An Amazing Day on the 2015 Freeport Christmas Bird Count

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

One of the many special aspects about participating in the same Christmas Bird Count year after year are the memories. Since I have been on 55 previous Freeport counts, the memories have built up. Every time I return, those memories come flooding back—memories of unusual bird sightings and of friends who birded with me. This year’s count provided even more great memories.

For over 15 years, the area I cover in the morning is the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area, which is just east of the small town of Jones Creek. It contains some woodland, but is mostly grassland and marsh. Cullen Hanks, Barry Lyon, and I greeted the dawn at the end of the central road, observing a great variety of waterfowl, egrets, herons, ibis, gulls, and terns. Traveling back inland, we enjoyed wonderful looks at several species of sparrows including a number of Le Conte’s, my favorite sparrow. We also saw some large flocks of Snow Geese and several White-tailed Hawks.

Barry Lyon and Victor Emanuel, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen  Hanks.

Barry Lyon and Victor Emanuel, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

At around 9 am we reached a small area of dense brush where we have seen a number of rare birds on past counts. Cullen’s Dad, Steve, had joined us. He and Cullen walked across the road while Barry and I entered the brushy area on a small trail. Years ago I had seen a Yellow-breasted Chat in this area. This large “warbler” usually winters further south. I was remembering that sighting when Barry said, “I hear a Yellow-breasted Chat!” While we were trying to get looks at the chat, Barry spotted a Prairie Warbler, a species that breeds in small numbers in very short pine stands. This species is seldom seen in Texas away from its breeding grounds. I had seen one on the count fifteen years ago. It has been recorded on only a few Freeport counts. We called Cullen and Steve to come see the Prairie Warbler. Cullen looked at the warbler and then looked at some of the taller trees. He said, “I see a Myiarchus.” We looked in that direction and saw two long-tailed flycatchers sitting side by side. At first we thought they might be Ash-throated Flycatchers since that species has been seen on a number of the Freeport counts, but these birds were bright yellow below their gray breasts. We soon realized they were Brown-crested Flycatchers, a South Texas species that had been seen only once before on the Freeport count. We continued around the corner of the brushy area and spotted two Fox Sparrows, a large bright rufous and white sparrow that is missed on a number of Freeport counts. Completing the walk around this area, we arrived back at our cars. Just then I saw an adult Bald Eagle, a species that we seldom used to see on the count, but that is now more numerous. A few minutes later Cullen said, “I see a Painted Bunting!” We all got on the bird. It was a first year male with bright yellow below and chartreuse above. In about an hour we had seen five species that would probably be seen by no one else on the count. Cullen had obtained good photos of all of them.

Prairie Warbler, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Prairie Warbler, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Since we had done so well in this brushy area, I suggested we drive back south to another brushy area. We walked into that area. Cullen and Steve were on one side of a big bush when I walked around it. They yelled, “anis!” Evidently I had flushed four Groove-billed Anis from that bush, and they had flown toward Cullen and Steve. We all obtained good looks. This species is seen on less than a third of the Freeport counts.

Groove-billed Ani, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Groove-billed Ani, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

We met for lunch with the teams that cover nearby areas. Unfortunately, none of them had seen any unusual birds. After lunch we birded the town of Jones Creek. The day before we had asked a number of homeowners for permission to bird their properties. All gave us permission. They were quite friendly and had read about the count in the local newspaper. In one yard we saw a Pine Siskin, a bird that has often been missed on recent counts. In another area we saw a Black-throated Green Warbler. Then further down a road, Cullen and Barry found a Magnolia Warbler, a species that has been seen on very few Freeport counts.

It had been an amazing day with one unusual bird sighting after another. We had seen over 100 species of birds in our area including eleven species of warblers. Ten of the birds we had seen were seen by no other parties.

We ended the day near where we had begun. There we spotted a Short-eared Owl flying over the grassland and marsh. We had it in view for over five minutes and savored its lovely buff markings and floppy flight. This owl sighting was as wonderful as the rare birds we had seen and provided a perfect ending to the day.

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A Christmas Story

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

On Christmas Eve last year I had dinner with one of my closest friends. I gave him a print of a Canvasback from a painting by a remarkable 14-year-old girl. Her painting had won the national Junior Duck Stamp award. Both my friend and I regard the Canvasback as our favorite duck. Christmas Day dawned bright and clear with a cloudless blue sky. As always, I recalled the wonderful Christmas mornings I enjoyed as a child and the warm times with my parents and sister who have all passed away years ago. Since I am a bachelor and live alone, Christmas morning can be lonely, so I decided to go to my favorite birding area, Hornsby Bend, which is only 15 minutes from my home. There, I drove around the sewage ponds. It was very windy. I was surprised to see so few ducks. A flock of Green-winged Teal were huddled together on the opposite shore. I got out my scope and focused on several males. They have such deep chestnut heads with a dark green stripe. They are one of my favorite ducks. Seeing them was worth the morning outing, but little did I know the best was yet to come.

I drove to a trail that starts at the end of Platt Lane, a road on which the Platts and their children used to live before the city bought their land. We used to stop and ask permission to enter their property. The Platts looked like the couple in the painting “American Gothic.” Walking down the trail, I saw a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Carolina Chickadee, and a House Wren. Since it was windy, the small birds were mostly staying out of view in thickets. I usually walk a two-mile loop that passes through some areas of brush and some open fields, but on this day I made the fortunate decision to take a side trail that goes to the Colorado River.

As I approached the river, I saw there were a good many ducks about 100 yards downstream. Most of them were Gadwall, but I was delighted to see several Canvasbacks. I had left the scope in my car, but quickly decided to walk back to get it. When I returned, the ducks were still there. I crept to the top of a small hill where I was partly hidden by some bushes, lowered the scope to the height I would put it for a small child, sat down, and scoped the flock. I quickly realized there were many more Canvasbacks than I had thought were present. I counted them twice and came up with 25, the largest flock I had ever seen. Larger flocks occur in other areas, and probably others in my area have seen larger flocks, but for me, seeing such a large flock of my favorite duck was the best Christmas present I could have had. They were in glorious morning light. I sat there looking through the scope for an hour, just savoring every detail. There were about 9 adult males, 7 immature males, and 9 females. Most were in one long irregular flock that was stretched from left to right as I looked downstream. They were swimming in a line and seemed very alert. Occasionally one or two would dive and stay under for a few minutes. At other times they would roll on their sides and stretch one wing, or sometimes scratch their heads with one of their feet.

Canvasback Aythya valisineria male Tucson, Pima Co., Arizona 9 March 2009

Canvasback – Photo by Greg Lasley

As I watched, I noted all the detail that makes looking closely at any bird such a rich and satisfying experience. The adult males had a deep chestnut head with a black crown and black front of the head. Their eyes were bright red. A black area that was shaped like a neck scarf separated the chestnut neck from the striking white back. The Canvasback’s head has a shape like no other duck. It is shaped like the head of a horse. For this reason, in the Cajun country of Louisiana the hunters’ name for it was horse head.

While I was watching the Canvasbacks, I was surprised to see come into my view a ten point buck that was swimming across the river. Only its head and neck were above the water. In addition to the Canvasbacks I counted 57 Gadwall, 6 Ring-necked Ducks, 2 female Lesser Scaup, 1 male American Wigeon, and a partridge in a pear tree! Even after an hour it was hard to leave. What a perfect Christmas morning. I had given my friend a print of a Canvasback painting, and the next morning the world gave me a whole flock of Canvasbacks.

Birds Are Almost Everywhere

Victor Emanuel

One of the advantages of being a birder is that you can find birds almost everywhere. I experienced a dramatic example of this on a recent overcast morning in Austin. I mistakenly arrived over an hour before a store’s opening time. I was sitting in my car in the parking lot, about to start reading the newspaper, when I saw a flock of small birds flying from tree to tree toward me. At first I thought they might be House Sparrows, but quickly realized they were too small. I always carry a small pair of binoculars in my car. I jumped out of the car and quickly got on one of the birds. It was an Orange-crowned Warbler; then I saw another Orange-crowned Warbler, and then another, and another! I followed the flock as they flew from tree to tree. These trees were Live Oaks and Cedar Elms that had obviously been planted when the shopping center was built. They were only 15–20 feet high. When the birds were in the dense Live Oaks they were hard to see, but when they flew into a Cedar Elm they afforded me with great looks. In addition to the Orange-crowned Warblers I saw several Black-crested Titmice, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a Bewick’s Wren!

Orange-crowned Warbler. Photo by Barry Zimmer.

Orange-crowned Warbler. Photo by Barry Zimmer.

In all my years of birding I had never seen more than two or three Orange-crowned Warblers in one flock. This flock contained at least 6 or 7. The flock was flying from one clump of small trees to another. Upon alighting they would assiduously look for insects and then after a few minutes fly to another tree. Since the shopping center was adjacent to an extensive woodland, I guessed that these birds had left the woodland to feed in the isolated clumps of trees in the parking lot. As it turned out, I had better views of these birds in the small trees in that parking lot than would have been the case in an extensive woodland. You never know what wonderful natural event will brighten your day.

VENT to attend Florida Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

I want to inform you that VENT will be attending the 18th Annual Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival at Eastern Florida State College in Titusville, Florida, January 21-26, 2015.

This premier event offers opportunities for participants to explore world-renowned natural areas of Florida’s Space Coast in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral, home to the largest collection of endangered wildlife and plants in the continental United States. Festival activities include field trips and outdoor workshops; an offshore pelagic boat trip; paddling and water adventures; a nature-based trade show; the Raptor Project; art show and competition; classroom presentations; and informal opportunities to meet national authorities on birds, plants, photography, optics, and technology. Swarovski Optik presents the World Digiscopers Meeting with presentations and field workshops to learn and experience new opportunities to photograph birds and wildlife. Among the keynote presenters this year are Bill Thompson III of Bird Watcher’s Digest; Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics; Elsa Alvear, Chief of Resource Management, Biscayne National Park; and artist/naturalist Julie Zickefoose.

SC-BWF_logo2010    July 20 1010 resz

Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis will represent VENT on field trips and at a booth in the convention hall. If you are in the area, or would like to experience one of the country’s top birding festivals, I encourage you to come to Titusville this winter and participate on a field trip, or stop by our booth and say hello to Michael and Louise!

For more information about the festival, please call 321-268-5224, or email festival@brevardnaturealliance.org; or find us on the web: www.spacecoastbirdingandwildlifefestival.org.

Although VENT has attended bird festivals around the country for many years, we have a special affection for the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. On one level, it is one of the most significant events in North American birding each year for the number of people and high profile personalities it attracts, but on another level it is the story of the festival’s birth that I find so compelling.

I have always taken a keen interest in the lives of those who have built successful businesses or other organizations from scratch, and such is the case with Laurilee Thompson, the person most responsible for the festival that in 2015 will operate for the 18th time.

Hooded Mergansers by MO'Brien

Hooded Mergansers, Viera Wetlands, Florida. Photo by Michael O’Brien.

Laurilee is a fifth generation Floridian who can trace her ancestry in the state to before the Civil War when her great-great-grandfather came up the St. John’s River and settled. Laurilee’s family has been in the region ever since, and her own youth was spent on the Indian River in Titusville fishing, playing, and working. With a love of fishing and the sea, she became a commercial fisherwoman after college and spent the next stage of her life working the offshore waters from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the Gulf of Mexico.

After ten years at sea, Laurilee returned to Titusville to help her family run the family restaurant, Dixie Crossroads. Upon her return, however, she found the places of her childhood, principally the Indian River, almost totally despoiled. The clear waters of her youth that once teemed with fishes, corals, and bioluminescent phosphorus were all gone. In their place was only murky, polluted water and algal slime.

Appalled, Laurilee and a small group of volunteers were inspired to act. They met at the Dixie Crossroads 18 years ago and literally invented the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. The whole notion of a nature festival along Florida’s Space Coast, which is named for nearby Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, was to build a community-based event in Titusville in which nature-based tourism served as the primary means of promoting and protecting the environment of Central Florida. Specifically, it is the use of science and technology to benefit wildlife that has emerged as the festival’s central theme.

Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, & Snowy Egret. Photo by Kevin Zimmer.

Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, & Snowy Egret. Photo by Kevin Zimmer.

Through the hard work and dedication of Laurilee, Neta Harris, Rhonda Harris, and many other people, as well as members of the Brevard Nature Alliance, the festival is firmly established as one of the country’s best-organized and best-attended birding and nature events. The people and businesses of the city of Titusville and Brevard County are immensely supportive of the event organizers and their goals of showing the importance of preserving natural areas and native habitats. However, the event is far more than a regional attraction, as evidenced by the fact that each year the festival sees visitors from the majority of states, as well as from several foreign countries.

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours is a proud sponsor of the festival and believes firmly in its purpose.

Wild Turkeys at VENT’s office

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

Earlier this year at the VENT office we were somewhat surprised, but mostly just delighted to see a Wild Turkey grazing around our building and underneath our bird feeders. Our office is a one-story building in a complex located adjacent to the Zilker Park Greenbelt, one of Austin’s largest and most well-known parks, so the likelihood of a turkey sighting was not altogether out of the question. We regularly observe a fair amount of wildlife around our office: Eastern Fox Squirrel, Rock Squirrel, Gray Fox, and sometimes snakes that cause great consternation among our birds, which occasionally include Greater Roadrunners and Great Horned Owls, as well as numerous other resident and migrant birds. We have all enjoyed watching these wonderful creatures when they make their appearances. However, when our Wild Turkey showed up one day with a poult in tow, we oohed and aahed with our own maternal delight. You could regularly find VENT staff faces glued to the windows, watching as mama and baby searched for good grub on our grounds, or perched on the railings in front of our office. Evidently our birdseed is good eating, because the poult has grown quickly, and during the last couple of weeks, a constant refrain has been, “Gee, the young one is almost as big as its mother!”  We’re hoping they both stick around for a long time!  Here are a few photos:

Wild Turkey and poult, June 2014.

Wild Turkey and poult, June 2014.

 

 

 

Wild Turkey and young on VENT office railings, mid-July 2014.

Wild Turkey and young on VENT office railings, mid-July 2014.

Wild Turkey and young, October 2014.

Wild Turkey and young, October 2014.

The Catemaco Count and the Playa Escondido

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

At Christmas time, I recall past Christmases with my family and friends, as well as past Christmas bird counts. I founded the Freeport Christmas count in l956. Then in the early ‘70s, the National Audubon Society decided to accept Christmas counts from Mexico. My birding pal, Ben Feltner, suggested we start a Christmas count in the El Naranjo area of northeast Mexico. The first El Naranjo count was a great success. The next year we decided to start a count at Catemaco in southern Vera Cruz. Our idea was that after participating in the El Naranjo count, everyone would drive to Catemaco to participate in that count. The early Catemaco count attracted budding young ornithologists who had never been to the Tropics. Later in their lives they would make significant contributions to tropical ornithology. These young ornithologists included Ted Parker, Mark Robbins, Gary Graves, and Michael Braun. One year Kenn Kaufman came on the Catemaco count.

One of the prime areas in the Catemaco count was the University of Mexico research station, located north of Catemaco, which preserves a tract of rainforest. I saw my lifers there including my first Lovely Cotinga. Ted Parker spotted that bird in a fig tree. There was no place to stay at the station, but a few miles before it was a sign that read, “Playa Escondido.” The “road” to this lodge consisted of two strips of concrete that were a little more than the width of a tire. Once you carefully negotiated the descent down the hill on this “road,” you arrived at a small building that contained the open air restaurant and office, as well as the home of the owners. The lodge was about six small rooms with concrete floors. Each room contained two small beds. The owners were a couple from Chihuahua. I wish I had gotten to know them better and had learned when they bought this property and why they decided to become lodge operators. From the dining room, a steep path led down to a black sand small beach, the Playa Escondido.

I don’t remember much about the birds I saw on the lodge property other than seeing a White Hawk one day, but I do remember the charming simplicity of this tiny lodge located in such a remote and scenic spot. I recently learned that many years ago David Wolf proposed to his wife Mimi while they were staying at the Playa Escondido. Unfortunately, I only stayed there once with three teenage boys from Austin: Kurt Huffman, David Sugeno, and Peter English, whom I had met at a hawk watch near Corpus Christi. I became their birding mentor and took them on a number of trips including one post-Christmas trip to Catemaco. One of the most wonderful things about this lodge was the seafood. There was a tiny fishing village below the lodge. The fish you ate had been caught that day. I especially remember the Sierra or Spanish Mackerel. Later I read in the Logbook for the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck that Steinbeck considered fresh Sierra to be the most delicious of all fish. At the Playa Escondido it was perfectly prepared. But even better than the Sierra were the piguas. These giant fresh water crayfish live in clear streams. Years later I saw little boys near Colonia Guadalupe Victoria in Chiapas fishing for them wearing goggles and using a slingshot. At the Playa, they cut the piguas in half lengthwise and sautéed them with oil and garlic. They were one of the best meals of my life.

If the Playa Escondido still exists, I am sure it is very different today. I am glad I have those memories from my early days, enjoying the birds, people, and ambiance of southern Mexico. It was there that I first fell in love with the Tropics and the birds and other creatures of that most biologically rich of all regions of the world.

A Winter Walk in the Woods

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

For birders and naturalists, every season has its special joys. Winter brings great flocks of waterfowl, as well as raptors and sparrows, to many parts of the country. The mixed species flocks in woodlands are another winter treat. While not as diverse as the flocks in tropical forests, they are fascinating. In both the Tropics and our country, birds of different species form mixed species flocks for safety. With more eyes watching for hawks, it is more likely that a hawk will be spotted. An alarm call will send the flock members scurrying for cover. In the Tropics, mixed species flocks contain one pair of each species, but in temperate climates the flock may contain several individuals of some species. It is not uncommon to walk awhile through a winter woodland and see almost no birds. Then, all of a sudden, you might encounter a mixed species flock, and the once-quiet woods are now full of life with a dozen or more birds actively looking for food.

Downy Woodpecker. Photo by Barry Zimmer.

Downy Woodpecker. Photo by Barry Zimmer.

One of the joys of encountering a mixed species flock is not knowing which species it will contain. In Central Texas such a flock will often consist of Carolina Chickadees, Black-crested Titmice, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Other species that may join the flock include Pine Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers, and Blue-headed Vireos. If you are lucky, a Brown Creeper or Golden-crowned Kinglet will be part of the flock. It is fascinating to observe the different behaviors of the birds in the flock. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, bundles of energy, are frenetic as they hop from branch to branch, flicking their wings almost constantly. They seem to use up more energy than they can gain from the food they find. In contrast, Golden-crowned Kinglets move less rapidly and flick their wings less. If you encounter a Blue-headed Vireo, it will seem stolid in contrast to the kinglets and many of the other birds. It spends more time on each perch peering around, hoping to spot a prey item.

Time spent observing a mixed species flock is time well-spent and is one of the rewards that can make a winter walk in the woods a real treat.