West Texas Birding August 2012

This is the Texas part of my latest road-trip to Arizona and Colorado.

On my way to and back from Arizona and Colorado I couldn’t help myself, but stop in a few choice west Texas birding locations. I left Houston Thursday night (8/9) and drove through all the way to lake Balmorhea where I camped for the night. The only highlight was a great look at an Ord’s Kangaroo Rat that cooperated for a picture. I slept pretty badly and a coyote that started howling at full throttle twenty feet from the tent at 5 am didn’t help. After that yelping I was wide awake and figured I may as well get up. I watched the soft pinks of sunrise creep over the hills in the east, revealing silhouettes of shorebirds walking along the muddy margins of the lake, which lay like lead under a clear sky. With just enough light I picked out Greater Yellowlegs and the first surprise, a Western Willet. I noticed a lot of activity towards the reedy areas of the back of the lake and after jumping a ditch and nearly falling in, I was in a great position to scan through the birds. Overall I found 19 species of shorebirds, including single Semipalmated Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, marbled Godwit (on the other side), and lots of Western, Least, Semipalmated, Solitary, Spotted Sandpipers. Exciting were really great studies of dozens of Baird’s Sandpiper, while a nervous flock of Wilson’s Phalaropes drifted in and out. Otherwise all I could find were the regulars with migrating Black Terns (7) and Forster’s Terns. The only gull was a Ring-billed that loafed with the terns. Among the many herons and egrets I found a pair of Tricolored Herons, which are rare in the region and among many Black-crowned was a single Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The only landbirds of note were a few Yellow Warblers and half a dozen Lark Buntings.

Tricolored Herons are rare, but regular in west Texas Photo Stephan Lorenz

I moved on to the state park in hopes of more birds and a refreshing swim. I got to cool off in the pool, but the birds didn’t happen, except for a single Willow Flycatcher near the wetland. With half a day left and Arizona fairly close I stopped in the Franklin Mountains and hiked to the spring, except for a few Broad-tailed Hummingbirds all was quiet. It was here that I observed a praying mantis capture a hummingbird feeding on a thistle, the thistles and hummers were still here, but I didn’t linger for long. Arizona was a farther distance than I remembered and I crashed in Tucson for the night.

I returned to Texas (8/17) via Carlsbad New Mexico. I had covered the entire state mainly following 285, which took me the better of five hours. By the time I reached the Guadalupe Mountains it was mid-afternoon and I could see lightning and heavy rains in the high country. I decided to give McKittrick Canyon a pass for now and headed to Frijole Ranch. My main target bird being Juniper Titmouse, I had tried multiple time for this species, but always came up empty-handed. This is a difficult species to find in the limited area where it occurs in the state, being restricted to the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. The only previous one I had seen was a quick glimpse of a bird shooting across a trail in southeast Arizona. I set out along the short loop trail leading to the springs and as luck would have it found a very vocal bird within five minutes, I followed it for 20 minutes and got great looks plus a few photos. Otherwise the area held only a few regular species with Scott’s Orioles and Western tanagers adding color to the desert. A Gray Flycatcher fit the drab environment a bit better. Even the greenery around the spring was quiet. On the drive south I tried for buntings along stream crossing and thick vegetation, but only found Bell’s Vireos and Black-throated Sparrows. Eventually the rain caught up and I drove through heavy downpour all the way to Davis Mountains State Park, where I camped.

Juniper Titmouse is fairly rare in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

The following day I took advantage of the open weekend at the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve. The landscape was stunning and the company of other birders great, while we didn’t see anything too exceptional it was nice to see a few species that I hadn’t seen in Texas in a long time. I joined Martin and Sheridan exploring some of the lower canyons before hiking up to Tobe Canyon. We came across large numbers of Western Wood-Pewees and Olive-sided Flycatchers with 2 or 3 Gray Flycatcher mixed in. In fact everything seemed to be sallying after insects, including the Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks. Lots’ of Plumbeous Vireos where in the area with Spotted Towhees calling from the hillsides and Chipping Sparrows busily feeding young of the year. Higher up in the beautiful Tobe canyon, full of large ponderosa pines and oak, bird activity picked up. First I was happy to come across a male Montezuma Quail that had wandered across the trail and walked through the dry creek bed only to emerge in full view on the other side. I met Cameron and Steve who were on their way out and updated me on the birds that had been seen. I found the spring area quiet and continued. Higher up Steller’s Jays were obvious and I found a single Band-tailed Pigeon. Nearly every tree had a Western Tanager and every third tree a Hepatic. I waited and finally picked up a warbler chip, surprisingly it was male Black-throated Green instead of the expected Townsend’s. I saw the bird well for two minutes and checked flanks, face pattern, and back carefully, but couldn’t turn it otherwise. Black-throated Greens are are but regular migrants through west Texas. On the way down I finally found the feeding flock and added Grace’s Warbler and Painted Redstart, best view I ever had of the species in Texas (the picture below was actually taken in Arizona). On the drive back towards the entrance we came across a perched Zone-tailed Hawk.

Painted Redstart Photo Stephan Lorenz

The clouds finally broke in a quick downpour and we drove back to Ft. Davis for dinner (not much choice here). A brief stop at the State Park netted us nothing new, but a flooded area near the observatory turn-off held six species of shorebirds and some ducks, a surprise in the Davis Mountains. Well after sunset I crawled into my soaked tent to the sound of Poorwills and Western Screech-Owls.

The big target bird of the day (8/19) was Buff-breasted Flycatcher (which had been really scarce this summer). I little group headed optimistically into the mountains, but it was even quieter than the day before and after a quick attempt we headed back down. I gassed up in Ft. Davis and couldn’t help but stop one more time at the new wetlands near Balmorhea, Sandia Springs Wetland Project. The fields behind the actual wetland had been flooded and hundreds of shorebirds were present. Flocks of Wilson’s Phalaropes fed eagerly, while both yellowlegs were present ind roves, a single Willet was mixed in and only smaller shorebirds I could make out at the distance included Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers. It didn’t take long before a young Peregrine stirred up the birds and I could spot pintails among the shovelers, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals. Martin and Sheridan pulled up and we gave it another good scan, but eventually relinquished to the long haul home.

Davis Mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

 

 

 

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