Journal archives for December 2017

December 20, 2017

Port Aransas Christmas Bird Count 2017-12-18

Continuing a long tradition, on Monday, 12/18/2017 I, Warren Pulich, and Beau Hardegree participated in the Port Aransas Christmas Bird Count, covering the city's nature preserve at Charlie's Pasture. I arrived in Port Aransas about a week before the count and was able to scout Charlie's Pasture a few times. These were the first times I had been on the preserve since Hurricane Harvey devastated the town on August 25. There used to be over a mile of boardwalk out over the mud flats on this preserve. It was all gone. Here are some of the few pilings that were left:

Boardwalk pilings

The wall separating the preserve from the ship channel was breeched in three places, so now salt water from the channel flows in and out of the mud flats with every passing large ship. Here's the break nearest to the nature preserve's pavilion and main trail head:

First Cut

The lack of a boardwalk and the new cuts in the ship channel wall made accessing the mud flats to count birds much more difficult. I spent two mornings slogging through the mud looking for birds and for the best paths to get close enough to count them. The first time I went out shorebirds were nearly absent on the mud flats. But the second time, after a significant rain, there were thousands of sandpipers out there. So on the morning of the Christmas Bird Count I went out to count them.

Starting at about 7:30 AM, it was a little after 9:00 AM that I arrived at a spot just west of Salt Island where I started counting shorebirds. It was lightly raining and I had left my big camera behind since it's not waterproof. The numbers of shorebirds to the west and south was overwhelming, and I struggled to create a plan to count them. Shortly after starting, looking to the south I saw two birds I assumed were Black-bellied Plovers. But one was smaller and darker than the other. Looking more closely at the smaller one through my spotting scope I could see that the bill was also slimmer. I started to think this was an American Golden Plover, a species usually only seen during spring or fall migration. I took several photos of the bird with my iPhone held up to my spotting scope. They were all bad, but here's the best one:

American Golden Plover

After taking the photos and writing a few notes in my notepad, I went back to counting shorebirds. Here's what I came up with:

Black-bellied Plover 7
Semipalmated Plover 7
Piping Plover 40
Ruddy Turnstone 70
Sanderling 100
Dunlin 725
Least Sandpiper 540
Western Sandpiper 110
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 125

The numbers for Piping Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, and Sanderling were higher than I've seen before out on these mud flats. These birds are normally more numerous on the beach, but the teams counting birds on the beach saw fewer of these species than expected.

When I started heading back I found a dead sea turtle in the shallows and realized it must have come in through on of the new cuts in the ship channel wall and gotten trapped as the water level fell. I reported it to the ARK and hope they find the observation useful.

I made it back to the Charlie's Pasture pavilion around 11:30 and met up with Warren and Beau who had been birding the grassland and thicket habitats all morning. They had found some good birds too, including Indio Buntings. Before we stopped for lunch Warren and his son Mark also found a Short-eared Owl, a species not seen here in years.

After lunch we returned and walked out into the salt marsh south of the mud flats in search of Nelson's Sparrow. After checking a few spots we have seen them in years past, we finally had a single bird respond to our recorded song:

Nelson's Sparrow

The unofficial species total for the count is 145, which is great considering the post-hurricane condition of many birding sites, and the loss of some of our participants from past years. Additional rarities included Brown Booby and Greater Black-backed Gull observed by Clay Taylor at the south jetty. And for the first time ever on the Port Aransas CBC, Joan and Scott Holt observed two Whooping Cranes on San Jose Island!

Here's my eBird list for the morning.

Here are are a few more photos on Flickr.

Posted on December 20, 2017 02:47 by mikaelb mikaelb | 3 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

December 21, 2017

Tony Amos Beach 2017-12-21

This morning starting a little after 8:00, I counted birds on the Tony Amos Beach in Port Aransas. Starting at Access Road 1, I drove the 7.4 miles to Access Road 2 in about 1.5 hours. The weather was extremely foggy, the temperature was about 64 degrees F. Compared with when I last counted birds here on 9/30, numbers were much lower. But looking at some of my past checklists for late December on this beach, today's numbers only seemed a little low.

The biggest surprise was not finding any Piping Plovers or Snowy Plovers, and finding only 4 Ruddy Turnstones. Interestingly, 3 days ago on the Port Aransas Christmas Bird Count I found Sanderlings, Piping Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones in higher than expected numbers out on the lagoon-side of the island. Maybe these species have a seasonal preference for the mud flats over the beach this time of year.

Most fun this morning was finding 40 Red Knots, a long-distance-migrating shorebird in sharp decline. I hope we can save it. They were clustered in 4 groups. Here are three of them:

Red Knots

True to their name, they actually do turn red in the summer, but they're not red for very long in Texas.

Also fun was finding two Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Here's one of them:

Lesser Black-backed Gull - 2

Here's my complete eBird list.

Update 2017-12-24: On Facebook Lynn Amos posted this comment: 'You found Tony's "gap", when the PIPLs disappear from the beach for a bit, but do return before going north to nest.' Very interesting!

Posted on December 21, 2017 22:09 by mikaelb mikaelb | 5 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

December 25, 2017

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge CBC 2017-12-23

I was fortunate again this year to be able to participate in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Christmas Bird Count. We were fortunate to have the count with fewer volunteers and staff available and damaged facilities in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Special thanks to Paul Swacina and Rick Laughlin for organizing the count again this year under challenging conditions.

My team covered the non-public Area 5 again which included Burgentine Lake, part of Saint Charles Bay, and some area south and inland of both. The weather was mild, in the 60s and 70s. A strong south wind increased through the morning, reaching gusts of 30 mph I guessed out over the coastal prairie habitat. The highlight was this Great Horned Owl, which was roosting nearly on the ground at the base of a mesquite tree right by the road. I completely missed it but my teammates somehow spotted it as we drove by.

Great Horned Owl at base of Mesquite

When most of the teams convened at lunch time, we realized that songbirds were very difficult to find. Where last year my team counted hundreds of Yellow-rumped Warblers, we only recorded one or two this year. And no one had found a Hermit Thrush or a White-eyed Vireo.

For the afternoon I was on my own and decided to try and find some of these songbirds in the dense patches of woods in the public areas of the refuge. I had the best luck in the Youth Education Area where I walked about 1.5 miles of road and trail, stopping at spots sheltered from the wind to play an Eastern Screech-Owl recording. The birds were few and far between, but I did find two White-eyed Vireos and a single Hermit Thrush.

At one spot I'd stopped because I heard two Blue-gray gnatcatchers calling. After playing my owl recording they came in to investigate and I got this photo of one of them:

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

As I was watching the gnatcatchers I occasionally heard a soft call note that reminded me of a Cave Swallow. I kept looking in the sky but never saw anything. Finally, I saw another bird deep in the brush, a female Eastern Towhee! After getting a look at me she moved away and I could not get a photograph. Even after playing some Eastern Towhee call recordings she never returned. But I realized that this was the bird making the faint calls I'd heard before.

I only used eBird for my afternoon birding. Here's my complete list from the Youth Education Area, showing how hard it was to find songbirds!

Here's my account of last year's count for comparison.

Attached are a few iNaturalist observations, and here are a few more photos on Flickr.

Posted on December 25, 2017 15:04 by mikaelb mikaelb | 6 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment