21 May 2018

Big Bend/Hill Country

It's been a month since my last update which, sadly, seems about average.  However, I did do a tour in April though, to Big Bend and the Hill Country of Texas.  I joined Chris Benesh who does that tour every year.  In fact, I did it with Chris in 2016 as well.  You can find more info about this Field Guides tour here.

We start the tour in San Antonio and immediately start driving due west.  It doesn't take long to start seeing SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHERS perched on the the fences and powerlines.  Here's one at a rest area that swooped over, resulting in one of my favorite images:
We spent a morning birding in the town of Del Rio which is, not surprising given the name, right on the Rio Grande.  We had a slew of fun and interesting species (checklist here) including this male PAINTED BUNTING:
This is about as far north in the US that you can find seedeaters.  It's a local species anywhere in the states and so it was a real treat for us to see these so well.

Once in Big Bend National Park, we spend 4 nights at the Chisos Basin Lodge which is a superb spot; it's host to interesting mammals and birds, incredible night skies, and stunning desert vistas.  Sometimes you can see SCOTT'S ORIOLES from the parking lot.  Here's one from down the trail a bit:
We hiked up Blue Creek Canyon on one of our days there.  Here's our group heading there first thing in the morning:
Our main highlight there was finding the rare LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD, a species that's barely reliable anywhere in the US.  Here's our list for that hike.

One of the main reasons birders visit Big Bend National Park is to hope for the COLIMA WARBLER.  In the US, Big Bend is the only place to see it!  Granted, it's a pretty serious hike, about 5 miles up into the mountains (and then another 5 miles if you want to return to the lodge!).  This year, we were again successful in finding this specialty:
The hike, which we spend all day doing, usually yields a variety of species though like BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD and PAINTED REDSTART up in the Boot Springs area (checklist here).  There are often HERMIT THRUSHES around too like this one:
We stayed several days in Big Bend and visited a wide range of the birding spots including the Cottonwood Campground, Rio Grande Village, Sam Nail Ranch, Dugout Wells, etc.  A fairly common species at many of those spots is the bright VERMILION FLYCATCHER:
After Big Bend, we drove north to the Davis Mountains to spend an evening/morning there.  Although we didn't cross paths with any Montezuma Quail, we did have a fun encounter with a pair of ELF OWLS at a nest hole.

Then on to Balmorhea Lake which is always a migrant trap for waterbirds and shorebirds.  This year, our rarest find was this sleeping LAUGHING GULL back and left of the FRANKLIN'S GULL:
This Laughing Gull was the 5th Reeves County record all-time.  Anyway, here's our eBird checklist for this birdy spot.

Then it was on to the Hill Country back to the east.  One of main targets there is found at Lost Maples SNA... the endangered GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER.  We found this one that performed very well for the entire group:
This species of warbler, by the way, is the only species of bird that breeds solely in the state of Texas.

That particular sunny day and abundance of flowers gave way to quite a nice showing of butterflies.  Here's a GULF FRITILLARY on a thistle:
There were also some cool dragonflies around too including this PRONGHORN CLUBTAIL which was new for me:
At Neal's Lodges, which was our home for 3 nights, there is a river that we birded along a couple of times.  When the birding was slow, we managed to find some local damselflies there instead.  Here's a pair of COPPERY DANCERS:
This is a very range-restricted species within the US; it's only found in a small area of south central Texas.  Truth be told, I was pretty clueless about most of these damselflies but thankfully Chris also has an interest in this stuff and kept suggesting I take a look here and there!

We also got to study some parulas at Neal's Lodges.  Here's one we were hopeful was a Tropical Parula:
However, you might see a tiny dot of white under the eye.  Significant?  Well, that little dot tells us that this is actually a hybrid between Northern Parula and Tropical Parula (Northerns have white crescents under the eyes, Tropicals don't.  This was a mix).  Interestingly, Chris recorded and analyzed the songs (which can be VERY similar) and found that the song it was singing was a closer fit to Northern Parula (although it looks more like Tropical).  Anyway, if any of the listing purists are paying attention, you better watch what you count as a Tropical at Neal's Lodges!

Another main target in this part of Texas is the now-NOT-endangered BLACK-CAPPED VIREO.  They can be super skulky but this one eventually popped out for all to see!
We end this tour with a visit to a bat cave near Concan.  The first time I visited here in 2016, I didn't think it would be that impressive.  But, I have to say, this is one of the more spectacular things I've ever watched.  If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.  Basically, you stand near the opening to this cave as dusk approaches.  Then, all of a sudden, thousands upon thousands of BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS start pouring out of the cave:
How can you put this into words?  It's a stream of bats that pour from the cave for multiple hours.  How many bats come out?  About 13... MILLION.  It's jaw-dropping.
And with that, our tour concluded back in San Antonio!  We tallied 200+ species of birds which is mighty decent for staying within Texas.

Anyway, perhaps I'll have time for another post in a day or two before I head off for my next tour.  Stay tuned.

19 April 2018

Almost 80 @ TESH

Yesterday we swung through Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Pike County.  You can click here to view the eBird hotspot page for Ted Shanks.  There you can view the bar charts, recent visits, click on the map, etc.

We were battling some moderate wind but we ended up tallying nearly 80 species in the 4 hours we were there (checklist here).

BUFFLEHEAD were flagged in eBird, presumably because it's getting on the late side (they'll be migrating out of here anytime).  Because they were flagged, I snapped a quick pic showing 12 of them, 2 males and 10 females:
We finally found decent shorebird habitat and ended up with: 

20 Dunlin
56 Greater Yellowlegs
165 Lesser Yellowlegs
2 Solitary Sandpiper
115 Pectoral Sandpiper
18 Wilson's Snipe
12 Killdeer
1 American Golden-Plover

Turns out, the Dunlin and golden-plover were county birds for me.  Here's a Lesser Yellowlegs, the most numerous shorebird species we had:
Another flagged species, again for being on the late side, was GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET:
Along the same theme, this AMERICAN TREE SPARROW was also flagged in eBird for being on the late side.  They're abundant here during the winter months... but winter is over (or so they say):
We found a small flock of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS which is always a treat.  This species was abundant at one time but they've gone through drastic declines in recent years.  According to breeding bird surveys and Christmas Bird Counts, numbers have declined 85%-98%.  That's alarming!  Here's a male:
... and a female in the same posture:
 I'm off to Texas in the morning.  Adios!

18 April 2018


The second edition of "A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America", by Jeffrey Glassberg, was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.  It's a 416 page paperback that costs $29.95.  You can find it online here.
Although butterfly weather has been slow to arrive around here in northern Missouri, I have seen a couple of species just in the last week (Red Admiral, Spring Azure, and some kind of fly-by comma).  Given that, I thought maybe it was a good time to review this book to see if I wanted to give it a go this year.

It's been a while since I've posted a book review, actually.  As I often do with these, I took a few simple pics of the book and will share them here.  I don't tend to rant on and on about minute details on a species-by-species basis... I'm just here to share my overall thoughts and I try to keep them brief.

So, you open the front cover and you're greeted with this "How to Use This Book" key:
Although most of it looks pretty straightforward, you'll see a variety of colors denoting different number of broods, and then another set of colors for range.  Hmm, that seems like it could be confusing, no?  And then there is another key with additional material:
It's at this point that I stopped trying to remember everything.  It's a lot of information if you're a casual user but I guess they had to key it somehow.

Moving on to what the species accounts look like... I'll just share a variety of these.  First up, this guy:
Right off the bat, I wondered "Where on earth is the NAME of this thing?".  Right at the top?  Nope, it says "Whites and Yellows", a broad category.  That's not it.  How about next to that?   It says "Whites: Florida White".  Is that it?  Seems weird to have the name framed like that in a small, normal font.  Anyway, I'll just spoil the surprise... the name is at the BOTTOM of the entire species account.  I'm not a fan of that at all.  I suppose a user could get used to this but if every other field guide has the name easy to see at the top, why change it up?

Let's try a different page and see how it's displayed there:
The top is still dominated by the yellow-colored banner reading "Whites and Yellows" with another banner next to it saying "Whites:  Lower Rio Grande Strays".  Ok, so that banner seems to be more of a subspecific banner.  But again, the names of the butterflies are beneath the species account which, as you can see above, becomes more confusing because there are three species on this page.  There's even a black line above each name which makes it even more confusing... the line isn't being used to separate anything despite there actually being a need to separate the species!

Here's another species account or two, this time from the Gossemerwings section:
I should point out how these have range maps... gotta have those for a book that covers all of the US and Canada!  The range maps ARE small though so brace yourself for that.  Granted, it would be hard to make them much bigger with how much other stuff is packed in.

It's also clear by now that this is strictly a photo guide.  The photos are big and top notch.  Oftentimes, they include photos both of the closed wings and open wings.

To the left of the photos you'll find a couple of boxes with text explaining habitat, various notes, and abundance.  You'll see in the abundance box a "LR"... I'm sure we can figure this out by referring to the front but... hardly seems worth the effort.  That leaves me assuming it means "locally rare"?  Probably.

Here's another spread, this time with four species:
These are more compact and so you can see they opted to skip the range maps and just put a short "LRGV once" or similar description.  They squeezed in brief info about foodplants but left it at that, they were forced to leave out habitat, seasonality, and abundance info.

How about this page?
This has a whopping eight species crammed in, all of which are LRGV species (short for Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas).

Here's another view, this time of a skipper... the very rare Poweshiek Skipperling:
Speaking of that species, it's one I've never seen and would love to try for... if they're still even in existence.  Last I heard, there were probably about 500 left on earth, many of which are in Michigan.

Here's another skipper or two, some giant-skippers:
As you can see with the Strecker's Giant-Skipper, included is a picture of the landscape where you might find this species.  A neat inclusion.  (As it so happens, I saw these often in western Nebraska and, aside from those mountains in the picture, the landscape looks right on).

At the end of the species accounts, I was surprised to find a couple pages with a few species found in Hawaii (two of which are native).  Pretty cool... now I just need to get to Hawaii to work on my Hawaii list!
I thought this was interesting... there is an index of foodplants in the back, in case you wanted to take that angle on identifying something:
And then there was the traditional index after that:
This is also somewhat interesting... there is a "visual index" in case you wanted to skim through by sight to see if you could find a match (or something close).  This seems like a good idea and I admit that I haven't used something like this before:
So, in the end... my thoughts?  


This book has a lot of information, plenty of nice photos, and an emphasis on foodplants.  All good things.

The photos in this book are top notch.  For that alone, this book is valuable to have on hand if you want to dig through a variety of guides for additional studying.

The author, Jeffrey Glassberg, is a well-known expert and this book really displays that impressive knowledge.  I don't know him but I know he wanted to author a book that had EVERY species in it, that is clear by flipping through the book.  But, I wonder if that goal came with a price....


... because if you're going to make a field guide with every species from the US and Canada, it's a simple fact that you'll be pressed for space.  Instead of splitting this information out into an "Eastern Butterflies" and a "Western Butterflies" book, it's lumped into one book.  Because of being pressed for space, this book is VERY crammed and busy.

I don't like the layout of this book at all.  I'm not a fan of data cramming and, to me, the layout of the text (things like the name placement) is poorly designed.  There is plenty of information in this book, true, but it hardly seems cohesive, standardized, and the knowledge certainly isn't displayed in a user-friendly fashion... at least not for this user.

The back cover says "The most user-friendly butterfly field guide ever created".  Whhhhaaat?  That surely seems bold and presumptuous!  I'd like to know whose idea it was to say that.  The author's?  Do you agree with it?  I don't.  That doesn't mean I hate the book though, I'm certainly happy to have it to reference.  Will it be my new, primary go-to guide though?  No.  Still, if you get a chance, I encourage you to flip through a copy and see what you make of it.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

16 April 2018

Shanks, a new county bird, and creeper wings

Six days ago I posted here with a picture of snow.  And then it warmed up nicely into the 80s.  I honestly thought that was the last of the winter weather but, as I type this, it's snowing outside here in northern Missouri.  :-(

Although the spring continues to have a hard time warming up here, it hasn't kept everything quiet.  Some of the breeding warblers have returned to the area including YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER, NORTHERN PARULA, and LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH.  Hearing those songsters for the first time each year is a big part of what spring means to me.

Speaking of what spring sounds like around here... this CAROLINA WREN was amped up one morning (enough so to wake me up) and so I recorded it with my phone through the bedroom window:
More than warblers have returned to the Hannibal area though.  We've had quite a few BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS make it back, a few CHIMNEY SWIFTS were seen swirling above downtown, and we had an early WARBLING VIREO in the yard a few days ago.

Ash and I also visited Ted Shanks Conservation Area this past week.  There was the expected variety of birds on the water like this PIED-BILLED GREBE hiding, albeit poorly:
Common on quiet water this time of year, HOODED MERGANSERS have been around including this male that was in a side canal:
I've been impressed by the number of Aythya that are out there.  This genus of diving duck includes species like Redhead, Canvasback, scaup, etc.  Here's a male LESSER SCAUP:
I'm still waiting for the big push of shorebirds.  So far, besides the abundant things like KILLDEER and WILSON'S SNIPE, I've only seen PECTORAL SANDPIPER a few times and both LESSER and GREATER YELLOWLEGS.

Here's a WILSON'S SNIPE that stayed put as our car rolled up beside it:
This species used to be conspecific with Common Snipe until 15 years ago when it was given full species status.  It's named after Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), a well-known ornithologist who, although born in Scotland, emigrated to the US in 1794 and spent the rest of his life there.

That same visit to Ted Shanks yielded a variety of other migrants too (we ended with 60-70 species in a few hours).  We came across this resting flock of white geese:
The ones you see in the photo above, with their small and rounded heads, short and triangular bills, are ROSS'S GEESE.  It wasn't a homogeneous flock though... check out the white goose in the background here:
That, of course, is the larger (and typically more common) SNOW GOOSE.  Note the difference in overall size of the Snow Goose (bigger),  the shape and size of the bill (again, bigger), and the black "grin patch" on the bill (mostly lacking in Ross's Geese).

Later in the week, Ash and I took a quick spin around Mark Twain Lake to see what was happening.  This man-made reservoir, which is the largest lake in northern Missouri, sits about 20 minutes to the west-southwest of where we live.  Here's a screen cap from Google with a pin on the lake:
There weren't too many surprises really on this visit... things like BONAPARTE'S GULLS were present in good numbers, our first FORSTER'S TERN of the spring was perched on a buoy, and a HORNED GREBE was showing its breeding colors nicely.

The rarest bird of the morning was this white blob at a marina that we check:
That's a CATTLE EGRET and it represents the first all-time record of that species for Ralls County.  Here's the eBird map for Cattle Egrets so far this year... you can see that a few have made their way into the Midwest in the last month:
Not rare by any means, we still have lots of BALD EAGLES around including this youngster that flew by at the lake:
No, it doesn't have the white head yet.  Only eagles that are ~5 years old or older have that white head that most people associate with the species.

On the other side of the size spectrum, here's the not-so-big BROWN CREEPER that was seen nearby:
The wingspan of this creeper is about 1/12th of the eagle's.  So now you know!

10 April 2018

No rush on waterthrush

It's April.  In Missouri.  So you can see why I wasn't impressed with THIS sight the other day:
Thankfully, the snow melted off pretty quickly and I resumed wishing for warbs.  I ventured to Steyermark Woods here in Hannibal today to see if maybe any had arrived.

A LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH was back and singing along the stream.  This isn't surprising at all, they were here on 20 March last year!  But then again, everything has been late here this spring.

On my way back to the car, I heard the "chimp chimp" of a WINTER WREN.  A little work and it popped up briefly:
All in all, still a pretty quiet time of year.  There were 6 species of woodpeckers but that's not too crazy.  I managed 27 species in 51 minutes.  You can find the checklist here.  Embedded in it is a recording of the above waterthrush, one of my favorite spring sounds.  Enjoy.