds – includes dozens of species of birds passing through on their visits to/from Mexico, Central and South America.

Next week’s post – What a Dump!

The Great South Texas Birding Adventure Begins

On a very early Monday morning on April 26, 2021, 3 intrepid birders from California’s Central Valley set out to travel to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in search of BIRDS. By the time we returned 9 days later, a total of 206 life Texas birds would be checked off our combined eBird totals. For all of us, this would be the first foray out from our isolated COVID-19 living conditions. Fully vaccinated, and following all recommended safety protocols, we ventured into unknown travel environments with many concerns about the interactions at the airport and flying conditions with two flights awaiting us.

As of this write-up almost a month later, fortunately none of us contracted that nasty COVID-19 virus. But I have to admit, I was plenty worried by the time we landed in McAllen. Both flights were packed to the gills with passengers. Jim traveled from Sacramento to San Antonio to McAllen, while Rich and I went via Dallas to McAllen. Rich and my second flight was delayed for more than two hours as we were evicted twice for mechanical issues (broken wipers…). Jim R got a head start on his Hidalgo County list while he dragged his suitcase to the nearby cemetery as he waited for us.

With a top notch Toyota Highlander acquired for our travels, we headed to the Hampton Inn in Harlingen which would be our lodging for the entire adventure. But first, our one and only stop at a Cracker Barrel in Harlingen for an initiatory celebration dinner.

Our conversation over the course of the dinner kept returning to the potential fallout conditions that looked possible later on in the week. As popularized by Jack Black’s character in The Big Year, a fallout is when migrating neotropical birds become exhausted and literally fall out of the sky in search of food and water.

This event happens when the normal south wind assisted migratory flight is hit with a full in-your-face strong north wind. The little birds have to literally fight for their lives to make it to land in search of sustenance. Photos posted during the fall out that happened two weeks prior showed dozens of colorful songbirds just sitting on the grass next to the South Padre Island Convention Center. Looking to the forecast for Friday and Saturday, a north wind was predicted to hit South Padre Island again.

Our plans for the next morning fit right in with The Big Year movie theme as we were going to head to the dump. The Brownsville Landfill to be exact. Home of the rare Tamaulipas Crow – a potential life bird for all of us. And the least scenic location of the entire adventure.

The Undiscovered Country

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist)
Life List = 186
Year List = 140

Whereas this title may bring to mind either Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Gene Roddenberry’s Start Trek VI, it is merely a reference to the Eastern Merced County grasslands that I had never ventured into before.

I again scoured eBird for recent reports for Eastern Merced County. I seem to be following in the footsteps of Dale Swanberg as he recently reported a couple of my target birds for this area, this time of year. Most of his reports were for areas that I had not seen before.

TARGET BIRDS FOR THE DAY

The following photos were all taken in Stanislaus County, but are the focus of my adventures today.

Ferruginous Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Golden Eagle
Lewis’s Woodpecker
Prairie Falcon
Vesper Sparrow

White Rock Rd. STOP #1

I started driving north and then east on White Rock Road enjoying almost zero traffic for the entire area. Almost immediately I spotted two adult Bald Eagles roosting in a tree.

A short distance later I spied another very distant adult Bald Eagle, and then an even more distant immature Bald Eagle. I reached the county line and turned back, inching along, looking at every sparrow in hopes of finding a Vesper. A very white hawk standing in the field caught my attention. I approached it carefully and noted that it was one of my target birds for the day, a Ferruginous Hawk. Unfortunately as luck would have it, a large cattle truck rumbled very noisily by scaring off my Kodak Moment. 😦

A consolation Burrowing Owl was hiding in the gravel and rock pilings. A barely recognizable photo shows the ID, but it’s not the kind of photo I would like.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79929493

ONWARD TO STOP #2

Next up was E. South Bear Creek Dr. in hopes of re-finding the Vesper Sparrow reported by Dale Swanberg. There was literally no traffic and tons of sparrows to sort through. At the end of the road along the fence line was another Ferruginous Hawk, just a bit too far away for a good photo.

Ferruginous Hawk Along E. South Bear Creek Dr.

Once again, the Vesper Sparrow must not have returned from vespers last night because I didn’t find one here today.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79932948

CONTINUING TO STOP #3 – Lake Yosemite County Park

Here I was hoping to find and photograph one of the continuing Vermilion Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, or the Thayer’s Gull photographed by D Krajnovich. It was a sunny, cool and breezy spot, but unfortunately the only thing I succesfully photographed was a pair of Canada Geese at the entrance.

Canada Geese

There was also a nice osprey soaring overhead, but it never got close enough for a good shot.

Same thing for a distant Belted Kingfisher’

Belted Kingfisher

On the way out, I spotted a likely candidate for the female Vermilion Flycatcher so I turned around for a second pass. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic and all I could do was slow down and shoot while driving past it. I then made the mistake of assuming it was my hoped for bird and I added “it” to my eBird checklist and closed it out. It wasn’t until I got home and had the chance to look at my images that it was painfully clear that my Vermilion Flycatcher was just a Say’s Phoebe. Oops!

Says Phoebe
https://ebird.org/checklist/S79936263

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of today’s last checklist)
Life List = 187
Year List = 141