Tuesday, January 17, 2017

God Bless Texas

Three years ago I took my first trip to Texas.  It was a very memorable experience.  It capped off a year of birding that really made me a much better birder.  I appreciated the little things I had never noticed about the common species, and enjoyed exploring new places for lifers.  The only regret of that trip was that my wife Elissa was not able to come along.  Well, this past weekend we both were able to enjoy the lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas together.

We flew down after work on Thursday night.  We checked into the Alamo Inn Bed and Breakfast in Alamo, Texas.  I had stayed there last time and really enjoyed the inn keepers.  After basically taking a brief nap, we got up bright and early and headed to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

Santa Ana unfortunately was very disappointing.  The refuge is not all that different from Bentsen Rio Grande State Park which I had visited before, and had a similar experience.  We did not spend too much time there, and headed to a neighborhood in a town near the border known as Progresso Lakes.  There we had a much more productive time, nabbing several raptors including a lifer white-tailed hawk and another lifer, the black-bellied whistling duck.

We then headed to Estero Llano Grande State Park in the afternoon.  If you ever visit the Valley, Estero is a must.  It offers a great variety of habitat, which in turn means you see a great variety of birds.  We would visit Estero again on last day in Texas in search of rose-throated becard and tropical parula warbler (we would dip on both birds twice).

After day one Elissa and I were beat.  Both of us have been battling colds and needed some rest.  We kicked off early in hopes of feeling better in the morning.

Morning came on Saturday and although we didn't really feel any better, we charged on, determined not to waste our time in Texas.  Saturday was our up river day.  Stops included Salineno, Chapeno, and Falcon Dam.  Salineno is probably my favorite place in the whole Valley.  There's not much to it. River access to the Rio Grande, a short trail west up river, and the famous feeding stations.  Elissa and I spent some time viewing the river before heading up the trail to see if we could spot a few white-collared seedeaters that had been reported at that location.

After dipping on yet another species, we headed to the feeding station.  The station has been operated by a volunteer named Merle for the last 9 years.  He lives in a trailer on the property.  The guy couldn't be nicer.  We sat and chatted with Merle for quite a while as we watched green jays, kiskadees, and altimira orioles swoop into the feeders.  I told Merle I remembered him from three years ago and that I appreciated what he does for visiting birders.  After donating some money for seed, Merle had me sign in on the Ohio page.  He went back to December 2013, and sure enough, there was my name next my dad and aunt's signatures.

After leaving Salineno we headed up to Falcon State Park.  Falcon is a cool place, but it's big.  The park sits right on a reservoir that damns the river right on the border.  One of the key spots to check out at Falcon is the campgrounds.  Campers usually feed the birds and are generally friendly and accommodating to visitors.  On a tip from Merle, we looked for a dodge pickup truck with a Wyoming license plate.  The owner was a very friendly guy named Larry.  He invited us to sit down and watch the feeders and water fixture he had set up.  Although we missed yet another target bird at Falcon (grove-billed ani), I was able to get another one of my 6 lifers on the trip at Larry's feeders: black-throated sparrow.

On our way back I decided to try out a new spot: Chapeno.  Like Salineno, you basically take a road south from highway 83 until in dead ends into the river.  This place, however, had a little more of a dueling banjo feel to it.  We had to stop at a cement block structure to pay a small fee to get to the river.  After dodging a few dogs with the car a man, who almost literally looked like death, came out to collect.  After taking a quite dangerous jaunt down a very poor road in our rented Toyota Corolla, we ended up finally by the river again.  And guess what?  We saw absolutely nothing.  One more brief stop at Salineno ended our day.  Elissa was able to snag two lifers there: green kingfisher and olive sparrow.

Our final day was, as mentioned, dominated by our morning trip to Estero Llano.  I was finally able to ID a mottled duck, which was nice and unnecessarily overdue.  We also had a very cool peregrine falcon sighting in which an immature bird showed off it's speed as it unsuccessfully attempted to pick off a green-winged teal.

As our flight time got closer I wracked my brain trying to think of a quick stop that might yield a new bird or two.  Once again, a tip from Merle proved to be successful.  We headed to some grain silos east of Progresso Lakes where Merle had said we might have a shot at bronzed cowbird.  He was right.  Along with an uncountable (at least for me) number of red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds, and pretty decent numbers of yellow-headed blackbirds, there were at least 6 bronzed cowbirds hiding in the mix.

The trip was capped off by our flight being cancelled due to heavy rains, thunderstorms, and possible tornados.  We weren't able to get out of Dallas until Monday morning.  Of course when we were dealt these lemons, we decided to make lemonade by staying the night at my dear friend Tom Scovic's house.  He and his wife were nice enough to let us crash for the night.  I had great time catching up with Tom, and was thankful for that opportunity.  Below are some pictures from our trip.  Enjoy!

Not a great pic, but this is my lifer white-tailed hawk.

Loggerhead shrike

Great kiskadee

Altimira Oriole

Green jays

Golden-fronted woodpecker

Spotted sandpiper, lacking spots in non-breeding plumage


Common ground dove

Peccary (aka javelina)

Black-throated sparrow

Crested caracara

Green kingfisher

Ruby crowned kinglet.  Elissa took this one.  I like the wings.

Olive sparrow

Snowy egret

Tropical/Couch's kingbird

American white pelicans

One of a handful of yellow-headed blackbirds.  This is a female.

Bronzed cowbirds (red eye) with Red-winged blackbird

Friday, February 27, 2015

Species Spotlight: The Morning Dove

My wife suggested that we research a bird species each month and write a little something about the chosen bird.  She has kicked it off with the common and beautiful morning dove.  I personally got a kick out of reading her article.  I hope you enjoy it too!

It’s been said that “time spent studying the common species is always time well invested.”  This must be true, because you don’t just throw around the definitive ‘always’ without undeniable truths or enjoyment of ridicule.  Ridicule, although delightful on the giving end, is not warranted here, due to the fact that studying common species of birds allows for easier and faster identification of rare birds, which is the main goal of many.
I do enjoy seeing a new or rare species, but have always appreciated (yes, even when they do things like poop on my car) more common species, including the mourning dove. 

Although I have an appreciation for the mourning dove, I can’t say I’ve really studied them or know much about them; which would put me in a bad way if I ever found myself in the lower Rio Grande, where I would potentially miss the lifer White-tipped Dove. Which, really, if you think about it wouldn’t be as bad as missing (or ‘dipping’ as crazy bird people call it) on the White-winged Dove, because come on, you have to see that one, there’s a song about it! Juveniles may also be confused with ground doves or inca doves.  By 3 months old juveniles resemble adult birds.

Mourning doves are one of, if not the, most common bird in North America.  They span from southern Canada to central Mexico.  There are a few reasons why they can maintain such a large population.  The mourning dove lives in open to semi-open country, including the dessert where they are helped by the ability to survive on brackish water.  They may have had help in increasing population size in North America by the deforestation done by European settlers.  They tend to avoid unbroken forrest, which made me rack my brain for any memory of a mourning dove at the cabin.  Seeing as I came up empty, I tend to believe the 3 bird sources I consulted on this matter.

Another reason mourning doves are so common is they are the rabbits of the bird world.  A pair may raise up to 6 broods per year in warmer climates, making them the top native bird reproducers.  Much like when Brandon and I were house hunting, the ‘husband’ mourning dove leads the ‘wife’ around the neighborhood to show her suitable nesting sites and chooses one she likes.  Much unlike Brandon and I, the ‘husband’ bird brings his little wifey sticks, one at time, which she arranges while he stands on her back.  The need to use a popular nineties catch phrase here is almost required: As if!

The female usually lays 2 white eggs that take 14 days to hatch. Again, like Brandon and I, the male and female take turns with the kids.  The female takes the evening to morning shift, while the male gets the mid-morning to evening shift.  They both feed the babies crop milk, a substance which is secreted from the bird’s crop.  If one of the parents goes missing early enough in the babies lives, they will not survive on the crop milk of just the remaining parent. [Insert tear here, then move on to a random, interesting fact to make you forget about the last tear-jerking one]  One observation from 1892 noted a robins nest containing 1 robin egg, 2 black-billed cuckoo eggs and 2 mourning dove eggs.

Mourning doves mainly eat seeds, which they collect in the crop and then digest later while resting.  One mourning dove was found with 17,200 bluegrass seeds in its crop, which makes me wonder how much 17,200 bluegrass seeds would weigh.  This information was not obtained in a 1 minute google search, so it will go unanswered mainly because it’s late and I’m tired.  Lead poisoning is a problem in mourning doves because they eat off the ground.  Records indicate ingestion by some doves of greater than 40 pellets.

Mourning doves are the leading game bird, with estimates of 20-45 million hunted every year, for both meat and sport.  The latter of which adds yet another reason to move to the U.P., seeing how as how mourning doves are currently not (legally) hunted in Michigan.  I did learn from one individual that ate mourning doves to survive, that the meat was the toughest meat she had ever eaten.  Now whether this is the birds fault or the fault of her cooking skills, she did not know.  Either way, I’m pretty sure I will not find out unless I become as unfortunate as she was at that time and need to hunt mourning doves for survival.  

Hunting and lead poisoning are not the only dangers to mourning doves.  In fact, they have a death rate of 50-60% annually.  The average life expectancy is only 1.5 years.  They fall victim to all the normal causes of death that birds face including, raptors, cats, cars, weather and so on.  One defense mechanism they have are loosely attached feathers that allows lucky birds to pull free from predators.  They can also fly 55 m.p.h., helping them elude some predators.  On a bright note, however, the record for wild bird lifespan in north america belongs to a 31 year old mourning dove. (I think this is true, or I read wrong and it is just the record for mourning doves, but either way pretty impressive.)

Reading about the mourning dove was interesting and also gave me fun facts which I have already been able to use in everyday conversation.  Just the other day Hawaii was brought up and I had the pleasure to inform those around me that mourning doves were introduced there in 1963 and a small population still resides there.  A few other gems I’ve got in my back pocket just itching to get out are that mourning doves suck up water to drink and they pant like dogs instead of sweating.  A quick search on mourning doves in popular culture lead me to a quote from Mourning Dove the Native American, “Everything on the Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.”  This months mourning dove mission is complete and now, if time allows, dark-eyed juncos are next.

Peterson, R.T. (1990).  Western Birds.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kaufman, K. (2011).  Field Guide to Advanced Birding.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sibley, D.A. (2014).  The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.  New York: Random House.

Friday, January 24, 2014

My Big Year by Numbers

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Oak Openings 1/24/2014
So 2014 has proven to be relatively busy so far.  I'm working nearly every day, which is good.  I'm getting my face known in a new school as well as continuing at Four County Career Center, so hopefully something full-time might open up for me at the end of the year.  On top of working, my two little girls and I have kind of felt under the weather for the first few weeks of the new year.  Hopefully my wife can avoid any sickness that's floating around out there.

Anyways, it's taken me this long to sit down and analyze my year.  Although the biggest joys of my Big Year can not be quantified, numbers are nevertheless seemingly significant in such an endeavor.  Here are a few that I thought were interesting enough to mention.

320:  At the beginning of the year I was interviewed by Pat Eaken of The Press newspaper.  I stated then that I would like to average a bird a day.  Although I never mentioned an exact goal by picking a number, I guess I indirectly chose 365 as my end game.  I fell short of 365 by 45 species, but 320 ain't too shabby.

111: Some birders keep lists and others do not.  My dad writes down what he sees on a given day, but he does not keep a life list.  I generally don't record my sightings every single time I go out, but if I see something new, I check it off my life list.  This year I added a 111 new bird species to that list.  The vast majority of those birds I know I have never seen before.  Others I probably had seen before, but simply didn't take the time ID them.  For example, I probably have seen a Willow Flycatcher before, but since it is very similar to 4 other species, I just didn't bother narrowing it down.  To ID birds like this, I was forced to spend a lot more time listening to bird calls, since that is often times the only way to differentiate between two or more similar species.

13: I have been to quite a few places throughout the state of Ohio, but this year I got to visit a few more new locations.  One Ohio highlight was the day we spent with Greg Miller down in Holmes and Tuscarawas Counties.  Greg helped get us a couple of Barn Owls and a lone Blue Grosbeak.  All in all, I ended up birding 13 Ohio counties.

8: At the beginning of the year I had recorded 209 different kinds of birds in my birding "career."  Of that number, 8 evaded my 'nocs' this year.  I missed a couple of warblers, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the beautiful Evening Grosbeak among a few others.  Oh well...

4: My Big Year, in reality, wasn't a true Big Year.  I have said before, this was a diet Big Year.  I only visited 4 states.  People doing the real thing often times spend thousands of dollars, and travel across the country several times.  Regardless of whether my Big Year was true to form, I still got to go to quite a few new places.  I saw the Everglades, Whitefish Point, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  I took boat trips on Florida Bay and in Cleveland Harbor.  I traveled to a relatively large number of places this year, but still managed to enjoy Spring migration in Northwest Ohio as much as ever.

Baby in a headlight
2: On August 1, 2013 my daughter Audrey was born.  I now have 2 beautiful little girls.  I could not be luckier.  Ruby is hilarious, and is already a birder.  She's also a wonderful big sister.  Audrey smiles at her all the time.  Not surprisingly, the number 2 stands out above all the others.

Coming down from the high of being able to do something you love for an entire year can be a little hard at times.  I am working a lot lately, and am starting to actively look for full-time employment again.  Because I'm having a difficult time of letting go of last year's obsession, Elissa has agreed to go birding with me once a month at Oak Openings.  My favorite hobby at my favorite park with my favorite girl.  You can't beat it.  Because we had to reschedule a couple times already, we're going to squeeze in our January trip next Wednesday on the 29th.  Perhaps we'll see you out on the trails!  Happy birding.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thank You for My Big Year

My girls
Lets face it.  Doing a Big Year is an incredibly selfish thing to do if you're playing the duel role of husband and father.  There were certainly times during the course of 2013 where I could have been a little more attentive to my family, and a little less obsessed with birds.  It is for that reason that I would like to thank my wife, Elissa, and my daughters, Ruby and Audrey, for putting up with me these past 12 months.  During my latest stint in Texas, their absence made my heart ache.  I love my girls so much, and I am undoubtedly the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

As I have mentioned before, my Big Year was made possible by great people as well as great birds.  I joined two organizations this year that I plan to be a part of for years and years to come.  The Toledo Naturalists' Association allowed me the opportunity to bird with some of Toledo's foremost bird experts.  Field trips led by Dr. Elliot Tramer and Matt Anderson helped nab me a few more birds for the list.  Bird Girl Sherrie Duris was so generous in giving me the heads up anytime she spotted a rarity.  I met the Woodlawn Warriors by way of the Naturalists'.  Last but not least, I got to bird with Greg Links.  I learned so much from Greg in just a short time, and for that I'm very appreciative.

Joining Black Swamp Bird Observatory was well overdue.  Multiple people associated with BSBO including Kate Zimmerman, Kelly McKinne, Megan Reynolds, Mark Shieldcastle, and Kenn and Kim Kaufman made my year much more enjoyable.  I plan to volunteer for BSBO next year.  I hope I get to do something fun!

Additionally, I would like to mention the Facebook group, Birding Ohio.  It put me in contact with some of the previously mentioned people as well as many other great birders.  Although next year won't be as crazy, I'm happy to be a part of a great online birding community.

The Texas Crew
Looking back on the year, it's quite amazing to think about the places I've been and the things I've done.  I took a tour of Florida Bay by boat during a stop in Everglades National Park.  I saw birds and crocodiles up close.  A trip to Muskegon, Michigan yielded Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter, and it also provided a nice getaway for me and my wife.  I enjoyed another Spring in Northwest, Ohio, explored Holmes County with Big Year birder Greg Miller, braved the cold weather to experience Whitefish Point for the first time, and went out in the cold yet again to take part in a Lake Erie pelagic trip in downtown Cleveland.  Lastly, of course, I spent three amazing days birding in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Speaking of the Rio Grande trip, I need to thank a few people there.  First and foremost, I would like to thank my dad.  If it weren't for him, I probably wouldn't have ever given birds a second thought.  You got me outside when I was growing up, and I'm very grateful for that.  The plane ticket to Texas didn't hurt either.  I'm also happy that my godmother, Aunt Woody, got to come with me to Texas as well.  Not only have birds been a common bond between us, but she fostered my appreciation for the greatest baseball franchise in history, the Detroit Tigers.

Texas also introduced me to a wonderful bed and breakfast called the Alamo Inn.  It is centrally located in the Valley near McAllen, Texas, so it really isn't a far drive to any of the birding hot spots.  The inn is owned and operated by Keith Hackland.  During our stay Keith's stepdaughter, Carrie, took care of anything we needed.  She was extremely generous and helpful.  When I visit the Valley again, there is no reason why I would stay anywhere else but the Alamo Inn.
Carrie and your's truly

This year was exciting, enriching, exhausting, and fun.  It increased my interest in birds in many ways.  Ultimately, however, it underscored my responsibility as a husband and a father.  Birding is important to me, but at the end of the day, it's a hobby.  I don't want to be one of those people who obsess over beating a record or have little else going on in their life.  More than anything, I want to be with my family.  They are wonderful in many ways, and I can't imagine life without them.

So today is December 31st.  Am I out by the Ottawa River looking for white-winged gulls?  Am I searching the trees along the bike trail at Maumee Bay State Park for a Saw-whet Owl?  No.  I'm hear, writing this down as my little girls take their nap.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  To all of you who have been following along, I hope you find what's most important to you.  It's comforting.  Happy birding and happy new year!
                                                               - Brandon Brywczynski

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rio Grande Valley: Final Day

Today we went up river for some new habitat.  Stops included Salineno, Starr County Park, and Falcon State Park.  It was an hour and a half drive from our hotel, but like everything else on this trip, it was well worth the effort.

Our first stop was Salineno.  It's a place unlike any other location I've visited.  Salineno Road dead ends into the Rio Grande River.  At first glance, the area looks kind of dumpy.  Birds, however, don't care about curb appeal.  At the river one can find all three kingfishers, American White Pelicans, and Neotropic Cormorants among other species.  The highlight of our river watching was a single Red-billed Pigeon.  Expert birder Mary Gustafson, who was working on a Christmas bird count made the call.  I got a good look at it, but didn't write it down until I confirmed it with Dad's Peterson's guide.  Didn't doubt Mary, but I couldn't write it down on my list unless I identified the bird myself.

Volunteers have been maintaining feeders at Salineno for years.  A wonderfully cheerful older gentleman named Merle is currently taking care of the feeders.  We sat with him and his dog Jake (who was equally as cheerful) for about a half hour.  After a slow start, activity at the feeders eventually began to pick up.  We were able to get stunning views of Hooded, Altamira, and Audubon's Orioles.  We also got unencumbered looks at Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, and Long-billed Thrasher.

After leaving Salineno we went to Starr County Park.  The park is a campground that can be very productive for birds.  Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and a subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler known as Audubon's Warbler were observed.

We then went to Falcon State Park for our final birding adventure in South Texas.  The park was not extremely active, but Pyrrhuloxia and Greater Roadrunner were welcome additions to the list.  Here are our departing images from the Rio Grande Valley...

Great Kiskadee


Long-billed Thrasher

Green Jays

Audubon's Oriole and Great Kiskadee

Altamira Oriole

American White Pelican

Curve-billed Thrasher

Harris's Hawk

Greater Roadrunner


Three happy birders at the border.