My Perfect Birding Day

Yesterday went kerflooey. Someone close to me was in the Boston Marathon and I knew she had finished... but didn't know where she was. Her phone would go directly to voicemail. Was it off? Was it tucked away in a locker? Was she caught in pandemonium? Was she injured or worse? Was she at the scene helping? Watching the news, trying desperately to ID her based on glimpses of people in running clothes. Then finally getting a text that she and her family were safe. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't a long time, but the adrenal fatigue that followed put me in a fog the rest of the day. In the midst of this I got a call to do a bird segment on WCCO on how the snow is affecting migratory birds... I love the reporter in that segment (DeRusha is a cool dude, you should follow him on Twitter) and I hope I did my best, but I worried I was not my usual upbeat self. flocks

I think this is a good post for the time. I find comfort in birds and I need that right now (like a lot of us when senseless violence happens). No matter how bad things get for me, I always find comfort in birds. They are one of maybe two things I can do that when I'm in the middle of doing it, I can block out everything else going on. And while I was in South Texas, I had for me what is a perfect birding moment.


We headed to the stretch of beach next to the Convention Center and I was ready to get my digiscoping mojo on. I try to play it cool around birds, I try gradually work towards them and not flush them. The advantage to having a spotting scope is that you can be a good distance away from birds and still get great views. I've noticed this with some of my friends who are in to bird photography, I can be twice the distance away that they can be. But as I was keeping my distance, a teenager at the other end started walking towards the birds, she walked through them, most flushed but a few stayed, apparently used to lumbering humans in their midst. She left and all the birds landed. I decided to see how close I could without flushing them.

American Avocets

I used some snoozing American avocets. I would take a few steps closer and if any opened their eyes, I stopped walking. I tried not being threatening in my approach, I didn't stare directly at any bird while I walked, I tried not to keep my scope aimed at any one bird for too long. I moved slowly and fluidly, not dashing around like a cat stalking prey.


Eventually, I found a perfect spot.  My toes in the warm Gulf water, with a mixed flock of terns, gulls and shorebirds in front of me and the heat and light of the sun behind.  I was also excited to finally discover a use for the hook in the center on my tripod legs--perfect for keeping sandals out of the water! You can see the flock of avocets from the previous photo off to the right.

american avocet

As I stayed and had my fun, the birds continued to sleep and go about their own business.  Even a few of the avocets began to feed and paid me no mind.

birds behind me

Herons and shorebirds soon started working the shallows behind me. And that is a perfect birding moment! Great looking birds completely surrounding me while I have my toes in the water, friends nearby, a few empty media cards and a full battery in my camera. I got to spend time just watching the birds and digiscoping them. This was what I was hoping for from South Padre Island!

royal terns food pass

I got to eavesdrop on a royal tern date that I think went incredibly well. He was hanging out and presenting his fish and she approached and took it from him.


"Wait...she took it???"

I was reading up on this on Birds of North America Online. Courtship rituals include: "food item may finally be offered to female, who retracts neck and carpal joints and sleeks plumage (while keeping crest raised), thus assuming more relaxed, submissive posture. If female accepts and swallows food, both then fly off or preen."

I saw her take the food, but I did not see her swallow, but they both flew off, hopefully to preen or more...

sandwich terns Sandwich terns were posturing like crazy as they established their pair bonds. Some of the photos I have of sandwich terns at South Padre Island are better than the photos I got for my Digiscoping Big Year, but I don't want to trade those out because I got them at a nude beach.

least tern

I almost missed these little guys because I was busy watching the big terns.  This is a least tern and they're about nine inches long. To give you perspective, an American robin is about ten inches long. These are tiny dudes compared to the at least 20 inch royal terns surrounding them.


As much fun as I was having with the terns, my main goal in approaching this flock was getting shots of black skimmers. I love these birds. This bird was roosting flat, which is something you see the young do in the nest (they just quite don't know what to do with that ginormous beak). Though with this photo, the bird looks like it just woke up from a hard bender and is a little hungover, "Ugh, why did I drink so much? Uh oh, and who is that sleeping next to me??"

Black Skimmer

Here's a better shot where you can see that magnificent beak.  I love these guys, with their longer lower mandible and striking black and white plumage. They're another one of those birds that I would see in my Peterson Guide as a kid and imagine what it must be like to see such a weird looking bird in person. If you've never had a chance to see a skimmer in action, here's some BBC footage (and bonus, it's narrated by the 10th Doctor):

Isn't that cool?

approaching stilts When I'm digiscoping in one spot, it's amazing how close some shorebirds will get... sometime even too close to digiscope. Black-necked stilts were zipping back and forth while I focused on terns. You can see a couple above.


Working this group of birds, it's fascinating to see all the different shapes that bird species take in order to use the Gulf as a food resource. You saw how the skimmers use it above. Terns will crash into the water and black-necked stilts like the above bird have long spindly legs and a beak to match to look for tasty invertebrate morsels. And though all of these birds are elegant patterns of black, white and gray you still get crazy accents of color in the form of bright orange mandibles or bubble gum pink legs.


I could have stayed planted in that spot for hours. The longer I was there, the more I felt tension and stress leave my body. My hope is that my buddy Clay and I might be able to do a digiscoping workshop here in South Padre Island during the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival this fall.


And we can digiscope the crap out of South Padre Island among the sanderlings.






South Padre Island Birding

Five days. Five straight days that have included snow in April. I know. I know. I live in Minnesota, I'm used to snow. But dang it, that's brutal even for our standards. It's especially hard having just come from the warmth of South Texas. skirt birding

When I got off the plane in South Texas, I was greeted by long time friend Marci (who runs the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival) and new friend Nydia. Marci and Nydia were nice enough to go birding with me and show me some great spots for species I really wanted to digiscope. Both apologized right away for the weather, "It's going to be sunny and nice the whole time you are here."

They weren't being ironic to a Minnesota girl, they were being serious. Part of the fun of coming to the Rio Grande Valley in spring, especially in April is for the migratory fallout that can happen with storm fronts. If you're not familiar with what a migratory fallout is all about about, check out these photos from a lighthouse in Maine. Exhausted, colorful birds drop from the sky to rest and fuel up before heading further north. It's more likely to occur in some areas like the Texas coast because the birds are crossing the Gulf of Mexico. I was ok with the beautiful meant I could go birding in a skirt and opened toed shoes (which was great for my broken pinky toe--these Keens hid the bruising quite well). And at the end of the day, the Rio Grande Valley as some 30 odd endemics--birds that you can only get here. So, even without a fallout, you're going to get a lot of great birds for buck.


I wanted to head out to South Padre Island because I love beach birding and regardless of migratory fallout, birds are going to be great here. One of the perks is that you pass by Laguna Atascosa on the way. I've been there before and anytime you go near there, you have a decent chance of seeing an aplomado falcon. My birding posse for this day included Marci and her husband Terri who both know how to bird the crap out of this area. Sure enough, they found us an aplomado flacon right away on East Ocean Boulevard. They pulled over so I could digiscope it while it was on the wire. See that tiny dot? That's the falcon.

aplomado falcon

Here's a photo I got with my iPhone 4s through the scope. What a cute little falcon! For some listers, this bird presents a quandary. It's an awesome bird...but according to the American Birding Association guidelines...not countable on the list for Texas. This is part of a reintroduced population to the Rio Grande Valley and until the population is sustainable without humans releasing young birds in the wild, it can't be considered a truly countable species, surviving on its own. Now, the birds that are released have color bands and this bird does not.  Could it be argued that this is a truly wild one from Mexico that flew up into Texas? Maybe. But hard to prove. Either way, I'm counting it for my Digiscoping Big Year. Birds living in the wild are a challenge to photograph and that's more what this is about. And at the end of the day, you as an individual determine what challenges you want to set for a birding list. The American Birding Association sets the baseline and you can choose to follow it yourself or tailer it from there.

South Padre Island feeding station

This is the South Padre Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka Sheepshead) owned by The Valley Land Fund. It's a pocket of habitat in the neighborhoods that is set with trees and shrubs for food and shelter, water for bathing and people bring in fruit and seed. This can be a great pocket for warblers, tanagers, vireos and hoo boy, lots of blackbirds. Tucked way back in the shadows I even saw a sora checking out the pond--you never know what migrant will find refuge here.

Hooded warbler

I big treat for me was a male hooded warbler hopping around on the ground. It was tough to digiscope at this spot. It was a cloudy day, but the cover is dense and the birds are hanging out in low light areas. But the iPhone does really well in lowlight conditions so that's how I was able to digiscope this bird. There was also a yellow-breasted chat, worm-eating warbler and white-eyed vireo at this spot.

South Padre Convention Center

This is one of the really cool features on South Padre Island, a very shallow stream just outside the Convention Center. The shallow depth makes it perfect for small birds to bathe in and during migration, this is a good spot to plant yourself and watch what comes in.

Tennessee warbler

Here's a Tennessee warbler that flew in for a bath.

Birding Gazebo

There's a gazebo set up nearby so you can sit and watch the birds in the water, though I suspect when migration is hot and heavy, this area will be packed with birders. The surrounding trees offer food for birds like orioles and hummingbirds. There were orchard orioles and buff-bellied hummingbirds working the flowers nearby.



This is my new friend Nydia Tapia-Gonzales who came birding with us. We were on the South Padre Island Convention Center Boardwalk.  It gets a little confusing along here because some of the boardwalk connects and some of it does not.

Heron in the grass

The older boardwalk is free to walk along, but the newer boardwalk is part of the entrance fee with the World Birding Center. Either one you visit, you're gonna see cool birds, above is a great blue heron lurking. But you'll hear rails and if you're patient enough, you'll see things like soras and clapper rails pop out.

hodge podge of birds

Here's a smattering of the bird life on the paid end of the boardwalk--redhead ducks, American avocets and a little blue heron! I've been here before during the festival and it's always loaded with fun birds. I've even gotten spoonbills here.

South Padre Island World Birding Center


This boardwalk is full people walking by, some enjoying the scenery, some looking for wildlife.  A father out with his two kids seemed a bit incredulous that I was only watching birds here and not alligators.  I tried showing them the avocets and they conceded they looked cool, but I could tell the dad was dubious in my assertion that I found them more exciting than an alligator.

laugning gulls

Here are some laughing gulls, it was fun to see them in breeding plumage, I typically get them here when they have whiter heads in November. As I was taking photos and racking up species for my Digiscoping Big Year, some ladies paused and asked, "Are you from Minnesota?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Are you the lady who tells people to feed sunflower seeds to cardinals and other birds?"

I was touched for several reasons: 1. I didn't expect to get recognized from my Twin Cities tv appearances in South Padre island. 2. They actually remembered me for what I say! They used actual birding advice to identify me and not just "you're that 'bird lady.' 3. They were friendly enough to say hello.

I asked if they were birding and they said that wasn't really what they were doing, just spending time on the boardwalk while the men in their party were fishing. So I showed them some of the birds that I enjoyed in this area.

whistling duck

I mean, I couldn't let them leave Texas without them noticing a black-bellied whistling duck, what kind of bird chick would I be?


short-billed dowitcher

We worked our way out towards the open Gulf and that was full of shorebirds and more rails. Here's a short-billed dowitcher that was working the mud along the boardwalk.

tri-colored herons


With the open water, we had everything from gulls, terns, skimmers and herons zipping past us. Above you can see a tri-colored heron hunting near the boardwalk. When I looked beyond it, there was a stretch of beach where people were driving on to the sand to go fishing and paragliding. I scanned the sand with my scope:

beach birds

I could see black skimmers, laughing gulls and oh hey, look at the pink Franklin's gull mixed in.  Fishermen were walking through the roosting birds and they would flush but settle back down.  If they were that used to close could I get? I asked my birding posse if we could head over to that stretch of beach so I could digiscope the crap out of those birds. We would have to pay a fee to drive on but it would only be $5.  That seemed worth it to me.  And so we wrapped up the boardwalk and headed over for more birding enjoyment.




South Padre Island Birding

Amy, Clay, and I had great looks at other birds besides the osprey starting a nest. We started the morning at the jetty where many fishermen gather, as do birders. We saw so many dolphins, it could have qualified as a starling flock. But we were not after marine mammals, we wanted to scan the birds. Now, here's an interesting trio. Three different birds, can you tell what they are? I'll save identifying them until the end of the post in case you would like to try and figure out the id yourself. These were three common birds loafing on the beach. Warning, clues will to the id are ahead, so if you want to try and figure out the id, grab you field guide before going any further.

While we were watching the birds on shore, Amy noticed a hitchhiker on my scope--why it was a honeybee. How fitting that she decided to hang on my scope. She was slow and lethargic. I was not sure if she was just at the end of her foraging life or chilled from the cool winds. If you look at the wear on her wings, I think she's old and at the end of her life.

Clay was very excited to see caspian terns (the tern on the right). They are big and flashy terns, with a noticeable red bill. We see them in Minnesota during migration. They are so large that even Non Birding Bill has commented on them when we saw some flying over nearby Lake of the Isles. This tern was next to a royal tern (the tern on the left), a slightly smaller tern compared to the Caspian. And if you ever are feeling bad about your bird id skills, take heart in knowing that even John J. Audubon himself had trouble telling these two species apart! According to Birds of North America Online:

"In his monumental Birds of America, Audubon depicted neither Caspian nor Royal, but instead what he called a Cayenne Tern, Sterna cayana — mostly Royal, but with some ad-mixture of Caspian features."

As we continued on, we found both brown pelicans and American white pelicans. I've seen both, but never together. I knew American white pelicans were huge, but it never occurred to me that they are twice the size of brown pelicans--crazy.

We headed over to the convention center where we found a fun little water feature. You might hear and read that moving water is the best way to attract birds to your yard, that is put to good use in many of the parks and more birdier areas you can visit in the Rio Grande Valley.

At one point, this little water feature had about a dozen orange-crowned warblers coming in for a bathe. They moved so quickly and were so spread out, I couldn't get more than three or four in my view finder at one time. I got a small video of the bathing warblers, it's best viewed at YouTube and if you click on the "watch in high quality" option.

And in keeping with my goal of showing that not every photo comes out great, I'm posting a rather out of focus shot of a black-throated green warbler. There were a couple who flew in to join the orange-crowned warblers, but they were too quick for me.

Just as I got the scope focused on the black-throated, the little terd hopped behind a rock to bathe. Grrr. Curse you, black-throated green warbler, and everything you stand for! I did manage to get the back of the bird's head in focus. Well, it's a start. No one ever said that digiscoping warblers was ever easy.

And now for the id of the three birds: royal tern, Caspian tern, and laughing gull. How did you do?

Osprey On South Padre Island

On Friday morning, I met up with Clay Taylor and WildBird on the Fly. Clay had a little time in the morning for some digiscoping before working the Swarovski booth at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest. I was anxious to really give my new Fuji FinePix E900 a good workout (thank you again National Camera Exchange for finding one for me). Clay suggested a trip out to South Padre Island. We saw many cool species, but one of the coolest observations we made was of the above osprey.

It flew right over the 3 of us, only about 15 feet above our heads! We could tell it had something in its talons and at first assumed a fish since the bird landed and appeared to be picking at it. However, when we got it in our scopes, the osprey just had a stick. We wondered what that was all about. Did the bird mistakenly grab a stick out of the water thinking it was a fish and started to eat it, only to find it kind of nasty to rip apart?
The osprey kept staring down at the stick, trying to work something out in its tiny little brain. Was it confused about the lack of fish on the stick? No. It suddenly dawned on us what was going on. Maybe this will help:

It hopped on a nearby by branch and began to bite it. Is this osprey going for some massive fiber in its diet? No. We think it's starting a nest. Notice how the added stick fits among the sawed of branches. I wonder how far it will get with this endeavor? I always wonder what a bird sees that makes it think, "Yes, this rocks, I can totally turn this spot into a safe nest!" I know with osprey, they like to to have a good lookout from all sides of the nest, but what factors do they look for that would make them think that a few hundred pounds of sticks would fit there just nicely.

It was fun to watch the osprey's nictitating membrane (extra eyelid that birds have that they can see through) come over its eye as it chewed on the stick, to protect the eyes from debris flying back in.

The osprey kept hopping back and forth between the crotch holding the start of the nest and the nearby perching branch. Take a look at those massive talons on the bottom of those toes--osprey don't play around, they are all business when it comes to fishing. I just love those crazy, big feet.

Here's a video of it trying to work out what the next step should be (although, the video looks better if you go to the YouTube page itself and click on on "watch in high quality.":