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
Over the course of the next 4 days, we visited Sheepshead Dr. location 6 times.
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.
As we back-tracked to the most likely spot, we found a Chihuahua Raven that got us excited, briefly. But not the crow…
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!
This was it! And it posed for us for several minutes, calling and calling the entire time.
Jim R and Rich posed and celebratory photos were captured as Jim R got his only trip lifer ON HIS BIRTHDAY!
What a great way to start our Great South Texas Birding Adventure!
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.
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 areobsessive 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once again, the Vesper Sparrow must not have returned from vespers last night because I didn’t find one here today.
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.
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’
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!
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of today’s last checklist) Life List = 187 Year List = 141
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist) Life List = 183 Year List = 122
Seeing a break between storms, I reached out to Rich Brown and Dale Swanberg to see if they wanted to explore the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation areas. I was hoping that something unusual would show up with the unsettled weather and strong winds the day before. We met up in Santa Nella and Dale lead us to Los Banos Creek Reservoir which is a part of the recreation area that I had never visited before. I noticed a couple of new year birds that went unrecorded for the time being as I’m sure I will get them at an actual birding hotspot later (Great-tailed Grackle and Yellow-billed Magpie).
25 Jan 2021 – FIRST STOP LOS BANOS CREEK RESERVOIR
At the bridge over the Delta Mendota Canal, both Rich and I stopped to quickly photograph a female Canvasback that was swimming away.
We quickly caught up with Dale, who was wondering what we were doing. The entrance seemed to be lacking the usual entrance sign that most state recreation areas have. There was a sign at the base of the dam though.
After getting our parking spot assignment, we parked near the entrance, searching for roadrunners that might be hanging out. We dipped on the beep-beep, but had an encounter with a very large pig and about 20 little porkers running behind her. The skies portended inclement weather and the water was choppy.
I was amazed at the number of Aechmophorus grebes hanging out around all coves and inlets of the reservoir. Aechmophorus refers to the genus name of Western and Clark’s Grebes that used to be conspecific until their split back in the late 80s. A quick count using my telescope of the birds I could see gave me a total of a little over 300 birds with the ratio of Western to Clarks at about 10:1.
For a comparison, Clark’s Grebes have an orangish-yellow tint to their bills and their eyes are entirely or mostly surrounded by white facial feathers.
The Western Grebe lacks the orangish tone in the yellow bill and their eyes are surrounded by black facial feathers.
On the way out as we were fording the creek, off to our left was the big momma pig hiding quite effectively in the reeds.
The winds had picked up as we reached the boat launch area and the birds were scattered quite a ways from where we were. Dale and Rich (socially distanced of course), searched every corner for something unusual or new for the year.
As we skimmed over the rafts of Ruddy Ducks and American Coots, we could see distant Canvasbacks, Buffleheads and Common Goldeneyes with nary a Barrow’s to be seen.
Up ahead something caught my eye. It was a small grebe, much smaller than either a Western or Clark’s and it had too distinctive of a white cheek patch to be an Eared Grebe. We pulled over, jumped out and got our binoculars on a nice Horned Grebe. This would be the first of this species to be recorded in the county this year. Horned Grebes are more of a coastal wetlands and bay bird with a few spotted in the valley each year. Not rare, but certainly uncommon.
After checking off the Horned grebe on our eBird Mobile checklist, we focused on the many Scaup flocks, hoping to ID a Greater in with the Lessers. Greater Scaup are similar to Horned Grebes in that they are more usually found along the coast. The one spot they seem easier to find though is exactly where we were.
The Greater Scaup is slightly larger, has a rounded head without any peak and a bill tooth that is relatively wide at the distal end of the bill.
We decided to give the other side of the reservoir a check to see if the winds were a little less knock your hat off.
We were treated to much calmer conditions at the San Luis Creek area and were treated to a flock of Lark Sparrows as soon as we started down the trail.
We enjoyed lots of Juncos and sparrows and some offshore Bufflehead as we walked along the shoreline. There were plenty of kinglets, sparrows and Bushtits, but nothing else unusual or new for the year.
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist) Life List = 179 Year List = 99
Nestled next to the Merced River, surrounded by riparian trees and home to a myriad of ornamental evergreen and deciduous trees in an open setting, Henderson Park was our target for the morning.
COLLEGE CREDIT FOR BIRD WATCHING – WHAT?
Almost 36 years ago I first visited the Snelling area, (Henderson Park specifically), on a college field trip. I, along with 20 other college students, were getting credit for the requisite “Winter Term Course” for graduation and I was ecstatic that Winter Birding was an option. As a matter of random circumstance, I had to take Ornithology the previous spring as it was the only upper division science course I could fit into my fulltime working, two kid family, busy life. As a result of taking Zoology 4630 – Ornithology, I had become hooked on birding and it seemed surreal to get credit for going birding. The one thing I remember about that particular trip was seeing three species of goldfinch. I only recorded an X for the 32 species seen, so my eBird list doesn’t have numbers.
Designed by county surveyor and architect William “Bill” E. Bedesen, Henderson Park is similar to Lake Yosemite which Bedesen also designed for the WPA. Henderson Park has a sister WPA-constructed park near Hillmar, called Hagaman Park. Both have cobble stone-faced entrances. WPA work at Henderson Park includes a clubhouse, comfort station and utility shed, as well as curved stone walls. All are built of concrete blocks with a cobblestone veneer of stones that were dredged from the Merced River. https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/henderson-park-snelling-ca-snelling-ca/
Recent eBird reports by Dale Swanberg, Richard Brown, Sam Fellows and Gary Woods helped me set a target list, both for new species for my year list and for photos, always more photos! High on my lists were: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pine Siskin and the unusual Slate-colored Junco, a sub-species of Dark-eyed Junco.
Stalking my Prey – As can be seen in my eBird Mobile Tracks map above, I wandered around and around, going wherever I saw or heard birds.
After 2 1/2 hours of searching unsuccessfully for my last target bird, White-throated Sparrow, I headed home. I was determined to go back better prepared and with an expert! Two days later, Richard Brown accompanied me back to the park and he showed me the exact brush pile that he had photographed the sparrow on 4 days before.
After a short distraction by a Phainopepla…
we crept carefully to the perfect position with the sun to our backs, moving ever so slowly and BAM! It popped up.
Contact with nature benefits our mood, our psychological well-being, our mental health, and our cognitive functioning. For centuries outdoor enthusiasts have given testimony to the joy one can derive from a simple walk in nature.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
― William Shakespeare
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
― Albert Einstein
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
BENEFITS OF BIRD WATCHING
A study from the University of Exeter in England found that people living in neighborhoods with more birds and tree cover are less likely to have depression, anxiety and stress.
The study, published in the journal BioScience, surveyed more than 270 people from towns throughout southern England. Researchers found a positive association between the number of birds and trees in a neighborhood and residents’ mental health, even after controlling for a neighborhood’s poverty level and other demographic factors.
“Evidence is there to support the conclusion that contact with nature benefits our mood, our psychological well-being, our mental health, and our cognitive functioning,”
Improve cardiovascular health
Many may be shocked to learn that birding can count as a workout. But often, locations that offer the best opportunities for bird watching are located off of the beaten path and require a bit of a hike in order to reach. Getting your blood pumping with a moderately-paced walk is a great way to keep your heart healthy, and by taking part in an activity you enjoy, you won’t even notice you’re getting in a workout.
Hone patience skills
The payoff of bird watching isn’t always immediate, and usually requires time spent waiting for the much anticipated glimpse of the birds you’re seeking. Refining your patience skills isn’t only a practice that will improve your mental well-being, but also has physical health benefits. A 2007 study found that people that are more patient are less likely to experience headaches, ulcers, pneumonia, acne and other health problems.
Obtain quicker reflexes
After a lengthy wait, a bird watcher has to be ready at any given second to grab their binoculars or camera to bask in and capture that long-awaited moment. Every birding opportunity gives you the chance to exercise your reflex speed, as well as improve upon it. Having fast reflexes not only allows you to be a successful bird watcher, but will prevent a barrage of small disasters from happening in your day-to-day life and help you better thwart off danger.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PANDEMIC-SAFE BIRDING
With just a few social-distancing tweaks added to your routine, birding (ornithology sessions) can be safely practiced in most outdoor settings.
Don’t go with a group of your friends
Avoid public transportation
Keep at least 12 feet away from others not in your immediate family social bubble.
Have a mask at the ready in case others approach within the 12 foot limit.
Don’t share optics with others not in your immediate family social bubble
Have a bottle of disinfectant in your car and use it liberally as soon as you return to it.
ORNITHERAPY – TAKING BIRDING TO ANOTHER LEVEL
WHAT IS ORNITHERAPY?
Ornitherapy is a portmanteau of the terms ornithology (the study of birds) and therapy. Borrowing from “Our Guide to Ornitherapy – Getting Started” by Whitehawk Birding, “Simply put, Ornitherapy is the practice of observing birds to calm the mind, to ground or center yourself, or to help focus your thoughts on the presentmoment.
Ornitherapy endeavors to transform the data-intensive, species listing science that is birding, into a sensory journey of the sights, sounds, smells and species interactions of nature. Ornitherapy is more about the sensory experience as one becomes enveloped by the sphere of life.
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
― Henry David Thoreau
Connecting to the natural world facilitates streams of creativity and learning, while providing benefits such as: stress reduction, improved focus, and a more positive mindset.
As Benji and I approached the West Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR, I knew it was going to be a challenge. Visibility was no more than 100 yards at best. The area had lots of water and the conditions seemed pretty good to attract wintering waterbirds.
While there were many White-crowned Sparrows feeding along the tour route and a good number of Marsh Wrens were vociferously stating their presence, there was almost no sign of waterfowl.
“I don’t know dad, I can’t see anything in this fog…”.
We left after 40 minutes with only 25 bird species observed. (On a side note, there were lots of Squirtles and Mudkips here – gotta catch them all.) Next Stop Santa Fe Grade!
Santa Fe Grade–Patman Grade Rd. to Hwy 165 (south end)
Santa Fe Grade is a 13 mile, mostly dirt road that runs from Hwy 165 up to Hwy 140. It is surrounded by rangelands and lots of hunting club marshes. Due to the length, eBird has a north and south separation for the two hotspots. Exploring this road on hunting days can be a bit disconcerting as the explosions of shotguns can come when you least expect it. Fortunately for me today, it was a quiet, although quite foggy cruise through the wetlands.
We were fortunate enough to see an adult Bald Eagle and a Peregrine Falcon literally on back-to-back telephone poles. Unfortunately one of the few cars to come along the entire route, happened to drive past as I was trying to get a photo of the Peregrine. The conditions were not conducive for stellar photographs, but I did get an identifiable shot of the eagle.
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date Life List = 178 Year List = 76
After a delightful tour around the San Luis NWR – Waterfowl Tour Route, my next destination would be the Merced NWR. Infamous for its auto tour route that takes visitors on a loop through time with thousands of Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and Sandhill Cranes, this refuge is a true valley treasure. At 226 species, eBird shows the Merced NWR Hotspot is tied with the O’Neill Forebay for the highest number of observed bird species reported in Merced County. The Merced Refuge actually hosts 6 separate eBird Hotspots with 4 for specific trails, one for just the auto tour route and one more general that covers the entire area.
The 4-mile auto route takes visitors through various managed wetland parcels with differing water levels. Following the route in a counter-clockwise navigation around the wetlands immerses us in an immense science lab full of ecologically-connected food webs. With the never-ending treat to life from above, the birds are usually quite nervous. Today would prove to be the exception.
With dark clouds overhead I knew it wouldn’t be long before the rain would fall. As we drove west along the north part of the tour route, a gentle rain began to wet my windshield. It was as if the dark skies and light showers calmed the birds. While the lighting made photography a challenge, the birds continued to feed as if I wasn’t there at all. A Black-necked Stilt probed first one spot, then another and another trying it’s best to stir up a morsel.
In between the scattered passing of light showers, I captured a few species that wandered within range of my lens.
I stopped next to a small patch of willows and a small cottonwood when I heard a small woodpecker hammering away at the trunk of the cottonwood. I could see at first glance that it was a Nuttall’s Woodpecker as it peered at me.
It seemed non-complused with my presence, pecking away at bark and probing each crevice it could get its bill into. As it came around towards the front of the limb, I could see that it was a female as the nape was not showing any of the bold red pattern that a male would have.
Continuing the journey towards the observation platform at the extreme SE corner, we came across several other interesting birds.
Finally arriving at the platform that held the most expectations for me, we parked and explored the platform briefly. We both needed to stretch our legs.
I packed Benji back into the car and I went for a walk around the Bittern Trail. Of late, up to two Vermilion Flycatchers have been reported at the refuge, with the last sighting yesterday (1/3/2021). I walked slowly around the trail, taking long, silent breaks, listening and watching for the slightest movement. I noticed (squirrel moment…) a chunky sparrow doing a two-footed scrape-hop in the leaf litter and I just had to try and get a good shot of it. Fox Sparrows come in a variety of forms, or sub-species. The most likely one to be encountered here would be the Sooty Fox Sparrow and I intended on getting proof of which type it was.
As I searched for over an hour, I spotted a distant Great Horned Owl that flushed as I tried to get closer.
I never did find my target Vermilion Flycatcher so I will have to come back again. As I was approaching the last leg of the auto route along Sandy Mush Rd., I remembered that a Lark Bunting had been reported last month along here. I was fortunate to find it after a short search as it was feeding at the edge of the road with other sparrows.
I ended up doing a complete second tour around the refuge, enjoying the calming feeling that it gave me.
THE FOCUS IS SET Part way through last year’s San Joaquin County Birding Push, I began to consider what I would focus on for 2021. The answer was simple, focus on the southern adjacent county to Stanislaus, MERCED COUNTY. A quick check in eBird showed that I had a lot of work to do to get my species list up to a respectable number.
WHERE DO I BEGIN? As happens frequently when I set out to go birding, the most difficult questions to nail down is where? There are so many options on where to go birding that just setting a starting point can be daunting. I always check the latest posts in eBird and on the listserves to see if something really unusual had been observed, but then it’s just a guessing game.
A CHOICE IS MADE – OWL HUNTING IT IS As I headed down Hwy 99 enjoying the rousing chords of “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf, I decided to try and nail down a Short-eared Owl at the San Luis NWR. I thought the conditions were perfect as the weather was cloudy with rain in the forecast. If I couldn’t find one there, I was pretty certain I would be able to find Tundra Swans. Tundra Swans aren’t particularly rare at the refuge, but… who doesn’t like to see Tundra Swans?
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date Life List = 178 Year List = 0
SQUIRREL! I think that I have something in common with many of my other naturalist friends, there’s always lots of “SQUIRREL” MOMENTS. Yes, I was focused on finding that Short-eared Owl, but who can resist Tule Elks posing in the low dawn sunlight?
Oh, and also I might have forgotten to mention that I had my birding buddy along. Benji is my Bird Dog 2.0, replacing my BEST BIRD DOG EVER TOBY. I think we’re going to make a great team together!
PLAN B – TUNDRA SWANS Well, the Short-eared Owls were staying hidden from me today, so it was off to the Sousa Marsh at the extreme southeast corner of the refuge.
A … COOT MOMENT? There was another squirrel moment (or should I say coot moment) along the way as a small flock of American Coots decided to ignore me and just swim right up to the side of the pond they were feeding in.
Soon we were off again, racing (not really…) to the Sousa Marsh were there were almost 100 TUNDRA SWANS were calmly swimming, feeding and flying across the Sousa Marsh.
MOVING ON … ANOTHER SQUIRREL MOMENT After enjoying the swans and other waterfowl for an hour I decided that I was off-schedule and needed to pick up the pace. I needed (wanted?) to get over to the Merced NWR next to try for the Vermilion Flycatchers that had been reported there. I quickly raced down the roadway at a blazing-fast speed of 20 mph, when my mind told my foot to press REALLY HARD on the brakes because another squirrel moment was unfolding. (It’s a good thing my bird buddy was strapped in securely in the back seat.) EGRETS & HERONS – How could I NOT stop and add more images to by collection of probably 3,000 egret and heron photos? But digital images are free (anyone remember the cost of Velvia slide film?) so why not?
By the time I hit the end of the auto loop I had observed 76 species, giving my Merced County Big Year a great start. eBird Checklist Link Now it was off to the Merced NWR.